The Sisters in D H Lawrence's Women in Love

by Nitya Bakshi
For more on Lawrence see The D H Lawrence Page >


D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) created two seemingly similar yet antithetical characters in Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen in his novel Women in Love (1921). While they seem close at the beginning of the novel, the sisters' personalities become quite incompatible towards the end.

Gudrun and Ursula start off in the novel on a bored note and discuss the idea of marriage. In this discussion, Ursula comes across as a dreamer of sorts, a romanticist, who believes that marriage is probably the 'end of an experience' unlike Gudrun who is more pragmatic, maybe even a cynic who believes that marriage 'is bound to be an experience' even if an 'undesirable one'. They seem to differ in their ideas about children. But at this stageeach other. In fact, Ursula , we can still note that they have respect for each others' view and love 'have an unspoken bond between them when they discuss their seemingly hopeless admired her (Gudrun) with all her soul'. And they family situation with respect to the relationship between them and their father, as 'being confronted by a void, a terrifying chasm'. We sense that they understand each otherfrom the uncomfortable direction of this conversation and,


as they both wish to steer away casually agree to go to the wedding. Right after this, we know Ursula identifies with Gudrun's claustrophobia in Beldover and 'can feel her suffering'.

At the wedding, we begin to see some difference of opinion. Gudrun insists 'one must discriminate' between people who are exceptional and 'little fools', while Ursula seems compelled to agree with her, even when she was not 'in accord altogether'.

As the story progresses in the next few chapters, we find that Ursula is a rather nave, unpretentious character who sees beauty in subtlety, and for whom acquiring knowledge is not an insufferable quest. At this point she has a dichotomous existence, one part hating Birkin, the other sensing 'liberty and radiance', and clearly she is confused about how she feels about the afternoon in the classroom.

Contrast this with Gudrun's character: she is somewhat rebellious in nature, and questions the rights and liberties the norms of society allow her (when she is envious of men that they can throw their clothes off and jump into the water whenever they like). She also comes across as the kind of woman who wishes to control and wield power over the man she is attracted to, she also knows it is easy for her to achieve this, considering her beauty and (seemingly convincing) confidence. For her, not being able to wield power over the object of her affection would be like a failure. Gudrun seems to be unconsciously calculative, and strong headed, but she does display honesty in all that she feels. She is probably as confused as Ursula, but in different matters - regarding why she is where she is rather than who she is.

In 'Diver', we see the sisters in disagreement over the nature of Gerald Crich's intentions when he pulled the trigger at his brother's head. Gudrun, I think, intuitively defends Gerald Crich while Ursula does not seem to do so. In addition, Ursula does not quite understand why her sister sometimes has rebellious tendencies or what triggers them off. However, by the end of the chapter they seem to conform to the idea of standing as 'swans between geese' since the unspoken opinion between them is that they are above the usual milieu of people in a strange way, which they have not yet discovered.

In 'Coal Dust', we see the dichotomy in their opinions again. Gudrun is enamoured and captivated by Gerald's performance on the horse as much as Ursula is repulsed by it. Gudrun loves Gerald for the same while Ursula is livid at his treatment of the horse and hates him. This highlights another personality difference - Ursula is sensitive of other people's feelings and respects them, even if they are below her level, while Gudrun craves power and control over every possible being - man or horse. This is probably why Gudrun is fascinated by Gerald - because he embodies her innate quest for power over others. Ursula is diametrically opposite - she abhors this.

On love, the sisters' views are quite different too. Ursula gives Birkin the chance to express himself, argues with him and initially disagrees with him because she cannot understand his quest for 'freedom together'. However as their relationship develops and goes through its highs and lows, they finally find each other, and she is ready to 'surrender' to him, in the figurative sense. Gudrun, however, seems to give the impression of commitment to Gerald even though she is quite unsure of herself. This can be best seen when she finally strays away from him and has an affair with another artist, Loerke, whom she thinks will appreciate her now reformed and clear perspective in life. Gerald ultimately cannot accept this and commits suicide. It is clear that the sisters' views on fidelity also differ.

The last word on love, however, is seen in the chapter 'Moony' when Birkin comes to propose to Ursula. She does not reply immediately, probably on account of the row with her father. At this point, she feels in accord with Gudrun, when it comes to both of them against their father and his ideology. But the crucial turning point in their relationship is when Ursula and Gudrun discuss Birkin's proposal. Initially, Ursula agrees with Gudrun, then as the conversation progresses she finds herself beginning to disagree and finally begins 'to revolt form her sister'. This happens when she realises Gudrun does not see people beyond her perspective, and has, in a matter of a few sentences, managed to cross out Birkin completely - 'This finality of Gudrun's, this dispatching of people and things in a sentence, was such a lie'. This is where Ursula makes the decision to wed Birkin, in one sense going against Gudrun and from this point their relationship begins to move on two different tracks and they come to identify less with each other and more with their lovers.

The final chapter of the story also highlights their differing views on life, love and new beginnings. Ursula and Birkin are getting ready to leave. Ursula and Gudrun have perhaps, their last meaningful conversation. Gudrun cannot understand why Ursula needs to sever her ties from everyone else. Ursula tries to explain to her, but finally ends up telling Gudrun that if she fell in love she would understand. This for Gudrun, seem to be the ultimate mockery of everything between them, and their ties are more or less severed then. There is an air of finality in this scene of the book. The last straw is Gudrun's emotionless and frigid response to Gerald's death. This is when Ursula realises that not only does she disagree with her sister, she is disgusted by her behaviour.

Thus, in Gudrun and Ursula, D. H. Lawrence has created two memorable characters, who while being related and seemingly similar, grow into two diametrically opposite personalities.

© Nitya Bakshi, June 2005


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