The Dionysian and Apollonian Dichotomies of Relationships
In D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf
D.H Lawrence and Virginia Woolf are as different as night and day, as hot and cold, as thought and emotion as Apollonian and Dionysian or yin and yang, and yet they are bound together by a common goal. Both authors see a chaotic world where human beings are essentially alone. The world is torn apart by the dichotomies created by gender and society. The goal then becomes to somehow find harmony through a combining or merging of the sexes.
D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf begin with completely different approaches, but they come to the basic conclusion by the end of the careers and lives. Lawrence approached the subject of relationships with an immediate and intense style. He comes down on the side of primal emotions, or the Dionysian side of life. Woolf, on the other hand, approaches the same subject with a distance and remote style. She comes down on the side of rational thought, or the Apollonian side. The fact that they are from very different backgrounds and states of mind would only make it logical that they would tackle relationships in different ways.
Lawrence came from the wild English rural mining village, while Woolf came from a very civilized English city. The common ground that they share comes from the universality of the issue. In exploring the issues of self-hood and how that relates to the relationship between men and women. They have both grow to embrace the other sex rather it be through an intimate relationship or rather it be through accepting the “other” in oneself.
Lawrence begins his journey by exploring relationships, and looking at the family dynamic in Sons and Lovers. This novel, which is one of Lawrence’s first, is primarily concerned with the life of Paul and how his parent’s relationship influenced him. In the tradition of The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the story is focused on the growth and development of the main character. Lawrence is just becoming aware of the overall pictures, of the looming question of how to find harmony in a chaotic world. In Sons and Lovers Lawrence’s struggle with the paradoxes of existence begins. There is a sense that harmony is possible, but is elusive, is embodies most elegantly in the scent where Paul is picking cherries with his friends. Lawrence writes, “The world, till now dusk and gray, reflected the gold glow astonished. Everywhere the trees, and the grass, and the far off water, seemed roused from the twilight, and shining. (SL 329). The moment of ecstasy passes through, and the character Paul is left to deal with his first relationship. Connection with the opposite sex, as it turns out, is incredibly more difficult than communing with nature. By the end of the novel though, Lawrence is beginning to see that is the most fulfilling of the two ways to find harmony.
Woolf does not begin with parents or passion; she does not even assume that reality is a solid or stable Lawrence does. Instead, she begins her journey in Jacob’s Room by showing how subjective relationships are. This experimental novel inspects the isolation of the human condition with its stream of consciousness style and intentional fragmentation. Michael Rosenthal observes that Jacob’s Room is a place where people are “cut off from one another…” (Rosenthal 79). At the beginning of her career, Woolf expresses her belief that no one can ever hope to know anyone else by only letting the readers know Jacob through the other narrators’ description of him, and through their memories, which are, at best, incomplete and biased by their narrow perceptions. Even the narrator, at one point, says, “Whether we know what was in his mind was another questions.” (Jacob 94). There isn’t any real sense of characters relating or of sharing intimacy. Woolf is completely removed from the world and other people at this stage in her writing, which is a far cry from Lawrence, who was completely submerged in the world of passion. It seems impossible that these vastly contradicting beginnings could produce the same result, and yet they do.
In The Rainbow, Lawrence continues his investigation into the world of relationships, but he focuses more on what is going on between men and women than what is going on between the parents and children. Lawrence gives an exposition of each of the generations, but he is more concerned with how each couple relates to each other. The couples then serve as role models for each of the following generations. The conflict develops with the changes in society and within gender roles instead of developing with a specific family member. Lawrence’s ideal relationship is clearly voiced in The Rainbow for the first time. He speaks through the character Will during a wedding toast. “If we got to be angels, and if there is no such things as man nor woman among them, then it seems to me as if one married couple makes one angel.” (Rainbow 29). It is a combination of two halves, the man and the woman, that creates the divine whole. More specifically, it is the marriage between them that produced the desired balance between the Dionysian and Apollonian worlds of male and female.
In this novel of marriage we see how in the changing times that the old ways in which men and women related to each other are no longer working. The couple Will and Anna, who live at the end of an era find more happiness then their children. They connect through nature and the rhythms of life, unlike the following generations, which live in an industrialized world. Lawrence describes this beautifully in the scene where Will and Ana are cutting wheat in the field together. “Into the rhythms of his work their came and pulse and a purpose and a steadied purpose…Ever with increasing closeness he lifted sheaves and swung to the centre with them, ever he did is share, and drew toward her, over taking her. (Rainbow 115). Ana was perhaps more content with her simple life than her daughter Ursula is with her more complex life. Ursula is confronted with the changing roles of the sexes in modern society. She has choices that her mother and grandmother never dreamed of. She can carve out an identity for herself in the world instead of defining herself only through her husband and children. During this time of transition, the men, like Skrebensky, are frightened and confused. In the end of the novel Lawrence shows that women, like Ursula, have become stronger than their male counterparts.
Though Mrs. Dalloway and The Rainbow are a world away from each other, they do share a common thread. Lawrence and Woolf both wander into the territory of what it is like to connect with someone of the same sex. For Lawrence this experience seems like a necessary diversion from the traditional paths. As Ralph points out, “Ursula resolves the sexual patterns place upon the previous generations by engaging in a lesbian affair; she plays the part of the male and the female in the novel, eliminating gender differences. (Ralph 8). For Woolf, the same-sex experience comes less as a choice and experience, and more as a moment of true intimacy. The kiss that Sally gives Clarissa in Mrs. Dalloway is more about celebrating the connection that they feel at that moment in time than searching for an identity. Clarissa is not defined by the moment, but she does get a glimpse of what is possible. Mrs. Dalloway is a novel filled with possibilities.
Woolf shifts her view slightly from the almost existential emptiness of Jacob’s Room to show that a connection with other is possible, even if it is a rather brief and unstable connection. Though still distanced from the intense emotional undercurrents of the events, we begin to get more of a sense of her characters and how they relate to each other. The readers actually get to know the main character throughout the course of the novel. Clarissa, as Naremore observes, “like so many of Virginia Woolf’s characters, is beset by the problem of aloneness and separateness in life.” (Naremore 102). Clarissa is a married woman, but it is a marriage for companionship and not one of passion or love. She and her husband appear to be more roommates than lovers. Woolf notes at one point, “there is a dignity in people; a solitude; even between a husband and wife a gulf; and ones respects that thought Clarissa.” (Dalloway 120). Mostly the parties that Clarissa throws are to keep her afloat in the sea of loneliness. Through her parties, she feels as if she can create a safe place to be with others. She can bring people together and illuminate their lives, if only for a brief time.
Despite the fact that Woolf in still awkwardly on the outside world, while Lawrence is still in the thick of the scrimmage of everything, the two are starting to take up some of the same issues. The primary conflict in Women in Love, and an undercurrent in Mrs. Dalloway, is the struggle between wanting to be alone in the world and wanting a sense of self and merging with the “other.” In Women in Love, Lawrence continues to struggle with the opposing forces of male and female as well as the Dionysian ideal of passion and the Apollonian ideal of relationships. He focuses on the polarities that exist between the two sexes with more clarity than his previous novels, and argues that by merging male and female that harmony is indeed possible.
Lawrence just isn’t sure how to accomplish the harmony that he desires. He isn’t sure how to resolve the conflict of what he calls “star polarity.” Men and women seem too different to ever successfully and completely combine. Love, at the previous definitions of love, isn’t quite enough to break down the boundaries between men and women. Lawrence plays with possibility of same-sex relationships as way to reach the intimacy and harmony that he seeks; however, he never fully embraces the idea. It remains an underlying tension, but is never completely explored through out the novel Women in Love.
Instead, Lawrence ends up focusing more on the idea that harmony lies somewhere outside of a physical relationship. While Lawrence sees sex as a path to intimacy, it would require something more lofty and abstract to reach that ultimate balance of male and female, of passion and intellect, of Dionysian and Apollonian. As Birkin tells Ursula, “What I want is a strange connection with you, not meeting and mingling—you are quite right—but an equilibrium, a pure balance of two single beings—as the stars balance out each other. (Women 148). The problem with this cosmic connection is the fact that Birkin and Ursula are bound to the earth. Being part of the earth means that they are both part of the “river of dissolution.” They are caught up in the constant struggle between creation and destruction. This struggle seems only to make the ultimate balance all that more difficult. At the end of the novel, nothing is resolved and the question of how to balance the two opposing forces remains.
Woolf offers a sort of solution in To The Light House. She does not argue with herself on how to resolve the conflict or offer practical relationship advice, but she does offer her opinion or philosophy on the subject of balance. In To The Light House, Woolf and Lawrence have started to converge their ideas. They agree the dilemma of human unhappiness lies somewhere in the combination of the two sexes, and thus in the combination of passion and intellect or Dionysian and Apollonian archetypes.
In To The Light House Woolf briefly dwells upon the marriage dynamic in the first section, but does not dissect it so completely as Lawrence does in Sons and Lovers. Woolf shows the readers how Ramsay runs his family with a harsh tyranny, and yet how he depends on his wife to support his fragile ego. Mrs. Ramsay is the backbone of the family, the one who keeps everyone together with her constant selflessness. In the second part of the novel, the dynamic changes over time. With Mrs. Ramsay’s death, life has lost its meaning and become empty. Wolf then swiftly moves onto the third and final act, where the conflict is reconciled.
