Book Review: The Rainbow by DH Lawrence

At times a frustrating and seemingly obfuscating read, the Rainbow demands a patience on behalf of the reader in order to reveal itself as a wonderful exploration of individual fulfilment against a backdrop of encroaching modernity. Removing itself from the confines of realism, the novel instils each character with a breadth of feeling and interiority that makes them both complete strangers to the reader and uncannily recognisable. Most of the action in the novel takes place within the characters themselves, as they do battle with their internal conflicts to maintain a sense of stability in an unstable world. A strong sense of national identity pervades the novel, questioning the individual’s role within the modern experience we know today. Like D. H. Lawrence’s other novels, such as ‘Women in love’, ‘The Rainbow’ focusses on relationships between the individual and the state. Lawrence himself stated that his theme was ‘carbon’, that elemental state that lies at the centre of the human conscious, the triumphs and pitfalls of the human psyche being central to the novel.

The story takes place in the East Midlands, an area very familiar to Lawrence who spent his childhood there, and occurs from the mid-19th through to the early 20th century. The action straddles three generations of the Brangwen family as they attempt to respond to the shifting English landscape which surrounds them. Tom Brangwen epitomises the earthy, pastoral man, bound to the Marsh Farm, which continues to serve throughout the novel as a kind of rural idyll – one which appears increasingly inaccessible as the novel unfolds. Lawrence describes the embryonic harmony between man and beast, describing how ‘the pulse of the blood of the teats of the cow beat into the pulse of the hands of the men’, the rhythm of the line emphasising that intense bond between man and animal present in this vision of England; a rural paradise unspoiled by smoke or soot.

Tom falls in love with the Polish Lydia. Their love is a constant contradiction, one sentence appearing to be as solid as the rolling hills which cradle the farm, the next as fragile as the twigs which litter the ground surrounding them. For Tom, whose sense of national identity or Englishness never succeeds the hill which surrounds his farm, Lydia appears for him an exotic dream, her foreignness making him proud. It is in this section which Lawrence introduces the conflict of feeling that never relents during the course of the novel. Tom reflects on his kindling love ‘during the long February nights with the ewes in labour, looking out from the shelter into the flashing stars, he knew he did not belong to himself.’ He must admit that he was only fragmentary, something incomplete and subject. Lawrence beautifully captures the moments of self-reflection that come with the knowledge of being in love with someone, the emotional compromise one must undertake during a relationship.

The second section details the tempestuous, fraught relationship between Anna and her cousin Will, as their youthful exuberance is soon tempered by the onset of bitter resentment as they stifle one another emotionally. It is in this section which Lawrence frequently provides the insights into the psychological, ‘allotropic states’ of feeling which occur inside, stressing the importance (whether harmonious or toxic, or both) of human relationships. While surveying the nascent mechanisation of the town of Ilkeston, Will observes that all of this ‘peeled away into unreality, leaving here exposed the inside, the reality: one’s own being, strange feelings and passions and yearnings and beliefs and aspirations.’ Lawrence, through the character of Will, hints at the core beliefs of the novel, ones that pride a depth of feeling above the inert exteriority of the collieries and factories.

The final and most famous section of the novel relates Ursula Brangwen’s struggle for womanhood and her attempts to define herself spiritually against what she sees as the ‘amorphous’ nature of the ‘machine’; the industrialisation and fully formed capitalism that became the hallmarks of England at the turn of the 20th century. Ursula views this industrialisation, represented in the novel through the larger mining towns that spring up, as something terrifying and damaging, a venture that can only erode the freedom of the animal spirit. Ursula wishes to ‘smash the machine with her bare hands’, a righteous, doomed statement of the futility of fighting against the onset of industry. Her relationship with Anton Skrebensky reaches its tragic conclusion as she realises he has become a pawn of the state, a subservient drone ready to go to war for causes he cannot clearly express himself. Ursula’s vivacity is incomprehensible to the austere, passionless Skrebensky, who cannot accept Ursula when she refuses marriage, despite her continuing desire to be with him.

Her experiences as a teacher are telling, finding herself increasingly strained as the school operates autocratically, and encouraging rote teaching methods with little room for individual expression, perhaps a theme which still resonates today. Similarly, Ursula finds university dull and uninspiring, the professors lecturing on dusty and outdated material. Whether this is merely an example of her own exasperation with wider struggles or a genuine concern of university education remains open to debate.
The novel can also be read from a feminist stance. Ursula longs to transcend the confines of contemporary feminism, somewhat controversially being uninterested in the suffragette movement, rather advocating a higher, quasi-religious fulfilment that supersedes any arbitrary suffrage. She also enters into a lesbian relationship with her school mistress, one which would have been seen as transgressive at the time. However, the manner in which Lawrence deals with this relationship and its eventual fallout would perhaps suggest that he is not advocating this kind of relationship, but that will left to the reader’s discretion. In a more general sense, Ursula asserts her femininity onto the text by challenging her expected roles, fighting Anton’s notions of the necessity of marriage, and refusing to be deterred by the constant setbacks she experiences, whether in an educational setting or romantic one.
The towering vision of the Rainbow at the end of the novel captures it’s themes wondrously, as its spiritual promise of a new life, one dominating the ‘brittle’ towns below it, brings a new hope to both Ursula and the reader, that the world is not doomed to modernity.
Overall, ‘The Rainbow’ deserves to be read today for its resonance. For many youths, it will capture that spirit of feeling, that urge to fight against modernity in a time of ambiguous identity and sexuality. or the blasting of the landscape we inherited The pastoral idyll is evoked throughout, the descriptions of nature and the depth of feeling profound and inspiring. This response to modernity in a specifically English setting makes this novel deserved of perhaps more recognition that is has garnered, and the themes it presents will be accessible to anyone living, contentedly or otherwise, in what we have come to know as modern society.

By Pete Stallard

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *