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Lawrence’s “Art Speech” and the Malady of Civilization in Women in Love

Stefana Roussenova
p. 95-106

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1A number of interesting parallels concerning the role of aggressiveness in love can be drawn between the implications of Freud’s “Civilization and its Discontents” and those of Lawrence in his novel of ideas Women in Love. Freud’s views on aggression show affinities with Lawrence’s major theme of the doom of western industrial society in his “end-of-the-world” novel. In Women in Love dissolution is shown to be a ubiquitous process in industrial civilization. This is openly stated by Birkin, who claims that the river of life co-exists with the river of dissolution. The downward slide towards death is dramatically enacted in the novel by way of the love relationship between Gerald Crich, the industrial magnate and mine-owner, and the artist Gudrun. The successful upper-class man with a brilliant administrative career is an egocentric afflicted with a repressed sensual life. His “ego-instinct” is manifested in his mastery of the mines: Gerald, the “God of the machine,” subjugates both the miners, “the resistant Matter of the earth,” and ultimately himself to the mechanical principle of production in order to satisfy his own wilful urge to perfection and self-deification.

2Gerald’s destructive instinct is explored in depth through his relationships with his family and with Gudrun. The notion of death has plagued him since childhood: as a boy he had killed his kid brother by firing a rifle which he thought had been unloaded. When his sister falls into the water he fails to rescue her, and after the death of his father he makes love to Gudrun for the first time, having just come from his father’s new grave. The drama of his relationship with Gudrun enacts the transformation of Gerald’s destructive instinct into one of self-destruction.

3Lawrence approaches the complexities of the libidinal instinct and aggressiveness from an angle that is not that of Freud, whose focus is primarily on the condition of the separate individual. At the centre of Lawrence’s interest is the issue of “the whole consciousness in a man, bodily, mental, spiritual at once” (Lawrence 1955: 108), whose manifestations are traceable only within the man-woman relationship. Lawrence connects the destructive instinct of aggressiveness with the mental consciousness which is “the dead end of life” and which, “given the will as accomplice” can “arrogate its machine motions” (Lawrence 1971: 247) over the whole sensual life. Gerald and Gudrun exist within the mental dimension alone. The plot is thus focused on the destructive and self-destructive forces at work in the very core of people’s mode of living. Gerald’s will-power, his emotionality and physical strength, are pitted against Gudrun’s cool, detached self-confidence and the power of her gaze which is extraordinary in the visual artist. Her gaze is the seat of “the mental, visual consciousness” (Lawrence 1971: 175) which will invade, manipulate and will ultimately defeat Gerald’s poorer intellectual powers.

4I propose to discuss an excerpt from the “Rabbit” chapter which establishes the general drift of their future intimacy and which thus prefigures the tragic climax of Gerald’s self-destruction. The episode’s main theme of the violence operating with the kernel intimacy of engagement, a fate to which both the protagonists and the animal are subject, offers analogies with Freud’s view of “the alloy” between the libidinal life instinct and the death instinct.

5My second aim here is to show how Lawrence dramatizes narratively the clash between the two egocentric protagonists. The focus on Lawrence’s narrative practice will hopefully show that Lawrence mobilizes all narrative resources in order to dramatise the violent incursion into the life of the other, which is the shape taken by the relation between Gudrun and Gerald. The episode is yet another example of the view stated by Lawrence in “The Spirit of Place” that “art-speech” or “art-symbol stands for a pure experience, emotional and passional, spiritual and perceptual, all at once” (Lawrence 1962: 19). His words point to his recourse to the mode of symbolic figuration, the main device he draws upon for the representation of the different levels of consciousness in their wholeness. The excerpt with the rabbit is yet another example of Lawrence’s great symbolic scenes, in which the interaction with certain animate or inanimate objects provides an insight into the hidden psychic life of the characters.

6The symbolism is enriched through the interplay between authorial narration and the direct speech of the protagonists. Their verbal exchanges are brief, repetitive, poor in new meaning and are doubly oriented insofar as they engage in a dialogue both with the abundant authorial speech, as it renders their unspoken inner life, and also with the pervasive symbolism of the narrative action. The contrast between the spoken and unspoken speech signals how little is acknowledged in language and how much of the inner life lying beneath the surface of the mental self is censored and repressed. These three types of discourse together contribute to the evocation of the modes of being of the two protagonists, both of whom are afflicted by a condition of egocentric separateness and enclosure within the mental.

