Lawrence’s The Rainbow is a novel that revolves around three generations of the Brangwen family, right from when it was first affected by the Industrial Revolution; exploring the changes each generation undergoes along with the societal changes that take place. The time period this novel is set in (1840-1905) is the transitional period from the Victorian sensibilities to those of the modernists, and it is interesting to note how this is seen in the novel.
In this paper, I will focus on the realistic and modernistic elements of this novel.
The novel The Rainbow (which was published in 1915) was Lawrence’s fourth novel, and one of his most famous (or infamous depending on the time-period one is looking at) works of his literary career. This novel is about the Brangwen clan who were farmers that were one with nature and lived a plentiful (but not rich) life on their lands in a sort of Edenic isolation from the technological advances that gripped the rest of their town- until suddenly, they weren’t. Slowly, almost insidiously, the Industrial Revolution caught up them and the rest of the novel is an exploration of the next three generations of this family, and how they struggled to navigate through the changing times around them.
We first see the life of Tom Brangwen, a sensitive man who is suited for the life of farming that became his lot in life. He gets married to Lydia Lensky (a Polish woman who was a widow) and after a while of trying to figure out his relationship to his wife, he manages to reach some sort of shaky equilibrium with her. We view the next generation through the eyes of Anna Brangwen (one of Lydia and Tom’s children) and explore her marriage with Will Brangwen (her cousin) who is artistic in temperament and of a more traditionalistic mindset, while she was of a more progressive mindset. We witness their battle of the wills and how they manage to reach a compromise; and then the focus shifts to their first child, Ursula Brangwen. She tries to figure out how she wants to live life, experimenting and gaining different experiences and finally, when it seems like she’s in a dark place, she sees the rainbow arcing across the sky, and she feels like the future holds better things for her to discover. This novel is rather enchantingly domestic, and gives us an in-depth understanding of the characters; and it fulfils Lawrence’s maxim of being “a book of life”, we can see these characters really live their lives in this novel. As times change from the pastoral to the urban, from the agricultural to the industrial, from community to the deracinated individual, from the embedded male to the emancipated woman, we see these characters try to come to terms with their realities and also to try to find their essences even as it becomes increasingly more difficult to do so as years pass by.
Although the plot of the novel sounds rather unequivocal, the way Lawrence maps it all out explores the characters and their psyches and their relationships with one another, passion and strife and all, and also expounds on his ideas on the individual, the society and the ways of the world.
Like in all of his novels, he was considered an unconventional writer not because he experimented with the grammar or syntax or the plot (he was pretty conventional in that regard); it was the way he handled taboo subjects like sex and sexuality and commented on the class distinctions of the society of his times with a straightforwardness that scandalized the majority of his audiences.
The Rainbow is a hodge-podge of Lawrence’s takes on realism and modernism, and we can see quite a few places where he successfully manages to combine them both in an effortless way.
Firstly, it is imperative to understand that Lawrence drew inspiration for his writings from his own experiences and observations, which is why all of his works have an element of realism to them, and The Rainbow is no different in this regard.
When one looks at the language Lawrence employs in the novel, it can be described as almost deceptively simple, and that because that’s precisely what he was aiming for. Like in the realistic tradition, the language he uses reflects the subjects of his novel, common folk; it is realistic without any unnecessary fripperies to spruce it up. Also in alignment with the realistic style, he describes commonplace events in great detail. The way he describes the scenes- like in the lines “She turned away. The vicarage kitchen was untidy, and yet to him beautiful with the untidiness of her and her child.” (Ch 1, TR)- drives home the verisimilitude of the work to the reader. The drama of love and hatred that goes on continually is supremely real.
It is breathtaking to see the way he also dedicates this amount of painstaking detail into disclosing the psychologies of the characters, and also into illustrating the philosophy behind their relationships. The male Brangwens, represent the instinctual and spiritual sides of humanity while the female Brangwens symbolize the intellectual and abstract side of humanity and the result of these consistently opposed forces is played out in the sexual relationships of the characters.
Additionally, the plot itself is narrated in a continuous manner, and is easy to read and doesn’t require any intellectual exercising in the reader’s part to understand the plot; as is the case with realistic novels in general.
After Tom and Lydia get married (more precisely, after Lydia gets pregnant), we are engrossed in the intricacies of relationships. After we see the way Tom and Lydia manage to come to terms with their differences in disposition and move past their doubts about each other and their relationship (to a certain extent), we watch Will and Anna also try to overcome their differences of opinion and beliefs and we also see them tackle the issue of dominance in marriage (their struggles are resolved in a much less satisfactory manner than that of the previous generation). Interestingly, when we come to the third generation (Ursula), we see her represent an interesting dichotomy, both the decline in the success of the relationships between a man and a woman (like in her failed relationship with Anton Skrebensky) and the potential for harmony and fullness of being. Lawrence records the changing attitudes the partners of male/female relationships undergo through the generations as society recalibrates its values to match the changing times, while also representing his optimistic belief in the future generations. Interestingly, while most realistic novels portrayed life in so much detail that it may seem sad and depressing, Lawrence gives the ending a surprisingly pleasant tinge.
