Women In Love | D.H. Lawrence | Characters and Themes
Women In Love
Old Way versus New Way
Women In Love: The characters in Women in Love are all aware life feels meaningless. The values their parents held have become obsolete. This is not merely a personal feeling, but a subject of public discourse. In Chapter 5 Gerald and Rupert find themselves headed to London for business on the same train. To fill their time, they discuss a newspaper editorial that calls for a leader to prevent the certain collapse of British society.
The editorial claims, “there must arise a man who will give new values to things, give us new truths, a new attitude to life …” The direness of the situation is not distant and theoretical but is deeply felt by the novel’s protagonists at every turn. Because the idea of authority is itself obsolete, a subject of bitter mockery, the call for a savior of man rings hollow. Instead of looking to political, religious, or cultural leaders, the characters wrestle intimately with these issues in their private lives and relationships.
One possible response to the crisis—perhaps the most obvious—is to assume a pose of nihilism. The nihilist rejects all values and even the possibility of morality, embracing nothing but an ideal of destruction. At one time or another, all the four major characters—Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen, Rupert Birkin, and Gerald Crich—take on a nihilistic attitude. Rupert Birkin’s nihilism takes the form of his idea humanity is a mistake of creation that is best destroyed. He tells Ursula in Chapter 11, “I abhor humanity, I wish it was swept away.
It could go, and there would be no absolute loss, if every human being perished tomorrow. The reality would be untouched. Nay, it would be better.” Ursula argues with him, but in Chapter 15 she rejects life as unbearable because it is meaningless, and she embraces death as the superior state. She says, “Was not the adventure of death infinitely preferable? Was not death infinitely more lovely and noble than such a life? A life of barren routine, without inner meaning, without any real significance. How sordid life was, how it was a terrible shame to the soul, to live now! How much cleaner and more dignified to be dead!”
In Women In Love, the nihilism of Rupert and Ursula is a temporary despair that swings back toward an embrace of life. However, the personalities of Gudrun and Gerald are inherently nihilistic. This is expressed in Gudrun as cruelty and coldness: “Everything turned to irony with her: the last flavor of everything was ironical. When she felt her pang of undeniable reality, this was when she knew the hard irony of hopes and ideas” (Chapter 29).
This detached stance dissociates Gudrun from morality, leading her to become involved in a power struggle to the death with Gerald. Gerald has been set apart from life since childhood, when a gun went off in his hands, killing his brother. For a while, he has been able to find some sort of meaning, however external, in his work. Having perfected that, and with his father dead, he is left to struggle intensely with the energy of death that has always filled his soul (Chapter 24). However, he chooses Gudrun as the one to help him with this struggle, a choice that leads him shortly to his own death.
The alternative to nihilism and its attendants—hatred, cruelty, and despair—is to continually struggle toward understanding. It is the struggle that gives life meaning. The truth is only approached, never finally reached. This is underscored in the final sentences of the book. Having gone through the ordeal of Gerald’s death and Gudrun’s departure, Ursula and Rupert continue to argue about what is possible in relationships. The novel ends with Rupert responding to Ursula, “I don’t believe that.” This statement of nonbelief is, in fact, an affirmation of allegiance to life. Both Ursula and Rupert are invested in life enough to continue engaging with it, despite the confusion of being part of a society that has lost its way.
Love and Relationships In Women In Love
In Chapter 5 Rupert Birkin asks Gerald Crich, “Do you think love is the be all and the end all of life?” Gerald is ambivalent, and both agree they have never truly loved. Yet Rupert claims he imagines true love with a woman to be a “really pure single activity.” It is, therefore, the only thing that could give life meaning, “seeing there’s no God.” His relationship with Hermione Roddice, characterized by hatred, dominance, and submission, reaches its peak of sickness in her attempt to murder him. Then it becomes clear to Rupert the old way of love is a straight passage to depravity and death.
Rupert begins applying himself in earnest to the task of redefining love and relationships with Ursula, the woman to whom he is drawn. He is unsatisfied with the type of love he attributes to Ursula. It “seemed a dreadful bondage, a sort of conscription” resulting in “a kaleidoscope of couples, disjoined, separatist, meaningless entities of married couples.” The man and woman lose their individuality to the relationship between them. In their “hot narrow intimacy,” they become disconnected from all other possibilities of engaging with the world (Chapter 16).
In Chapter 11 Rupert describes the new idea of love that is forming within him. This love is a way to relate to one’s partner. It is also a means of reaching the very core of the self and a way of being that continues deeper when love fails. He says, “At the very last, one is alone, beyond the influence of love. There is a real impersonal me, that is beyond love, beyond any emotional relationship. So it is with you. But we want to delude ourselves that love is the root. It isn’t. It is only the branches. The root is beyond love, a naked kind of isolation, an isolated me, that does not meet and mingle, and never can.” This love requires the lover shed the ego and all connections to the external world. In this sense the relationship becomes a spiritual practice.
Both Ursula and Rupert undergo this process of shedding the outer self later in the novel. They experience it on their journey by boat from England to the European mainland in Chapter 29. They are curled up together on the ship’s deck in the darkness of night. The narrator says that “they had … forgotten … all that had been … conscious only of this pure trajectory through the surpassing darkness.” Ursula goes further into this process in the snowy mountains of the Tyrol. There she sheds the baggage of the past to enter fully into her connection with Rupert. The narrator says, “she belonged to … a oneness that struck deeper notes, sounding into the heart of the universe, the heart of reality …” This process, as Rupert predicted, strengthens their relationship. This new type of marriage and love does not require the abandoning of a home and possessions, as they had speculated earlier. After Gerald’s death, they return to their life at the millhouse. It merely requires the abandoning of one’s emotional baggage and the cultivation of a radical openness.
Hatred, Violence, and Death In Women In Love
Ursula Brangwen and Rupert Birkin seem to succeed in replacing despair and isolation with a new kind of relationship. However, the relationship between Gerald and Gudrun spirals into the opposite direction, becoming a conduit for hatred, violence, and death. Ursula and Rupert approached their relationship with great intention, discussing it endlessly before they committed themselves to it. In contrast, Gerald and Gudrun do very little talking. Most of their communication prior to the consummation of their relationship is in the form of wordless exchanges. These exchanges confirm their shared alignment with something that is the very opposite of life and hope.
They are both “initiate” in the dark, “obscene” mysteries, as the episode with Winfred Crich’s rabbit confirms in Chapter 18. When they are not confirming their allegiance to this darkness, they engage in power plays that sometimes explode into violence, even before they are lovers. In Chapter 14 Gudrun hits Gerald in the face after he stops her dancing toward his cattle. She tells him she shall be the one to strike the last blow in their relationship. They also bond over mocking Rupert’s idealistic determination to find a sort of paradise through love. They confirm their shared idea of love as “real abandon” (Chapter 21).
By abandon Gerald and Gudrun seem to mean a relationship characterized by unrestrained expression of the darkest parts of the human soul. They proceed to engage in just that. In Women In Love, their sexual encounters have a quality of violence and death that becomes ever stronger the more the novel moves toward its conclusion. Upon their first embrace, Gudrun “die[s] a little death,” and her lust is excited by the observation Gerald is “such an unutterable enemy.” Their first sexual encounter occurs when Gerald sneaks uninvited into Gudrun’s room, where she lies in bed sleeping. He takes her and makes himself whole by pouring “all his pent-up darkness and corrosive death” into her body. He fills her with “the terrible frictional violence of death” (Chapter 24).
Jealousy causes the relationship to enter the actual rather than metaphorical territory of death in Chapter 30. Gerald cannot stand Gudrun turns away from him when he finds himself so deeply and torturously bonded to her. He becomes obsessed with the idea of possessing her entirely by strangling her. When he actually strangles her, Gerald’s feelings are described as explicitly sexual, positioning Gudrun’s life leaving her body as a metaphorical sexual climax. The narrator relates, “The struggling was her reciprocal lustful passion in this embrace … the zenith was reached … her movement became softer, appeased.” It is only hatred and disgust for Gudrun that keep Gerald from actually killing her. He doesn’t care enough for her to kill her, he realizes. Dropping her near-lifeless body, devoid of the hatred that was his last bond to the world, he stumbles off apathetically to his own death.
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