7The “Rabbit” chapter, from which the excerpt is taken, is carefully positioned after the chapter “The Industrial Magnate” which reveals Gerald’s aggressive and efficient performance in the social sphere. Driven by his indomitable will, he reduces the mines to a perfect machine “of pure mechanical repetition” in which he himself is “the controlling, central part” (WL 227). The juxtaposition of the two chapters suggests analogies between Gerald’s public and private life. The excerpt under discussion from “Rabbit” highlights that in the deadly battle for control waged by Gerald and Gudrun, the master of the mines is in turn reduced to the condition of a confused man, on the verge of emotional chaos.

8This episode is constructed on the contrast of the senses of touch and eye-sight, both of which become sources of pain for the characters. The alternation of the two senses furthermore underpins the movement and fluidity of psychic exchanges within the relationship, in accordance with a figurative mode which is typical of Lawrence’s novelistic representation of the psychic life. The scene opens with Gudrun seizing the rabbit, barely managing to keep her grasp on it while the animal lashes out, “suspended by the ears.” The narrator tells us that “she stood shaken […] utterly overcome,” while “her heart was arrested with fury at the mindlessness and the bestial stupidity of this struggle (WL 240).” When Gudrun takes the rabbit, the shift to the sense of touch has a destabilizing effect, insofar as the transition annihilates detachment and deprives her of the control provided through the power of her gaze. The words “mindlessness” and “stupidity” are indicative that her fury is motivated by the fact that she has been deprived of the weapon of her intellect. Her physical contact with the strong animal exposes her physical weakness. The narrator thus dwells on the whole range of her unspoken negative emotions, ranging from “a heavy rage,” through “fury,” to “a heavy cruelty.” The focus on “the loss of her presence of mind,” hints that it is above all her loss of mental control which infuriates her, rather than the physical pain of her badly scored wrists.

9As Gerald comes to her rescue by taking the creature from her, he also establishes his physical superiority over her, telling her “You should let one of the men do that for you” (WL 240). Gudrun, of whom the reader is told elsewhere that she “could stand undiminished and unabated” (WL 181), feels diminished and humiliated and is forced to defend herself in words. While she justifies her weakness through her remark that “It’s most fearfully strong,” her high voice, “like the crying of a seagull, strange and vindictive” has a threatening note, hinting that she intends to take revenge for the humiliation.

10That she will exact vengeance through language is implied by their verbal exchanges. Gerald’s comment, after having subjugated the rabbit: “You would not think there was all that force in a rabbit,” (WL 240) repeats her initial words that “the rabbit is fearfully strong.” Then again, when Gudrun asks “Don’t they make the most fearful noise when they scream?”(WL 243), his rejoinder “Abominable” repeats her own opinion. Gudrun sets the tone and introduces the ideas of the verbal exchange, Gerald simply follows, echoing her words, and his repetitive language exposes his inferior position.

11Gerald’s power over her resides elsewhere, on the terrain of physical strength and the sense of touch. When Gerald takes the rabbit from Gudrun, the scuffle between them escalates into a violent experience:

The long, demon-like beast lashed out again, spread on the air as if it were flying, looking something like a dragon, then closing up again, inconceivably powerful and explosive. The man’s body, strung to its efforts, vibrated strongly. Then a sudden sharp, white-edged wrath came up in him. Swift as lightning he drew back and brought his free hand down like a hawk on the neck of the rabbit. Simultaneously, there came the unearthly, abhorrent scream of a rabbit in the fear of death. It made one immense writhe, tore his wrists and his sleeves in a final convulsion, all its belly flashed white in a whirlwind of paws, and then he had slung it round and had it under his arm, fast. It cowered and skulked. His face was gleaming with a smile.
(WL 241)

