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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 981

Women in Love, begun as early as 1913, was tentatively entitled “The Sisters,” then later “The Wedding Ring.” As the sprawling manuscript began to take shape over the next two years, Lawrence published the first part as The Rainbow (1915). With considerable revisions and a complete rethinking of the material, he published a second Brangwen novel in 1920. In its final form, Women in Love is less a continuation of The Rainbow than an altogether different novel. To be sure, Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen persist in their quest for happiness. Yet the Gudrun of The Rainbow was a minor figure; in Women in Love, she is a major protagonist, with a fully developed psychology. Ursula’s change is even more dramatic. In the earlier novel, she was a woman of passionate independence, whereas in Women in Love she is subdued—less impulsive, less heroic, more nearly domesticated.

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Their lovers, Gerald Crich and Rupert Birkin, complement the sisters’ essential temperaments. Like the fiery, strong-willed Gudrun, Gerald is a controlling, domineering sensualist—one as habituated to subduing horses to his iron command as to overworking his laborers in the coal mines. In contrast, Rupert (a Lawrence-like personality) is sensitive, introspective, emotionally fragile in spite of his intellectual vitality and his charm.

Unless one reads Lawrence’s canceled prologue to Women in Love, a chapter that can be examined in the author’s posthumous volume Phoenix II: Uncollected, Unpublished, and Other Prose Works (1968), one cannot fully understand the reason for Rupert’s timorousness as a lover. Yet this prologue is an essential key to perceiving what follows in the novel. Even as Rupert was pursuing with dutiful but passionless zeal his affair with Hermione Roddice, he was attempting to put behind him a far more satisfactory emotional friendship with Gerald. Whether the men’s earlier relationship had become one of physical homosexuality is not entirely clear, although Lawrence seems to exclude the physical element. Nevertheless, Rupert is erotically stimulated more by men than by women and certainly not by Hermione, in spite of his frantic lovemaking or his earnest wishes to love her with tenderness:He wanted all the time to love women. He wanted all the while to feel this kindled, loving attraction toward a beautiful woman, that he would often feel towards 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 brutal, callous sort of lust.

As the novel itself begins, a reader ignorant of this complication in Rupert’s psychosexual orientation may not fully understand why the character experiences so much trouble in his relationship with Ursula. The couple, after all, seems to be well suited culturally, intellectually, even emotionally. The two share a similar background in education and social class, are both intelligent, sensitive, tolerant, and certainly “love” each other. Yet their love must be tested and refined. Many readers will wonder at the lengthy disputations between Ursula and Rupert—the continuing, often circular debates over the meaning of love, the subtle defining of roles that each partner must adopt to make the relationship work. Precisely this test is the core of Ursula and Rupert’s mating, for it results in compromises that make it possible for the couple to marry.

Ursula wisely and lovingly diminishes Rupert’s secret fear that women will dominate him sexually. He is actually more comfortable with the embraces of a man. In the chapter “Gladiatorial,” Rupert and Gerald release their tensions (and sublimate their repressed eroticism) by wrestling; more than that, for Rupert the touching is a sign of hope for “blood-brotherhood,” a deep friendship and binding between the males. When Gerald dies, Rupert is a broken man. Although he has mated successfully with Ursula and loves her as deeply as ever he can a woman, he regrets the loss of another form of fulfillment: bonding for life with a male friend.

If Ursula’s vacillating relationship with Rupert ends at last with bittersweet success, Gudrun’s passionate affair with Gerald concludes in tragic failure. Yet their love had seemed at first to be grounded firmly on their similar temperaments. Both are controlling, emotionally vehement, erotically charged persons. Yet their seeming “luck” in discovering passion so easily is, in fact, a cause for failure in love. Even as Gerald exerts despotic and capricious force to control his miners, so he tries to subdue the strong-willed Gudrun. Yet she is as defiant, independent, and proud a person as he: She battles him sexually for dominance, so that their lovemaking assumes the qualities of a battle, without tenderness or consideration for the other partner. Less cruel than Gerald, she is nevertheless as perverse in diminishing his self-confidence. Near the conclusion of the novel, his suicide seems inevitable.

Yet how can one explain Gudrun’s infatuation with Loerke, a physically unattractive homosexual? Why should this sexually vital woman follow after a man who seems to contrast with Gerald’s powerful, athletic virility? The answer is that Loerke is also, like Gerald, a willful, controlling, arrogant brute. He attracts Gudrun through both his magnetism and his dedication to art; in his drawings and sculpture, he achieves works that are mechanical, starkly industrial, rather than human. Through her servant-to-master role with Loerke, Gudrun will complete her destruction (in Lawrence’s image, her reduction), eventually to become as mechanical as Loerke.

For Lawrence, Gerald’s tragic fate is caused partly by Gudrun’s reductive energy, which corrodes his vital spirit, and partly by his own self-destructive egoism. In contrast, Ursula and Rupert are “lucky” in love because they nurture, rather than diminish, the vital energy of their partner. Artists such as Loerke—clever, manipulative, independent—may survive with their ego intact; but unless their lives, as well as their art, are established on human principles, they too fail to reach fulfillment.

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Characters