Walking home one day after school, Ursula and Gudrun stop at the railway crossing. Gerald Crich rides up to the crossing on a stately mare, and Gudrun admires him. As the train approaches, however, the horse spooks. Gerald and the mare begin a battle back and forth as the horse attempts to flee from the noise and presence of the oncoming train, and Gerald attempts to control the horse and force it to stay put under his command.
As the Brangwen sisters watch the struggle unfold between Gerald and the mare, Gudrun first feels a compulsive attraction toward Gerald, and feels herself falling under the grasp of his will. Ursula has the opposite reaction, and calls out that Gerald should ride away until the train passes. Gerald becomes even more violent with the horse, driving his spurs into her side until she bleeds.
Gudrun grows faint at the sight. The train eventually passes, and the sisters hurry to open the gate and cross. Gerald rides away quickly while the train gatekeeper comments on Gerald’s masterful jockeying. Ursula protests that it was a display of unnecessary brutality. The gatekeeper responds that a show of dominance is a necessary part of the horse’s training, in order to make her capable of withstanding anything.
As the sisters keep walking home, they encounter a pair of unsavory working-class men on the road, who make crude jokes about what price they would pay to prostitute the girls. The sisters continue, walking through a neighborhood of miners’ houses. Gudrun watches a miner bathe himself, and feels overwhelmed by the dark physicality of the atmosphere surrounding the workers. She finds it “potent and half-repulsive,” and the narrator begins to describe Gudrun’s frequent, nostalgic wanderings among the miners’ section of town during evenings and weekend markets. While on these strolls, Gudrun often meets Palmer, a young electrician and scientist working for the Criches’ mining operation, who enjoys sociology. Palmer is in love with Ursula and knows her as a friend, but he spends time with Gudrun.
Chapter 10: Sketch-book
Ursula and Gudrun sit beside Willey Water one morning, sketching. Gudrun is seated on a shoal, drawing water plants that shoot up from the mud. Ursula watches butterflies flit near the water. Both sisters are absorbed in their views of nature.
Gudrun is brought out of her trance by the sound of oars clanking. She looks to the water and sees Hermione and Gerald in a boat. Hermione notices Gudrun, and tells Gerald they should go say hello. Gerald directs the boat to Gudrun’s spot on the shoal. Hermione asks Gudrun what she is doing, and then asks to see her sketches.
Gudrun reluctantly hands over the sketchbook to Gerald, and they share a look of intense feeling. Hermione looks through Gudrun’s sketches and blithely points out the plants that Gudrun has drawn. Gerald asks to look at the book, but Hermione ignores him. When he reaches for the book, Hermione releases it before he can grasp it, and it falls into the water. Hermione makes a rushed apology and sneeringly asks Gerald to retrieve the book from the water.
After Gerald fetches the dripping wet book, he hands it back to Gudrun. Hermione continues to apologize, offering to buy Gudrun a new book. Gudrun insists that the event is “entirely trivial” and that if anyone bears blame for dropping the book, it is Gerald. He is meanwhile enamored of Gudrun’s cold yet calm handling of Hermione. When Gudrun tells Hermione that “it doesn’t matter in the least,” she looks at Gerald and realizes that she has subtly gained a secret power over him, and that “a sort of diabolic freemasonry subsisted between them.” From now on she knows that he will be helpless under her control. Hermione and Gerald say farewell and row away, as Gerald’s mind and attention remain focused in good humor on Gudrun, which infuriates Hermione.
Chapter 11: An Island
As the previous chapters’ events unfold between Gudrun, Gerald, and Hermione, Ursula leaves Willey Water and treks alongside a stream, arriving at a nearby mill-house with a pond. As she nears the pond she notices a man on the bank, working on a small boat. It turns out to be Rupert Birkin. He asks Ursula if she can help him determine if his repairs to the punt, or boat, are sufficient. He jokes that she will know since she is her father’s daughter, and her father is an instructor in handicrafts. Ursula takes a look but admits she knows nothing about carpentry, despite the fact that her father is an expert. She tells Rupert the craft looks fine, and he decides to test it by sailing onto a small island. He comes back to pick Ursula up and the two go on to the island.
They land under a willow tree and joke about the idyllic scene. Ursula notices that Birkin looks unwell, and asks if he has been ill. He says yes, but he doesn’t explain that he has been recovering from Hermione’s attack on him with the paperweight. Ursula asks if Birkin was frightened to be ill, and Birkin tells her he thinks that real illness is a consequence of not living properly, and that the failure to live is more humiliating than illness itself. This statement disturbs Ursula because she senses its truth, and she falsely tells Birkin that she is happy and finds life jolly.
As they continue talking, Birkin tells Ursula that “mankind is a dead tree” and that people’s insides are “full of bitter, corrupt ash.” Human beings pay lip service to love, when in fact all they do is cultivate hatred. Birkin claims he loathers humanity, and argues that the natural world would be better off without the existence of humans. Creation, Birkin observes, in no way depends upon human beings. At first Ursula protests against his ideas, but as she stops to consider a fantasy of the world without humans, she finds it appealing.
Ursula asks Birkin if he believes in love, and he replies that he thinks it is simply one of many emotions that are part of any human relationship. Ursula finds Birkin to be detestably “priggish” yet chiseled and attractive. The duality of feeling goes deep inside her, and makes Ursula feel a strong hatred for Birkin. They continue to debate what love is and whether it retains any real value for their world. Ursula tosses daisies into the water and they decide to return to shore.
The two fall into an uncomfortable silence, and in a brief moment of feeling Birkin tells Ursula that he is now lodging at the mill house, and suggests that they can spend some time together. Ursula ignores the implication, and Birkin becomes distant again. He goes on to say that he detests his job and thinks he will quit, instead simply live on his 400 pound a year inheritance. Ursula asks him about Hermione, and Birkin explains that their relationship is completely over. The two hear dogs barking, which Birkin knows to be Gerald and Hermione arriving to inspect his new rooms. He invites Ursula to join them, which she does hesitantly.
Chapter 12: Carpeting
Ursula and Birkin enter the mill house, where they find Hermione and Gerald speaking with Mrs. Salmon, the wife of the mill house laborer and caretaker. A cage full of canaries chirps loudly. The group watches as Mrs. Salmon drapes a blanket over the cage, fooling the birds into thinking the evening has come so they will go to sleep. Hermione and Ursula marvel at how simply the canaries have been fooled, and Hermione compares one of the sleeping birds to a “stupid husband.”
The group decides to inspect Birkin’s new lodgings and measure the size of the rooms. Mrs. Salmon prepares tea for them, which they decide to take outside on the bank of the pond. Hermione bossily takes over the job of measuring the rooms, beginning with the dining room and moving into the study, telling Birkin she plans to give him an expensive rug for his study. The finish measuring the bedroom and go outside for tea.
Outside, Ursula tells Gerald that she was upset with him the other day at the train crossing, for treating his horse so badly. Gerald responds that he simply has to train the mare not to be frightened of loud noises, and to stand strong. This begins a discussion among the four friends concerning whether humans should naturally use their will to dominate the will of animals. Birkin suggests that horses are like women, insofar as both have two wills acting in opposition – a will to toss her rider and run free, and a will to be ruled by her rider through the power of love.
Hermione and Ursula detach from the men and stroll together, feeling a sense a deep affection. Meanwhile, Gerald is drawn to Birkin and to his statements about the dual will of horses. Hermione tells Ursula that she is tired of criticism and analysis of life, and instead wants to appreciate the holiness and beauty of things. Ursula agrees, saying some things must be “left to the Lord.” They agree that Birkin tears everything apart, and his over analysis of life doesn’t “allow any possibility of flowering.” But this sudden agreement mutates sharply into an extreme mistrust and competitive revulsion. They rejoin the men, and Ursula decides to go home. On her way, she senses an internal conflict in her feelings about both Hermione and Birkin, finding herself attracted but hostile toward both.
When the Brangwen sisters encounter Gerald Crich at the train crossing, the setting recalls Gerald’s unexpected meeting with Birkin at the train station, on their way to London, in chapter 5. Here, however, the setting connotes Lawrence’s theme of the conflict between mythic naturalism and modern technological society, manifested through the character of Gerald Crich. As he sits astride his mare, he attempts to control her fear and primal urge to flee from the oncoming train. The horse is a metaphor for both the human passions and the natural world that technology attempts to master, while the train represents the quick-paced onslaught of technological advancement, which threatens to run out of control. The Brangwen sisters observe the struggle between Gerald and the horse with fear and distaste, finding Gerald’s forceful discipline to be unnecessarily cruel. Ursula’s reaction in particular represents the idea that human attempts to master and control our natural instincts are a form of unwarranted violence against the primal self. Her response is to cry out to Gerald to let the horse flee. But Gudrun finds this display of Gerald’s will enticing, and she feels that she cannot get out of his grasp. The sisters’ different reactions to the scene foreshadow Rupert Birkin’s claim in chapter 12 that women are split between the will to run free and the will to be dominated in love.
As Gudrun and Ursula walk through Beldover afterwards, Lawrence’s descriptions of the miners and their residences emphasizes a dark physicality to working class life. Even the dialect in which the miners speak conveys an atmospheric thickness that Gudrun feels enveloping her in a “labourer’s caress.” The tone and setting evoke a nostalgic attraction for working class life, of which Gudrun is somewhat ashamed. This is her heritage, since her father is a handicraft laborer and she is a schoolteacher. But she also longs to leave it behind, since she has studied art in London and now finds herself among the social elite. This conflict sets the stage for her view of Gerald on the boat in chapter 10, where she thinks that Gerald can be the vehicle of her escape from the “heavy slough of the pale, underworld, automatic colliers.”
The sketchbook scene in chapter 10 indicates that a powerful emotional transference is taking place between Gerald and Gudrun. When Gudrun first sees Gerald she imagines he can help her escape her working class history, while Gerald thinks that Gudrun is “still nobody” to him, and he will simply observe as Hermione goes about dissolving the class differences that ought to keep her and Gerald from bothering to speak to Gudrun. But the dynamic of power suddenly and radically shifts in Gudrun’s favor, as her cold yet strong demeanor captivates him. Gudrun manages to overturn Gerald’s confidence in his class standing, by subjecting his desire to a woman whose class status is below his own. This situation contrasts sharply with Gerald’s earlier estimation of Minette and his power over her, which he found to be securely grounded in his superior class position and wealth.
In chapter 11, when Birkin and Ursula arrive on the tiny island, they make some significant allusions to works of literature and art. Birkin first mentions Paul et Virginie, a French novel in which two lovers live a utopian existence on the island of Mauritius. Ursula then jokes that one could have “Watteau picnics” on the little island they have, a reference to the baroque naturalism of French painter Antoine Watteau. Watteau painted scenes of idyllic life and leisure in the natural world. But Birkin and Ursula’s allusions to these French works are ironic. They serve as symbols of decadence and empty values, which Birkin goes on to chastise in his discussion with Ursula about love and humankind. To live a truly vigorous, passionate life requires moving through periods of destruction, according to Birkin. A life of ease and simplistic pleasures leads to an empty concept of “love,” which he believes has poisoned humanity.
When Ursula and Birkin join Hermione and Gerald at the mill house in chapter 12, their conversation returns to the metaphor of the rider astride his horse that Lawrence introduced in chapter 9. Birkin claims that horses are divided between the will to reject their rider and flee, and the will to remain under the rider’s control. He extends this analogy to the situation of women, arguing that the desire to fall in love is a desire to “resign your will to the higher being.” But Birkin does not advocate this fate, and instead tells the group that it is dangerous and unwise to “domesticate even horses, let alone women.” This statement implies his rejection of conventional models of love and marriage, which he understands to stifle the passionate soul and become an obstacle to deeper, truer love. But his outlandish perspective disturbs Hermione and Ursula, who remain bound to their more traditional views of marital union, love, and beauty.