Anna and Will’s daughter Ursula is affected by her parents’ narcissism from a very young age. Will has perhaps the greatest influence on Ursula since he “took Ursula for his own” (197) above his and Anna’s other children. As Schapiro notes, “The portrayal of Ursula’s relationship with her father is a moving and psychologically astute account of a child’s relationship with a narcissistic parent” (90); it is one that we haven’t quite seen at earlier points in the novel. While I have argued that Tom’s narcissism helped to shape Anna’s own narcissistic tendencies, there is a distinct difference in the ways in which Tom interacts with Anna and how Will interacts with Ursula. As Schapiro argues, “Unlike Tom in relation to Anna . . . Will is unable to respond to Ursula as a suffering subject in her own right; she is to him only a narcissistic projection of his own infantile dependency, of his own intolerable vulnerability and helplessness” (89).
In Ursula, Will sees an opportunity to replace Anna as his primary love object. He believes that he can mould Ursula to suit his adult demands and psychological needs. He wants “the child to become his, to look at him and answer him” (197). But the narrator tells us that Ursula “was awakened too soon. Too soon the call had come to her . . . her sleep-living heart was beaten into wakefulness by the striving of his bigger heart, by his clasping her to his body for love and fulfillment” (205). Ursula is much too young to understand the emotional demands being made of her, much less meet them. Kleinbard notes that “The demands that [Will] makes for confirmation and support from Ursula are the sorts that one would expect a child to make on its parent rather than the other way around” (Kleinbard 160), and because Ursula is a mere child, she is, of course, incapable of fulfilling said demands. Her inability to do so makes Ursula feel a sense of “smallness and inadequacy” (205) brought on when she fails to fulfill some meager command of her father’s. She feels as if “She could not do anything, she was not enough. She could not be important to him” (205). Will, meanwhile, simply becomes angry. His “black” anger from earlier in the novel returns and is turned against his daughter. The narrator describes how he “[smashes] into her sensitive child’s world” (207) and disrupts her moments of separate happiness at every turn. As Ben-Ephraim writes, “Will’s object with his young daughter is to match his will against hers: to dominate the girl as he had been dominated” (154). Will is, in some ways, ultimately successful.
As a result of Will’s complete dominance over her life, the young Ursula has a difficult time dealing with the outside world. Her whole world consists of only her and her father: “The return or the departure of the father was the one event which the child remembered. When he came, something woke up in her, some yearning. She knew when he was out of joint or irritable or tired: then she was uneasy, she could not rest” (203). She begins to see the world as something incidental, something that happens outside of her and thus has no bearing on her as a person. Thus, she is only left with her own small world. In a scene where Ursula makes mistakes while attempting to help Will plant seeds in the garden, Will scolds the child by essentially telling her that her help caused more harm than good. This scolding shatters Ursula’s entire world. It opens her eyes to the fact that she and her father are separate entities, that “He had another world from hers” (206). The devastating news sends Ursula into a panic:
Her soul, her consciousness seemed to die away. She became shut off and senseless, a little fixed creature whose soul had gone hard . . . The sense of her own unreality hardened her like a frost. She no longer cared . . . She cut off her childish soul from memory, so that the pain, and the insult should not be real . . . There was now nothing in the world but her own self . . . she came to believe in the outward malevolence that was against her . . . even her adored father was part of this malevolence . . . she learned to harden her soul in resistance and denial of all that was outside her, harden herself upon her own being. (207-208)
The harshness of her father’s words causes Ursula to “harden” herself and become “cut off.” This same phrasing is used earlier by Will in relation to Anna’s rejection of him during her pregnancy. Thus, one could argue, Will achieves dominance over his daughter and illustrates the cycle of narcissism and abuse that runs through the generations of the Brangwen family in this novel. However, Will’s dominance is fleeting. The “hardening” of Ursula’s soul leads her to ultimately reject her father’s later attempts to “claim her” again. She offers only haughty smiles in response to his insults and jeers. Still “the child develops profound feelings of inadequacy” (Schapiro 90) due to Will’s treatment of her. These feelings of inadequacy result in Ursula’s difficulties in connecting with others. She begins to regard other people as intentionally trying to hurt or insult her, and thus she has a hard time making friends with the other children in the village.
