(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Rainbow

D. H. Lawrence

The following entry presents criticism of Lawrence's novel The Rainbow. For information on Lawrence's complete career, see TCLC, Volumes 2 and 9. For discussion of Sons and Lovers, see TCLC, Volume 16; for discussion of Women in Love, see TCLC, Volume 33; for discussion of Lady Chatterley's Lover, see TCLC, Volume 48.

An outstanding figure among twentieth-century modernist writers, Lawrence is known for his novels that explore the nature of self-fulfillment, relationships between men and women, and the conflicts that arise between individuals and society. The Rainbow (1915) was one of Lawrence's first novels to examine these themes, and is considered, along with its sequel Women in Love (1920), to be one of the writer's greatest works. An amalgamation of symbolic narrative, bildungsroman, and psychoanalytic novel, the work is seen as both Lawrence's prophetic vision of the possibility of renewal in society and a scathing critique of modern civilization.

Plot and Major Characters

The Rainbow opens with a description of the traditional, rural way of life in mid-nineteenth century England on Marsh Farm, the Brangwen family land situated near the Midlands town of Ilkeston. Tom Brangwen, a farmer ruled by his instincts rather than his intellect and marked by an inner emotional turmoil, marries Lydia Lensky, a Polish widow whose "foreignness" he finds particularly attractive. Their marriage, while loving, is characterized by a vague emotional detachment, punctuated by moments of fervent passion. When their child, the proud and somewhat aloof Anna, reaches adulthood she marries her cousin, Will Brangwen, a lace-designer whose frustrated artistic temperament soon becomes the defining aspect of his character. Their intensely sexual relationship mirrors in part that of Anna's parents, and like Tom and Lydia's is dominated by a constant struggle of wills. After a tumultuous first year of marriage their eldest daughter, Ursula, is born. She, like her father, is artistically sensitive and fascinated by the symbolism of Christianity. While still young she enters into a relationship with Anton Skrebensky, a young officer in the corps of engineers, who she learns does not share her ardent spirituality. Their affair temporarily ends when Ursula returns to teaching and Anton leaves to fight in the South African Boer War. In his absence Ursula has an abortive homosexual relationship with Winifred Inger, a fellow teacher, whom Ursula later convinces to marry her uncle, the younger Tom Brangwen, a manager at the colliery at Wiggiston. Accepting a teaching post at the Brinsley Street School, Ursula moves to Ilkeston, but her ordeals there and later at Nottingham University College leave her disillusioned with modern education. When Anton returns, six years after his departure, he asks Ursula to marry him. The engagement ends in failure primarily because of Ursula's feeling that he lacks a passion to match her own. Soon after, Anton marries another woman and leaves for India. Subsequently learning that she is pregnant, Ursula discovers a renewed love for Anton and writes to him, asking for forgiveness. At the end of the novel she is nearly run down by a drove of galloping horses. Fearful for her safety, she escapes from danger by climbing a nearby tree. The incident causes her to miscarry the child. While ill Ursula receives a cable from Anton declaring that he has married, which serves as tacit proof that the relationship is over. Sitting at her window, Ursula then sees a rainbow that seems to sweep away the corruption of the world around her and afford the hope of regeneration in the future.

Major Themes

While no critical agreement exists as to the precise thematic structure of The Rainbow, the forces at work are generally seen as a conflict between masculine and feminine, played out within the contexts of a larger antagonism, that of the individual personality versus modern society. The male Brangwens, Tom and Will, represent the instinctual and spiritual sides of humanity; they contrast with the female Brangwens, who are prone to intellectualization and abstraction. The result of these consistently opposed forces is played out in the sexual relationships of the characters. In broader terms, The Rainbow also levels a critique against modern industrial society, which Lawrence dramatizes as destructive and dehumanizing. This commentary is apparent throughout the novel, and personified in the almost soulless characters of Ursula's uncle, the younger Tom Brangwen, and his wife Winifred Inger. Along with these issues is the problem of spiritual and emotional self-fulfillment that Lawrence addresses primarily in the character and actions of Ursula. As the representative of three generations of the Brangwen family, she symbolizes both an overall decline in the success of male/female relationships, and—in her perception of the rainbow at the close of the novel—a hope for reconciliation, harmony, and fullness of being.

