Even while composing The Rainbow, D. H. Lawrence realized that neither the critics nor general readers would accept his novel. He wrote to Amy Lowell about the critical reception of a book of his short stories, telling her, “The critics really hate me. So they ought.” It is a curious remark from any writer, but especially from one who was so intent on working a moral change in his readers.
Lawrence knew, however, not only that his fiction was “shocking” in its treatment of sexuality, particularly that of women—and it was to become more shocking yet—but that he also created character and experience that challenged the way the critics viewed the world. In his fiction, and this became fully apparent in The Rainbow, he dramatizes experience as dynamic, shifting, and elusive. For him, the world was neither stable, nor certain, nor finally rationally explicable; his vision undercuts all the preconceptions of the Edwardian critics. Their “hatred” of Lawrence’s fiction was actually self-defense. When The Rainbow appeared during the first years of World War I, it seemed to validate Lawrence’s argument against those who saw civilization as stable, knowable, and controllable.
One central question preoccupies Lawrence in The Rainbow: Is the self capable of expansion, of becoming an entity, of achieving freedom, especially in an age where the traditional supports of community, family, and religion have been weakened or eliminated? In Will and Anna Brangwen’s generation, the first to enter the industrial world, the self does survive, though only minimally. If, unlike Tom and Lydia Brangwen, Will and Anna fail to create the “rainbow,” an image of the fully realized self in passionate community, and if their love degenerates to lust, they at least endure. True freedom, however, is denied them.
For Ursula, Will and Anna’s daughter and the novel’s heroine, the question of freedom hardly pertains, at least at the beginning. It is simply a matter of her survival. Her vision of the “rainbow” at the end must be taken as a promise of freedom—and for many readers an unconvincing one—rather than as fulfillment. Nevertheless, it is a perception she earns by surviving both the inner and the outer terrors of her world.
The Rainbow is primarily a psychological novel, in which Lawrence is primarily concerned with states of...
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