Chapter 1: Sisters
The novel opens with the sisters Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen chatting about marriage one morning, while they are sewing at their father’s house in Beldover. Gudrun has recently returned home from art school in London. She says she would consider getting married if the right man suddenly materialized, and claims that one should probably get married in order to have the experience. Ursula seems less eager about the idea of marriage and its responsibilities, suggesting that marriage is rather the “end” of experience. The two decide to stop sewing and go outside to have a look at a local wedding.
As they are walking through town, Gudrun is disturbed by the common folk, and feels out of place. The two sisters stand and watch the churchyard as the wedding guests begin to arrive. Gudrun sees Gerald Crich arrive and is immediately attracted to him, comparing him to a smiling wolf. Ursula is meanwhile captivated by Hermione Roddice, a rich and beautiful bridesmaid. Hermione is the lover of Rupert Birkin, a county school-inspector and the best man at the wedding. Hermione wants to marry Birkin but he willfully refuses while keeping her as his lover.
The bride’s carriage arrives but the groom and best man are both missing. Ursula suddenly notices their carriage approaching from the road. The bridegroom jumps out and begins to run into the church, while the bride playfully runs from him. When Ursula sees Rupert Birkin, she feels drawn to him but also finds him slightly cold. She asks her sister what she thinks of him, and Gudrun tells her he is very attractive, yet she is not a good judge of character. The wedding ends, and the Brangwen sisters watch Rupert, Hermione, and Gerald Crich emerge from the church.
Chapter 2: Shortlands
The Brangwen sisters return home, and the wedding party moves to the Criches’ home near the lake of Willey Water. The women bustle about and chat while the men stand calmly in groups, paying no attention to them. Gerald Crich plays host while his father rests.
Mrs. Crich approaches the group of men and strikes up a conversation with Rupert Birkin. She expresses discomfort at not knowing so many of the guests, and Birkin suggests that people who are strangers don’t really matter. He mentions that Gerald is the only one of her children that he knows. Their conversation trails off and, after making an impromptu reference to the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, Birkin suddenly recalls that Gerald accidentally killed his brother when the two were boys.
The servants sound a gong for the luncheon to begin, but no one heeds it. Gerald then blows a loud horn and the party moves to the table. Hermione and Gerald begin a heated conversation about race, nationality, patriotism, and political economy. Birkin jumps in, followed by Laura Crich, the bride. She calls for a toast, the champagne is poured and Birkin rudely downs his glass before standing up to give a toast. The meal ends.
The men go outside. Birkin and the groom, Lupton, begin speaking with Marshall, Lupton’s brother. Gerald Crich joins in. They talk about Lupton and Birkin’s tardiness, and Birkin explains that Lupton was late because he was too busy talking about metaphysical issues. Marshall criticizes his brother and leaves after Gerald tells him to do so. Birkin and Gerald get into a heated discussion that ends with Birkin saying that Gerald behaves as if he thinks every man around him has a knife up his sleeve, waiting to cut his throat. The narrator describes the two men as outward enemies who in truth suppress a strong mutual desire for each other.
Chapter 3: Class-room
In her classroom, Ursula is finishing up a lesson in botany. Rupert Birkin unexpectedly enters and startles Ursula, who feels her repressed fears and desires rising up when she sees him standing in the doorway. He observes the students as they sketch catkins. Birkin suggests that they use crayons to outline the female flowers with red, and the androgynous flowers with yellow.
Hermione Roddice appears at the door. She tells Birkin she saw his car outside and decided to come watch him doing his duties as school inspector. Hermione asks Ursula if she minds her presence, and Ursula tells her she is welcome. Birkin begins telling Hermione about the fertilization process of the catkins, and Hermione becomes strangely enraptured by their beauty, referring to them as “little red flames.”
The class ends and the children depart. Hermione remains in a daze for a moment, then gets up and approaches Ursula. Hermione asks if her sister Gudrun likes being home in Beldover. Ursula says no, and Hermione invites the two sisters to visit her at her home in Breadalby. Hermione then tells her that she is fond of Gudrun and likes her artwork – small carvings of animals that Hermione says are full of passion.
