"The trouble began at evening. Then a yearning for something unknown came over her, a passion for something she knew not what. She would walk the foreshore alone after dusk, expecting, expecting something, as if she had gone to a rendez-vous. The salt, bitter passion of the sea, its indifference to the earth, its swinging, definite motion, its strength, its attack, and its salt burning, seemed to provoke her to a pitch of madness, tantalising her with vast suggestions of fulfillment."--D. H. Lawrence, The Rainbow (1915)
For me, The Rainbow will always be the best Lawrence and it's easy for me to say why. It's because there is in it no character who "speaks" for Lawrence. Sons and Lovers, necessary as it is, is so caught up with the agon of Paul Morel that it wallows in crisis -- an Oedipal one at that -- to an almost unbearable degree. And Women in Love, which begins almost satiric and fast, grows more tiresome the more we have to experience the mind of Birkin. Lawrence, unlike Joyce, never learned how to ironize his alter-ego, was never able to create a full-fledged male character because his own imago was ever too intrinsically with him. But The Rainbow, in giving us Anna Brangwen, and Ursula Brangwen, and even Will Brangwen, gives us characters who best represent Lawrence's ideas without having to give direct expression to them. What's more, the generational movement of the novel gives it a certainty about how persons live in the world it describes that is closer to Nordic sagas than to anything else. And that, to me, is the vindication of what Lawrence wants to do with rural life on the cusp of industrialization: give us the tensions of what happens when humans cease to be animals.
Could be -- in the era before such widespread literacy, before such ubiquitous communication about every trivial matter imaginable -- people had depths in a way they don't so much these days. If so, it's important to read Lawrence: to be immersed in the blood-realities, the meaning of being as a lived reality -- apart from every merely social or occupational reality. In the passage I quoted, Ursula's dissatisfaction isn't simply a dissatisfaction with her social class, or with the kind of job she might get, or with the kinds of men she might meet, or even with her own personality as a kind of given potential -- it's a yearning. Some might say "a yearning for meaning," but that would make her her author's creature: looking for a meaning that some act or thought or cultural achievement might provide. But Ursula is more than equal to such a reading: her yearning is for something that not even Lawrence can conceive or possibly provide. And that's what makes The Rainbow great.