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“Imprisoned within a limited, false set of concepts”: Posthuman Absoluteness and Relativity in Lawrence’s Women in Love1

Maria Trejling


Anyone who has seriously engaged with D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love has probably at some point been frustrated by its many inconsistencies. The characters repeatedly change their minds about and their attitudes towards different questions, while the text is often ambivalent about the meaning of its key words. Rather than pure relativism, this can however be seen as a dissatisfaction with the logocentric, dichotomous restrictions of human language—what Birkin calls an “[i]mprison[ment] within a limited, false set of concepts.” I here analyze how Women in Love simultaneously stages absolute opposition and an intertwined relation between the concept of the animal and that of the human, which parallels the relation between the absolute and the relative. The posthumanist perspective thus reveals the novel’s inconsistencies to be an active dismantling of anthropocentric preconceptions whose foundation is in human language, constructed as a system of absolutes that are defined in relation to each other. The contradictions are thus the result of the limitations of language, which steers human thought into dichotomies. By refusing to align itself with the humanist principles of coherence and consistency, the text uses words against themselves, thus rejecting logocentric ideals.

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  • 1 Parts of this paper originally appeared in my Master’s Thesis, “The Vulnerable Animals That Therefo (...)
  • 2 By relativity I mean relationality; A is B in relation to C. In other words, a cat is large in rela (...)
  • 3 Throughout this paper, the word language refers to human language. It can certainly be argued that (...)
  • 4 By animal I mean non-human animal, unless otherwise specified.

1D. H. Lawrence was a writer who, remarkably, often contradicted himself. At first glance, this may indicate that he was a relativist, lacking faith in the absolute truth of any one belief.2 However, in the essay “The Crown,” he argues that it is precisely the relation between things that “is timeless and absolute,” indicating that the concepts of relativity and absoluteness are not as mutually exclusive as they may seem (300). My intention is not to discuss the metaphysical implications of such a position; the purpose of this paper is epistemological rather than metaphysical. I mean to investigate Lawrence’s dissatisfaction with the human ability to explore these questions, focusing on the novel that is perhaps his most paradoxical one: Women in Love. Approaching the text from a posthumanist direction, I will show how its inner contradictions can be seen as a revolt against the humanist logocentric ideals of coherence and rationality. I shall thus examine how the human linguistic system restricts what ideas can be conceived, perhaps causing Lawrence’s statements to appear more paradoxical than they are. Thus the contradictions that are apparent can be registered both as a failure of lucid expression and as a strategy adopted with a view to the dismantling of humanist standards. More importantly however, they reveal the epistemological limitations which language imposes upon its users.3 I shall discuss this by examining the contradictions in the novel’s form, characters, and terminology, its suspicion regarding words. And I shall also examine the relationship between the concepts of the human and the animal,4 which, as I wish to demonstrate, is similar to that between absoluteness and relativity.

2Lawrence’s seeming contradictions become less mysterious when considered from a Post-Structuralist perspective on language. As Jacques Derrida puts it in “Differance,” “[t]he elements of signification function […] by the network of oppositions that distinguish them and relate them to one another” (285). In other words, the language through which Lawrence and the rest of us try to express our ideas is based upon absolute binaries that are defined in relation to each other. Hence, the design of the system through which we ponder these questions limits what we are able to think about them insofar as it predisposes us to a comprehension of the world in terms of dichotomies where the foundational terms are in opposition to each other. This is expressed in almost explicit terms in Women in Love, in the classroom scene where Birkin attacks Hermione’s hypocrisy. In response to her question as to whether children become “over-conscious” by education, he replies that the problem is rather that they become “[i]mprisoned within a limited, false set of concepts” (41). Such a suggestion pervades the entire novel, which engages with the question of how language confines human thinking, limiting the conceptual contours of the ideas through which we comprehend the world. Cary Wolfe discusses how the structures of language are “a precondition of our subjectivity,” and as such the source of a human vulnerability which thus defines the limits of our consciousness (57). In Women in Love, the vulnerability is explored through an engagement with the inadequacy of humans and their logos, through the repudiation of the principles that are the concomitant of logos, notably the requirement of conceptual consistency.

