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Women in Love | Context


Genre and Style of Women in Love

D.H. Lawrence was a literary innovator. His reconfiguration of traditional conventions of genre and style is reflected in the structure, technique, and subject matter in Women in Love.

The Novel of Marriage

The plot of Women in Love concerns the courtships and resultant marriages or partnerships of two couples. This approach places the text in a literary tradition where the movement toward marriage guides the plot. This design is evident in the works of writers such as English playwright William Shakespeare (1564–1616), who portrayed courtship and marriage in a conventional manner based on class and romantic love. The traditional courtship or marriage plot was further developed in the 18th- and 19th-century novels of English writers such as Jane Austen (1775–1817), who departed from convention by considering economic and social issues as factors that influenced courtship and marriage.

Lawrence further develops the courtship or marriage plot as the characters of Women in Love reject the idea of traditional marriage entirely. They consider the problem of relationships from a philosophical rather than practical point of view. He undermines the marriage-plot tradition through his portrayal of the relationship between Gerald Crich and Rupert Birkin. He also elevates the idea of a homosexual romance to the same level as heterosexual romance. Lawrence's subversive treatment of courtship and romance in the novel are part of his overarching theme. He aims not merely to critique society but to suggest society is so rotten it ought to be discarded and reinvented entirely.

Realism and Symbolism

Lawrence's work shares characteristics with the realism of 19th-century authors such as Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. Their goal was the accurate portrayal of reality. The plot and premises of Women in Love keep with the style of realism. They are grounded in actual historical and social context and do not require the reader to suspend disbelief.

However, Lawrence departs from the conventions of realism by infusing these realistic elements with complicated symbolic meaning. He also portrays characters as unstable rather than fixed. Situated in the real world, the characters respond not just to external conditions but also to motivations, feelings, and experiences rooted in their subconscious. In Chapter 8 Rupert Birkin describes how drawing a picture of geese helps him experience at a visceral level what it is like to be a goose. The idea Rupert has access to a kind of knowledge she is incapable of because it transcends intellectual comprehension is so threatening to Hermione Roddice, who lives entirely in her intellect, she undergoes a kind of break with normal reality: "She strayed out, pallid and preyed-upon like a ghost, like one attacked by the tomb-influences which dog us."

The emphasis on the subconscious points to the influence of the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). He popularized the idea much of human behavior was the result of processes and perceptions that existed below the level of conscious awareness. To put this in other terms, human behavior is the symbolic representation of deeper, hidden causes that cannot be directly understood through external observations. In a Freudian light, symptoms of mental illness as well as other tendencies in thought and action could be explained by forces that existed below the level of conscious awareness and were expressed in terms of behaviors or convictions that seemed to have little explanation or sense.

By allowing his characters' subconscious to play parts in the novel's plot, Lawrence introduces a symbolic structure to the novel. This is a departure from the cause-and-effect structure of realist works. The movement from the Midlands of England to the Austrian mountains is realistic but ultimately controlled by the symbolism of the white, northern "ice-destruction." This is associated with Gerald Crich's character and by Crich's inescapable tie with death, which Lawrence suggests drives much of Crich's behavior, including his eventual seeking of death in the icy mountains of Austria. The idea humans possess a drive to live and love, as well as an associated drive toward death, has its roots in Greek mythology, which personified the love instinct in the goddess Eros and the death instinct in the god Thanatos. Before Freud embraced this idea as significant to human psychology in his 1920 essay "Beyond the Pleasure Principle," the concept appeared in the works of many philosophers and poets with which Lawrence would have been familiar.


These and other innovations reflect the fact Women in Love is a work of modernist literature. Modernism refers to a cultural, artistic, and literary movement that occurred in Europe during the first three decades of the 20th century. Artistic expression took on new forms as a result of modernism's foundational principle European civilization needed reinventing, having degraded morally, spiritually, and culturally. Rapid technological innovation and the reorganization of society to fit the needs of industrial efficiency, along with the rejection of God as the source of meaning, had destabilized the ideological foundations of society and made cultural and artistic norms seem like superficial pretenses that were largely meaningless. Modernist writers such as Lawrence expressed this sense of degradation in their work. They made it their project to find and express a new way of being that was not corrupt and inauthentic. In his foreword to Women in Love, Lawrence explicitly states the novel is the record of his own attempt to come to such an understanding.

In Women in Love Rupert Birkin is the character who most closely embodies the modernist agenda. Rupert rejects authority and tradition. He attempts to forge a new understanding of the world and to spread that new understanding among the people close to him. However, Rupert is plagued by anxiety, a sense of meaninglessness, fear, and hatred—internal states all four of the novel's protagonists experience. Lawrence connects these emotional states and the actions that arise from them as responses to the conditions of British society around the time of World War I (1914–18). The aristocratic landowning class that had controlled the economy as well as cultural norms had suffered a loss of power, both economic and cultural, as a result of industrialization coupled with an agricultural depression. Society was deeply divided between the dying class of the agricultural elite, who attempted to maintain their position by clinging to old ideas, and the mass of the working poor, who suffered awful labor conditions and shocking poverty in the new industrial workplaces. Meanwhile, the reorganization of imperial power in Europe and the subsequent rise of nationalism had created a precarious political situation that threatened to plunge the world into a war that would no doubt set a new standard of horror thanks to the availability of new technologies. The characters' various reactions to the social and internal crisis illustrate the complexity and difficulty of the modernist project. An example is the identity crisis Gerald Crich undergoes after having reorganized his father's coal-mining business to reach peak efficiency in the new industrial capitalist model. Gerald's business runs so smoothly he is no longer needed, and his sense of uselessness becomes a despairing sense of the meaninglessness of life. At the same time, his workers, whose standard of living has declined under the new system, paradoxically embrace the system even as it destroys them because it represents the triumph of human genius over the forces of nature.


Modernism as an artistic and literary movement is a response to the perceived cultural and moral vacuum of modernity. The term modernity expresses the idea that during the early years of the 20th century, traditional values and lifestyles receded as humans began to experience themselves and the world in an entirely new way. A new type of experience arose from the social reorganization caused by the technological developments that had begun in the 18th and 19th centuries during the Industrial Revolution. At that time technologies allowing for the automation of manufacturing processes were developed. New industries arose to supply the raw materials these processes used. Social power shifted from religious institutions and the old landholding aristocracy—represented in Lawrence's novel by Hermione Roddice—to the new captains of industry and business. By the early 20th century, the unprecedented ability of humans to manipulate the environment had given rise to a new type of person. This modern individual was concerned with personal agency, or power, rather than conformity to traditional social or religious norms. The four protagonists in Women in Love are all examples of modern personhood.

The difference between modern and traditional individuals is illustrated in the novel by Thomas Crich and his son Gerald. Thomas Crich's capitalism is secondary to his religiously centered concern for the humanity and dignity of his workers. Gerald rejects this concern and makes efficiency his sole guiding value. Gerald views his mining operation as a machine. Because it is his personal will that ensures the smooth operation of the machine, he views himself as its god. The workers who are under him are not individuals with human dignity. They are parts in a machine that depends on human efficiency for its worth. In this way the new industrial capitalism causes a sense of alienation, or separation, from self and others. It can lead to a crisis of identity, as it does for Gerald Crich.

Edwardian England

Women in Love is set in England during the Edwardian era, named after the reign of King Edward VII, who was in power from 1901–10. The Edwardian era followed the Victorian era, a time when the British Empire and conservative social values flourished under the rule of Queen Victoria from 1837–1901. The general state of affairs that marked Edward's reign actually extended from around 1880 to the World War I years (1914–18). This period was known to the French both as fin de siècle (end of the century) and la belle epoque (the beautiful age). These terms encapsulated the simultaneous decadence, decline, optimism, and innovation that characterized those years. The supremacy of the British Empire was under threat from the newly united German Empire, which began building up its navy. Threats also came from the rise of nationalism in Europe, such as in Italy. These issues are alluded to and discussed by the characters in Women in Love. Winifred Crich's rabbit is named Bismarck, the name of the German chancellor who united the empire. Issues of nationalism and patriotism, specifically Italian nationalism, are the topic of conversation at various points in the novel.

In addition to declining power abroad, England experienced many domestic changes during the Edwardian era. The power of the aristocracy was eroded by an agricultural crisis. Many aristocrats were forced to sell their land, reducing their influence as conservative social tastemakers. The lower-class members who had once worked on farms sought work in the cities. They also moved to rural communities with industrial production, such as the mining town of Beldover in Women in Love. This movement began to disrupt the strict class divisions of the Victorian era, and issues such as labor rights came into the national consciousness. In Women in Love Gerald Crich is profoundly impressed by the wage dispute that led to the closing of the mines during his childhood. Nonetheless, staggering income disparity and poverty remained.

The strict gender roles of the Victorian era and the limits placed on women's access to education and professional life were challenged during this era. In addition debates occurred concerning biologically based arguments about male superiority. The term feminism became widely known in the 1890s. Around the turn of the century, various feminist groups agitated for the right to vote. These suffragettes were ridiculed by the media and sometimes imprisoned or otherwise persecuted. The widespread misogyny of Edwardian Britain and its increasing rejection by women is reflected in the novel. These attitudes are evident in Ursula Brangwen's challenge of the baseless assumption of male superiority and Rupert Birkin's comparison of women to horses.

In the late 19th century, Africa was being divided up and claimed by various European powers. The artistic and intellectual communities were crazy for all things African and "primitive." This trend is reflected in the novel through the West African carvings in Julius Halliday's apartment. It also occurs in Gerald Crich's language that pits the "savages" of Africa in opposition to the "civilized" peoples of Europe. Another example is Rupert Birkin's conception of the African sun-destruction that preceded the yet-to-come ice-destruction of the white races.

Writing and Reception of Women in Love

D.H. Lawrence published The Rainbow in 1915. As he notes in the foreword, Women in Love is "a potential sequel to The Rainbow." Women in Love is not a continuation of the same story as The Rainbow, which details the history of the Brangwen family from 1840 to 1905. However, the two books began as one manuscript entitled The Sisters.

Following the publication of The Rainbow in 1915, the text was found in court to be a violation of an 1857 obscenity law. The novel's eroticism, particularly its depiction of a lesbian relationship, was cited. Its anti-war stance was also deemed inappropriate, given the nation's involvement in World War I. The fact Lawrence had a German wife at a time when Germany was Britain's enemy also likely contributed to the suppression of his work. Copies of The Rainbow were burned, and publication was halted. This was a major personal and professional setback for Lawrence.

Lawrence had revised the other half of The Sisters's manuscript by 1917, producing the text of Women in Love. No British publisher was willing to take a chance on the novel, which languished until a small American publisher released it in 1920. The following year the novel was first published in Britain.

Many of the characters and settings in Women in Love are clearly based on Lawrence's circle of acquaintances and actual places. Critics have noted the character Rupert Birkin is based on Lawrence himself. Hermione Roddice and her estate, Breadalby, are drawn from the real-life Lady Ottoline Morrell, whose Garsington Manor was where intellectuals met and discussed their ideas.

The novel's initial reception was mixed. A review published in 1921 in the British paper The Guardian enthused, "at its best Women in Love is in a class apart from other novels." The review stressed that "No writer of today has such an electrically vivid power to imagine a scene as Mr. Lawrence." Yet in the same review, the book was criticized as "difficult to read" and lacking in momentum. The reviewer suggested the text would have been improved by the elimination of "redundant" and "almost caricatured" portions. In 1922 copies of Women in Love were seized and unsuccessfully prosecuted by the Society for the Suppression of Vice.

Throughout the decades, the critical tone toward Women in Love has shifted. Originally blasted for its "obscene" depiction of homosexuality and eroticism, the text has also been criticized as misogynist. However, the popularity of the work, as well as its recognition as a work of genius, has grown throughout the decades. A 1969 film adaptation was nominated for and won several awards, including an Academy Award for Glenda Jackson for Best Actress. The British Broadcasting Company adapted the novel for television in 2011. The novel continues to attract lively debate and the attention of literary critics.

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