The Rainbow

By Natalie Prizel and Steven Hobbs

D.H. Lawrence drafted The Rainbow, originally titled “The Sisters,” from March 1913 to September 1915. At first, he worked on two other novels simultaneously while traveling with his new wife, Frieda—a woman six years his senior.[2] Eventually, he jettisoned these two narratives—one after writing over two hundred pages—because he felt that they were too overtly sexual.[3] The Rainbow became Lawrence’s focus and was censored a month after publication.

Primitivism and the Gender of the Media in The Rainbow

by Natalie Prizel

The Verbal, The Visual, and the Gender of Primitivism

Born in 1885 in Nottinghamshire, England to a coal miner and a teacher, David Herbert Lawrence rose to become an important figure in the modernist literary movement. The Rainbow, published in 1915, tells the story of three generations of the Brangwen family, focusing particularly on the erotic lives of its three female protagonists and their strivings against the gendered social conventions of their times.

One year prior to the publication of The Rainbow, Wyndham Lewis published portions of the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art in the Vorticist journal Blast. Using Kandinsky’s theories of art, I argue that in The Rainbow, Lawrence removes primitivism and the essential and experiential world out of the realm of women and places these valued qualities under the purview of masculinity.

Both Kandinsky and Lawrence were primitivists; that is to say, “they looked back to a pagan world, in touch with earth processes for rejuvenation”.[4] Kandinsky drew inspiration from an ethnographic trip to the Volgoda region of Russia in 1889 and his exposure to peasant art.[5] He later published Der Blaue Reiter Almanac (1912), which paired theories of art with examples of visual arts from prehistoric folk art through modernist painting. While Kandinsky was firmly committed to the separation of high (spiritual) art from decorative art, he saw art as democratically accessible as evidenced by the prolific production of spiritually imbued folk art, “primitive” art, and children’s art.[6]

It is important to note that the primitive is traditionally gendered female (and Other) in the Western mind. Pericles Lewis reads Gauguin’s nude native women as a symbol of “primitive nature, uncorrupted by masculine civilization.”[7] To a certain extent, this gendering is rooted in ideas of the natural, related the eternal cycling of fertility and birth, as represented by female menstruation and pregnancy. However, this gendering of nature as feminine and history or civilization as masculine is somewhat undermined by Kandinsky and thoroughly dismantled by Lawrence.

The gendering of both primitivism and the visual and verbal arts is related to their temporalities. In the eighteenth century, Gotthold Lessing articulated an understanding of the visual and verbal that has remained influential in studies of ekphrastic poetic practice (verbal representations of visual art). Lessing writes:

I reason thus: if it is true that in its imitations painting uses completely different means or signs than does poetry, namely figures and colors in space rather than articulated sounds in time, and if these signs must indisputably bear a suitable relation to the thing signified, then signs existing in space can express only objects whose wholes or parts coexist, while signs that follow one another can express only objects whose wholes or parts are consecutive.”[8]

Like the primitive, the visual is eternal, existing in space but frozen in time. While Kandinsky actively supports inter-art collaboration and conversation,[9] he too privileges the visual as closer to essential truth, saying “words are, and will always remain, only hints, mere suggestions of color.”[10]

Elizabeth Bergmann Loizeaux, following on the works of W.J.T. Mitchell and others in exploring the dynamics of ekphrastic poetics, explains the way in which the verbal and visual have traditionally been gendered:

From Keats’s rounded urn, that ‘still unravish’d bride of quietness,’ through Rossetti’s enthroned brides and William Carlos Williams’ ‘Portrait of a Lady,’ practitioners of ekphrasis have worked the trope of the active male poet gazing on the silent, passive, female image, and having his verbal way with her.[11]

The timeless, eternal, female, and most importantly, non- (pre?)-verbal visual is incapable of creating narrative action. This is exemplified in Will Brangwen’s incessant carving of Eve in the novel. “And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every fowl of the air and brought them unto Ad’-am to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Ad’-am called every living creature, that was the name thereof.”[12] Adam thus uses linguistic power to assert his dominion over the natural world. Similarly, James Wood explains that Lawrence’s father “knew the names of all the plants and trees in his area, and taught them to his son.”[13]

The controlling power of the namer over the named cannot be overestimated, and it is exactly this power that the ekphrastic poet wields over the work of visual art. However, the artistic power that both Kandinsky and Lawrence seem to be most invested in is not the linguistic power of man but rather the creative power of God.

