Navigation – Plan du site

Laughter and Mockery in Women in Love: Heterogeneous Symptoms of Discontent

Elise Brault-Dreux
p. 57-76

Texte intégral

  • 1 The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious (London: Penguin, 2003).
  • 2 Jacques Lacan, Le Séminaire. Livre V: Les Formations de l’Inconscient (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1 (...)

1The purpose of this essay is not to bring Lawrence and Freud together on the question of laughter (even though Freud did write on wit and the comic),1 nor to carry out a comparison between both authors. The intention is rather to read laughter in Women in Love having in mind what Freud wrote about “repression,” “aggressiveness” and “dissolving bonds” in Civilization and its Discontent, in order to apprehend Lawrence’s fictional laughter and mockery as symptoms of discontent. Reading laughter with Freud’s text as a backdrop first requires our awareness that laughter generally occurs within a symbolic community whose members share the same language and fundamental knowledge. Jacques Lacan insists on this mutual sharing as a basis for the production of laughter.2 Another aspect that is elsewhere theorized by Freud involves the apprehension of laughter as an individual triumph over repression. The third aspect of laughter that will be of interest in this article is its being determined (by Freud and others) as a mechanism enabling relief, providing a moment of liberation from censorship. Henri Bergson, in his essay on laughter, for instance defines it as a “détente” (Bergson 148).

  • 3Le rire n’est qu’une expression, un symptôme, un diagnostic” (Baudelaire 9).

2However a single reading of Women in Love is enough to enable the reader to realize that the novel is anything but fundamentally funny. As for the characters’ laughter, only on very few occasions does it trigger any positive liberation. It is more often aggressive, counterfeit or, at best, distant. For this reason, laughter in Women in Love will be handled as a problematic symptom of various types of crises which are actually broached by Freud as he analyses the individual’s status within civilization. The idea of laughter as a symptom (of a heterogeneous nature) is supported by Charles Baudelaire who, in De L’Essence du Rire, remarks that laughter is a means of expression, a symptom, a diagnosis (Baudelaire 9).3

3I will therefore consider the characters’ destructive forms of laughter, on the individual and collective levels, drawing first on Freud’s idea of the difficulty of experiencing happiness. I will then apprehend it as a symptom of the individual’s essential aggressiveness, and will conclude by an examination of the function of laughter as a symptom of interpersonal crisis, a dissolving agent of the micro- and macrocosm.

The Difficulty of Experiencing Happiness: Laughter as a paradoxical symptom of frustration

4In some respects at least, the characters in Women in Love tend to be in keeping with what Freud defines at the beginning of his essay as the impossible search for happiness. He writes:

It is simply the programme of the pleasure principle that determines the purpose of life […] and yet its programme is at odds with the whole world […]. It is quite incapable of being realized; all the institutions of the universe are opposed to it; one is inclined to say that the intention that man should be “happy” has no part in the plan of creation.
(Freud 16–17)

  • 4 As Anne Wright clarifies in a chapter on Lawrence in Literature of Crisis 1910-22, “in Women in Lo (...)

5In Women in Love, unhappiness does seem to be inscribed in the characters’ being, as though they had thus been “programmed” by the novelist. Each of the four main characters goes at least once through a stage of intense dissatisfaction which takes precedence over moments of happier relief. Lawrence actually reminds us in his Foreword that “we are now in a period of crisis” (WL 486), and that “the bitterness of the war may be taken for granted in the characters” (WL 485, italics mine).4 In other words, the macrocosm, caught up in the crisis of the First World War, frustrates the individuals, instilling bitterness in them. Such a principle of repression by civilization is one of the arguments defended by Freud. The difficulty of experiencing happiness is caused by neuroses which are originated by the privations imposed by civilization and society (Freud 31). He writes that “it is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built on renunciation, how much it presupposes the non-satisfaction of powerful drives” (Freud 44). Civilization is therefore conceived as a frustrating limit. Now how can laughter be an indication of the frustration experienced by Lawrencian characters?

