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Water and Insularity as Structural Elements in D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow and Women in Love

Peter Fjågesund


The article argues that the element of water (supplemented by the presence of islands and an island existence) serves as a wide-ranging and thus typically modernist leitmotif in the duology The Rainbow and Women in Love, taking its ultimate inspiration from the story of the Flood in Genesis. This, in turn, establishes a closer structural connection between the two works than is usually recognised. However, whereas in The Rainbow this motif remains throughout within an organic, meaningful, and ultimately constructive context, it is transformed in Women in Love into an almost exclusively destructive force, closely connected with the writer’s apocalyptic sentiments about the War. To some extent, the Flood or Deluge motif could be seen as a symbolic substitute, on a universal level, for the conspicuous absence of the War in the latter novel, that is as a threat of universal extinction. At the same time, the motif is also applicable to the individual lives of the characters and their needs for the death of an old self and the resurrection of a new one. In Women in Love Gerald Crich, in particular, personifies these destructive forces, both as an individual and as a representative of a larger system. Despite being confined almost exclusively to inland settings, this novel also explores ideas of escape, crossings, islands and insularity.

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  • 1 L ii. 266. For a survey of the Rananim project, see Fjågesund 1991, 61-67.

1For the duration of the War, Lawrence was essentially marooned, more or less like a prisoner, on his native island, Great Britain. He hardly regarded it as his home anymore, and his life throughout the entire War period is characterised by an insistent urge to escape, to literally sail away from a world he perceived in apocalyptic terms as lost and doomed, to find a new reality and a new footing. This dream was encapsulated in his vision of Rananim, which he initially also perceived as an island.1

  • 2 See for instance Bell 110-17.

2It was during this crucial period that he wrote his two greatest novels, The Rainbow and Women in Love, and it is perhaps not surprising, against this background, that water, in a range of forms, plays a significant role in these works.2 The following is an attempt to trace how this use of water has a wide-ranging and multi-faceted symbolic function throughout the two novels, and how it serves as a leitmotif that underlines the profound connection between them, a connection often regarded as rather tenuous. Water, it seems, permeates Lawrence’s entire vision of the period, and as a modernist he knows how to allow it the leeway it needs, in order to be both symbolically diverse and narratively effective. The main focus here will be on Women in Love, but for obvious reasons of chronology and coherence, The Rainbow will be discussed by way of introduction.

3The water symbolism of The Rainbow does not immediately strike the twenty-first-century reader as particularly modern or radically innovative. The book’s title as well as the majestic account in the concluding paragraphs evoking the rainbow itself as a symbol of hope and new beginnings, has a direct reference to the Old Testament story of Noah and the Flood, which is presented in some detail and with plenty of quotations from Genesis in the chapter “First Love.” Here the young Ursula, sitting next to her lover Anton Skrebensky in church, listens to the Sunday sermon, reads from the original text, and reflects in a childish, dreamy manner on the deluge (R 301-302). She is still firmly rooted in her parents’ and her grandparents’ rural utopia near Marsh Farm, and she is still a creature of innocence, but the world is coming gradually closer, notably in the form of her increasing intimacy with Skrebensky and her own development into womanhood. Perhaps it is no coincidence either that soon after Ursula and Skrebensky have listened to the story of the Flood and the destruction of the world, the young officer is called to duty, as “war was declared with the Boers in South Africa” (303). Thus, even here one can sense an echo of the fact that Lawrence was writing in the shadow of the Great War, which remains unmentioned either in The Rainbow or in Women in Love.

4Generally, however, The Rainbow does not contain many other incidents where water plays a significant role, except in the powerful description, in “The Marsh and the Flood” chapter, earlier still in the novel, of the drowning of Ursula’s grandfather, Tom Brangwen. Lawrence’s inclusion of this dramatic episode is hardly coincidental; it is clearly connected to the Biblical story mentioned above, but rather than try to account for it within the context of The Rainbow alone, it might be more rewarding to regard it as part of a unified structure that also comprises Women in Love. It will therefore be dealt with later. Perhaps there are also other elements in The Rainbow that make a more than coincidental reappearance in its sequel.

