Women in Love | Study Guide

D.H. Lawrence

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Women in Love | Chapter 1 : Sisters | Summary

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Summary

Narrated in the past tense by a third-person omniscient narrator, Women in Love takes place around the time of World War I (1914–18). The novel begins in Beldover, a small coal-mining town in the Midlands (central part) of England. The first scene describes a conversation between the Brangwen sisters that takes place in their father's home in Beldover. Ursula Brangwen, 26, is a teacher at the local Willey Green Parish School. Introverted and thoughtful, Ursula lives much of her life inside her head. Continually struggling to find understanding and meaning by examining her limited external experience, Ursula feels she is on the brink of a major breakthrough. Gudrun Brangwen, 25, is an art teacher at the same school. She has recently returned to Beldover after spending several years living among artists in London. Ursula, who is sincere and inward, adores Gudrun, who is beautiful and given to contrasting statements.

The sisters, both unmarried, discuss marriage. Although she does not share Ursula's desire to one day have children, Gudrun sees marriage as an adventure. It could potentially remedy her frustration and boredom with life. "Nothing materializes! Everything withers in the bud," Gudrun complains. Ursula points out marriage, far from a certain solution to boredom, is "more likely the end of experience." The sisters agree it is impossible to imagine a life married to "any man one knows." Ursula asks Gudrun why she came back to Beldover, a coarse, shabby town with little to offer them. Gudrun replies her homecoming was an act of "reculer pour mieux sauter." This is a French expression meaning "to run back in order to make a better jump forward." The conversation leaves both sisters feeling "confronted by a void, a terrifying chasm as if they had looked over the edge."

To push these thoughts aside, the sisters decide to attend the wedding of one of the daughters of Thomas Crich, a wealthy Beldover mine owner. As they walk by "a patch of common-garden, where sooty cabbage stumps stood shameless," Gudrun describes her impression of Beldover. She says, "The people are all ghouls, and everything is a ghoulish replica of the real world ... all soiled, everything sordid. It's like being mad." They walk over the hill into "the purer country" of Willey Green and watch the wedding party assemble at the church.

Gudrun finds herself startled by the intensity of her attraction to Gerald Crich, the eldest Crich son, when he arrives with his mother. Drawn in by "something northern about him that magnetized her," she tells herself "his totem is the wolf." Gudrun becomes lost in her thoughts. She wonders, "Am I really singled out for him in some way, is there really some pale gold, arctic light that envelops only us two?" Ursula finds herself fascinated by Rupert Birkin when he arrives tardily with the groom. He is a school inspector whom she has met before. Ursula feels she and Rupert share an understanding of some kind, despite his air of distance. Gudrun tells Ursula Rupert, though attractive, is not trustworthy because he lacks discernment. Rupert's "nature was clever and separate, yet ... he affected to be quite ordinary, perfectly and marvelously commonplace," in order to "disarm" others from "attacking his singleness."

Hermione Roddice, a bridesmaid and a friend of the Crich family, arrives. Roddice is an imposing woman. She is an aristocratic intellectual who attempts to fill her inner emptiness through her fixation on Rupert Rupert, which he tolerates but does not return her affections.

When the bridegroom arrives, the bride, Gerald Crich's sister Laura, spontaneously instigates a race to the church door. The Brangwen sisters wait outside. Each is absorbed in their contemplation of the man who has caught their eye until their father's organ playing marks the end of the wedding. The marriage ceremony concludes, and the wedding party exits.

Analysis

The first chapter sets the stage for the novel's continuous examination of love and marriage. Lawrence appropriately uses a wedding to draw the five main characters into the single space that allows them to react to one another. They also react to the same event, thereby revealing fundamentals of their personality.

Lawrence frequently uses the literary device of juxtaposition between elements that oppose or undermine one another to emphasize thematic elements and create meaning. In this first chapter, the Brangwen sisters' uncertainty about marriage gives way to terror the more they discuss it. Lawrence then juxtaposes this fear-inducing discussion with an actual wedding. The girls choose to attend it in order to beat down the dread they feel inside about the prospect of their own marriage. Ursula and Gudrun have just agreed marriage, whatever its philosophical implications, is an impossible proposition. This is the case because marriage must involve a man. They recoil from the thought of living with any man they have ever known. But at the wedding moments later, this distaste for men is replaced by a compelling urge toward two men. This juxtaposition suggests a philosophical stance on marriage is easily overridden by emotional desire.

The five main characters also foil one another, representing dissimilar points of view, social positions, and tendencies. Lawrence presents middle-class Gudrun and Ursula as representing opposing modes of living. Ursula seeks to understand internally before acting, and Gudrun prefers to gain her understanding as a result of her actions. Aristocratic Hermione represents a third mode, which eschews deep understanding of herself and her position in exchange for a shallow fixation on culture and ideas. She displaces her own quest for understanding onto another person, Rupert Birkin. He is her center, and she allows their relationship to dictate her experience and emotions.

The two male protagonists, Gerald and Rupert, are here presented through the lens of the women's perception. Hermione sees Rupert as something that must be possessed. Ursula sees in him a potential for a deeper relationship based on shared understanding but makes no definite conclusions. Gudrun experiences Gerald's violence physically, as a "strange transport took possession of her [and] all her veins were in a paroxysm of violent sensation." She is left with a sense of a shared fate with Gerald, which is connected to the arctic, or northern, quality he radiates. The wedding plays in the background like part of the stage rather than the action itself. The juxtaposition of the reactions of the women to the men emphasizes the complexity of relationships and the inadequacy of traditional marriage to address this complexity. Finally, the social milieu of the novel is emphasized through the juxtaposition between the sordid, ghoulish Beldover and fresh Willey Green just over the hill. These elements are the roots of the novel, and Lawrence will continue to develop, shift, and undermine them throughout the text.

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