D. H. Lawrence, The Rainbow

The RainbowThe Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

You can’t read The Rainbow with a pencil in hand. You can’t highlight sentences on paper or onscreen. There’s just too much of it, and it’s constantly in motion.

I took a creative writing class in high school. The teacher told us to write about an experience. The next day we had to go around the circle and read what we’d written aloud. The class-clown stoner, amid much giggling, read out some stream-of-consciousness gibberish. He had fallen into the kind of displaced stern-mother-and-wayward-son relation to the instructor that is one of the possible high-school teacher-student bonds, so Ms. K. scolded him that he had not written about an experience. “It’s an ongoing experience,” he backtalked. It would have been a good defense—in theory, it’s a great defense—if what he’d written had been any good. It’s also the motto of modernism. It’s also what Lawrence’s 1915 novel The Rainbow is: an ongoing experience, in service to a new vision of life, love, sex, and the universe. The book just keeps coming at you in a torrent of language, all sorts of language, though not in the montage Ulysses style, just an aggressive fusion of the naturalistic, the Biblical, and the psychological. Critics like to quote more than one letter in which Lawrence described the novel as written in a foreign language or as something he found himself translating, which is why much of it is, at least to me, so blurred. For all the experience, there aren’t enough images, not enough real scenes.

In one of the most vivid scenes there is, the novel’s heroine Ursula, stuck in a bad teaching job in a working-class school near a colliery, finally overcomes her totally ineffective proto-progressive-education ideals about relating personally to the students and takes command of her out-of-control classroom by savagely beating the class clown:

And she loathed him, the hideous writhing thing that was nearly too much for her. In horror lest he should overcome her, and yet at the heart quite calm, she brought down the cane again and again, whilst he struggled making inarticulate noises, and lunging vicious kicks at her. With one hand she managed to hold him, and now and then the cane came down on him. He writhed, like a mad thing. But the pain of the strokes cut through his writhing, vicious, coward’s courage, bit deeper, till at last, with a long whimper that became a yell, he went limp. She let him go, and he rushed at her, his teeth and eyes glinting. There was a second of agonized terror in her heart: he was a beast thing. Then she caught him, and the cane came down on him. A few times, madly, in a frenzy, he lunged and writhed, to kick her. But again the cane broke him, he sank with a howling yell on the floor, and like a beaten beast lay there yelling.

Here is Lawrence’s genius at its awful height: a refusal to shy from reality, no matter how much we’d rather not talk about it or own up to how we feel about it. And unlike other modernist writers from Flaubert to Conrad to Joyce to Hemingway, he refuses to search fussily to the ends of the language for le mot juste. Instead, he produces a prose of primal intensity, blundering force, strong in its very clumsiness, its indifference to the Jamesian niceties of point-of-view, its will to repetition and incantation, its openness to the vernacular, its unembarrassed immoderate love of adjective and adverb. No less than the exact notation of physical surfaces in precise language that prevails in books like Madame Bovary and Dubliners, Lawrence’s immersion in emotional tides, where the occasional vagueness of the language signals the intense vagary of the experience, is drawing from life. (See Paul Delany’s informative essay on the quarrel between Joyce and Lawrence over realism, religion, and sexuality.) More even than most of his modernist peers—Woolf is perhaps the major exception—Lawrence at his best writes the literature of ongoing experience.

The Rainbow picks up where the last major novel in his corpus, Sons and Lovers (1913), left off. That novel, as I wrote, begins as a naturalist, social-realist chronicle of a sensitive young artist’s emergence from a working-class family (and a fierce oedipal tie to his mother) in England’s coal country. By the long book’s ending, however, Lawrence moves away from the sharply-observed 19th-century realist style of description-scene-dialogue for a more analytic and poetic tracking of his hero’s psychic states. Sons and Lovers is an unusually alive novel, metamorphosing from one kind of book to another under our very eyes. The Rainbow is similar, but begins in still another place. This time, the opening genre is epic, Biblical, summing his characters as giants bestriding wild nature:

Then the men sat by the fire in the house where the women moved about with surety, and the limbs and the body of the men were impregnated with the day, cattle and earth and vegetation and the sky, the men sat by the fire and their brains were inert, as their blood flowed heavy with the accumulation from the living day.