  • 3 In “The Crown,” from the same period, Lawrence includes a whole chapter with the title “The Flux of (...)

5Except for the brief crossing of the English Channel in the chapter “Continental,” the action of Women in Love takes place in the English countryside and in the Alps, that is in an inland environment, and a cursory reading of the novel will hardly leave the reader with the impression of having read a tale of nautical adventure. A closer reading, however, will reveal a constant presence of water and water-related scenes and imagery in the novel. Thus, it is hardly a coincidence that Birkin, in the grip of this apocalyptic sentiment, makes use of terminology and imagery that establish a relatively explicit link to the central motifs of The Rainbow. In one of his first discussions with Ursula, she challenges him about how he can have knowledge “not in [his] head.” “‘In the blood,’ he answered; ‘when the mind and the known world is drowned in darkness. – Everything must go – there must be the deluge’” (WL 43). Throughout the entire chapter, he preaches the necessity of the end of the world, the letting go of everything, in order to make a new start possible, and he keeps returning to an imagery of destructive water, to the “river of darkness,” “the black river,” “the dark river of dissolution,” “the black river of corruption,” “the flood of destructive creation,” (172) etc., so frequently that the reader almost comes to expect these images of death by water as soon as Birkin opens his mouth.3

6This flood motif is pervasive throughout the novel. First of all, Willey Water and the pond above it have an almost structural function in the narrative. They appear in chapter 4, (“Diver”), chapter 10 (“Sketch-Book”), chapter 11 (“An Island”), chapter 14 (“Water-Party”), and in chapter 19 (“Moony”).

7“Diver” introduces the reader to the first significant encounter between Gudrun and Gerald, which also features the first of altogether three dives that he performs in the novel. Gudrun, fascinated by the view “stood motionless gazing over the water at the face which washed up and down on the flood, as he swam steadily” (47). The second dive takes place in chapter 8, “Breadalby,” and the third in “Water-Party.” In all three instances, Gerald is given what are rather explicitly ghost-like features: he is described, respectively, as “a white figure” (46) in “Diver,” as “a white natural shadow” (101) in “Breadalby” and as being “white like a presence” in “Water-Party” (171). These may be perceived as rather insistent on Lawrence’s part, but rereading the book, the reader will gradually realise the degree to which Gerald, from the very beginning, is doomed and therefore logically is a carrier of these spectral features. As will become clear from the following, there is also reason to see Gerald and Gudrun as the main protagonists of the novel rather than Birkin and Ursula. This also underlines another similarity between the two novels: Gerald is in many ways a continuation of the Skrebensky character in The Rainbow and just as Ursula destroys Skrebensky’s manhood in the earlier novel, Gudrun destroys Gerald’s in the sequel.

8In “Sketch-Book,” where Gerald and Hermione lose Gudrun’s sketch-book in the water, Gudrun has rather conspicuously been sketching water lilies, while Ursula has been sketching butterflies. In line with the central imagery of the “cold, stagnant mud and stagnant water” and the “lotus mystery” of “The Crown,” (RDP 289, 293), which again is linked to the “gas clouds that may lacerate and reduce the lungs to a heaving mass” (289), Gudrun was “staring fixedly at the water-plants that rose succulent from the mud of the low shores. What she could see was mud, soft, oozy, watery mud, and from its festering chill, water plants rose up […]” (WL 119). This brief encounter between her and Gerald also “established” their “diabolic freemasonry,” (122) which, as will be shown, is taken one step further in “Water-Party.”

9“An Island” does not take place at Willey Water itself, but rather at the “mill-pond above” (123), where Ursula finds Birkin at work, caulking his frail little punt to make it water-tight. It is hardly far-fetched to read this episode as alluding rather explicitly to the story of Noah and the Flood. Throughout the chapter, Birkin describes the world and humanity in much the same way that God Himself prepares Noah for the Deluge. Using Lawrence’s own imagery from “The Crown,” Birkin claims that “[h]umanity itself is dry-rotten […],” people “are apples of Sodom, as a matter of fact, Dead Sea fruit, gall-apples” etc. (126). He wishes that humanity were “swept away. It could go, and there would be no absolute loss, if every human being perished tomorrow” (127). Even though he does not explicitly use imagery related to the Flood, his message runs very much along such lines, and his and Ursula’s tentative little test-run to the island turns their hesitant vessel into a little ark, as if they were the only survivors. Birkin’s launching of the daisies on the water, where they drift off like tiny specks of hope, points in the same direction.