  • 5 In “The Crown” Lawrence argues precisely that the unification of opposites obliterates meaning: “It (...)

3A trenchant expression of this inadequacy can be found in one of Birkin and Ursula’s many discussions about love. Trying to construct an absolute they can both agree upon, Ursula claims that surely “love is the greatest,” in response to which Birkin exclaims that “[i]t’s a lie to say that love is the greatest. You might as well say that hate is the greatest, since the opposite of everything balances” (127). The declaration unsettles the semantic aspect of language: that something “might as well” be said as its opposite suggests that every statement entails its own contradiction, thus rendering it meaningless.5 Birkin’s assertion also denies the laws of logic by implying that paradoxes are actually the natural state of things: that a contradiction is not an impossibility, that it is indeed an inevitability. This is a persistent principle in Women in Love, which is full of characters who contradict themselves, advocating several opposing positions, or ones that are shown to be incompatible with their actions. Throughout the novel, Birkin uses an overwhelming amount of words to express a yearning for a “beyond, where there is no speech” (146). Hermione asserts that the mind, knowledge, and education “is death,” She nonetheless treasures a small piece of information which Birkin gives her about catkins as if it were a gem, exclaiming passionately that “it is the greatest thing in life –to know” (41, 86, Lawrence’s emphasis). Ursula identifies with animals because they are “single and unsocial as she herself” is, but twenty pages later she stresses that animals “are really unknown to us” (244, 264). This is not a matter of character development, where experiences and insights create new perspectives; the characters’ changes of mind fluctuate back and forth, discarding any form of stability or continuity. As Deanna Wendel observes, this novel tends “to adamantly state the opposite of a claim that, on the previous page, it asserted with fervor” (122). Similarly, Colin Clarke stresses Lawrence’s “manifest impulse […] towards the paradoxical” (18, Clarke’s emphasis). Women in Love is a text whose only consistency is its inconsistency.

4This can also be seen in what Michael Bell calls “the apparent instability of the core vocabulary” in Women in Love, through which the novel undermines its own terminology (106). Bell notes that the word individuality changes meaning depending on who speaks it, robbing it of “definitional fixity” (106). The same can be said of the word love, the meaning of which is interminably and unsuccessfully debated by Birkin and Ursula, who never seem able to articulate what this thing that they seek from each other is, yet they cannot help but keep trying to verbalize it. Similarly, the term inhuman is employed in a way that breaks down its connotations since it is constantly connected to things that are ostensibly opposites, some of which have positive and some of which have negative associations in the novel as a whole. Ursula longs for “the pure inhuman otherness of death” (194); Gerald is “inspired” by the “inhuman principle in the mechanism” that guides his management of the mines (228); Ursula is startled by the “uncanny and inhuman” appearance of “[s]ome yellowhammers” (264); Birkin’s “fingers upon” Ursula’s body are “inhuman” (320); and Ursula “believe[s] in something inhuman […] [which] comes out of the Unknown” (438). Hence, the inhuman can be found in things and in conditions as various as animals, industrialization, death, a loving touch, or the mystical universe. In addition, the word is often used to describe human characters, which thus seems to render it almost meaningless: if the inhuman can actually be a part of the human, it would appear not to be inhuman in the first place. Thus the way the term is used tends to merge opposites, invalidating the postulate that words are firm and coherent. The novel’s terminology consequently shows itself to be as unstable as the opinions of its characters.

  • 6 In comparison, a word such as run is also defined by its relation to other words, for example walk, (...)

