I. Introduction


Upon my first reading of D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow, I was instantly drawn to the issues surrounding selfhood and identity. This is a perhaps a common theme in twentieth century fiction because the rapidly changing world upset the status quo, causing people to experience instability and to question their sense of themselves. In The Rainbow, this uncertainty is deeply felt by three generations of Brangwens, the central family in the novel. They are not sure who they are or where they stand in life; they feel fragile and unreal, and thus the Brangwens—Tom, Will, Anna, and Ursula—all seek an Other who can provide them with the sense of security and reality that they lack. However, the Brangwens have difficulty forming lasting, healthy relationships because they seek to absorb or be absorbed into these other people’s identities. For the Brangwens, their sense of “unreality” can only be quelled by forcibly appropriating another person’s identity. The Brangwens do not feel as though they are whole or complete; they feel fragmented. But why do the Brangwens feel this way? Why do their relationships inevitably turn caustic and destructive? Why can’t they find completion outside of merging with other people? Why is it such a struggle for them to see others as separate human beings with their own lives and emotions?

Critics have viewed the subject of identity in The Rainbow through several different lenses. Evelyn J. Hinz, for example, in her article “‘The Rainbow’: Ursula’s ‘Liberation,’” looks at the struggle of the character Ursula Brangwen in a metaphysical, spiritual light.  She claims that Ursula’s journey to discover herself is also a journey to understanding her spiritual beliefs.  Ursula must reconcile the two worlds that she holds dear, the weekday world and the Sunday world. To do this, Ursula must accept a “schizophrenic” view of the world (Hinz 28) that accommodates both the spiritual and the physical. Through her relationship with her teacher and lover Winifred, Ursula gains the idea that religion is manufactured through man’s own self-importance and fear. She comes to understand that religion is “an externalization of [man’s] desire for power and self-preservation” that Hinz argues is a product of Ursula’s “limited religions” (36). Instead, Ursula replaces Christianity with a religion of her own, “based on the principle of separateness” in which Ursula is a “god unto herself” (37). Through the rest of the novel, Ursula slowly comes to realize that she is a mere individual in a universe comprised of other individuals. Ursula cannot separate herself from the cosmos, and she learns to accept “the joyousness of dependence” (Hinz 42).

David Kleinbard, in “D.H. Lawrence and Ontological Insecurity,” maintains that Will Brangwen’s identity issues are caused by a condition he terms “ontological insecurity,” in which a person “has the feeling that he is unreal and the related fantasy that he is almost entirely dependent upon other people for his reality as well as his personal identity” (155). According to Kleinbard, “in Will’s mind . . . the belief that another person supplies him with existence is complemented by the fear that another person will deprive him of his existence and separate identity” (155). This deep-seated fear creates a rift between Will and Anna, Will’s wife. Because Will believes that Anna is the only thing standing between his existence and “the flood” of unreality, he clings to her much too tightly. When Anna tries to break from Will’s clasp and rejoin the real world, Will lashes out in hurtful and destructive ways. Despite Kleinbard’s interesting insights into Will’s psyche, he chiefly ignores Anna and their daughter, Ursula, in his analysis. Both Anna and Ursula have their own identity issues regarding feelings of unreality that, while similar to Will’s, are not purely issues of ontological insecurity.

In The Moon’s Dominion: Narrative Dichotomy and Female Dominance in Lawrence’s Earlier Novels, Gavriel Ben-Ephraim argues that it is the problematic interactions between the characters that most affect their inability to form cohesive selves. There is an imbalance between the masculine and the feminine in the relationships between the characters. The men, Ben-Ephraim argues, come to the women “in an indirect search for strength of self, hoping to be saved from a threatening disintegration. The women also suffer from this inequality because their force isolates them as it destroys, or nearly destroys, the men” (Ben-Ephraim 132). Ben-Ephraim highlights how moonlight imagery in the novel precedes acts of feminine control and destruction against their male counterparts. Ben-Ephraim associates water imagery with the male fear of disintegration, especially in terms of Tom’s death and Will’s fear of “the flood.”

In her book D.H. Lawrence and the Art of the Self, Marguerite Beade Howe uses ego psychology to argue that each of the three generations of Brangwens represents a different stage of ego development. Tom Brangwen’s relationship with his wife, Lydia, is reminiscent of an infant/mother relationship. In the second generation, Will and Anna Brangwen represent the next stage of child/mother, and their daughter, Ursula, is representative of the adolescent striking out on her own. Each generation, Howe argues, progresses to a more fully realized state of individuality or selfhood. Ursula’s ability to break away from Skrebensky rather than allow herself to make the same mistakes as her parents and grandparents “signifies the individual emancipating himself from his parents, his past, his society” (Howe 50). Unlike her parents, Ursula overcomes the need to merge with another person, and instead “[achieves] integrity” (Howe 50).

Lastly, Barbara Schapiro’s D.H. Lawrence and the Paradoxes of Psychic Life explores the relationships between the characters using the concept of intersubjectivity. She focuses on how Lawrence’s characters struggle to come to view others as individual subjects or separate selves. The difficulty the Brangwens all experience in achieving intersubjectivity is rooted in problems of narcissism. Tom, for instance, uses Lydia’s “otherness” as a foreigner to secure his own sense of reality and give himself identity. He has difficulty experiencing Lydia as her own separate person with her own emotions. Lydia’s “otherness” makes her distinct whereas Tom feels that he is merely a faceless figure in the ether.

In the next generation, as Schapiro explains, Will bombards Anna with his own will, and she “feels her own subjectivity negated and denied” (87). Because of this, “the breakdown of mutual recognition [between Anna and Will] . . .  takes the form of mutual aggression” (88). Both Anna and Will become absorbed in “omnipotent fantasies of devouring and being devoured” (88). Later their daughter, Ursula, struggles to discover “her own reality or sense of authentic being [which is] inextricably bound up with her struggle to discover the reality of the other” (89). Through her failed relationships with others, Ursula comes to realize that “if the other is only an extension or projection of herself—created out of her own desire—she will be trapped in her own inner world and its nightmare fantasies” (94). It is only through discovering her own limits, that “the self is not everything” (94), that Ursula can overcome her narcissistic tendencies.

I am most interested in exploring the condition of pathological narcissism in The Rainbow that Schapiro alludes to but does not examine in detail. The identity issues in the novel that initially so interested me can be understood as symptomatic of what clinical psychologists term Narcissistic Personality Disorder. In modern theories of narcissism, it is believed that narcissists are not merely “full of themselves” but rather experience deep feelings of emptiness or void. As children, these people either experienced “overloving” parents that smothered them with attention, controlling their every move, or were “underloved,” emotionally neglected by their parents. Both roots lead to the child’s inability to emerge beyond the “primary narcissism” of childhood. As adults, narcissists suffer on a deeply personal level. They often have difficulty forming healthy relationships with others, yet still seek them out, often looking for partners who possess traits that they desire for themselves.

This paper is not meant to be simply a diagnosis of fictional characters; rather, I am interested in using the lens of contemporary narcissism theory to explore how this disorder can illuminate our readings of the novel’s characters and their relationships. I will be primarily using Heinz Kohut’s “self psychology” theory of narcissism, specifically his views of narcissistic transference, as well as Otto Kernberg’s description of narcissistic symptoms. Their views can help us see the patterns Lawrence’s characters exhibit in a more coherent light.

Although a practitioner of psychoanalysis, Kohut’s views of narcissism stray from those of Freud. Kohut does not view narcissism as driven by Oedipal drives but instead by a disruption or corruption of pre-Oedipal object love. Margaret Black and Stephen Mitchell, in their book Freud and Beyond, offer the clearest, most succinct summaries of Kohut’s views. As they state, essentially “something went awry in the basic way these patients . . . experienced themselves as selves” (Freud and Beyond 158). The problems of the narcissist, in other words, are not due to unresolved libidinal energies, as Freud suggests, but rather to underlying issues regarding the structure and sense of self. Narcissism to Kohut is a condition in which the patient experiences “painful feelings of personal alienation . . .  terrifyingly separated from a sense of his humanness . . . moving through a life without meaning” (149).

