“‘You can’t have two kinds of love. Why should you!’

‘It seems as if I can’t,’ he said. ‘Yet I wanted it.’” (Lawrence 481)

D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love tells the story of love and tragedy between two women struggling with their own circumstantial love affairs. However, separate from the changing values of modernist heterosexual romance, Lawrence’s classic novel, lauded for its portrayal of modernist attitudes as one of the best works of literature in the 20th century, explores a complicated homosexual love affair between Birkin and Gerald. The two male leads are contrasted against one another and in intimate duality with each other, breaching an ascension beyond the erotic through sexual imagery.

Through Birkin and Gerald’s relationship, Lawrence contemplates the connection and limits between identity and love, centring homoromanticism in the temporal distance of his contemporary time through modernist subversions. Consequently, the novel remains just as uncertain as its primary characters; Gerald and Birkin’s relationship is hard to define through romantic or sexual terms, and perhaps Lawrence intended it that way. As both equals and opposites, Birkin and Gerald are unable to live with one another, and yet fundamentally tied together through the experience of their unique, undefined homoromantic love.

From the onset of the first discussion between Birkin and Gerald there is a sense of uniqueness, some insight into the way the two men connect in conversation with one another. Meeting on the railway station by what seems like complete coincidence, Birkin, a melancholy, reclusive academic is lured into conversation by Gerald, a young industrial heir who will soon turn into a capitalist savant. The two men start their conversation not with small talk or conversations about their individual experiences of love with Ursula and Gudrun, the two female romantic interests of the novel, but rather about the possibility of reform in all of society. Birkin asks of Gerald, “‘What do you live for?’” (Lawrence 56), and Gerald stares at Birkin with “a long, twinkling, almost sardonic look into the eyes of the other man” (Lawrence 57). Immediately, the reader has the sense that the relationship between Birkin and Gerald is both intimately personal and, to a certain extent, filled with tension; Gerald’s gaze is described as both “twinkling” and “sardonic” all in one, and Birkin questions Gerald’s life and his philosophy near-immediately, demanding an answer that would have the industrial magistrate reveal his emotions to his male confidant. They are surprised to find each other in the railway station, but upon meeting, neither is willing to let the other simply go. There is a connection made between them that sparks upon every moment they meet once more, which then demands adequate satisfaction through the fulfilled expression of the love they have for one another.

Birkin refuses to let the issue of Gerald’s life go, questioning him on politics, philosophy, and love, all of the things that he personally considers to be of utmost importance to an individual’s self-care. In this sense, Birkin acts as Gerald’s life guide in a way; someone who consistently talks Gerald down from the extremes of self-loathing and self-despair that he is prone to, mostly due to, as Lawrence was not fond of industrialisation, the loss of his humanity from engaging in the optimization of the machine. Parts of Gerald’s personhood remain constructed in Birkin himself, and it is repeatedly brought to the forefront by Birkin’s relentless questioning and pondering about the human condition. Gerald’s identity is reliant upon Birkin’s curiosity, as Birkin is who brings emotions out of Gerald, who does not fit the orderly, mechanical view Gerald has of the world, in part due to Birkin’s contrarian need to prove himself an isolated, tormented intellectual. Their contrasted personalities serve as a way to remind them individually of their true natures, which fundamentally concern the other man.

This codependency of identity is further explored by Caroyln M. Jones in the article, “Male Friendship and the Construction of Identity in D. H. Lawrence’s Novels”. Jones notes the distinct tension between male friendship and heterosexual marriage existing in Lawrence’s work, which borders delicately on discussing male-male love in comparison to male-female love through the lens of marriage. Considering Lawrence’s contemporary time and his controversial history in fiction, the relationship between Gerald and Birkin is figured by Jones as an almost-tragedy, where Lawrence’s searching for the ideal male-male friendship fails with the event of Gerald’s death, and returns to the importance of male-female marriage as the book ends with a discussion between Birkin and his love interest, Ursula, now married. However, despite the unsettling nature of the novel’s end, where a devastated Birkin, upon having seen Gerald’s body, laments that the homoromantic love he wanted between himself and Gerald is gone forever, the construction of each man’s identity as figured by the other still remains prominent throughout the book’s plot.

