Chapter 21: Threshold
Gudrun goes away to London to present some of her artwork and to escape Beldover. Winifred writes her, imploring her to return soon, and Gudrun recognizes that both Winifred’s father and Gerald are using the girl to suggest to Gudrun how much both desire her to remain at Shortlands. Gudrun is amenable to this situation, and the Criches eagerly look forward to the day she returns to their home. Winifred prepares an elaborate bouquet for her teacher, and when Gudrun arrives she, Gerald, and her father are lined up to welcome her home. Gudrun is flattered and feels “aglow” upon coming back to Shortlands.
Mr. Crich sits down with Gudrun in his library. He is quite ill, and his sunken face betrays the signs of his impending death. His fondness for Gudrun helps to alleviate his stress, which Gudrun recognizes, so she indulges him in conversation and allows him to feel pleased at providing for Gudrun’s entertainment and provenance. He tells Gudrun that he plans to construct a studio over the stables so that she and Winifred may use it for their lessons. He goes on to say that Gudrun may also use the studio for her own work, if she doesn’t mind spending her days at Shortlands. Gudrun agrees to this plan happily, and Mr. Crich tells her he will also provide monetary compensation.
Gudrun and Winifred begin using the studio, and spend all their time in it. The house becomes more and more dreadful, as Mr. Crich’s health worsens and two nurses are called in to attend to him. He and Winifred share time together, but Gerald feels sickened by his father’s slow decay and cannot be near him. Mr. Crich asks to see Gudrun when he is on the verge of death. The two discuss Winifred’s future, and Gudrun assures him that she is talented and her life shall not be wasted.
One day soon thereafter, Winifred, Gerald, Birkin and Gudrun prepare to drive to town in the car. As they prepare to leave, Winifred asks Gudrun if she thinks her father will die. At first Gudrun says that she doesn’t know, but as Winifred insists Gudrun admits that she does think he will die, as he is very ill. Winifred still asserts that her father won't die. Gerald overhears them and suggests that it may be better for Winifred to live in her willful refusal.
Birkin brings the car around and Winifred jumps excitedly into the front seat. Gudrun and Gerald sit in the back, and Gerald playfully asks Birkin if he has any news, and whether he should congratulate him about a possible engagement to Ursula. Gudrun is aggravated and says coldly that she doesn’t “think there’s any engagement.” Gerald turns to ask her quietly why not, and eventually Gudrun tells him she thinks Rupert only “wants his ideas fulfilled” rather than actually wanting a woman for who she is. She mocks Birkin’s idea that one can find “an eternal equilibrium in marriage,” and Gerald agrees. Instead, he insists that he believes in love as a form of “real abandon,” and Gudrun tells him that she does as well.
Chapter 22: Woman to Woman
The group takes Gerald to the train station, while Birkin, Winifred, and Gudrun go to Birkin’s for tea. Ursula is also expected, but Hermione shows up before her, while Birkin is out. Ursula arrives to find Hermione in Birkin’s drawing room, and is unpleasantly surprised. Hermione asks about Birkin and Ursula’s newly developed friendship, and Ursula tells her that he is constantly “somewhere in the background.” Hermione asks if the two shall marry, and Ursula tells her that Birkin wants to but she is unsure.
The two discuss what exactly it is that Birkin wants. Ursula tells Hermione she is unsure because he seems to change his mind, but it appears that he wants Ursula to submit to him and to his inner self. Yet Birkin is also unwilling to reveal or to give any intimate part of himself to Ursula. He appears to hate his own feelings, and he wants Ursula to give up on her feelings as well.
Hermione suggests he seems to want an “odalisk” or a harem slave to suit his whims, but this is untrue, as both Ursula and Hermione know. Hermione had been willing to enslave herself to Birkin, and he refused her. Hermione tells Ursula she thinks marrying Birkin would be a mistake, because Ursula needs a “soldierly, strong-willed” man. Birkin, she says, is “frail in health and body,” lives an intensely spiritual life that makes him uncertain and changeable, and would require his wife to endure great suffering. The two fall silent, and both women imagine the other to have a completely misguided view of Birkin and of what it would take to love him.
Birkin appears and sense the hostility between the two women, but ignores it. He makes small talk, and Ursula and Hermione both resent his attempt to placate them. Hermione tells Birkin she plans to go to Florence for the winter, to attend some lectures on Italian national policy. Birkin scoffs, and is thereby lured into Hermione’s power. Ursula interrupts, asking Hermione if she knows Italy well. Hermione tells her yes, and that her mother died in Florence. Ursula and Birkin both feel uncomfortably strained in the battle of wills. Ursula further feels like an intruder upon Hermione and Birkin’s shared background, and is dispirited. Hermione calls out to Birkin’s cat, and she tells Gudrun that Mino was in fact born in Italy and that she gave it to Birkin. Ursula’s frustration mounts as Hermione continues speaking to the cat in Italian, and eventually Ursula stands and announces that she will leave. After her hasty departure from the house, she feels outraged by Hermione and Birkin.
Chapter 23: Excurse
The day after the tea party, Birkin seeks out Ursula at her school. He invites her to go on a drive, and she agrees but shows no emotion. While driving along, Birkin hands her a packet containing three rings. He tells Ursula that “Rings look wrong on my hands” and so he bought them for her. She responds that he ought to give them to Hermione, since he belongs to her. Ursula decides to try on the rings, but only one fits her properly – an opal ring – and she puts the other two on her little finger. She knows that accepting Birkin’s gift of rings means she is accepting a pledge to him, but she feels that a fate larger than her own will is acting upon them.
Ursula is happy as the two talk, and she proposes that they return home in the dark to take a late tea. Birkin says he can’t because he has plans for dinner at Shortlands, along with Hermione who is preparing to leave for Europe. Birkin says he should go because he “shall never see her again.” Ursula draws away, and Birkin asks if she minds. She tells him no, but her tone suggests otherwise. The two begin a heated argument about Hermione, with Ursula accusing Birkin of being taken in by Hermione’s “dead show.” Birkin tells Ursula that Hermione means nothing to him. He pulls the car over and their fight continues.
Birkin accuses Ursula of being foolish – he admits that he wasted years carrying on with Hermione. He now sees it was wrong and yet Ursula seems to want to tear out his soul with jealousy when he mentions Hermione’s name. Ursula tells him she isn’t jealous, but simply detests Hermione’s falseness. She thinks Hermione’s empty spirituality has tricked Birkin, and that Hermione is utterly base and petty, simply feeding into Birkin’s own ghastly desire for death, destruction, and foulness. The argument intensifies until Ursula removes the rings to throw them at Birkin, and stomps away, heading up the road alone.
Birkin sits alone in the darkness, and comes to believe that many of Ursula’s accusations are true. He is attracted to and finds stimulation in self-destruction. He imagines Ursula and Hermione as opposite extremes – Hermione as the “perfect Idea” and Ursula as the “perfect Womb” – to which men are compellingly drawn. Birkin wants neither, and does not understand why the two women seem unable to remain individuals. Suddenly Ursula returns, offering a flower to Birkin. The two embrace and feel peace in each other’s arms. Ursula asks if she abused him, and he smilingly tells her not to mind. They kiss, and Ursula asks about the rings. Birkin produces them from his pocket and returns them to Ursula. They go back to the car and drive by a cathedral called Southwell Minster, and decide to have high tea at the Saracen’s Head inn.
At the inn they sit in a parlor by a fire. They are overwhelmed with mutual love, and Ursula finds Birkin to be transformed. He reminds her of an image from the Book of Genesis, as if he is one of the original sons of God at the beginning of the world. They take tea, and Birkin proposes that both must quit their jobs, so the two can travel. He calls for pen and paper and they begin to write their resignation letters. They return to the car and Ursula asks if he still plans to dine at Shortlands. Birkin says no, and they decide to stay out in the darkness, and sleep inside the car. Birkin stops in town to send a telegram to Ursula’s father saying she won’t be home that night. He picks up some supplies and drives the car into Sherwood Forest to park. They exit the car and sit on a blanket among the trees. They remove their clothes and make love, both feeling their desires fulfilled in each other’s “mystic, palpable, real otherness.”