Crucial to Kohut’s theory of narcissism is his concept of selfobjects, which he defines as an object (or other) experienced as part of the self or used in the service of the self. The selfobject serves both idealizing and mirroring functions for the self. In healthy narcissism, a selfobject acts as a sort of role model, as a source of ideals, and gives meaning, structure, and value to the growing personality. In pathological narcissism, there is a failure of these selfobject functions; the self feels deficient and fragmentary, fixated on idealized and mirroring others.

When a psychoanalyst treats narcissistic patients, a type of transference, which Kohut calls selfobject transference, occurs. Transference, according to Freud, is when the patient “experiences intense, conflictual emotions from childhood toward the person of the analyst” (Freud and Beyond 152). These intense emotions are often in relation to the patient’s first love objects, usually the parents. Selfobject transference is similar to Freud’s concept of transference in that emotions towards early selfobjects are transferred onto the analyst. There are three types of selfobject transference in Kohut’s model of narcissism: mirroring transference, idealizing transference, and twinship or alter ego transference. Each refers to the way in which the patient emotionally connects to the analyst and reflects deficiencies in the patient’s original selfobject relations. These transference patterns Kohut describes can help us understand the ways in which Lawrence’s characters relate to one another.

Mirroring transference, as Mitchell and Black explain, occurs when the patient “[establishes] a powerful attachment to the analyst based on a need for the analyst to grasp and reflect back their experience of themselves, their excitements, their perceptions, as well as their disappointments” (Freud and Beyond 160). Through the use of the analyst as a “nurturing” figure, the patient begins “to feel more seen, more real, and more internally substantial” (161). Idealizing transference develops when the patient sees the analyst as “perfect and wonderful and feels himself to be increasingly strong and important by virtue of his connection to this powerful and important other” (161). Alter ego (or twinship) transference occurs when a patient “yearns to feel an essential likeness with the analyst” in order to strengthen an ideal of him or herself (161). Kohut argues that analysts should use these transferences to help narcissistic patients overcome deficits in their original selfobject relations and develop healthy selves by providing support while slowly administering tolerable doses of disappointment.

Though Otto Kernberg differs from Kohut in his views on narcissism, as he retains Freud’s drive theory, his extensive descriptions of the narcissistic personality disorder can help to support my assessment of the three generations of Brangwens in The Rainbow. For example, Kernberg claims that narcissists suffer from an inability to experience other people as independent selves. This is a key issue with the Brangwen characters.  Narcissists—and the Brangwens—see other people as “lifeless, shadowy people” (Kernberg 233). This description matches both Anna and Ursula Brangwen’s views of others.  Kernberg says the narcissist sees other people as containing “potential food inside” and is “hungry, enraged, [and has an] empty self” (233). This accurately describes Will Brangwen.  Likewise, Kernberg asserts that the narcissist’s “greatest fear . . . is to be dependent on anybody else, because to depend means to hate, envy, and expose themselves to the danger of being exploited, mistreated, and frustrated” (235). This is characteristic of Lawrence’s depiction of Will. Finally, Kernberg states that narcissistic persons are incapable of simultaneously loving and hating and instead seesaw between the polar extremes in their relations with others. This is a pattern found in all three generations of Brangwens in the novel, particularly in the characterization of Will.