6If laughter is a “relief,” it is one that Lawrence hardly ever uses in any positive way. Those few occurrences where laughter is the effect of wit are for instance deprecated by the narrative voice. At Breadalby, the Baronet’s witticism is deflated in an animalized “horse-laugh” (WL 83) and “the continual crackling of witticism” (WL 84) is suggestive of futility. Pseudo-intellectual verbal jests are therefore not the cause of genuine laughter. There are other causes and forms of laughter in the novel. But while laughter is defined by Freud as “an outlet” (Morreal 111), a moment “when the energy of repression is released” (Morreal 111), the Lawrencian characters rather seem to give expression to various forms of repression through their laughter. The latter therefore reads as a symptom of a patently repressive condition. Again in Breadalby for instance, Gerald and the little countess “both sat in the sun, laughing and crossing their arms on their breasts” (WL 101). In thus frustrating the potent contact of their breasts with the sun, their physical attitude thwarts and disrupts the liberation of their laughter, which is merely an appearance of relief from repression. Or when Gerald, in “Gladiatorial,” reacts to Birkin’s notion of Brüdershaft, “He laughed in his throat” (WL 273): he reverses the natural spontaneous discharge and contains the energy as though the whole process were dictated by his authority or, why not, by his Freudian superego. The latter is at one point somewhat personified in the figure of a soldier, as Gerald, in “In the Train,” “uncover[s] his mouth in a manly, quick, soldierly laugh” (WL 59): Gerald’s laughter is held in check by his “soldiery” superego. Laughter is checked too by Winifred and Hermione who repeatedly “chuckle”—the outlet is clearly thus significantly thwarted. In “Rabbit” Winifred “chuckles” compulsively: she “chuckled gleefully” (WL 235), then “as she sketched, she chuckled toherself” (WL 235)—the outlet turns into an inlet—, and again she “looked at her paper and chuckled” (WL 235), etc. These occurrences, along with others of a similar nature, impart the action of a repressive force on the child’s full expression. One could read a Freudian “sense of guilt” in this form of self-repression, where the “satisfaction of [her] drives” (Freud 81) is thwarted by the authoritative figure of Mr Crich, her father, whose love she does not want to lose. And it is her father who best perceives what she is repressing (instead of releasing) in her laughter, as he hears “the almost inhuman chuckle of the child” (WL 236). This inhumanity is progressively disclosed, as she lets out a “wicked chuckle” (WL 238) and eventually “chuckled wickedly to herself” (WL 240). In her father’s authoritative presence, her unsatisfied wickedness is partly repressed in her laughter, which is thus checked in a succession of “chuckles.”

7In the chapter “Shortlands,” at the wedding, there is a “strange chuckle” in Hermione’s tone, and just before that, she “seem[s] to contain a chuckle” (WL 29). In character with her persona, her mental consciousness takes precedence over all forms of liberation that are logically at work in laughter. And her frustration later resurfaces in Breadalby when Birkin declines her offer to go for a walk. She “only turn[s] to wave her handkerchief to him, and to chuckle with laughter, singing out: ‘Goodbye, goodbye little boy’” (WL 87). She is held in check by the extreme consciousness of her external appearance and tries to tame her frustration.

8The idea of laughter as a liberation from repression is also shaken when laughter is the paradoxical expression of the characters’ fears. Ursula provides the best example of such counterfeit laughter, for instance in “An Island,” when she listens to Birkin saying:

“I don’t make much of a success of my days. One seems always to be bumping one’s nose against the blank wall ahead.”
Ursula laughed. She was frightened, and when she was frightened she always laughed and pretended to be jaunty.
(WL 125)

9Or when later, in “Water Party,” they are doing eurhythmics: “‘I think we’ve all gone mad,’ she said, laughing rather frightened” (WL 169). Ursula uses laughter, not as a means of dis-inhibition nor of triumph over repression, nor even of catharsis, but rather as a mask to conceal her helplessness. She frustrates the spontaneous expression of her fears and feigns her happiness.

10Both Gerald and Gudrun have the peculiarity of utilizing laughter not merely as a concealing mask but rather as a means through which they ward off fear. This is quite obvious in “Crême de Menthe” when Gerald hushes up his uneasiness before the Pussum through his recurrent laughing, for no obvious reason. In “Water Party” he and Gudrun look at the cuttlefish on the lantern:

“How truly terrifying!” exclaimed Gudrun, in a voice of horror. Gerald, at her side, gave a low laugh.
“But isn’t it really fearful!” she cried in dismay.
Again he laughed.
(WL 175)

11The contrast between her spontaneity and his speechlessness reveals that his insistent laughter is in fact a deliberate attempt to repressively laugh fear away. He thus fakes his liberation from external or internal forms of authority, and hence avoids humiliation. Gudrun acts likewise at the end of the novel, in “Snowed Up,” when she is “confronted to the terrible clock”:

Ha—ha—she laughed to herself, so frightened that she was trying to laugh it offha—ha, how maddening it was, to be sure, to be sure!
(WL 464–465)

  • 5 And later again, WL 489.

12Gudrun’s is the only laughter in the novel that the reader is given to hear with “ha—ha”5—midway between laughter and cry. Yet, it is not truly an outlet, as she laughs “to herself.” And she too utilizes laughter to push fear away, and in laughing her fear “off” she is endeavoring to smother it completely.

13So, in these few examples, laughter is either repressed or repressive. It is repressed in chuckles. It is repressive when it is counterfeit, designed to conceal a void or to smother fear. In no sense an expression of relief, laughter is rather a repression of relief, and it symptomatically reveals the characters’ difficulty in giving vent to their impulses within their micro- and macrocosm.

14But what now deserves to be analyzed is the way this awkward and repressive laughter is also intimately related to the innate nature of the characters’ being.

The innate nature of mockery: laughter as a symptom of aggressiveness and personal crisis

15Laughter is sometimes apprehended as an act of transgression of authority or of censorship. As such, it is an individual form of assault, a manifestation of the “brute force” which Freud sets against the consensual community, when he writes: “The power of the community then pits itself, in the name of ‘right,’ against the power of the individual, which is condemned as ‘brute force’” (Freud 41). While the community restricts and is restricted, the individual “brute force” impulsively transgresses these restrictions. And in the laughter of the Lawrencian characters the reader may perceive such essential brutality.

16If, in his essay “Humor” (1928), Freud explains that “laughter provide[s] an outlet for aggressive tendencies” (Morreal 113), in Women in Love, characters rather find (or seek) in laughter a means to express their aggressiveness. And it is first worth considering it, following Freud’s idea, as a somewhat instinctive feature. In Civilization and Its Discontent, he writes:

Human beings are not gentle creatures […]. On the contrary, they can count a powerful share of aggression among the instinctual endowments. Hence their neighbor is not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to take out their aggression on him […].
(Freud 60–61)

  • 6 For instance, she gives a “mocking smile” when Ursula sings in “Water-Party” (WL 166), and she “mo (...)

17Such essential aggressiveness is perceptible in the laughter of each of the main characters. Gudrun’s mockery repeatedly surfaces as an innate characteristic, as for instance in “Breadalby” when, after they dance, Gerald looks at Gudrun: “The essence of that female, subterranean recklessness and mockery penetrated his blood. He could not forget Gudrun’s lifted, offered, cleaving reckless, yet withal mocking weight” (WL 92). The intensity of her intrinsic mockery penetrates Gerald’s physical being and acquires a form of “weighty” palpability. And if, throughout the novel, she actually mocks much more often than she laughs,6 it is towards the end, in “Snow,” that the reader plainly understands that her mockery is in her—it is “an instinctual endowment”:

Young as she was, Gudrun had touched the whole pulse of social England, she had no ideals of rising in the world […]. Already she mocked at herself for her dreams. They could be fulfilled easily enough. But she recognized too well, in her spirit, the mockery of her own impulses.
(WL 418, italics mine)

18And then, thinking about her pity and grief for Gerald: “a grimace came over her mouth, of mocking ironyat her unspoken tirade!” (WL 419). She then greets him with a “mocking enigmatic smile” (WL 419). Her very impulses are “mocking.” The physical distortion (visible in the grimace) as well as a mental form of distortion (in her irony) read as symptoms that bring her inner aggressiveness to the surface. Yet, this aggressive mockery is a great deal inhibited (unexpressed but to herself), and tends to correspond to what Freud describes as an introjection or internalization of aggression, “directed against the individual’s own ego” (Freud 77), which however, for Freud, corresponds to a sense of guilt that is not that obvious in Gudrun.

19Though much less evident, Ursula’s inherent mockery is likewise one of her prominent features. In the opening of “Moony”, one reads that “She could be very pleasant and flattering, almost subservient, to people she met. But no one was taken in. Instinctively each felt her contemptuous mockery of the human being in himself, or herself” (WL 244). Her innate mocking rejection is “instinctively” felt by others, as though they all shared a collective aggressive unconscious. As for Birkin, though he rather tends to laugh from a certain distance, he reveals a same mocking essential nature:

Clear, before her eyes, as in a vision, she could see the sardonic, licentious mockery of his eyes […].
Her impulse was to repel him violently, break from this spell of mocking brutishness. But she was too fascinated […].
(WL 412)

20Mockery makes Birkin an essentially brutish and dangerous being. It is not fleetingly in but “of” his eyes—it is “an instinctual endowment.” So people perceive Ursula’s innate mockery, and she, in turn, perceives Birkin’s, as though the microcosmic atmosphere were tainted with this sense of laughing aggression and triggered mutual attraction among its members. This is actually quite perceptible when laughter becomes somewhat pathological, as in the scene of the women’s cold hysteria at the wedding (WL 23) or else in Ursula’s repressed hysterical laughter (WL 246) when she observes Birkin throwing stones at the reflection of the moon. This is also peculiarly visible in “Rabbit,” when Gudrun and Gerald become aware of their secret bond in recognizing each other’s innate mockery. “Gudrun detected the tang of mockery in him” (WL 238)—almost with an animal perception; and soon after, Gerald perceives Gudrun’s mocking nature: “The vindictive mockery in her voice made her brain quiver. […] She revealed again the mocking white-cruel recognition” (WL 242). Her cruelty is revealed to and shared by him, and laughter and aggressive instincts are together repressed in silent mockery.

21Gerald’s aggressive instincts are, as we saw, checked by an internal authority (or Freudian superego). And yet, in “Crême de Menthe,” the Pussum triggers in him intense desire, mixed with a manifest sense of danger which he lets out in laughter: “He laughed dangerously from the blood. Her childish speech caressed his nerves, and her burning filmed eyes […] gave him a sort of licence” (WL 69). While he usually laughs in his throat, with arms crossed, or in a “soldierly” way, here his desire for the Pussum allows him to be licentious and to transgress the authority of his superego in suddenly letting out his aggressive and dangerous nature.

22Yet, towards the end, in “Snowed-Up,” a parallel scene reverses his capacity to transgress the authority of his superego. He ponders on his relation with Gudrun:

[…] Or finally he might kill her.—Or he might become just indifferent […].—But his nature was too serious, not gay enough or subtle enough for mocking licentiousness.
(WL 445)

23What the Pussum managed to prompt cannot be triggered again. Here Gerald is shown to be too conscious of his seriousness, his sadness and his inflexibility to allow himself to let out his “mockery” freely in laughter. The episode reveals his awareness that mockery is liberation, transgression from authorities, requiring a gaiety and subtlety which make laughter possible. While unaware that he “laughs dangerously” before the Pussum, here, in a state of overconsciousness, he contains his innate aggressive nature, using his ego as a façade (Freud 3). And it is in part for this reason, this self-containment which turns into a form of self-destructiveness, that Gerald will eventually fail.

