D.H. Lawrence, perhaps more than any other writer of fiction was obsessed with the idea of will. In Women in Love all four characters – Ursula, Gudrun, Gerald, and Birkin – struggle to fix their place and role in relationships on the basis of it.
There are no romances in the novel although all are looking for relationships which will be mutually satisfying while uncompromising. All characters recognize sexual power as the essential expression of will and are attracted to it; but none are willing to give up their own sovereignty.
As the relationships mature, simplistic notions of sexual dominance are replaced by more complex one of submission. All the characters having struggled with their partners throughout the book reconsider their sexual purpose. Gerald, the character who has shown the most independence and casually sexual power, finds himself with doubts about his relationship with Gudrun.
He would keep the unfinished bliss of his own yearning even through the torture she inflicted upon him. A strange obstinacy possessed him. He would not go away from her whatever she said or did. A strange, deathly yearning carried him along with her. She was the determinating influence of his very being, though she treated him with contempt, repeated rebuffs, and denials, still he would never be gone, since in being near her, even, he felt the quickening, the going forth in him, the release, the knowledge of his own limitation and the magic of the promise, as well as the mystery of his own destruction and annihilation.Not only has Gerald realized that he needs to submit more than he needs to dominate, submission to a powerful, relentless woman is ‘the magic of promise, as well as the mystery of his own destruction and annihilation’.
The relationship with Gudrun has not only revealed his essentially submissive nature – one quite different from that which he had always assumed – but that the very combative, essential, and ultimately destructive nature of human relationships was too intolerable to survive.
To Gudrun Gerald’s transformation from confident, superior male to a dependent, emotionally needy man is also intolerable. His need is too aggressive, too demanding, and too primal for her to accommodate. There can be no equilibrium between the two of them. Their mutual needs for dominance and submission leading to an idealistic consummation are incompatible.
She tortured the open heart of him even as he turned to her. And she was tortured herself. It may have been her will was stronger. She felt, with horror, as if he tore at the bud of her heart, tore it open, like an irreverent persistent being. Like a boy who pulls off a fly's wings, or tears open a bud to see what is in the flower, he tore at her privacy, at her very life, he would destroy her as an immature bud, torn open, is destroyed.In the end Gerald cannot survive Gudrun’s strong, independent, and dominant will. On the top of an Austrian mountain, he realizes that he can never have her; and she realizes that he is too small and insignificant to matter.
To her it was so beautiful, it was a delirium, she wanted to gather the glowing, eternal peaks to her breast, and die. He saw them, saw they were beautiful. But there arose no clamor in his breast, only a bitterness that was visionary in itself. He wished the peaks were grey and unbeautiful, so that she should not get her support from them. Why did she betray the two of them so terribly, in embracing the glow of the evening? Why did she leave him standing there, with the ice-wind blowing through his heart, like death, to gratify herself among the rosy snow-tips?Loerke, Gerald’s sexual competitor has no such doubts. He understands Gudrun far more than Gerald ever could; and because of those native insights, he will have her.
He was not in the least doubtful of himself, as regards Gerald. Gerald was one of the outsiders. Loerke only hated him for being rich and proud and of fine appearance. All these things, however, riches, pride of social standing, handsome physique, were externals. When it came to the relation with a woman such as Gudrun, he, Loerke, had an approach and a power that Gerald never dreamed of...
What was it, after all, that a woman wanted? Was it mere social effect, fulfillment of ambition in the social world, in the community of mankind? Was it even a union in love and goodness? Did she want 'goodness'? Who but a fool would accept this of Gudrun? This was but the street view of her wants. Cross the threshold, and you found her completely, completely cynical about the social world and its advantages. Once inside the house of her soul and there was a pungent atmosphere of corrosion, an inflamed darkness of sensation, and a vivid, subtle, critical consciousness, that saw the world distorted, horrific.Gerald’s will and that of his friend Birkin are nothing compared to that of Loerke. They only play a game of dominance and submission – a child’s pastime compared to the seriousness of Loerke’s intentions – while Loerke because of his ability to understand women, will always win. Not only did he understand the nature of Gudrun’s desires, but saw what she was really like – “…a pungent atmosphere of corrosion, and inflamed darkness of sensation, and a vivid, subtle, critical consciousness, that saw the world distorted, horrific.”
This is the sexual match that Lawrence is looking for, the perfect fit of a powerful, complex soul and a dispassionate, controlling but brilliantly canny lover.
Gerald had penetrated all the outer places of Gudrun's soul. He was to her the most crucial instance of the existing world, the NE PLUS ULTRA of the world of man as it existed for her. In him she knew the world, and had done with it. Knowing him finally she was the Alexander seeking new worlds. But there WERE no new worlds, there were no more MEN, there were only creatures, little, ultimate CREATURES like Loerke.In the end both Gudrun and Gerald have been reduced to the essentials of their natures. There could be no going back. Both have come to their final existential understanding through sexual struggles. In a final unhinged, desperate reverie, Gerald gives into his fantasies.
The world was finished now, for her. There was only the inner, individual darkness, sensation within the ego, the obscene religious mystery of ultimate reduction, the mystic frictional activities of diabolic reducing down, disintegrating the vital organic body of life.
Yet why be afraid? It was bound to happen. To be murdered! He looked round in terror at the snow, the rocking, pale, shadowy slopes of the upper world. He was bound to be murdered, he could see it. This was the moment when the death was uplifted, and there was no escape.
Lord Jesus, was it then bound to be—Lord Jesus! He could feel the blow descending, he knew he was murdered. Vaguely wandering forward, his hands lifted as if to feel what would happen, he was waiting for the moment when he would stop, when it would cease. It was not over yet.
He had come to the hollow basin of snow, surrounded by sheer slopes and precipices, out of which rose a track that brought one to the top of the mountain. But he wandered unconsciously, till he slipped and fell down, and as he fell something broke in his soul, and immediately he went to sleep.Lawrence and Edward Albee are the two modern writers who best understood the idea of will within the context of sexual relationships. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf Albee tells of the brutal, savage, and unremitting expression of will and desire for dominance of George and Martha. At the end, when they are both ‘flayed to the marrow’ with no energy left for fighting, with their wills spent and irrelevant, they come together. Perhaps there is hope after all. George and Martha might not love each other, but they realize that the both need each other to survive.
Ibsen writes compellingly about will and how it governs all relationships; but his characters are more one-dimensional. Hedda Gabler has no reason for trying to dominate and destroy the men around her; nothing particular to gain. The expression of will is the only validation of the individual, Nietzsche claimed; and Hedda’s actions were pure, uncomplicated, and mortally determined.
Strindberg’s Miss Julie is more akin to the characters of Lawrence than any of Ibsen’s. She is a strong, willful, determined woman who is conflicted by her sexual desire for Jean whom she sees as essentially male and dominant. At first she dominates him, humiliates him, and tests him; but in the end she cannot resist him. She ends badly, and Jean, despite his sexual and social pretensions, returns to form.
Few later modern writers are interested in the particular sexual dynamics expressed by Lawrence, Ibsen, Strindberg, and Albee. Although they understand the fundamental conflict between men and women and use it to elucidate more general observations, they do not see the expression of will as an existential, epiphanic moment as does Lawrence. Eugene O’Neill, for example, in Long Day’s Journey Into Night tells of the selfish Mary Tyrone who dominates her family through guilt, recrimination, and manipulation. Mary is indeed a willful woman, but because of the common selfishness of it will never have any revelations or epiphanies.
Contemporary writers have adopted the zeitgeist of the early 21st century and are circumspect if not suspicious of the expression of will which is far less important than the influences of society and history. They tell stories of men and women within a multi-varied, sexually and culturally pluralistic culture who struggle with sexual identity, race, and ethnicity far more than they do with the resolution of deeply internal issues.
These writers, however, dismiss the centrality of will not only in sexual relationships but in all relationships. Human nature if nothing else is self-interested, self-protective, and territorial – and willfully so. It is expressed as such within families, social groupings, and nations.
By ignoring will as the most characteristic and dominant trait of human nature; by ignoring its centrality and essentiality in all affairs; and by hoping for a better, less willful, selfish world, these writers miss the point. As long as the human genome remains intact, human nature will remain as it has been since the beginning of evolution. Lawrence understood this well.