The four central characters of Lawrence’s novel test the expectations of their society, chiefly through their unconventional attitudes toward the institutions of marriage and work. Gudrun and Ursula Brangwen are spirited and independent women, although they are not from the upper class. Meanwhile, Gerald and Birkin are their social superiors, but both men are drawn to the Brangwens and pursue marriages that defy social norms. Birkin views the hyper productivity of the modern era as a mistake, and thinks that work cannot save humanity. Gerald meanwhile throws himself into his work, but believes in the advancement of technology as a means of mastering the material of the earth.
The Triangle of Desire
Triangles of desire are everywhere in Lawrence’s novel, suggesting that human desire circulates in part by seeing and imitating the desire that another person displays. Gerald loves Birkin, but sees him desiring Ursula, which contributes to Gerald’s desire for Birkin, and also to his desire for Gudrun as a substitute. Birkin sees Gerald desiring Gudrun, which heightens his attraction to Gerald and makes him hesitant to marry Ursula for fear of separating the two men. At the end of the novel, a triangle emerges between Gudrun, Gerald, and Loerke, which sparks Gerald’s violent attack against them, and leads to his death by exposure. Gudrun compares this situation ironically to the holy trinity, calling it a “pretty little sample of the eternal triangle” and a “trinity of hate.”
Decay and Rebirth
Birkin is constantly unwell throughout the novel, and his body's physical decay and degradation symbolize the spiritual decay that he associates with England, and more broadly with modern European society. Birkin philosophizes throughout the novel about the essential link between creative life and destruction, associating the goddess of love, Aphrodite, with a power of dark and utter destruction. Birkin also compares leaving England to the image of lice fleeing a dead corpse, as if the group’s trip to Innsbruck promises an escape from the inevitable destruction of English life. Birkin views the universe as endless cycles of decay and rebirth in forms that are organic and inorganic, natural and cultural. He thinks that society and its values must dissolve in order for humans to be reborn and inhabit a new, stronger and more passionate form of existence.
Repression and Instincts
The difficult relationship between instinctual desire and repression is central to Women in Love. The main characters of Lawrence’s novel – Ursula, Gudrun, Birkin, and Gerald – all suffer in various ways from the conflict between their desires and the dictates of social mores. Birkin and Gerald desire one another, but repress and stifle their love in pursuit of marriages with the Brangwen sisters. When Ursula’s classroom receives an unexpected visit from Birkin early in the novel, her desire is stirred but it creates anxiety. She suffers over the course of the novel from her conflicted emotions regarding Birkin, whose demands are highly unconventional and force Ursula to examine her willingness to give all of herself to the love between them. Likewise, Gudrun finds Gerald compelling but fearsome in his brute physicality. She wavers between being compulsively attracted to and repelled by him. Gudrun’s situation is in turn mirrored by Gerald’s attitude towards her, since he finds her alluring and superior to him in spirit, yet he often moves to attack or destroy her when she triggers feelings in him. Throughout the novel, human instincts are represented as unpredictable and intense passions that trigger forms of repression.
D.H. Lawrence was both an iconoclast and a Christian, and Women in Love presents a unique concept of sacred sensuality. Unlike forms of protestant Christianity that attempt to deny or rebuke erotic passion, Lawrence’s ideal form of Christian life fully embraces erotic passion as a holy expression of God’s creation. This idea is most clearly represented in the union of Ursula and Birkin, which the novel describes in terms that evoke the biblical tale of Adam and Eve. When Ursula and Birkin visit the inn in Beldover for afternoon tea, Ursula suddenly sees her lover as an original son of God, an allusion to the book of Genesis. When the two leave the inn and decide to spend the night on the floor of Sherwood Forest, Lawrence’s imagery evokes the Garden of Eden and suggests that Birkin and Ursula have a sacred union that is equal parts of carnal and spiritual sensuality. Lawrence’s novel idealizes a holy form of sensuality that unites the earthly passions of the flesh with the soul of creation.
Nihilism and Modernity
Lawrence’s novel explores the connection between nihilism and modernity. Nihilism is the philosophical view that the modern world has completely severed itself from the once meaningful spheres of religious, moral, and political life. For nihilists, there can be no meaningful existence in the wreckage of modernity. Lawrence’s novel does not suggest that nihilism is an ideal position. Rather, the character of Rupert Birkin represents an understanding of nihilism that strives against its aftermath.
Birkin acknowledges the apocalyptic ruins of modern life, but he is also a spirited and creative soul, illustrated by his attempt to strike a unique contract of passionate partnership with Ursula, one that preserves their individuality while bringing them into a cosmic conjunction, like two heavenly bodies perfectly aligned. Birkin also values artistic expression and creativity, which is illustrated through his many allusions to art and poetry, as well as his contemplative reactions to sketches, paintings, and sculptures over the course of the novel. All of these aspects of Birkin’s character show that Lawrence’s novel rejects the nihilist position in favor of attempting to transform the very terms of value that define human life in the modern age.
Animals and Humans
Lawrence’s novel consistently uses encounters with animals to symbolize internal conflicts faced by individuals, passionate struggles between lovers, and the urge to forsake society. Gudrun Brangwen invokes the image of a wolf as Gerald Crich’s totem animal when she first sees him at his sister’s wedding in the opening chapter. In chapter 9, Gerald’s forceful control of his horse at the train crossing, which alarms both Ursula and Gudrun, symbolizes the violent human struggle over passion. Later, when the Brangwen sisters attend the annual party at Shortlands, they decide to escape into the woods. They begin to dance like forest nymphs among a group of cattle, suggesting a mystical connection to the natural world and their desire to abandon social convention. And both Gudrun and Gerald battle with Winifred’s pet rabbit, Bismarck, whose frenzied resistance to their control implies the dangerous status of the passion between them. Throughout the novel, Lawrence’s representations of animals show that humans can never fully abandon their primal nature, and they constantly strive to channel its power successfully.
Industry and Technology
Lawrence’s novel explores the social implications of industry and technology through Gerald’s transformation of the Crich mining operation. Gerald’s father operated the coal-mining business according to an older model of Christian moral beneficence. He let the workers perform their duties as they had for several generations, and focused his efforts on taking care of them much as a father would care for his children. But Gerald’s vision is strikingly different from his father’s, and it represents the modern valorization of productivity and work over all things. Gerald uses his willpower and education to transform the family industry into a model of extreme efficiency. By bringing in the most advanced technological machinery and practices, he also transforms the work that the miners perform. They become hyper-productive and intently focused on their labor as a collective effort, which brings increased productivity and wealth - to Crich's pockets at least. Gerald’s desire to master the “matter” of the earth symbolizes the modern goal of sublimating and liberating humanity through work. Ultimately, Lawrence’s novel is critical of this perspective, because it denies the centrality of creative life and those passionate, spirited expressions of the human soul that cannot be reduced to labor.
Life and Art
Women in Love presents different perspectives on the relationship between life and art. Birkin especially finds an essential connection of truth between the two. At Julius Halliday’s house, Gerald ponders an African carving of a woman giving birth, and asks Birkin what he thinks of it. Brikin tells Gerald it is real “art,” and when Gerald asks why Birkin replies the piece "conveys a complete truth” and contains a pure sensual knowledge passed down for generations. For Birkin, art is best when it successfully communicates a core aspect of human life without attempting to detach from its physical basis. Birkin's view of art contrasts sharply with Gudrun’s. She believes, like Herr Loerke, that art and life must be strictly separate. When she discusses art with Loerke, she claims “life doesn’t really matter – it is one’s art which is central.” For Gudrun, art is a supreme reality, and life can never be completely whole or true. She believes that art elevates one’s being above the muck of life, making it the purest form of human expression in its ideal state. Gudrun longs for forms of aesthetic experience and expression above all things – instances of freedom and autonomy from the physical limitations of life itself.
Environment and Psychology
In Women in Love, the environment or setting often communicates characters’ inner psychological attitudes. Perhaps the most notable is the extravagant water-party hosted by the Crich family, which presents a microcosm of the social world and its hierarchical class structure. Most who attend the party fit conventionally within this regimented ideal, as illustrated by their pleasant behavior and mannerisms as they sport, go boating, and eat and drink under the beneficence of Mr. Crich. But upon arriving at the party, the Brangwen sisters immediately want to escape this social fabrication, and their choice to go into the woods reflects their own independent spirits. Likewise, when Gerald and Birkin decide to wrestle, Gerald locks them up in a closed room, and tells his servant not to disturb them for the rest of the evening. Their private jiu-jitsu match is like their repressed erotic struggle – they attempt to keep it sealed off and locked away from public view. Near the novel’s conclusion, the extreme coldness that develops between Gudrun and Gerald at Innsbruck is constantly being aligned with the wintry and harsh environment. Ursula even tells Birkin that the snowy cold has frozen her inner being, and so she wishes to escape and leave Innsbruck behind. This theme culminates in Gerald’s death by exposure to the elements, and Birkin’s feelings of being frozen to his core as he watches over his beloved Gerald’s frozen body.
Women in Love Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Women in Love is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Triangles of desire are everywhere in Lawrence’s novel, suggesting that human desire circulates in part by seeing and imitating the desire that another person displays. Gerald loves Birkin, but sees him desiring Ursula, which contributes to Gerald...
This is such a complex book that extends beyond relations between women and men. Still it is a major theme. Women in Love starts with two sisters, Ursula and Gudrun. Both of them are extremely modern ladies, but with really old-fashioned names....