According to Kandinsky, the artist assumes the godlike role of the “hand, through this or that key (= form) [that] makes the human soul vibrate appropriately.” Lawrence takes this deifying of the artist even further, when Will Brangwen works at his carving of “the Creation of Eve”, the first work he is able to complete. Brangwen literally renders the primeval woman out of wood. The primitive, though it may be female, is born out of male creative energies. Thus, Lawrence wrests the valorized eternal out of the realm of woman and reasserts a heavy-handed masculine control. Tellingly, Will burns his carving after Anna criticizes the gendered rendering, saying “It is impudence to say that Woman was made out of Man’s body [. . .] when every man is born of woman.”[14] While the burning might seem to cast Anna as victorious in shaming the artist, what it simultaneously demonstrates is the masculine prerogative to bring the original Woman into existence and then cast her into the fire.

Paradoxically, the verbal works of Kandinsky and Lawrence reject linguistic representation in favor of primitivism (i.e. carving) and a desire to strip away the trappings of civilization, as represented by language. Moreover, Lawrence reverses the traditional gendering of the verbal and visual and instead casts language as an effect of the civilizing tendencies of women rather than the historicizing and narrativizing impulses of men.

Essentialism and Social Constructionism

It has become de rigeur in academic discussions of gender and sexuality to ascribe our gendered understandings of the world and sexual mores in terms of social constructions, artifices existent in the social world that exert control over one’s choices, potentialities, and limitations.[15] Strict social constructionists might argue that there are no essential or natural facts pertaining to gender and sexuality; however, in his preoccupation with the primitive, Lawrence is invested in a return to the essential, particularly as revealed in natural processes.

As a multigenerational story,The Rainbow is cyclical in its construction, and forecasts its theme of rebirth and regeneration through its agricultural introduction. However, for a novel so centered on fertile women bringing forth generations, Lawrence’s pastoral introduction is shocking in its gender reversals. He writes:

[. . .] the limbs and the body of the men were impregnated with the day, cattle and earth, vegetation and sky [. . .]. But the women looked out from the heated blind intercourse of farm-life to the spoken world beyond. They were aware of the lips and the mind of the world speaking and giving utterance, they heard the sound in the distance and they strained to listen.[16]

It is important to note that this reverse gendering is not universal; rather, the women look out at other men who have “turned their back on the pulsing heat of creation” unlike the Brangwen men. But the men with whom the novel is concerned are figured as pregnant in this introductory passage. The women, perhaps because they have been denied education, crave language, while the men “faced inwards to the teeming life of creation.” Lawrence thus locates the primitive, the cyclical, the pre- and extra-historical in male bodies aligned with nature. However, which is valued? The novel is indeed centered around the modern woman’s quest for language, education, and entrance into the public sphere. And yet, the moments in which truth is realized are not the moments in which woman asserts independence (i.e. when Ursula goes to school or becomes involved with Miss Inger), but in those when she assumes a “natural”, erotic relations with man.

As truth is realized through a natural, essential, procreative eroticism, Lawrence pushes back forcefully against the constructions that limit erotic possibilities and connections (at least between men and women). When Skrebensky contemplates marrying Ursula, his lover, he thinks:

If he married he would have to assume his social self. And the thought of assuming his social self made him at once diffident and abstract. If she were his social wife, if she were part of that complication of dead reality, then what had his under-life to do with her? One’s social wife was almost a material symbol. Whereas now she was something more vivid to him than anything in conventional life could be, she gave the complete lie to all conventional life, he and she stood together, dark, fluid, infinitely potent, giving the living lie to the dead whole which contained them.[17]

Lawrence draws a distinction between the vitality of the erotic connection between Skrebensky and Ursula and the “dead reality” of the social world. Furthermore, Skrebensky worries that as his wife, Ursula would become a “material symbol.” While the juxtaposition of “material” and “symbol” seems paradoxical, when one considers marriage as the socially constructed economic relationship that it historically has been, its romantic symbolism does indeed become vulgarly material.

Lawrence’s Matriarchy

In “Matriarchy”, Lawrence argues that the modern man “is afraid of being swamped, turned into a mere accessory of bare-limbed, swooping woman; swamped by her numbers, swamped by her devouring energy.”[18]  He goes on to interpret “primitive” matriarchy in such a way so as to ascribe the primitive to men and the corruptions of pecuniary civilization to women. He argues that we should create a matriarchy to:

[. . .] let men free again, free from the tight littleness of family and family possessions [. . .]. And give the men a new foregathering ground [. . .] to find some way of satisfying these ultimate social cravings in men, which are deep as religion in a man. It is necessary for the life of society, to keep us organically vital, to save us from the mess of industrial chaos and industrial revolt.[19]

While ostensibly representing the social fears of his age, these anxieties are shown to be deeply personal in The Rainbow. As modernists come to find inspiration in the primitive and the essential, they also engage in the project of rescuing their inspiration from effeminacy, or worse, femaleness.

Biblical Intertextuality in the Rainbow

by Steven Hobbs

While drafting The Rainbow, Lawrence read Christian Symbolism by Katherine Jenner and recorded that he “liked it very much.” The somewhat obscure text, published by Methuen in the Little Books on Art Series, provided Lawrence with “a new respect for the old framework of Christian symbolism.”[20] He began, as Wright further explains, to see Christ as having symbolic value—rather than historical or redemptive. Raised in a decidedly Protestant, blue-collar home, this new perspective on Christianity marked a sizable shift for Lawrence.[21] A symbolic view of Christ offered opportunities for departure from the dogmatic doctrines and practices that the Church espoused. Moreover, in his reading of Jenner, he discovered his lifelong fascination with the symbol of the phoenix—a symbol that would often appear in and on the covers of subsequent works. Along with the phoenix’s connection to Christ’s death and resurrection, Lawrence became fixated with Christ’s phrase “you must be born again.” He saw this command as fundamental to all human and religious experience—the necessity to break from the past, parents, and society.[22]

Reading Jenner had a profound effect on Lawrence while he worked on The Rainbow.[23] As he drafted the novel and reordered his views regarding Christianity and its symbols, he formulated a particular brand of Biblical intertextuality that sought to challenge worn-out and archaic dogmas of the religion—ones that were incongruous with the changes in the modern culture. With The Rainbow, he discovered that he could perform a double duty, synthesizing the spiritual with the sensual, thereby commenting on both. He reveals, primarily through his female characters and their spiritual and sexual awakenings, that old, dogmatic forms of Christianity—literal interpretations of Scripture, male domination, sexual repression—will not hold up in a modern society, thus rendering the religion void. For Lawrence, Christianity, like art and literature, must find a fresh way to adapt and speak to the changes of the culture. Through The Rainbow, he aims, then, to raise Christianity from the ashes and express that the faith itself must be born again. In short, the novel is an attempt to pen a new Gospel.

Unlike modernist contemporaries such as Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, Lawrence ascribes The Rainbow with a decidedly traditional narrative style. Throughout the novel, Lawrence appropriates the simple, repetitive syntax of Scripture as well as a genealogical narrative structure reminiscent of Genesis. The Brangwen family, the reader discovers, has existed on the Marsh Farm for generations, and the narrative describes these generations with scriptural weight, reflecting the Abrahamic line found in the Pentateuch. Lawrence uses Biblical language to describe the family in the first chapter: “So the Brangwens came and went without fear of necessity, working hard because of the life that was in them, not for want of money.”[24] In the narration of the Brangwen’s story, Lawrence often uses repetition, and his shorter, somewhat curt sentences attempt to mirror the Bible’s didacticism. Like the writers of Scripture, Lawrence wants to make certain that his readers understand his new Gospel. He goes so far as to adopt the chiastic structure inherent in the Psalms or the Gospels. A scriptural example of this technique is found in the parable of the vineyard workers when Christ remarks, “So the last shall be first, and the first last.”[25] In The Rainbow, Tom’s inebriated, often incoherent wedding speech is also chiastic when he says, “A man…enjoys being a man: for what purpose was he made a man, if not to enjoy it.”[26] Lawrence, then, uses the Bible as an intertext to support his new Gospel. Similar to Saint Paul’s epistles, he seeks to reveal a vast and authoritative knowledge of Scripture to engender deference from his readers.

Further, Christian symbols permeate the novel, intertextualized to advocate the need for Christianity to change and emerge from the past. The rainbow, serving as the novel’s title and appearing throughout the narrative, represents the promise of a new birth or a movement from the old to the new. The great flood that takes Tom’s life expresses the necessary destruction or death of past traditions and ideas. Will crafts a butter stamp for Anna in the shape of a phoenix, revealing the potential for rebirth in the Brangwen family. Subsequently, there are numerous references to ash or ashes throughout the novel. Will’s failed wood carving of Adam and Eve conveys his inability to capture Eve’s proper likeness and position next to her husband. To produce his new Gospel, Lawrence juxtaposes these symbols and images with the Brangwen’s spiritual and sexual awakenings. The prevalence of these juxtapositions points to the profound ways in which Lawrence attempts to appropriate scriptural images to construct an alternative Gospel.

As the narrative unfolds, Lawrence further bends and manipulates Scripture, juxtaposing Biblical references and stories with moments of sensuality, thereby combining the spiritual and the sexual. Perhaps the most striking and important example is found during Anna’s Davidic dance before God while she is pregnant with Ursula. Here, Lawrence appropriates the well-known story, found in II Samuel, of David disrobing and dancing before God in the streets. His wife, Michal, sees him and chastises him for such shameful behavior. David, however, remains resolute and rebukes her. As a result, Michal never conceives a child. In The Rainbow, Lawrence reverses gender roles, casting Anna as David dancing before God. Will, then, is Michal as he watches Anna and is ashamed. Lawrence chooses to let the reader see the dance through Will’s eyes: “He watched, and his soul burned within him. He turned aside, he could not look, it hurt his eyes. Her fine limbs lifted and lifted, her hair was striking out all fierce, and her belly, big, strange, terrifying, uplifted to the Lord. Her face was rapt and beautiful, she danced exulting before her Lord.”[27] Here, Lawrence intertextualizes this account from Scripture to express a desire to move from orthodox and dogmatic Christian views regarding women and sexuality. Aside from the gender reversal, the critical difference from David is the sexual emphasis Lawrence places on Anna’s dance. Her body is “big” with child, and Will is “being burned alive” from what he sees. Anna’s face is “rapt and beautiful.” It is this intertwining of the spiritual and the sexual, specifically in women, that gives utterance to Lawrence’s revived and modified image of the Gospel.

Lawrence continues to build upon this idea as the narrative levels out and focuses on Ursula—the child in Anna’s belly. As the story trudges ahead, the reader finds the author continually attempting to shift Christianity away from literally reading and interpreting Scripture, and towards a more generous understanding and application, one that speaks to the changes in modern society. Ursula—named after the saint who, instead of getting married, set out on a pilgrimage across Europe—becomes the mouthpiece for the Lawrentian Gospel. She is “the voice crying out in the wilderness.”[28] As she matures, Ursula discovers that traditional forms of Christianity no longer hold any meaning and reverts to a non-literal or demythological interpretation of Scripture.[29] While she becomes more interested in education and begins to move among the modern world outside of the Marsh Farm, she expresses that “the Sunday World” is stripped of relevance. It is nothing but a “play world.”[30] For her, stories of water turning into wine, feeding a crowd of five thousand, or Christ walking on water are insignificant in the “weekday world.” They are merely stories for her, and “she must have it in weekday terms.”[31]

Ursula, Wright suggests, begins to see Jesus as “a lover rather than a teacher and…fantasizes about laying her head on his breast and receiving a ‘sensuous response’ from Jesus.”[32] Ursula continues on this trajectory as she encounters Winifred Igner, a teacher to whom she feels an immediate connection and affinity. The connection is reciprocal, and Winifred eventually invites Ursula to spend time with her outside of class. During a rendezvous, Ursula and Winifred initiate a sexual relationship. Though there is some guilt and concern on Ursula’s part—remnants of her past life—she consents to the affair, and the experience serves to further free her from traditional Christian constraints. Ursula is able, then, to continue on her pilgrimage to discover a new life outside of the Marsh Farm.

Ursula’s sexual awakening is further highlighted while she visits Maggie—her friend from school. When the two girls go to the park, Maggie brings along Coleridge’s “Christabel” and proceeds to read it.[33] The inclusion of this text is significant when considering the poem’s intertwined themes of feminine spirituality and lesbianism, as the character Geraldine—a similarly masculine name as Winifred—appears to sexually awaken the young and naïve Christabel. This possible sexual encounter between the two female characters in the poem, then, reminds the reader of Ursula’s affair with Winifred. Moreover, the poem’s title and character name blurs the sexual with the spiritual. Christabel is a feminization of Christ, thus reflecting Ursula’s desire for a more sensuous Savior. Here, Lawrence attempts to create a more pliable form of Christianity, allowing for the sexual—even the homosexual or bisexual. For Lawrence, Christianity has relevance only when it jettisons archaic sexual repression.

Despite challenges, adversities, and failures, Ursula summons the strength to reject two very suitable suitors—Skrebensky and Maggie’s brother, Anthony—affirming her rejection of the patriarchal traditions that characterized past generations of Brangwens. Her example, in turn, motivates her family to finally move out of the Marsh Farm and into the more urban Beldover. Due to this change of perspective, Will is finally able to complete a new wood carving of Adam and Eve. The changes give him the necessary and proper vision by which to craft the new, modern Eve. He has raised, then, the former incomplete and flawed creation from the ashes of the fire. In the end, Ursula remains unmarried and sets off into a new, undiscovered country that is illuminated with the colors of the rainbow. The final sentence of the novel reads, “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 overarching heaven.”[34]

Lawrence, then, through his singular brand of Biblical intertextuality, attempts to raise Christianity from the ashes. The Rainbow seeks to usher the religion into the modern world—symbolized, of course, by the rainbow—creating a new, more generous form of Christianity. Like art and literature, it must learn to speak and adapt to modern culture. If not, the religion will remain embedded in the Marsh Farm, silenced forever by a great flood.


  1. ↑ Genesis 2:19 (King James Version).
  2. ↑ John Worthen, D.H. Lawrence: The Life of An Outsider (Counterpoint, 2005), 131.
  3. ↑ Worthen, 129.
  4. ↑ Bonnie Kime Scott, ed., The Gender of Modernism: A Critical Anthology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 217.
  5. ↑ John E. Bowlt, “Vasilii Kandinsky: The Russian Connection,” in The Life of Vasilii Kandisnky in Russian Art, ed. John E. Bowlt and Rose-Carol Washton Long (Newtonville: Oriental Research Partners, 1980), 2.
  6. ↑ Walter L. Adamson, Embattled Avant-Gardes: Modernism’s Resistance to Commodity Culture in Europe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 151.
  7. ↑ Pericles Lewis, The Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 71.
  8. ↑ Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), 78. All citations are to the 1984 Hopkins edition.
  9. ↑ Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Translated by M.T.H. Sadler. (New York: Dover Publications, 1977), 42. All subsequent citations are to the Dover edition.
  10. ↑ Ibid., 41.
  11. ↑ Elizabeth Bergmann Loizeaux, Twentieth Century Poetry and the Visual Arts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 80.
  12. ↑ Genesis 2:19 (King James Version).
  13. ↑ James Wood, Introduction to The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence (London: Penguin Books, 1995), xii.
  14. ↑ ↑ D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 162. All subsequent citations are to the Penguin edition.
  15. ↑ ↑ For example see David Halperin, “Is There a History of Sexuality?,” in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader edited by Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale and David M. Halperin (New York: Routledge, 1993), 416-431.
  16. ↑ Lawrence, 10.
  17. ↑ Ibid., 419.
  18. ↑ D.H. Lawrence, “Matriarchy” in The Gender of Modernism, ed. Bonnie Kime Scott (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 225.
  19. ↑ Ibid., 227.
  20. ↑ T.R. Wright, D.H. Lawrence and the Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 86.
  21. ↑ Wright, 86.
  22. ↑ Wright, 93.
  23. ↑ Worthen, 112.
  24. ↑ D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), 9.
  25. ↑ The Holy Bible, King James Version (American Bible Society, 1999), Matt. 20:16.
  26. ↑ Lawrence, 128.
  27. ↑ Lawrence, 171.
  28. ↑ The Holy Bible, Matt. 3:3.
  29. ↑ Lawrence, 258.
  30. ↑ Lawrence, 263.
  31. ↑ Lawrence, 266.
  32. ↑ Wright, 105.
  33. ↑ Lawrence, 385.
  34. ↑ Lawrence, 459.