The narrator informs the reader that “She seemed to go with all her soul in her hands, yearning, to the other person . . . deep at the bottom of her was a childish antagonism of mistrust. She thought she loved everybody and believed in everybody. But because she could not love herself nor believe in herself, she mistrusted everybody” (268). Throughout her childhood, Ursula feels “soulless, uncreated, [and] unformed” (271). Due to these feeling of inadequacy, she gravitates towards people whom she perceives as having a defined, stable sense of self (as opposed to her own amorphous one). First is Anton Skrebensky, who, in Ursula’s eyes “seemed perfectly, even fatally established . . . did not ask to be rendered before he could exist, before he could have [a] relationship with another person” (271). She also believes that “He was in possession of himself, of that, and no more. Other people could not really give him anything nor take anything from him. His soul stood alone” (271).
With Skrebensky, Ursula sees an opportunity to reclaim reality. If Skrebensky can stand proud, separate, and complete in the world, then so can Ursula. Just as Tom is drawn to Lydia for her “foreigness,” Ursula is drawn to Skrebensky’s perceived “individuality” and separateness. She wants to use Skrebensky’s “individuality” to prop up her own fledgling self. She desires, as Schapiro says, “an ‘other’ against whom she can throw herself with wild, indeed, violent, physical and emotional abandon” (93). Ursula’s perception of his confidence boosts her own: “She was thrilled with a new life. For the first time, she was in love with a vision of herself: she saw it as it were a fine little reflection of herself in his eyes. And she must act up to this: she must be beautiful” (272). Ursula puts a great significance on Skrebensky’s opinion of her because she sees him as a pillar of personal strength, a pattern that she repeats with her teacher and lover, Winifred Inger. She wants to please him in order to maintain their relationship. With Skrebensky Ursula feels not only beautiful, but important. His very presence makes her feel “rich and augmented by it, as if she were the positive attraction and he the flow towards her” (280). Skrebensky, however, is not as separate and individual as Ursula believes him to be; her attempts to “assert her indominable, gorgeous female self” (Lawrence 282) only serve to annihilate Skrebensky: “She took him in the kiss, hard her kiss seized upon him, hard and fierce and burning corrosive as the moonlight. She seemed to be destroying him. He was reeling, summoning all his strength to keep his kiss upon her” (299).
This act of “annihilation” leaves Ursula “bruised” as if “she had hurt herself . . . in annihilating him” (300). Shortly thereafter, Skrebensky is called away by the army to a far off post and must part from Ursula. In his absence “she felt as if all, outside there in the world, were a hurt . . . against her. And something in her soul remained cold, apathetic, unchanging” (309). This failed relationship of supposed equals leads to Ursula’s next infatuation, her school teacher, Miss Inger.
As with Skrebensky, Ursula’s attraction to Winifred Inger comes from her perception that Winifred is a stable individual with her own complete sense of self. Following the loss of Skrebensky, Ursula loses her own sense of completeness and reality:
Her life at this time was unformed, palpitating, essentially shrinking from all touch. She gave something to other people, but she was never herself, since she had no self . . . But she shrank violently from people, ashamed she was not as they were, fixed, empathetic, but a wavering, undefined sensibility only. (311)
Ursula feels as though her offerings to others are spurned, that they take from her without giving anything in return. She believes in the “malevolent” outside, full of people who are somehow better adjusted than she. This trend continues when she meets Winifred.
[Winifred] was a rather beautiful woman of twenty-eight, a fearless-seeming, clean type of modern girl whose very independence betrays her to sorrow. She was clever, and expert in what she did, accurate, quick, commanding . . . She carried her head high . . . There was a look of nobility in the way she twisted her smooth brown hair . . . what Ursula adored so much was [Winifred’s] fine, upright, athletic bearing . . . She was proud and free as a man, yet exquisite as a woman. (312)
Ursula is attracted to Winifred because she appears to possess the individuality that Ursula craves. As Ben-Ephraim observes, “the girl attempts to appropriate an identity through an admired model of the same sex” (162). Winifred also desires Ursula and they enter into a sexual and romantic relationship: “Their lives suddenly seemed to fuse into one, inseparable” (Lawrence 316).
While she is involved with Winifred, Ursula begins to adopt her lover’s ideas and beliefs, especially those of religion which in fact run counter to what Ursula believed in previously. Ursula wants to please Winifred and to emulate her as closely as possible. She exhibits the qualities of twinship (or alter-ego) transference as described by Kohut: “the patient assumes that the analyst is either like him or similar to him, or that the analyst’s psychological makeup is like, or is similar to, that of the patient” (115). Ursula, in emulating Winifred, is creating these “similarities” between them. She does not even seem to be aware that she is appropriating Winifred’s perspectives in this manner.
