Even while composing The Rainbow, D. H. Lawrence realized that neither the critics nor general readers would accept his novel. He wrote to Amy Lowell about the critical reception of a book of his short stories, telling her, “The critics really hate me. So they ought.” It is a curious remark from any writer, but especially from one who was so intent on working a moral change in his readers.
Lawrence knew, however, not only that his fiction was “shocking” in its treatment of sexuality, particularly that of women—and it was to become more shocking yet—but that he also created character and experience that challenged the way the critics viewed the world. In his fiction, and this became fully apparent in The Rainbow, he dramatizes experience as dynamic, shifting, and elusive. For him, the world was neither stable, nor certain, nor finally rationally explicable; his vision undercuts all the preconceptions of the Edwardian critics. Their “hatred” of Lawrence’s fiction was actually self-defense. When The Rainbow appeared during the first years of World War I, it seemed to validate Lawrence’s argument against those who saw civilization as stable, knowable, and controllable.
One central question preoccupies Lawrence in The Rainbow: Is the self capable of expansion, of becoming an entity, of achieving freedom, especially in an age where the traditional supports of community, family, and religion have been weakened or eliminated? In Will and Anna Brangwen’s generation, the first to enter the industrial world, the self does survive, though only minimally. If, unlike Tom and Lydia Brangwen, Will and Anna fail to create the “rainbow,” an image of the fully realized self in passionate community, and if their love degenerates to lust, they at least endure. True freedom, however, is denied them.
For Ursula, Will and Anna’s daughter and the novel’s heroine, the question of freedom hardly pertains, at least at the beginning. It is simply a matter of her survival. Her vision of the “rainbow” at the end must be taken as a promise of freedom—and for many readers an unconvincing one—rather than as fulfillment. Nevertheless, it is a perception she earns by surviving both the inner and the outer terrors of her world.
The Rainbow is primarily a psychological novel, in which Lawrence is primarily concerned with states of...
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D. H. Lawrence
The following entry presents criticism of Lawrence's novel The Rainbow. For information on Lawrence's complete career, see TCLC, Volumes 2 and 9. For discussion of Sons and Lovers, see TCLC, Volume 16; for discussion of Women in Love, see TCLC, Volume 33; for discussion of Lady Chatterley's Lover, see TCLC, Volume 48.
An outstanding figure among twentieth-century modernist writers, Lawrence is known for his novels that explore the nature of self-fulfillment, relationships between men and women, and the conflicts that arise between individuals and society. The Rainbow (1915) was one of Lawrence's first novels to examine these themes, and is considered, along with its sequel Women in Love (1920), to be one of the writer's greatest works. An amalgamation of symbolic narrative, bildungsroman, and psychoanalytic novel, the work is seen as both Lawrence's prophetic vision of the possibility of renewal in society and a scathing critique of modern civilization.
Plot and Major Characters
The Rainbow opens with a description of the traditional, rural way of life in mid-nineteenth century England on Marsh Farm, the Brangwen family land situated near the Midlands town of Ilkeston. Tom Brangwen, a farmer ruled by his instincts rather than his intellect and marked by an inner emotional turmoil, marries Lydia Lensky, a Polish widow whose "foreignness" he finds particularly attractive. Their marriage, while loving, is characterized by a vague emotional detachment, punctuated by moments of fervent passion. When their child, the proud and somewhat aloof Anna, reaches adulthood she marries her cousin, Will Brangwen, a lace-designer whose frustrated artistic temperament soon becomes the defining aspect of his character. Their intensely sexual relationship mirrors in part that of Anna's parents, and like Tom and Lydia's is dominated by a constant struggle of wills. After a tumultuous first year of marriage their eldest daughter, Ursula, is born. She, like her father, is artistically sensitive and fascinated by the symbolism of Christianity. While still young she enters into a relationship with Anton Skrebensky, a young officer in the corps of engineers, who she learns does not share her ardent spirituality. Their affair temporarily ends when Ursula returns to teaching and Anton leaves to fight in the South African Boer War. In his absence Ursula has an abortive homosexual relationship with Winifred Inger, a fellow teacher, whom Ursula later convinces to marry her uncle, the younger Tom Brangwen, a manager at the colliery at Wiggiston. Accepting a teaching post at the Brinsley Street School, Ursula moves to Ilkeston, but her ordeals there and later at Nottingham University College leave her disillusioned with modern education. When Anton returns, six years after his departure, he asks Ursula to marry him. The engagement ends in failure primarily because of Ursula's feeling that he lacks a passion to match her own. Soon after, Anton marries another woman and leaves for India. Subsequently learning that she is pregnant, Ursula discovers a renewed love for Anton and writes to him, asking for forgiveness. At the end of the novel she is nearly run down by a drove of galloping horses. Fearful for her safety, she escapes from danger by climbing a nearby tree. The incident causes her to miscarry the child. While ill Ursula receives a cable from Anton declaring that he has married, which serves as tacit proof that the relationship is over. Sitting at her window, Ursula then sees a rainbow that seems to sweep away the corruption of the world around her and afford the hope of regeneration in the future.
While no critical agreement exists as to the precise thematic structure of The Rainbow, the forces at work are generally seen as a conflict between masculine and feminine, played out within the contexts of a larger antagonism, that of the individual personality versus modern society. The male Brangwens, Tom and Will, represent the instinctual and spiritual sides of humanity; they contrast with the female Brangwens, who are prone to intellectualization and abstraction. The result of these consistently opposed forces is played out in the sexual relationships of the characters. In broader terms, The Rainbow also levels a critique against modern industrial society, which Lawrence dramatizes as destructive and dehumanizing. This commentary is apparent throughout the novel, and personified in the almost soulless characters of Ursula's uncle, the younger Tom Brangwen, and his wife Winifred Inger. Along with these issues is the problem of spiritual and emotional self-fulfillment that Lawrence addresses primarily in the character and actions of Ursula. As the representative of three generations of the Brangwen family, she symbolizes both an overall decline in the success of male/female relationships, and—in her perception of the rainbow at the close of the novel—a hope for reconciliation, harmony, and fullness of being.
The Rainbow was refused by Lawrence's publisher and appeared only after he had rewritten some passages and excised others that the new publisher considered too sexually explicit. Even in its revised form the novel was suppressed in England as obscene. After publication, the work met with some staunch criticism, especially in reaction to its style. Arnold Kettle has since written that the "intensity [of the writing] leads to an overwrought quality," while other commentators have leveled accusations of "emotional falsity" at the end of the novel, or simply of "bad writing." Likewise, many have observed that the quality of Lawrence's writing deteriorates in the second half of the novel. In more recent years, however, these assessments have been ignored or overturned by critics who emphasize the innovative nature of The Rainbow. In his oft-quoted letter to his publisher Edward Garnett, Lawrence wrote, "You mustn't look in my novel for the old stable ego of the character"; rather, Lawrence claimed to have been searching for a new way to express emotion. This new form has been hailed as revolutionary, but has also lead many critics to call The Rainbow ambiguous or imprecise, and left certain aspects of the novel—particularly Ursula's encounter with the horses and the appearance of the rainbow in later portions of the novel—open to multiple interpretations. The ensuing controversies over interpretation and a new-found approval for modernist experimentation have elevated The Rainbow from its initial notoriety to the level of a modern classic.