Chapter 17: The Industrial Magnate
Ursula and Gudrun turn away from Birkin and Gerald and begin pursuing other endeavors. Gudrun plans to travel, and writes to friends in Europe to inquire about lodging. One day the sisters stop at a cottage in Willey Green to buy honey from Mrs. Kirk. She tells them that Mr. Crich is quite ill, having taken a turn for the worse after Diana’s drowning. She also tells Gudrun that she once served as a nurse for Gerald, whom she describes as a young “demon.”
The narrator turns to discuss the case of Mr. Crich, who is dying. His life has been one of struggle with his wife, Christiana, who resents Mr. Crich’s philanthropy. Mr. Crich is described as a devout Christian who believes his miners hold the key to salvation, so he tries to care for them as best he can. Christiana loathes the poor and her husband’s desire to help them, but Mr. Crich loves her passionately all the same. Mrs. Crich has slowly lost interest in her life and in her children, including Gerald, who was once the center of her life. Since Gerald has returned home to run the family business, however, his father has become much closer to him and now trusts him completely with the family’s estate and interests.
Mr. Crich’s most beloved child is his youngest daughter, Winifred. He feels a deep anxiety about her welfare and future, since he knows he will die soon. Mr. Crich believes that Winifred is an “odd, sensitive, inflammable child” who is also deeply intelligent. She is also described as a “pure anarchist, [and] a pure aristocrat at once.” Mr. Crich feels that his fate depends upon making sure Winifred will be happy. When he hears that Gudrun might be hired to teach Winifred, he thinks he may have found a solution.
As Mr. Crich wastes away, Gerald is overwhelmed. He feels that his world is being torn apart because Mr. Crich was the anchor of the family and the figurehead of the colliery. Gerald recalls how he hated the drudgery of the family business as a child, and instead imagined himself a Homeric hero. He attended universities in Germany to get away from England, but eventually Gerald came back to his family and to the mines. But his motivation to begin working in the mines and improving the company’s business was “his will to subjugate Matter to his own ends,” rather than the accumulation of wealth. Gerald remembers the miners’ strikes that took place when he was a boy, which upset the delicate balance of power that Mr. Crich held over his workers.
As Gerald came into adulthood, he began to decide that he must reform the mining operation from the inside, and develop a more efficient, advanced, and powerful approach. He grew determined to master the materials of the earth through the combined powers of his own will and the productive capacity of labor organized into processes of mechanical repetition. Slowly, Gerald took over more and more of the company’s activities, bringing engineers and new machinery into the mines to improve the operation through science and technology. These reforms forced the miners to work harder than ever before. At first they hated Gerald and his new system, but they slowly have come to see and appreciate this new power, and they begin to throw themselves actively into the increased productivity and superior functioning. Gerald’s system therefore succeeds. But it has also brought fear to Gerald, who worries that his will now lacks a meaningful purpose.
Chapter 18: Rabbit
Gudrun feels that she must go to Shortlands and accept the position as Winifred’s teacher, but she also thinks that this will lead her inevitably to become Gerald’s lover. She decides to go at least for a brief time, before she leaves for Europe. She meets with Mr. Crich in his library, where he brings in Winifred. When Gudrun and Winifred meet the child is underwhelmed, and their first few interactions are awkward. But they soon develop a rapport. Winifred is both “playful and slightly mocking,” and she and Gudrun begin to construct a “make-belief world” in which they meet and conduct lessons in art. Winifred does a drawing of her dog, Looloo, of which she is extremely proud.
Gerald is away during Gudrun’s initial visit, but when he returns he watches for her one morning in the garden. She arrives, and Winifred and her maidservant approach. They begin to converse and joke in French and German about Winifred’s plan to draw a portrait of Bismarck, Winifred’s rabbit. Gerald interrupts them. He asks Gudrun how she likes being at Shortlands. Gudrun says she likes it very much, and the group strolls about the garden. Gerald and Gudrun exchange passionate looks, as Mademoiselle the maid quietly observes.