This perfectly describes Ursula’s attachment to Winifred. When Ursula first meets Winifred, Ursula is struggling to gain a firm sense of self. Since she believes Winifred to be confident in herself, graceful, and exhibiting various other traits that Ursula covets, being with Winifred gives Ursula a way to assume those traits herself. As Schapiro notes, “The homosexual notes in Lawrence’s fiction . . . spring from . . . the desire to merge with an other who is an idealized version of the self” (96). However, eventually Ursula begins to reject this merging. With horror, she realizes that “she was always herself. Never could she escape that: she could not put off being herself” (Lawrence 319). As in her relationship with Skrebensky, Ursula craves individuality while also needing an Other to merge with to bolster her weak and unsure sense of self:
She still adhered herself to Winifred Inger. But a sort of nausea was coming over her. She loved her mistress. But a heavy, clogged sense of deadness began to gather upon her, from the other woman’s contact. And sometimes she thought Winifred was ugly, clayey . . . this heavy cleaving of moist clay, that cleaves because it has no life of its own. 319
As with Ursula’s relationship with Skrebensky, the object of her love and desire for merger is a person who beneath the strong façade, also has a weak sense of self. Winifred uses Ursula in a similar but less destructive way than her father uses her as a child. Winifred appears to desire Ursula because of the girl’s weak sense of self; it makes her easier for Winifred to mold to her own ways of thinking: “She wanted to bring Ursula to her own position of thought” (317). Eventually, Ursula arranges for Winifred to marry her uncle.
With Winifred at last cast off, Ursula is left with the reality that she is still as empty and unformed as before: “What was her life—a solid, formless, disintegrated nothing: Ursula Brangwen, a person without worth or importance . . . [she was] worthless and unvalued, neither wanted nor needed by anybody, and conscious of her own dead value” (332). Searching for meaning, Ursula writes to her old headmistress, who suggests that Ursula become a teacher and join the outside world. Ursula latches onto this idea:
She dreamed how she would make the little, ugly children love her. She would be so personal . . . She would make everything personal and vivid, she would give, give, give all her great stories of wealth to her children, she would make them so happy, and they would prefer her to any teacher on the face of the earth. (341)
Ursula sees teaching as not only a chance to give her life meaning, but also to give herself importance. She envisions herself as the “gleaming sun of the school” (341) who will bring love to the “little ugly children.” She dreams of being the greatest teacher who has ever lived. This is a prime example of Ursula’s grandiosity, a grandiosity that, as both Kohut and Kernberg argue, defends against the underlying sense of worthlessness and nothingness.
Ursula’s grandiose dreams, unsurprisingly, do not materialize. The narration foreshadows this disillusionment in the train scene that precedes Ursula’s arrival at the school. In this episode, Ursula boards a train with other working people whom she sees as “unliving, spectral people” (342). At first, Ursula refuses to see herself as one of them, holding onto the notion that “her ticket surely was different from the rest” (343). Slowly but surely, however, the thought occurs to her that “she was also going to work. Her ticket was the same” (343). While Ursula tries to blend in with the other working people, she feels a deep sense of fear, “an unknown, terrible grip upon her” (343). This uneasiness around “shadow people” is exhibited by other Brangwens and has been previously discussed in relation to the narcissistic condition. The same inability to view others as real people follows her to school, where the children become “a squadron . . . a collective inhuman thing” (350).
At the school, Ursula finds the education system to be a well-oiled and precise machine, a machine that Ursula despises and is reluctant to become a part of. The children and the staff, sensing her weakness, turn on her, forcing her to act the role of the harsh teacher as is expected of her. As the children continue to ignore and disregard her authority, Ursula realizes that her brand of personal teaching is not suited for this system: “She must . . . put away her personal self, become an instrument . . . working upon a certain material” (356). Ursula must become simply “Standard Five Teacher” and put aside her own self: “Over her flayed, exposed soul of a young girl who had gone open and warm to give herself to the children, there set a hard, insentient thing, that worked mechanically according to a system imposed” (367). However, this approach is futile; Ursula still feels the slights of her students and colleagues.
Just as causing Skrebensky pain “bruises” Ursula, so does physically disciplining her students take its toll. Schapiro explains that the experience “[forces Ursula] to retreat back into the hard-shell defense she had developed as a child in relation to her father, a mode of being in which she denied her emotions” (97). As soon as her assignment is over, Ursula gladly leaves the classroom as a teacher and returns to school as a student, pursuing a college degree in teaching. Ursula makes the same mistake with college as she made before starting teaching: she idealizes it. Ursula imagines the college to be a “temple” (399) where “all the students . . . have a high, pure spirit, she wanted them to say only the real, genuine things” (399). Eventually the veneer fades and Ursula sees the “ugliness under everything” (403). Through these two episodes Ursula discovers that, as Hinz notes, “the somewhere-something she desires is more than a place or object” (38).