24The four main characters therefore contain the aggression and frustration which are in them and are detectable in their laughter or mockery, and which are more or less directly caused by “the bitterness of the war,” the war raging either in their macro or, at the least, microcosm. The discontent of civilization is the cause of their individual malaise. However, if one follows Freud’s thought, this cause-and-effect logic could easily be reversed: frustration and aggression dissolve the bonds between individual members of the same community. Freud writes: “the tendency to aggression is an original, autonomous disposition in man, and I return to my earlier contention that it represents the greatest obstacle to civilization” (Freud 74). So, aggressive laughter and mockery, in part, partake of what Freud calls the “drive for destruction” (Freud 74). They are in keeping with the sense of the end of an era which looms at the end of the novel.

The offense of mockery: Laughter, a symptom of interpersonal (or cultural) crisis

25If, in Women in Love, laughter is the symptom of individual suffering, “in our relation with others” (Freud 17), laughter can also be the cause of suffering. Some of the manifestations of laughter are actually quite violent and turn out to be weapons in the midst of a crisis.

26Gudrun’s mockery happens to be felt as a physical assault by others. At the end of “Threshold,” Gudrun is with Birkin and Gerald in a car, and Birkin’s conception of marriage is made fun of:

Birkin sat motionless, driving the car […]. And Gudrun, sitting immediately behind him, felt a sort of ironic pleasure in thus exposing him.
“Yes he wants marriage!—Marriage—et puis?”
“He says,” she added with a grimace of irony, “that you can find an eternal equilibrium in marriage…” […]
“Le paradis!” mocked Gudrun.
Birkin, as he drove, felt a creeping of the spine, as if somebody was threatening his neck. But he shrugged with indifference.
(WL 287)

27Gudrun’s mockery, which mixes humiliation with parody, is felt by Birkin as an imminent violent aggression. Gudrun, once more, utilizes her mockery in order to surreptitiously hurt the other—as the obliqueness of her “ironic pleasure,” the “irony” of her grimacing face, and her position behind Birkin, make patently clear. Later, in “Snow,” when she is tobogganing with Gerald, she clings to him as she almost falls:

“Did it upset you?”
She looked at him […] and she laughed, with a terrible merriment.
“No,” she cried, with triumphant joy. “It was the complete moment of my life.”
And she looked at him with her dazzling, overweening laughter, like one possessed. A fine blade seemed to enter his heart, but he did not care, or take any
(WL 421)

  • 7 Baudelaire argues that there is in laughter a symptom of weakness: “j’ai dit qu’il y avait un symp (...)

28She deliberately uses her laughter in order to hurt Gerald’s heart. However, though she metaphorically perpetrates a violent attack on both men through her mockery and laughter, each man deflects the violence of the aggression. Birkin “shrug[s] with indifference” and Gerald hardly “takes any notice” of her assault. If her aggression does not literally fall flat, for the men’s ignorance of her violence is readable as strategic self-preservation, it nonetheless deflates her aggressive enterprise and weakens her assault. This apparent fragility of her aggressive mockery is also perceptible through the recurring oxymoronic descriptions of her offensive laughter.7 In “Water Party,” with Gerald, she “laughed a silvery little mockery, yet intolerably caressive” (WL 171); still with him, in “Snow,” “she laughed caressively, teasingly” (WL 416), or a little later, “she was laughing at him, with a little, mock-caressive contempt” (WL 432). Each time, the physical aggression of her laughter mingles with the softness of “caresses.” And even the caress is “intolerable,” and is associated with the meaner act of “teasing” and is “mock-caressive,” which suggests both fakeness and “mockery.” There seems to be a frictional contamination of her caresses by her intolerable and contemptuous aggressive mocking behavior. These oxymoronic tensions and linguistic contaminations impart Gudrun’s innate crisis and her illusory assumption that her laughter or mockery is offensively powerful.

29Another scene of crisis likewise centers on a mounting form of violence, but Ursula, in utilizing mockery and laughter, manages to reverse the situation. It is in “Mino” and she and Birkin are talking about love.

“But it is because you love me, that you want me?” she persisted.
“No it isn’t. It is because I believe in you—if I do believe in you.”
“Aren’t you sure?” she laughed, suddenly hurt […].
“Don’t you think me good-looking,” she persisted in a mocking voice […].
“I don’t feel that you’re good looking,” he said.
“Not even attractive?” she mocked bitingly […].
“What did you ask me to tea for, then?” she mocked […].
“You are very conceited monsieur,” she mocked […].
(WL 147)

“All right,” he said, looking up with sudden exasperation. “Now go away then, and leave me alone. I don’t want any more of your meretricious persiflage.”
“Is it really persiflage?” she mocked, her face really relaxing into laughter.
(WL 148)

30He then brings up his metaphysic about the equilibrium:

“Isn’t it rather sudden?” she mocked.
He began to laugh.
(WL 148)

31In this passage, laughter is first the expression of helplessness (“she laughed, suddenly hurt”). It is then quickly subverted by Ursula, who uses it crescendo and offensively as a weapon, going so far as to mock him “bitingly”—thus reverting to a metaphorical mode of physical assault. But her challenging insistence begins to relax once she reaches her goal, the arousal of Birkin’s exasperation, which therefore reads as the crisis of the scene. Her “détente” is marked by the shift from offensive mockery to a relieving laughter (“her face relaxing into laughter”), and the tension completely dissolves when Birkin eventually starts laughing too. Ursula has ultimately won him over to her cause.

32Such manipulation relies on both women’s awareness of the noxious power of laughter. This awareness is actually conspicuous in moments when laughter or mockery are thematized and commented upon. In “Water-Party,” for instance, the two sisters walk to the party with their parents, whose appearance triggers the two girls’ “uncontrollable laughter”: they both “shriek” and “giggle” so much that their father vindictively shouts at them. Both parents are hurt by their daughters’ humiliation of their social impropriety. But Gudrun comments on the scene: “But we weren’t laughing to hurt you […]. We were laughing because we’re fond of you” (WL 156-157). Gudrun’s need to explain the meaning of their laughter clearly reveals that it is commonly assumed to be designed to hurt or ridicule. Only here, exceptionally, it is not—though the reader does not really trust Gudrun’s explanation. And later, it is Ursula who likewise fears being laughed at, similarly assuming laughter to be offensive. In “Snow,” she tells Birkin:

“Don’t laugh at me—don’t laugh at me.”
“Why—how’s that?” he laughed, putting his arms around her.
“Because I don’t want to be laughed at,” she whispered.
He laughed more […].
(WL 435)

33This thematisation reveals something about the general apprehension of laughter. Even in this peaceful scene between the two lovers, Ursula cannot conceive laughter other than as an offence or humiliation.

34As we can see in the succession of examples, laughter does not bond characters in the novel. It challenges or even dissolves the bonds and therefore goes against the fundamental purpose of civilization. And yet, as laughter can hardly make any possible sense outside the group, the logical conclusion would appear to be that in Women in Love it is civilization itself that is dissolving.

  • 8[…] le rire a justement pour fonction de réprimer les tendances séparatrices. Son rôle est de cor (...)

