D.H. Lawrence, 1922
D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930), an iconoclastic fiction writer, best known for his Sons and Lovers and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, viewed his Women in Love (WIL) as his best work. WIL gives us an arresting view of the unhappy society of the educated, the rich and the glamorous, like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, which ever fascinates the reading public, who can’t experience it firsthand. The struggle between the heroine, Gudrun, and the hero, Gerald, is the most powerful plot, with Ursula’s and Rupert Birkin’s being a close second; both reveal the mental conflicts and anguish that plague all of us and focuses on the “war between the sexes”, the subject of endless novels, and exposes the author’s misogynistic view of the destructive power of women. As an add-on, we have the attraction of Gerald and Rupert to each other, which is the author’s favorite among the three, primary plots.
Lawrence’s women tend to be submissive to sex, but resentful of it (even when they enjoy it), sometimes with an intimation of violence or the threat of it, which is reciprocal. (This ostensibly justifies the perverse, implied homosexual temptations which gay men mistakenly believe exists in all men.) Gerald, however, is a victim only because he is, by nature, passive and complicit in his utter domination by Gudrun, inspiring endless fleeting thoughts of “killing” her, which virulent musings are perniciously reciprocated by her. The dominant person in any relationship, he notes, is the one with the lesser need. It isn’t his plots and subplots or dialogue or descriptive passages that intrigue us most; it is, rather, the thoughts of the characters which the author dissects, in a style reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment or Poe’s Cask of Amontillado. Lawrence doesn’t propound simple moral solutions to the warfare and anguish between the sexes or to “the boredom of life”, but, rather, an abundance of conflicting ones and his tragic conclusion: no solution works.
One of his sub-theses deals with “the remorseless passage of time in a Godless world”; the beautiful Gudrun is tortured by the ennui of the relentless ticking (“tic-tack”) of life’s clock, almost as if she were imprisoned in a tiny, windowless cell, leading to “her hatred of life…her incipient madness…her black rage…her quiet agony”. Gudrun laments, “Nothing materializes; everything withers in the bud.” She and her sister, Ursula, hated their childhood and reflected on it as “an obsolete life…They wept over their childhood, not that it was gone, but that it ever was.”
An abiding dislike of mankind is evident: Upon returning home, Gudrun found “The people are all ghouls…soiled, sordid…meaningless…toiling like beetles in the dust…” The observations of various characters advance this theme: “Mankind is one expression of the incomprehensible…Let mankind pass away – it’s time it did……Humanity is a dead letter…I feel doomed…despair…hopeless…the bubble of pleasure…an attractive grossness of spirit…” Perhaps to deepen this lugubriousness, Lawrence chose names for his characters that challenge pronunciation and grate the senses like scratching glass on a windowpane: Gudrun, Ursula, Gerald Crich, and Rupert Birkin, and Hermione Roddice, names that somehow underscore humanity’s abrasive short-comings. (Lawrence might have lightened his readers’ burdens by breathing more life into his prose by emulating a bit of Dickens’ or O’Henry’s love of people and hope for life, if only Lawrence had appreciated it.) His characters, like Fitzgerald’s, debate weighty issues of the day (e.g., race, women’s suffrage, the point of life, death) often in a climate of a cocktail party, the book being written in the pre-prohibition era, positing the author’s Thoreau-like views; e.g., “Standards [rules] are for the common stock [peasants]. Anybody who is anything can be himself and do as he likes.” Of course, such is not the case, absent some immemorial exceptions, such as O. J. Simpson and the endless queue of glitterati that successfully defy society’s laws.
The book’s title, as are so many, is misleading. It was likely a publisher’s choice. There is no suggestion of lesbianism and, overall, no abiding “love” by women of anything, and, least of all, of men. Indeed, his women aren’t “in love” romantically. It is, rather, a treatise on the overlapping and conflicting emotions of love and hatred of self and between the sexes, the struggles for control of life’s juxtaposed tendrils, the slender thread that separates love and hate. Some descriptive passages inject a morbid foreshadowing of “snuff-sex” in love-making, in some instances; in others, he elevates those tender moments to Elysian heights. Freud and Carl Jung were simultaneously publishing their explosive views regarding psychoanalysis, the subconscious mind, the libido, etc., and Lawrence injected these into the conflicts among his characters.
