D. H. Lawrence. The Rainbow. New York: Modern Library, 1915. Amazon.com. 30 Mar 2011. E-book.
I confess. I bit. High schoolers around North America may recognize the title and the author. 360,000 students taking the Advanced Placement English Literature test this past May were given a selection from this novel to write one of their three essays about. As an AP reader two weeks ago, I read and scored over a thousand of those essays. I had to find out what happened. I read the rest of the novel.
The Rainbow covers the love lives of three generations of Brangwens, a middle class farming family in Nottinghamshire. If you like Freud, you may like this novel. For non-Freudians, much of it is a chore to read.
Have you ever had a friend who was “in a relationship” and the dynamics of the relationship seemed to vary every day? She loves me—She hates me—What did she mean by that?—I can’t live with her—I can’t live without her…
While you may well sympathize with your friend, the talk and analysis of every little detail begins to grate. That is what about three quarters of The Rainbow does. The first quarter about the courtship and marriage of Tom and Lydia Brangwen is like that. So is the second quarter of the book about the courtship and marriage of William and Anna Brangwen.
There is a break which actually reads like a bildungsroman, a growth novel, of Will and Anna’s daughter Ursula. Finally, we get down to a story! But in the last quarter of the book as Ursula becomes an independent young woman at the turn of the twentieth century, it goes back to the ups and downs of two or three relationships. If you like reading niggling details in people’s diaries, then this may be the book for you. Frankly, the first half is nearly boring, but the author seems really interested in Ursula’s story; it just takes a long time getting there.
What keeps The Rainbow from being completely dreadful is that the author does have a way with words. This physical descriptions of flower gardens, industrial tenements, and interiors of old churches can be lovely. The third quarter of the book about Ursula’s childhood is just as Freudian, but it focuses on the family dynamics as she grows. Here we see Ursula begin to discover her place in the family, in the village, and—perhaps—in the world.
Biblical imagery through the novel may also keep the reader’s attention. On the symbolic level, The Rainbow is a modernist retelling of Genesis 3 through 11. The Brangwen farm is the Garden of Eden. The outside world contains serpentine temptations of esoteric knowledge. Later, the farm is likened to an Ark in the midst of the disruption and corruption of the surrounding world.
England banned The Rainbow when it first came out. By today’s standards it is quite tame, but the book does discuss in polite terms the sexual relations between the main couples. The book is Freudian, after all. With the third generation, that includes sexual relations outside of marriage. Ursula’s lover, Anton, is a soldier who, with Ursula, expresses great doubts about the efficacy of war. That was also not a popular stand in 1915 England, either.
Ursula’s own “Ark” is a tough working-class school where she teaches for two years. Her job is more like a zookeeper than a teacher. (The Bible does not tell us about all the labor required to keep an Ark full of animals afloat and healthy). At the end of the novel, after her back-and-forth love-struggle with Anton and others, she sees a rainbow. For her that becomes a sign of promise—not of seedtime and harvest, but a time of women’s rights and free sex.