In this third part, Lily Briscoe becomes the essential character in the narrative. She is, in many ways, Mrs. Ramsay’s opposite. She is an artist and an unmarried woman who knows, not unlike Woolf herself, only loneliness and isolation. Being unattached has served her well in life, but it has limited her artwork. It is only when she opens herself up to another way of life that she is able to create a satisfying work of art. Mr. Ramsay completes his journey to the lighthouse as Lily Briscoe finishes her painting that the transformation takes place. The painting reveals what must be done. Cam and James must learn to sail to the lighthouse with their father to cease and “resist tyranny to death” and to learn to understand Mr. Ramsay with the same kind of loving compassion demonstrated by Mrs. Ramsey. (Rosenthal 115).
The features of Mrs. Ramsay in the paint are not androgynous by mistake. Her features are androgynous for the same reason that the poet Carmichael’s features are androgynous. The painted and the poet as a mix of male and female are what Woolf considers to be ideal. Both the painting of Ramsay and the poet Carmichael merge aspects of the feminine and aspects of the masculine for a perfect symmetrical and harmonious balance. The lighthouse is both solidly male in its physical structure and decidedly female in its ability to illuminate and guide the way. Woolf sees the merging of these two opposites happening within one’s self instead of through sex as Lawrence does though.
In Lady Chatterley’s Lover we find that Lawrence has come to terms with intimate relationships between men and women, at least as much as he can. He still sees a great deal of pain and unhappiness in relationships, but Connie and Mellors are by far the most successful couple out of all the couples that he presents in his novels. As Mark Spilka points out, “The emphasis on love a mystic meeting ground, as a gateway to the beyond, is now replaced by a sense of communion.” (Spilka). Connie and Mellors accept the differences between the two of them and find happiness, not just in passion, but in tenderness as well. The intimacy becomes not just physical, but emotional as well. Lawrence conveys this best when he says, “We are like a rose. In the pure passion for oneness, in the pure passion for distinctness and separateness, a dual of passion of untenable separation and lovely conjecture of the two in their perfect singleness, transported into one surpassing heaven of a rose bloom. (Phoenix 154).
Orlando takes this idea of merging the masculine and feminine literally. In the novel the main character begins as male and is transformed halfway through. Woolf takes this opportunity to extend her investigation of gender roles to its limit by ignoring traditional boundaries. By using some of the idea in A Room of One’s Own, she illustrates these limitations wonderfully. For example, Woolf uses Orlando to assert her belief that men and women are fundamentally the same. The narrator and fictional biographer of Orlando even says, “The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatsoever to alter their identity.” (Orlando 138). Woolf expresses the frustration she felt as a woman writer at the beginning of the twentieth century. Gender, for Woolf and Lawrence alike, did not necessarily define one’s identity. Woolf felt that, “Different thought the sexes are, they intermix. In every human being vacillation from one sex to another takes place. (Orlando 189). Human beings contain both male and female traits within them. The character of Orlando is the physical embodiment of this idea. Woolf tries to show that the merging of female characteristics and male characteristics can create the ideal person and the ideal harmony between the two conflicting aspects. Male and female, Dionysian and Apollonian can be reconciled after all.
Separation and isolation come from only recognizing half of the whole. Only when both halves of the self, the male and female as well as the passion and intellect, can be embraced that things can be harmonious instead of chaotic. Rather it is through nature and sex or reading and writing, a simple change of perspective is all that is needed. Both Lawrence and Woolf ultimately use their Apollonian gift of word to come to terms with their Dionysian passions. In Lawrence’s and Woolf’s novels and in their explorations of our inner worlds contained within the novels, we find at last a way to change our own perspectives. In following the journeys of these authors and their characters we can discover a bit of ourselves and gain the tools to change our own lives.
Lawrence, D.H. Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Penguin, 1994.
Lawrence, D.H. Phoenix: Posthumous Papers of D.H. Lawrence. London 1936, 1961.
Lawrence, D.H. The Rainbow. Penguin, 1995.
Lawrence, D.H. Women in Love. Penguin, 1995.
Woolf, Virginia. Jacob’s Room. Harcourt, 1981.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. Harcourt, 1981.
Woolf, Virginia. Orlando. Harcourt, 1981.
Woolf, Virginia. To The Light House. Harcourt, 1981.
Naremore, James. The World Without A Self. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1983.
Rosenthal, Michael. Virginia Woolf. Columbia University Press, 1979.
Spilka, Mark. The Love Ethic of D.H. Lawrence.