Hermione, Rupert, and Ursula have a long discussion about education and animal instincts. Hermione believes cultivating knowledge destroys instinct and the ability to be spontaneous. Rupert viciously disagrees and says that the problem is not too much mind, but too little. He accuses her of not realizing that her desire to be like an animal is itself routed through her conscious human mind. Ursula is frightened by the aggression that the two display toward each other.
Rupert continues his tirade, insisting that truly animalistic and spontaneous passion must rise up as a dark and involuntary force that topples the conscious, deliberate self. The women laugh at him, and Hermione makes him feel emasculated. She then reminds Ursula to come visit her at Breadalby. At the same time, Hermione recognizes that Ursula has become her new romantic rival. Birkin and Hermione depart together, and Ursula begins weeping but cannot tell if it is due to “misery or joy.”
Chapter 4: Diver
On the next Saturday morning, Ursula and Gudrun decide to take a walk. They head for the local lake, Willey Water. When they arrive at the lake they see Gerald Crich emerge naked from a lakeside boathouse and dive into the water. Gudrun tells her sister that she is envious of him, since his gender makes it acceptable for him to shed his clothing and swim in the lake. Gerald waves at them and the two sisters continue on their walk.
As they walk along the road they come to Shortlands, the Criches’ estate. They remark upon its appeal, and Gudrun says that it has the feel of the 18th century period, and reminds her of the novelist Jane Austen or the poet Dorothy Wordsworth. Ursula replies that she doesn’t think the Criches fit that period, since Gerald is constantly bringing technological improvements and additions to the house, such as a private electrical plant.
During this conversation Ursula also asks her sister if she knows that Gerald accidentally shot his brother one day when the boys were playing with a gun. Gudrun was unaware of this fact, and Ursula explains that when they were very young, the two boys found an old gun in their barn. They had no idea it was loaded, and Gerald blew his brother’s head off. Gudrun is saddened by the story and wonders at the traumatic effect the event must have had on Gerald. Ursula suggests that perhaps some unconscious, primal will was behind the act, while Gudrun insists it must have been purely accidental.
Their conversation is interrupted when they hear a voice ahead. The sisters discover Hermione Roddice and Laura Crich on the opposite side of a hedge. Laura is struggling to lift open a gate, and Ursula helps her. Hermione briskly says hello and reminds the Brangwen sisters of her invitation to Breadalby. They say goodbye, and Ursula tells Gudrun she finds Hermione to be impudent. Gudrun agrees, but says it shouldn’t bother Ursula because Hermione is simply an example of a privileged aristocratic woman who has decided to free herself from social constraints. Gudrun also tells Ursula that among such women, the truly “chic” thing is to be completely unremarkable, like an artistic work of ordinariness. Ursula says such behavior is quite dull, and that she much prefers to act like a swan among geese. She tells Gudrun that the only thing to do is to despise them all, and the two sisters return home.
Lawrence begins Women in Love with the discussion of marriage between Ursula and Gudrun in order to raise the essential theme of marriage plots within the tradition of the English novel - so that he may subvert it in his own novel. Lawrence's narrative will attempt to transform and reshape the traditional expectation that marriage should be the center of woman’s life through the events that befall the two Brangwen sisters and their respective relationships with Rupert Birkin and Gerald Crich. (DiBattista) This idea is foreshadowed by the two sisters’ different responses to the idea of marriage, neither of which seems completely favorable or desirable. Gudrun suggests that marriage brings the “experience” of sex, while Ursula contends that marriage is more like the “end” of experience, suggesting that it places an artificial limit on the possibilities of life.
Later, when Gudrun first sees Gerald Crich at his sister’s wedding, she remarks, “his totem is the wolf.” Her symbolic association of Gerald with this animal spirit establishes the role that animal passion and instincts will have in the novel, and it also connects Gerald to Gudrun’s art – carvings that resemble little animal totems. Gudrun also wonders if cosmic fate connects them, and if there is some “pale gold, arctic light that envelops only us two?” Her words unconsciously foreshadow Gerald’s demise, as he will freeze to death in the Swiss Alps. The novel’s continuing associations of Gerald with a wolf-like, arctic spirit construct him as a figure of Nordic myth, trapped in a modern post-industrial world that will ultimately crush his innermost being.