12The two beast similes, which draw analogies between Gerald and the hawk, translate the scuffle into an almost mythic battle between the serpent-like, fantastic “dragon” and the predatory bird. When Gerald, driven by his “sharp, white-edged wrath,” brings his free hand down like a hawk, he assumes the non-human belligerence and strength of the bird of prey. The very act of subjugating the animal, with the emphasis on the animal’s “immense writhe” and “the whirlwind of paws,” along with his gesture of slinging the rabbit round “under his arm, fast,” further highlights the dynamics of the battle and foregrounds the physical strength of both parties.The details highlight the movement of bodies, the rabbit’s physical assault, the pain it inflicts on Gerald, (“tore his wrists and his sleeve”) and its final defeat when it “cowered and skulked.” The non-human fierceness of the bird of prey is elaborated in the smile “gleaming in his face,” where “gleam” endows Gerald’s joy of victory with a dangerous and sinister touch, now that he is in control. Yet, Gerald is both master of the situation and is simultaneously the object of Gudrun’s eyes.

13Under her gaze, the fantastic battle takes on sexual connotations. A fusion is induced between the “demon-like beast […] as if it were flying, looking something like a dragon,” and Gerald’s “white-edged wrath,” a state of passionate rapture which implies that he too might be possessed by a demoniacal force. In the chaotic explosion of physicality her eyes are transfixed on his magnificent physique: “the man’s body strung to its efforts, vibrated strongly” implying the erotic appeal he has for her. The next moment, when Gerald, “swift as lightning” deals his physical blow and “simultaneously, there came the unearthly, abhorrent scream of a rabbit in the fear of death,” the battle is transformed into a terrifying female vision of rape, elaborated in the image of the “torn veil” which belongs to Gerald’s view of her:

And he saw her eyes black as night in her pallid face, she looked almost unearthly. The scream of the rabbit, after the violent tussle, seemed to have torn the veil of her consciousness. He looked at her, and the whitish, electric gleam in his face intensified.
(WL 241)

14The black/white contrast in her face, bringing out her similarity with the black and white rabbit, the repetition of “unearthly,” applied both to Gudrun and the creature’s scream, imply that he equates Gudrun’s position with the victim position of the animal. The intensification of his threatening “whitish, electric gleam” hints that he has correctly appraised her subordinate position and has now achieved total control.

15But Gudrun is not used to being reduced to a passive position. That in her apparent victimhood she can be a dangerous enemy is hinted by the simile comparing her eyes, the instrument of her power, to “those of a creature which is at his mercy, yet which is his ultimate victor” (WL 242). Now that the tussle is over and the rabbit is safely under Gerald’s arm, the theatre of battle swings back to the scope and range of Gudrun’s sight. Gudrun’s eyes, the seat of her intellection and self-control, are her arsenal of weapons, in contrast to Gerald’s blunt physical force. In becoming the object of her gaze, Gerald will gradually be overpowered by Gudrun.

16Gerald’s gradual shift to the passive position opens with a stress on his emotional nature and wavering mind in the repetition of “felt”: “He felt the mutual hellish recognition. And he felt he ought to say something to cover it. He had the power of lightning in his nerves, she seemed like a soft recipient of his magical, hideous white fire” (WL 242). “The hellish recognition” refers to the their mutual verbless knowledge of the impact of the battle on each of them. The recurrence of “lightning” in conjunction with “his nerves,” used earlier for his physical strength in “swift as lightning,” implies that the battle has been transformed on his part into an erotic fantasy, in which Gudrun seems to be the “recipient of his magical, hideous white fire.” In spite however of her subordinate position of recipient, he nonetheless needs her. The paragraph’s last sentence, “He was unconfident, he had qualms of fear” (WL 242) shows his shaken confidence and his escalating fear.