5The three words I have used as examples, individuality, love, and inhuman, are all absolutes in the sense that they can be defined by their binary opposites: collectivity, hate, and human.6 However by destabilizing them and sometimes connecting them with their antonyms, Lawrence discloses their relativity. This does not make him an anachronistically early Post-Structuralist. Rather, his questioning stems from a distrust of language and an awareness of its semantic slipperiness, of the impact it has on human thinking. This distrust is repeatedly articulated in Women in Love, whose skepticism towards words is well established (Bell 99f). It is initially expressed at the beginning of the first chapter, at the end of its defining introductory dialogue which circles around some of the major themes of the novel. Ursula and Gudrun repeatedly find themselves unable to express their thoughts, the impasse finally leading to Gudrun’s dismissal of the usefulness of further discussion with the exclamation “What is it all but words!,” thereby implying that further talk is futile since human language cannot express what is significant (10). This is the first in a series of instances where the insufficiency of words is stated. There are numerous examples of the following kind: “She [Ursula] knew, as well as he [Birkin] knew, that words themselves do not convey meaning, that they are but a gesture we make, a dumb show like any other” and “What was the good of talking, any way? [sic] It must happen beyond the sound of words” (186, 250). The characters nevertheless seem unable to escape language. While many of Lawrence’s texts do indeed question the ability of words to be meaningful, the theme is of particular interest in Women in Love, which is since it is a very verbal novel, based on a succession of dialogues to such an extent that it sometimes appears to be one long discussion, with a few interruptions in which the characters move from one location to another. Thus the ideas expressed in the novel contradict its very form and medium.

6The disbelief in language can also be seen as an extension of Lawrence’s well-known dislike of mechanization. Wolfe stresses the “technicity or mechanicity” of language, pointing out the “ahuman” quality of it, which subjects humans to its limitations (56). In Women in Love there is a similar awareness of the enunciative subject’s lack of control over the language she is using, or which is using her. Jeff Wallace shows how humans and other animals are often depicted as mechanized in the novel (D. H. Lawrence 135f). This is most evident in Ursula’s amazement at the stupidity of Mrs. Salmon’s canaries when she learns that they “go to sleep automatically” if their cages are covered so that night seems to have arrived: “It really thinks the night has come! How absurd! Really, how can one have any respect for a creature that is so easily taken in!” (134f). However, the gullibility of the canaries is just an example of the “shared condition of mechanism or automatism” of all animals, including humans (Wallace, D. H. Lawrence 136). Ursula tends to be seduced by words almost as easily as the canaries are by darkness: “She was always frightened of words, because she knew that mere word-force could always make her believe what she did not believe” (437). It is tempting to echo her own mockery of the canaries: how indeed “can one have any respect for a creature that is so easily taken in!” (135). However, just as the canaries would probably be unable to decide that they want to base their sleep pattern on something other than a lack of daylight, so Ursula and Lawrence cannot escape language.

7It is this impossibility that Lawrence turns into a revolt by rejecting the principles of the logos, thus turning language back against itself. The numerous inconsistencies and contradictions I have discussed can thus be seen as an effect of the limitations and binary structure of human concepts and also as a strategy adopted in the endeavor to think outside these very limitations, by discarding their foundational principles of coherence and consistency. In other words, some contradictions may only be apparent, the effects of the structures of language. Words can thus be deemed unfit to convey truth. While the answer to question whether or not it is possible for a human to be inhuman may seem obvious, within a humanist, rationalist discourse that is founded upon dichotomies, if such a binary way of thinking is shown to be more problematic than our concepts initially suggested, then both the question and its possible answer become a more complex issue. Perhaps the human conceptualization of the world invents categories that are mere chimeras. To further illustrate this, I will now devote some space to a discussion of how the idea of the animal functions within Women in Love, and how this demonstrates the limitations of language. While the inhuman is closely connected to the animal, the two concepts are not necessarily the same thing, and, as will be seen, the relation between the animal and the human is an interesting parallel to that of absoluteness and relativity.

8Women in Love invites a posthumanist reading, partly through its overt scorn for humans. Birkin’s “dislike of mankind, of the mass of mankind, amount[s] almost to an illness” (61); Ursula thinks “there is no flowering, no dignity of human life” (126); and Gudrun and Loerke enjoy imagining “the destruction of the world by a ridiculous catastrophe of man’s invention” (453). However another posthumanist feature is the large number of animals to be found in the pages of the novel. Wallace even suggests it “can seem a novel about animals as much as about people” (“Introduction” XIII). Often, they are used as the antonym of human, the Other that defines what being a human means. In the scene where Gerald and Gudrun abuse the rabbit Bismarck, holding him “suspended from the ears” and making him utter “the unearthly, abhorrent scream of a rabbit in the fear of death,” the animal is used by the humans to insist upon their sense of rational superiority (240f). Bismarck is deemed to be acting like a “fool,” but nonetheless he is not “rabbit-mad,” because, as Gerald puts it, “[t]hat’s what it is to be a rabbit,” implying that Bismarck is not mad according to the already irrational standards of rabbits (242f, Lawrence’s emphasis). Thus, Gudrun and Gerald confirm their firm status as rational humans by contrasting it with the irrationality of rabbits, while justifying their violence towards Bismarck on the basis of his being their opposite. From a reversed perspective, Birkin and Ursula often praise animals, preferring them to human corruptness. Birkin thinks the world would be a better place without humans: “If only man was swept off the face of the earth, creation would go on so marvellously, with a new start, non-human,” leaving the innocent “trees and the grass and birds […] and hares and adders” to live in peace (128). Similarly, Ursula finds animals preferable to humans: “From the bottom of her heart, from the bottom of her soul, she despised and detested people […] She loved best of all the animals, that were single and unsocial as she herself was” (244). While Gudrun and Gerald’s contempt for Bismarck is in one sense radically different from Birkin and Ursula’s reverence for animals, the two positions share the dichotomous understanding of the animal as the antonym through which the human can be defined.

  • 7 It could certainly be argued that the instances where humans are described as animals suggest a spl (...)

9However the novel also puts forth another, apparently opposite position, namely that humans are animals. Hermione suggests that children would be better off if they were not educated but stayed “mere animals,” meaning that humans, at least before they are educated, are an animal species like any other (41). Gerald Doherty shows how the animal in Women in Love functions as a “root identity, […] an ever-present ‘within’ upon which man constructs a precarious species identity” (71). This root identity is not equally evident in the various characters or at different times: in Maxim, Gerald sees “the human animal,” while “Halliday was different […] The animal was not there at all” (77). Similarly, Birkin looks at Gerald and sees “not the physical, animal man, which he usually saw in Gerald, and which usually he liked so much, but the man himself” (207). Humans can at least sometimes be animals, just as the word inhuman can sometimes describe a human. Hence this is yet another one of the novel’s seeming contradictions: humans are animals, but animals are also the opposites of humans.7

  • 8 “The animal is a word, it is an appellation that men have instituted, a name they have given themse (...)
  • 9 “Beyond the edge of the so-called human, beyond it but by no means on a single opposing side, rathe (...)

10More importantly however, this is symptomatic of the way that animals have throughout history been used to define humans. As I will go on to demonstrate, this is an exemplary case of the way that linguistic restrictions affect what we deem to be absolute and to be relative. To show this, it is helpful to turn to Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am and to his considerations on the way that concept of the animal has been used to assemble a large number of beings and species into one category in order to create an opposite through which humans can define themselves (23).8 In the neologism l’animot, Derrida illustrates why this is problematic (47f). Firstly, the singular definite article l’ in combination with what in French is pronounced as the plural of animal (animaux) shows how the idea of the animal hides a great diversity of myriad individuals, from spiders to elephants (47). When we speak of the animal, we are actually referring to all kinds of different species, which can be distinguished from humans in an abundance of various ways.9 Secondly, the suffix mot is the French for word, emphasizing that the animal is in fact nothing but this, a linguistic term; the many entities to which it refers are far too diverse to be contained within one category, foregrounded with a definite article (48). The heterogeneity of the many signifieds renders the signifier almost meaningless in relation to any kind of actual “reality.” However it does function as an absolute, whose relation to another absolute, the human, defines both terms.

  • 10 See particularly the first chapter of Carrie Rohman’s Stalking the Subject: Modernism and the Anima (...)
  • 11 I certainly do not wish to argue that this distinction is final and clear-cut. The premises of our (...)

