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1It is well known that Lawrence made a high claim for the novel as uniquely suited for expressing and exploring the relational nature of life judgements. While this remains a classic account of the novel’s truth value there may be something to add, a silent premise regarding the creative dynamic of the form. For the novel is ultimately powered by the absolute. Considering Lawrence within the history of the European novel both before and after his time brings out the significance of this otherwise rather abstract point.

2All human beings live between the absolute and the relative as inevitably as they live between earth and sky. Indeed, without the fixity, which is to say the relative fixity, of the one and the constant mobility of the other, human life would be impossible. So, for example, a founding principle of culture across much of the globe is the Mosaic injunction “Thou shalt not” although all three of the Abrahamic religions permit killing, and indeed plenty of it has been done in their names. This is not necessarily hypocrisy or contradiction. The absoluteness of the mythic commandment signals the sacredness of human life as a matter beyond instrumental and pragmatic calculation even as it has to be made subject to everyday secular and theological administration. As with many of the great problems and mysteries of human existence the familiar nature of this disparity makes it banal and therefore apparently unproblematic so the question to be posed to Lawrence is “thou knowst ‘tis common […] Why seems it so particular with thee?”

3At a very general level the answer has to be that Lawrence’s especially vivid sense of life made him resistant to banality in all spheres whether sensual, intellectual or moral. Indeed, my very invoking of these categories is already to impose a banalising and un-Lawrencean order on the holism of experience. By contrast, Lawrence seems to have felt the inseparable connection between responsiveness and responsibility in such a way that the reader too can feel it on the pulses. And these are the two primary directions in which the relative and the absolute are to be encountered. Responsiveness picks out the irreducible individuality of experience while responsibility implies some general ethical principle, or some order of values beyond the immediate occasion. In the abstract, these would seem to pull in different directions but Lawrence rather shows how their combination, like the opposed thumbs on the hand, is what makes it possible to handle experience at all. At the same time, his career overall shows the irresolvable difficulty of living with the absolute within the relative.

  • 1 Women in Love. Ed. David Farmer, Lindeth Vasey and John Worthen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Pr (...)

4The question has an historical dimension in so far as the evident tendency of civilisation in the West over the long durée has been towards an increasing acceptance of the relative in many spheres including the social and political. So, for example, it no longer seems necessary for all members of a society to share a common religious faith and observance. It took some centuries to achieve this general recognition but both principles remain necessary and in the most recent phases of post-Enlightenment modernity, the relative has become accepted as the default norm in a way that is perhaps even more problematic for both intellectual understanding and practical governance. In a predominantly utilitarian and instrumental order, the absolute has come to seem the exclusive preserve of fanatics. Its positive role in the collective infrastructure is largely unconscious which is why it has to be submitted to what Lawrence called “the struggle into verbal consciousness.”1

  • 2 Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays. Ed. Bruce Steele (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 19 (...)
  • 3 Critique of Practical Reason. Edited and translated by Lewis White Beck (New York: Macmillan, 1993) (...)

5Lawrence’s sense of the absolute may be clarified and historicised by comparison with one of its most famous, or notorious, enlightenment manifestations: the “categorical imperative” of Immanuel Kant. Lawrence, of course, in horror at Kant’s rigorous intellectualism, called him “that beastly Kant” but the rigour of his moral conception has disturbed more than Lawrence.2 Kant declared the principle of telling the truth to be so absolute that if an intending killer came to the door enquiring after his victim hiding in the house one was bound to tell the truth even to him. This has shocked many including Kant’s near contemporary, the French novelist Benjamin Constant, and rightly so but I would think the significance to be drawn from Kant’s stance here is not at the level of practical moral wisdom or ethical guidance. It is rather that Kant had such a powerful, non-banal appreciation of the mystery of the moral law as such. Whereas most human beings are immersed in the continuous process of the moral life, the endless decisions and discriminations that it requires, Kant, as a transcendental philosopher, was gripped by the mysterious fact that human life has a moral dimension at all. He expressed this by comparing the sublimity of the moral law to that of the starry firmament. His recognition is like a powerful x-ray vision that “sees through” the everyday order of practical morality not by exposing it as illusory or wrong but by transforming the understanding of it, and that intensity is the point of chiasmic parallel with Lawrence. The difference, however, lies in Lawrence’s post-romantic absolutism being one of feeling. Although as categorical in its way as Kant’s, his absolute was frankly personal and emotional. By contrast, Kant distrusted the appeal to emotion and particularly in its then fashionable form of moral sentimentalism, the attempt to base the moral life on humane feeling. Taking an extreme stand against the eighteenth-century’s sentimentalist turn of which Lawrence is a descendant, he declared that if a moral act was performed out of benevolent feeling, then one could not be sure that it was a moral act.3 One can only be sure of the moral character of acts performed out of duty uncontaminated, as it were, by emotional inclination. Once again, the sublime principle of Duty cuts, quite deliberately, against the grain of common sense and common feeling and, despite their obvious differences, the parallel with Lawrence is that the absolute asserts itself so directly and uncomfortably. And even their difference may be partly a matter of emphasis and style rather than substance since Kant acknowledged the subjective dimension in the recognition of Duty while Lawrence acknowledged an impersonal dimension to the life of feeling. Both were gripped by a philosophical intuition into the cosmic conditions of the moral self, a mystery before which the distinctions of inner and outer, or subjective and objective, begin to shimmer.

