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Time in The Rainbow and Women in Love: From Organic Flow to Mechanical Jam

Peter Fjågesund

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1Living in a period of violent social and cultural tensions, Lawrence struggled to make sense of several mutually incompatible, or at least contradictory, concepts of time. Firstly, his upbringing provided him with a traditional Biblical view, which ultimately rested on an act of faith, and whose ideas of apocalypse and millennium had essentially nothing to do with a rational or scientific development, but rather with the belief in an intervening god – a figure over and above history itself. Secondly, Lawrence was a product of the eighteenth-century faith in progress, and thirdly of the Romantic idea of time and history as closely linked with the organic life of nature. In addition to these elements, he was profoundly influenced by the turn-of-the-century Kulturpessimismus which sharpened further the attack on progress by joining hands with a godless version of the biblical view of history. These seem to be the main approaches to time which he is trying to juggle in his encounter with the First World War. Also, there seems to be no doubt that it is the War itself that pushes his concern with time and history to the surface.

2Despite the fact that The Rainbow and Women in Love were initially conceived as one work, most first readers of the novels will almost certainly find them radically different. Nevertheless, the more one reads the two texts in conjunction, the more evident it becomes that they do in fact contain a large number of parallels. And paradoxically, some of these parallels are brought to the surface precisely by means of contrasts. Parallels and contrasts together thus underline what must have been a profound intention on Lawrence’s part to discuss, through the medium of fiction, the mammoth challenge that the War represented. Still, in the middle of the writing process, Lawrence also found time to write not only the crucial critical works Study of Thomas Hardy and “The Crown,” but also the travel book Twilight in Italy and the often neglected historical textbook Movements in European History.

3Lawrence’s cultural and religious legacy ensured that he always saw, almost in a Shakespearean fashion, the individual as closely connected with the cosmos, and consequently as woven into the grander chronology of humanity at large. It follows therefore that time, caught within the perpetual tension between the finite and the infinite, the transient and the timeless, is an ever-present dimension in his work, and this is especially so in his two greatest novels, produced during a period in which he was grappling not only with the questions of time and history, but also potentially with their most dramatic alternative, namely the end of history. In this context, it seems that Lawrence’s position is closely related to that of the French philosopher Henri Bergson.

4In her study Thinking in Time: An Introduction to Henri Bergson (2006), Suzanne Guerlac explains how Bergson “envisages life as a contingent process of growth and change, as a positive movement of perpetual differentiation that invents new forms. He calls this the élan vital […]. The élan vital is an image for the process of time as duration, that is, for time as force, the force that ‘pushes life along the road of time’” (7). At the same time, Bergson senses “[…] a profound sense of crisis, not only because Europe finds itself heading for war (again) but also because science [… ] appears to have come unstuck from the world and to have left it in chaos” (17). Bergson, in other words, blames science for having monopolized a world picture which does not reflect the world as it is and which refuses to acknowledge the significance of the spiritual dimension, but instead “gives us the world mediated through symbols, which deform our sense of reality to the extent that they immobilize what we experience as occurring in temporal flow. […] They crush our sense of duration” (19). This monopoly of science, together with its sociological counterpart of positivism, is what essentially constitutes the march of progress, which, according to another of its spokesmen, Ernest Renan, is “male and firm,” whereas “spiritualism implies ‘weak, humble, feminine instincts’” (22).

5In the work of one of Lawrence’s fellow countrymen, Herbert Spencer, evolution, according to Guerlac:

meets up with the new science of sociology, and, paradoxically, with mechanistic philosophy and determinism. […] Bergson was initially fascinated by Spencer, but then he began to reflect seriously on the question of time. At which point it occurred to him that Spencer had produced a theory of evolution that managed to immobilize time! Even the philosophy of becoming – evolution – had been subsumed by a static mechanistic analysis. (26–28)

6Guerlac adds that, in opposition to Comte, Renan, Spencer and others, Bergson draws a distinction “between the living and the inert. Whereas inert things are the appropriate objects of science, Bergson believed that living beings, states of consciousness, and life processes can only be known through a metaphysical method he will call intuition” (28).

