Printer Friendly

Metaphysics and sexual politics in Lawrence's novels.

When Gudrun Brangwen abandons the manly Gerald Crich in Women in Love (1920), D. H. Lawrence dramatizes his greatest anxiety: that men have lost their potency, their power, their capacity for life. Moreover, Gerald is a historical type, and his failure to win Gudrun is symptomatic of a widely discussed cultural malaise in the background of the novel: that the wonder and promise of the Enlightenment has degenerated into the cold, hollow, heartless progress of industry and technology, leaving both the individual and the culture empty, uninspired and uninspiring. Women in Love thematizes both the private anxiety and the public malaise as the dual consequences of the same metaphysical crisis. Gerald's failure points to a lack in his metaphysical spirit corresponding to a lack in the metaphysic of the Enlightenment he represents; his icy death heralds the end of the Enlightenment as a metaphysical source of passion and intensity in personal and cultural life. Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, who saw in this historical crisis the end of metaphysics altogether, Lawrence saw instead the necessity to create a new metaphysic able to renew private and public passion.(1) Birkin, in Women in Love, and a host of Lawrence's other male characters, take on this historical imperative to resurrect the metaphysical soul of man, to rise in the glory of a Phoenix from the ashes of spiritual death.

Proclaimed as prophecies from the high priest of love or as the sexist ravings of a tin god, the metaphysics at the heart of Lawrence's writing has long provoked passionate debate on the relations between the sexes. On one side is a long critical tradition that includes the "disinterested" approval of the prestigious critic, F. R. Leavis, who installed Lawrence into the literary canon as the discoverer of a profound sexual wisdom, and the open advocacy of the self-proclaimed warrior on the battleground of sexual politics, Norman Mailer, who defended in Lawrence a few sacred masculine traits not to be sacrificed on the altar of equality.(2) In a telling departure from that tradition, Simone de Beauvoir, Kate Millet, and a number of others following them dismiss Lawrence as a prototypical chauvinist. With feminist sensitivity to the relations of power, Beauvoir criticizes Lawrence for making the glorious new metaphysic an exclusively masculine affair, and, more to the point, making women and femininity over into vehicles for men and masculinity. Lawrence grants men both a cosmic and a social advantage. On the cosmic plane "the man is not only one of the two elements in the couple, but also their connecting factor; he provides their transcendence" (218). On the social and political plane, "he is intent upon aims and ends, he incarnates transcendence; woman is absorbed in her sentiment, she is all inwardness; she is dedicated to immanence" (219). For Beauvoir, then, Lawrence exemplifies patriarchal thought and practice in his claim that masculinity is by its nature active, creative, intellectual, and hence primary, while femininity by its nature is complementarily passive, earthy, emotional, and hence decidedly secondary. Similarly, Millet argues: "It is important to know that he began in the midst of the feminist movement, and that he began on the defensive" (260). She sees Lawrence's work as motivated primarily by the desire to prevent women from entering man's world of intellect and action, relentlessly portraying any development of a woman's independent ego -- intellectual, artistic, professional, or political -- as unnatural. Millet understands this as Lawrence's insecurity, his fear of women, in short, his castration anxiety, out of which he responds with a vengeful and implicitly violent attack on women aimed at keeping them under men's control, complementary, supportive, domestic.(3)

More recent feminist theory offers a decidedly less dismissive though still critical perspective on Lawrence. Moving away from an attack on the ideologies and institutions that deny women a subjectivity founded on transcendence and independence, feminists now more often attack such subjectivity itself. What Beauvoir and Millet sought to make accessible to women is now often considered the foundation of patriarchal society at all levels -- legal, institutional, cognitive, and libidinal -- and thus itself the origin of the exclusion of women. Consequently, the feminist project seeks not to open access to a supposedly "universal" human subject, but to disrupt such a subject in order to open and affirm new and different possibilities for subjectivity. The so-called "French feminisms" push this critique of subjectivity to the point where, rather than constructing alternative subjectivities, feminine subjectivity consists in the very process of such disruption and affirmation. The French feminist critique of the subject sheds new light on familiar dimensions of Lawrence's novels. First of all, Lawrence's depiction of men of metaphysical ideas confronting resistant women reveals neither a profound sexual wisdom nor indicates in itself a chauvinism; rather, in anticipation of the French feminist view of sexual politics, Lawrence's drama of men and women is a conflict between the power of ideas to create order and oppression against the power to disrupt the ideas and create freedom and pleasure. Moreover, as in French feminist theory, sexual politics in Lawrence concerns not just the relations between, or the social roles of, men and women, but concerns more profoundly the primary acts of political constitution, where the most basic social character of the species is at stake. Finally, through a chauvinism that the sociopolitical context of French feminism serves to clarify, Lawrence repeats the sacrifice fundamental to patriarchal society by seeking, in a thematic development over the course of several novels, to eliminate feminine disruption and resistance.


