At the beginning of the novel, the two Brangwen sisters discuss their views on marriage. What is the key difference between Ursula and Gudrun, and why is it important for understanding the novel?
When they discuss marriage, Gudrun tells Ursula that having the “experience” of marriage is probably a good enough reason to marry. She thinks finding the right man is the only issue. Ursula, however, says that she thinks marriage would be the “end of experience.” Gudrun’s perspective changes, however, after she meets Gerald Crich and becomes less certain of marriage, even as she falls in love with him. He is ultimately too bound to a society she does not want to be a part of. Ursula meanwhile falls in love with Birkin, and comes to decide that marrying him is her fate, and she is able to preserve her self in their uncommon union. Lawrence’s novel develops by reversing the opinions toward marriage that each sister expresses at the beginning of the story, while still subverting the strictures of traditional marriage.
Why is Rupert Birkin deeply dissatisfied with the society in which he lives?
Birkin believes that modern society is in a state of apocalyptic decay. Industrial technology and the overvaluation of work have ruined the human spirit and destroyed man's connection with nature. Birkin desires to live outside of social convention, but also to see social convention itself destroyed. He wants the world to be remade into something stronger, more creative and truer to the passionate human soul. But he remains skeptical that this transformation can take place.
Describe Gerald Crich and Rupert Birkin’s relationship. What does their struggle represent, and why is it so central to the novel?
Gerald and Birkin are mirror opposites of and are deeply in love with each other. Birkin is physically weak but strong and destructive in spirit, whereas Gerald is a perfect physical specimen whose inner spirit has decayed and given way to his desire to master the material earth through technology and work. They are drawn to each other but they repress their mutual desires and attempt to find satisfaction in marriage, which drives the novel to its tragic conclusion.
Describe the novel’s use of horse symbolism. What does it imply about human nature and relationships?
Gerald Crich’s harsh treatment of the mare at the train crossing shows his physical prowess and symbolizes the human attempt to bring violent, unpredictable passions under the control of reason. Gudrun's lust and Ursula's repulsion are piqued - Gudrun's physical attraction stuns her, as Ursula is shocked by the brute force of the display she deems unnecessary. Their attitudes toward marriage and sexual relationships are reflected in their reactions. Later, when Birkin moves into the mill house, he tells Hermione and Ursula that women are like horses, split between two wills – the will to be free of their rider, and the will to remain under the rider’s control. Near the end of the novel Herr Loerke’s sculpture of a young girl seated on a stallion symbolizes his desire to master life through art, by elevating the aesthetic world over the material. These images of horses represent human passion and its struggle with elevated forms of rational thinking and activity that try to harness or control its energy.
Lawrence’s novel connects humans and animals in compelling ways. Discusses some examples from the text and explain their significance.
When the Brangwen sisters see Gerald Crich at the train crossing, he is astride a mare that symbolizes his attempt to control or reign in the animalistic passions. Birkin later compares female desire to the situation of a horse that wants both to escape its rider and to stay under its control. Winifred Crich’s rabbit, Bismarck, becomes a conduit of the violent passion that circulates between Gerald and Gudrun. Mino, Birkin’s cat, serves Hermione as a symbol of her lingering hold over Birkin’s character, which she uses to spark jealousy and feelings of inferiority in Ursula. All of these examples suggest that humans remain fundamentally bound to animalistic desires and impulses, which they can never fully escape or successfully master.
The two central female characters in Women in Love are both lively and independent, yet struggle mightily in their worlds. Why? What do the Brangwen sisters tell us about Lawrence’s society?
Both Ursula and Gudrun desire to be independent from social constraints. Ursula constantly says she loathes being “bullied” by men, especially her father and Birkin. Gudrun says that she values freedom above all things, and she pursues art as an attempt to realize experiences of freedom that take her away from the constraints of her society. At the same time, both sisters struggle with the possibility of marriage because they are drawn passionately to different men, who they think might, paradoxically, help to free them from the limitations of class and social convention. Lawrence's characters reflect his own feelings of contemporary society, and the Brangwen women illustrate the tension women of his day would have experienced.
The two central male characters in Women in Love are spirited individuals who also struggle with their social world, though in very different ways. Compare and contrast Birkin and Gerald. Why are these differences significant?
Birkin and Gerald are in many respects mirror opposites of each other. Gerald is physically commanding, strong and deliberate in his attempt to control the family business, firmly grounded in his social class, and extremely reticent to express his feeling. Birkin is sickly and unwell through most of the novel although his spirit is fiercely independent and unconventional. He has no interest in pursuits of business or industry, and loathes society. These differences fuel the passion between the two men, who come to love and depend upon each other as they repress their mutual sexual attraction.
At various moments in the novel, Gerald Crich is extremely impressed with Gudrun Brangwen’s spirited behavior. Discuss some key examples, and explain why Gerald finds Gudrun appealing.
When Gerald and Hermione are boating, they come upon Gudrun sketching water plants. Hermione asks Gerald to take the boat closer to Gudrun, and Gerald feels a strong sense of his and Hermione's social superiority. This evaporates, however, when Hermione drops the sketchbook yet Gudrun remains proudly unfazed. Her response and refusal to back down to Hermione makes Gerald second guess the basis of his class-driven arrogance. Likewise, when Gudrun confidently strides up to Julius Halliday’s table at the Pompadour and takes back Birkin’s letter, she displays a unique individuality that Gerald desires yet cannot entirely comprehend. He is enamored with Gudrun’s spirit in part because she overturns the social standards that he so often relies upon as a source of his own power.
What is the significance of Rupert Birkin’s gift of three rings to Ursula Brangwen?
The ring is the traditional symbol of marriage and union, but Birkin’s gift to Ursula illustrates the very non-traditional expectations and attitudes of both characters. Birkin tells Ursula “Rings look wrong on my hands,” suggesting that he is not fit for marriage. And Ursula is afraid to try on the rings, because she thinks her hands are too large. Her spirit and personality may prove too independent and great to fit properly into the expected role of a woman in marriage. Ultimately, though Ursula throws the rings at Birkin in refusal, she comes to accept them - and Birkin - as the gift and the man are unconventional enough to suit her. In different ways, the ring gift episode shows the two characters straining against the conventions of marriage, even as they desire it.
Women in Love contains many thoughtful literary allusions, most of which are made by Birkin. Choose some key examples and discuss the role they play during important scenes in the novel.
Birkin refers to a poem by Robert Browning when he travels by train to London. His quotation calls up images of a lost, mythic past while commenting on the ruin of the present moment. Birkin uses Browning’s poem to express his apocalyptic perspective of modernity. When they visit the junk market and decide to buy an antique chair, Birkin says it reminds him of something from a Jane Austen novel. This reference looks back to a moment in England’s past that Birkin thinks was more vibrant and full of spirit, when the production of crafts was an art. Near the end of the novel, Birkin refers to William Shakespeare twice - first to Romeo and Juliet and then to Hamlet. He and Ursula choose to travel to Verona to act as the star-crossed pair, even though the young lovers of literature came to a tragic end. This allusion adds a foreshadowing of romance tinged with despair. As Birkin watches over Gerald's corpse, he thinks of lines in Hamlet: "Imperial Caesar dead, and turned to clay /Would stop a hole to keep the wind away." The passage comments on the decay of all physical life, imagining the body of Julius Caesar being reduced to nothing more than dust or clay to stop up a hole. Gerald's beauty is gone, and only his body - and Birkin's memory of love - remains.