Gudrun takes Winifred away to the stables, and to the rabbit Bismarck’s cage. Gudrun suggests they remove him from his cage, although Winifred warns that he is strong and a “fearful kicker.” Gudrun unlocks the cage door, thrusts her arm inside, and grabs the rabbit by its ears. As she drags the rabbit from its cage and into the open it kicks wildly, and Gudrun nearly loses control. She becomes enraged as Bismarck scratches her wrists. Gerald enters. He grabs the rabbit, smacks it heavily and tucks it under his arm.
Gerald takes the rabbit out into a small courtyard. He asks Gudrun if she was hurt by Bismarck, and Gudrun tells him no. When Gerald tosses the rabbit onto the ground, it doesn’t move. Gerald says that the rabbit must be “skulking,” Gudrun and Gerald compare the scratches on their arms, and Gerald imagines that the long, red wound on Gudrun’s arm is a deep gash across his own brain, “tearing the surface of his ultimate consciousness.” Suddenly the rabbit begins frantically running around the courtyard, and just as immediately it stops and begins to calmly chew the grass. Gudrun laughs, saying the rabbit is mad and that thankfully “we aren’t rabbits.” Gerald slyly asks, “Not rabbits?” and Gudrun recognizes the sexual implication of his question. She replies “Ah, Gerald…All that, and more,” and her frankness feels to Gerald like another smack across his face or a tear across his breast. The chapter ends with Winifred calling to the rabbit to let her stroke its fur, because it is “so mysterious.”
Chapter 19: Moony
Birkin goes to the south of France after his sickness, and no one hears from him for some time. Ursula detaches from society, spending time alone or with animals. One evening she decides to walk toward Willey Water, to the mill. When she arrives at the pond, she notices that Birkin is standing there in the darkness, throwing stones onto the water. He doesn’t see Ursula, and she watches him toss larger and larger stones into the water to disturb the reflection of the moon on its surface. Finally she walks over to him and asks him to stop.
Birkin tells Ursula he just returned that day from France, and didn’t write her because he “could find nothing to say.” They begin a difficult conversation about their relationship, with Birkin telling Ursula that he loves her but he also wants something more from her. He wants them to be together in a natural way, like a pure phenomenon that does not depend upon their own effort. Ursula tells him he doesn’t love her, and he only wants her as his “mere thing” and for her never to speak critically of him. He denies this, and tells Ursula he simply wants her to drop her pretentious will. They fall silent for few a moments, and Ursula reaches her hand out to Birkin. She tells him she must know if he does love her, and Birkin says he does. They kiss and nestle close to each other, then Ursula tells him she must go home.
The next day Birkin feels odd about opening up to Ursula. He muses over his desire, thinking that he does not want to develop the dark sensuality he feels is part of his soul. He recalls an African carving from Halliday’s house, and its powerful awakening of this sensibility inside him. He then considers that the sensuous, creative life of the old Africans is gone, and wonders if life must simply be different for the “blond and blue-eyed from the north?” This reminds him of Gerald, and Birkin wonders about his friend’s fate, thinking of him as one of the “strange white wonderful demons from the north, fulfilled in the destructive frost mystery.” This frightens Birkin, who releases his thinking from these mysteries and suddenly realizes that he must pursue his connection with Ursula. He decides he must ask her to marry him, and sets off immediately for Beldover.
When he arrives at the Brangwen home, Ursula’s father sits down with Birkin. They feel nothing in common, and make small talk. Birkin asks if Ursula is home, and Mr. Brangwen tells him she will arrive shortly. Birkin tells Brangwen that he intends to ask Ursula to marry him, which surprises the man. Ursula’s father tells Birkin that he has tried to do his best to raise her properly, in a good Christian home, and that if she is to marry he hopes she will not go back on these principles. Birkin is annoyed by this, and asks why. Brangwen tells him he doesn’t approve of Birkin’s “new-fangled ideas.” After more verbal sparring, Mr. Brangwen says that Ursula shall do what she likes, regardless of his desires.