The element of social realism is also conspicuous in Lawrence’s works. Lawrence was very concerned about the dehumanized society around him, and this is seen in The Rainbow, where he criticizes the destructive modern industrial society. Apart from the obvious criticism in the narration, he even personifies the soulless society that is spawned from the lack of connection one has with nature and the universe in the characters Tom Brangwen (Ursula’s uncle) and his wife Winifred Inger, along with all the other characters she had to contend with when she was working as a teacher. Ursula contrasts these characters in her quest for spiritual and emotional growth and fulfilment.
While there are quite a few realistic elements, one cannot discount the modernistic turns of this novel either.
For instance, while the language of the novel is simple, it is by no means plain. Lawrence lends a sensuous touch to romance through the beautiful use of poetic language, which really enriches the beauty of the text. And one must not forget the symbolism and imagery Lawrence uses to drive home certain aspects of the character’s emotional state to the reader. In fact, a detailed analysis of the imagery he uses shows certain aspects that the text portrays in a different light (for instance, the wind imagery we see linked to Tom Brangwen which shows his fluctuating state of ease in his relationship with Lydia). While his use of images isn’t as abstracted as that of the modernists, it certainly isn’t fully lacking in this arena either. In addition to that, while the narrator is a third person, the way the narrator is so fully in the know of the characters, including the dialogue between their selves and souls is almost a variation of the stream-of-consciousness technique that the modernists were so fond of.
Also, instead of depicting the social consciousness as the realists are wont to do, Lawrence is more concerned with the individual’s state of mind and being. In fact, individuals who reject societal restrictions and categorizations and who retain their natural states of being and thinking are shown to reach true happiness, like in the case of Ursula.
Paradoxically, the ideas in this novel attack not only modernity, but also convention. Industrialization is conveyed to be destructive to the bounties of nature and is shown to be detrimental to the human psyche. Group thinking is also poisonous and destructive; and war and militarism and blind patriotism are depicted as unnatural and harmful to humanity. All of these are rather radical, and more importantly, sentiments championed by the modernists.
Furthermore, in his detailed analysis of the characters, he depicts the immense passion and strife that characterizes all of the romances and marriages. And in these, we can slowly see the collapse of the norms of gender, religion, family and sexuality of the past Victorian age. The characters also attack conventional precepts by criticizing the institution of marriage and the trend of professionals taking on the identity of their profession (an example of the former in the novel is Tom’s proposal to Lydia. Everything about it is very unconventional and almost bizarre). The oppressed minorities from all walks of life were coming forward (in this case, women and people of the lower middle classes). In this regard, Anna can be seen as a fierce opponent to these oppressive forces (for example, her defiance against Will’s patriarchal mindset) and perhaps influenced Ursula to stand up for herself and overthrow the constrictions placed upon her, as Anna couldn’t fully succeed in her battle against them.
Ursula is a poster child for the modernist cause. From early on in her life, she proves to be a very independent and intelligent person who fought against societal norms and restrictions placed upon her. She fought for her right to get an education and to pursue a career. She was very experimental and she was the first Brangwen woman to have premarital sex and even has a lesbian relationship at one point with professor, Winifred, who later goes on to become her aunt.
However, Ursula struggles not only with society, but with herself too. Although she tries to keep in touch with her real self, her essence, she felt the circumstances around her insidiously changing her. It is only at the end of the novel that she is at peace with herself, after she understands there is more for her to explore, that she must truly venture into the unknown in her quest for self-realization, and that there is hope for her yet.
As we’ve already established, Lawrence is a man who was keenly in touch with the society, condemning its fallacies in his works. However, despite the sadness and outrage he felt at the state of things, he wasn’t pessimistic about the future, and this shows in the ending of this novel too. He said that change would eventually come upon them, and that the society will right itself in due course of time. In modernism, despite how depressing the foundation of a literary work is, it always ends on an optimistic note.
Lawrence also didn’t believe in simply throwing out the existing structure of society, as he said that handing over the reigns of the newly demolished societal order to the previously oppressed groups wouldn’t make it any better. He believed that one must change the existing order in order to fully sustain all members of the society. This sentiment is echoes by the modernists too.
D H Lawrence’s The Rainbow truly is a remarkable work that manages to successfully narrate a tale with historical accuracy while melding together two forms of literature into one sustainable whole and offers his almost prophetic social commentary, while still mostly focusing on aspect of domesticity and spirituality.