Monday, April 26, 2010

"Women In Love" by D.H. Lawrence: A Conundrum

I recently finished Women In Love, David Lawrence's between-the-wars tale of relationships and the modern world. I confess that I'm not at all sure where to place it on the irony meter. That is, do I take it as an earnest statement by Lawrence that (for example) Ursula and Rupert have formed the only proper couple of the four couples in the book (I include the Brangwen parents and the Crich parents as examples of "love pairings" or whatever you wish to call it), or do I assume that Lawrence is saying that even these two have got it wrong, with their "spritual love" and all the metaphysics that go along with that including their self-imposed removal from the world at large? Is Lawrence saying that no matter how one slices it, you can't really have a meaningful loving relationship nowadays? I don't know.

The Brangwen parents are an old-fashioned middle-class Catholic couple and clearly Lawrence sees them as fundamentally unhappy and backwards. The Brangwens are, however, at least unhappy together in the same way for the same reasons (they're repressed and closed-minded). The Crich parents are even worse off: the father is happy in his business and in his (patronizingly noblesse oblige) relationships with his workers and their families, but he and his wife do not get along at all and she literally has been driven mad by his controlling ways (even if what he's controlling are--to his mind--her violently selfish aristocratic attitudes toward their children and the community at large which depends on the Crich industrial empire). Rupert and Ursula manage to negotiate some kind of possibly stable love, but it removes them from society. Gudrun and Gerald attempt to get together but that ends in death and disaster.

The book itself concludes with a conversation between Rupert and Ursula wherein Rupert maintains that Gerald wouldn't have had such a nasty fate had he been able to have a meaningful and honest relationship with another man (that is, Rupert himself), and there is a great deal of homoeroticism between Gerald and Rupert all through the book. Although this book is called Women in Love and all four of Rupert Birkin, Gerald Crich, Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen are cast as main characters, it is clearly the men--and especially Gerald in the last 150 or so pages--whose worldviews are central to Lawrence, and the women exist largely to comment upon the male viewpoint. Which they do at some length, at times with real humor (giving lie to the common complaint that Lawrence was a cheerless fellow).

I can't for the life of me figure out where Lawrence stands amid all of this stuff. The book is frustratingly opaque in that way, which is perhaps a good thing because I keep thinking about it. One thing I do believe is that Lawrence really didn't know any women at all well, and I think he makes clear on any number of occasions his position that the proper relationship between man and woman is one of master and servant (though he also might condemn that attitude during an interior monologue of Ursula's). I am also troubled by a conversation, late in the narrative, between Rupert and Gerald where a dislikable person is said to be "certainly Jewish" or some such, as a negative statement about his character. Is this a comment on the class beliefs of Gerald and Rupert, or does Lawrence take it as given that his reader will say, "Oh, a Jew. Of course he's smarmy." I don't know that, either.

Anyway, it's an interesting book and contains brilliant social observation alongside the (possibly blinkered and unconscious) class, racial and gender prejudices of the author. The title makes it sound like a cheap romance, but even with all the sex, Women In Love is mostly an attempt, possibly, to show love as a human invention that really has no counterpart in nature and is more an ideal than an attainable reality, especially in a dehumanized mechanical age. Maybe.

8 comments:

  1. "...love as a human invention that really has no counterpart in nature and is more an ideal than an attainable reality, especially in a dehumanized mechanical age. Maybe."

    Especially when you're close to 50! Now I can stop looking.

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  2. Anne: Not exactly an optimist, are you? One of my best friends is 48 and about a year ago he met An Astoundingly Fabulous Woman of His Age and now they're engaged. So there.

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  3. I can't for the life of me figure out where Lawrence stands amid all of this stuff.


    I have felt this way about some books, and wondered if it is a good or bad thing. While I hate to much authorial intrusion, I'd also (kind of) like to know what the author's opinion is. A hint or two, maybe.

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  4. I hope that with my work a reader can't figure out where I stand on points. I strive for that sort of objectivity, or at least I have most of the time. Nowadays I feel more manipulative, and I'm not sure if that's a phase or a permanent change.

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  5. On the one hand, I would like to know where Lawrence stood (and likely there is plenty of scholarship available about this very thing), but on the other hand I do like that it's all indeterminate, and I am striving for a certain amount of indeterminacy in my own novels. At lunch with my friend Ted today, I was bitching about how--in Americal literature of late--there is a tendency to have everything sort of sewn up neatly at the end, to supply a map of the author's (or the presumed author's, at least) moral country so you knew how to interpret the book, and also to have an upbeat ending. The Road and Oscar Wao and possibly even Olive Kitteridge have, in my eyes at least, unearned happy endings that spoil the previously-committed bulk of the novel. So while I do wish I knew what Lawrence intended, it pleases me (or at least interests me--which is probably more important to me than simple pleasure) that there is plenty of room for my own interpretation. And stuff.

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  6. I haven't read this one, only Sons and Lovers, which I remember not liking particularly well, and I can't remember much of it anymore. It's on my shelf, so I'll read it again sometime. Still, this was interesting to read through. Readers love to have things sewn up neatly these days, and I'm afraid that with the current YA trend, more and more adult books will be faster, too, and more catered toward an audience that doesn't like to sit and contemplate on these things. Sadly. Thank you for sharing this.

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  7. Perhaps Lawrence made it hard to tell where his true self lay in the midst of his book so that we as the readers would have to make our own decision.

    I have watched prairie chickens cover their chicks their bodies as a wild fire swept across their nests. Watch an elephant mother with her young.

    Nature, I believe, teems with expressions of love. Nature is mostly savage. But there are flashes of love throughout it, like streaks of gold in a dark mine wall. Just as throughout the savagry of human life, there are flashes of love.
    Roland

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  8. Roland: I don't think your prairie chickens would meet Lawrence's definition of love. But then, I don't think Lawrence was an authority on love.

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