There is an overriding and disturbing violence in his heterosexual relationships; each thinks of “killing” the other, not once or twice, but many times, and, in the end, Gerald almost strangles Gudrun to death, before he stumbles away aimlessly in the snow to fall, inadvertently, to his own death. His heavy plots are afforded respites by hopeful and exceptional descriptions of intimacies (devoid of sensational, unseemly graphics) between men and women, with uplifting, if ephemeral, endings, “She was gone in him, and he was perfected.” And so it can be.
The reader can feel Lawrence’s early literary influences (Zola, Nietzsche, Hardy, Wilde, Freud, James, Conrad, and, later, of his contemporaries: E. M. Forster, Dreiser, Mann, Wells, Joyce, Fitzergerald (especially Gatsby), Faulkner and Hemingway. Tolstoy’s and Hardy’s characters allow themselves to be defeated by Society, but Shakespeare’s and Lawrence’s “kick back at Misery”; they may not win, but some, at least, fight back. While not as aggressively avant guarde as George Eliot’s The Waste Land, WIL portrays a similarly fragmented world; yet, life remains an inexplicably integrated whole, a mélange of passion, tenderness and violence, but with a pervasive existential, even nihilistic, negativism. Lawrence, like Goethe, viewed the old world as moribund and searched urgently for a new one, noting that the universe might yet unfold a better species of life.
To compound the oppressive themes, Lawrence’s prose is burdened by countless unexplained phrases and even pedantic sentences in French, German, and Latin, and from sometimes debilitating grammar (run-on sentences, omission of commas critical to offset parenthetical materials, misused words (“a picturesque person”), invented words (“frability”), a paucity of beautiful imagery, an overuse of key words (“exultant” four times in one paragraph), and pointlessly disruptive, awkward phrasing (“At length it was over, the meal”; and “They were to her sinister.”)
The dominant question is, “Is love the be all and end all of life, as so many authors have asserted?” Lawrence here concentrates on “love” in a sexual sense. The book dwells on heterosexual love, but homosexuality lurks in its shadows. In the end, love between the central characters fails, even with the marriages that survive, and the lone, surviving lead male, laments not fulfilling his need for “perversity” – love with another man, the deceased Gerald.
Lawrence understands the human mind and lays it bare; he is a psychoanalyst above all, but he must have been a miserable soul. Clearly, he could only see the glass half empty. Why couldn’t he grasp and accept the beauty that is exuded by the hearts of so many women and recognize that it is they who gave us civilization, civility, gentility, grace, warm homes, beauty and tenderness in all of their forms, and the kaleidoscope of love’s rapturous emotions. If there be a “war between the sexes,” may the women be victorious.
Why was D. H. Lawrence a literary giant of his times? It certainly wasn’t for the beauty of his prose. His plots were interesting (and shocking for the time) and his characters grippingly real, and he exposed the conflicted-side of the human mind stunningly, for his era. Also, there is universality, profundity, and a fascinating revelation of mankind’s most troubling issues and inexplicable urges; his casual readers were intrigued, while his troubled readers found a kindred spirit. Yet, neither his prose nor his message warrants our abiding attention today. Clearly, to Lawrence, love and sex were near synonyms; he seemed to know no other kind of love. As such, it can be no surprise that his characters never feel love (beyond sex) either. However brilliant his analyses, he was simply too negative, and he missed life’s joys and the realization that happiness, like beauty, is largely in the eye (and the control) of the beholder (and his descriptive passages unveil little of the physical beauties that abound either); he would not agree that happiness is ours for the taking, more or less, and certainly ours to see and appreciate; there need be no “war between the sexes”, and, however trite it is to say it, love, in all its myriad forms, remains mankind’s key to salvation and happiness on earth.