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“The novel is […] so incapable of the absolute.” D. H. Lawrence’s Evolving Views on the Relative and the Absolute in the Novel

Jonathan Long

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1Early on in his 1925 essay “The Novel” Lawrence wrote: “The novel is the highest form of human expression so far attained. Why? Because it is so incapable of the absolute.” (STH 179) That essay was one of a number of essays written in the 1920s about the function of the novel. This essay will examine Lawrence’s evolving views about the relative and the absolute in the novel, culminating with an essay little discussed in this context, “A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”

2A good number of studies have already been written about the development of Lawrence as a novelist and how his philosophy evolved in his novels, for example Alistair Niven’s 1978 study, D. H. Lawrence: The Novels, John Worthen’s 1979 survey D. H. Lawrence and the Idea of the Novel and Michael Bell’s D. H. Lawrence: Language and Being, published in 1992. The latter sees Lawrence’s novels as “summative milestones” marking “the phases of his career” (10), in a way that would not be so productive with other genres. These studies tend not to examine in any great detail the essays on the novel itself. Yet Lawrence’s thinking about the novel was a mainstream part of his philosophy, often referred to by him. For example, in his correspondence, his famous letter to Edward Garnett of 5th June 1914, written from Lerici, set out what Frank Kermode in his study of Lawrence’s novels called “as radical a departure from the classic conventions as any proposed since; for it rejects ‘character,’ ‘development’ and so forth as so many shibboleths, customary but not essential attributes of the novel, having no necessary place in it” (28). Having rejected what Lawrence called the “certain moral scheme” he found in Turgenev, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy he went on to explain:

You mustn’t look in my novel for the old stable ego of the character. There is another ego, according to whose action the individual is unrecognisable, and passes through, as it were, allotropic states which it needs a deeper sense than any we’ve been used to exercise, to discover are states of the same single radically-unchanged element. (Like as diamond and coal are the same pure single element of carbon. The ordinary novel would trace the history of the diamond –but I say “diamond, what! This is carbon.” And my diamond might be coal or soot, and my theme is carbon.) […] don’t look for the development of the novel to follow the lines of certain characters: the characters fall into the form of some other rhythmic form, like when one draws a fiddle-bow across a fine tray delicately sanded, the sand takes lines unknown. (2L 183-4)

3Conscious of the fact that even David J. Gordon’s full-length study published in 1966, D. H. Lawrence as a Literary Critic, has a relatively short and incomplete account of Lawrence’s theory of the novel (62-74), and noting Joan Douglas Peters’ novel deconstructive analysis of a number of passages in the essays, in her article “Rhetoric as Idea: D. H. Lawrence’s Genre Theory,” published in 2000, I will review each of the essays in turn and aim to draw out a clear pattern from them. The schedule accompanying this essay summarises the chronology of their composition, publication and themes.

4Lawrence’s essays on the novel should be set in the context of his literary criticism generally. As well as his book reviews he wrote single author essays on writers such as Rachel Annand Taylor (this essay dating back to 1910), Thomas Hardy and John Galsworthy, plus of course his Studies in Classic American Literature, with individual chapters devoted to now well-known American writers. The essays on the novel were written relatively late, from 1923 onwards, bearing in mind his longstanding concerns about the novel, the philosophy in the novels themselves developing in a clear way from the publication of The White Peacock in 1911 to that of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1928. Although not apparently conceived as such, the essays do form a body of writing on their own, and collectively follow a loose but clear logical argument, a pattern evolving over their period of composition. That logic is in the sequence, not in general in the essays themselves, where arguments go off in all directions, rely heavily on a wide variety of references and metaphor, and as Peter Preston described it are “explosive and polyphonic” (Preston, Logic and Emotion in Lawrence’s Late Literary Criticism,” 63) and “subversive and challenging” (Preston, Working with Lawrence, 251). Equally they should not be seen as divorced from his earlier literary criticism, nor the more confrontational style appearing in his later novels, Mr. Noon, Aaron’s Rod and Kangaroo.

5The most important conclusion from the essays is that the novel is the book of life, and should be centred on the relative and avoid absolutes that determine a novel’s course. If characters in a novel follow a pattern, it is bound to fail –as Lawrence put it succinctly in Kangaroo, “Life is so wonderful and complex, and always relative” (267). This thinking had a contemporary parallel in physics. In 1921 Lawrence read Albert Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and General Theory and wrote that he liked him “for taking out the pin which fixed down our fluttering little physical universe” (4L 37), reflecting his understanding of the Special Theory, a clear contrast to the more fixed or absolute theory of Isaac Newton in his First Law of Motion. These ideas are discussed further in Fantasia of the Unconscious (FU 72:3-23 and 167:5-17).

6The first essay in the series was “The Future of the Novel,” published in the Literary Digest International Book Review in April 1923 under the title “Surgery for the Novel –Or a Bomb.” Thomas Seltzer, Lawrence’s American publisher at that time, asked him to write an article, following on from his disappointment with James Joyce’s Ulysses. The essay is a well-structured and in places mocking critique of the novels of many of his contemporaries, from the modernist to the popular, from Joyce, Proust and Dorothy Richardson to Zane Grey and Sinclair Lewis, a typical sentence reading:

Through thousands and thousands of pages Mr Joyce and Miss Richardson tear themselves into pieces, strip their smallest emotions to the finest threads till you feel you are sewed inside a wool mattress that is being slowly shaken up, and you are turning to wool along with the rest of the woollyness. (STH 152)

7There is a serious point in the essay though and in a passage anticipating the first page of Lady Chatterley’s Lover he wrote: “Some convulsions or cataclysm will have to get the serious novel out of its self-consciousness. The last great war made it worse. What’s to be done?” (STH 152)

8Lawrence’s solution was for books to be written that “put a new impulse into the world” (STH 154) such as the Gospels, the problem being that “philosophy and fiction got split” as he put it (STH 154). In his conclusion he stated that:

The novel has got a future. Its future is to take the place of gospels, philosophies, and the present-day novel as we know it. It’s got to have the courage to tackle new propositions without using abstractions; it’s got to present us with new, really new feelings, a whole new line of emotion, which will get us out of the old emotional rut. (STH 155)

9This essay reflects concerns about the contemporary novel expressed only months before in Kangaroo, particularly in chapters XIV and XV. There Lawrence included a discussion about relativity (109:36-110:4), and numerous references to the relative and the absolute (e.g. 280:14). It was clearly a novel that Lawrence thought met the new criteria he described in the essay. In one of his letters he called it a “thought adventure” (4L 353), a phrase used in the novel. Interestingly it would appear that Seltzer picked this up as his dust jacket for Kangaroo emphasises how new the content of the book was and that (in a probable allusion to the title of the essay) “[p]erhaps this is the beginning of the novel of the future.”

10By the end of 1923 Lawrence was planning a series of six articles for John Middleton Murry’s new journal Adelphi (4L 549). The two with the working titles “On Writing a Book” and “On Reading a Book” were probably combined in one called “Books.” It was not taken by Murry and was unpublished in Lawrence’s lifetime. The article repeatedly refers to the concept of man being a thought-adventurer. As Lawrence saw it though, man has lost his way and proposes that books might be nothing more than “printed toys” to amuse himself with. Man has only survived periods of decay such as the Dark Ages because of monasteries, “the little arks keeping the adventure afloat […] The monks and bishops of the early Church carried the souls and spirit of man unbroken, unabated, undiminished over the howling flood of the Dark Ages.” (RDP 199-200). Lawrence concluded his argument by saying that man should not leave everything to fate and must “never give up the adventure” (RDP 200). As he saw it the “Christian venture is done […] We must start on a new venture toward God.” (RDP 200). Although there are few references to books in the article, the inference to be drawn is that the novel is not a toy and must be used wisely to further this thought-adventure.

11Lawrence further developed his theme of the value of the novel in a series of three articles about its nature and significance, completed by June 1925. They were entitled “The Novel,” “Art and Morality” and “Morality and the Novel.” The last two of these were published in the November and December 1925 issues of the Calendar of Modern Letters. The central argument of “Morality and the Novel” is that the novel is the perfect medium for describing the changing relationships of man and woman, but writers should respect those changes and not force any conclusions. To do otherwise would be immoral. Some might argue that this is exactly what Lawrence did in The Plumed Serpent, a novel clearly full of dogma and directed towards a particular outcome. But in this article Lawrence wrote:

Now here we see the beauty and the great value of the novel. Philosophy, religion, science, they are all of them busy nailing things down, to get a stable equilibrium. Religion, with its nailed down One God, who says Thou shalt, Thou shan’t, and hammers home every time; philosophy, with its fixed ideas; science, with its “laws”: they all of them, all of the time, want to nail us on to some tree or other.

