Lawrence’s Rainbow Still Glistens

So much has been written about DH Lawrence‘s The Rainbow that further commentary is perhaps superfluous, but possible redundancy has never been much of an influence in decisions to write. So here I am, offering my dos pesos.

The Rainbow, ostensibly the multi-generation history of the Brangwen family (which continues in Women in Love), is an ambitious novel in which Lawrence advances many philosophical theses–ethical, metaphysical, and political–using a diverse set of literary techniques: internal monologues; authorial interventions and asides; and character construction and dialogues.  It situates these in its recounting of relationships between men and women, fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, teachers and students, and even employers and employees. (The Rainbow also features extended commentaries on, among other things, the educational system, the pernicious influence of industrial life on the English countryside, and the changing roles of women in society.)

I will not be the first, and certainly not the last, to note that Lawrence’s vision of the power plays between human beings can be bleak and dispiriting; this does not make it any less interesting. Sexual love and the relationships that spring up around it, are often, if not always, territories for the contestation of wills and selves doomed to remain opaquely hostile to the other; the ‘relationship’ such as it is, appears not so much as a shelter from the surrounding storm, as a theater for the creation of one.  Anger, fear, resentment, jealousy are as central to this battle as are the more exalted emotions normally associated with the mingling of bodies and souls. Man and woman bring a complex set of motivations, histories, and unresolved existential crises to their ‘encounter’; contact is made with the counterpart, and battle is almost immediately engaged. Sometimes there are are literal or figurative honeymoons; sometimes not. (Lawrence’s description of the cascade of confused anger and longing that can send a loving relationship careening downward approaches, at times, Tolstoy’s brilliant descriptions of the decay that infects Vronsky and Anna’s passions in Anna Karenina.)

An editor at a publishing house might well have returned Lawrence’s manuscript with the comment “It’s a little too interior, if you know what I mean.” Much of the ‘action’ in the novel is located in the maelstrom of characters’ minds;  the reader is frequently granted privileged access to extended attempts at resolutions of intractable, torturous compounds of emotional impulses. Digesting these and generating sympathy for, and empathy with, Lawrence’s characters remains the primary challenge for any reader.

Most critical takes on The Rainbow justifiably focus on the sexual relationships at its core; but Lawrence’s descriptions and analysis of the negotiations of power between employer and employee (at Ursula’s school) and between teacher and student (at the same venue) are also fascinating. These encounters are no less fraught than the sexual ones with struggles for pole position, for the deployment of strategies designed to assert one’s self in order to fully realize it.

The Rainbow is not a light read, but it is never tedious; the tone is magisterial, and only occasionally pompous. In scope and ambition it comes close to being an epic.

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