Men with Beards

Aug 31, 2003
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Great writing and description of place

Cons:Flat characters who are only models for conflicting ideas about the world.

The Bottom Line: Read Thomas Hardy instead.

I believe D. H. Lawrence, despite writing constantly about men and women in a risqué manner for his time, is gay. There is nothing wrong with that; many of my favorite writers are gay. I'm even friends with gay people. Why do I say this? Because of the three Lawrence novels I've read to date in only one does he even get close to writing an authentic relationship between a man and a woman. It's not in the two novels I would expect though. In Lady Chatterly's Lover and in Women in Love Lawrence writes about women as if they are an alien species that he has heard about but never seen. In each book during the sensual scenes (because honestly there is no real sex in Lawrence's books and I'm really at a loss why everything he wrote was deemed pornographic, even for the tighter laced post-Victorian era he wrote in) between a man and a woman I really expected him in earnest to write that women have teeth down there. You know in their loin regions. Oh, and before I start the review proper the one novel that he seems to write women well is in The Rainbow, the first novel in the Trilogy that follows with Women in Love and ends with Aaron's Rod. But, as one last pre-review aside, The Rainbow could have just been called Jude the Obscure - Part 2 since it read exactly like a Thomas Hardy novel.

So, anyway Women in Love is by some strange group of polltakers considered the most widely read English novel of the 20th Century. I doubt this, and if I'm wrong then people really need to get out and read more of the 20th Century Classics. The story involves two sisters (the women who will fall in love), and two men (the recipients of this affection). Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen, the daughters of the protagonist of The Rainbow, begin the novel by having a discussion about marriage. Ursula, the eldest daughter, is a schoolmistress (a teacher). Her sister, Gudrun, has just begun teaching also after a time away from their provincial hometown life. Gudrun was an artist of some merit that fluctuates throughout the novel to fit the scenes, but by an average account she made a modest success during her time in London. Why she returned to the backwoods home she grew up in is never quite explained, but she's is home, and that is enough for the novel.

The two sisters begin the novel by talking about marriage. Ursula for some unknown reason doesn't think she needs to get married, and this shocks her bohemian sister who for some reason can't understand why her sister would go against social customs. This scene is stupid in light of the novel taken as a whole. Both women throughout the novel change their opinion on this question with gusto. The reader after awhile has to wonder if Lawrence just happened to put words into the character's mouths to play devils advocate, or if he is trying to say something like women have a flippant nature. Besides very radical shifts in opinion the women are given very little description besides the color of clothes Gudrun is wears and that each are quite beautiful. What do they look like exactly? Well Lawrence is a bit vague on that. I never could quite get a mental image of either of them. Only one woman in the whole book is ever described in detail and she's a boyish built shorthaired baby-talking lispy nymph, who warrants pages of description but who is pretty much unnecessary for the plot.

The women really aren't important to the novel though, even though they are in the title. The real characters are the two men, Birkin and Gerald. Birkin, a self-portrait of Lawrence, is a local teacher also. Sometimes he's a preacher though; I couldn't tell which he really was. Once he was even something like the principal of the school. Oh but who cares for consistency, especially since he never seems to go to work or have any material responsibilities. The details aren't important anyway, but I'll get to that in a bit. Birkin is basically an opinionated bore, dressed in a Heathcliff-esque (Wuthering Heights reference, not the lazy cat) brooding manner who spouts off his quasi-naturalism to anyone happening to cross his path. Birkin's angry all the time, quite violent in speech and sickly. He is never painted in a good light and doesn't represent a very good model for Lawrence's personal philosophy (if this is what he is trying to achieve with the character). Ursula falls in love with this pig headed fool.

Gudrun falls in love with the other man, Gerald. Gerald's from a rich family that owns all of the coal mines in the surrounding area. He's quite good looking in a Germanic / Nordic way, and is the most richly described character in the book. He's just about as flippant as the women are though (as fitting the bottom to Birkin's top). He likes being a captain of industry. He hates being a captain of industry. He is having the time of his life with his adventurous lifestyle. Everything bores him to tears. He's a spineless worm around Gudrun. He's a domineering patriarch towards Gudrun. Why does he change? Sometimes we are given hints, sometimes the changes come after talking to Birkin, but most of the time they just seem to change in order to have something else for Birkin to expound about. One other thing about Gerald, Birkin loves him quite passionately and believes that a pure love between two men is stronger than any love a man and a woman can share.

So, what is the novel about? Basically these four people squabbling over each other and having a lot of fights based on 'strongly' held ideals. Not much happens in the novel. Events take place in the background, but the plot is never driven. There are not enough characters to create any intrigue over the romantic outcome, and the characters all seem to fall right in line with their respective partners too easily. Of course they fight, but every time one of them really gets angry the other one always seems to come crawling back in beaten submission to the gloriousness of the other. This is played out in just about every possible permutation (with the exception of Gudrun who only fluctuates between icy b*tch and vaguely interested in Gerald (but she is a woman in love don't forget). The novel breaks down to being about the ideas that Birkin holds and to a lesser extent the ideas of the other characters. None of the other three hold ideas drastically different from Birkin's though; they just aren't quite as passionate about them and set ups for Birkin's angry assaults.

So what are the basic ideas? I'll explain them this way first. If you've ever read Ayn Rand's Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged take away the plot, keep the characters and everything about them. Remove the strong capitalist overtones but keep the strong individualism, bull headedness, and the way the strong characters dominant and lay themselves prostrate to each other and you've got the general idea of this novel. Or better yet read anything by Neitzsche and take away all the bookishness of his philological learning and just keep the random attacks on everything in modern society and you've got a pretty fair picture of Birkin.

If those descriptions don't help basically Birkin believes that everything in modern society is diluted, horrible, weak and wrong. Everything good about the world has been bastardized into a pale spectre of it's true self, and life is basically lived inauthentically by just about everyone. Only a few people are aware enough to realize this, and for those few living just a few pure moments is more valuable then living a lifetime like the masses do. Maybe if I hadn't read many other books that deal with this same idea I would find it novel, but honestly nothing said was very interesting to me. I'd heard it all before, and read it in either more eloquent manners or with plots that sustained my interest beyond the constant preaching. When modern society isn't being critiqued to death various forms of love are being argued. These arguments could all have been taken straight out of Plato's Symposium with Birkin as the wise Socrates at the helm.

On the topic of love, there are only two scenes where passion takes any kind of substantial form. The first is between the two men when they decide to wrestle each other. During this scene their oneness gets penetrated by the other, and Birkin is surprised when Gerald rises up in a welcoming motion over powers and tops him. The only other scene is between Ursula and Birkin. This scene deals mostly with the mightiness of Birkin's loins, and the realization that not all truth of the world springs from the phallic center of man but deeper mystery's lie in the whole body of a man (man meaning man, not a pre PC word for people). Both scenes are quite homoerotic and added to my feeling that Lawrence only included the women to the novel as a social convention. The real love story is between the two men. The ideal a woman can fill in Lawrence's world is as an attractive beard that will act as a shield between the sensitive man and a harsh world.

I did like the book though, all criticism aside. I think that Lawrence is a very talented writer and worth being read. Even though the content of the book did little for me his writing style was wonderful and his description of place is amazing. I'd highly recommend The Rainbow to people interested in Lawrence though. Actually I would recommend reading Thomas Hardy to anyone interested in the topics of pastoral English life during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and it's interplay between tradition and modernity as it relates to individual versus society. This novel, while considered a classic I think boils down more to being an angry book by a man angry about the treatment his earlier books had received. It was difficult not perceiving this book as a five hundred-page rant by Lawrence.

This wasn't much of a consumer review, but basically I'd say if you are interested in reading the canon of 20th century English novels then you should check this out. If you are looking for a nice easy read I'd avoid this one and settle for something more interesting from the same time period. Who would I recommend? Well Thomas Hardy as I said, or Anton Chekov. I'm sure there are many other wonderful late 19th century writers who tackle Lawrence's terrain in a more enjoyable manner. I just realized that I'm only recommending 19th century authors in lieu of this 20th century writer. Maybe Lawrence would have been a better fit to the previous century. As a last stalwart against the High Modernist tradition emerging in the early 20th century he comes across as a bitter and reactionary opponent to the coming times, but his anger makes most of his arguments seem half-baked and impotent.

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