Chapter 24: Death and Love
Thomas Crich remains alive, though just barely, and the slow advance of his death is terrible. His will to remain alive is strong, though his body is utterly wasted. Gerald meanwhile wishes that his father would simply let go, because he feels deeply bound to his suffering and wants a release for them both. One evening Gerald asks Gudrun to stay for dinner, and they talk abut the strain of his father’s illness. Gerald asks her for sympathy, saying it is the only thing that can help him since he simply must face up to the fact that his father is dying. Gerald’s mother comes downstairs while they are talking, and tells Gerald that she thinks he isn’t strong enough to see through the event of his father’s death. She encourages him to take off and protect himself, but Gerald assures her he is fine and that he must stay on.
Gudrun tells Gerald she must leave, and he offers to give her the coach. She prefers to walk, so Gerald accompanies her. As they walk to Beldover, Gerald puts his arm around her and Gudrun asks him how much he cares for her. Gerald says “everything,” and Gudrun finds it difficult to understand why his feelings for her are so strong. The two stop as the road passes under a railway. Gerald embraces Gudrun and they kiss. She imagines herself falling into his arms just as numerous lovers of colliers have done, under the same arch, over many years. She is thrilled to be with Gerald, and imagines he is an apple on the forbidden tree of knowledge, and she is Eve, plucking the fruit. They continue on into town and arrive at the gate of the drive to Gudrun’s house. She tells him not to come inside, and they say goodnight.
The next day, Gudrun writes Gerald to say she has a cold and cannot come to Shortlands. The following day, Gerald is sitting with his father at the moment Mr. Crich dies. The nurse enters as Gerald stands looking at his father’s body, and she confirms that he is dead. He goes to tell his mother, who comes downstairs to see her husband. Surrounded by her children, she says that Mr. Crich looks beautiful in death, and that she can see his teenage face. She tells her children not to allow themselves to look like this when they die, and that they should pray.
Gudrun hears of Mr. Crich’s death and feels bad for not being with Gerald to comfort him. The next day she returns to Shortlands to work with Winifred, and the two remain in the studio all day. They take dinner in the studio and Gerald comes to see them, but Gudrun finds the situation awkward. She goes home. The funeral takes place the next day, after which the family leaves town. Gerald remains at home alone, passing the nights in agony. On the third evening he decides to take a walk, and finds himself eventually heading toward Beldover. In town, he asks a drunken miner for directions to Somerset Drive, where the Brangwens live.
As Gerald comes to the house, he hears Ursula and Birkin’s voices. They come to the road and Gerald remains in the dark as they pass. Gerald walks into the house, creeping through the hallways until he thinks he finds Gudrun’s room. He enters, goes to the bed and realizes the sleeper is Gudrun’s younger brother. He leaves quickly and hears Ursula and her father talking downstairs. He goes up another floor to find another bedroom door, and he knows Gudrun will be inside. He enters the room, and Gudrun stirs and asks if it is Ursula. Gerald tells her it is he. She finds a light and asks him why he has come. He tells her simply that he had to come to her, and that if she were not in the world he could not be in the world either.
Gerald removes his boots and jacket, and embraces Gudrun. As he holds her, he feels a strong warmth and sense of comfort, as if his spirit draws life from her. He falls asleep in her arms, while Gudrun remains awake and alert, “suspended in perfect consciousness.” She watches Gerald sleep peacefully through the night, while she feels “tormented with violent wakefulness” and waits until she can wake him. At five in the morning, she wakes Gerald and tells him he must leave. He wants to stay but Gudrun insists, so Gerald rises and dresses himself. The two go downstairs quietly, and walk out to the gate. They kiss goodbye, and Gudrun returns to her bed and falls into a deep sleep while Gerald walks home.