Ursula returns home and meets the two men. Birkin says he has come to ask if Ursula will marry him, and Ursula hardly responds. She appears to be detached from the situation and the question, which perturbs her father. When he asks for her answer, she asks him why she should have to respond. She goes on to accuse both her father and Birkin of wanting to “bully” her and force her into marriage. Birkin protests, saying that they can “leave it for the time being.” He abruptly walks out of the house. Meanwhile Mr. Brangwen yells at Ursula and calls her a fool. For several days, Ursula becomes hardened and radiant in her defiance of Birkin’s proposal and her father’s will. Gudrun becomes her ally, but when the two discuss Birkin one day Ursula’s mind and spirit begin to shift. She finds herself drawn to an “absolute surrender in love,” and decides that she must fight to transform Birkin. She will make him abandon his individuality and become utterly Ursula’s man, so that he gives himself up entirely to the love between them.
Chapter 20: Gladitorial
Birkin leaves Ursula’s home frustrated, and decides to go see Gerald at Shortlands. Gerald is thoroughly bored for the first time in his life, thinking that his only options are to drink or smoke hash, to seek out women, or to have Birkin soothe him. When Birkin unexpectedly arrives, Gerald is extremely happy to see him. He tells him he is deeply bored and thinks that only work or love could change his mood. Birkin says that fighting is a third option, and mentions that he used to do jiu-jitsu, a Japanese style of wrestling. He offers to show Gerald, who agrees. Gerald calls the servant to bring food and supplies then tells him not to disturb the men for the remainder of the evening. Gerald closes the door and they clear away furniture to make room. Both men strip naked, and Birkin begins showing Gerald various wrestling moves. As they struggle, their bodies seem to course with a potent, “sublimated energy.” They wrestle until both men are exhausted and collapse. The two remain in a state of semi-conscious abandon, with their naked bodies interlaced on the floor.
After resting for a bit, they get up and pour drinks. Birkin tells Gerald that they are spiritually and mentally intimate, so they ought also to be physically intimate. Gerald agrees, saying that the idea is “rather wonderful to me.” Birkin then tells him that he finds Gerald beautiful, “like light refracted from snow.” Gerald asks him if this is the “Bruderschaft” or pledge that Birkin had proposed, and Birkin says perhaps. The two sit by the fire to eat and drink, and Gerald leaves to go dress. Birkin begins to think of Ursula.
Gerald returns wearing a stately and exotic robe, which Birkin admires. But his mind again turns to Ursula, and he tells Gerald that he proposed to her earlier that night. Gerald appears surprised, and Birkin goes on to tell him that he happened to meet her father first, and asked for his permission before speaking about it with Ursula. Gerald asks about Ursula’s response, and Birkin tells him that she said she “didn’t want to be bullied into answering,” and Birkin simply left her house and came straight to Gerald’s. He says he’ll likely ask Ursula again, and tells Gerald that he thinks he loves her.
Gerald then tells Birkin that while he always believed in true love, he has never felt it despite all the women he has gone after. He then says that he’s never felt as much love for a woman as he feels for Birkin. Gerald has begun to doubt that he will ever feel true love for any woman, but this worries him. Birkin replies there “isn’t only one road” in life. Gerald agrees, but also insists that he wants to feel that he has truly lived life, and Birkin suggests that Gerald means he wants to be fulfilled.
In chapter 17, Lawrence presents a series of differences between Gerald and his father that symbolize old and new perspectives of the place of work in European society. Gerald’s father adheres to an old model of Christian charity and care for the poor through industry and work. As the head of the mining operation, he has understood his responsibility to care for his workers as a religious duty, which is why he associates his employees with the path to salvation. Gerald, meanwhile, suggests an atheistic, contemporary model of society that valorizes work and labor. He views the path to human liberation as an overcoming and mastery of the material earth, valuing efficient and technologically advanced production on a massive scale. But Gerald’s desire to find liberation in the mastery of matter conflicts drastically with his inner spirit, which Lawrence has described throughout the novel in mythic and animalistic terms. Gerald’s childhood longing to become a Homeric hero is posited as an abandoned memory that continues to haunt him.
