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Vive la différence: A Note on Sexuality, Gender and Difference in Lawrence

Michael Bell

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1In his own time Lawrence was seen by both admirers and detractors as centrally concerned with sexuality. By the end of the century, however, after the so-called sexual liberation which has so often laid at his door, his treatment of this theme, and especially his supposed views and recommendations on sexual relations, had come to seem historical, if not outdated, to many observers. At the same time, other concerns of Lawrence, which had earlier seemed idiosyncratic, have come to seem timely. Among these is the theme of difference which animates so much late twentieth-century philosophy, literature and politics. I would like to revisit the question of sexuality in relation to difference: more precisely, to ask how far difference as such is really Lawrence’s primary intuition through which sexual difference acquires its value and significance.

2Since Lawrence’s time the category of gender has come to complicate the question of sexual difference. Whether or not Lawrence thought of this distinction as such, Sanatan Bhowal has argued persuasively in a recent article that Lawrence, while seeing gender as fluid and adaptable, believed strongly in sexual difference. Bhowal compares Lawrence’s stated views with those of several late twentieth-century theorists, including Judith Butler who takes a strongly performative view of gender, and he concludes:

  • 1 Sanatan Bhowal, “Lawrence and the Question of Gender in Our Times,” Etudes Lawrenciennes, 45, 2014, (...)

3The duality of gender is destabilised in Lawrence’s schema but the duality of sex is kept inviolable and pure. Sexual difference, involved as it is in gender study, remains embedded and necessarily untranscended in Lawrence’s concept of gender. Recent feminists such as Luce Irigary and Cixous clearly share this perception. For them, as for Lawrence, the destruction of sexual difference would amount to the undesirable destruction of desire. 1

  • 2 Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious and Fantasia of the Unconscious, ed. Bruce Steele (Cambridge: Ca (...)

4This seems to me to be a very fair statement of Lawrence’s attitude. At the level of abstract principle he surely always held to the view expressed in Fantasia of the Unconscious: “No getting away from the fact that the blood of woman is dynamically polarized in opposition, or in difference to the blood of man.”2

5But as common understanding of these matters now is not the same as it was for Lawrence’s time, I think it useful to speculate whether one might newly understand, or translate, him into later conceptions. Just as, if Freudian theory is valid it can be exemplified in literary works written long before its formulation, so the new understanding of cultural gender, which has transformed the notion of natural sexuality, provides a legitimate viewpoint from which to reread works which clearly predate it. Even in the sentence just quoted, for example, the manifest impact is to affirm a natural sexuality but what exactly is the force of the expression “dynamically polarised”? Although it is grammatically passive, as if part of an inevitable process, it also hints at something more relational and active. The manifest intention, in other words, is to affirm an essential male and female destined biologically and psychologically to express their difference in this polarised way yet the phrasing is open to the possibility that it is rather the fact of polarisation which dynamically creates the particular values of male and female. In this context, the equivocation over “opposition” or “difference” between male and female also becomes significant as will be seen later.

  • 3 Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, ed. Bruce Steele (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 19 (...)

6Perhaps the ambivalence of modernist writing generally, as being both avant-garde and deeply conservative, is most tellingly focused in the question of sexuality. Conrad, Joyce, Yeats and Lawrence, for example, seemed to share a view of men and women with deep roots in European culture whereby the proprium of the male sex was to do and that of the female to be. As Lawrence puts it in Study of Thomas Hardy, “The male exists in doing, the female in being.”3

7The man acts because he feels a lack, and needs to find fulfilment outside himself, whereas the woman is more whole in herself. The man is therefore more prone to idealising, whether in philosophical systems or in romantic emotion, while the woman is more grounded and realistic. Such a model of sexual difference, whether we take it to be natural or cultural, is highly ambivalent in that it is susceptible of appropriation by opposite political or social forms. In this model of sexual difference, which is familiar from Shakespeare and Cervantes, the woman is intrinsically the stronger being, yet she can be manipulated into being placed within a patriarchal order. In the late nineteenth century,

8J. J. Bachofen’s Mutterrecht (1861) provided an anthropological grounding for a version of this view by arguing that there had been an originary non-hierarchical communal order organised around motherhood with paternity either unknown or not equally regarded. Patriarchy had then gradually asserted itself over this original condition. Moreover, such a process would not necessarily be over and done at some early cultural phase and Lawrence saw it still working itself out in the European Renaissance when there “began conscious Woman-reverence, and a lack of instinctive reverence” (STH 103).

  • 4 The Woman Who Rode Away and Other Stories, ed. Dieter Mehl and Christa Jansohn (Cambridge: Cambridg (...)

9All four of the writers just mentioned draw on this long tradition to present a woman, and by implication women, as a significant moral yardstick: Conrad’s Mrs Gould, Joyce’s Molly Bloom, Yeats’s Maud Gonne and Lawrence’s Ursula Brangwen. Although Yeats’s romantic ideal of Maud Gonne is remote from Lawrence’s portrayal of women, it has in common a conception of the woman’s wholeness such that she is the especially significant, if not tragic, case of modern intellectual abstraction. So too, the anonymous “Woman” who rode away in Lawrence’s story, who is a more simple, because more fabular, characterisation than Ursula, embodies the value of female wholeness even more purely and emphatically. Leaving her husband, who is described as “a squeamish waif of an idealist”, she is the one who is capable of suffering the condition that leads her to undertake her journey and submit herself, like a female Christ, to humanly representative sacrifice.4 Meanwhile, Lawrence’s unnamed man, in “The Man who Died,” learns painfully to escape his idealism and seals the change by mating with a woman. Wholeness is Lawrence’s central value, if not to say his ideal, and it is hardly surprising that women carry so much of the dramatic and moral burden of his fiction.

10All these early twentieth-century cases seem to reflect an essentialist conception of woman as the default account that the author would offer if asked, yet in so far as the distinction between essentialist and culturally constructed is not positively thought as such, the representation is not necessarily bound by this. Molly Bloom is the most striking case in this regard. She is celebrated within the novel as virtually the voice of nature itself, if not to say herself, while neither in her nor any other female character does Joyce portray an intelligent, intellectually cultured woman. Critical opinion has been divided on the success or otherwise of Molly’s characterisation which treads at the least a fine line between a woman enjoying her own nature and an authorial concoction of gender stereotypes. Moreover, these aspects are not in clear opposition in so far as Molly is one of those many people one meets in life who enjoy living up to their own stereotype. If gender is ultimately no more than a performative role, then Molly could be a prime example.

  • 5 “Easter 1916,” W. B. Yeats, Collected Poems (London: Macmillan, 1960), 40.

11In so far as Joyce’s whole art is concerned with cultural and linguistic construction, such a performative reading of Molly would ultimately be in keeping with its general spirit. By contrast, Lawrence’s art seems always to be probing at the depths of character and is therefore more elusively ambiguous. As he put it himself, his characters are not stable egos so much as vehicles through which tides of feeling ebb and flow. At the same time, as Bhowal says, he remained convinced of the fundamental importance of sexual difference. But psychologists and psychiatrists have devised many different maps for reflecting on the intrinsically speculative domain of the psyche and, like topographical maps, they may serve many different purposes or highlight different features. Likewise, Lawrence declares in Study of Thomas Hardy “that the division into male and female is arbitrary, for the purposes of thought” (STH 60) and the privileging of sexual difference provided Lawrence with an explanatory account of individual psyches in which the combination or conflict of so-called “male” and “female” characteristics could be beneficial or detrimental. So, for example, the feminine aspects of Tom Brangwen contribute to a relatively whole and grounded personality whereas the masculine qualities of Hermione Roddice recall Yeats’s account of Constance Markievicz spending “Her nights in argument/ Until her voice grew shrill.”5 Indeed, Lawrence goes on to declare any predominance of one principle over the other as detrimental:

Sex, as we call it, is only the point where the dual stream begins to divide, where it is nearly together, almost one. An infant is of no very determinate sex: that is, it is of both. Only at adolescence is there a real differentiation, the one is singled out to predominate. In what we call happy natures, in the lazy, contented, people, there is a fairly equable balance of sex. There is sufficient of the female in the body of such a man as to leave him fairly free […] so that he can be easy, balanced, and without excess. (STH 70)

12Yet of course, the question remains as to how far the words “male” and “female” here, as the terminological currency of this internal and dynamic opposition, are to be taken as cultural constructions or natural features. Since Lawrence did not live in an age so sensitised to this distinction, we may infer it retrospectively but not necessarily by imposing a binary choice on him; he was perhaps gathering both possibilities into a living complex.

13I believe that The Rainbow, which is closely related to Lawrence’s thought in the Study of Thomas Hardy, remains not just inaugural but central to his representation of sexual difference in his fiction and I have always thought that the opening distinction between the Brangwen men and women is intriguing for the elusive status of its gender opposition. Let me remind you of some of the key passages:

The women were different. On them too was the drowse of blood-intimacy, calves sucking and hens running together in droves, and young geese palpitating in the hand while food was pushed down their throttle. But the women looked out from the heated, blind intercourse of farm-life, to the spoken word beyond. They were aware of the lips and the mind of the world speaking and giving utterance, they heard the sound in the distance, and they strained to listen.