The Brangwen family’s feelings of unreality begin with Tom. The first of his family to be formally educated, Tom is pressured by his mother to rise above his lot in life. However, Tom does not connect with his education as is expected of him: “He could not learn deliberately . . .  So he had a low opinion of himself.  He knew his own limitations” (Lawrence 17). These feelings of inadequacy permeate every aspect of his life. Tom is the first of the Brangwens to feel “fragmentary, something incomplete and subject” (40). Tom does not attempt to combat these feelings but rather tries to numb them with alcohol. When he meets his future wife, Lydia, Tom believes that “. . .  with her he would be real . . .  she would bring him completeness and perfection” (40). Tom has a deep need to have Lydia recognize him as a man and as her husband in an unspecified way. He does not know how their relationship should proceed, or what his place in it is: “He did not feel like a master, husband, father of her children” (58). Although Tom and Lydia do eventually come to understand one another, Tom continues to struggle with his feelings of fragmentation and narcissistic inadequacy.

The second generation of Brangwens includes Tom’s stepdaughter, Anna, and his nephew, Will, who marry shortly after meeting. Anna, from an early age, has difficulty viewing other people as individuals; rather she sees them as the “shadow people” that Kernberg describes. She also becomes irrationally annoyed and angry when people do not conform to her expectations: “She half respected these people, and continuous disillusion maddened her. She wanted to respect them . . .  Those she knew seemed always to be limiting her, tying her up in little falsities that irritated her beyond bearing” (94).  While Anna is proud, Will Brangwen suffers from an inner void and is over-dependent to the point where he is unable to function without having another person to attach himself to (initially his mother, then his wife, then his daughter). Will, like Tom, feels fragmented and incomplete, but rather than succumb to this state, as Tom does, Will lashes out in anger at Anna, whom he despises for his dependency on her. Will’s narcissism is the most destructive in the novel.

The two previous generations culminate in Ursula, who shares similar patterns of behavior with her predecessors. Ursula also sees other people as “shadow people,” like her mother, and searches for someone to “complete” her, much like her father and grandfather before her. She spends most of her early adult life searching for an Other who represents what she strives to be, who has qualities that she herself desires. When these attempts fail, Ursula tries to fill those needs with work and education, neither of which she can enjoy or benefit from because they cannot fill her narcissistic deficiencies. When Ursula’s fantasies don’t align with reality, she gives up on them. She suffers from the same narcissistic sense of incompleteness that both Anna and Will experience, but she strives throughout her portion of the novel to overcome this narcissistic state, to see herself as an individual human being without need of  idealized or mirroring others to complete her.

This thesis will focus on the generational aspect of the novel and how the repeated narcissistic issues found in each generation build on and reflect one another. Like Howe, I believe that each generation is progressing towards something more, that each one builds off the last’s triumphs and mistakes, culminating in the character of Ursula. This notion is furthered by Lawrence’s repetition of specific imagery with each generation, specifically the image of the inner self as a “naked kernel.” The characters in each generation struggle to become independent selves—through transference-like relationships with others—but only one, Ursula, actually achieves this in the end. Literary critics have disagreed over whether or not Ursula actually transcends her problematic identity and dependency issues (or, in my terms, narcissism). I will argue that Ursula does succeed in breaking out of her imprisoning narcissism at the end. Although Ursula makes several attempts throughout the novel to either become more independent or revel in her dependence, at the end Ursula sees herself as a “clear, naked kernel thrusting forth the clear powerful shoot . . . the world . . . cast off” (Lawrence 456). This is the same image that Lawrence uses in both Tom’s and Will’s narrative portions of the novel in relation to their own desires to “cast off” the world and their insecurities. However, neither Tom nor Will achieves this level of self-awareness and acceptance.

With both Tom and Ursula, Lawrence shows psychological growth not as a linear, forward-moving course, but as a back and forth movement of breakdown and repair. While the characters change and grow, that growth is not always permanent, as in life. Though the characters do, in some ways, move towards progress, they also often fall back into old narcissistic patterns after an emotional injury or personal failure. Psychological development is not a steady ascent; there are starts and stops, a moving forward and a sliding backward. Lawrence’s characters in The Rainbow dramatically and insightfully portray this phenomenon.



The Buried Seed Copyright © 2013 by Andy. All Rights Reserved.


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