11In part, this can explain the seeming contradiction in the relationship between the concepts of the human and the animal in Women in Love, although it is important to remember that the contradiction itself is significant in that it reveals the limitations of language. Simply put, there is a discrepancy between the characters’ ideas about animals and humans as general categories and their simultaneous Darwinist awareness of the fact that humans are an animal species.10 The former position is rationalist and logocentric, insofar as it is founded upon concepts and on their relations to each other: love and hate cannot both be the greatest, because the two cancel each other out; humans cannot both be animals and the opposite of animals. The latter is empirical, based upon observations made by biologists whose theories the characters are surely aware of as educated middle and upper class intellectuals.11 Both positions are in a way correct. Within the linguistic system of human language, the animal does function as the opposite of the human, but it is also true that Bismarck shares remote ancestors with Gudrun and Gerald. The important thing is to be aware of which epistemological structure the opposing conclusions are based upon.

12My primary point here is that the idea of the animal helps us see how our concepts are simultaneously absolute and relative. While the animal is indeed the absolute Other of the human, the concept of the human is dependent upon its relation to that of the animal. Conversely, the idea of the animal as a category which encompasses lions as well as lice only makes sense as a way to define the idea of the human. Similarly, the absolute can only be understood in its relation to the relative: absoluteness requires relativity, it is by necessity relational because it can only be understood in relation to its antonym. At the same time, relativity is absolute in its fixed position as one of the binaries of a dichotomous pair. This may seem like a mere play of words, but words are all we have to play with, and since it is through them that we comprehend, we need to be aware of the way that they limit our understanding by directing our thoughts to structures that are at once dichotomous and relational.

13Let us return to Birkin’s statement about love and hate: “It’s a lie to say that love is the greatest. You might as well say that hate is the greatest, since the opposite of everything balances” (127). Is it really true that hate is the opposite of love? Some would say indifference is, others fear. However, the actual question is rather whether, psychologically speaking, such a complex thing as an emotion can ever be said to have an absolute opposite. Nonetheless, in a standard everyday discourse, hate does function as the opposite of love, thus shaping what we believe these emotions to be. The skepticism towards words expressed in Women in Love reveals a frustration at the way language can be sensed to consist of “a limited, false set of concepts,” making the characters “believe what [they] d[o] not believe” (41, 437). At the same time, the many contradictions in the novel function as a denial of the idea that two things that are each other’s opposites within the linguistic structure of language must necessarily exclude each other. Both the characters and the novel thus perform a revolt against the logocentric principles which demand consistency. While Lawrence’s many contradictions may be a failure to articulate his ideas, this failure can also be seen as a strategy to undermine the system whose limitations will not allow him to fully express them.

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Bell, Michael. D. H. Lawrence: Language and Being. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Clarke, Colin. River of Dissolution: D. H. Lawrence and English Romanticism. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1969.

Derrida, Jacques. “Differance.” 1968. Trans. David B. Allison. Speech and Phenomena: And Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs. Ed. John Wild. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973, 129-160.

. “‘Eating Well,’ or the Calculation of the Subject: An Interview with Jacques Derrida.” Trans. Peter Connor and Avital Ronell. Who Comes After the Subject? Eds. Eduardo Cadava, Peter Connor, and Jean-Luc Nancy. New York: Routledge, 1991, 96-119.

. The Animal That Therefore I Am. 2006. Trans. David Wills. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.

Doherty, Gerald. “Women in Love: Sacrifice, Sadism, and the Discourse of Species,” in Windows to the Sun: D. H. Lawrence’s “thought-adventures.” Eds. Earl Ingersoll and Virginia Hyde. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2009, 69-98.

Lawrence, D. H. “The Crown.” 1925. Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays. Ed. Michael Herbert. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, 251-306.

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

Rohman, Carrie. Stalking the Subject: Modernism and the Animal. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

Trejling, Maria. “The Vulnerable Animals That Therefore We Are: (Non-)Human Animals in D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love.” Master’s thesis, Stockholm University, 2016. <>.