For Birkin, Gerald represents a place to sit in his lamentations, a free space to air out his frustration at the world. Gerald is the person to whom Birkin admits his complete loss of faith in humanity, the one who Birkin turns to when Ursula rejects his first proposal, and his death signals the loss of the possibility of complete, full happiness for Birkin. Jones writes, “Birkin turns to Gerald when he is upset with humanity” (Jones 68), an apt summary of the role Gerald plays in constructing Birkin’s self. Gerald serves to secure Birkin’s feelings against the doubt brought upon him by the other characters of the novel, such as Hermione’s extreme violence against him and Ursula’s complete inability to understand him. When he is rejected by Ursula, a distraught Birkin, questioning everything, goes to Gerald; Gerald meets him, they have a wrestling match described in very loose, romantic terms, and Birkin affirms to Gerald: “‘I think also that you are beautiful’” (Lawrence 273). This confirmation of Birkin’s ideas, of his desire to have a fulfilling relationship not only with a woman but with a man as well, is brought on by Gerald’s influence and personhood as perceived and understood by Birkin. After reaffirming Gerald’s physical beauty, Birkin is once again secure in his own self; he has vented his frustrations with England, healed from his humiliation at the hands of Ursula, and is once more able to affirm his own ideas as he begins to question Gerald once more as to the other man’s views on love and women accordingly. For Birkin, Gerald serves as a stable foothold to remind himself of who he is, and therefore secure his being in the ideas that he propagates.

Gerald, however, does not have the stability of self that makes Birkin’s reliance on him so valuable. Jones writes of their relationship: “Birkin’s unresponsiveness throws Gerald into numbness” (Jones 71), suggesting that Birkin fails to fulfil the desire that Gerald has for an intimate love with him due to the differences in their expectations of themselves. Birkin, while clearly requiring Gerald’s relationship to complete his idea of the perfect marriage, that being one of a long-lasting relationship with a woman accompanied by the persistent friendship of a man, still manages to endure without Gerald’s influence in his life; Birkin’s choice to leave the trip that the four of them go on to be with Ursula instead of Gerald makes it vividly clear that Gerald is increasingly not the centrepiece of Birkin’s focus as his relationship with Ursula grows. Opposingly, Birkin becomes ever more valuable to Gerald as the novel moves on, in that the death of multiple family members, the pressures of inheriting a large industrial business, and Gudrun’s rejection of both his feelings and manliness leave Gerald increasingly numb to the pressures of the world around him. Ultimately, Gerald loses himself, and seeks an answer in Birkin, as opposed to Birkin’s needing his relationship with Gerald as a way to cement his already-present identity. Due in large part to the fact that what Birkin and Gerald want out of the respective other differs due to their personal circumstances and life philosophy, the homosexual romance between the two men does not work out, and, tragically, Gerald and his constructed identity must die in order for Birkin to embrace his marriage with Ursula, despite how Birkin insists that Gerald could have been alive if only, as Birkin says, “he should have loved [him]” (Lawrence 480).

The ending to Women in Love is ultimately one that leaves a contemporary reader distinctly frustrated, if not somewhat outraged at the fact that the love that Birkin values, a love which encourages both male-male and male-female relationships, is seemingly impossible. However, as with all great works in modernist literature, Lawrence ends the novel on just enough of an uncertain note that the themes of homoromanticism, questions of identity, and the indiscernibility of love, are explored to their fullest through the visible lack of a full conclusion for any of the questions raised throughout the book. Ultimately, Lawrence invites his reader not only to engage in the relationship between Gerald and Birkin and invest and mourn accordingly, but also to ponder on love and all its forms, and identity and all its doubt. Women in Love is, unmistakably, one of the great modern works precisely for its ability to tell us nothing and everything.

Works Cited

Jones, Carolyn M. “Male Friendship and the Construction of Identity in D. H. Lawrence’s

Novels.” Literature and Theology, vol. 9, no. 1, Oxford University Press, 1995, pp.

66–84, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23926699.

Lawrence, D., 1920. Women in Love. Penguin Books.

Image Credit

Three Concrete Head Busts” Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash

Screenshot from Ken Russell’s film, Women in Love (1969), with Gerald (Oliver Reed) and Birkin (Alan Bates).

White Mountains Under Pale Blue Sky” Photo by Wladislaw Sokolowskij on Unsplash