Chapter 21 deals with a transitional moment of death and the human response to its inevitability. Gerald struggles with his feather’s impending death, not because he fears death itself but because he is disgusted by the slow and painstaking process that his father is experiencing. Gerald desires a quick and valiant death, a heroic end akin to the Homeric warriors of old. He believes that “one should be master of one’s fate in dying as in living.” Gerald’s perspective toward death is revealing. It further develops his character’s association with an antiquated heroic spirit, and Lawrence makes an allusion to the myth of Laocoon, a Trojan priest who was sentenced to death and strangled, along with his sons, by a mighty serpent. Lawrence’s imagery conveys Gerald’s feeling of being wrapped up and dragged against his will into sharing death’s slow embrace of his father.
Hermione surprises Ursula one afternoon, when Gudrun and Ursula are scheduled to have tea with Birkin. While Birkin is out, Ursula arrives to find Hermione waiting, and the two begin an intensely heated discussion about Birkin and the possibility of marrying him. At first, Ursula uses Birkin’s proposal to make Hermione jealous, and to increase her own power. The two women verbalize their shared frustrations with Birkin’s intense individualism, his tendency to criticize and his desire for destruction. Ursula even acknowledges that Hermione “must have suffered” as a consequence of Birkin’s difficult personality, which Hermione seems to acknowledge when her hand involuntary clenches “like one inspired.” But Hermione was always willing to become Birkin’s slave, and Ursula knows this fact. It leads her to dismiss any mutual feeling between them, while Hermione resentfully believes that the antagonism between Birkin’s “animalism and spiritual truth” will eventually tear him apart, and Ursula will be helpless as she watches it unfold.
The gift of three rings in chapter 23 symbolizes the conflict between Ursula and Birkin concerning their potential marriage. Birkin tells Ursula “Rings look wrong on my hands” which implies his unsuitability for marriage, even though he is giving a gift to Ursula that simultaneously suggests his desire to marry her. Meanwhile, Ursula is afraid to try on the rings because she thinks her hands are too large; these images suggest the characters’ different perspectives toward marriage and toward each other. Ursula wants to try on the rings, but just as her hands seem too large to fit into them, her individual temperament as a unique woman might not fit properly into the role that marriage expects of her. In different ways, the ring gift episode shows the two characters straining against the expectations and conventions of the marital union, even as they desire it.
Unsurprisingly, Ursula and Birkin find themselves in an argument that begins with Ursula’s jealousy over Hermione’s relationship with Birkin. Ursula flees despite Birkin’s insistence that Hermione now means nothing to him. But Ursula’s eventual return signals a kind of rebirth and potential for their union. A typical marriage between them may be impossible, as suggested by Birkin’s initial gift of the rings and the resulting confrontation. Yet when she comes back to him, Ursula brings him a flower that Birkin finds beautiful, and Ursula expresses sorrow at having hurt him. The potential for their union is later developed as they travel up the road and pass by the Southwell Minster. This new setting evokes a paradisal and holy feeling between them. At the inn, Birkin suddenly appears to Ursula as an original son of God, who has metamorphosed into a sacred yet sensual presence. The sexuality between them now appears to be blessed, and they consummate their relationship under the trees. Lawrence’s setting implies that Ursula and Birkin’s union aims to build a new paradise that recalls the original union of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Lawrence repeats this imagery but gives it new meaning in his description of Gudrun’s feeling for Gerald at the beginning of chapter 24. Gudrun fancies Gerald to be the forbidden tree of knowledge, and she imagines herself as Eve, plucking the tree’s fruit. This image suggests that just as Adam and Eve fell from God’s favor and were exiled from paradise, Gudrun and Gerald’s union represents a fallen version of the promise of sacred sensuality shared earlier by Ursula and Birkin. This idea is further developed when Gerald unexpectedly visits Gudrun one night soon after his father dies. He creeps into her house under darkness while she sleeps, which recalls Satan’s creeping into the garden to tempt Eve to disobey God’s will. When Gerald embraces Gudrun, he is overcome with exhaustion and falls deeply asleep, and Gudrun watches through the night. He draws a warm and maternal strength from Gudrun, and their bodily connection symbolizes a primordial return to the womb. Gudrun provides Gerald with a moment of healing and restoration after the death of Gerald’s father, which Lawrence describes as a “great bath of life” that makes him whole again.