6The contrast with Kant’s rigorism indicates why Lawrence, in various comments dating mainly from the mid nineteen-twenties, should have praised the novel for its relativity, but it is more accurate to say that the novel provides the arena in which the absolute and the relative seek a mutual modus vivendi. The relative, that is to say, is not a simple given, and throughout the history of the European novel it takes its meaning only from its relation to the absolute.

7Cervantes’s Don Quixote, widely regarded as a, if not the, founding text of the novel in Europe, took this problematic as its central theme and then increasingly incorporated it into the formal self-consciousness of the narrative especially in Part II, the sequel which was published in 1615 some ten years after Part I. Cervantes’s hero suffers from two interrelated errors: ontological and historical. He mistakes fictional beings for real ones and he seeks anachronistically to live by the values of medieval chivalry. But what gives his errors their now archetypal import is their absolutism. In chapter 9 of Part I, the hero insists that a group of merchants encountered on the road should acknowledge his lady, Dulcinea del Toboso, as the most beautiful of women. For him, she is, as the merchants discover, literally incomparable. In a preliminary attempt to reason with him, they point out that they are not able to judge the beauty of a lady they have not seen. To which objection Don Quixote replies that their acknowledgement will be rendered the more valuable by its being so pure, so uncontaminated, as it were, by such mundanely experiential considerations. Some readers have seen in this episode a parodic reflection on the contemporary situation of the Moors and the Jews in Spain who had been obliged to acknowledge the Christian version of God. For Cervantes’s Spain, after the triumph of the Catholic monarchy in 1492, increasingly asserted a spirit of absolutism.

  • 4 Vida de Don Quixote y Sancho (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1964), 37.

8But if the mad knight is the principal means of parodying this religious and political absolutism persisting into early modernity, he is also a deeply ambivalent, multi-faceted figure who bravely affirms a noble moral ideal against the corruption and frivolity of everyday life. This is the positive aspect by which he was gradually romanticised into the archetype of moral idealism in eternal losing battle with the debasement of the world. This reading reached its zenith perhaps in Miguel de Unamuno who compared Don Quixote approvingly to Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order as soldiers of Christ, and saw in the episode of the merchants a true, if ironic, image of religious faith.4

9The novel, Don Quixote, in other words, has been understood to endorse a spirit of both relativism and absolutism while the narrative voice, the fictional persona of Cervantes, remains ironically elusive. In chapter 9, one of the merchants’ party, an irascible Basque, undertakes to fight Don Quixote but at this point “Cervantes” intervenes to inform the reader that he has obtained the whole story as a translation from a Moorish historian, Cide Hamete Benengeli. Since the Moors were proverbially regarded in contemporary Christian Spain as liars as well as enemies, this throws the whole authority of the narrative itself into question. In this way, Cide Hamete is, among other things, a figure of Cervantes’s ironic abnegation of authority even as he presides over a work full of moral and philosophical conundrums calling out for judgements and solutions.

10Cervantes’s genius was to place the inveterate, perhaps necessary, absolutism of the human psyche within the endless relativity of the world and the nature of his achievement is best shown by the rarity of its parallels in the subsequent history of the novel. The humane generosity of Cervantes was consciously emulated in the eighteenth-century British novelists Fielding, Sterne and Smollett but despite the sense of wayward exuberance in their fiction, it is always under the ultimate control of an authorial ideology if not outright opinion. The novel, as a socially capacious form, inevitably represents a world view of some kind, even if this is not fully conscious to the author, and the great instances of the genre are those in which this is best disguised, naturalised or made plausible. The values of a realist novel are characteristically effective only in so far as they seem immanent to a convincing representation of common experience rather than imposed by the author, what Lawrence called the “thumb in the scale” (STH 172). Lawrence’s literary generation was acutely aware of this, which is why he and several of his contemporaries incorporated this recognition in self-consciously mythopoeic structures underwriting their narrative worlds. Lawrence declared, in his “Study of Thomas Hardy,” that every novelist has a “metaphysic” and the critical question is whether this kills off the fiction or is sustained by it (STH 89). Lawrence not only grappled creatively with this question of the absolute but also thematised it within his fiction and two such occasions are particularly illuminating.

11The first is the “Cathedral” episode in The Rainbow which is pivotal at several levels occurring as it does at the centre of a novel constructed on multiple comparisons between successive generations and between different branches of the same family stock. Anna does not share Will’s ecstasy in the cathedral and indeed has good reason to resent it as he invests sexual emotion into a religio-aesthetic aspiration. Her hostile reaction relativises what for him had previously been an absolute world:

  • 5 The Rainbow. Ed. Mark Kinkead-Weekes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 190-1.

[…] he felt that his cathedrals would never again be to him what they had been before. Before, he had thought them absolute. But now he saw them crouching under the sky, with still the dark, mysterious world of reality inside, but as a world within a world, a sort of side show, whereas before they had been as a world to him within a chaos: a reality, an order, an absolute, within a meaningless confusion.5

12The echoing salience of the word “before” signals a pivotal moment in their relationship. It is the end of the opening, honeymoon period of their marriage and inaugurates their subsequent separation of spheres. She will immerse herself in motherhood while he will continue to tend the church building but more in the spirit of an absorbing hobby. In the immediate episode it is Will who is seen as yearning for the absolute while she responds sympathetically to the mocking carvings. Yet although she at this moment is seen as upholding the spirit of relativism, her turn to motherhood is in its own way just as absolute and exclusive. Maybe the significant difference is that he projects the absolute as an object of consciousness outside himself whereas her absolute, being an inevitable aspect of herself, is not thought of in that way. Perhaps there is some analogy here with the way a novel either seeks to affirm its absolutes or seems simply to live them. Likewise, Lawrence’s discursive emphasis on the relativity of the novel form may reflect how the discriminations of relativity are usually the focus of conscious attention while the absolute, whether in life or in fiction, is an assumed aspect of the self, or the world, and commonly lurks as an unconscious order behind the immediate moral concern. What matters, therefore, is not whether one person is more absolutist than another but the mode of being in which it is manifest. The mode of being is what divides Will and Anna as their relationship becomes increasingly polarised rather than complementary. The contrast between his idealistic intensity and her emotional holism, which might have been mutually transformative, only drives them reactively apart.

13In focusing their different modes of being, the episode is also pivotal within the whole family history. As the late nineteenth-century, middle generation of the novel Anna and Will have memory of the ancestral life form but can no longer sustain it. This is not just because the world is changing around them, but because of changes within themselves. Anna still feels something of the religio-cosmic holism of the earlier generations whereas Will has fallen into an increasingly self-fulfilling dualism. For him, the only alternative to his idealised absolute world is “chaos” and “meaningless confusion” so that, as Anna retreats into motherhood, he feels the birth pangs of a now familiar, post-religious modernity.

14Of course, historically speaking, this vast change does not occur in one generation. Lawrence is representing the compacted outcome of a much longer durée and in this respect Will’s experience in the cathedral of dislodging the absolute encapsulates a pivotal process extending from the middle ages. In that regard, the setting is highly appropriate. Although Will is a very recognisable late nineteenth-century disciple of Morris and Ruskin, harking back to an idealised medieval world, he enters a real medieval building and invokes for the alert reader the much longer psychological and metaphysical developments that have led up to modernity. At one level the absolute has lost its power and its institutional recognition. But it also lives on in more problematic and unaccountable ways. It has become dispersed, subjectivised and open to fetishisation; a fetishisation of which late nineteenth-century medievalism is itself arguably an example.

15The joint project of The Rainbow and Women in Love is generally recognised as Lawrence’s supreme achievement as a novelist and it is well-known how he struggled with the form of both novels. That struggle can be configured as between the absolute and the relative with different outcomes reflected in the division into two quite different narrative types. In this respect, there is a pivotal shift between these two novels which are themselves jointly pivotal in his novelistic career. In these two novels Lawrence’s metaphysic achieved its mature vision. The Rainbow, written mainly before the war and about an earlier world, combines a secular post-Darwinian understanding of human cultural evolution with the Biblical myth of Genesis. The struggle of Will and Anna is itself contained within this complex myth of origins and purpose. Women in Love, by contrast, engages Lawrence’s contemporary world and was written or rewritten during the Great War. The second novel is more exploratory and less securely teleological. The unresolved argument on which it ends heralds the open endings of much of his subsequent long fiction. The visionary confidence of the narrative voice in The Rainbow is largely replaced by Birkin, a spokesman mocked in the book and acutely aware of his own inability to establish, or even to represent adequately, the saving vision. Putting the point more generally, it might be said that the mythopoeic narratives of the modernist generation, such as The Rainbow, were a supreme achievement in so far as they recognised the human creation of world even while they represented their specific worlds with persuasive impersonality. But in another way, although their mythopoeia gave these fictions a more supply self-aware and intrinsic authority, it also constituted the last redoubt of the absolute as it was eaten away by relativity.

  • 6 Kangaroo. Ed. Bruce Steele (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 267.

16In Lawrence’s case, this can be seen by comparison with a later moment of reflection on the absolute: the chapter ‘Revenge!’ Timotheus Cries” in Kangaroo. Significantly, this chapter follows directly after the “Nightmare” chapter closely based on Lawrence’s war-time experience in England. Among many other things, the novel concerns the attempts by the self-reflexive Lawrencean figure, Richard Somers, who is a writer, a public intellectual, rather than specifically a novelist, to shuffle off his emotional absolutism which has become a black negative feeling, a surging rage, rather than the confident overall vision that might sustain impersonally the world of a novel. Kangaroo is the first of Lawrence’s pilgrimage novels exploring regions and cultures beyond the European. In these works the reader feels how Lawrence, like Anna Brangwen, carries his absolute within him. It animates his search and illuminates the worlds he encounters but it no longer provides a containing vision of the fictional world. The element of travelogue underwrites the episodic form of these novels and naturalises the degree to which their worlds are left uncontained by his. Or conversely, in The Plumed Serpent, where he does seek to contain Mexico within his “metaphysic,” the factitious nature of the attempt is evident in the many passages of strained rhetoric. And so in Kangaroo the characteristically merged voice of character and author declares: “Life makes no absolute statement” and then again: “And so it is. Life is so wonderful and complex, and always relative.”6 The same voice then goes on to dissolve the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount into their myriad unpredictable cases. This is hardly a new insight in itself and could have been expressed at any time in his career but its appearance here signals Lawrence’s abreaction from his own absolutist tendencies for which he no longer had a satisfactory novelistic arena. What was once a supple internal dynamic of the fiction has become an abstract problematic and the narrative form reflects the seismic shift in his post-war vision. If he still enjoys personally a version of Anna’s internal confidence, as a writer, he now suffers something akin to Will Brangwen’s frustrated absolutism.

17Lawrence produced in his later years marvellous stories and fables but he never again attempted the kind of novel he had achieved in the multiple internal relationalities of The Rainbow. Using a later terminology, he can be said to have undergone formally the shift from modernist to postmodernist not as a matter of literary fashion but as an inescapable reflection of epochal experience. At the same time, however, the spirit of his late fiction is far from the open-ended relativity commonly understood to define the postmodern. While the consensual authority of the novel form was dropping away, Lawrence’s prophetic urgency, his sense of absolute conviction, was unshaken and still serves, therefore, to reinforce the same general point. His oeuvre overall strikingly exemplifies, in both positive and negative ways, how the significance of the relative depends on the degree to which it is a coming to terms with the absolute.

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1 Women in Love. Ed. David Farmer, Lindeth Vasey and John Worthen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 486.

2 Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays. Ed. Bruce Steele (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 154. Hereafter STH.

3 Critique of Practical Reason. Edited and translated by Lewis White Beck (New York: Macmillan, 1993), 75-6.

4 Vida de Don Quixote y Sancho (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1964), 37.

5 The Rainbow. Ed. Mark Kinkead-Weekes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 190-1.

6 Kangaroo. Ed. Bruce Steele (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 267.

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Michael Bell, « The Absolute, the Relative and the Novel »Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 51 | 2020, mis en ligne le 09 juillet 2020, consulté le 21 octobre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Michael Bell

Michael Bell is Professor Emeritus at the University of Warwick and Associate Fellow of the Centre for Research in Philosophy and Literature. His principal publication on Lawrence is D. H. Lawrence: Language and Being (CUP, 1992). He has published much else on Lawrence including a chapter in his book Open Secrets; Literature, Education and Authority from J.-J. Rousseau to J. M. Coetzee (OUP, 2007).

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