  • 4 Lawrence was, not surprisingly, already familiar with both these works. There is also a direct refe (...)

10These are only initial intimations, however, of the more explicit use of the Flood motif in the chapter “Water-Party.” Here Willey Water plays a central role and provides the stage for bringing Gerald’s and Gudrun’s “diabolic freemasonry” into the centre of the story. The chapter repeats the island motif from “An Island,” with Gudrun and Ursula escaping from the party in the little rowing boat. Their excursion to this “little wild world of their own” (165), their celebration of freedom and their bathing naked are together features that give a strong hint of a utopian island existence, just like Birkin’s and Ursula’s little voyage in the earlier chapter. In both of these chapters, many readers would probably also sense, especially in the descriptions of going ashore on the island, an allusion to the two great island novels in British literature, namely Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island, both of which must have been very much on Lawrence’s mind during these claustrophobic years of island captivity and his dreams of Rananim.4

11But the idyll does not last. With Gudrun’s provocative and hypnotising Dalcroze dance in front of the bullocks and the arrival of Birkin and Gerald, Gudrun has already thrown down the gauntlet against male dominance, and Gerald is powerless but doomed to take it up. In trying to restrain her wildness, he receives the first demonstration of superior female power in the form of “a blow on the face with the back of her hand” (170), with a promise that “‘[…] I shall strike the last’” (171); and a rather absurd claim that “‘It’s you who make me behave like this, you know’” (ibid.). And when she suddenly turns soft and asks him not to be angry with her, he – once again “white like a presence in his summer clothes” – fatally answers: “‘I’m not angry with you. I’m in love with you’” (ibid.).

  • 5 It is also a foreshadowing of the scene at the beginning of “Snowed Up,” which will be discussed be (...)

12As suggested above, this scene is strangely reminiscent of the “First Love” chapter of The Rainbow, where under the brilliant moon and the stars Ursula triumphantly humiliates and essentially unmans Skrebensky in what appears to be a kiss of death.5 He is trying to “keep himself in the kiss,” but she “held him there, the victim, consumed, annihilated. She had triumphed: he was not any more” (R 299). Here in “Water-Party,” Gerald is in for the same treatment, and only minutes after the exchange above, the first disaster strikes, with Gerald’s sister Diana falling in the water and drowning together with the young doctor. Only minutes earlier, Birkin has been lecturing Ursula on “the flood of destructive creation,” and he adds: “Aphrodite is born in the first spasm of universal dissolution – then the snakes and swans and lotus – marsh-flowers – and Gudrun and Gerald – born in the process of destructive creation” (WL 172); thus adopting precisely the imagery from “Sketch-Book” and “The Crown.” This is probably Birkin’s harshest and most explicit characterization of his future sister-in-law and of his own friend. Also, during his desperate attempt to recover his sister, Gerald swims “like a water-rat,” while Gudrun, sitting in the canoe, is terrified by “[t]he terrible, massive, cold, boundless surface of the water” (181), as if she herself were threatened by the very watery element with which she is associated. Gerald, already a ghost-like character, who is the incarnation of the modern, industrialised world of progress, and ultimately of the war that is raging at the time, is also consistently associated with death by water. He himself comments how there is “a whole universe under there; and as cold as hell,” (184) and having given up the search for his sister, he admits how he has noticed all his life that “you can’t put a thing right, once it has gone wrong” (ibid.). Like the Flood, when God has made up his mind to send it, fate will run its course. It is as if Gerald already at this point realised that the game is over.

When the search is called off, Birkin is trusted with the task of opening the sluice.
Ursula comes with him, and
there came a loud splashing of water from out of the dark, tree-filled hollow beyond
the road, a splashing that deepened rapidly to a harsh roar, and then became a heavy,
booming noise of a great body of water falling solidly all the time. It occupied the
whole of the night, this great steady booming of water, everything was drowned within
it, drowned and lost. Ursula seemed to have to struggle for her life. She put her hands
over her ears, and looked at the high, bland moon. (185)

  • 6 Another parallel example in Lawrence is of course the flood in The Virgin and the Gipsy.
  • 7 Interestingly, according to the Appendix in the Cambridge edition of The First “Women in Love,” the (...)

13Thus, in The Rainbow as well as in Women in Love, there are death-bearing floods.6 In the former novel, Tom Brangwen has a smile of satisfaction on his face when he is caught by the flood. This death is surprisingly lacking in tragedy; it is almost as if the old farmer were embraced in the magical cycle of nature, where life and death are integral parts of the same organic and ultimately benevolent mystery. Somehow Tom Brangwen comes calmly to rest on the land to which he has dedicated his life; his death is not blind or meaningless; only an unfortunate and melancholy incident. In the latter novel, however, the deaths of Diana and the young doctor are omens of a greater and grimmer picture; they mark the beginning of a downward spiral that is driven by Gerald’s relentless mechanisation of the mines, described with terrifying precision in “The Industrial Magnate” chapter that follows soon after “Water-Party.” Significantly in this context, Willey Water forms a part of the great industrial system of which he is the master; it serves “as a reservoir to supply with water the distant mines, in case of necessity” (184).7 Like industrialisation generally, it is a trope of harnessed nature, made to serve man’s needs, just like Gerald’s mare, or Bismarck the rabbit. What Gerald has not realised, however, is that he has released forces that are beyond his control; that his apparent mastery is actually “the first great step in undoing, the first great phase of chaos […]” (231). He had created a system “so perfect that [he] was hardly necessary any more” (232); hence his hollowness and desperate need for Gudrun to fill his existential vacuum, which is a direct product of an activity that is generally taken to represent progress, but which in Lawrence’s scheme of things is on a par with the situation in Genesis that made God decide to send the Flood. And again, this is precisely Birkin’s message throughout the novel.

  • 8 See especially Green’s discussion of the significance of the ideas of the philosopher Johann Jakob (...)

14At a later point, in the chapter “Moony,” Willey Water has almost filled up again after being emptied, apparently returning to a kind of normality, and Ursula once again finds Birkin at the pond. What ensues is one of the strangest and at times most ludicrous scenes in the entire novel, with Birkin muttering to himself and throwing stones at the reflection of the moon in the water. In his book The von Richthofen Sisters, Martin Green asserts that Lawrence is making ample use of ideas associated with the Schwabing milieu’s view of the sun and the moon as images of male and female forces respectively.8 Thus, Birkin is clearly debating with himself about his highly problematic relationship with women in general, and Ursula in particular. The scene also serves as a parallel to the male-female battle between Gerald and Gudrun, so that the two couples represent alternative approaches to an early twentieth-century attempt to find a new footing for the relationship between men and women. But the day after this incident, Birkin expands his reflections into an almost Hegelian dialectic between the dark, African races, on the one hand, and the white races of the north, on the other. As will be discussed below, the latter episode has a direct bearing on the water imagery of the novel, and both this and the option formerly addressed are rejected for the benefit of a third option, “the way of freedom. There was the Paradisal entry into pure, single being […],” (254) and thinking of Ursula, Birkin looks across at Beldover, which “looked like Jerusalem to his fancy” (255).

  • 9 See Fjågesund 1991, 41-42.
  • 10 If this use of the arch is seen as an allusion to the Rainbow in Genesis, the same could be said of (...)