Critical Reception

The Rainbow was refused by Lawrence's publisher and appeared only after he had rewritten some passages and excised others that the new publisher considered too sexually explicit. Even in its revised form the novel was suppressed in England as obscene. After publication, the work met with some staunch criticism, especially in reaction to its style. Arnold Kettle has since written that the "intensity [of the writing] leads to an overwrought quality," while other commentators have leveled accusations of "emotional falsity" at the end of the novel, or simply of "bad writing." Likewise, many have observed that the quality of Lawrence's writing deteriorates in the second half of the novel. In more recent years, however, these assessments have been ignored or overturned by critics who emphasize the innovative nature of The Rainbow. In his oft-quoted letter to his publisher Edward Garnett, Lawrence wrote, "You mustn't look in my novel for the old stable ego of the character"; rather, Lawrence claimed to have been searching for a new way to express emotion. This new form has been hailed as revolutionary, but has also lead many critics to call The Rainbow ambiguous or imprecise, and left certain aspects of the novel—particularly Ursula's encounter with the horses and the appearance of the rainbow in later portions of the novel—open to multiple interpretations. The ensuing controversies over interpretation and a new-found approval for modernist experimentation have elevated The Rainbow from its initial notoriety to the level of a modern classic.

Solomon Eagle (review date 1915)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Rainbow, in New Statesman, Vol. VI, No. 137, November 20, 1915, p. 161.

[In the following review, Eagle criticizes The Rainbow as "dull and monotonous," but defends the novel against censors.]

Last Saturday, at Bow Street, Mr. D. H. Lawrence's new novel The Rainbow was brought before the bench and sentenced to death. Who lodged an information against the book I don't know. It is conceivable, at a time when the patriotism of our criminals must leave our policemen plenty of leisure, that some cultured constable may have got hold of the work and rushed to his superiors with it. But it is likelier that the prosecution was...

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John Middleton Murry (essay date 1931)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Rainbow," in Son of Woman: The Story of D. H. Lawrence, Jonathan Cape & Harrison Smith, 1931, pp. 59-75.

[In the following essay, Murry focuses on the theme of sexual conflict in The Rainbow.]

In The Rainbow is [an]… intimate record of the experience confessed in Look! We Have Come Through! The correspondence is exact and unmistakable. The story of Anna Lensky and Will Brangwen is, in essentials, the story of [Lawrence's] poems; but the story is told more richly, and more fearfully. I know nothing more beautiful or more powerful in all Lawrence's writing than the opening of the long chapter ominously entitled "Anna Victrix." It...

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Roger Sale (essay date 1959)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Narrative Technique of The Rainbow," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. V, No. 1, Spring, 1959, pp. 29-38.

[In the following essay, Sale analyses Lawrence's use of an original narrative technique in The Rainbow, while commenting on "the marked inferiority" of the second half of the novel.]

You mustn't look in my novel for the old stable ego of the character. There is another ego, according to whose action the individual is unrecognisable, and passes through, as it were, allotropic states which it needs a deeper sense than any we've been used to exercise, to discover are states of the same single radically unchanged element....

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S. L. Goldberg (essay date 1961)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Rainbow: Fiddle-Bow and Sand," in Essays in Criticism, Vol. XI, No. 4, October, 1961, pp. 418-34.

[In the following essay, Goldberg explores the thematic, stylistic, and symbolic factors that limit the overall success of The Rainbow as a work of art.]

don't look for the development of the novel to follow the lines of certain characters: the characters fall into the form of some other rhythmic form, as when one draws a fiddle-bow across a fine tray delicately sanded, the sand takes lines unknown.

Lawrence to Edward Garnett, 5 June, 1914.

Although Lawrence...

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Edward Engelberg (essay date 1963)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Escape from the Circles of Experience: D. H. Lawrence's The Rainbow as a Modern Bildungsroman," in PMLA, Vol. LXXVIII, No. 1, March, 1963, pp. 103-13.

[In the following essay, Engelberg describes the symbolic narrative of The Rainbow as that of a modern interpretation of the novel of maturation.]


Late in his life, in 1933, Yeats read Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, and Women in Love "with excitement," and found the love story of Lady Chatterley's Lover "noble." In Lawrence he found an ally "directed against modern abstraction"; and he considered that, with Joyce, Lawrence had "almost restored to us...

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Richard Wasson (essay date 1968)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Comedy and History in The Rainbow," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. XIII, No. 4, Winter, 1967-68, pp. 465-77.

[In the following essay, Wasson interprets The Rainbow as a comedy wherein marriage and the union of the individual and society are the end goals.]

Scholarship on D. H. Lawrence reminds one of a guerrilla war; Leavisites, Christians, Marxists, Freudians, Liberals, Utopians, and a few confessed demonics ambush each other and stage coups and counter-coups within their own groups. Yet for all their warfare they disagree less than one might suppose over the substance of any given novel. In discussions of The Rainbow critics...

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David J. Kleinbard (essay date 1974)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "D. H. Lawrence and Ontological Insecurity," in PMLA, Vol. 89, No. 1, January, 1974, pp. 154-63.

[In the following essay, Kleinbard undertakes a psychological analysis of Will Brangwen.]

Lawrence's warning to Edward Garnett not to look for "the old stable ego of the character" in The Rainbow has been a road sign for many commentaries on characterization in that and later novels. In his letter to Garnett he defines his departure from conventional fiction as the portrayal of "another ego, according to whose action the individual is unrecognisable, and passes through, as it were, allotropic states which it needs a deeper sense than any we've...

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Homer O. Brown (essay date 1974)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'The Passionate Struggle into Conscious Being': D. H. Lawrence's The Rainbow," in The D. H. Lawrence Review, Vol. 7, No. 3, Fall, 1974, pp. 275-90.

[In the following essay, Brown interprets The Rainbow in light of Lawrence's writings on human consciousness.]

At the beginning of The Rainbow the experience of the early Brangwen men and the kind of relationship they have with their world are described:

They felt the rush of the sap in spring, they knew the wave which cannot halt, but every year throws forward young-born on the earth. They knew the intercourse between heaven and earth, sunshine drawn into...

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Lucia Henning Heldt (essay date 1975)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Lawrence on Love: The Courtship and Marriage of Tom Brangwen and Lydia Lensky," in The D. H. Lawrence Review, Vol. 8, No. 3, Fall, 1975, pp. 358-70.

[In the following essay, Heldt analyses the relationship of Tom Brangwen and Lydia Lensky, based on the theories of love propounded by Lawrence in his other writings.]

Precisely what D. H. Lawrence means by the term "love," as opposed to what other writers mean, has perplexed even his most careful readers. In part, this problem of definition stems from Lawrence's conviction that a spurious "moon-love" predominates in the modern world and from his consequent determination always to emphasize his objections to this...

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Evelyn J. Hinz (essay date 1976)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Rainbow: Ursula's 'Liberation'," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 17, No. 1, Winter, 1976, pp. 24-43.

[In the following essay, Hinz explores Ursula's character in terms of her developing perception of reality.]

Why "liberated" women have found D. H. Lawrence so infuriating must puzzle those male, particularly modern, critics of The Rainbow who have interpreted Ursula's role in the novel as Lawrence's exploration of the value of self-realization, independence, and individualism. What more could a liberationist want than a positive treatment of "woman becoming individual, self-responsible, taking her own initiative"—as the theme of The...

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R. P. Draper (essay date 1978)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Rainbow, in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 3, Autumn, 1978, pp. 49-64.

[In the following essay, Draper surveys The Rainbow, touching on elements of theme, character, style, and plot.]

The pursuit of self-fulfilment might be said to be the purpose or theme of all Lawrence's work; but the book in which this is most prominently the end, even more than Women in Love, is The Rainbow. Or to be more precise, the third section of The Rainbow, the one which concerns the development into a distinctively modern consciousness of Ursula Brangwen, schoolteacher, university student and mistress.

Tom and...

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Lawrence B. Gamache (essay date 1978)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Making of an Ugly Technocrat: Character and Structure in Lawrence's The Rainbow," in Mosaic: A Journal for the Comparative Study of Literature and Ideas, Vol. XII, No. 1, Autumn, 1978, pp. 61-78.

[In the following essay, Gamache argues that the younger Tom Brangwen personifies the negative and dehumanizing forces at work in modern society.]

In his essay "Pan in America," D. H. Lawrence concluded with a call to his contemporaries to recover the vital sources of genuine human life:

Yet live we must. And once life has been conquered, it is pretty difficult to live. What are we going to do, with a conquered universe?...

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Daniel R. Schwarz (essay date 1980)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Lawrence's Quest in The Rainbow," in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 11, No. 3, July, 1980, pp. 43-66.

[In the following essay, Schwarz maintains that The Rainbow reveals Lawrence in the act of self-definition.]

A major subject of much modern literature is the author's quest for self-definition. In particular, the search for moral and aesthetic values is central to the novels of Joyce, Proust, Woolf, Conrad, and Lawrence. Yet we have neglected how novels reveal their authors because much modern criticism has been uncomfortable with the expressive qualities of texts. Certainly, the New Criticism insisted that texts be...

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Paul Rosenzweig (essay date 1980)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Defense of the Second Half of The Rainbow: Its Structure and Characterization," in The D. H. Lawrence Review, Vol. 13, No. 2, Summer, 1980, pp. 150-60.

[In the following essay, Rosenzweig contends that the second half of The Rainbow is not aesthetically inferior to the first, but merely reflects developments in the novel's theme through changes in style and characterization.]

Both the pioneering sense of character in The Rainbow and its intricacy of form organic to such characterization are now largely appreciated. The second half of the novel, depicting the development of Ursula Brangwen, has often been singled out for criticism as...

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Ronald Schleifer (essay date 1980)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Lawrence's Rhetoric of Vision: The Ending of The Rainbow," in The D. H. Lawrence Review, Vol. 13, No. 2, Summer, 1980, pp. 161-78.

[In the following essay, Schleifer investigates the narrative strategies of The Rainbow, and argues that the ending of the novel is "continuous with the work as a whole."]

The last chapter of The Rainbow has generated a great deal of critical commentary. Critics who disapprove of the novel's ending usually argue, one way or another, that it has not been sufficiently prepared for earlier in the text, and those who defend the ending usually do so by attempting to demonstrate its continuity with what precedes it....

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Andrew Kennedy (essay date 1982)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "After Not So Strange Gods in The Rainbow," in English Studies, London, Vol. 63, 1982, pp. 220-30.

[In the following essay, Kennedy explores Lawrence's use of religious language and the attitude he displays toward Christianity in The Rainbow.]


The Rainbow can be seen as a mythic/religious novel, yet it does not seem to have a clear shaping myth at its centre; and the exploration of a changing Christian spirituality is only one of the novel's many aspects. Even so, all the central characters use a certain kind of religious language to express a variety of experiences that are profoundly important to them. We know...

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Mark Kinkead-Weekes (essay date 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Marriage of Opposites in The Rainbow," in D. H. Lawrence: Centenary Essays, edited by Mara Kalnins, Bristol Classical Press, 1986, pp. 21-39.

[In the following essay, Kinkead-Weekes examines the thematic movement of opposing forces toward conflict and possible synthesis in The Rainbow.]

The opening chapter of The Rainbow is, rather pointedly, divided into two: a first section beginning with a timeless world; a second section beginning with a date. This suggests two very different ways of looking at the novel. From one angle, the opening pages show us human life and consciousness in basic forms, against a background untroubled by historical...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Adam, Ian. "Lawrence's Anti-Symbol: The Ending of The Rainbow." Journal of Narrative Technique 3, No. 2 (May 1973): 77-84.

Presents a meta-symbolic reading of the horse scene at the close of The Rainbow.

Adelman, Gary. Snow of Fire: Symbolic Meaning in 'The Rainbow' and 'Women in Love. 'New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1991, 140 p.

Defines a "psychology of industrialism … and traces its central position in the symbolic meaning of The Rainbow and Women in Love."

Aldington, Richard. Introduction to The Rainbow, by D. H. Lawrence, pp. vii-xi. London: Heinemann, 1955.

Briefly recaps the...

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