But the novel, no. The novel is the highest complex of subtle interrelatedness that man has discovered. Everything is true in its own time, place, circumstance, and untrue outside of its own place, time, circumstance. If you try to nail anything down, in the novel, either it kills the novel, or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail. (STH 172)

12Lawrence expressed very clearly his views on the novel and the relative and the absolute, going on to say that “The novel is a perfect medium for revealing to us the changing rainbow of our living relationships. The novel can help us to live, as nothing else can: no didactic Scripture, anyhow.” (STH 175). The importance of this is reinforced in “Art and Morality,” an essay mainly focused on the visual arts, where Lawrence noted that:

What art has got to do, and will go on doing, is to reveal things in their different relationships […] Nothing is true, or good, or right, except in its own living relatedness to its own circumambient universe; to the things that are in the stream with it. (STH 166-7)

13The essay “The Novel” first appeared in Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine, published in December 1925 by the Centaur Press. It had suggested that Lawrence write an essay on the novel. The essay continues the theme of relational aesthetics, the focus on human relations and their social context. The essay can be summarised in the following passage:

The novel is a great discovery: far greater than Galileo’s telescope or somebody else’s wireless. The novel is the highest form of human expression so far attained. Why? Because it is so incapable of the absolute.
In a novel, everything is relative to everything else, if that novel is art at all. There may be didactic bits, but they aren’t the novel. (
STH 179)

14In Lawrence’s view many novels and novelists fail because of their insistence on absolutes, or didactic principles that control the development of the novel and what happens to the characters in it. The essay condemns Tolstoy, Flaubert, Conrad and Joyce among others for these failings and again praises the Bible as “the purpose and the inspiration were almost one” (STH 181). He continued:

Everything is relative. Every Commandment that ever issued out of the mouth of God or man, is strictly relative: adhering to the particular time, place and circumstance.
And this is the beauty of the novel; everything is true in its own relationship, and no further. (
STH 185)

15Tolstoy came in for extended criticism. For Lawrence the novel should have three great merits. First, it should be “quick,” not dead: Pierre in War and Peace was “so limited,” “[t]he really quick, Tolstoi loved to kill them off or muss them over” (STH 184).

16Secondly “the novel [should contain] no didactive absolute” (STH 183) and should be “[i]nterrelated in all its parts, vitally, organically” (STH 186). But as Lawrence said of Tolstoy: “Count Tolstoi had that last weakness of a great man: he wanted the absolute: the absolute of love, if you like to call it that” (STH 187). So having been inspired to approve of the relationship between Vronsky and Anna Karenina, social convention required him to disapprove of it.

17Thirdly the novel must be ‘[h]onorable’ (STH 186), the novelist being true to himself and not self-conscious. But Lawrence saw War and Peace as “downright dishonourable, with that fat, diluted Pierre for a hero, stuck up as preferable and desirable, when everybody knows that he wasn’t attractive, even to Tolstoi” (STH 186).

18The last two essays in the series, both probably written in November 1925 and published posthumously in Phoenix, were “Why the Novel Matters” and “The Novel and the Feelings.” In the first, taking his argument in stages, Lawrence stressed the utmost importance of life and why:

being a novelist, I consider myself superior to the saint, the scientist, the philosopher and the poet, who are all great masters of different bits of man-alive, but never get the whole hog.

The novel is the one bright book of life. (STH 195)

19Lawrence considers that novels should not contain any “dazzling revelation” or “supreme Word,” “All things flow and change, and even change is not absolute” (STH 196). As he saw it, the novel has a great therapeutic and educational purpose, demonstrating to us how to live, concluding:

only in the novel are all things given full play, when we realise that life itself, and not inert safety, is the reason for living. For out of the full play of all things emerges the only thing that is anything, the wholeness of a man, the wholeness of a woman, man alive, and live woman. (STH 198)

20Turning to “The Novel and the Feelings,” this fairly short essay addresses the problem of how relatively little we know about ourselves as opposed to the world around us. In Lawrence’s view we have “no language for the feelings” (STH 203) and need to educate ourselves. As with “Art and Morality” in which Lawrence dismissed the then modern technology of the Kodak camera, here he cast aspersions on the radio:

Now we have to educate ourselves, not by laying down laws and inscribing tablets of stone, but by listening. Not listening-in to noises from Chicago or Timbuctoo. But listening-in to the voices of the honourable beasts that call in the dark paths of the veins of our body, from the God in the heart […]
If we can’t hear the cries far down in our forests of dark veins, we can look in the real novels, and there listen in. Not listen to the didactic statements of the author, but to the low, calling cries of the characters, as they wander in the dark woods of their destiny. (
STH 205)

21In this final paragraph of the essay is the only reference to the novel, but the overall message is clear: in the modern world we have lost touch with our feelings and novelists need to write in a language that connects us with our inner selves. Our “knowledge […] never gets there” (STH 201) is a central theme of this essay, developed in the 1928 article “Hymns in a Man’s Life” where Lawrence stated that “the great and fatal fruit of our civilisation, which is a civilisation based on knowledge, and hostile to experience, is boredom.” (LEA 131)

22“À Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover” was probably written late in 1929 and is an extended version of the introduction to the Paris Edition of the book, published in May 1929 and called there “My Skirmish with Jolly Roger.” The shorter version focuses on the immediate background to the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the pirated copies of the book he was trying to compete with and the justification for its explicit content. In addition, in the extended version, Lawrence bemoaned the absence of “real feelings” in the world (LCL 311) as referred to in the earlier essays, feelings including sexual feelings. Interestingly, he singled out the Catholic Church, especially in the south, as having an understanding of sex provided that it is the foundation of marriage. And marriage Lawrence considered here to be the Christian church’s greatest contribution to the world. But there are other parallels with the earlier essays on the novel. He recorded further his thinking about the great purpose of the novel and what it can achieve. For example, he stated that:

And in spite of all antagonism, I put forward this novel as an honest, healthy book, necessary for us today […] And this is the real point of this book. I want men and women to be able to think sex fully, completely, honestly, and cleanly. (LCL 307-8)

23He also continued his argument about the damaging effects of modern civilisation:

The radio and the film are mere counterfeit emotion all the time, the current press and literature the same. (LCL 312)

24This passage is a clear reference back to “Art and Morality” and the criticism of the world of radio and other technology.

25To conclude, there is a clear progression, a logical sequence, from the first of these essays onwards. Starting with the problem of the contemporary novel and then the need for man to be a thought-adventurer, the novel is argued to be the perfect medium for revealing the changing relationships between man and woman. The argument is developed so that the novel is the place to demonstrate such relativity. Furthermore, it is the book of life but the language of the feelings in these relationships needs to be developed. The prominent message in these essays, albeit not spelt out in all of them, is Lawrence’s belief that the novel is the place for the relative but not the absolute. By adopting this philosophy particularly in his later novels Lawrence moved right away from his earlier ones, and as Bell states “[i]t is no accident that Lawrence is at once the culmination of the English novel and the writer in whom it most completely fragments” (12).

Essay Title/ Alternative Title

MS no.

Date written by

Published where and date


“Surgery for the Novel - Or a Bomb”/ “The Future of the Novel”


Jan 1923

Literary Digest International Book Review April 1923 (C105)

The problems of contemporary novels, modernist or popular; unselfconscious fiction and philosophy should reunite as a ‘thought-adventure’



early 1924

Phoenix 1936 (A76)

The difficulty of man expecting fate to sort out problems after a catastrophe; he must be a thought-adventurer and start on a ‘new venture towards God’

“Morality and the Novel”


June 1925

Calendar of Modern Letters Dec 1925 (C135)

The novel is the perfect medium for revealing the changing relationships between man and woman. If it deals well with ‘true’ and ‘vivid relationships’ then it is ‘moral’

“The Novel”/ “The Modern Novel”


June 1925

Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine 1925 (A32)

The novel is the highest form of human expression but fails if its general principles (absolutes) direct characters’ destinies

“Why the Novel Matters”


?Nov. 1925

Phoenix 1936 (A76)

The novel is the book of life and the best genre to show up depictions of false consciousness

“The Novel and the Feelings”


?Nov. 1925

Phoenix 1936 (A76)

‘We have no language for the feelings’ – knowing and feeling are split apart by contemporary crises, which for writers is language

“À Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover”

(extended version of “My Skirmish

with Jolly Roger” )


Late 1929

24.6.1930 A48b

The need for real feelings; the great purpose of the novel

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

Bien, Peter. “The Critical Philosophy of D. H. Lawrence,” in D. H. Lawrence Review. Vol. 17 No.2 (Summer 1984), 127-134.

Gordon, David J. D. H. Lawrence as a Literary Critic. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1966.

Kermode, Frank. D. H. Lawrence. London: Fontana, 1973.

Lawrence, D. H. “A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover” in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Ed. Michael Squires. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993, 305-35.

. “Books” in Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays. Ed. Michael Herbert. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988, 197-200.

. “The Future of the Novel [Surgery for the Novel or a Bomb]” in Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays. Ed. Bruce Steele. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985, 151-5.

. Hymns in a Man’s Life,” in Late Essays and Articles. Ed. James T. Boulton. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005, 130-4.

. Kangaroo. Ed. Bruce Steele. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

. The Letters of D. H. Lawrence Volume One: September 1901 – May 1913. Ed. James T. Boulton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

. The Letters of D. H. Lawrence Volume Two: June 1913 – October 1916. Ed. George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

. The Letters of D. H. Lawrence Volume Three: October 1916 – June 1921. Ed. James T. Boulton and Andrew Robertson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

. The Letters of D. H. Lawrence Volume Four: June 1921 – March 1924. Ed. Warren Roberts James T. Boulton and Elizabeth Mansfield. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

. The Letters of D. H. Lawrence Volume Five: March 1924 – March 1927. Ed. James T. Boulton and Lindeth Vasey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

. The Letters of D. H. Lawrence Volume Six: March 1927 – November 1928. Ed. James T. Boulton and Margaret Boulton with Gerald M. Lacy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

. The Letters of D. H. Lawrence Volume Seven: November 1928 – February 1930. Ed. Keith Sagar and James T. Boulton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

. The Letters of D. H. Lawrence Volume Eight: Previously Uncollected Letters. Ed. James T. Boulton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

.Morality and the Novel,” in Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays. Ed. Bruce Steele. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985, 171-6, 241-5.

. “The Novel,” in Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays. Ed. Bruce Steele. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985, 179-90.

. “The Novel and the Feelings,” in Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays. Ed. Bruce Steele. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985, 201-5.

. Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious and Fantasia of the Unconscious. Ed. Bruce Steele. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004.

. “Why the Novel Matters,” in Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays. Ed. Bruce Steele. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985, 193-8.

Leavis, F. R. D. H. Lawrence: Novelist. London: Chatto & Windus, 1955.

Niven, Alistair. D. H. Lawrence: The Novels. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1978.

Peters, Joan Douglas. “Rhetoric as Idea: D. H. Lawrence’s Genre Theory,” in Style, Vol. 34, No.1 (Spring 2000), 36-51.

Preston, Peter. “The Novel and the Nail: Metaphor and Form in Lawrence’s Essays on the Novel,” in Working with Lawrence: Texts, Places, Contexts. Nottingham: Critical, Cultural and Communications Press, 2011.

. “Logic and Emotion in Lawrence’s Late Literary Criticism,” in Études Lawrenciennes, 42 | 2011, 59-74.

Roberts, Warren and Poplawski, Paul. A Bibliography of D. H. Lawrence. Third Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Worthen, John. D. H. Lawrence and the Idea of the Novel. London: Macmillan, 1979.

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Jonathan Long, « “The novel is […] so incapable of the absolute.” D. H. Lawrence’s Evolving Views on the Relative and the Absolute in 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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Jonathan Long

Jonathan Long is a solicitor advising farming clients in the East of England. He graduated in Law at the University of London in 1981. He has been a Lawrence enthusiast for over 35 years (with a particular interest in Lawrence’s biography and bibliography), and is a member of the D. H. Lawrence Societies of England, North America and Australia. He is a regular contributor to the Newsletter and to the Journal of the D. H. Lawrence Society in England and has delivered papers there. He is also a contributor to the Journal of the D. H. Lawrence Society of Australia. At the Arras conference in 2012 he delivered a paper entitled D. H. Lawrence and Book Publication During the Great War: a Study in Stagnation.

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