15As I have pointed out elsewhere, Lawrence makes one more allusion to the Flood, or rather to the Rainbow, in the chapter “Death and Love,” where Gerald and Gudrun finally seal their relationship with a kiss under “the square arch where the road passed under the colliery railway.9 The arch, Gudrun knew, had walls of squared stone, mossy on one side with water that trickled down, dry on the other side” (330). The arch of the rainbow, described with such intensity and beauty in the conclusion of the earlier novel, is here a square arch of stone, with water trickling down, and Gudrun actively seeks it out: “Under this bridge, the colliers pressed their lovers to their breast. And now, under the bridge, the master of them all pressed her to himself! And how much more powerful and terrible was his embrace, than theirs, how much more concentrated and supreme his love was, than theirs, in the same sort!” (ibid.). Thus, the colliers, their master and his lover are all parts of the same giant but ultimately destructive system that is itself destined to go under.10

  • 11 In the preceding chapter, “Excurse,” Birkin’s and Ursula’s first sexual encounter, which serves as (...)

16“Death and Love” further shows Gerald’s growing existential despair as he is forced to face his own emptiness and the slow death of his father. Against the background mentioned above of Willey Water’s role as part of the mining system, it is perhaps not surprising that Mr Crich’s final question to his son, moments before he dies, is about a leak from Willey Water into one of the pits. Then, three days after his father’s death, almost in a state of panic, Gerald steals his way into the Brangwens’ house, finds Gudrun’s bedroom, and makes love to her under circumstances that leave the question of consent somewhat open to discussion. His only excuse is that he is close to breaking point, and again the Flood motif comes to the surface: “He had not known how hurt he was, how his tissue, the very tissue of his brain was damaged by the corrosive flood of death,” (344-345) and he deludes himself into believing, after Gudrun has rather reluctantly given him what he wants, that “[t]he lovely, creative warmth flooded through him like a sleep of fecundity within the womb” (345).11 In the same scene, Gudrun too, as if echoing her thoughts during the search at the water-party, “seemed to lie hearing waves break on a hidden shore, long, slow, gloomy waves, breaking with the rhythm of fate, so monotonous that it seemed eternal” (ibid.).

17Then in the chapter “Continental,” Lawrence turns from the Old Testament to Greek mythology in his use of water. First of all, the chapter describes another crossing, this time from Britain to France, across the Channel, and again, considering the situation at the time of writing, it is no surprise that this crossing is consistently associated with a descent into the underworld. The suggestion begins with the pale face of a crew member on the ship who, on discovering Birkin and Ursula huddled up in the bows, “withdrew, like a phantom,” (388) and when they land at the other side, it was “like disembarking from the Styx into the desolated underworld” (389). The narrative then consistently turns to adjectives like “ghostly” and “spectral,” and: “Voices were still calling in inhuman agitation through the dark-grey air, spectres were running along the darkness between the train” (ibid.). Thus, for anyone who would like to read into this scene the otherwise unmentioned presence of the horrors of the War, there is plenty of evidence.

18The chapters which unfold on the Continent mark a sharp transition from this distinct “underworld” to an equally distinct “upper-world” (403) or “upper world” (409, 473, 478) as the two couples climb steadily higher from Basle via Zürich to Innsbruck and Hohenhausen, where the railway ends. Then finally, they arrive, by sledge and by foot, even higher up at the ostel, “the centre, the knot, the navel of the world, where the earth belonged to the skies, pure, unapproachable, impassable” (401). It should be emphasised that the focus of “Continental” as well as “Snow” and “Snowed Up” is first and foremost on the psychological battle between Gerald and Gudrun. This is further underlined by Birkin and Ursula’s temporary departure to Italy. It is as if Lawrence, with this structural move, wants to underline that Birkin and Ursula have largely settled their relationship, and that he needs to leave the stage free for the remaining combatants to fight it out. Gudrun, moreover, had as early as in “Water-Party” promised Gerald that she would “strike the last,” a promise which she unquestionably lives up to. Against this background, one might reasonably ask whether Lawrence, with the two designations of “underworld” and “upperworld,” is also suggesting a contrast between them with this upperworld carrying positive connotations and valences of which the underworld is devoid. But there is little evidence for such a conclusion. On the contrary, if anything, it seems that Gudrun and Gerald’s arrival in this world of cold and ice and snow provides the final, claustrophobic setting for their deathly battle. As soon as they enter their room, Gudrun “had reached her place. Here at last she folded her venture and settled down like a crystal in the navel of snow, and was gone.” As to Gerald, “he felt he was alone. She was gone. She was completely gone, and there was icy vapour round his heart. […] And there was no way out” (401).

