1The destructive relationships between mothers and children, or even more so between mothers and sons, have been addressed time and again. However I have always found the relationships between Tom and Anna Brangwen, then between Will and Ursula Brangwen, to be more interesting. I shall therefore explore the father-and-daughter formative/destructive relationships in The Rainbow and then focus on the character of Ursula as the perpetual wanderer/wonderer in the world of man, in the different stages of her ritual journey and coming of age, by the end of the novel. Finally it will consider Ursula’s experience as an example of the eternal double bind which has been tearing apart generations of women, caught between the will to fulfill themselves as human beings and the desire to conform and submit to the masculine models of femininity.
2To start with, let me quote from Freud, whose postulate about civilized humanity is in terms of “the unending struggle between Eros and the destructive drive, the death drive, that is the eternal conflict of ambivalence” (Civilization and its Discontents 68). Lawrence expressed the same axiom again and again, very clearly in Birkin’s often-quoted mention of a “river of darkness,” a “dark river of dissolution,” in opposition to “the silver river of life, […] flowing into a bright eternal sea, a heaven of angels thronging” (Women in Love 172-173). Birkin was in this instance teaching yet another lesson to Ursula, a lesson that had already been taught by Will to his eldest daughter, that would subsequently shape her personality, her attitude in life in general and love life in particular.
3Before analyzing the more complex nature of the relationship between Will and Ursula, the earlier one between Tom and Anna must first be explored, as it prefigures what will come later. The ambiguous bond between Tom and his step-daughter is indeed apparent from the beginning. As he is teaching Anna about the ways of nature, the birth and awakening of life, Tom is also subtly cutting her off from the outside world, instilling within her a sense of alienation from her peers and from the world of the school.
He was easy with her, talking to her, taking her to see the live creatures, bringing her the first chickens in his cap, taking her to gather eggs, letting her throw crusts to the horse. She would easily accompany him, and take all he had to give, but she remained neutral still. (R 65)
4He is a father to Anna, but in a motherly way – which creates gender confusion:
At evening, when he came in to milk, the child would run behind him. Then, in the cosy cowsheds, with the doors shut and the air looking warm by the light of the hanging lantern, above the branching horns of the cows, she would stand watching his hands squeezing rhythmically the teats of the placid beast, watch the froth and the leaping squirt of milk, watch his hand sometimes rubbing slowly, understandingly, upon a hanging udder. (R 69)
- 1 “Brangwen and his daughter’s relationship is complicated even further by his association of Anna no (...)
5When consoling Anna in the cowshed, Tom becomes even more of a mother-figure, almost a Mother-with-Child figure, the shawl which he wraps the girl in reminding him of his own mother. As Heather Shea Akers remarks in Maternity, Abjection, Love, and Revolutionary Language: A Kristevan Reading of D.H.Lawrence’s Novels,1 “Brangwen and his daughter’s relationship is complicated even further by his association of Anna not only with the role of a lover but also the mother”:
Holding the child on one arm, he set about preparing the food for the cows, filling a pan with chopped hay and brewer’s grains and a little meal. […] And the two sat still, listening to the snuffing and breathing of cows feeding in the sheds communicating with this small barn. [.. ] [H]e looked down at the silky folds of the paisley shawl. It reminded him of his mother. She used to go to church with it. He was back again in the old irresponsibility and security, a boy at home. The two sat very quiet. […] As she sank to sleep, his mind became blank. (R 75-76)
- 2 In the short story “You Touched Me," the daughter’s confusion between her father and the young man (...)
6The confusion between the different roles, between father/mother, child/lover, I have just emphasized can also be seen in the short story “You Touched me,” where a daughter believes the man in the bedroom is not her future lover, but her own father.2 Tom “never loved his own son as he loved his step-child Anna” (R 78). In return, Anna also transferred all her exclusive love to Tom: “Of her own choice, she then loved Brangwen most, or most obviously. For these two made a little life together, they had a joint activity. It amused him, at evening, to teach her to count, or to say her letters. He remembered for her all the little nursery rhymes and childish songs that lay forgotten at the bottom of his brain” (R 79).
7The nonsensical quality of their cryptic exchanges is reminiscent of a special language used by lovers, or even of the meaningless jargon shared by Gudrun and Lœrke, whose implication is the exclusion of others, rather than the creation of a common medium of communication. It should then come as no surprise that Anna is wary of the word spoken by the community beyond the charmed circle of her unit with her step-father, that of church or school:
So Anna was only easy at home […]. At school, or in the world, she was usually at fault, she felt usually that she ought to be slinking in disgrace. She was never quite sure, in herself, whether she were wrong, or whether the others were wrong. She had not done her lessons: well, she did not see any reason why she should do her lessons, if she did not want to. Was there any occult reason why she should? Were these people, school-mistresses, representatives of some mystic Right, some Higher Good? (R 95)
8Anna’s estrangement from the world of education arouses contradictory feelings of pride and inadequacy and finds expression in her mistrust of the spoken word in general and in particular of the Latin words used in church, which convey “a discrepancy, a falsehood” and do not mean “the same as the pale rosary meant” (R 98), with the result that the “language meant nothing to her: it seemed false. She hated to hear things expressed, put into words.” (R 99).
9Yet, this is how her cousin Will seduces her: through his use of architectural jargon, as a young man whose talk can both be “fragmentary” and “half articulate” (R 105), still “thrilling.” She is carried away by architectural terms that are mere gibberish to her and do not convey the physical reality of her church experience: “[…] he spoke of church after church, of nave and chancel and transept, of rood-screen and font, of hatchet-carving and moulding and tracery […]” (106).
10Tom’s jealousy when learning of Anna’s love for Will awakens “a black gloom of anger” in his heart: He felt “blackly and furiously miserable.” His possessiveness expresses itself in the stark terms: “To whom did she belong, if not to himself?” (R 111) Indeed, Anna can only be seduced by an incomplete, fragmentary, immature man, by someone forever unable to achieve things in life, apart from his utter possession of his daughter Ursula.
11Will’s relationship with his daughter starts in the same way, and with a similar chapter opening, as does Tom’s relationship with Anna, thus stressing the fact that both young fathers establish with their first-born daughter a specific link which will remain unique, but also fatal to their daughters: “From the first, the baby stirred in the young father a deep, strong emotion he dared scarcely acknowledge, it was so strong and came out of the dark for him. When he heard the child cry, a terror possessed him, because of the answering echo from the unfathomed distances in himself” (R 196).
12In the same way that Anna is referred to as a child, not as a girl, the chapter devoted to the bond between Will and Ursula is also entitled “The Child,” as if to erase gender references, – and in that sense, I cannot help comparing it with a recent American movie, Beasts of the Southern Wild, where the little girl, also in a very unique, claustrophobic relationship with her father, is seen as an asexual child, or as someone who is the bearer of the two sex possibilities. Anna’s childhood is a kind of rough sketch for Ursula’s. Both fathers know how to hold their children, lifting and balancing their little bodies; both fathers experience “passionate feelings” for their daughters (R 197).
- 3 “And he reached his hand and grasped her. He felt her body catch in a convulsive sob. […] He began (...)
13The sado-masochistic element, only hinted at in the case of Tom and Anna – as when Tom was undressing Anna, violating the limits of her little body at the time of Lydia’s confinement3 – is given full expression with Will and Ursula and, as such, will shape Ursula’s relationships with men. Exclusiveness, possessiveness, abrupt mood changes, between tenderness and cruelty, characterize their father-daughter relationship. Three key episodes – the potato episode, the swimming episode and the swing episode – are thus described at length in the chapter entitled “The Child” and cannot be fully quoted here. They are also referred to as “cruel shocks” (R 202) to her psyche. However Ursula is also described as feeling “full and warm, rich like a creature in the sunshine” when her father is at home, while “when he was gone, she was vague, forgetful” (R 203-204).
14In the potato episode – “At Eastertime one year she helped him to set potatoes. It was the first time she had ever helped him. The occasion remained as a picture, one of her earliest memories.” (R 205) – Will burdens the little girl with a responsibility which she cannot fulfill, with the result that she is overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy, frustration and the pain of disappointing someone who is the centre of her universe. Simultaneously, the father does seem to have deliberately asked too much from his daughter – so that from the start and during the formative years of her childhood, Ursula is torn between love and education, between self-assertion and dependence, or between the will to be oneself and the desire to fulfill another loved one’s will. Her father is indeed “unseeing” and “relentless” in the face of his girl’s “painful terrified helplessness” (R 206), so that she is finally left “stranded in his world.” This foreshadows what Ursula’s relationships with men and with the world of knowledge will be, whether knowledge refers to the right way of setting potatoes or teaching children. His final sentence, “You didn’t help me much” (R 207), also sounds ominous of future feelings of inadequacy.
15As she grows older, between 5 and 7, “the connection between her and her father was even stronger” but is also described as “always straining to break.” When Will takes her swimming, “he had a curious craving to frighten her, to see what she would do with him” (R 208). “ Jumping off the canal bridge into the water” with Ursula clinging on his back is such an extreme experience that the girl is deeply shocked, her “dark-dilated eyes looked at him wonderingly, darkly, wondering from the shock, yet reserved and unfathomable, so he laughed almost with a sob” (R 209). Again, the combination of cruelty and sympathy for the girl prefigures sadomasochistic relations between men and women, the first man in a woman’s life being her father.
16The swing episode is but another instance of their warped father-daughter intimacy. Will “sent the swingboat sweeping through the air in a great semicircle, till it jerked and swayed at a high horizontal” (R 209), very high indeed but in a false elevation, a false upward movement, as it is hampered by the chains of the swingboat, so high in fact that onlookers “cried shame on him” and Ursula “was violently sick. As a result, “as the child watched him, for the first time in her life a disillusion came over her, something cold and isolating” (R 210).
17Yet her preference for her father endures, even though he continues to inflict wounds and humiliations on her, for which “her heart was blazing” (R 249) for weeks. Ursula comments thus on their unique relationship: “Did he not know how vulnerable she was, how exposed and wincing? He, of all people, knew. And he wanted to do this to her. He wanted to hurt her right through her closest sensitiveness, he wanted to treat her with shame, to maim her with insult” (R 249).
18Is that why all her first contacts with the outside world of the school, the university, then the school again as a teacher, are fraught with expectations forever disappointed? – “She made a new illusion of school.” (R 250) or: “She seated herself upon the hill of learning, looking down on the smoke and confusion and the manufacturing, engrossed activity of the town. She was happy. Up here, in the grammar-school, she fancied the air was finer, beyond the factory smoke” (R 250).
19The next illusion is that of religion, and Jesus becomes the embodiment of a visionary world, which is thus bound to disappoint her too. That is when the Sons of God are first mentioned in connection with Ursula, and she “was stirred as by a call from far off” (R 257), a call that will be answered in Women in Love, where she will believe Birkin to be a Son of God.
20A mistrust of words is common to Ursula and to her mother Anna. There is a common heritage, that of the influence of fathers on their outlook on the world. Ursula is attracted to the world of knowledge and education, but at heart and within her deep self she is mistrustful of it. Is it because her father is not an intellectual, a man who “rarely read, but […] had collected many books of reproductions, and he would sit and look at these, curiously intent, like a child” (R 258).
21Those wordless visions and reproductions convey a false truth to her when she grows up, and she knows she must relinquish them, turning to the real week-day world, the world in which people learn and toil and go their trudging way. This is the double bind in which Ursula finds herself, and this is the unresolved predicament of most women. How to reconcile aspirations, expectations, illusions and visions with the real, week-day world? How to come to terms with the dreary reality of school, university and work, when one knows the inner “secret riches” of “femaleness” (R 310), how can “the man’s world” become part of a woman’s life?
How to act, that was the question? Whither to go, how to become oneself? One was not oneself, one was merely a half-stated question. How to become oneself, how to know the question and the answer of oneself, when one was merely an unfixed something-nothing, blowing about like the winds of heaven, undefined, unstated. (R 264)
22It should then come as no surprise that, just after her first love, Skrebensky, has gone away for a while, Ursula has a lesbian experience with Winifred Inger, her class-mistress, “a rather beautiful woman of twenty-eight, a fearless-seeming, clean type of modern girl whose very independence betrays her to sorrow” (R 311), an androgynous being, “proud and free as a man, yet exquisite as a woman” (R 312), and that the element of their relationship is ambivalent water, (swimming with her mistress, being carried in the water) – “And she lifted her in her arms, close, saying softly: ‘I shall carry you into the water’” (R 315), just as her father had done when he made her swim and jump with him from the bridge. The shame that pervades the whole chapter, which is entitled “Shame,” is that of the wrong type of love. However lesbianism is here a disguise or a decoy for incest, and Winifred is Will in disguise, the delicious illicit lust that seizes Ursula in the water is the same as that reflected in her dark eyes as a child. Shame turns an exquisite woman into an “ugly, clayey” person, whose “female hips seemed big and earthy, and […] ankles and arms […] too thick” (R 319). For no logical reason, Winifred seemed to smell of a “marshy, bittersweet corruption” (R 326) that nauseates the girl. In Heather Shea Akers’s words, Miss Inger is indeed an “educative disaster.”
23When Ursula becomes a school-teacher, her first thought is for her father, again. “She had another self, another responsibility. She was no longer only Ursula Brangwen, daughter of William Brangwen” (R 362).The phrase has something strangely old-fashioned about it, almost as in the litany of names in old tales, except that the usual formula is “son of.”
24Ursula’s journey towards self-awareness can be seen as a ritualistic passage through the world of man, just as Anna’s journey also was, to a lesser extent. What both daughters go through in the course of the novel has also been described in cultural anthropology in the reflection on myths, so that Lawrence is both describing individual, singular fates but is also referring to a universal pattern in women’s education.
25In “The Œdipus Complex, Antigone, and Electra: The Woman as Hero and Victim,” Dorothy Willner shows that a pattern can indeed be found in women’s education which is closely linked to their connection with their fathers, and it seems to me that such is the case with Anna and Ursula. The relations between fathers and their sons and/or daughters are reciprocal:
The term “metaphoric incest” is used here to denote a relationship in which personal boundaries between family members become blurred through overidentification and other processes; and a dominant member binds the emotions of a subordinate member to serve the dominant member's needs.
It is consistent with psychoanalytic theory that Antigone, despite being a hero and because of it, also is a victim as regards her life as woman. For she dedicated to her father and brother the life that otherwise would have been available for marriage and motherhood. This is explicit in both of Sophocles' s plays in which she is a major character. Indeed, in Antigone, she is engaged to Haemon, Creon's son. But in heroically defying Creon, she transgresses her gender role as well as his edict, and he condemns her for the one as well as the other. (Wilner 65)
- 4 Dorothy Willner, “The Oedipus Complex, Antigone, and Electra: The Woman as Hero and Victim”, in Ame (...)
26Furthermore, the woman as “heroine” cannot be wife and mother. In Sophocles' drama, Antigone and Electra are heroic and deprived. The message that “to maintain domination men seek to bind their daughters [sisters] and nullify [displace] their sons,” when applied to the Oedipus myth, leads to another statement about family relationships: the Oedipus myth is to the Oedipus complex as the “ myth of Antigone is to metaphoric father-daughter (brother-sister) incest and the victimization of women. The myth of Antigone can be viewed as a representation of metaphoric father-daughter incest and, thereby, the binding of women to a stance of self-abnegation toward me.” 4
27The passages I have emphasized struck me as representative of Ursula’s stance in The Rainbow. I believe they also explain, in clearer terms, why Ursula had to remain an eternal daughter in love, not a woman in love – her master-disciple relationship with Birkin is in the same vein – as well as childless. Thus Will’s love for Ursula is metaphorically incestuous and tainted with sadism, as if it were animated by a desire that she remain a subordinate victim, forever sacrificing her interests for the interests of others. The fact is that she can only destroy Skrebensky – “[…] his body was powerless in her grip, his heart melted in fear from the fierce, beaked, harpy’s kiss” (R 444).
28That is also why Ursula feels so estranged in front of Winifred’s baby – “She had become strange and alien to Ursula” (R 402). That is also why everything fertile, or everything related to college and education, seems paradoxically “barren” – “The life went out of her studies, why, she did not know. But the whole thing seemed sham, spurious” (R 403, my italics). Later on, Ursula finds she can neither be a wife nor a mother – in that sense, a woman is a victim because she cannot find that kind of fulfillment if she wants to hold an (ungendered) hero’s position. So Skrebensky is truly horrified when she declares “I don’t think I want to be married”. It is, I believe more than a mere chance that her face seems to him “like a boy’s face” (R 432) at that moment of revelation. Finding herself with child, she reacts thus: “What was she doing? Was she bearing a child? Bearing a child? To what?” (R 448).
29Readers have been fascinated by the final vision of hope and germination and renewal at the end of the novel, a vision counterbalancing the barrenness of Ursula’s previous experiences. However they are perhaps overlooking a key passage following her traumatic miscarriage and subsequent illness: “Who was she to have a man according to her own desire? It was not for her to create, but to recognize a man created by God. The man should come from the infinite and she should hail him. She was glad she could not create her man” (R 457). In addition, she also feels as if she had “no father nor mother nor lover, […] no allocated place in the world” (R 456).
30Indeed Ursula has been prepared to become either the hero (not the heroine!) of the novel ─ and as such she can never be either a wife or a mother─ or else to hail and to follow a hero, a Son of God, while she remains a Daughter of Man forever:
31She saw a strange creature from another world, in him. It was as if she were enchanted, and everything were metamorphosed. She recalled again the old magic of the Book of Genesis, where the sons of God saw the daughters of men, that they were fair. And he was one of these, one of these strange creatures from the beyond, looking down at her, and seeing she was fair. (Women in Love 312)
32Without fully indulging the suspicion that die-hard feminists might have been right all along and that Lawrence only depicts incomplete women, it does seem that by so doing, he is only continuing a thousand-year old tradition, that of the depiction of woman’s double bind, her unsolvable contradiction. It does seem that if Ursula is a kind of modern Antigone, who cannot simultaneously be hero, wife and mother, then she has to relinquish some of her aspirations. Incompletion and a sense of failure inevitably ensue.
33In “Postfeminist double binds,” Samantha Senda-Cook states that:
- 5 Samantha Senda-Cook, “Postfeminist double binds: How six contemporary films perpetuate the myth of (...)
A double bind assumes that only two choices exist and each is incomplete in some way. In an effort to better understand schizophrenia, for example, Gregory Bateson, Don D. Jackson, Jay Haley, and John H. Weakland define a double bind as “a situation in which no matter what a person does, he [sic] ‘can’t win.’”. They proposed that placing people in double-bind situations could lead to schizophrenia. Joseph Heller calls it a catch-22. Kathleen Hall Jamieson adds a rhetorical element, defining it as a “rhetorical construct that posits two and only two alternatives, one or both penalizing the person being offered them.” She then genders the double bind concept by addressing five of the most prominent double binds for women in Beyond the Double Bind.5
- 6 “Similarly, in her study of Woolf’s novels, Makiko Minow-Pinkney characterizes Kristeva’s theoretic (...)
34If Ursula identifies with her mother – and I would say if any woman identifies with her mother – she then loses the possibility of becoming a hero. If she identifies with her father, as Ursula seems to have done, then she loses the possibility to be a fulfilled and complete woman, a wife and a mother, while remaining “biologically female” all the time. This inability to reconcile father- and mother-identification fosters frustration and does indeed place women in double-bind situations. Or as Heather Shea Akers notes, “in other words woman cannot but be androgynous.”6
35As a conclusion, I will quote Lawrence’s own words, from a short story entitled “The Christening,” in which an old man admits he has suffered from the sin of hubris, has done wrong with his children, damaging and warping their personalities instead of educating them, or even letting them be. It would be bold enough to say that if this is true for the sons of men, it is even truer for the daughters of men, who will forever be torn between the will to be themselves, to find freedom in education on the one hand and the desire to conform to the desires of fathers and lovers.
- 7 D.H. Lawrence, The Prussian Officer, and Other Stories (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1945), 201.
Lord, what father has a man but Thee? Lord, when a man says he is a father, he is wrong from the first word. For Thou art the Father, Lord. Lord, take away from us the conceit that our children are ours. [...] For I have stood between Thee and my children; I've had my way with them, Lord; I've stood between Thee and my children; I've cut 'em off from Thee because they were mine. And they've grown twisted, because of me. [...] Lord, if it hadn't been for me, they might ha' been trees in the sunshine. Let me own it, Lord, I've done 'em mischief. It would ha' been better if they'd never known no father.7