  • 6 The Rainbow, ed. Mark Kinkead-Weekes, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 10-11.

[…] She stood to see the far-off world of cities and governments and the active scope of man, the magic land to her, where secrets were made known and desires fulfilled. She faced outwards to where men moved dominant and creative, having turned their back on the pulsing heat of creation, and with this behind them, were set out to discover what was beyond, to enlarge their own scope and range and freedom; whereas the Brangwen men faced inwards to the teeming life of creation, which poured unresolved into their veins.6

14Although the passage is concerned precisely with a sharply polarised sexual difference, it is the women who look beyond the domestic environment while the attributes of the male are highly labile, partly in accordance with the English usage of the word “man” as either humanly representative or gender specific. The “far off world” is one of human achievement, of “man” in general, although the shift to “men” as “dominant and creative” in the next sentence seems to suggest a gendered specificity. But then the Brangwen men are contrasted directly with this broader ambition. My usual comment on this passage has been to remark on the divergence between the boldly generalised opposition of the sexes in the history of the Brangwens and the actual characterisation of the individuals encountered in the subsequent narrative all of whom in varying measures undergo the internal conflict of both these supposedly gendered attributes. It is as if the narrative uses gender here in an essentially metaphorical way in order to posit at the outset two major contrary motives in every human psyche: the need to remain rooted and the equal and opposite need to explore and transcend.

15For this is indeed the twin dynamic that impels the family story throughout and Lawrence expresses it in gendered terms as if to say this opposition is as fundamental, necessary and productive as the difference between the sexes. Moreover, in so far as the statement is also to be taken as social historical description, the opposition does not have to be understood in essentialist terms since, as well as the fact that subsequent characters experience both motives, the historical Brangwens are powerfully conditioned by the division of labour imposed by running the farm. Indeed, by a paradoxical circularity, the onward dynamic of human progress in the novel will increasingly dissolve the sexual difference with which it is metaphorically paralleled. For progress seems to depend on escaping the otherwise stultifying polarity of the gendered roles. The sexual or gender difference is to that extent a kind of metaphorical mirage, like the rainbow itself: a natural phenomenon yet created by human perception. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the functional division between domestic and agricultural labour seems to reflect in some unknown measure a natural distinction, the women attend to the domestic sphere while the men till the fields, and for the narrative to use sexual difference as the image of this fundamental dynamic of the human psyche is precisely to imply and assume its primordial status. We are left with the question, therefore, is it primordial in a contingently historical sense as something that can be outgrown, or in the more intrinsic sense of being the permanent condition of humanity? The outcome of this passage, I think, as it frames the entry to the whole narrative, is for the reader to feel the power, and the encompassing nature, of sexual difference while keeping its status elusive and potentially malleable.

16For Lawrence, as Bhowal rightly says, men and women are attracted to each other by and for their mutual difference which may be partly a projection but not for that reason merely a romantic illusion. Tom Brangwen’s first vision of Lydia occurs very realistically in the muddy roadway as he drives his cart but in that instant she changes his world: “She had passed by. He felt as if he were walking again in a far world, not Cossethay, a far world, the fragile reality.” (Rainbow 29 ) Similarly as Lydia later opens the door to Tom when he comes in the night to propose to her, she sees at first only a large anonymous male figure in the darkness, an impression very different from the insecure provincial young man he feels himself to be. Such moments might be described by Stendhal as “crystallisation.” Visiting the Salzburg salt mine, Stendhal showed his lady companion a twig covered in crystals as an image of what the lover’s imagination does in beautifying the quite ordinary object which happens to be caught up in the process. The romantic irony of Stendhal’s psychology of love between highly conscious individuals is distrustful of the emotion even as it celebrates it. For him, romantic love is inseparable from illusion. By contrast, Lawrence also sees well enough the possible illusion but as a necessary destabilising of the individual self and as a motive for truly encountering, for seeking out the reality, of the other - an impulse which is importantly not coterminous with the consciously, knowing self. Indeed, carnal, or “blood,” knowledge may be most felt when in contrast to ordinary mental knowledge.