19There is something profoundly disturbing about the relationship between the two lovers. It is poisoned from the start, in a way that almost makes it hard to explain the attraction and the kinship between them, and for the reader of “Snowed Up,” in particular, the intensity of Gudrun’s cruelty and manipulative behaviour is at times disquieting to a degree that makes it tempting to see Gerald as a victim (which does not seem to harmonise with Lawrence’s overall portrayal of him). So, what does Lawrence want to achieve by making Gudrun into the tormentor of a man who in many ways is already pushed to his limits? And why does she take her hatred of Gerald to such extremes if the two are actually tarred with the same brush?

20Regardless of how one would prefer to answer these questions, Gerald has from the beginning of the novel been associated with some very specific features that come to full fruition in these final chapters. In the very first mention of him, during his sister’s wedding in the first chapter, Gerald is associated with “something northern”: “In his clear northern flesh and his fair hair was a glisten like cold sunshine refracted through crystals of ice. And he looked so new, unbroached, pure as an arctic thing” (14). Then in “Moony,” as already suggested above, Lawrence sets up a contrast between the “awful African process” and that of the white races, which, “having the arctic north behind them, the vast abstraction of ice and snow, would fulfil a mystery of ice-destructive knowledge, snow-abstract annihilation” (254). Immediately afterwards, it is precisely Gerald whom Birkin associates with this “process,” even giving an ominous prophesy of his death, in the form of two questions:

[Gerald] was one of these strange white wonderful demons from the north, fulfilled in the destructive frost-mystery. And was he fated to pass away in this knowledge, this one process of frost-knowledge, death by perfect cold? Was he a messenger, an omen of the universal dissolution into whiteness and snow?” (ibid.)

  • 12 Ref. also Gerald’s description, quoted above, of the submarine universe when searching for his sist (...)
  • 13 Delany 31.

21Thus, there is a logical connection between Gerald’s fundamental features and the landscape in which he eventually dies. In a sense, he comes home to where his identity lies, or as Michael Bell puts it: “His watery alter ego, which has gradually become colder in successive episodes, has now frozen into snow” (Bell 116). There can also be little doubt that this “incarnation” or “great phase of life” (181) that Gudrun sees him as representing at the water-party, embodies more or less the whole wave of civilisation that Lawrence felt was being blown to pieces in the trenches in France and Flanders at the time of writing. So, could not this “upperworld” of ice and snow, on the very continent that was hosting what Lawrence regarded as an apocalypse on a par with the Flood in the Bible, be seen as the Flood’s icy and deathly counterpart, unfolding before them and engulfing the proud pomp of a European civilisation? Are we not justified in seeing a continuous pattern, from Gerald’s three dives, his swimming, his frightening experience when searching for his sister in Willey Water, and his consistent identification with ice and snow and the north, to his tragic stumbling into the icy wastes of the Alps, after he has been finally rejected and humiliated by Gudrun, which ultimately leads to his death in the snow? Cannot the snow and the ice, which surround him on all sides, be seen as a frozen and rainbow-less counterpart to the all-encompassing deluge and thus the end of the world, which Lawrence felt so strongly was taking place across the Channel? And is not the crossing of the Styx, as the English Channel is described in “Continental,” a crossing precisely into this icy inferno, almost the way Dante himself crosses the Styx during his descent into Hell, coming eventually to the ninth and bottom circle, where the heads of the Traitors barely emerge from the solid sheet of ice in which they are frozen?12 And couldn’t this arctic nightmare landscape also be read, in a mythological context, as the very Fimbulwinter that introduces the Ragnarök in Norse mythology? In his article “D.H. Lawrence and Deep Ecology,” Paul Delany borrows the expression “deathscapes”13 from Malcolm Lowry to denote the natural landscapes that Lawrence in the course of the War came to see as having been transformed into apocalyptic scenes of horror. And although these deathscapes are primarily associated with urban and industrial sites of environmental disintegration and, as Delany mentions, “the Flanders battlefields of 1917,” (32) one has reason to see these deathly qualities as becoming contagious and eventually encompassing the world at large, including the sublime and staggeringly beautiful landscapes of the Alps? This, we may argue, is precisely the universality of the apocalypse that Gerald represents and what characterises Lawrence’s vision at the time.

