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Traces, Marks and Imprints of Time in The Rainbow and Women in Love

Brigitte Macadré-Nguyên

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1The title of this paper came to me after reading Georges Didi-Huberman’s essay on the Italian artist Parmiggiani, Génie du Non-lieu, Air, Poussière, Empreinte, Hantise, more especially the following passage on the traces left by objects after they have disappeared:

L’empreinte procède de la trace: elle demande à être pensée par-delà toute métaphysique, toute absolutisation de l’absence. Elle nous oblige à penser la destruction avec son reste, à renoncer aux puretés du néant. Les cendres d’Auschwitz ou d’Hiroshima forment ce reste immense, ce monde gris […] devant lequel nous ne pouvons plus dire qu’« il n’y a plus rien .» La survivance des cendres et celle des images : tel est le terreau, le sol de nos hantises présentes.

Comprendre cela, c’est comprendre l’absence en son pouvoir psychique. C’est aussi toucher quelque chose comme une matière de l’absence. (Didi-Huberman 55)

2That is:

The imprint derives from the trace in so far as it has to be apprehended beyond all metaphysical or absolute consideration of absence. The imprint forces us to think about destruction with its aftermath and thus renounce the purity of nothingness. The ashes of Auschwitz or Hiroshima form these vast remains, this grey world […] about which we can no longer say that “nothing is left.” The enduring survival of ashes and that of images: this is the soil, the ground of our present haunting obsessions.

To understand this is to understand absence in its psychological power, but also to approach something like the matter of absence. (my translation)

3I was thus left with beautiful utterances on time, duration and the traces, marks and imprints that remain after time has passed. Some definitions helped me clarify the terms too. A trace is given two definitions, first as a “visible mark, such as a footprint, made or left by the passage of a person, animal, or thing” ( and secondly as “evidence or an indication of the former presence or existence of something; a vestige” (the Free An imprint is also given two definitions, first as a “mark or pattern produced by imprinting” and secondly as a “distinguishing influence or effect.” (ibid.)

4Didi-Huberman refers to the imprint of time, or to the remains that negate nothingness and leave us in turn with the undeniable reality of their presence. I have chosen to focus on concrete examples from The Rainbow and Women in Love to illustrate these preliminary remarks rather than actually demonstrate any abstract point. That is why I will consider an extract from “The Marsh and the Flood” chapter in The Rainbow to then move on to two extracts from “Sunday evening” and “Snowed Up” in Women in Love to finish with a final passage from “Flitting” also in Women in Love.

I Ursula as the mark of past generations:

5“The Marsh and the Flood” chapter in The Rainbow shows that the traces of time and memory can be significant objects from the past but also genetic or physical evidence of past generations for present generations as well as stories told to children that become folklore or a potential Bible for future generations. The traces and imprints of time can thus be seen not only as reminders of things past but also as doorways to the future.

6After Tom’s death, his wife Lydia “never went to his grave. She spoke of him simply, as if he were alive.” She enjoyed the refuge of her bedroom, where she could “lie and muse and muse. […] She had so many dreams to dream over, such an unsifted store. She wanted time.” (235). Lydia wanted time to grieve, something her first Polish husband didn’t have time to do: “He has no time to grieve.” […] “He has no time. It’s so important what he does! […] “He has not time to grieve, nor to think of his children! He had no time to beget them really!” (239) – So her first husband died without taking the time to live, to know his wife and even to beget his children, yet still thinking he was “the beginning and the end” (241). Tom, on the contrary, who had fully known her, died but had “made himself immortal in his knowledge with her” (240).

7A first connection is thus made between death, memory, time and immortality. A further connection is established with the present and the future because of the presence of Ursula in her grandmother’s bedroom: the importance of objects in connection with the themes of time and memory is also made clear with Lydia’s reaction to Ursula’s present of a “tight little nosegay of pinks, white ones, with a rim of pink ones” (236) as Lydia immediately conjures up her past in Poland, “That is how the peasants tied them at home, […] And they make wreaths for their hair.” Ursula thus bridges the gap of generations by evoking her grandmother as a little girl like herself – “Did you use to have a wreath in your hair, grandmother?”– no surprise then that the second group of objects considered should be the two wedding rings Lydia wears in memory of her two husbands, thus connecting past, present and future, as Ursula will also see herself as a future married woman with a similar wedding ring, and even bringing the past, present and future events in a simultaneity of presence rather than in a chronological succession of events. The two wedding rings on Lydia’s finger must then be worn together: “Why do you have two wedding rings, grandmother? […] “If I had two husbands, child”[…]” Then must you wear the two rings together? “Yes” (237). Similarly, the emphasis is given to the three rings that Birkin offers to Ursula in Women in Love, two of which are also red and yellow like Lydia’s rings: “There was a silence as she examined the rings that had been screwed up in the paper.” (WL, 302). This shows that Ursula will bear simultaneously the traces of three generations of women and will carry them within her past, present and future not envisioned as a succession of periods of time, but as an unbroken temporality.

8Furthermore, Lydia’s remark about Ursula’s resemblance with her Polish grandfather – “You have his brows, I think” (237) – shows past times as simultaneous with present and future times, on a biological or genetic level, as physical features can indeed be passed on from one generation to the next. Ursula’s wish to immediately go and check her reflection in the mirror to acknowledge her unknown grandfather’s presence on her own face is in a way a similar process to Lydia’s thinking and becoming a young girl again : “Thinking, she became Lensky’s girl-bride.” (238). Remembering her Polish husband by telling her granddaughter past stories of her first marriage enables Lydia to experience a whole range of contradicting feelings, from resentment and anger to pity and tenderness for this man who had never lived life to the full. Wandering through her past memories helps Lydia to come to terms with her sorrow and liberates her while passing on the heritage of her past to Ursula.

9Lydia thus becomes to her granddaughter the source of “sayings and stories, told in the complete hush of the Marsh bedroom, accumulated with mystic significance, and [becomes] a sort of Bible to [her]” (241). This past, this family folklore leads the child to question the future. The dialogue between grandmother and granddaughter moves on from past and present tenses to the future tense, as Ursula projects herself in a future time with the help of her “antecedents”: “Will somebody love me, grandmother?” “ When I am grown up, will somebody love me?” (241). Time and space merge in the peaceful Marsh bedroom, “the door opened on to the greater space, the past, which was so big, that all it contained seemed tiny, loves and births and deaths, tiny units and features within a vast horizon” (242) .

10It should come as no surprise that Ursula in the company of the first man to be in love with her contemplates the present ruins of a church, where they found “the whole interior […] filled with scaffolding, fallen stone and rubbish […] heaped on the floor, bits of plaster […] underfoot […]” (275). Just as Ursula’s brows are the only marks, the only vestiges that remain of her Polish grandfather, almost the only proof of his existence without which there would be “no more left of him than of a broken vessel thrown away, and just remembered” (240), so the ruins of the church could be seen as the reality of something that pre-existed and can anchor Ursula in her coming life and future. She is both a tiny creature in the vast past and space of gone generations and a woman that can live fully in the present because she is no beginning and end in herself but wills herself as part of an unbroken chain of events.

11But the traces of time can also be considered in opposition to the material, objective calendar time, or clock time, time as a repetition of tiny units, seconds, minutes, hours, days etc. Indeed those traces can be the visible proof of another time, a subjective, private or psychological time, not measured in successive linear and chronological units, that can stretch specific moments to infinity as in agony or suspense of waiting, or contract others to nothingness. In Women in Love, Ursula and Gudrun are both striving to build a future or at least fight against the deadening, hopeless tyranny of calendar or clock time, blatantly so in the chapters “Sunday Evening” and “Snowed Up” respectively.

12Ursula in “Sunday evening” and Gudrun in “Snowed up” both experience time as an external, linear succession of units measured by the calendar or the clock but they will not come to terms with this in the same way. In “Sunday Evening,” Ursula is in a state of suspense and experiences the total agony of waiting for something to materialize, without which she feels she will die, being at “the end of (her) line of life.” (191), the term “line” explicitly expressing time as a linear process with a beginning and an end, an end which is referred to as a “brink” or an “edge” from which to jump, a metaphor for life on which the novels started. Life is seen as a mechanical “repetition of repetitions” (192), a tedious journey, a succession of steps to take one after the other with the ultimate jump into the space of death. Again, time is equated with space in its linear quality, Ursula progresses along a line of events, that seem to be disconnected, fragmented, that are bound to come to an end, that is death in human terms: “Thereinto goes the journey. Have we not the courage to go on with our journey, must we cry ‘I daren’t’? On ahead we will go, into death, and whatever death may mean.” (191-2). The unbearable repetition of life finds its expression in the calendar, the unvarying succession of days: “Tomorrow was Monday. Monday, the beginning of another school-week! Another shameful, barren school-week, mere routine and mechanical activity. Was not the adventure of death infinitely preferable?” (193). The different days that succeed each other in the week have no particular significance in themselves and so cannot become intemporal Woolfian “moments of being” that can help people to live the present more fully by being able to go back to those fixed memories.

13Instead of wandering in time like life adventurers, men have become the prisoners of the limitations they impose on themselves in their desire to control and master their environment, everything is enclosed, shared into smaller units, parcelled into inches, measured in seconds, minutes, hours, days, until the only unlimited horizon is that of death.

14But Ursula’s ghastly experience of the limitations of human time and space as opposed to the illimitable space of death is only caused by the agony of waiting for her love to arrive. She is the bridge between the different generations and the bearer of hope. So when she finally knows the consummation of love with Birkin in “Excurse,” her experience of it is defined as “immemorial magnificence,” something unique she can remember but also be afraid to seem to remember, a “remembrance” she has to hide away: “Then they kissed and remembered the magnificence of the night. It was so magnificent, such an inheritance of a universe of dark reality, that they were afraid to seem to remember. They hid away the remembrance and the knowledge” (320). It is a moment of being she can hide away in her public self but feel free to roam in in her private inner self, thus exorcising death and oblivion.

15Gudrun’s experience of objective, linear time measured by the clock is totally different as can be seen in “Snowed Up,” Indeed, if Ursula experienced a sort of negative time epiphany preceding the adventure of her love for Birkin that will hopefully lead her to the Blessed Islands rather than into death and the absence of a future, conversely, Gudrun lives through a similar moment after the failure of her affair with Gerald. Gudrun too wishes to be rescued from the “hideous boring repetition of vulgar actions, vulgar phrases, vulgar postures.” But she never “deludes” herself into believing she will find “an elixir of life” with Loerke in Dresden, it will be merely amusing, not life-saving. If Ursula is threatened by the deadly repetition of week after week, Gudrun goes one step further. Of course she can’t bear the idea of living in Shortlands “one week, then the next, and then the third –” but she herself becomes an object of objective time, her head starts “tick(ing) like a clock,” “with a very madness of dead mechanical monotony and meaninglessness.” Her mental sanity is endangered by “the terrible bondage of this tick-tack of time, this twitching of the hands of the clock, this eternal repetition of hours and days,” from which there seems to be no escape. The passing of time then becomes a torture, “tick-tack, tick-tack, tick-tack, then the striking of the hour; then the tick-tack, tick-tack, and the twitching of the clock-fingers” (464). The manic movement of the clock hands and fingers gradually becomes that of Gerald’s kisses and embraces and turns her face into a clock, “a little, twelve-hour clock,” her face “like a clock-dial,” “roundish,” “pale” and “impassive” (465), watching the fingers of the clock moving, watching life and not living it. In The Rainbow, it was Ursula who had received the gift and the burden of the past that she re-created in her life as a woman and in her love for Birkin, the past becoming thus a force and giving her the “golden light” (249) of vitality Birkin wishes she’d give him. Conversely, Gudrun, the modern emancipated artist whose art is so final, so complete, so non-vital, succumbs under the weight of the burden, the tyranny of mechanized time until she is reified, turned into a clock, in love with the God of the Machine, a man who accelerates time, turns the repetition of things into the efficiency of machinery but in the end achieves nothing more than becoming himself a machine, “with a million of wheels and cogs and axles,” working “like clock-work, in perpetual repetition” (466).

16In sharp contrast with the clock- and chronometer-watch hands and fingers Gudrun and Gerald are now equipped with, like fine pieces of abstract machinery, Ursula and Birkin are endowed with “sensitive finger-tips” (313), that can trace the contours of the other’s body, their hands are not manically twitching on a clock-face or dial, but sensually exploring the other’s wonders until they reach a state of immemorial timelessness, “immemorially in timeless potency” (318). It is then obvious that Ursula’s fingers can wear the wedding rings offered by Birkin, even if they have to be “made a little bigger” (304), maybe because Ursula is the bearer of past history and family folklore, that they can wander off somewhere indefinite, while Gudrun’s escape to Dresden is no “elixir of life” (464) and her fate is curtly dismissed by an uncharacteristically short, final sentence, “She wrote no particulars of herself” (481).

17Concerning the two couples, the first one is thus doomed to live an instantaneous present constantly renewing, or repeating itself until it becomes a mere mechanism, while the other one is living in physical, concrete duration binding past, present and future in a flow of organic life that can endure forever.

II The “human” past of objects:

18What is left of a human life after it has ended? Isn’t the only trace left that of objects that surrounded it? If Ursula’s and Gudrun’s experiences of time and life can be seen as opposite, both experience the “human” past of objects, a past that will outlive them, even in a vestigial state.

19Indeed, in “Flitting,” Ursula is fetching her things from her parents’ house in Beldover.:

“The removal had taken place, the family had gone.
It was a wintry afternoon, with
red in the sky, when they arrived at the house. The windows were dark and blank, already the place was frightening. A stark, void entrance-hall struck a chill to the hearts of the girls.
They looked in the big dining-room. It was a good-sized room, but now, a
cell would have been lovelier. The large bay windows were naked, the floor was stripped, and a border of dark polish went round the tract of pale boarding. In the faded wall-paper were dark patches where furniture had stood, where pictures had hung. […] In the hearth was burnt paper, and scraps of half-burnt paper. […] ( Ursula) recognized half-burnt covers of “Vogue”half-burnt representations of women in gowns – lying under the grate.
They went to the drawing-room. Another piece of
shut-in air, without weight or substance, only a sense of intolerable papery imprisonment in nothingness. The kitchen did look more substantial, because of the red-tiled floor and the stove, but it was cold and horrid.
The two girls tramped
hollowly up the bare stairs. Every sound re-echoed under their hearts. They tramped down the bare corridor. Against the wall of Ursula’s bedroom were her things – a trunk, a work-basket, some books, loose coats, a hat-box, standing desolate in the universal emptiness of dusk.
And they heard (Birkin) quickly running up.
“ This is a
ghostly situation,” he said.
“ These houses don’t have ghosts – they’d never had any personality, and only a place with personality can have a ghost.” said Gudrun.
“ I suppose so. Are you both
weeping about the past?”
“ We are,” said Gudrun grimly.
laughed.” (WL, 372-4) (My emphasis)

20I find in this passage an almost exact illustration of what Georges Didi-Huberman develops in his essay about the traces left by objects and their present absence which could also represent grief and mourning over the passage of time and the reality of death. The passage I have quoted is indeed a description, not of the spirit of place or genius loci, but the spirit of non-place or genius deloci. It could almost serve as a description of Parmiggiani’s Delocazione, the works of art to which Didi-Huberman devotes his essay.

21What strikes the reader first in this passage from “Flitting” is the insistence on the frightening emptiness of the house, once the removal has taken place. Indeed, the windows are blank and naked, the entrance-hall is void, the stairs and corridors are bare, the floor is stripped. The house is an empty, hollow shell, like a skull without its human contents, a kind of vanitas painting. There only remain the traces left by the people that lived in the house, burnt or half-burnt scraps of paper, but also the traces left by objects in the patches left on the bare walls with their faded wallpaper, or the borders left by polish on the boarding. There are also the things left by Ursula, standing desolate against the wall and amounting to little more than a few books and clothes that would also only leave the trace of their presence on the wall, if left long enough. Those traces of objects having belonged to people or the imprints of a human presence with the borders of wax, the faded patches on the wallpaper where pictures were hung are contained in the specific, hollow, unsubstantial, papery atmosphere of the house once emptied of its human contents, an “enclosure without substance,”,a “cardboard box” (372) with no more reality than the half-burnt representations of women in gowns – which could also refer to the non-reality of the fictitious characters of the novel, mere printed signs on a page.

22The air shut in the empty space has no weight or substance and could be the breath of death, or rather what is left of the breath of life, which is the matter ghosts are made of, which is the breath that moves curtains or can be felt in haunted houses, the palpable chilly presence of absence that negates utter emptiness. Something endures, like “une haleine opiniâtre,” “un souffle épais de la mémoire,” “ce temps qui ne passe pas ( cf J.-B. Pontalis), qui insiste, qui se dépose – résistant à tous les vents naturels de l’histoire et du “temps qui passe ” ( Didi-Huberman 57), that is, “a persistent breath, a thick breathing exhaled from memory, a time that does not pass, that insists and remains, resisting the natural winds of history and of passing time. ” Birkin sums it all up with his playful “This is a ghostly situation,” to which Gudrun reacts by saying they are indeed “weeping about the past” and to which Ursula counter reacts by laughing, laughter being a creative, vital force opposed to the infantile, regressive weeping of children in the night.

  • 1 “Même lorsqu’il décrit la grisaille d’une simple matinée d’automne, Rilke n’oublie pas les éléments (...)

23This enduring quality can be felt in the dark wintry dusk, with the red sunset and the red tiles of the kitchen as evidence of life. As Didi-Huberman says about Rilke, “Even when describing a grey autumn morning, Rilke never forgets to add contrasting elements like rays of light or scarlet patches against which the ash-grey blanket of things will stand out with all its atmospheric strength.”1 The insistent presence of light or colour is the enduring presence of the past on memory, its persistence.

24This is exactly what Parmiggiani aims at showing with his Delocazione, as is explained in this extract from an exhibition catalogue:

Over forty years ago Claudio Parmiggiani (born in 1943 in Italy) developed a process he named Delocazione. The principle of this process involves the creation of an installation - in this case a library - in a space which is set on fire. Once the combustion is over, the artist removes the books and the smoke and soot traces reveal the silhouettes by default, thus revealing the trace or memory of what disappeared. The artist describes these shadow sculptures as “sculpted by fire and time, born of fire and of its ashes”. The staging of destruction - a symbolic destruction, for in fact the books are not really burned, merely fumigated - revives memory and, through memory life itself. The prints left behind by the books removed and the soot are symbols of presences that have disappeared. Books are the remnants and the custodians of our memory. What will remain of memory when all the books have disappeared? Parmiggiani makes what is absent present; he gives what is not there, what has disappeared, its place in the visible.​en/​exhibitions/​exhibition/​view-e/​claudio-parmiggiani/​

25Finally, Birkin’s remark about the two girls “weeping about the past” in their parent’s now empty house as well as Gudrun’s and Ursula’s different reactions to it (“Gudrun answers “we are” but Ursula merely “laughed”) are the evidence of the two sisters’ diverging attitudes towards the past, one wishing to erase all traces of it and the other building her future on the ruins of the past. Indeed, the past has a freeing capacity, but it can also be considered a burden, paralysing and destructive, because of habits and tradition.

26Ursula’s brows are her grandfather’s and could be passed on to her children if she has any, Ursula’s things are left in her parents’ house before she starts on a new life with Birkin, and they would leave prints on the wall if left long enough; both are evidence of her presence on earth at one moment in the history of the world, remembrances of things past. In “Sketches of Etruscan Places” similarly, Lawrence can also still see “the lustre of the life-loving ancient Etruscans in the “full, dark, handsome, jovial” faces of living peasants in Italy, just like the “faun-face” of the shepherd Lawrence met in Cerverteri or the “good-looking women of the old world, with that very attractive look of noiselessness and inwardness, which women must have had in the past.”

27Time unfolds gradually over past, present and future just as a rainbow inscribes itself gradually in the evanescent traces of a past storm. Thus the traces, marks and imprints of time whether they be physical characteristics of ancestors on present faces or dust or ash collected behind pictures and objects long gone, are ghostly evidence of an existence that has now ended and help construct and continue the flow of time. Like the ashes of the dead, they can be preserved in urns and transmitted from one generation to the next, or blown away in the “circumambient universe,” yet, their memory endures. Ashes blown in the wind, as Lawrence’s were on a station platform, evanescent rainbow disappearing in the skies, a grandparent’s fleeting expression on a child’s face, all those traces are dispersed but not annihilated, enduring in non-places like the vast space of the mind. Remembering and refusing to be rid of all that was before is the only way to preserve the past as a possible bridge to the future.

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Didi-Huberman, Georges, Génie du non-lieu, Paris, Les Editions de Minuit, 2001.

Lawrence, D.H. The Rainbow [ Rb]. London: Penguin, [ 1915] 2007.

–––––, Women in Love [WL]. London: Penguin, [1920] 1995.

–––––, Sketches of Etruscan Places, Penguin Classic Books, London.

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1 “Même lorsqu’il décrit la grisaille d’une simple matinée d’automne, Rilke n’oublie pas les éléments de contraste – rais de lumière, taches écarlates – d’où la nappe cendrée des choses prendra toute sa puissance atmosphérique : “ la partie éclairée était recouverte d’un brouillard, comme d’un rideau gris de lumière. Grises dans la grisaille, les statues se réchauffaient au soleil, dans les jardins encore voilés. Quelques fleurs isolées se levaient des longs parterres et disaient : Rouge, d’une voix effrayée. ” ( R.M.Rilke, Œuvres, I. Proses, Paris, Le Seuil, 1966, 558, quoted by Didi-Huberman, 17)

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Brigitte Macadré-Nguyên, « Traces, Marks and Imprints of Time in The Rainbow and Women in Love », Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 48 | 2017, mis en ligne le 20 décembre 2017, consulté le 11 décembre 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lawrence.289

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