Both Beauvoir's and Miller's judgments of Lawrence derive from their sensitivity to and analysis of the dramatic conflict in his novels. They recognize implicitly what Frank Kermode makes explicit: that reading Lawrence is not simply a problem of eliciting and interpreting his ideas, as if fiction were for him but a canvas on which to paint his metaphysical doctrine. To the contrary, the metaphysic remains but a detail in a larger fictional picture. Lawrence himself described his fiction as "thought adventures" or "imaginative leaps," indicating, beyond the thoughts imagined, the importance of the action, the drama, the leap itself. The lengthy course of the novels, especially, provides a dramatic context that contains and comments on the metaphysic.(4) Leavis, Mailer, and others, who see in Lawrence only the ideas, or who get caught up in the imagined glory of the new metaphysic rising from the ashes of the Enlightenment, remain blind or insensitive to this dramatic context and its implications. Beauvoir's and Millet's sensitivity to the relations of power in this drama leads to their judgment of Lawrence. For it is this drama that presents the man as dominant, and presents the woman as the "vehicle" or "victim" of masculine thought.(5)

While Beauvoir's and Millet's focus on the drama establishes the distinguishing feature of the feminist approach to Lawrence's fiction, the concerns articulated in French feminism suggest a reassessment of that drama, and consequently a reassessment of Lawrence's portrayal of sexual politics. French feminist theory issues a challenge to the valuations of masculinity and femininity informing Beauvoir's and Millet's feminism. Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray, for example, seek to empower women by affirming femininity, recovering validity for women's traditional insights and desires, and establishing credibility for the knowledge and historical impact of the feminine perspective. Appropriating and extending the poststructural theories of Lacan and Derrida, Cixous explains the difference between masculinity and femininity as a difference in the mode of subjectivity, or more precisely, a difference in the process of signification that constitutes subjectivity. For example, in "The Laugh of the Medusa," she characterizes the project of constructing a subject, feminine or otherwise, as the practice of power that distinguishes traditional patriarchal theories and philosophies, so that no matter what value or truth grounds subjectivity or whose interest it serves, the process of constructing a subject is the fundamental feature of patriarchal discourse and practice. Accordingly, to affirm femininity is not to construct a feminine subject, since this would repeat the practices of patriarchal signification. Rather, it is to affirm feminine signification, or ecriture feminine, which "will always surpass the discourse that regulates the phallocentric system: it does and will take place in areas other than those subordinated to philosophico-theoretical domination" (253). Similarly, in Speculum of the Other Woman, Luce Irigaray attacks the patriarchal tradition of metaphysics from Plato to Freud as a system constituted by and dependent on its subordination of women as "other," and she goes on to argue how "on the feminine side it is possible to exceed and disturb this logic" (75). For both Cixous and Irigaray, moreover, this disruption and excess harbors jouissance, or a pleasure in the freedom and uncertainty of the signifying process.

Beauvoir's and Millet's conclusions about Lawrence reflect the devaluation of traditional femininity they inherit from patriarchal culture. In each case, the critique rests on the presupposition that what Lawrence reserves for men -- intellectual and spiritual transcendence, access to the universal, development of the individual ego -- is in itself valuable and superior, while the condition or position to which Lawrence restricts women -- immanence, emotion, intimacy -- is in itself secondary and inferior. The feminist affirmation of female experience challenges this presupposition. Beauvoir's contention that women are capable of transcendence, for example, is now often considered a devaluation of female experience and thus a perpetuation of chauvinist thinking inherited from patriarchal society.(6) This feminist challenge allows new insight into Lawrence's drama of metaphysics and sexual politics. For if the distinctive feature of Lawrence's men is their metaphysical pursuit of sociocultural order and meaning, the distinctive feature of his women, as both Gudrun and Ursula demonstrate, is their active resistance to that metaphysic. Unlike his blind or insensitive champions, then, Lawrence addresses the issues of sexual politics. And even though the analyses of Beauvoir and Millet do not credit it, his female characters exercise some power within this politics. With women resisting men's ideas, Lawrence shows a feminine desire for liberation from an assigned place in a masculine metaphysic. And with the masculine metaphysic dependent on the loving confirmation of a feminine complement, he dramatizes a feminine power to disrupt and even nullify that metaphysic. In short, Lawrence thematizes a feminine power remarkably similar to the disruption, excess, and pleasure celebrated by French feminism as ecriture feminine.

Ursula, for example, in response to Birkin's infamous proposal of marriage in the seemingly egalitarian metaphysical terms of an "equilibrium of stars," immediately understands the dramatic context: it is the man's idea of marriage, his metaphysic, his proposal. Therefore, despite his starry if not starry-eyed words, what Birkin really wants is a "satellite." Furthermore, in a playful amusement that demonstrates the disruptive power of ecriture feminine, she points out Birkin's self-absorbed silliness. To Ursula, Birkin's abstractions are more comic than cosmic, especially since his metaphysic numbs him to her charm and beauty:

"But don't you think me good-looking?" she persisted in a mocking voice.

He looked at her, to see if he felt she was good-looking.

"I don't feel that you are good-looking," he said.

"Not even attractive?" she mocked, bitingly.

He knitted his brows in sudden exasperation.

"Don't you see that it is not a sense of visual appreciation in the least," he cried. "I don't want to see you. I've seen plenty of women. I want a woman I don't see."

"I'm sorry I can't oblige you by being invisible," she laughed.

"Yes," he said, "you are invisible to me, if you don't force me to be visually aware of you. But I don't want to see or hear you."

"What did you ask me to tea for then?" she mocked.

But he would take no notice of her. He was talking to himself. (139)

Ursula resists and disrupts, only resists and disrupts. She makes no counter proposal, offers no feminine metaphysic. Her role is ostensibly to decide whether to accept it or reject it, which means whether or not to submit to his metaphysical idea of the world, the stars, and herself. But Ursula clearly surpasses that role as her laughter both exposes the narrow-mindedness of Birkin's metaphysic and demonstrates the failure of his bullying attempt to make her submit to it. Ursula's mocking critique of Birkin's "philosophico-theoretical" subjectivity, together with the fact that she does not pursue her own philosophico-theoretical definition of the subject, suggest the sort of discourse of disruption, excess, and pleasure that Cixous and Irigaray ascribe to ecriture feminine.

This is not to say that Lawrence here practices ecriture feminine, that his language exceeds patriarchal signification, that his text thereby opens into another form of subjectivity constituted by the playful pleasure of jouissance. To the contrary, Lawrence remains solidly within patriarchal signification. Rather than disrupting representation, he represents disruption. Pairing an insistently narrow-minded man and a playfully resistant woman, Lawrence's narrative explores the impact and meaning of another form of subjectivity, but does so from the "philosophico-theoretical" discourse that constitutes patriarchal subjectivity. In this way Women in Love offers insight into a sexual politics depicted, in anticipation of French feminism, as contesting forms of signification. Moreover, in Women in Love and in the later novels, especially in The Plumed Serpent and Lady Chatterly's Lover -- and again in anticipation of French feminism -- Lawrence depicts a sexual politics whose impact and meaning extend to the very foundations of social order. Yet, as the stable narrative representation of disruption in Women in Love suggests, and as the later novels bear out in explicit thematic terms, Lawrence's exploration of feminine signification serves, in the end, to clarify his own chauvinism.


From the perspective of the French feminist critique of subjectivity, Beauvoir and Millet restrict the effectiveness of feminist politics because they retain a patriarchal notion of power and consequently cannot recognize, conceptualize, or assess a politics of resistance that takes place in a totally different register. Within their conceptual orientation, Beauvoir and Millet cannot conceive the confrontation of a phallic discourse of truth and order with a feminine discourse of resistance, disruption, and pleasure as in any way a genuine exploration of the issues and difficulties of sexual politics. This has concrete political consequences. Focusing on the disparity in status and reward between socially assigned roles for biologically defined men and women, Beauvoir, Millet, and the feminists they inspired sought change in basic social institutions -- marriage, family, the workplace -- but accepted the patriarchal definitions and valuations that founded those institutions and established women's secondary status. They held forth as feminism's goal equal opportunity to inhabit traditionally masculine positions of power and privilege, but did not challenge the nature of that power and privilege. They never addressed the questions, or pursued the politics, that have occupied a more recent generation of feminists: how must basic social institutions change not only to allow women access, but to reflect women's experience, or to incorporate traditionally feminine values of nurture and compassion, or, in the French feminist formulation, to open to the processes of ecriture feminine?

Julia Kristeva explores more fully and more explicitly than any other theorist the political meaning of ecriture feminine. Feminist attention to sexual difference in cultural discourse implies that the patriarchy is founded on the intellectual and discursive function of pursuing truth and the political function of organizing society according to that truth -- founded, that is, on practices typified by Enlightenment metaphysics. In contrast, femininity is identified as the "victim" of masculinity in that the difference femininity constitutes -- and thus difference in general -- is repressed, forgotten, exploited, or, in Kristeva's strongest formulation, "sacrificed." As an active political practice in this context of power, signification, and social order, feminism attempts to introduce into social discourse and practice this repressed "feminine" element as a destabilizing, supplementary difference, a play of signification, and thus seeks not only to counter the oppressive consequences of patriarchal thought and politics, but to affirm jouissance -- the pleasure in freedom, the euphoria of liberation, the triumph of excess. Kristeva formulates this position precisely in "Oscillation between Power and Denial":

If women have a role to play in this on-going process |of power and denial~, it is only in assuming a negative function: reject everything finite, definite, structured, loaded with meaning, in the existing state of society. Such an attitude places women on the side of the explosion of social codes: with revolutionary moments. (166)

