“The Rainbow” by British author D.H. Lawrence (11 Sep 1885 – 2 Mar 1930) was published in 1915. And in the same year, it got banned on charge of obscenity. The unsold copies of The Rainbow were confiscated and burnt. It remained unavailable in England for 11 years, although it was available in United States.
When Lawrence’s earlier novel “Sons and Lovers” was published in 1913, it too was criticized as being obscene because of its theme of Oedipal Complex. But now, it is acclaimed as a masterpiece. Undeterred by the criticism Sons and Lovers received, Lawrence went on to further explore sexuality and passion in his next book, The Rainbow.
Sexual desire as part of a relationship and as a natural and even spiritual force of life is a major theme in this book. That is what Lawrence believed in. That is what he continued to portray in his books. The story of The Rainbow is continued in the sequel “Women in Love” (1920), and then follows his infamous and boldly erotic novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” (first published privately in 1928 in Italy). All these books explore passion as a life force and an integral need of any person. All these books were considered obscene once and are lauded as great literature now.
Anyway, coming back to The Rainbow, here’s what makes this book special.
Review of The Rainbow
Plot of The Rainbow:
The Rainbow does not tell a single story. It takes you along a set of characters spanning across three generations of Brangwen family from 1840 to 1905. Through the stories of the Brangwens, it shows the effect of industrialization on lives and relationships of people in Midlands of England.
Despite following the lives of three generations of Brangwens, The Rainbow has a streamlined plot. It moves from one generation to the next, leaving the previous generation in the side lines. The hero of first few chapters becomes a rarely met grandfather of next chapters, and so on. Starting from the story of farmer Tom Brangwen and a Polish widow Lydia Lensky, it follows the story of Lydia’s daughter Anna (and her husband and cousin Will Brangwen) and then her daughter (and her lover Anton Skrebensky). One by one we see them coming of age and living their life through the joys and troubles that come to them. The life histories move forward in a leisurely way, with many descriptive passages leading them on. These long descriptive passages are excellent writing, filled with deep psychological insights, but may not always be gripping and entertaining. I confess, I skipped several of them to move forward in the story. Many of these descriptions are very abstract too and get tangled in the mind, without reaching the heart.
The story of the mind and heart:
The remarkable thing about The Rainbow is that most of its action takes place within the mind and heart of the characters. Outwardly, their life histories can be called mundane. They are farmers, lace designers, housewives, schoolteachers. They are born, grow up, fall in love, marry, have children, die. Just like millions of others. But the author raises these ordinary lives to the extraordinary level by taking the reader within the characters’ mind and heart and laying their thoughts bare.
Their fears, the tremblings of their first love, the confusions and antagonisms of newly married young couples, their relation to religion, to society, to each other… every emotional turmoil is turned inside out and laid bare. Outwardly, not much happens to the characters. Inside the mind, each character goes through a revolution. To come to terms with loss, with love, with unfulfilled expectations, with their changing beliefs or relations with religion. The book is all about what goes on in the hearts and minds, and it explores them with magnificent details and leisure.
As a writer, I’ve often come through the advice to ‘show, don’t tell’ while writing a book. But since The Rainbow is all about the psychological turmoil, it is mostly the author telling the reader what the character is feeling. There’s very little action to be seen. That gets tedious at times.
The writing throughout the book is deeply psychological, even marvelously so. You cannot help but wonder how well Lawrence knows his characters. And how well he portrays the inner workings of the character’s heart to the reader.
But this psychological depth can be too difficult to comprehend sometimes. And the narrator is present too much in the book. He tells us what is happening and we get to see it in action very little. From romance to wedding to falling apart and coming together of the young couple, everything is ‘told’ by the author. We don’t ‘see’ it happening. Sometimes, we scarcely understand what the deep psychlogical insight is trying to depict. Characters appear baffling, even illogical at places. And sometimes it seems that a character is feeling an emotion just because the author wants him to feel it. Maybe it’s because of my lack of understanding that some emotional battles felt unnatural and forced. But so they dd to me.
“A great, scalding peace went over him, burning his heart and his entrails, passing off into the infinite.”
Nevertheless, the writing, the words and sentences that the author uses, are a delight from beginning to end. There’s so much power and mastery in the author’s words that he can make even gross, uncontrolled passion appear beautiful, as it is for the characters involved. The vocabulary is not too difficult, but the diction is elevated and the tone of the author always musing. As if with the reader, the author too is examining and wondering at his characters and the life forces battling in them and with them.
Passion is not the only theme of the book. It also explores the effect of religion on lives. Every major character’s relation with religion is explored. Some follow it blindly, some adore the church and all its symbols, some only take what they feel is logical in religion and discard the rest as lies. Nobody is criticised or favoured for their beliefs. But everyone is examined, everyone goes through changes when influenced by people close to them. There are several long passages exploring how people experience religion and how it impacts them and their relationships.
“What ever God was, He was, and there was no need for her to trouble about Him,” thinks Anna
“All the religion she knew was but a particular clothing to a human aspiration. The aspiration was the real thing,— the clothing was a matter almost of national taste or need,” thinks Ursula.
The romance of first love:
This is where the book is at its most delightful. The budding romance and rising passion of the characters is amazingly depicted. It delights the readers with its innocence and passion. Writers can also learn a lot from these scenes about how to make their writing erotic without using a dirty word or graphic details. All the romance scenes are beautiful, fresh with confused feelings, ardent desires, innocent fears and cravings of youthful passion.
“He had over-taken her, and it was his privilege to kiss her. She was sweet and fresh with the night air, and sweet with the scent of grain. And the whole rhythm of him beat into his kisses, and still he pursued her, in his kisses, and still she was not quite overcome. He wondered over the moonlight on her nose! All the moonlight upon her, all the darkness within her! All the night in his arms, darkness and shine, he possessed of it all! All the night for him now, to unfold, to venture within, all the mystery to be entered, all the discovery to be made.
“Anna,” he said, as if he answered her from a distance, unsure. “My love.” And he drew near, and she drew near.
“Anna,” he said, in wonder and the birthpain of love.”
The turmoil of love:
Even though there is no villain in the book to hamper a love story, the journey of love still is not easy. Love brings two different people together. Their differences collide, their wills combat, their choices differ, their strangeness shocks. But true love remains solid as rock. And ultimately the two shrinking souls find rest on this rock, accept each other’s differences, recognize their need for each other, compromise, surrender, realize, and achieve victory together. And in this victory they finally find their rest. And their soul is content, or if any restless feeling still lingers, it can be ignored because love and passion are there to overcome all. But when the passion remains unsatisfied, even love fails. And then, all is lost.
“She was the doorway to him, he to her. At last they had thrown open the doors, each to the other, and had stood in the doorways facing each other, whilst the light flooded out from behind on to each of their faces, it was the transfiguration, glorification, the admission.”
Passion in The Rainbow:
Passion is treated as a natural force in The Rainbow, rising from the core of the being. It is shown to be an integral part of the relationship. A dissatisfied passion can cause discord in lives and relationship, even a rupture in most ardent love. Although The Rainbow was persecuted for being obscene, the readers of today would not call it so. There’s no vulgar depiction of passion. There’s only beautiful writing evoking the emotions in your heart and giving you an erotic feel even by describing the moonlight!
“And then, in the darkness, he bent to her mouth, softly, and touched her mouth with his mouth. She was afraid, she lay still on his arm, feeling his lips on her lips. She kept still, helpless. Then his mouth drew near, pressing open her mouth, a hot, drenching surge rose within her, she opened her lips to him, in pained, poignant eddies she drew him nearer, she let him come farther, his lips came and surging, surging, soft, oh soft, yet oh, like the powerful surge of water, irresistible, till with a little blind cry, she broke away.’
The book even shows a lesbian romance between a teacher and her student. A romance that would have been considered prohibited at that time in more ways than one. But the author does not condemn it or applauds it. He simply shows it, explores it, in gentle, careful words and beautiful sentences.
The darkness of passion:
The author uses the word ‘dark’ and ‘darkness’ a lot in the book. When we read the words darkness, we feel it describes something negative, gloomy. But Lawerence uses this word to describe a powerful force. The force of passion. Passion is darkness. Darkness is pure, enveloping, free. The rest of the world is life. Life has light, but it is artificial. It is pretentious. The darkness of passion alone is true. And without the satisfaction and ecstasy of passion, even love fails to hold two hearts together. Life binds the soul. The deep, dark passion sets it free. It distances the soul from the world so it can realize itself, see is own dark core, meet the dark core of the other, taste it, dive in it, and be fulfilled. The light of the life interferes, pulls asunder, and disturb the purity and forgetfulness of the darkness. This battle between light and darkness is repeatedly seen in the book. The soul craves darkness, but the active life cannot give up light. Interestingly, women in the book crave this darkness as much as men, sometimes even more. With the thirst for passion and the power of it in their heart, they cannot be satisfied by less, trivial, mundane attraction of bodies. They want to be carried away on the wings of darkness. Sometimes, defeating and annihilating the male in the process. And if the man cannot keep up, he’s left behind, given up.
“He kissed her, with his soft, enveloping kisses, and she responded to them completely, her mind, her soul gone out. Darkness cleaving to darkness, she hung close to him, pressed herself into soft flow of his kiss, pressed herself down, down to the source and core of his kiss, herself covered and enveloped in the warm, fecund flow of his kiss, that travelled over her, flowed over her, covered her, flowed over the last fibre of her, so they were one stream, one dark fecundity, and she clung at the core of him, with her lips holding open the very bottommost source of him. So they stood in the utter, dark kiss, that triumphed over them both, subjected them, knitted them into one fecund nucleus of the fluid darkness.”
The restless desire for the beyond:
Almost all major character’s feel the restless desire for more, for the life beyond their narrow world. They all crave a higher life, a life of more significance. A hunger that makes them dissatisfied by their lot, though they have every comfort of life. It’s as if their soul is in search of something that will quench its thirst. But even when they achieve what they think they desired, it is not satisfactory enough. The desire for that elusive something more remains. As it does in all of us.
The first rainbow we see in the book is when Tom Bragwan and Lydia finally overcome their distances and come together to establish their marital happiness. That is when the rainbow of their love is complete. And under it they find strength in togetherness, their home finds peace, stability and prosperity, and their children feel happy and secure.
The rainbow we see in the end glimmers up when Tom’s granddaughter is separated from her lover. She feels disconnected from all. And then she sees the rainbow rising, far away, distant, but rising like the glory of heaven and hope for the better tomorrow.
The rainbow is not just colour, light, beauty. rising up from the world, it’s hope, it’s the hope of the glorious beyond. Of the heights of happiness a being can reach. Of a better world. A world of aspirations, freedom, and wondrous possibilities. Of different colours banding as one to form one beautiful whole reaching the heights of the heaven.
“She knew that the sordid people who crept hard-scaled and separate on the face of the world’s corruption were living still, that the rainbow was arched in their blood and would quiver to life in their spirit, that they would cast off their horny covering of disintegration, that new, clean, naked bodies would issue to a new germination, to a new growth, rising to the light and the wind and the clean rain of heaven. She saw in the rainbow the earth’s new architecture, the old, brittle corruption of houses and factories swept away, the world built up in a living fabric of Truth, fitting to the over-arching heaven.”
The Rainbow gets excellently gripping at some places but painfully boring and abstract at others. It took me some time to start feeling interested in it. And at places, I was almost ready to give it up. But I’m glad I didn’t, because it proved to be a gripping experience in the end. The Rainbow lacks the entertaining story of Sons and Lovers (check my review of Sons and Lovers), but it is even more intensely psychological. Too deeply sometimes. And the long descriptive passages sometimes use too abstract language to be easily understandable. Yet, overall, it’s marvelous literature.
So, should you read it? Well, if you just want an entertaining book or an erotica, this one is not for you. It is heavy reading. It’s a literary classic. But if you enjoy psychological fiction and elevated writing, it’s worth a try. The book has a lot that makes it unique and engrossing.
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