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D. H. Lawrence’s Novel, "Women in Love": Modern Man's Divided Nature

The psychological novel, offering useful, in-depth character studies and the "what if" factor, remains my favorite in that literary genre.

D. H. Lawrence

Introduction

D. H. Lawrence's novel, Women in Love, has remained the novelist's most complex yet subtle works. A superficial reading seems to reveal that the two main characters, Rupert Birkin and Ursula Brangwen, are moving toward Lawrence's notion of the ideal love, that is, unity in love. On the contrary, however, is the fact that the couple's unsatisfactory marriage highlights the Laurentian irony that promotes the satire in which the novelist has steeped his most complex novel.

The Women in Love book cover. This is the edition I used.

The Women in Love book cover. This is the edition I used.

The Symbol of Fidelity

In A Reader’s Guide to D. H. Lawrence, Philip Hobsbaum points out that the opal ring that Rupert gives to Ursula symbolizes fidelity. Of the trio of rings Rupert casually hands Ursula—a sapphire and a topaz as well as the opal—only the opal fits her ring finger.

Lawrence’s use of the opal indicates irony; a literal interpretation of the meaning of the opal would render the novel a simplistic story with a happy ending. A close analysis of the characters in this work and of Lawrence’s idea of modern man’s divided nature reveals that this novel is a highly complex satire of that divided nature.

Both Hobsbaum and Richard Aldington have applauded Lawrence’s genius for satire as it is demonstrated in Women in Love. According to Lawrence’s own ethic expounded in Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, “the goal in life is the coming to perfection of each single individual” (100).

Lawrence further explains that “recognition of the abysmal other” and “the twofold passionate flux of sympathetic love, subjective abdominal and objective devotional” must balance and be equally accepted by the individual. Individuals must achieve this equilibrium before they can experience an ideal relationship.

The Laurentian Balance

According to his ideas of equilibrium, Lawrence creates the characters of his novels who thus satirize the imbalance in modern man and woman. Ursula, at the point in the novel when she is fitted with the ring symbolizing fidelity, has not achieved the Laurentian balance. And neither has the character, Rupert, who is about to become her lover. Both Rupert and Ursula have a void in their lives—a void that they never know how to fill.

Ursula’s former lover, Skrebensky, whom readers met in The Rainbow, was unable to fill the void for her, and Rupert’s relationship with Hermione has left him empty as well. Because these characters are not perfected as individuals, they bring their imperfections to their relationship with their lovers.

That the ring fitting Ursula’s ring finger symbolizes fidelity highlights the irony of their situations. Neither character—Rupert who gives the ring, nor Ursula whom it fits—is capable of fidelity because they are still unfaithful to their own true nature, the unified nature that knows how to recognize and accept that “abysmal other.”

These characters exemplify modern man and woman who have not reached the Laurentian perfection, whose failure to recognize that they have divided their psyches “has torn the modern world into two halves, the one half warring for the voluntary, objective, separatist control, the other for the pure sympathetic” (100).

Appearances

The fact that Rupert and Ursula do marry and verbally declare fidelity effects the situation against which the irony is directed. Ostensibly, the couple strives to unite, but at the deep personal level where unity ultimately prevails, they remain divided. According to F. H. Langman,

The tale, if we can trust it, simply does not present the marriage of Birkin and Ursula as ideal in itself or as an adequate solution to the problems presented. On the contrary, an important thesis of the novel is that no fully satisfying personal relationship is possible to people placed, like Birkin and Ursula, in a social and religious vacuum. (81-82)

Lawrence emphasizes repeatedly in his Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious: “No human being can develop save through the polarized connection with other beings” (108). His character Rupert Birkin insists that he cannot feel complete without a deep bond of love with a man as well as with a woman.

It is Rupert’s failure to come to terms with his sexual orientation that underscores his split psyche, and his marriage to Ursula cannot serve to weld it. In his original opening chapter to Women in Love called “A Prologue,” Lawrence explicitly elucidates Rupert’s affinities:

He wanted to be in love with a woman. He wanted all the while to feel this kindled, loving attraction towards a beautiful woman, that he would often feel toward a handsome man. But he could not. Whenever it was a case of a woman, there entered in too much spiritual, sisterly love; or else, in reaction, there was only a bestial, callous sort of lust. (58)

Lawrence delineates Rupert’s sexual orientation quite clearly in his rejected draft and the impact of Rupert’s repressing that nature becomes the focus, however covert, in the published version.

According to George H. Ford, Lawrence decided against the explicit portrayal of Rupert’s same-sex attraction because he feared censorship. He had just been through the ordeal of censorship with The Rainbow and could not afford it again so soon (39-40).

Split Psyche

Ursula does not relieve Rupert’s burden of a split psyche; she cannot even understand him. Their violent disagreements continue throughout their relationship. On occasions, she merely acquiesces to his wishes; an example of this acquiescence is the “Chair” episode. They purchase an old chair and Rupert declaims against materialism.

The couple then bickers about the merits of Jane Austen’s England and their own, and finally, for what seems an unmotivated capitulation, Ursula just gives in and says she agrees that they need no possessions, and thus she donates the chair to a young, scruffy-looking city couple whom Lawrence describes as a couple also falling far from his ideal of balance and perfection in love.

Lawrence tells readers in his rejected chapter that Rupert is divided against himself: “he kept this secret [‘his spasmodic affinity for the men he saw’] even from himself” (61). Because he cannot even bring his feelings before his own scrutiny, he has little hope of making the Laurentian connection with Ursula—a connection which only balanced beings can achieve.

Infidelity to Self

As Langman writes, “The most painful question in the whole novel, a question that precisely reveals the limited value of the experiment in marriage, is Ursula’s question: ‘why aren’t I enough?’” (86) Ursula claims that Rupert is enough for her, and because she feels this way, she cannot come to terms with Rupert’s inclinations. Rupert has learned to repress his nature, but according to Lawrence, that kind of repression goes against the self—it represents infidelity to the self (Psych. 108).

Rupert and Ursula’s relationship, therefore, is not the nourishing meeting of souls that they at times during their affair have claimed it to be. The opal ring serves as an important device for satirizing that relationship. The irony that Ursula’s ring finger fits the symbol of fidelity foreshadows the marriage which solves no problems, but, in the words of George H. Ford, “the possibility is left, as in the best of Lawrence’s writings, dangling” (41).

At the end of the couple’s final conversation, readers observe that they are indeed left only with a possibility. Rupert and Ursula are still not united but still struggling with conflicting attitudes. The death of Gerald has left Rupert without a man to love; he says: “I wanted eternal union with a man too: another kind of love.” Ursula counters: “I don’t believe. It’s an obstinacy, a theory, a perversity.”

Ursula then continues: “You can’t have two kinds of love. Why should you!” And Rupert responds: “It seems as if I can’t. Yet I wanted it.” And Rupert’s and the novel's final words are: “‘I don’t believe that,’ he answered.” Whether this couple ever finds that Laurentian ideal of perfection no doubt remains a possibility, but the satire remains intact. The opal ring, symbol of fidelity, fits Ursula’s finger, but the fidelity between the partners remains illusive

As Langman writes, “The most painful question in the whole novel, a question that precisely reveals the limited value of the experiment in marriage, is Ursula’s question: ‘why aren’t I enough?’” (86) Ursula claims that Rupert is enough for her, and because she feels this way, she cannot come to terms with Rupert’s inclinations. Rupert has learned to repress his nature, but according to Lawrence, that kind of repression goes against the self—it represents infidelity to the self (Psych. 108).

Rupert and Ursula’s relationship, therefore, is not the nourishing meeting of souls that they at times during their affair have claimed it to be. The opal ring serves as an important device for satirizing that relationship. The irony that Ursula’s ring finger fits the symbol of fidelity foreshadows the marriage which solves no problems, but, in the words of George H. Ford, “the possibility is left, as in the best of Lawrence’s writings, dangling” (41).

At the end of the couple’s final conversation, readers observe that they are indeed left only with a possibility. Rupert and Ursula are still not united but still struggling with conflicting attitudes. The death of Gerald has left Rupert without a man to love; he says: “I wanted eternal union with a man too: another kind of love.” Ursula counters: “I don’t believe. It’s an obstinacy, a theory, a perversity.”

Ursula then continues: “You can’t have two kinds of love. Why should you!” And Rupert responds: “It seems as if I can’t. Yet I wanted it.” And Rupert’s and the novel's final words are: “‘I don’t believe that,’ he answered.” Whether this couple ever finds that Laurentian ideal of perfection no doubt remains a possibility, but the satire remains intact. The opal ring, symbol of fidelity, fits Ursula’s finger, but the fidelity between the partners remains illusive.

Works Cited

  • Aldington, Richard. Introduction. Women in Love. By D. H. Lawrence. New York: Viking P, 1960. ix-xii.
  • Ford, George H. “Notes to Lawrence’s Prologue to Women in Love.” The Rainbow and Women in Love: A Casebook. Ed. Colin Clarke. London: Macmillan, 1969. 35-42
  • Hobsbaum, Philip. A Reader’s Guide to D. H. Lawrence. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1981.
  • Langman, F. H. “Women in Love.” Critics on D. H. Lawrence: Readings in Literary Criticism. Ed. W. T. Andrews. 81-87.
  • Lawrence, D. H. “Prologue to Women in Love.” The Rainbow and Women in Love: A Casebook. Ed. Colin Clarke. London: Macmillan, 1969. 43-64.

This slightly different version of this article appeared in The Explicator, Winter 1988, Volume 46, Number 2.

A journal of academic writing

A journal of academic writing

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on November 18, 2018:

Thank you, mactavers! Yes, it is a fascinating character study, as Lawrence usually provides. He always seemed to exploring the lustful side of human nature. Little wonder it got him in trouble with the censors early on!

mactavers on November 17, 2018:

Another great Hub. I have not read this since college, but your Hub prompts me to re-read.

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