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 feeling and being that exist below the level of history. Nevertheless, the social and political backgrounds are of utmost importance; indeed they are of central significance to an understanding of the question of self-realization. For if Lawrence explores the dialectic of the psyche, he does so in an understanding of the determining impact that history has on that psychological drama.
A novel of three generations, The Rainbow’s time span runs from 1840 to 1905. In the background, yet ever-present, are the major cultural changes of the age: the rapid expansion of industry, the diminution of arable land, the transformation of society from one based on the hamlet and town to a truly urban one, the breakdown of the nuclear family, and the spread of education. In short, Lawrence dramatizes the English revolution from a feudal to a democratic, capitalistic society. In the foreground of these radical changes are the relationships between Tom and Lydia, Will and Anna, and Ursula and Anton. As the novel moves in time from the middle of the nineteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century and in space from Ilkeston, Beldover, and Nottingham to London and Paris, what becomes increasingly apparent is that both relationships and the sanctity of the self are harder to sustain.
In the first generation, Tom and Lydia are firmly rooted in the earth. After an early crisis, their marriage flowers into a relationship of deep and lasting love, under whose influence their daughter, Anna, also grows. Nevertheless, though their life moves according to the rhythms of nature, it is...
(The entire section is 989 words.)