In "Women's Time," Kristeva further explores the feminist politics of disruption, and tempers somewhat its revolutionary euphoria, through a bold and far-reaching theoretical exploration of the relation of sexual identity and the social contract. Echoing Freud's (and Rene Girard's) psychoanalytic anthropology, she argues that social order and cultural identity are based on a sacrifice, "the expulsion of an excluded element, a scapegoat charged with the evil of which the community duly constituted can purge itself" (45). Within the patriarchal history of the West, the "excluded element" is of course the feminine, and of course Kristeva advocates inclusion of the excluded other. But she means by this that the battle between the sexes "may be replaced by the analysis of the potentialities of victim/executioner which characterize each identity, each subject, each sex" (52). This "interiorization" of the sacrifice politicizes the fluidity of jouissance, and thus opens the possibility of "putting this fluidity into play against the threats of death which are unavoidable whenever an inside or an outside, a self and an other, one group or another, are constituted" (53). The result, she claims, would be a non-violent constitution of social order, a non-sacrificial social contract. Beyond the dichotomies of masculinity and femininity, metaphysics and ecriture feminine, dichotomies that are themselves founded on a metaphysical conception of identity, Kristeva presages a social contract wherein the inevitable violent tension of forging any group, any polis, is neutralized by the fluidity of the boundaries of the group. Ultimately, the political affirmation of femininity leads to an exciting new possibility in "the discursive and scientific adventure of our species" (53).

Lawrence's drama of sexual politics parallels Kristeva's analysis: he portrays women with a disruptive power in the context of a sexual politics that implies profound change for human society and human experience. Yet the momentum of his fiction is to eliminate or sacrifice that power, and thus finally does not constitute change at all in Kristeva's terms. That Lawrence thematizes ecriture feminine, in other words, does not mean he affirms it. Rather, he dramatizes this feminine power of resistance as the origin of his anxiety over masculinity and metaphysics: if her approval is heaven, her rejection is the source of all earthly suffering. In the terms of that anxiety, therefore, everything depends upon the capacity of the man's metaphysic to persuade, seduce, overpower, or otherwise win the woman's acceptance. In short, the woman's resistance becomes that of the shrew; and the dramatization of the conflict incurred by this resistance makes sexual relations over into a familiar battle scene of seduction, where women are conceived as both the obstacle and the receptacle for a metaphysical masculinity. In Kristeva's terms, Lawrence begins by representing the feminist notion of a fluid, unstable, nonviolent identity, where the disruptions of jouissance remain in play, but develops that identity in a conventionally patriarchal direction, so that in the end femininity is sacrificed to the increasing stability and self-identity of the metaphysic. In short, Lawrence subordinates women's resistance as but a stage in men's development. Thus Lawrence's fiction exemplifies what Kristeva describes as the "thought of that anthropomorphic identity" that turns feminism into "but a moment" of its own development, and that, consequently, "currently blocks the horizon of the discursive and scientific adventure of our species" (53).

This chauvinism is subtly evident over the course of Lawrence's writing career. The dramatic conflict between men and women changes from novel to novel, and careful attention to these changes shows both that Lawrence insistently dramatizes sexual politics through the relations of metaphysical men and resistant women, and portrays men becoming increasingly more confident while women become increasingly less resistant. Women in Love (1920), The Plumed Serpent (1926), and Lady Chatterly's Lover (1930) chronicle the development of a sexual drama in which the masculine metaphysic gradually gains dominion over the women's resistance. The development is revealing. The feminine power of resistance becomes something to be conquered or assuaged, or more precisely conquered through assuagement. Feminine power ultimately becomes no more than a complement to men's ideas, which change or "mature" as if in response to feminine criticism, until finally the metaphysic incorporates the criticism and the women's critical judgment turns affirmative. It is as if Lawrence's "thought-adventures" were experiments with ideas, designed to test and refine them against the imagined resistance of women. In Lawrence's drama of sexual politics, women constitute a sounding board for the masculine metaphysic, against which the transcendent ideas of Lawrence's men are tried out, all in the attempt to transform the woman's resistance into acquiescence.

In Women in Love, the conflict between masculine metaphysic and feminine resistance and disruption remains a standoff and thus, in these terms, a vision of sexual equality. Just as Gerald's failure to win Gudrun has broader historical significance, so the significance of Ursula's decision goes far beyond marriage. The weight of Birkin's ideas about culture and society also hangs in the balance of her decision. Through the possibility of marriage, Lawrence explores the possibility of his metaphysic becoming the source of truth not only for marriage but for an entire culture. The terms of this possibility are exclusively masculine and develop through the relation of Birkin and Gerald. The issues between the two men are much the same as between the man and the woman -- love and power, submission or opposition. The difference however is fundamental. Love and power among men revolve around the issue of leadership, of who is the better man, whose metaphysic leads to the well-spring of passionate existence. But this abstract question of who is the better man yields to the concrete question of whose proposal is accepted. The novel answers that question -- and hence the first -- through the woman's decision. Gerald's technological metaphysic of the Enlightenment leaves him empty at his core and unable to win Gudrun, who leaves him to die of his own emptiness. This is the element of Lawrence that inspires such passionate defense, this passing away of the old and degenerate and heralding of the new and vibrant. But this in itself is no affirmation of Birkin's metaphysic, which, in the way that a marriage proposal is not a marriage, remains entirely in the abstract realm of ideas without Ursula's "yes." This ultimately political drama of metaphysical possibility and worldly actuality underlies the sexual drama and constitutes the moment of the woman's decision as the cardinal Lawrentian moment. Not only does the sexual tension of seducing and teasing make for great novelistic suspense, but everything -- the personal, the political, and the ontological -- depends upon that moment of decision.

The following exchange occurs in the novel just before Ursula's decision and indicates, beyond the metaphysical terms of the contract -- or beneath them -- the dramatic reality:

"Is it?" she replied, laughing, but unassured.


"Everything -- is everything true?"

"The best is true," he said, grimacing at her.

"Is it?" she replied, laughing, but unassured. (304)

Ursula's first question is a reply, apparently, not to any specific statement, but to Birkin's mere presence, the fact that they are together. She is not so sure of this union he so insistently pursues -- or of him either, since she seems to be laughing at his being off in space again. "What?" he says, in response to this abrupt intrusion of reality. Ursula continues her investigation. Is this happy union of theirs true, real? In the only assertion of the exchange, he says, yes, when all is said and done, when the inessential is pared away, their happy union is true. And he says it with that familiar impatient insistence, annoyed that she doesn't believe in him implicitly, that she questions him. She of course can only laugh at this recourse to masculine metaphysic and masculine insistence when she wants confirmation in terms of her own material truth and reality. The circular form of the exchange, the repetition of the first line as the last, suggests that the exchange never ends, that the issues never resolve. Ursula's resistance to Birkin's proposal of marriage becomes a resistance to Birkin within marriage. "Yes, she acquiesced -- but it was accomplished without her acquiescence" (302). His victory, then, is incomplete, and his metaphysic unstable, still subject to her mocking jouissance.(7)

Without disrupting its own narrative, without offering its readers the possibility of jouissance through the disruptive play of its language, Women in Love represents the disruptive power of feminine signification in its personal as well as sociopolitical significance, and ends with that power still in play. Lawrence's next two novels, Aaron's Rod and Kangaroo, focus almost exclusively on masculine relationships and masculine power. The woman hovers in the background, making criticisms of Lawrence's spokesman, raising pertinent questions. But the central issue is the phallic drama -- whose ideas are best, who should lead and who follow. The issues are political in the narrow sense of governmental policy: what are the best terms for the social contract; who writes it; and what is the most effective way to change it and regenerate a society. Here Lawrence explores in more detail the problems and ambiguities of Birkin's relation to Gerald, ideas about fascism and leadership, nationalism and cultural renewal. At issue are the specifics of metaphysical and cultural identity. The results are inconclusive. In The Plumed Serpent, the problems and ambiguities of this "masculine" politics are resolved. Yet the political issues are far from settled. Lawrence returns in this novel to the more subtle "domestic" politics of the sexual drama. The masculine metaphysic is perfectly clear, yet everything depends once again on the woman's decision to submit or not to the phallic imperative.

The Plumed Serpent is Lawrence's version of The Taming of the Shrew. The main character, Kate, like Shakespeare's Kate, confronts a man who demands her submission. But in Lawrence's text, this submission is inextricably linked to a profound revolution. The man, Cipriano, and his leader, Ramon, believe themselves to be incarnations of gods, exactly like Jesus Christ, whom they plan to replace in Mexico as the way, the truth, and the life. Virtually all the obstacles that Lawrence's other men find insurmountable are no longer insurmountable for these men. Ramon is the leader, clearly, naturally, uncontestedly; Cipriano follows with dignity, pride, and independence, without qualms or hesitation. Their revolution, too, meets with astounding spiritual, military, and political success. Indeed, the book reads like a Lawrentian wish fulfilled -- or not quite fulfilled, for the woman's resistance remains. The wish is typically, one might say extremely, Lawrentian. The religion that motivates Cipriano and Ramon's revolution is an extension and development of Birkin's metaphysic. The men seek and apparently find the re-birth of meaning and passion in life, a re-birth conceived here more religiously and sexually, in terms of dark gods and the mystical phallus. In the open as well, as an articulated tenet of the religion, is the priority granted to men and masculinity. The men are literally gods, revered for their physical beauty and strength, their sexual prowess and their spiritual transcendence. Their religion functions like a cult of masculinity, excluding women from their ceremonies, excluding women altogether except as the complement to their glorious masculinity.

The only resistance to this otherwise omnipotent masculinity Lawrence imagines is once again an intelligent and independent woman. The revolution needs a goddess in its pantheon; and the man needs his other half, a "valley of blood" to his "column of blood." Cipriano needs Kate to submit to and acknowledge his masculine metaphysic. But Kate immediately perceives it as just so much male vanity, and wonders why she should even bother with Cipriano. She is a mature woman, forty years old, twice married, through with love even, quite capable of caring for herself, quite her own woman. But in the context of Lawrence's imaginative leap into a masculine dream-wish, Kate is attracted to Cipriano's offer. She compares it favorably against the emptiness and superficiality that her alternative offers, the return to a Europe filled with self-reliant, willful, petty old women. As the novel progresses, she is increasingly drawn under Cipriano's spell, believing in his gods more and more. She discovers the power in abandoning her ego to the flow of phallic passion. She learns, too, its dark sexual meaning: to relinquish her desire for orgasm, "the white ecstasy of the frictional satisfaction, the throes of Aphrodite of the foam" (422), and to yield to the inexplicable mysteries of sex with Cipriano. But unlike Shakespeare's Kate, whose experience in the bedroom convinced her to submit (at least apparently), Lawrence's Kate never quite decides. The book ends without Kate's decision.

The masculine metaphysic couldn't be much more fully articulated. Indeed, with its demand for a complete sacrifice of the woman and her jouissance, it couldn't be much more chauvinistic. But without Kate's final decision to accept the metaphysic and submit to her place in it, the novel remains ambiguous. Not only are these chauvinistic ideas left open to question and criticism, to all the questions and criticisms Kate raises in her resistance, and more; the revolution, too, as a consequence is left incomplete, still open to the possibility of being a fascistic fraud or failure. As in Women in Love, the woman's resistance to her role in a masculine metaphysic leaves that metaphysic and its potential worldly significance uncertain. Even with his most chauvinistic ideas, as he imagines a masculine metaphysic with the power of a religion to capture the spirit of a nation and its people and become the foundation of an emerging revolutionary order, Lawrence can imagine the woman only tempted at most. She remains an independent being, still outside his metaphysical schema, still a force of resistance.

The development from Women in Love to The Plumed Serpent is a story of maturation, a sort of Bildungsroman of masculinity and metaphysics. It is as if Ursula's resistance to Birkin's ideas forces Lawrence, in the process of his "thought adventure," to realize that Birkin's metaphysic is that of a naive young man who is unaware of the meaning of his own words. He incorporates this knowledge into the later novel and creates a religion characterized by the overbearing chauvinism and fascism of a man closing in on the truth, yet insecure, still not mature. Here, it is as if Kate's resistance to Cipriano's religion reminds Lawrence that after all any metaphysic is just an idea, not the act of creation by an incarnate god but only the thought-adventure of a mortal man. Lawrence's last novel, Lady Chatterly's Lover, reflects this wisdom as it portrays a man cognizant of his own mortal limitations and the limits of his ideas. But in so doing, Lawrence, now secure in his metaphysic, does away with the woman's resistance altogether. The result is Lawrence's most didactic novel.

The story is similar to the other novels. Connie, a bright and independent woman, meets a special man among men, Mellors, who opens her life, body and soul, to passionate existence. The novel focuses on that same crucial moment: the woman's choice of acceptance or rejection. The difference here is that, though Connie hesitates in giving herself over to the life of passion enough to provide some suspense, there is no final ambiguity in her decision, no final resistance. Keeping the lovers apart at the end is not her resistance but her husband's legal power over her. The context is the reverse of The Plumed Serpent: a wish accepted completely by the woman, but unable to realize itself because of a foul cultural and political climate. The book, then, even though it deals extensively with the relations between the sexes, even though it deals with these relations iconoclastically in a sexually explicit way, is more about masculine relations than anything else. The central conflict is not between the man and the woman but between the two men and their differing ideas of truth and value. The woman is the battleground, the victor's prize and the arbiter of this conflict.

Connie's decision is unambiguous in large part because, in Lawrence's didacticism, the difference between Mellors' and Clifford's ideas about life represents a clear and unambiguous distinction in value. Most obviously, Clifford is impotent, restricted to his wheelchair, a physical and sexual nonentity. Moreover, his character is filled out with an assortment of Lawrentian evils. He is an industrialist, owner of a coal mine, champion of technology and a general representation of the unnatural and degenerate traits of the times. He is also clever in the superficial way of the over-developed wit, writer of fashionable, gossipy books, champion of the anti-sensual mind and a general representation of a culture that places too much value on intellection. To top it off, Clifford is an aristocrat of the worst kind, one of a dying breed whose nobility rests entirely with his dead ancestors, little more than a petty bully. Though Mellors is largely a silent figure, a sort of pure phallic presence who rarely articulates his ideas about life, he is nonetheless associated with a way of life opposed at every point to Clifford's. He comes from the working classes, well-read enough to lose his ignorance but remaining close to the natural, physical, sexual side of life. Clifford's gamekeeper, isolated deep in the woods with only his dog for a companion, he is a man of nature and nurture. The central tenet of this silent metaphysic of the body is the man's tenderness, his capacity to understand the woman's pain and accordingly to treat her gently, compassionately. Lady Chatterly's Lover shows the development or maturation of Lawrence's metaphysic from Birkin's naive words, through Cipriano and Ramon's divine phallus, to Mellors's detached spirit, his reserved passion, his vulnerable body. But the important thing in the terms of the novel itself is that Mellors, unlike Clifford, is a great lover to Connie: passionate, tender, fierce, fertile, he is the cause of Connie's spiritual and sexual awakening. Connie's choice, then, is an easy one, acting as a simple affirmation of Mellors and the ideas about life he represents. And though Clifford's petty values prevent their union from being a reality, though they remain at the end resigned to the hope that Clifford changes or his authority is overthrown, Mellors, a mature man aware of his own mortality, remains nonetheless confident, as if his truth bears the force of nature and would in time prevail, even if "they would have to wait till spring was in, till the baby was born, till early summer came round again" (308).

In short, the "domestic" politics of Lady Chatterly's Lover, in contrast to the other novels, does not question the metaphysic but teaches it, argues for it, exists in order to articulate and support it. The lack of thematic ambiguity, which is to say, the lack of the woman's resistance within the novel to the man's ideas, gives the novel its clarity and didactic power. Thus Lawrence gains novelistic confidence in his masculine metaphysic, and gains authority for that metaphysic, at the expense of the feminine power to resist, disrupt, and modify that metaphysic. Mellors's metaphysic of tenderness may be less chauvinistic than Birkin's or Cipriano's and more appealing to a late twentieth-century audience; but the dramatic context of Lady Chatterly's Lover is more chauvinistic than either Women in Love or The Plumed Serpent. In the earlier novels the woman's power is effectively disruptive and remains outside or supplementary to the metaphysic, whereas in the last novel it becomes assimilated, supportive, complementary.

This development of the masculine metaphysic makes clear that the power of ideas in Lawrence's fiction is not a consequence of the metaphysic alone -- not simply a "masculine" issue of determining the best idea. The power of the ideas is inseparable from their chauvinism, a chauvinism not necessarily evident in the ideas themselves but in the dramatic context of sexual politics in which they emerge. Though the importance within this context of an independent woman's decision to submit or not to masculine desire grants to women a power and an equality of will, women are nonetheless restricted to a secondary role, playing secular fiddle in a metaphysical orchestra. In the course of Lawrence's novels, moreover, the woman's anti-metaphysical resistance diminishes and finally disappears as the metaphysic develops from a naive view of men and women, to a rampantly chauvinistic view, and finally to a stable and didactic view. Yet in spite of this chauvinism Lawrence offers significant insights into sexual politics. For in the very movement that establishes his chauvinism Lawrence makes a fundamental connection between sexual tension and the creative act. In this act, the issues of power underlying sexual politics arise: the power to define the world, determine value, legislate order; and also the power to disrupt these definitions and determinations, to confuse or contest the values, to defy the order. Unlike the typical blind or insensitive chauvinist, Lawrence makes his chauvinism apparent. He dramatizes not only the power of the ideas to create order, but also their power to create oppression. Moreover, he exposes ideas not only to criticism, but, more significantly, to disruption and dissolution. In short, Lawrence's novels involve both ideas and their limits. He portrays the woman as she who must submit to the man's idea, but at least he sees beyond the idea enough to portray the woman.

In the end, however, the salient fact is that Lawrence's writing exemplifies male chauvinism. He explicitly appropriates the power of the idea as "masculine," situates the feminine as the place of shrewish resistance, and proceeds to seduce the feminine and make it but a moment -- albeit the decisive moment, for Lawrence the dramatic and elusive moment -- in the process of a developing masculine metaphysic. Thus Lawrence thematizes and interrogates even as he reproduces the sacrifice fundamental to patriarchal discourse.


1 I use the term "metaphysic" throughout this essay in the sense it has developed in Lawrence criticism, most fully, perhaps, by Frank Kermode, referring to ideas in Lawrence's novels less about what is than about what ought to be.

2 For evidence that the uncritical affirmation of Lawrence's celebration of the phallus continues beyond Leavis and Mailer, witness Duane Edwards's remarks: "In Lady Chatterly's Lover, Lawrence demonstrates that men and women do have a need to establish a connection. He also demonstrates that the connection is made through the phallus, that the connection, or relation, makes change possible, especially for Connie, and, finally, that life itself can flow more freely after the phallic connection has been made" (125).

3 For recent analyses of Lawrence in the tradition of Beauvoir and Millet, see Hillary Simpson, Anne Smith, Shiela MacLeod, Cornelia Nixon, Terry Eagleton, and Judith Rudman.

4 Many critics, including many cited in this essay, note the distinction Lawrence himself notes between his metaphysic and his art in, among other places, "The Novel" (Phoenix II 416-26). Their most common comment is to say that Lawrence writes his worst fiction when he disregards his own advice and allows his metaphysic to reign over his art. Kermode goes further, to emphasize the crucial but often ignored fact that his art criticized and limited rather than reinforced the metaphysic. Similarly, Gerald Doherty argues in his deconstructive analysis that the language of Lawrence's texts disrupts any movement toward metaphysical unity or univocity. None of these critics, however, develops the implications of such critical methodologies for the issues of sexual politics in Lawrence's fiction.

5 A distinction between Birkin's misogyny and his equally famous misanthropy is indicative of the distinction between Birkin's metaphysic and Lawrence's drama of sexual politics. Birkin's "I abhor humanity, I wish it was swept away" is but "a beautiful clean thought" (119), while his treatment of women is dramatic action.

6 Articulating a now widely held position, Genevieve Lloyd writes:

To affirm women's equal possession of rational traits, and their right of access to public spaces within which they are cultivated and manifested, is politically important. But it does not get to the heart of the conceptual difficulties of gender difference. And in repudiating one kind of exclusion, Beauvoir's mode of response can help reinforce another. For it seems implicitly to accept the downgrading of the excluded character traits traditionally associated with femininity, and to endorse the assumption that the only human excellences and virtues which deserve to be taken seriously are those exemplified in the range of activities and concerns that have been associated with maleness. (104)

7 Both Michael Levenson and Peter Balbert analyze the anxiety of Birkin's "split" or incomplete self, yet both fail to consider fully the effects on the woman of this crisis in masculine identity. Levenson interprets the crisis as an expression of "life's" essential tension of becoming whole or integrated, without recognizing that "life" for Lawrence means man's life. Thus he overlooks the impact this identity crisis has on the woman. Balbert focuses on Ursula's resistance to Birkin's ideas, and sees in that resistance Lawrence's "egalitarian impulse"; as such, he elaborates a familiar and indeed plausible reading of Women in Love. Such readings do not see, however, that Lawrence grants to Ursula an identity only in her role in Birkin's metaphysical crisis of identity, and that in this role her resistance can only be that of the shrew. Moreover, as both Cornelia Nixon and Judith Rudman have pointed out, the Lawrence of the later novels becomes much less sanguine about the divided self and less affirmative about the woman's resistance.


Balbert, Peter. "Ursula Brangwen and 'The Essential Criticism': The Female Corrective in Women in Love." Studies in the Novel 17.33 (Fall 1985): 267-85.

Cixous, Helene. "The Laugh of the Medusa." New French Feminisms. Ed. Marks and de Courtivron. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1980. 245-64.

de Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. New York: Knopf, 1957.

Doherty, Gerald. "White Mythologies: D. H. Lawrence and the Deconstructive Turn." Criticism 29.4 (Fall 1987): 477-96.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983.

Edwards, Duane. "Mr. Mellors' Lover: A Study of Lady Chatterly." Southern Humanities Review 19.2 (Spring 1985): 177-88.

Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. Trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Kermode, Frank. D. H. Lawrence. New York: Viking, 1973.

Kristeva, Julia. "Oscillation Between Power and Denial." New French Feminisms. Ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron. New York: Schocken, 1981. 164-72.

-----. "Women's Time." Feminist Theory: A Critique of Ideology. Ed. Nannerl O. Keohane, Michelle Z. Rosaldo, and Barbara K. Gelpi. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982. 31-53.

Lawrence, D. H. Aaron's Rod. 1922. London: Heinemann, 1954.

-----. Kangaroo. 1923. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1950.

-----. Lady Chatterly's Lover. 1930. New York: Grove, 1962.

-----. Phoenix II. 1968. New York: Penguin, 1978.

-----. The Plumed Serpent. 1926. New York: Knopf, 1951.

-----. Women in Love. 1920. New York: Viking, 1975.

Leavis, F. R. Thought, Words and Creativity: Art and Thought in Lawrence. New York: Oxford UP, 1976.

Levenson, Michael. "'The Passion of Opposition' in Women in Love: None, One, Two, Few, Many." Modern Language Studies 18.2 (Spring 1987): 44-60.

Lloyd, Genevieve. The Man of Reason: "Male" and "Female" in Western Philosophy. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1984.

Mailer, Norman. Prisoner of Sex. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971.

MacLeod, Shiela. Lawrence's Men and Women. London: Heinemann, 1985.

Millet, Kate. Sexual Politics. New York: Avon, 1970.

Nixon, Cornelia. Lawrence's Leadership Politics and the Turn Against Women. Berkeley: California UP, 1986.

Rudman, Judith. D. H. Lawrence and the Devouring Mother: The Search for a Patriarchal Ideal of Leadership. Durham: Duke UP, 1984.

Simpson, Hillary. D. H. Lawrence and Feminism. London: Croom Helm, 1982.

Smith, Anne. Lawrence's Men and Women. London: Vision, 1978.

McHugh teaches in the English Department of Drake University. He writes on 20th-century critical theory and modern fiction. He is currently co-editing a collection of essays on Faulkner and theory and is writing a book about postmodernism and the question of tragedy.
COPYRIGHT 1993 West Chester University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:D.H. Lawrence
Author:McHugh, Patrick
Publication:College Literature
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Previous Article:Vicious binaries: gender and authorial paranoia in Dreiser's "Second Choice," Howells' "Editha," and Hemingway's "The Short Happy Life of Francis...
Next Article:Qui est La?: displaced subjects in Wide Sargasso Sea and Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters