Although at first poorly received, Women in Love has come to be considered D. H. Lawrence’s most important novel, and it is one of the most remarkable novels of its time, both for its innovative narrative technique and for its psychological depth. Although the novel employs a narrative strategy familiar from nineteenth century novels, in developing the relationships among four distinct personalities, Lawrence revolutionizes narrative technique, replacing the traditional concept of character. He includes more basic dimensions of human existence: blood and flesh. His characters are motivated not primarily by conscious, ego-driven wills but by drives that originate at a deeper, more physical level. Lawrence, who knew the work of Sigmund Freud long before it became widely known in England, believed that “blood” possessed its own consciousness and had its own ways of knowing.
The novel’s plot results from the characters’ discovery of and attempts to satisfy their most basic demands. These struggles frequently entail reversals and paradoxes that are difficult to account for in strictly rational terms, since their motivation is at a deeper level than the rational mind. Rupert Birkin is the chief exponent of this point of view, but while he possesses some of Lawrence’s personal traits and often voices the author’s views, he does not function simply as a mouthpiece. Lawrence is careful to show Rupert’s flaws and to make him occasionally ridiculous. All the central characters somehow “represent” Lawrence as reflections of the self and antiself. At the same time, all four central characters, in trying to understand themselves and to make themselves understood to others, articulate a philosophy that, while it is persistently challenged and problematized within the novel, also possesses enough cogency to stand as a powerful statement against the hypocrisies and the complacencies of Lawrence’s era.
Women in Love had its beginnings around 1913 in a work called The Sisters, which Lawrence eventually divided into two independent novels, publishing the first as The Rainbow in 1915. After The Rainbow was suppressed on grounds of obscenity in 1915, Lawrence found it impossible to publish his writing and had to endure poverty as he completed Women in Love during 1916-1917. Although the war never enters the novel, the pessimistic atmosphere reflects not only Lawrence’s personal crisis but also his sense that Europe was committing suicide. The older generation are fools, and the futureless, godless young contemplate humanity’s annihilation. This hopelessness, however, does not prevent Rupert and his friends from seeking authentic interpersonal relationships and radical solutions to questions of marriage and friendship. They stand disdainfully apart from the world, yet seem to grow larger than life in the icy crucible of the Alps.
Lawrence treats aspects of human experience that few novelists of his time dared to touch. He treats sexuality not only in the narrow sense but also forbidden passions and thoughts. Lawrence offers no simple answers; in the end the tragedy of Gerald Crich’s suicide marks the failure of Gerald’s relationship with Rupert as much as his relationship with Gudrun. Rupert’s unsatisfied need for a deep connection with a man as a complement to marriage has a physical dimension that stops just short of homosexuality. Lawrence explicated its significance for Rupert in a prologue that he ultimately decided to omit from the published version.
Gudrun’s spiritual death is almost as final as Gerald’s physical death. Always inclined toward aestheticism, her friendship with the sculptor Loerke draws her into decadence and depravity. Loerke’s sculpture of Lady Godiva embodies Loerke’s philosophy of art as a self-enclosed, autonomous realm without reference to morality or to life. Gudrun succumbs to Loerke’s sterile influence and finally...
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becomes reduced to a cheap artist’s model.
Ursula and Rupert, on the other hand, ultimately reach an understanding that makes their marriage possible. Their relationship is based on polarity; each partner preserves a distinct identity within a balance of opposites. The disastrous opposite to this balance is symbolized by the entwined corpses of Gerald’s sister and her fiancé. Ursula’s independence and assertiveness make such an end impossible. Her relationship with Rupert is based on more than mere affection; she finds with him a profound bond based on a mutual understanding and a shared outlook on the world.