17One after the other, her looks gradually shake up and undermine his self-assurance. The authorial narrator reports their disabling effect on Gerald: “The vindictive mockery in her voice made his brain quiver. Glancing up at him, into his eyes, she revealed again the mocking, white-cruel recognition. There was a league between them, abhorrent to them both” (WL 242). Her gaze, working in unison with her voice and speech, picks out his vulnerable spots in order to violate them, doing so with a sadistic precision: “his brain quivers at her mocking,” while “vindictive” hints at his fear that she will turn upon him and seek vengeance for her loss of control in the fight scene. It is above all her aggressive glance burrowing into “into his eyes” which is most threatening:

“What a devil!” he exclaimed. But it was as if he had had knowledge of her in the long rent of her forearm, so silken and soft. He did not want to touch her. He would have to make himself touch her, deliberately. The long, shallow red rip seemed torn across his own brain, tearing the surface of his ultimate consciousness, letting through the forever unconscious, unthinkable red ether of the beyond, the obscene beyond.
(WL 242)

  • 1 See Squires and Lynn 2002: 166.

18Transfixed by Gudrun’s gaze, it is now Gerald’s turn to fantasize from the position of passivity. Gudrun’s wound, her “long, shallow red rip” invades his brain, stripping away its shield and tearing a gap which scares him most. The authorial notation that “He did not want to touch her” conveys his fear not only of her power, but of what the gap, opened by her wound, could let through, “the forever unconscious, unthinkable red ether of the beyond, the obscene beyond.” This is the tabooed, deep self, whose reality Gerald totally negates and which the egotistic master, obsessed as he is with the idea of all-out power, cannot control. The sexual connotations of the “long, shallow rip” have been pointed out by Michael Squires and Lynn K. Talbot, and I agree with their reading that Gerald’s sexual fears open into a sexually terrifying crevasse called “the obscene beyond.”1 It is, furthermore, worth noting that Gerald’s sexual fantasy, in its male version, comes after Gudrun’s earlier female vision of violent sex. Again, it is Gudrun who sets the tone and it is Gerald who follows. What stands out, when their fantasies are compared, is the similarity in the sexual visions of these two characters who are obsessed by the will to control. Both the female and male visions are imagined when each of the protagonists is assigned to a passive position by the other, while the tenor of possession is rendered in vehicles of violent ripping and tearing of the surface of the mind. Both characters are terrified, both of them negate or repress what lies beyond the mental.

19The adjective “obscene” in Gerald’s “the obscene beyond” deserves special attention. The unusual context in which it is used recalls Lawrence’s use of the word in his letter to Mark Gertler of November 1916. Commenting on Gertler’s painting The Merry-Go-Round, Lawrence describes it as “a terrible and dreadful picture.”He calls it “obscene,” but goes on to expand the conventional meaning of the word by saying that “this terrible and soul-tearing obscenity […] is the truth of our passion today,” that the painting is about the “ghastly utterly mindless human intensity of sensational extremity” and a “violent maelstrom of destruction and horror” (Meyers 1975: 73). “Obscene” is charged with connotations which can easily be drawn upon to describe the Gerald-Gudrun relation and the similarity points to the painting as a possible source of ideas, not only for the modernist aesthetic of the artist Loerke and his frieze but for certain images in this episode too.

20Lawrence’s description of the spinning of Gertler’s merry-go-round as a “violent, mechanized rotation” for instance, invites comparison with the mechanical gyrations of the animal which suddenly springs to life: “Round and round the court it went, as if shot from a gun, round and round like a furry meteorite, in a tense hard circle that seemed to bind their brains” (WL 243). The “tense hard circle” constricting their brains implies the inescapable, automatic regularity with which the outbursts of violence will recur in their repressed passional lives.

21By the end of the chapter Gudrun seals off her possession of Gerald, again by means of the weapons of her gaze and her speech. When she says “God be praised, we aren’t rabbits,” adding that “All that, and more,” her eyes “look[ing] up at him with shocking nonchalance” (WL 243), his response acknowledges openly the pain she inflicts on him: “He felt again as if she had hit him across the face— or rather, as if she had torn him across the breast, dully, finally” (WL 243). Gudrun’s eyes, exuding cool indifference, have a murderous effect on him, shifting the tearing action from his brain to his breast, the seat of emotions which will be fatally hurt.

22Their relation has turned into a deadly battle in which one of them must be destroyed in order that the other may live. The rabbit episode enacts the shift in the locus of power from Gerald to Gudrun. Though she first casts herself as the recipient of Gerald’s violence in the erotic fantasy, she manages to divert the violence outwards, towards him, in order to save herself. Lawrence’s representation of her aggressiveness and its outward redirection towards Gerald, demonstrates close affinities with Freud’s statement that “the instinct of aggressiveness could be pressed into the service of Eros, in that the organism was destroying some other thing, whether animate or inanimate, instead of destroying its own self” (Freud 1965: 66). Concordant, in this respect, with Freud’s stress on the function of sight as the dominant sense of repression, Lawrence singles out Gudrun’s gaze as the weapon through which she wields her power over Gerald.

23The passage foregrounds the psychological dimensions of their future fights and, appropriately, becomes the source for much of the imagery in the final “Snowed-up” chapter. Against the grand setting of the Alpine snows, the final cycle of their violent battle draws on images which elaborate on the earlier scene of the tussle with the rabbit: the clockwork image rendering Gudrun’s thoughts about their relationship, which is compared to “the horrible mechanical tick-tacking of the terrible clock” (WL 465), recalls the rabbit’s frenzied rotation; Gerald‘s sense of incompleteness and dependence on Gudrun at that late stage of their relationship is conveyed in the images of “a strange rent,” “this wound, this disclosure, this unfolding of his own covering” (WL 445) echoing “the long, shallow red rip.” Above all, it is the power of her gaze to project visions that is the foundation of the analogy between the final, climactic chapter and the earlier episode. Looking at the snowy mountain, Gudrun is drawn to the beauty of the “peaks and ridged, glow[ing] with living rose,” where she yearns to die: “To her it was so beautiful, it was a delirium, she wanted to gather the glowing, eternal peaks to her breast, and die” (WL 446). Gerald dies in a setting that has almost been envisioned by her. Once again, and for the last time, Gudrun, the victor, succeeds in redirecting and objectifying her death-wish towards Gerald, just as she had earlier redirected her own pain away from “the long shallow rip” and onto him. The parallel between Freud’s idea that “all life essentially consists of the struggle between Eros and Death, between the instinct of life and the instinct of destruction” (Freud 1965: 69) and Lawrence’s novelistic representation of the deadly battle of the two instincts is striking. The alternative relation between Ursula and Birkin, their joint endorsement of the search for love, also concords with Freud’s view that civilization is a process “in the service of Eros.”

Works Cited

24Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and its Discontents. Translated by James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1965.

25Meyers, Jeffrey. Painting and the Novel. Manchester: Manchester University Press, [New York]: Barnes & Noble Books, 1975.

26Lawrence, D.H. Women in Love [WL]. David Farmer, Lindeth Vasey and John Worthen, ed. London/New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

27Lawrence, D.H. Selected Literary Criticism. Anthony Beale, ed. London: William Heinemann, 1955.

28Lawrence, D.H. The Symbolic Meaning: The Uncollected Version of Studies in Classic American Literature. Armin Arnold, ed. London: Centaur Press, 1962.

29Lawrence, D.H. Fantasia and the Unconscious, Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.

30Squires, Michael and Talbot, Lynn K. A Biography of D.H. Lawrence & Frieda von Richthofen: Living at the Edge. Madison:The University of Wisconsin Press, 2002.

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1 See Squires and Lynn 2002: 166.

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Stefana Roussenova, « Lawrence’s “Art Speech” and the Malady of Civilization in Women in Love », Études Lawrenciennes, 45 | 2014, 95-106.

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Stefana Roussenova, « Lawrence’s “Art Speech” and the Malady of Civilization in Women in Love », Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 45 | 2014, mis en ligne le 28 février 2015, consulté le 18 janvier 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lawrence.216

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Stefana Roussenova

Stefana Roussenova is professor of English Literature at St. Kliment Ohridski University of Sofia, Bulgaria. She teaches Victorian and Early Twentieth-Century English Literature, English Modernism and Migrant Writing. Her publications include numerous articles on D.H. Lawrence, chapters on Slavic and Bulgarian modernism in Paul Poplawski’s The Encyclopedia of Literary Modernism (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2003) and on D.H. Lawrence’s Bulgarian reception in The Reception of D.H. Lawrence in Europe (London: Continuum, 2007). She has recently published Dialogues in Exile: Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, Eva Hoffman (Sofia: Polis, 2010).

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