Whereas Hinz argues that this “somewhere-something” that Ursula desires is a oneness with the infinite, I believe that what Ursula desires is to finally feel at home and comfortable in her own skin. Again and again, Ursula laments either her inability to feel like her own person or to escape herself. To me, this indicates that Ursula, like many people, just wants to feel grounded in her self. She desires a respite from the unreality and isolation of the narcissistic condition.
Disgusted by the school, Ursula’s thoughts return back to Skrebensky, who she believes to be the only source of happiness in her life:
The memory of him was like the thought of the first radiant hours of morning . . . He held the keys of the sunshine . . . He could open to her, the gates of succeeding freedom and delight . . . He would have been the doorway to her, into the boundless sky of happiness and plunging, inexhaustible freedom which was the paradise of her soul. (406)
Ursula believes that if she had stayed with Skrebensky, her life would have turned out better. When they meet again, Ursula thinks that Skrebensky is at last his own man, “balanced and sure” (410), an archetypal “Man” to counter her archetypal woman. Once again, however, Skrebensky fails to live up to that role. Ursula takes on the dominant role in their relationship, taking and taking from Skrebensky, slowly draining him of agency.
While Ursula, as Hinz states, “planned to realize her individual infinitude” (40) through her relationship with Skrebensky, “what she discovers . . . is that as an individual she is limited to her individuality” (40). This leads to Ursula’s desire to “go.” She and Skrebenksy part, but not before one last aggressive sexual encounter:
. . . she seized hold of his arm, held him fast, as if captive . . . she clinched hold of him, hard, as if suddenly she had the strength of destruction, she fastened her arms round him and tightened him in her grip, whilst her mouth sought his in a hard, rending, ever-increasing kiss, till his body was powerless in her grip, his heart melted in fear from the fierce, beaked, harpy’s kiss . . . till she had the heart of him. (444)
The language of the scene indicates Ursula’s domination and utter annihilation of Skrebensky. In this scene, Ursula overwhelms and destroys him, delighting in the havoc she wreaks. The episode ends with both parties feeling ashamed, and it ultimately leads to the disintegration of their relationship.
Shortly after Ursula and Skrebensky part, Ursula becomes aware that she is with child. At first the thought frightens her, but then she decides to embrace it: “Only the living from day to day mattered, the beloved existence in the beyond, rich, peaceful, complete, with no beyond, no further trouble, no further complication . . . Who was she to be wanting some fantastic fulfillment in her life?” (448-449). Ursula plans to reunite with Skrebensky and marry him, throwing away her desire for something beyond that partnership. She writes him a letter, explaining her situation and her intent. However, the wait becomes too much for her and she becomes restless. One evening, she goes out for a walk in the rain and encounters a herd of horses.
At first, Ursula tries to avoid the horses: “She did not want to lift her face to them. She did not want to know that they were there” (451). The horses, however, offer her no such courtesy and charge at her: “the horses had burst before her . . . she was aware of their red nostrils flaming with long endurance, and of their haunches, so rounded, so massive, pressing, pressing, pressing to burst the grip of their breasts, pressing forever till they went mad, running against the walls of time, and never bursting free” (452). She tries to run from them but “the horses thundered upon her . . . enclosing her . . . They were up against her” (453). The vigorous language Lawrence employs here is indicative of the intimidating and frightening power that the horses possess. Ursula fears that she will be overwhelmed and destroyed by them: “Her heart was gone, she had no more heart . . . her limbs were dissolved, she was dissolved . . . like water. All the hardness and looming power was in the massive body of the horse-group” (453). Ursula’s confrontation with the horses, however, does not leave her overwhelmed and destroyed; instead it forces her to acknowledge her own personal strength: “She knew she was strong” (453).
According to different critics, these horses symbolize different things. For Ben-Ephraim, the horses represent nature, disintegration, and the male principle. He postulates that the episode is meant to mirror earlier scenes where Ursula attempts to become one with nature (more specifically, with the moon) but instead uses that natural force as an amplifier for her own being. Furthermore, as a male force, the horse herd also presents a male presence that Ursula cannot overwhelm and destroy. In this instance, Ben-Ephraim claims that the “capacity to confront the dark night and primitive maleness of the horses grants Ursula her long-awaited transfiguration” (171). In Ben-Ephraim’s reasoning, Ursula’s final confrontation with these forces that she has been pitted against throughout her portion of the novel, ultimately assures her of her own strength, giving her the courage finally to stand on her own two feet.