The scene involving Bismarck the rabbit develops Lawrence’s theme of animalistic passion and human conflict. Bismarck’s frenzied clawing physically wounds both Gudrun and Gerald, and the rabbit only stops when Gerald smacks it and brings it under his arm, symbolizing a moment of violent mastery and domination that recalls his treatment of the mare at the train crossing. But here, the shared wounds between Gerald and Gudrun can be seen as metonymic signs for the erotic, bodily desire that they share for each other. When Gerald sees Gudrun’s wounded arm, he feels that the wound is in fact being torn across his own brain, which suggests a moment of symbolic displacement from Gudrun’s body to Gerald’s consciousness. A gash has been opened in his psychic being, and it unleashes the “unthinkable red ether of the beyond, the obscene beyond.” This “obscene beyond” suggests the erotic nature of the desire circulating between Gerald and Gudrun, which Gerald picks up on when Gudrun says “thank God we aren’t rabbits” and Gerald jokingly asks “Not rabbits?” Gudrun recognizes this obscenity, but rather than be put off, she ups Gerald’s move by telling him they are “All that, and more.” Her frankness in this sexualized humor is unexpected, and so Gerald immediately feels as if Gudrun has once again slapped him across the face. Gerald is a man of both lust and denial, and the expression of the former arouses both his desire and his urge to suppress it.
Before deciding to go to Beldover and propose to Ursula, Birkin finds himself contemplating a dark yet essential part of his spirit. He is reminded of the African carvings or “fetishes” at Julius Halliday’s house, and a tall female statuette that he remembers as “one of his soul’s intimates.” The figure symbolizes a primordial and mythic past, and Birkin’s attraction to it is a result of his attraction toward dark sensuality and desire. But he also wonders if this past is forever closed to men such as he, who have the “Arctic north behind them” and whose spirits must fulfill “a mystery of ice-destructive knowledge.” This leads him to think of Gerald, and Birkin’s associations foreshadow Gerald’s eventual death by freezing in the Alps. But the turn to Gerald also implies that Birkin’s desire is split between the totemic darkness, and the cold, arctic purity of his love for Gerald. Neither of these mysteries seem feasible to him. It is at this moment that Birkin realizes he must pursue his desire for Ursula, leave behind his utter isolation and attempt to “enter into a definite communion.”
Gerald and Birkin’s wrestling scene is a study in erotic sublimation, a psychic process that Sigmund Freud identifies as the transformation or displacement of one desire into another. Lawrence describes the physicality of the struggle and the intense interweaving of Gerald and Birkin’s bodies as being driven by a “sublimated energy” that refers to the passionate attraction between the two men, which is being transformed into the brute struggle and exertion of their battle. Their naked bodies are intertwined in a “closer oneness of struggle” that exhausts the men, as they pour all of the energy behind their frustrated and repressed desires into physical exertion. Their collapse on the floor is like a moment of erotic consummation or symbolic death, by which the passion between them has been sublimated and temporarily alleviated.
Once the wrestling match has ended, however, the two men begin to talk about Birkin’s proposal to Ursula. When Birkin describes the scene of his proposal, Gerald is quite surprised that Birkin did not discuss the matter with Ursula before telling her father of his intentions to propose. But what truly amazes him is the fact that Birkin immediately came to see Gerald at Shortlands after Ursula's refusal to answer. Birkin’s decision shows the strong attraction he feels toward Gerald, and his desire to be comforted by him. Gerald’s love for Birkin only grows as a consequence of this gesture, which encourages him to admit to Birkin that he doubts he could ever feel love for a woman as much as he feels love for Birkin. The conversation ends on a highly ambiguous note, since it is unclear if this means Gerald’s fate is to remain deeply bound to his love for Birkin, despite his apparent love for Gudrun.