  • 14 See Fjågesund 2008.

22I have argued in another context that there are several reasons for seeing Gerald as a figure based on Captain Scott, who died in the Antarctic waste on his return from the South Pole.14 There is no contradiction, however, between such a reading and the one suggested above. On the contrary, it underlines the complexity and diversity Lawrence is capable of building into his powerfully symbolic conclusion. Admittedly, it does not provide a convincing explanation for Gudrun’s erratic and unreasonable behaviour, but it may, at least partly, explain Birkin’s grief at the loss of his friend: if Gerald represents a whole wave of civilisation which, once beautiful, has been corrupted and destroyed, there is also every reason to lament its passing.

23To conclude: water is the giver of life and what takes away life in the short story “The Horse-Dealer’s Daughter,” also written during the War, the cold and muddy pond, which initially seems destined to be the place where Mabel commits suicide in an attempt to join her dead mother, instead becomes a source of new life and renewed opportunities. Water in its frozen form, however, has haunted the British imagination through centuries of polar exploration, which more than once ended in death, disaster and national humiliation. The trauma created by Captain Scott’s death immediately before the First World War has already been mentioned, but the Franklin tragedy in the mid nineteenth century was also far from forgotten. For a great island and maritime nation, the death of the unmanned Gerald, who was once proudly introduced as “a soldier, and an explorer, and a Napoleon of industry” (64) by Birkin himself, it is hard to imagine how Lawrence could have come up with a more powerful and humiliating depiction of his, and implicitly Britain’s, downfall than by this death by frozen water. And to add insult to injury, this final humiliation is literally overseen by a female presence: “To add to his difficulty, a small bright moon shone brilliantly just ahead, on the right, a painful brilliant thing that was always there, unremitting, from which there was no escape” (473).

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Bell, Michael. D.H. Lawrence: Language and Being. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Delany, Paul. “D.H. Lawrence and Deep Ecology,” in CEA Critic, Winter, Vol. 55, No. 2, 1993: 27-41.

Fjågesund, Peter. The Apocalyptic World of D.H. Lawrence. Oslo: Norwegian University Press, 1991.

Fjågesund, Peter. “D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love: Gerald Crich and Captain Scott,” in English Studies, Vol. 89, No. 2, April, 2008: 182-94.

Green, Martin. The von Richthofen Sisters: The Triumphant and the Tragic Modes of Love. Else and Frieda von Richthofen, Otto Gross, Max Weber, and D.H. Lawrence, in the Years 1870-1970. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1974.

Lawrence, D.H. The Letters of D.H. Lawrence: June 1913-October 1916. Eds. George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton. Vol. II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1981.

Lawrence, D.H. Women in Love. Eds. David Farmer, Lindeth Vasey and John Worthen. 1920; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Lawrence, D.H. Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays. Ed. Michael Herbert. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Lawrence, D.H. The Rainbow. Ed. Mark Kinkead-Weekes. 1915; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Lawrence, D.H. The First “Women in Love.” Eds. John Worthen and Lindeth Vasey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Manning, Frederic. Eidola. London: John Murray, 1917.

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1 L ii. 266. For a survey of the Rananim project, see Fjågesund 1991, 61-67.

2 See for instance Bell 110-17.

3 In “The Crown,” from the same period, Lawrence includes a whole chapter with the title “The Flux of Corruption,” (RDP 270-78) and turns repeatedly to imagery connected with the Flood and the Deluge, frequently in connection with the War itself.

4 Lawrence was, not surprisingly, already familiar with both these works. There is also a direct reference to Defoe’s novel in “Breadalby,” where Birkin, after having been attacked by Hermione, wishes “he were on an island, like Alexander Selkirk […],” (108) the Scottish privateer who may have been the inspiration of Defoe’s protagonist.

5 It is also a foreshadowing of the scene at the beginning of “Snowed Up,” which will be discussed below.

6 Another parallel example in Lawrence is of course the flood in The Virgin and the Gipsy.

7 Interestingly, according to the Appendix in the Cambridge edition of The First “Women in Love,” the information quoted here is incorrect (FWL, 449); in other words, Lawrence made it up, presumably because he wanted to establish a connection between the lake and the mines.

8 See especially Green’s discussion of the significance of the ideas of the philosopher Johann Jakob Bachofen (1815-1887) (Green 81-84).

9 See Fjågesund 1991, 41-42.

10 If this use of the arch is seen as an allusion to the Rainbow in Genesis, the same could be said of another mention of an arch in the novel. In the chapter “In the Train,” Birkin and Gerald are once again discussing the end of civilisation, the destruction of mankind etc., and Birkin remarks that I always feel doomed when the train is running into London’” (61). A few minutes later “they were under the huge arch of the station, in the tremendous shadow of the town,” (ibid.) and when in the taxi, he asks Gerald: Don’t you feel like one of the damned?’ (ibid.). An alternative reading in both of these cases could also be to read the arch as a reference to the Gjallarbru in Norse mythology, that is the bridge that, like the Styx in Greek mythology, connects the world of the living with the world of the dead. Incidentally, the Styx is also mentioned in “Continental.” Finally, to underline the connections between The Rainbow and Women in Love, one might also draw attention to Will Brangwen’s enthusiasm in the former novel for the arches in Lincoln Cathedral in the chapter “The Cathedral”. Here in the “jewelled gloom,” “[s]panned round with the rainbow,” is where his soul remains, “at the apex of the arch, clinched in the timeless ecstasy, consummated” (R 187-88). Thus, the rainbow in the final paragraphs of the novel has a precursor in the man-made architecture of the cathedral, adding to the pervasive use of the symbol throughout the two novels.

11 In the preceding chapter, “Excurse,” Birkin’s and Ursula’s first sexual encounter, which serves as a parallel to that of Gerald and Gudrun, is described with the same Flood motif, but here with a positive connotation: “[A]fter the rivers of strange dark fluid richness had passed over her, flooding, carrying away her mind and flooding down her spine and down her knees, past her feet, a strange flood, sweeping away everything and leaving her an essential new being, she was left quite free, she was free in complete ease, her complete self.” (314). Clearly, this experience is like an immersion into the water of life; a baptism and a rebirth.

12 Ref. also Gerald’s description, quoted above, of the submarine universe when searching for his sister – a universe “cold as hell.” One is similarly reminded of Frederic Manning’s poem “Grotesque,” written from the trenches at the same time as the novel: “These are the damned circles Dante trod, / Terrible in hopelessness, / But even skulls have their humour, / An eyeless and sardonic mockery” etc. (Manning 35).

13 Delany 31.

14 See Fjågesund 2008.

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Peter Fjågesund, « Water and Insularity as Structural Elements in D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow and Women in Love »Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 55 | 2023, mis en ligne le 07 novembre 2023, consulté le 17 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Peter Fjågesund

Peter Fjågesund (DPhil Oxon) is Professor of British Literature and Civilisation at the University of South-Eastern Norway. He has worked in publishing and as Director of the Norwegian Study Centre, University of York, and has published numerous articles on nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature and cultural history. He is also the author of The Apocalyptic World of D.H. Lawrence (Norwegian University Press, 1991), The Northern Utopia: British Perceptions of Norway in the Nineteenth Century (Rodopi, 2003, together with Ruth A. Symes), and The Dream of the North: A Cultural History to 1920 (Rodopoi, 2014). He is the editor of Knut Hamsun Abroad: International Reception (Norvik Press, 2009). He has also translated three of D.H. Lawrence’s novels into Norwegian, in addition to novels by Daniel Defoe and Anne Brontë, and is currently working on translations of Robert Burns’s songs into Norwegian dialect.

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