7Like Bergson, Lawrence sees the concept of time as caught in a battle between static and dynamic forces. For both thinkers, life and human fulfilment are inextricably linked with movement and change. The scientific and mechanical approach, on the other hand, despite being constantly associated with progress and thus dynamism, is fundamentally static and is therefore incapable of embracing the essence and purpose of living. In other words, for both parties in this battle, which concerns the individual as well as society, the bone of contention is ultimately the definition of progress.

8As suggested above, The Rainbow and Women in Love may be regarded as parallel stories, and against the background of the powerful sense of cultural pessimism to which Lawrence gave expression during the War years, there can be little doubt that the timeline contained in the novels, i.e. roughly the period from the early nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth (with the atmosphere of the First World War as a background), represents one of a gradual downward spiral.

9As to simple chronology, we first of all note that The Rainbow covers a historical span of three generations of Brangwens, all of whom are presented in a conventionally progressive and linear time scheme, and all of whom are intimately connected with the Marsh Farm, the soil, and the seasons. Indeed the novel’s very first sentence underlines how their rootedness on the farm goes further back in time, thus establishing a long and unbroken timeline. In the majestic Old Testament prose of the first section of chapter 1, the Brangwens are therefore introduced as “slow-speaking people,” who unquestioningly move with the cycles of nature, while “heaven and earth was teeming around them”:

They felt the rush of the sap in spring, they knew the wave that cannot halt, but every year throws forward the seed to begetting, and, falling back, leaves the young-born on the earth. They knew the intercourse between heaven and earth, sunshine drawn into the breast and bowels, the rain sucked up in the daytime, nakedness that comes under the wind in autumn, showing the birds’ nests no longer worth hiding. (R 9‒10)

10They are thus almost indistinguishable from the soil that feeds them, and in a sense, time – perceived as accurate measured units of chronological sequence – is meaningless, or at least superfluous, to them. For them, time and life are two sides of the same coin. It is therefore hardly an exaggeration to regard the state described in this first section of the novel as containing a distinctly Eden-like or even mythical quality, beyond the concepts of hours, days and months. Similarly, in the “Anna Victrix” chapter, the life of the newly-weds, Will and Anna, is repeatedly characterized in terms of its complete liberation from clock-time:

[…T]here seemed no space between the hours, just a moment, golden and still, whilst she traced his features with her finger-tips […].

Here was a poised, unflawed stillness that was beyond time, because it remained the same, inexhaustible, unchanging, unexhausted.

As they lay close together, complete and beyond the touch of time or change, it was as if they were at the very centre of all the slow wheeling of space and the rapid agitation of life […] . They found themselves there […] at the heart of eternity, whilst time roared far off, forever far off, towards the rim (135).

11And a few pages later, we read: “The old things didn’t matter any more. One got up at four o’clock, and had broth at tea-time and made toffee in the middle of the night. […] But it was a discovery to find one might be so supremely absolved” (140). They live fundamentally by instinct; their verbal communication is limited and hesitant, like that of the old Brangwens; and the children arrive as in a seasonal rhythm, naturally and abundantly. In this world, sex, procreation and even death are integral parts of the ever-spinning wheel of creation. Even Tom Brangwen’s drowning in the flood as he returns from Nottingham lacks the characteristics of a blind and meaningless tragedy; somehow, after a drop too much to drink, he is, thanks to the wisdom of his horse, brought comfortably back to the Marsh where, still laughing quietly at the behavior of the water, he stumbles and succumbs to its power, almost literally sucked into nature’s own cycle of life and death.

12Still, from the very beginning there are threats lurking in the wings, heralding the irruption of change within what is really a world which, with its cyclical and seasonal dynamics, is more or less closed in on itself, a protected and timeless haven. Already in the first section of chapter 1, the idyll is threatened, as in Genesis itself, by the women’s longing for knowledge and for “another form of life than this, something that was not blood-intimacy” (11). Indeed this departure from blood-intimacy could almost be seen as the arrival of the serpent. Section two of the same chapter furthermore begins with the words: “About 1840, a canal was constructed across the meadows of the Marsh Farm, connecting the newly-opened collieries of the Erewash Valley” (13), effectively foreshadowing the events of Women in Love.

13In other ways, too, Lawrence gradually introduces a process of change that will only come to full fruition with Ursula’s and Gudrun’s generation. Lydia, as a foreigner from revolutionary Poland, brings precisely an element of that other form of life the women had been drawn to. William is also an outsider, bringing a breath of the city and the world outside. Later in the novel, Anton Skrebensky has much of the same function in relation to the young Ursula. Finally, an even more explicit foreshadowing of the issues of Women in Love is introduced towards the end of The Rainbow through Ursula’s encounter with Winifred Inger, through Winifred’s and Ursula’s encounter with the young Tom Brangwen, who is a precursor of Gerald in the next novel to a certain extent, and then through Ursula’s abortion at the end of the novel. The use in both novels of symbolism connected with the moon and the flood is another indication that Lawrence, in the process of composing the texts, was systematically building a structure of parallels and contrasts.

14As a narrative, The Rainbow – certainly for a considerable part of the story – has all the qualities of an epic that flows like a large and peaceful river, with the characters living as on a raft, in the now, implicitly following the whims of the current and never questioning the past or the future. In this particular respect, The Rainbow conforms to the great Victorian tradition of novel writing, and can hardly be counted as a contribution to literary Modernism.

15In Women in Love, the reader encounters a very different world. Whereas the first chapter of The Rainbow told the story of “How Tom Brangwen Married a Polish Lady,” the first chapter of the sequel starts with a discussion by two New Women – Ursula and Gudrun – about marriage itself. Thus the novel places under fire the very institution that was seen as the guarantee and foundation stone for the perpetual process of procreation within a natural and God-given rhythm of life. And instead of a silent acceptance of this organic framework, the reader is faced with a continuous verbal battle between the characters; Women in Love is, in short, characterized by perpetual debates – a never-ending questioning of everything the former generations had quietly taken for granted. This is further reflected in a totally different time scheme, i.e. in a narrative structure that is episodic and broken up. Lawrence’s choice of settings and the range of the characters present in the novel confirm the contrast to The Rainbow. In Women in Love, the Marsh is now a distant memory of a bygone age, replaced by settings that are suburban (Beldover), urban (London) and eventually continental (Austria and the Alps). And whereas the plot of The Rainbow had revolved around the three generations of the Brangwen family, that of Women in Love is focused on two generations of the Crich family - the conspicuous absence of the third generation being one of the central features of the novel.

16If one were to choose a chapter in Women in Love that more than any other expresses the novel’s contrast to The Rainbow, it would be “The Industrial Magnate.” Nowhere do we meet a world that is further removed from that of the Marsh, and nowhere do we get closer to the almost hysterical voice of Lawrence’s non-fiction from the War years. There remain also a number of parallels between the two novels: as in The Rainbow, we are presented with a piece of family history. The Criches, like the Brangwens, make a living from what the earth can yield but this is also where the similarities end. Gerald Crich can be regarded as the diametrical opposite of the old farmer Tom Brangwen. The question of the characters’ relation to time seems to constitute an important part of the contrast.

17The description of Gerald’s success as a mine owner is, in essence, that of a world totally removed from the organic cycle of the previous novel. Everything natural has been obliterated, and all that remains is “the pure machine-principle of perfect co-ordination into one pure, complex infinitely repeated motion, like the spinning of a wheel, […] a productive repetition through eternity, to infinity” (WL 301). Gerald no longer dwells in time, i.e. within the organic flow. He has entered another dimension, “a sort of freedom […]. It was the first great step in undoing, the first great phase of chaos, the substitution of the mechanical principle for the organic, the destruction of the organic purpose, the organic unity […]. This was the first and finest state of chaos” (305). And: “The whole system was now so perfect that Gerald was hardly necessary any more” (ibid.). Aware of the Frankenstein monster he has created, “[h]e was afraid that one day he would break down and be a purely meaningless bubble lapping round in darkness” (306), i.e. precisely outside the meaningful wheel of organic time.

18Time, in The Rainbow, was inextricably linked to Life; the one was unthinkable without the other. For Gerald, this connection is broken. Having entered on his downward spiral, he then seeks Gudrun, as a substitute for his lost connection with the real world. In the powerful chapter entitled “Death and Love,” unable to bear “the bottomless pit of nothingness” (422) after his father’s death, he finds his way to Gudrun’s bedroom and tells her plainly: “ʻIf there weren’t you in the world, then I shouldn’t be in the world, either’” (429). And, temporarily, he recovers: “Into her he poured all his pent-up darkness and corrosive death, and he was whole again” (430). But despite the fact that he “buried his small, hard head between her breasts, and pressed her breasts against him with his hands” (431), as if to escape from reality, it does not work; and he can only blame himself for having opted out of the cycle of life.

19In the chapter “Time” in Randall Stevenson’s Modernist Fiction (1992), the author focuses on a later passage from Women in Love, where Gerald’s mechanical world is described, more or less as in the “Industrial Magnate" chapter, but this time from Gudrun’s point of view:

“Shortlands! – Heavens! Think of living there, one week, then the next, and then the third – –
“No, I won't think of it – it is too much – – ”
And she broke off, really terrified, really unable to bear any more.
The thought of the mechanical succession of day following day, day following day,
ad infinitum, was one of the things that made her heart palpitate with a real approach of madness. The terrible bondage of this tick-tack of time, this twitching of the hands of the clock, this eternal repetition of hours and days – oh God, it was too awful to contemplate. And there was no escape from it, no escape.
She almost wished Gerald were with her to save her from the terror of her own thoughts. Oh, how she suffered, lying there alone, confronted by the terrible clock, with its eternal tick-tack. All life, all life resolved itself into this: 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.
Gerald could not save her from it. He, his body, his motion, his life – it was the same ticking, the same twitching across the dial, a horrible mechanical twitching forward over the face of the hours. What were his kisses, his embraces.
She could hear their tick-tack, tick-tack. (564)

20Stevenson points out that Gerald is connected, in Gudrun’s mind, with “a ‘pure will’ that works ‘like clockwork, in perpetual repetition’,” and with a “wider uneasiness about bondage to time” (Stevenson 84). As in the “Industrial Magnate” chapter, he is essentially perceived as an instrument, in this case a clock, which despite its movement is completely static in its “perpetual repetition” (WL 566).

21This “will” refers back to several incidents in the novel, notably the scenes with the mare at the train crossing (ch. IX) and with Winifred’s rabbit (ch. XVIII). In both cases, Gerald suppresses precisely the natural, organic life of an animal, forcing it to submit to the inflexible law of his ego’s will. The horse and train scene, in particular, stands out in stark contrast to old Tom Brangwen’s final journey from Nottingham, where the horse and its tipsy master together find their way home in a perfect harmony. Gerald’s display of ruthless force is by contrast an example of hubris. Gudrun even suggests as much, when she screams out to him “ʻI should think you’re proud’” (171). This is in fact a strange paradox: by transforming himself into a robot-like machine, he becomes the master of his own universe. In this capacity he is also able to suppress the life force of the mare and the rabbit. But in the process he does not seem to realize before it is too late that he has similarly suppressed the genuine life force, or Bergson’s élan vital, within himself, that he has made himself existentially impotent.

22Gerald has thus made himself the victim of a transformation that has converted his life into a succession of seconds and minutes, which are empty of real content: he has himself become an instrument, performing a “complex infinitely repeated motion.” This is the historical impasse that, according to Lawrence, the Geralds of the modern world, i.e. the Napoleons of industry, have created. Translated into Lawrence’s religious terminology, this impasse is the apocalypse, which finds its most destructive expression in the political apocalypse of the War itself. In the novel, Gerald – whose name means “rule of the spear” – is the architect, the Creator of this nightmarish scenario, but it is a process of blind and deathly creation. Gerald is not a forward-looking strategist, who can see the long-term consequences of his acts: if that had been the case, he would have realized the suicidal nature of the enterprise. Instead, he has the one-eyed cyclops’s obsessively narrow-minded vision of power, control and material gain. It does not seem far-fetched, therefore, to connect him closely with the War. Like the rest of his family, he is doomed to death. As he himself comments after the death of his sister during the water party: “ʻThere’s one thing about our family, you know […]. Once anything goes wrong, it can never be put right again – not with us. I’ve noticed it all my life – you can’t put a thing right, once it has gone wrong’” (251–52). Gerald is a symbol of progress, science and civilization, in their darkest Lawrencian versions, and so is the modern war machine, which, as Lawrence was writing, was bringing this very civilization to a standstill. As he wrote in a letter, having seen the Zeppelins over London: “So it seems our cosmos is burst […]. So it is the end – our world is gone, and we are like dust in the air” (L ii. 390). And whereas old Tom Brangwen dies in the whirling flood of ultimately life-giving water, Gerald dies, appropriately, in its static and lifeless form, i.e. in the snow and ice of the upper Alps.

23For Lawrence, the vision of real living was always “to come into being,” which required of the individual the Romantic attitude of accepting the rhythms of nature itself, of living with the movement, the dynamics and changes of the cosmos and time rather than against them. In “The Crown,” however, he develops the imagery of the womb that is unable to give birth, and the fruit that does not fall, both suggesting a fatal obstacle to this vision: “The process of birth had been arrested, the inflexible, withered loins of the mother-era were too old and set, the past was taut around us all” (C, 260). And later: “[w]hatever single act is performed by any man now, in this condition, is an act of reduction, disintegration” (281). Women in Love was written at the same time as “The Crown,” i.e., during the bleakest period of the War. Birkin, Lawrence’s chief mouthpiece in the novel, also preaches the message of “The Crown,” not leaving much hope of a coming into being, either for himself or for anyone else. However the concluding scene of the book does point forward, however hesitantly, to the leadership novels, with their vision of an “eternal union with a man,” as Birkin formulates it (WL 583). Thus, having started with a discussion about marriage, the novel ends with the awkward exchange between Ursula and Birkin, carried out over Gerald’s frozen body, about a male alternative to that which Ursula, with her roots at the Marsh, still sees as the only guarantee of a full life. Lawrence himself would make a long detour before eventually returning, in his final novel, to Ursula’s position and to the values of the Marsh. But there is a significant difference between the Eden of The Rainbow and that of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The latter is sought out against the background of a fallen world, where the organic cycles of the Marsh have been brought to a dead end.

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Guerlac, Suzanne. Thinking in Time: An Introduction to Henri Bergson. Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press, 2006.

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

–––––. The Rainbow. Ed. Mark Kinkead-Weekes. London: Penguin Books, 1995.

–––––. “The Crown”, in Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine: And Other Essays. Ed. Michael Herbert. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

–––––. Women in Love. Ed. Charles L. Ross. London: Penguin Books, 1989.

Stevenson, Randall. Modernist Fiction: An Introduction. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992.

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Peter Fjågesund, « Time in The Rainbow and Women in Love: From Organic Flow to Mechanical Jam », Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 48 | 2017, mis en ligne le 20 décembre 2017, consulté le 22 mai 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lawrence.290

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Peter Fjågesund

Telemark University College, Norway

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