17Hence, Tom’s immediate reaction after exchanging looks with Lydia is to be tormented by the uncertainty of their mutual recognition. “The doubt was like a sense of infinite space, a nothingness, annihilating. He kept within his breast the will to surety. They had exchanged recognition” (Rainbow 29/30 ). Milan Kundera has remarked, in a more cynical spirit, that the rules of any relationship are usually drawn up in the first minutes of meeting and these brief sentences do indeed establish the permanent structure of Tom and Lydia’s marriage. But for Lawrence it is not an unwitting contract so much as the initiation into a deep structure. Lydia will remain unknown to Tom, a quality symbolised by her foreign past, and it is above all his sense of her always undiminished difference which powers the relationship. In human love as well as religious belief, if we could absolutely know the object there would be no faith, and it is respectively faith or trust which is the true virtue in both these domains. Or to put this is in Lawrence’s terms quoted earlier from Fantasia, Tom and Lydia have a polarised attraction at the level of the blood rather than of the individually conscious, knowing self. In this context, the image of foreignness is worth noting as the symbol and practical guarantor of difference. While emphasising difference as the basis of the relationship, it is in itself a purely cultural fact.

18As is well known, the traditional form of life in the Brangwen family underwrites the relationship of Tom and Lydia, but the modern generation of Women in Love struggles to find an equivalent. Birkin’s notion of “star equilibrium” seeks to express a similar guarantee of difference in which the cosmic imagery suggests its vitally unconscious aspect, what Fantasia calls the “blood.” At the same time, however, Birkin feels the gravitational disturbance of other bodies, such as Gerald, who also exerts over him a power of difference. One way of looking at Women in Love would be to say that the break-up of gendered expectations has set the characters adrift from the healing and enriching experience of sexual difference. They can no longer see what is before their eyes, or give themselves to the unknown. In that respect, as Bhowal says, Lawrence always retained a strong belief in sexual difference as the underwriting of difference as such and there seems to me to be considerable permanent plausibility in this view. In particular, it makes empirical sense for many heterosexual men and women. But it might not necessarily follow that sexual difference is the primordial cause or the unique guarantee of the difference that underwrites a sexual relationship.

19The discussion so far has accepted a distinction between natural sexuality and acculturated gender. This is a widely accepted common-sense distinction although, of course, highly controversial in its implications. Long entrenched campaigns have been fought over whether, or to what extent, gender is biological or cultural although, however well-informed the opponents may be in their own terms, any definitive answer to the question surely lies out of reach. There springs to mind Matthew Arnold’s image of a modernity in which “ignorant armies clash by night.” Certainly a great deal is legitimately at stake in emphasising the one aspect or the other yet it is a mythical choice in the end. But while these arguments can be conducted on the assumption that natural sexuality is mediated to some unknowable degree by cultural gender, Judith Butler has most notably put a more radical case. She argues that natural sexuality is itself a cultural creation. Rather than gender emerging from, and possibly celebrating, sexual difference, it is gender that effectively creates the supposedly natural difference on which it ostensibly rests. Her felt need, as a homosexual woman, to devise a social expression of her own sexuality has led her to detect all sexual difference as gendered performance. As she summarises:

  • 7 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York and London: Routledge, 2006), 192.

That gender reality is created through sustained social performances means that the very notion of an essential sex and a true and abiding masculinity or femininity are also constituted as part of the strategy that conceals gender’s performative character.7

20On the face of it, such a conclusion seems far from Lawrence’s understanding. Butler’s notion of performance would surely align her with the decadent, mocking charades played by Gudrun and Loerke. Its spirit is certainly at odds with Lawrence’s. But maybe there is an equivalent at the level of theoretical insight depending partly on the meaning of the word difference. In common parlance difference is roughly equated with dissimilarity. But the philosophical use of the word, which Lawrence so strongly anticipated, is to do with the recognition of radical otherness. Dissimilarities of race, sex or species can bring home the recognition of otherness but dissimilarity is not essential to it. The Polishness of Lydia Lensky, for example, is only the overt signal of her radical unknowability, her difference. And, indeed, it might be that the capacity for appreciating difference could be most significantly tested by apparent similarity. Certainly, Lawrence’s acute sense of difference leads him not to a preoccupation with personal performance of a role but to an appreciation of the other.

  • 8 See STH p. 193 and letter of 8 December 1915 in The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, vol II, ed. George J (...)