Wallace, Jeff. D. H. Lawrence, Science and the Posthuman. Basingstoke: Palgrace MacMillan, 2005.

. Introduction. Women in Love. By D. H. Lawrence. London: Wordsworth Classics, 1999, V-XIX.

Wendel, Deanna. “’There will be a new embodiment, in a new way’: Alternative Posthumanisms in Women in Love.” Journal of Modern Literature. Vol. 36, No. 3, (Spring 2013): 120-137. 22 Nov. 2015 < >.

Wolfe, Cary. “Humanist and Posthumanist Antispeciesism.” The Death of the Animal: A Dialogue. Ed. Paola Cavalieri. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009, 45-58.

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1 Parts of this paper originally appeared in my Master’s Thesis, “The Vulnerable Animals That Therefore We Are: (Non-)Human Animals in D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love,” but the arguments are here put to a somewhat different use.

2 By relativity I mean relationality; A is B in relation to C. In other words, a cat is large in relation to an ant, but small in relation to a horse. Red is red through its relation to other colors; had everything been red the idea of red would not have existed.

3 Throughout this paper, the word language refers to human language. It can certainly be argued that the communication systems of non-human beings are also languages, as Derrida does in “Eating Well” (116f).

4 By animal I mean non-human animal, unless otherwise specified.

5 In “The Crown” Lawrence argues precisely that the unification of opposites obliterates meaning: “It is wrong to try to make the lion lie down with the lamb […] This is the creating of nothingness, the bringing about, or the striving to bring about the nihil which is pure meaninglessness” (261).

6 In comparison, a word such as run is also defined by its relation to other words, for example walk, stand, and jog, but these terms are not its absolute opposite.

7 It could certainly be argued that the instances where humans are described as animals suggest a split within the human, whose unconscious or “primitive” inner self would then be an animal, while the cultivated and civilized exterior would be all human. However, this does not eradicate the contradiction since the human cannot both have an animal part and be the opposite of the animal.

8 “The animal is a word, it is an appellation that men have instituted, a name they have given themselves the right and the authority to give to the living other” (Derrida, The Animal 23).

9 “Beyond the edge of the so-called human, beyond it but by no means on a single opposing side, rather than ‘The Animal’ or ‘Animal Life’ there is already a heterogeneous multiplicity of the living, or more precisely (since to say ‘the living’ is already to say too much or not enough), a multiplicity of organizations of relations between living and dead, relations of organization or lack of organization among realms that are more and more difficult to dissociate by means of the figures of the organic and inorganic, of life and/or death. These relations are at once intertwined and abyssal, and they can never be totally objectified. They do not leave room for any simple exteriority of one term with respect to another. It follows that one will never have the right to take animals to be the species of a kind that would be named The Animal, or animal in general” (Derrida, The Animal 31, Derrida’s emphasis).

10 See particularly the first chapter of Carrie Rohman’s Stalking the Subject: Modernism and the Animal for a discussion on how evolutionary theory influenced modernism and its views on animals.

11 I certainly do not wish to argue that this distinction is final and clear-cut. The premises of our logical inferences are, hopefully, but not necessarily, based on our observations, and our concepts shape how we interpret our perceptions. Nonetheless, there is a difference between syllogistic inferences such as “No human is an animal; Ursula is a human; Therefore Ursula is not an animal,” and those drawn from observing resemblances between different fossils. Neither kind is superior to the other, and both have limitations that one needs to be aware of.

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Maria Trejling, « “Imprisoned within a limited, false set of concepts”: Posthuman Absoluteness and Relativity in Lawrence’s Women in Love »Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 51 | 2020, mis en ligne le 09 juillet 2020, consulté le 21 octobre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Maria Trejling

Maria Trejling received her Master’s Degree in English Literature from Stockholm University in June 2016 with a thesis on animals in D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. Her research interests include literary modernism, animal studies, and poststructuralism. She is currently working on applications for her future doctoral studies.

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