Molly Martin
November 2, 1998
English 272D
Men Complete

 
        D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love provides intimate depictions of both homoeroticism and heterosexual passion which illuminate stark differences in the nature of the two types of sexual or quasi-sexual encounters.  In their respective relationships with females, Gerald and Birkin exhibit comparable restraint and distance that do not fetter their own male friendship.  This bond is, however, more than a friendship, extending into the boundaries of homoeroticism and hardly, indeed if at all, refraining from lapsing into blatant homosexuality, particularly in Chapter XX, "Gladiatorial."  This wrestling scene, replete with sexual rhythms and intensely passionate moments, contrasts with love scenes between Gerald and Gudrun as well as Birkin and Ursula.  There exists in the exclusively male relationship of Birkin and Gerald, as portrayed throughout the "Gladiatorial" scene, such emotional and physical connection, of the sort which was not highly respected in the day and age in which Lawrence wrote the novel.

        The apparent hierarchy of erotic relationships in this novel, as established by the evidence of "oneness," the use of color, and the levels of passion, contrast with the norm of society in that day.  A general acceptance of homosexuality did not exist in the period Lawrence wrote the novel.  Freud classified this among the "perversions," or deviant sexual behaviors:

In the popular view, which is sufficient for all practical purposes in ordinary life, sexual is something that combines references to the differences between the sexes, to pleasurable excitement and gratification,  to the reproductive function, and to the idea of impropriety and the necessity of concealment.  But this is no longer sufficient for science.  For painstaking researches (only possible, of course, in a spirit of self-command maintained by self-sacrifice) have revealed that classes of human beings exist whose sexual life deviates from the usual one in the most striking manner.  One group of these "perverts" has, as it were, expunged the differences between the sexes from its scheme of lifeSuch persons are called homosexuals or inverts. (Freud 267)
Freud here delineates the general sentiment concerning homosexuality and its departure from the normal, the expected, the natural.  This does not seem to align too well with the trend which Lawrence establishes throughout the book.

        "Gladiatorial" scene, outwardly a play at some Japanese wrestling, contains endless allusions to a sexual situation.  The diction lends itself quite readily to physical sexuality.  Homoeroticism pervades the scene as the two men engage in this intensely personal, intimate, and naked contact.  The struggle begins rather innocently, but quickly elevates to a scene in which the  main focus is the contact between the flesh of the two men: "they became more accustomed to each other, to each other's rhythm, they got a kind of mutual physical understanding. And then they had a real struggle.  They seemed to drive their white flesh into a oneness" (Lawrence, Women 270).  Just as sexual partners are expected to unite themselves, Gerald and Birkin create a "oneness" and find a shared rhythm and understanding.  These phrases translate to optimal sexual situations, thus signaling the eroticism which Lawrence incorporates into the entire encounter.  Soon after, Lawrence reaffirms this unification of the two bodies into one: "the physical junction of two bodies clinched into oneness" (Women 270).  This repeated stress on the two bodies becoming one with such intimate contact exemplifies a cohesive sexual situation.  The author emphasizes the togetherness of these two bodies as the action becomes a single action: not Gerald doing one thing and Birkin responding, but rather a single unit performing a single act: "So they wrestled swiftly, rapturously, intent and mindless at last, two essential white figures ever working into a tighter, closer oneness" (Women 270).  Despite being separate entities, they are performing a single action, for their physical connection is so intense.

        When describing the sexual relations of both of the male-female pairs, there is never such a unity as achieved by Gerald and Birkin when they come into intimate contact.   Rather, there is an admission that a complete "oneness" is not a viable possibility because of certain internal restraints.  Lawrence describes Birkin's inability to succumb to passion, as he had with his male friend: "Yet something was tight and unfree in him.  He did not like this crouching, this radiance-not altogether" (Women 313).  He lacks here the completeness that he felt while wrestling Gerald.  There is something about this woman, about all women, that forces him to restrain from emotionally and physically letting go.  So too with Gudrun and Gerald is there a missing element.  She cannot accept him as her all, and will never be able to do such: "They would never be together.  Ah, this awful, inhuman distance which would always be interposed with violent wakefulness, cast out in the outer darkness" (Women, 346).  Neither couple can experience fulfillment at the hands of heterosexual relations.  Always there is an inequality of some sort, an inequality which companionship between two men does not involve, for their homoerotic meetings are not ones of domination and subjection, as are the relationships they share with Gudrun and Birkin.