21Not surprisingly, both Butler and Lawrence denounce the Cartesian split of cultured mind and material body but from opposite ends. She wishes to draw the body entirely into the realm of signification. In other words, she denies there is a neutral material body awaiting cultural inscription. For her, what we call the body is always already a signification. Lawrence’s denial of the Cartesian split works, however, from the other end: he holistically affirms the role of the body as when, in the essay “Why the Novel Matters,” he praises the cleverness of his hand in writing, or in his use of apparently oxymoronic terms such as “blood consciousness.”8 Yet there is a significant similarity in the way Lawrence’s sense of difference powers and defines the sexual relation. In his case, however, rather than gender, it is the existential issue of difference that provides the foundation, the order of significance, within which he animates the domains of sexuality and gender. And that makes a great difference to the significance of the sexual encounter. Rather than the performance of a role, there is a radical, as it were chemical, transformation of the self for both parties as their internal fluidity and mixture acquire a momentary purification:

[…] in the act of love, that which is mixed in me becomes pure, that which is female in me is given to the female, that which is male in her draws into me, I am complete, I am pure male, she is pure female, we rejoice in contact perfect and naked and clear, singled out unto ourselves, and given the surpassing freedom. (STH 80)

22The evident fact that same sex relationships experience the same gamut of emotions as those traditionally attributed to heterosexuals is not to be explained as mere cultural imitation if, as Butler claims, that ultimately applies to all sexual feelings anyway. But I find Lawrence’s account the more plausible and compelling. It seems to arise from reflecting on his own case. He had a strongly feminine character which he notoriously compensated for with masculinist assertion but this comment suggests a more intuitive resolution. It explains and preserves, from within the very fluidity of the psyche, the traditional experience of sex as a uniquely significant human encounter in which each party submits to something beyond the self. Maybe, just as the quality of mercy is not strained, so the quality of difference is not restrained and the meeting of Tom and Lydia suggests how much the sense of difference is in the eye of the beholder. It seems to me, therefore, that the forceful and continuing point of the implicit analysis in Lawrence’s fiction lies in the appreciation of difference as such while the question of sexual difference may be more labile, even for Lawrence, than we, or he, have been accustomed to thinking. Maybe we should rather say that difference as such is the essential dynamic of life without the requirement for sexually fixed terms in creating it. And if appreciation of difference is what largely creates the desirability of the other, this is not Stendhalian illusion but the motive to a true encounter for which sexuality, to be sure, remains a compelling and appropriate arena.

  • 9 Nietzche poses this question in the opening sentence of his Preface to Beyond Good and Evil.

23Lawrence, like Nietzsche, had powerful convictions and diagnoses, which required theoretical structures for their expression, but were resistant to fixity or system while fatally susceptible to de-contextualised quotation. Nietzsche’s awareness of this lability was implied in his question: “What if truth be a woman?”9 Truth, that is to say, is not to be approached by formal argument but in a spirit of finesse attuned to the power of cultural construction. In a similar spirit, Lawrence warned that his “pollyanalytics” although part of a sincere and necessary struggle into conscious understanding, were not necessarily identical with his fiction. Because Lawrence felt the force of difference with such phenomenal vividness, he was constantly seeking to dramatise it in his fiction and to articulate it at the level of the ideas available to him at the time. But perhaps what he ultimately showed, whether intentionally or not, is that, while the sense of difference is crucial to being fully alive in what he called the “fourth dimension,” and is fundamental above all to relationship, it has no fixed abode either in principle or in life.

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1 Sanatan Bhowal, “Lawrence and the Question of Gender in Our Times,” Etudes Lawrenciennes, 45, 2014, 141-160.

2 Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious and Fantasia of the Unconscious, ed. Bruce Steele (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 186.

3 Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, ed. Bruce Steele (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985),94.

4 The Woman Who Rode Away and Other Stories, ed. Dieter Mehl and Christa Jansohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 40.

5 “Easter 1916,” W. B. Yeats, Collected Poems (London: Macmillan, 1960), 40.

6 The Rainbow, ed. Mark Kinkead-Weekes, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 10-11.

7 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York and London: Routledge, 2006), 192.

8 See STH p. 193 and letter of 8 December 1915 in The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, vol II, ed. George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 470.

9 Nietzche poses this question in the opening sentence of his Preface to Beyond Good and Evil.

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Michael Bell, « Vive la différence: A Note on Sexuality, Gender and Difference in Lawrence »Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 49 | 2019, mis en ligne le 29 mars 2019, consulté le 28 novembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Michael Bell

Michael Bell is Professor Emeritus at the University of Warwick and Associate Fellow of the Centre for Research in Philosophy and Literature. His principal publication on Lawrence is  D. H. Lawrence: Language and Being (CUP, 1992). He has published much else on Lawrence including a chapter in his  book Open Secrets: Literature, Education and Authority from J-J Rousseau to J. M. Coetzee (OUP, 2007)

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