The women were different. On them too was the drowse of blood-intimacy, calves sucking and hens running together in droves, and young geese palpitating in the hand while the food was pushed down their throttle. But the women looked out from the heated, blind intercourse of farm-life, to the spoken world beyond. They were aware of the lips and the mind of the world speaking and giving utterance, they heard the sound in the distance, and they strained to listen.

Opening in this epic grand style, with female knowledge of a coming social change and a desire to meet it with their own resources, Lawrence proceeds to chronicle three generations of the Brangwen family’s women from the 1840s to the 1900s—in historical terms, from the opening of the Industrial Age (signaled in the novel by the building of a canal across the Brangwens’ farm) to the early-20th-century period of working-class and feminist emancipation.

I suspect Lawrence was influenced here by two of English literature’s most celebrated outsider artists, Emily Brontë and William Blake. Just as Brontë used an impassioned, erotic family saga to chronicle the ambiguous decline of rural England from wilderness to respectability, so Lawrence takes up the story where she left it in the 1840s and gives us England’s fall into industrialism, a mechanical civilization more and more suffocated by calculating mental activity, offset only by equally false and mechanical solutions by the opening of the 20th century. And just as Blake rewrote the Hebrew Bible in an 18th-century London he reimagined as timeless Jerusalem, this to protest the Enlightenment in the name of vision and free love, so Lawrence elevates his personae to near-mythical status and chronicles their travails in work and love as if they were material for a new testament. But Brontë seamlessly occupies both her novel’s ontological levels, the real and the mythic, whereas The Rainbow, to my mind, lacks this clarity. It therefore, like the later work of Blake, often threatens to become a merely private myth.

I found the novel’s characters and situations difficult to keep straight amid the pages and pages of psychological analysis. What stands out are the set-piece scenes and descriptions—like the classroom beating above—but they are fewer of these than the reader might want. The artist Will Brangwen’s work often moves Lawrence to memorable and symbolic ekphrasis, for example:

Will Brangwen worked at his wood-carving. It was a passion, a passion for him to have the chisel under his grip. Verily the passion of his heart lifted the fine bite of steel. He was carving, as he had always wanted, the Creation of Eve. It was a panel in low relief, for a church. Adam lay asleep as if suffering, and God, a dim, large figure, stooped towards him, stretching forward His unveiled hand; and Eve, a small vivid, naked female shape, was issuing like a flame towards the hand of God, from the torn side of Adam.

The struggle for female emancipation that will be the novel’s sociopolitical theme is here captured in primordial and scriptural grandeur, so that the work of art—in the appropriately rough and half-natural medium of wood-carving—becomes an analogue for the novel itself. Also memorably Biblical is Will’s wife, Anna, heavily laden with their first child Ursula, dancing alone in some primitive communion with the life force:

She liked the story of David, who danced before the Lord, and uncovered himself exultingly. […] Because he was in the house, she had to dance before her Creator in exemption from the man. On a Saturday afternoon, when she had a fire in the bedroom, again she took off her things and danced, lifting her knees and her hands in a slow, rhythmic exulting. He was in the house, so her pride was fiercer. She would dance his nullification, she would dance to her unseen Lord. She was exalted over him, before the Lord.

Lawrence is a Protestant post-Christian, a Nietzschean Puritan, a feminist misogynist, an individualist fascist: this need for the individual soul to stand alone and exalted before the Lord of Life, particularly a woman’s soul as society rises from its agricultural symbiosis with nature and its reproductive cycles: this is the meaning of the novel. Another concrete sequence: the antinomian Anna and the religious Will go to Lincoln Cathedral and quarrel over its merit:

But yet—yet she remembered that the open sky was no blue vault, no dark dome hung with many twinkling lamps, but a space where stars were wheeling in freedom, with freedom above them always higher.

This, too, like Will’s sculpture, is metafiction. Lawrence will build no cathedrals from words but seek what is beyond the roof of the social, of the psychological, even of aesthetic form itself. Lawrence goes down past the stable ego to the flux and reflux of feeling at the base of experience; he describes his characters over and over again as flames and flowers. His love scenes, which got The Rainbow put on trial for unpatriotic obscenity in England during the Great War, after which over 1000 copies of the book were seized and burned, read like descriptions of tectonic plates or shifting tides. In one of the most mesmerizing chapters, the family patriarch Tom Brangwen is swept away in a flood. The titular rainbow, like its Biblical precursor, heralds for both Anna and Ursula a new dawn after an apocalypse, a new world where all this intensity can live unhemmed by ugly industry and bourgeois mediocrity. Ursula Brangwen is the heroine of the novel’s second half or two thirds. From childhood, she is singular and set apart:

She never felt sorry for what she had done, she never forgave those who had made her guilty. If he had said to her, “Why, Ursula, did you trample my carefully-made bed?” that would have hurt her to the quick, and she would have done anything for him. But she was always tormented by the unreality of outside things. The earth was to walk on. Why must she avoid a certain patch, just because it was called a seed-bed? It was the earth to walk on. This was her instinctive assumption.

Here we remember that Lawrence is the Englishman who put the gnostic-individualist literature of American Romanticism on modernism’s map. Ursula might be the daughter of Hester Prynne and Captain Ahab, her adventures chronicled by a prose Whitman. Her emancipatory experiences amount to an anti-feminist feminist novel, an anti-New-Woman New Woman novel.

This heroine is not freed by the educational and economic opportunities newly available to women and the working class, but she ends up rejecting her mother’s life of marriage and endless childbearing as well: “Ursula was all for the ultimate. She was always in revolt against babies and muddled domesticity.” She has a lesbian relationship with a feminist teacher, but the teacher (“[s]he was proud and free as a man, yet exquisite as a woman”) ends up marrying her uncle Tom who runs a colliery. Here feminism, homosexuality, and capitalism converge for Ursula as a single image of corruption—the lesbian chapter is titled “Shame”—in which the old nature, to which we can never return, meets the new mechanism, which we must escape, both of them too far from “the ultimate.” She enters the “man’s world” of work and education, with the corrupting results in the school I quoted at the beginning of this essay.

The novel climaxes, so to speak, in a torrid affair and almost-marriage to a family friend—a descendent of her Polish grandmother’s acquaintance from the old country, the aristocrat Skrebensky—a military officer who served in Africa and wants to marry her and take her to India. (Alas, “He talked to her all the while, in low tones, about Africa, conveying something strange and sensual to her: the negro, with his loose, soft passion that could envelop one like a bath.”) He is a more ordinary character than her, one who respects the pieties of his civilization, but she sets him straight in passages of Nietzschean prophecy:

“What do you mean?” he asked her, hostile. “Why do you hate democracy?”

“Only the greedy and ugly people come to the top in a democracy,” she said, “because they’re the only people who will push themselves there. Only degenerate races are democratic.”

“What do you want then—an aristocracy?” he asked, secretly moved.


“I do want an aristocracy,” she cried. “And I’d far rather have an aristocracy of birth than of money. Who are the aristocrats now—who are chosen as the best to rule? Those who have money and the brains for money. It doesn’t matter what else they have: but they must have money-brains,—because they are ruling in the name of money.”

“The people elect the government,” he said.

“I know they do. But what are the people? Each one of them is a money-interest. I hate it, that anybody is my equal who has the same amount of money as I have. I know I am better than all of them. I hate them. They are not my equals. I hate equality on a money basis. It is the equality of dirt.”

On holiday, on a night when, curiously obsessed with the moon and the sea, Ursula sexually dominates Skrebensky, as her mother Anna had dominated Will, the relationship ends. (Lawrence calls her mother, as she calls herself, “Anna Victrix.”) The affair’s remnant, Ursula’s illicit pregnancy, is washed away in a vaguely-evoked miscarriage when she encounters a menacing group of horses in a field whose symbolic potency brings on a fever. The novel ends with a further exaltation of her individual will-to-power nakedly confronting a new and post-apocalyptic world:

She saw in the rainbow the earth’s new architecture, the old, brittle corruption of houses and factories swept away, the world built up in a living fabric of Truth, fitting to the over-arching heaven.

Its sequel, Women in Love, often considered Lawrence’s best novel, awaits.

“Why should one remember the things one read?” Ursula asks herself when impatient with her university education. Lawrence makes it easy to forget. As a novelist, he wanted to dissolve the solid characters of traditional realism, to write about states, energies, affects. This is why I could never remember what happened from page to page or keep all the personae straight as I read The Rainbow. This is why, too, Lawrence is perhaps not the great novelist 20th-century critics thought him to be, but a great writer of poems, stories, essays—briefer forms better able to convey his vitalism without betraying it into pattern or boring and befuddling the reader with an extremism carried to point of numbness.

As for his politics, the case is equally mixed. In the introduction to the old Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition, Anne Fernihough usefully puts him in the English and German turn-of-the-century contexts of millenarianism, feminism, socialism, Nietzscheanism, and egoist anarchism. Amid all this ideological chaos, Lawrence knots himself into paradoxes, patently nostalgic for the pre-industrial rural commune even as he extols a hard futurist individualism, contemptuous of feminism and socialism and democracy for the abstract ideological schemata they impose on individuals and communities, yet tenderly sympathetic to the lives of women and himself emergent from a working-class milieu he describes with authoritative compassion. That this all finally resolves itself into the novel’s absolutist near-fascism, albeit a somewhat feminist fascism not unknown to female writers of the period from Olive Schreiner to Mina Loy, is unfortunate from our point of view.

And yet. As I think I’ve observed before in these electronic pages, academics are bureaucrats, so they naturally disparage the libertarian and anarchist tendencies of non-academic writers and artists; and such writers and artists give such scholars plenty of material for rebuke, especially when they turn amateur political philosopher and start sounding like Mussolini. But Lawrence, skeptic of feminism though he is, is close to the Woolf of A Room of One’s Own who treasured women’s imaginative emancipation and a unique feminine sentence over the merely political expedient of female suffrage. Despite the time I myself spent in academia, I, for better and for worse, take seriously Nietzsche, Lawrence, and Woolf’s implicit or explicit doubts about socialism and feminism—about political solutions that, with their faith in the all-embracing state and their reliance on all-embracing technology, too often redouble the problem of alienation they were meant to solve.

But I am wary of Lawrence’s political apocalypse too, preferring the nonviolent and imaginative remediation provided by art. And for this reason, though I respect the often enervating experience he put me through in The Rainbow, and don’t underestimate the repression such a novel vision had to overcome in the England of 1915, I still wish he himself had paid more attention to the world’s old architecture: those schoolrooms and cathedrals we remember when “the ultimate,” whatever that may be when it’s discarnate, fades from our memory.



  1. Okay. I’ll re-read it after seeing this. Could you please do James’ Wings of the Dove if you haven’t already? I am at sea with it…

    • Thanks! As far as impossible-to-read late James, I wrote about The Ambassadors a few months ago but not Wings unfortunately. I should reread it, since I’m sure it went over my head the first time.

      • It’s going WAY over my head. I loved Ambassadors and Portrait of a Lady; struggled through The Golden Bowl and am at my wit’s end with Wings of the Dove but determined to get through it – would be a bonus to see your take on it!

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