        Throughout the "Gladiatorial" scene Lawrence employs multiple images of penetration, images which are certainly laden with sexual connotations.  He describes the struggle: "He impinged invisibly upon the other man…and then suddenly piercing in a tense fine grip that seemed to penetrate into the very quick of Gerald's being" (Women 269-70), and then later: "He seemed to penetrate into Gerald's more solid, more diffuse bulk, to interfuse his body through the body of the other" (Women 270).  The author's word choice is very sexually suggestive in these passages.  Terms such as "impinge," "piercing," "penetrate," and "interfuse" cross the line from a simple wrestling scene to an act of sodomy.  Lawrence reiterates this body-entering-body imagery:

It was as if Birkin's whole physical intelligence interpenetrated into Gerald's body, as if his fine, sublimated energy entered into the flesh of the fuller man, like some potency, casting a fine net, a prison, through the muscles into the very depths of Gerald's physical being. (Women 270)
Again, words such as "interpenetrated" and phrases such as "into the very depths of Gerald's physical being" describe actions easily interpretable as sexual entrances into the body.  The author unabashedly throws open the door for sexual references in this scene.

        Throughout this scene there is a very definite rhythmic pattern.  Thus the author establishes a flow of activity and inactivity resembling a sexual act.  The use the present participle of verbs heightens the excited passion throughout the encounter.  Lawrence uses "heaving," "converting," "counteracting," and "piercing" (Women 270) to draw the reader directly into the action and consequently experience the eroticism as it occurs.  He continues with this incessant use of this verb form, continually bringing life to the action of wrestling, of intimacy.  The participants are "working," "knotting," and "flashing"  (Women 270) as they proceed to the climax of the wrestling match.  At the height of the action, of the passion, the author employs auditory phrases so that the reader may hear both men in their excitement: "Now and again came a sharp gasp of breath, or a sound like a sigh, then the rapid thudding of movement on the thickly-carpeted, then the strange sound of flesh escaping under flesh" (Women 270).  They reach this stage of "rapid thudding" and the prose does not let this fact escape the reader.  Following this combustion of action, the final stages of the fighting, there is a very rhythmic breathing as the two men recover form their erotic and physical encounter:

At length Gerald lay back inert on the carpet, his breast rising in great slow panting, whilst Birkin kneeled over him, almost unconscious.  Birkin was more exhausted.  He caught little, short breaths, he could scarcely breathe anymore.  The earth seemed to tilt and sway… (Women 271)
The two men, having tested their physical limits, recuperate in their own ways.  Gerald slowly breathes, and thus his recovery is described with longer, more flowing phrases.  Birkin's exhaustion outweighs that of Gerald and thus his breaths, much like the sentences Lawrence uses to convey those breaths are short and staccato.  Lawrence intentionally manipulates the language so as to illuminate the pace of this gladiatorial scene and to convey the underlying eroticism.

        In his Fantasia of the Unconscious, Lawrence verbalizes his own ideas concerning the purposes of sex, both external and internal.  He stratifies the pleasure of sexual contact into three units:
 

       So it is in sex relation.  There is a threefold result.  First, the flash of pure sensation and of real electricity.  Then there is the birth of and entirely new state of blood in each partner.  And then there is the liberation.
        But the main thing, as in the thunderstorm, is the absolute renewal of the atmosphere: in this case, the blood.  It would no doubt be found that the electro-dynamic condition of the white and red corpuscles of the blood was quite different after sex union, and that the chemical composition of the fluid was quite changed.  (Fantasia 214)
Lawrence here shows that the physical pleasure, the "flash of pure sensation and of real electricity," although an essential element in the sexual act, is not the ultimate test.  Rather it is the renewal of one's very being and the liberation achieved through the act by which it must be judged.

        In both of the scenes of love between man and woman, there is the experience of the electric rush of pleasure, but never does the experience become complete for both participants.  Ursula can incite such feeling within herself from Birkin: "It was a dark flood of electric passion she released from him, drew into herself.  She had established a rich new circuit, a new current of passional electric energy…leaving her an essential new being, she was left quite free, she was free in complete ease, her complete self" (Women 313-4), but he is unable to derive from this experience the complete circuit of sexual pleasure as delineated in Fantasia of the Unconscious.  He can only achieve that state through his homoerotic physical contact with Gerald, which causes him to lose complete consciousness of himself and his surroundings.  Gerald and Gudrun can also not produce this effect through sexual intimacy, for in that relationship, Gerald really seeks a healer, a mother figure: "And she was the great bath of life, he worshipped her.  Mother and substance of all life she was…perfect as if her were bathed in the womb again" (Women 344).  This is not sexual intimacy, but rather an emotional need being fulfilled through physical contact; certainly it is not the achievement of Lawrence's ideal in sexual pleasure.

        The body plays a large role in this depiction of Gerald and Birkin wrestling each other in such an intimate fashion.  Lawrence describes each man in his nakedness as they prepare to "fight."   There is no such elaboration on the nudity of the lovers in the heterosexual associations.  Then, during the entire passage, the author frequently refers the reader to certain parts of the men's bodies, particularly the flailing limbs.  Birkin is "playing upon the limbs and trunk of Gerald like some hard wind" (Women 270).  Then later, the two males exhibit an "octopus-like knotting and flashing of limbs…a tense white knot of flesh gripped in silence" (Women 270).  These limbs are in constant motion they are entwined and free to move.  The physicality of this struggle mirrors the closeness of sexual encounters.  In addition to limbs, Lawrence pays close attention to the heart and blood in this scene.  The loud beat of the heart controls the passion within Birkin following the wrestling:

He came to consciousness again, hearing an immense knocking outside.  What could be happening, what was it, the great hammer-strokes resounding through the house?  He did not know.  And then it came to him that it was his own heart beating.  But that seemed impossible, the noise was outside.  No, it was inside himself, it was his own heart.  And the beating was painful, so strained, so surcharged.  (Women 271)
Birkin's passions have been so much so raised, he has become so connected with Gerald that he can no longer distinguish his own heart as a part of his body, throbbing after his excitement.  This inability to realize even the sensation of his own pulse betrays the true homoerotic nature of the physical contact which he has just shared with Gerald.

        The heterosexual encounters provide less pure passion and physicality.  There is more emphasis on external matters relating to the couple than there is throughout the gladiatorial scene.  There is a search for knowledge in both instances; there are allusions to religion and to mystery and danger.  Throughout the entire sexual meeting of Ursula and Birkin there is a regular interspersion of religious and miraculous images and ideas.  Lawrence mentions the "Sons of God" a number of times and refers to Ursula as, "a new, marvellous flower opened at his knees, a paradisal flower she was" (Women, 313).  The author describes Gudrun's reaction to Gerald's need for her in his time of despair and her ability to help: "It was wonderful, marvellous, it was a miracle" (Women 344)  These religious indications, both the blatant and the subtle, detract from the pure sensuality and thus the eroticism of the joining of the two.  These, along with the apparent quest for some type of knowledge, express in these chapters, applies too much pressure to the situation, consequently diminishing the sexual intimacy and its possibilities.
 The use of color throughout the gladiatorial match and the love scenes is quite intentional and it marks a distinction between the two types of sexualities.  Throughout the description of Birkin and Gerald wrestling, Lawrence constantly uses white images.  Gerald's movements are "white, heaving, dazzling" (Women 270) and the two together form "a tense, white knot of flesh" (Women 270).   White represents not only goodness and peace, but also intense heat, as of an uncontrollable passion.  Also the author notes that "Gerald flushed smart red where he was touched" (Women 270).  Red is the color of love and of passion, such as these two share, though it is cloaked in the form of wrestling.  On the other hand, the scenes between the two heterosexual couples seem to revolve around darkness, an indication of impurity and evil.  Birkin and Ursula "had run on again into darkness" (Women 319).  There is a "dark, subtle reality" to Birkin and she was "too dark and fulfilled in silence" (Women 319).  So too are Gerald and Gudrun in the darkness during their escapades in "Death and Love." Both the bridge and her bedroom provide dimly lit environments in which their sexual encounters may occur.  Only a "faint, white light emitted from him, a white aura, as if he were a visitor from the unseen" (Women 331).  Even this departure from pure blackness is qualified by the mysteriousness associated with it.  This odd juxtaposition of sexuality and color elucidates the importance of the homoeroticism in the lives of the men.  The whiteness, the purity is derived only from the male relationship, while evil lurks in the darkness of the traditional, heterosexual relationships.
It is interesting to note Lawrence's outward opinion of homosexual relationships.  He was indeed a married man, who played with sexuality in his very risky literary endeavors, but in his personal correspondence, there is an avowed aversion to this type of pleasure-seeking.  In an April 1915 letter to David Garnett, he scolds the homosexual life:

It is foolish of you to say that it doesn't matter either way-the men loving men.  It doesn't matter in the pubic way.  But it matters so much David, to the man himself-at any rate to us northern nations-that it is a blow of triumphant decay, when I meet Birrel or the others.  I simply can't bear it.  It is so wrong, it is unbearable.  It makes a form of inward corruption which truly makes me scarce able to live.  (Letters 97)
He later urges Garnett: "Go away, David, and try to love a woman" (Letters 98).  Lawrence here places himself very much against the homosexual possibilities, rather than supporting it for its benefits and the intrinsic need for it, as he does throughout Women in Love.

        Throughout this novel, and especially within the chapter "Gladiatorial," there is an emphasis on the need for close contact between two men in order to achieve completeness as a human being and as a man.  Homoeroticism, unrivaled by the passions of the two couples, and derived from heterosexual pleasure, pervades the relationship of Gerald and Birkin, as each strives to establish themselves in the lives of their respective women.  Physical and emotional needs are met through the intimate contact which Lawrence disguises within the framework of a wrestling match.  Perhaps Birkin himself best describes his willingness, his need, to pursue this intimacy with another man: "We are mentally, spiritually intimate, therefore we should be more or less physically intimate too-it is more whole" (Women 272).
 

 

Works Cited
Boulton, James T., ed. The Selected Letters of D. H. Lawrence. Cambridge: 
       Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Freud, Sigmund. A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis. Garden City, New 
        York: Garden City Publishing Company, 1943.

Lawrence, D. H. Fantasia of the Unconscious. New York: The Viking Press, 1960.

Lawrence, D. H. Women in Love. New York: Penguim Books, 1987.