35In his essay on laughter, Bernard Baas relies on Baudelaire’s idea that laughter is satanic, but he brings the idea further in proposing that it is more accurately qualified as being “diabolic,” which derives from the Greek diabollô, meaning “severing,” “disuniting” (Baas 101): initially, laughter was what severed the bond between man and god. If this is only one way of approaching laughter, the idea of “severing” would appear to be quite in keeping with the aggressive modes of laughter in Women in Love and to resonate with Freud’s idea of a “disintegration” of civilization: “Given this fundamental hostility of human beings to one another, civilized society is constantly threatened with disintegration” (Freud 61). And it appears plausible that laughter is perhaps partaking in such “threat” of “disintegration.” But according to Henri Bergson, when the function of laughter is to reprimand, it is then designed to bring the individual back into the group, to reintegrate each one into the community and thus avoid separation and disintegration (Bergson 135).8 In Women in Love, on the other hand, the reprimand of laughter is not as Bergson sees it; it is more a force for the condemnation or the destruction of the other.

36This sense of disintegration in or through laughter is perceptible under at least two different aspects: laughter dissolves the communion of people, and it occurs when the character of Gerald literally disintegrates. A scene of collective disintegration takes place in the hostel in the Alps. Loerke is giving a recitation in the Cologne dialect, which triggers a contaminating laughing drunkenness:

[…] his voice was mature, sardonic, its movement had the flexibility of essential energy, and of a mocking, penetrating understanding […]. The Germans were doubled up with laughter […]. Gudrun and Ursula were forced to laugh. Then the room rang with shouts of laughter, the blue eyes of the professor’s daughters were swimming over with laughter-tears […]. Ursula looked round amazed, the laughter was bubbling out of her involuntarily. She looked at Gudrun, Gudrun looked at her; and the two sisters burst out laughing […]. Birkin was sniggering involuntarily, Gerald Crich sat erect with a glistening look of amusement on his face. And the laughter crashed out again, in wild paroxysm, the Professor’s daughters were reduced to shaking helplessness, the veins in the Professor’s neck were swollen, his face was purple, he was strangled in ultimate silent spasms of laughter, the students were shouting half-articulated words that tailed off in helpless explosions.
(WL 406, italics mine)

37Gudrun and Ursula are first faking their laughter in order to make the effort to partake in the collective moment. Yet, quickly enough, neither is able to control the discharge, as Ursula’s laughter “bubbles out” and Gudrun “bursts out,” both experiencing at last the outlet and release of energy, defined by Freud as being central to genuine laughter. Laughter intensifies as it gradually intoxicates the audience. It rebounds brutally, suggesting a violent apocalyptic scene, where a collective mass of unindividualized voices are merging: it has now actually turned into “the” laughter. However this contaminating “crise de rire” eventually throws them all in a state of helplessness, meaninglessness (“shouting half-articulated words”) and physical violence. The Professor is literally being silenced and almost killed by his own laughter. So, in this scene, laughter has thus forced the individuals into a collective fusion (“the laughter”), it has violently condemned communication and has strangled one of them. If bonds are first created among people, laughter has ironically dissolved them all.

38Disintegration also takes place within Gerald towards the end of the novel and suggests an individual failure in modern civilization. Just before this, he tries to strangle Gudrun

A great astonishment burst upon him, as if the air had broken. Wide, wide his soul opened, in wonder, feeling the pain. Then it laughed, turning, with strong hands outstretched, at last to take the apple of his desire.
(WL 471, italics mine)

39His human laughter is being dehumanized (“it”) in his ultimate accomplishment. He is severing himself from his own extremely violent laughing soul.

40So laughter, at the level of interpersonal exchange and within the individual, is a force bringing a disintegration of the bonds which are supposed to hold the members of the group and the individual together. There is, however, one bond that may somehow be created in the novel through laughter, it is the bond between Gudrun and Loerke:

As for the future, that they never mentioned except one laughed out some mocking dream of the destruction of the world by a ridiculous catastrophe of man’s invention […].
(WL 453)

41The outlet of their laughter (“laughed out”) as they contemplate the imminent destruction of their civilization resonates with a contemptuous offhandedness, reinforced by the indeterminacy of “some” and by “mocking”, words which gathers the ideas of mockery and parody. The noxiousness of their bond is hence revealed as they laugh in unison at their own vision of fateful destruction. The laughing aggression casually condemns their civilization to its ultimate disintegration. This ending meets Freud’s conclusion in Civilization and its Discontent, as he formulates what he calls the “fateful question”:

The fateful question for the human race seems to be whether, and to what extent the development of its civilization will manage to overcome the disturbance of communal life caused by the human drive for aggression and self-destruction. […] Human beings […] will have no difficulty in exterminating one another, down to the last. They know this, and it is this knowledge that accounts for much of their present disquiet, happiness and anxiety.
(Freud 106)

42And it is this knowledge that causes Gudrun and Loerke to laugh quite cynically at the future.

43In Women in Love laughter can be read along with Freud’s essay insofar as, in its repressive and repressed modes of operation, it is symptomatic of Freud’s hypothesis of the impossibility to experience happiness. Closely related to that, it is symptomatic too of the individual’s innate aggressiveness, and eventually, it is both an agent of dissolution and of revelation, bringing to light the disintegration of the bonds of society, and therefore the disintegration of civilization in general.

Works Cited

44Baas, Bernard. Le Rire Inextinguible des Dieux. Leuven: Peeters Vrin, 2001.

45Baudelaire, Charles. De l’Essence du Rire, published the first time in Le Portefeuille, July 8, 1855. Accessed November 14, 2014,​?rub=oeuvre&srub=ess&id=27&s=1.

46Bergson, Henri. Le Rire. Paris: PUF, 2007.

47Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontent. Translated by David McLintock. London: Penguin (“Great Ideas”), 2004.

48Lawrence, D.H. Women in Love [WL]. Harmondsworth, Mddx: Penguin Books, 2000.

49Morreal, John, ed. The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

Haut de page


1 The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious (London: Penguin, 2003).

2 Jacques Lacan, Le Séminaire. Livre V: Les Formations de l’Inconscient (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1998), 118: “Il faut […] qu’il [l’autre] soit dans la paroisse.”

3Le rire n’est qu’une expression, un symptôme, un diagnostic” (Baudelaire 9).

4 As Anne Wright clarifies in a chapter on Lawrence in Literature of Crisis 1910-22, “in Women in Love the diagnosis of crisis is broad in its cultural and socio-historical exploration. But the crisis is also registered within the self, as it relates to other.” Literature of Crisis 1910-22 (London: Macmillan Press, 1984), 129.

5 And later again, WL 489.

6 For instance, she gives a “mocking smile” when Ursula sings in “Water-Party” (WL 166), and she “mocks loudly” Gerald during the cattle scene (WL 170).

7 Baudelaire argues that there is in laughter a symptom of weakness: “j’ai dit qu’il y avait un symptôme de faiblesse dans le rire.” (Baudelaire 7)

8[…] le rire a justement pour fonction de réprimer les tendances séparatrices. Son rôle est de corriger la raideur en souplesse, de réadapter chacun à tous, afin d’arrondir les angles” (Bergson 135).

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Elise Brault-Dreux, « Laughter and Mockery in Women in Love: Heterogeneous Symptoms of Discontent », Études Lawrenciennes, 45 | 2014, 57-76.

Référence électronique

Elise Brault-Dreux, « Laughter and Mockery in Women in Love: Heterogeneous Symptoms of Discontent », Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 45 | 2014, mis en ligne le 28 février 2015, consulté le 07 décembre 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lawrence.208

Haut de page


Elise Brault-Dreux

Elise Brault-Dreux is a lecturer. She teaches grammar and literature. Her research focuses on the poetry and prose of D.H. Lawrence, the poetry of T.S. Eliot and of Katherine Mansfield. She mainly explores the questions of voices, “I,” subjectivity and masks in the Modernist era. Her PhD was on “the instabilities of the poetic ‘I’ in the poetry of Lawrence and T.S. Eliot.”

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Études lawrenciennes est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page
  • Logo Presses universitaires de Paris Ouest
  • Logo Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense
  • Logo DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals