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D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love:
Anti-Modernism in Literature, Part 4

[1]2,470 words

Part 4 of 4. Click here [2] for all four parts.

Gudrun Brangwen, the Modern Woman

Gerald Crich is only one half of Lawrence’s portrait of the “modern individual.” The other half is Gudrun Brangwen. Of course, Birkin and Ursula are modern individuals, though in a different sense. The latter couple are both seeking some fulfilling way to live in, or in spite of, the modern world. They (especially Birkin) have achieved some critical distance from it.

Gerald and Gudrun, however, are both creatures of modernity. Gerald has consciously embraced the modern rootless prometheanism; Gudrun unconsciously. Further, Gudrun is not simply a female version of Gerald. Her “modernity” consists in certain traits which complement those of Gerald. What complicates matters is that Ursula and Gudrun also represent, for Lawrence, the two halves of femininity, and not just modern femininity.

In the first chapter of the novel, Gudrun reacts with revulsion to one of the locals as she and Ursula walk through Beldover: “A sudden fierce anger swept over the girl, violent and murderous. She would have liked them all annihilated, cleared away, so that the world was left clear for her.” It is interesting to compare this with Birkin’s (and Lawrence’s) fantasies of annihilation. Birkin, the complete misanthrope, wants to wipe the earth clean of humanity, including himself, so that there is only “uninterrupted grass, and a hare sitting up.” In Gudrun’s fantasy, she is left sitting up and everyone else is wiped away.

This small detail gives us an important clue to Gudrun’s character, which is fundamentally egoistic. A thoroughgoing egoism is always nihilistic, for it wills that all limitation or opposition to the ego be cancelled. But even the mere existence of other human beings (or anything else, for that matter) constitutes a limitation on the ego.

Just as Lawrence does with Gerald, this “self-assertion” on Gudrun’s part is connected, by allusion, with Nietzsche. This time, however, the allusion is put into the mouth of the character herself in what seems on the surface like a purely innocent remark. Enjoying the snowy Tyrol, Gudrun exclaims, “Isn’t the snow wonderful! Do you notice how it exalts everything? It is simply marvellous. One really does feel übermenschlich—more than human.”

Like Gerald, Gudrun lives in a state of abstraction from the body and from nature. In sex she remains perfectly detached. Writing of the aftermath of Gudrun’s first sexual encounter with Gerald, Lawrence emphasizes again and again her full consciousness, while Gerald lays on top of her, asleep and satiated. He tells us “she lay fully conscious.” And: “Gudrun lay wide awake, destroyed into perfect consciousness.” And: “She was suspended in perfect consciousness—and of what was she conscious?” (He does not truly answer the question.)

Gudrun is revolted by the rhythms of nature and by natural objects—even though, ironically, it is small animals that she depicts in her sculpture (perhaps this is the only way she can encounter them, as things she molds and creates herself). Holding Winifred Crich’s pet rabbit Bismarck, who puts up quite a struggle, “Gudrun stood for a moment astounded by the thunderstorm that had sprung into being in her grip. Then her colour came up, a heavy rage came over her like a cloud. . . . Her heart was arrested with fury at the mindlessness and bestial stupidity of this struggle, her wrists were badly scored by the claws of the beast, a heavy cruelty welled up in her.”

The mechanical succession of day after day revolts her. Very early in the novel she confesses to Ursula, “I get no feeling whatever from the thought of bearing children.” She looks at Ursula, who is clearly flustered by this, with a “mask-like expressionless face.” When Ursula, intimidated by her sister, stammers out a reply, “A hardness came over Gudrun’s face. She did not want to be too definite.” This desire to remain indefinite is essential to Gudrun’s character.

In fact, the essence of Gudrun is nothingness. In the first chapter, Lawrence tells us “there was a terrible void, a lack, a deficiency of being within her.” In conversation with Gerald, Birkin describes her as a “restless bird,” and says that “She drops her art if anything else catches her. Her contrariness prevents her from taking it seriously—she must never be too serious, she feels she might give herself away. And she won’t give herself away—she’s always on the defensive. That’s what I can’t stand about her type.” Gudrun’s “type” is the modern individual who cannot stand to be tied to anything, who is in constant flux, wary of anything that would compel her to make a commitment, whether to a relationship or a career, or whatever. Plato in the Republic essentially winds up describing this modern type when he attempts to characterize the sort of character produced by a democracy:

“Then,” [said Socrates], “he also lives along day by day, gratifying the desire that occurs to him, at one time drinking and listening to the flute, at another downing water and reducing; now practicing gymnastic, and again idling and neglecting everything; and sometimes spending his time as though he were occupied with philosophy. Often he engages in politics and, jumping up, says and does whatever chances to come to him; and if he ever admires any soldiers, he turns in that direction; and if it’s money-makers, in that one. And there is neither order nor necessity in his life, but calling this life sweet, free, and blessed, he follows it throughout.”

“You have,” [said Adeimantus], “described exactly the life of a man attached to the law of equality.”

Near the end of the novel, Lawrence tells us of Gudrun:

Her tomorrow was perfectly vague before her. This was what gave her pleasure. . . . Anything might come to pass on the morrow. And to-day was the white, snowy iridescent threshold of all possibility. All possibility—that was the charm to her, the lovely, iridescent, indefinite charm—pure illusion. All possibility—because death was inevitable, and nothing was possible but death.

She did not want things to materialize, to take any definite shape. She wanted, suddenly, at one moment of the journey tomorrow, to be wafted into an utterly new course, by some utterly unforeseen event, or motion.

When Gudrun is asked the question wohin? (where to?) Lawrence tells us that “She never wanted it answered.”

The quintessential modern individual does not, in fact, want to be anything at all, for to be something definite would close off other possibilities. And so the modern individual is always oriented toward the future, which contains all possibilities, rather than toward the present. In this respect, Gudrun’s character perfectly complements Gerald’s. Gerald has completely abstracted himself from the present by regarding everything else as “Matter” to be transformed according to his will.

This is, again, what Heidegger tells us is the modern perspective on nature. Because everything is merely raw material to be made over into something else, nothing is ever regarded as possessing a fixed identity. The essence of everything, really, is to become something else, something better. The being of things is thus something projected into the future; something that will be revealed at a later date, through human ingenuity. The result of this treatment of things as raw material is that it produces individuals who live for the future: for what will be, and for what they will be. This is how “abstraction” from the present occurs. A key ingredient in this, of course, is a kind of radical subjectivism and anthropocentrism: the being of things is something that will be created by human beings.

The modern world is therefore a world of individuals who are, mentally, quite literally elsewhere. On the one hand they are disconnected from the nature world (which to them is essentially “stuff”) and from their own nature, which they erroneously believe is something they can decide on or even re-make. They are disconnected, in fact, from presentness in general.

At one point Lawrence reveals to us that Gudrun suffers from the nagging feeling that she is merely an “onlooker” in life whereas her sister is a “partaker.” Indeed she is an onlooker and this is the key to her weird “consciousness” in the sex act. Gerald is an onlooker too, hence the sense of unreality he experiences when looking at himself in the mirror. They are both creatures of the mind, of idealism, and of futurity.

And this is truly the heart of Lawrence’s critique of modernity: that we have lost touch with the sense of being a part of nature, and of being in our bodies, in present time. The ultimate result of such abstraction from nature, the body, and the present is the destruction of nature, of any possibility of inner peace and fulfillment, and of community.

Both Gerald and Gudrun are fundamentally destructive, nihilating individuals, but of the two Gudrun represents destruction in its purest form. Gerald destroys in order to transform and, as we saw earlier, he believes himself to be an agent of history and of social reform. (Or, at least, this is the moral veneer he paints over his activities.) With Gudrun, there is not such self-justification. Of course, ultimately Gerald’s transformation of Matter is perfectly destructive, and so one can plausibly claim that in a sense Gudrun is the more honest of the two, though she is not self-aware in her destructiveness.

Gudrun represents the inner truth of Gerald’s prometheanism laid bare. This point is conveyed through the structure of Lawrence’s novel itself. Gudrun is a presence throughout the entire book, but by the last few chapters the story becomes focused very much on her. And it is in the last few chapters that the pure nihilism of her character is brought to the fore. At the same time, Gerald, who had earlier been a relatively strong figure, is reduced to inefficacy and becomes almost a shadowy presence. His physical death comes, in way, as merely an outward expression of an internal death that had already taken place in his soul.

Gudrun and Loerke

What seems to immediately precipitate Gerald’s suicide is that Gudrun gives every indication of leaving him for an artist named Loerke who she has met in the Tyrol. Loerke, better than Gerald, personifies Jünger’s promethean modernism. Loerke is a sculptor who shares with Gudrun and Ursula his plans for a granite frieze for a huge factory in Cologne. Churches, he tells the two sisters are “museum stuff,” and since the world is now dominated by industry, not religion, art should come together with industry to make the modern factory into a new Parthenon:

“And do you think then,” said Gudrun, “that art should serve industry?”

“Art should interpret industry as art once interpreted religion,” he said. . . .

“But is there nothing but work—mechanical work?” said Gudrun.

“Nothing but work!” he repeated, leaning forward, his eyes two darknesses, with needle-points of light. “No, it is nothing but this, serving a machine, or enjoying the motion of a machine—motion, that is all. . . .”

Loerke exhibits the same destructive, modern will we find in Gerald and Gudrun, but come to full consciousness of itself. This is what attracts Gudrun to Loerke. She has realized that Gerald is weak—he possesses the destructive will, but cannot own up to it; he must hide it under his idealism. Loerke has embraced the Will to Power without illusion:

To Gudrun, there was in Loerke the rock bottom of all life. Everybody else had their illusion, must have their illusion, their before and after. But he, with a perfect stoicism, did without any before and after, dispensed with all illusion. He did not deceive himself in the last issue. In the last issue he cared about nothing, he was troubled about nothing, he made not the slightest attempt to be at one with anything. He existed a pure, unconnected will, stoical and momentaneous. There was only his work.

Birkin describes him a bit later as “a gnawing little negation, gnawing at the roots of life.” Loerke is completely detached from nature and from the body. His sexuality is indeterminate. Though he has a male lover, he is drawn to Ursula. But he tells her that it wouldn’t matter to him if she were one hundred years old: all that matters is her mind.

The Gudrun-Gerald relationship plays itself out, and reaches its tragic end, in the Alps. The choice of locations is significant. Attentive readers of Lawrence’s fiction will note that he tends to depict his characters as either “watery” or “fiery.” In Women in Love Birkin and Ursula are the fiery pair, contrasted to Gudrun and Gerald, who are watery. Gerald meets his end in the novel when he commits suicide by wandering off into the snow and freezing to death. For Lawrence, this act represents Gerald quite literally “returning to his element.” Though Gudrun and Ursula are bound together by blood, the deeper bond is between Gudrun and Gerald, and it is metaphysical. They are the two aspects of the modern soul: one productive without a purpose; the other destructive, nihilating.

Ursula’s Primacy

In a sense it is strange to argue as I did earlier that Women in Love represents the continuation of Ursula’s story. For one thing, the novel seems to focus more directly on the Birkin-Gerald relationship. Further, Gudrun is actually a more vivid character than Ursula. Nevertheless, I would still argue that Ursula is the central character. She is the most “natural” of any major character in the novel; the least in conflict with herself.

We are made to feel closer to Birkin, as he is transparently Lawrence’s self-portrait. But Birkin is “abstracted” from life in his own way. He berates Hermione for having everything in her head and lacking real sensuosity. Yet so much of Birkin is theory and talk. He wants some kind of total, transformative experience that would give him a real sense of being alive—yet he wants to hold onto his ego boundaries. He wants love, but then again he doesn’t. He wants to give himself to Ursula, but not totally. Admirers of Lawrence the man often miss the rather obvious flaws in Birkin’s character, and are thus oblivious to how Lawrence may have achieved a critical distance from Birkin (and from himself).

In the end, Birkin’s “problems” are in large measure solved by the oldest means in the world: the force of natural love, and the institution of marriage. Up to a point (but only up to a point) Birkin simply surrenders his abstract ideas about relationships—about finding something “more” than love—and surrenders to Ursula. Ursula knows from deep within herself, the falsity of Birkin’s ideals. Through her he comes to know what Lawrence would call “the sweetness of accomplished marriage.” There is only one part of him that remains unfulfilled. But that is a subject for another essay . . .