In the second chapter, the scene shifts from the marriage ceremony to the wedding party at the Criches’ estate. This move in perspective and setting allows Lawrence to continue to develop a series of familiar novelistic themes focused on the private, domestic sphere such as gender relations, paternal authority, familial manners, and inheritance. The conversations that take place among most of the guests are predictably boring and reflect conventional views of these matters. But when Gerald Crich is asked to stand in as host for the party because his father is feeling unwell, Lawrence shows that Gerald is ill at ease with this task. This characterization adds to the tension that defines Gerald, who is split between the demands of familial or social duty and the primal vitality that drives him.
Lawrence further develops this theme when he describes Gerald’s “passion” for discussion, which leads him to debate heatedly with Hermione Roddice. Their dialogue brings Rupert Birkin into the conversation, and they debate the roles of race, nationality, class and private property in determining the rights and liberties of individuals. The talk at the dinner table thus becomes an extended metaphor for class politics in England, and the disagreements between Rupert and Gerald set the stage for their heated exchange at the end of the chapter. During that episode, Lawrence reveals the passionate and wild nature of the attraction between the two men, which is a primordial mixture of love and hatred that both men actively repress. He thus enfolds two Freudian categories of desire – Eros, or erotic attraction, and aggression, or the death-drive – in the spirited competition between the two men.
In chapter three, when Rupert Birkin unexpectedly appears in Ursula’s classroom, Lawrence describes her reaction as a sudden springing up of repressed and subconscious fear. On the one hand this brings immediate anguish, but on the other hand it suggests the compulsory nature of desire, and further develops Lawrence’s theme of the battle between primordial instincts and social repression. The red of Rupert’s face and the red flames of the catkins symbolize passion differently. The first image suggests that passion is a sudden, unconscious eruption and the second connotes a measured aesthetic appreciation, which involves study and contemplation. The classroom scene implies that Lawrence, whose perspective is often represented by Rupert Birkin, values the vital and unpredictably creative power of passion. His defense of the dark passion of a “woman wailing for her demon lover” makes a literary allusion to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, “Kublai Khan,” and further aligns his character’s perspective with Lawrence’s own literary-philosophical views. At the same time, the scene acknowledges the social dangers of such primordial impulses, when Ursula and Hermione condescendingly dismiss Birkin’s aggressive and spirited defense of such dark and sensual forms of being.
When Ursula and Gudrun decide to take a walk to Willey Water, Lawrence repeats the trope of a conversational stroll that becomes an opportunity for the Brangwen sisters to reflect upon the nature of love and its relationship to society’s institutions. The novel first employs this technique in the scene of the sisters’ walk through the town of Beldover and their observation of the Crich wedding. This time, however, the setting emphasizes the power and freedom of the natural world that eludes the forms of work, discipline, and morality valued by modern culture. This is represented in an allegorical manner by the character of Gerald Crich, whose nakedness and unrestricted swimming in the lake connect him to a radically autonomous nature. Gudrun envies this form of freedom that is socially unavailable to women, and Ursula’s comparison of Gerald with a “Nibelung” further develops Lawrence’s characterization of Gerald as a mythical Nordic figure. “Nibelung” is the familial name of a powerful royal house in Nordic and Germanic mythology. Ursula’s reference likely alludes to the Richard Wagner opera, “The Ring of the Nibelung,” which is an epic work combining elements of ancient Greek tragedy with Nordic myth.
These associations contrast sharply with the setting of the second half of the chapter, where the Brangwen sisters leave the lakeside and stroll further up the road to Shortlands. Gudrun’s association of the house with the 18th century writers Jane Austen and Dorothy Wordsworth tie the Crich family and their estate to social conventions of marriage and family. But when Ursula observes that Gerald does not fit this model of convention because of his interest in advancing technologies and improvements, Lawrence suggests that Gerald’s character cannot fit into the framework of familial duty and responsibility expected of him – both because of the mythic, spirited part of his being as well as his compulsion toward modernity. Meanwhile, when the sisters unexpectedly meet Hermione Roddice and Laura Crich, Lawrence associates Gudrun and Ursula with a desire to reject the conventional forms of marriage, work, and society implied by their view of the Criches’ home. Ursula’s spirit is compared to a young shoot growing in the ground that has not yet emerged to flourish in the sunlight. This metaphor aligns her life’s potential with the vitality and passion of the natural world, but also implies that she may never succeed in breaking through the surface to achieve a life fully lived.