Hinz argues that the episode with the horses serves to teach Ursula about the power within herself: “First [Ursula] feels the weight of these black forces as something not only outside of her, but also as something within. Finally, she realizes the power of the horses, she fears them, and is aware of her fear. And from her fear of their power comes her own power to save herself from them” (Hinz 41). For Hinz, Ursula is able to overcome the horses and their power by accepting her own power, by recognizing herself in nature and the universe. Throughout her article, Hinz argues that Ursula’s journey is one based on discovering one’s place within infinity.
Schapiro argues that the horses are representative of a contradictory state: “Suppression and release, tight control and chaotic discharge, are suggested at once in the description of the horse herd” (98-99). Here, the horses are symbolic of Ursula’s own destructive sexuality. Facing her destructiveness head-on forces Ursula back into herself, where she is forced to reflect on her relationship with Skrebensky and at last recognize her own limits.
My reading of the scene with the horses is a mix between that of Ben-Ephraim’s interpretation and Schapiro’s. While I agree with Ben-Ephraim’s reading of the horses as a symbol of male sexual power, I disagree with his interpretation of them as also being symbolic of disintegration and natural forces. I read the horses as a male force that Ursula cannot overwhelm or destroy, one that she can push back against without fear of annihilating it. However, it is also a force that Ursula survives and thus it cannot annihilate her. I agree with Hinz that Ursula’s ability to survive the horses’ power proves to Ursula her own personal strength (as well as how it is possible for her to assert herself against the male without destroying him in the process).
Following the horse scene, Ursula falls into a fever dream in which she confronts her relationship with Skrebensky: “Why must she be bound . . . to Skrebensky and Skrebensky’s world: it became in her feverish brain a compression which enclosed her . . . The compression was Anton and Anton’s world . . . the Anton she did not possess, that which was owned by some other influence” (Lawrence 456). While in this dream, Ursula denounces her worldly connections that bind her to another: her relationship to her parents, Skrebensky, her home, her unborn child. As these connections break and fade away, she becomes aware of a change in herself: “She was the naked, clear kernel thrusting forth the clear, powerful shoot, and the world was . . . discarded . . . all cast off . . . whilst the kernel was free and naked and striving to take new root . . . And the only reality: the rest was cast off into oblivion” (456).
This change is the realization of the potential that Tom Brangwen first saw in himself at the beginning of the novel. It is the germination of the same “seed” of self, the solidification of self that each generation of Brangwen has sought, finally realized in Ursula. A new woman thinks of Skrebensky and the folly of having tried to change him. She realizes that “she had created him for a time being. But in the end he had failed and broken down . . . It was not for her to create, but to recognise a man created by God” (457). When she looks out her window at the people below, Ursula no longer sees “shadow people” but instead “colliers, women, children, walking each in the husk of an old fruition, but visible through the husk . . . [in] a sort of suspense, a waiting in pain for the new liberation” (458). Both of these realizations indicate that Ursula, at least for the moment, is transcending her narcissism. In recognizing that she cannot make a man out of her own fantasies and desires, she is accepting that others must be allowed to be themselves, apart from herself. By recognizing the people outside her window as individuals with their own troubles and desires, Ursula escapes her earlier narcissistic sense of the outside world as either shadowy and unreal or as a malevolent force bent on destroying her.
In his article “Utopian Mentality in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871/2) and in D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow (1915),” Hans Ulrich Seeber argues that the novel’s final scene is Lawrence’s depiction of a utopia brought about by the individual’s rejection of society:
The individual soul must find its fulfillment, its Utopian goal, in the very depths of its own psychic and sensual and sexual experience. Utopia, therefore, undergoes a reductive process. No longer do systems offer recipes for redemption. The pre-ordained harmony between the individual and society or rather the total immersion of human beings in a dominant social pattern is precisely the condition which Lawrence and his female protagonist denounce as “social self.” Only by recovering his “true vital self” can the individual, acting in a sphere of privacy, hope to achieve freedom and fulfillment. (37-38)
While I agree that Ursula’s journey does entail her discovery of her “true vital self,” I disagree with the notion that this discovery can only be made through the rejection of society. Ursula does not reject society in these final pages; rather, she embraces it. Ursula spends much of her section of the novel rejecting society and trying to flee from it. Her vision at the end of the outside world of individuals like herself, each in a “husk” waiting for liberation, represents an alliance with the social world, not a rejection of it.