Lawrence began the novel originally entitled The Sisters as early as spring of 1913. This project ended up being two novels - The Rainbow and Women in Love. Because of an obscenity trial following the publication of The Rainbow in 1915, there was a five year gap before Women in Love was finally published in 1920, and even then, its publication was limited to private publication in London (1921) and New York (1920). It was felt by many critics that Lawrence's portrayal of human desire was not appropriate, especially for the morale of a country in war. Both follow the fortunes of the Brangwen family; The Rainbow focuses on the marriage of Tom Brangwen, an English farmer, and a polish widow, Lydia Lensky. Lydia's daughter from her first marriage has relations with Tom's nephew, and the two of them become parents to Ursula and Gudrun. The relationships of Ursula and Gudrun are the major subject of Women in Love.
The novel is supposedly based on Lawrence's own close acquaintances: Ursula on his wife Frieda, Gudrun on Katherine Mansfield, Hermione on Lady Ottoline Morell, Gerald on Mansfield's husband and T.P. Barber (a Nottingham mine owner), and finally Rupert on Lawrence himself.
Since Lawrence's novels are meant as major departures from the nineteenth-century realist novel, one of the features of both The Rainbow and Women in Love is an absence of plot as traditionally defined. Women in Love is rather episodic, each chapter exploring aspects (both social and beyond) of some particular interaction between characters. As such, a "summary" of the major events of the novel would be hardly sufficient to describe the novel: in brief, Ursula, a schoolteacher, and Gudrun Brangwen, an artist and art teacher, become respectively involved in relationships with Rupert Birkin, a school inspector, and Gerald Crich, an industrialist whose father owns the mines in Beldover. The novel follows the course of these relationships; eventually Ursula and Rupert marry, but Gerald and Gudrun become estranged, and in the end, Gerald dies (perhaps having committed suicide) while out exploring the snowy Alps where the four had been vacationing. Major events along the way include: Birkin's relationship with his mistress, Hermione Roddice; the accidental drowning of Diana Crich, a younger sister of Gerald's; the death of Thomas Crich after falling ill; Gudrun's coming to teach Winifred Crich art; Gudrun's fascination with an artist named Loerke when the couples vacation in the Alps; Gerald's murderous attempt upon Loerke and Gudrun, and finally, Gerald's death in the snow.
Perhaps more useful than summary is a description of episodes in relation to the four major characters, since above all, Lawrence seeks to "get at" what's interesting about these characters beyond their social definitions. Because this involves the work of interpretation, I have included this these descriptions below.
In Lawrence's own words re: The Rainbow, "You musn't look in my novel for the old stable ego of the character. There is another ego, according to whose action the individual is unrecognizable, and passes through, as it were, allotropic states which it needs a deeper sense that any we've been used to exercise, to discover are states of the single radically unchanged element." Throughout the work, this "other" ego which he describes--usually "unknown" and beyond linguistic capacities of its characters, often provisionally described as "unconscious" or "subconscious"--manifests itself weaving through and encountering the "social" egos more familiar to the nineteenth-century realist novel. Thus, as Ken Newton remarks, it would be a "mistake to conclude that Lawrence's interest was only in psychological reality and not in social reality." These "realities" interact and struggle with one another and as criticism on Women in Love and The Rainbow has accounted for, Lawrence's Brangwen novels are very much involved with the "crisis" of Western civilization at the moment of the First World War, and the kind of destructive psychological impulses which define this "crisis."
Ursula Brangwen: Ursula Brangwen, the older of the two sisters, though capable, in moments, of desiring radical kinds of individual liberty that Rupert and Gudrun desire, is generally drawn to the comfort offered by the intimacies of love and marriage. While she seems to understand Rupert's position that there must be something greater than this kind of intimacy (which is tied down by social understandings of sex and gender and the power relationships which inhere in such understandings), Ursula seems doubtful whether this greater, inexpressible relation exists.
In conversation, Ursula wants "love" while Rupert wants something he expresses as "freedom together." In a tense conversation in which the interaction between a male cat and a female cat become a metaphor for what they talk about, Rupert insisting that the male cat's (violent) "desire to bring this female cat into a pure stable equilibrium, a transcendent and abiding rapport with the single male" would eliminate the otherwise "chaotic" nature of the female, Ursula rejects this as a fantasy which is actually selfishness which requires someone else to sacrifice themselves to his vision.
For Ursula, such radical freedom might only be available in death: in a chapter entitled "Sunday Evening" following the drowning of Diana Crich and the young doctor who tried to save her, Ursula muses on "[h]ow much cleaner and more dignified to be dead" and how "[t]here is no ignominy in death" for it "is beyond our sullying." I think that such observations which Ursula makes, narrated through the ironic lens of free indirect discourse, ultimately signal the unavailability for such a one as herself, of such extremes: "To know is to human, and in death we do not know, we are not human. And the joy of this compensates for all the bitterness of knowledge and the sordidness of our humanity." For Ursula, such musings signal that she thinks the only way to achieve the radical freedoms which Rupert fantasizes about is death, so the better alternative was that "love was everything" because there could be nothing else in life.
Rupert Birkin: Rupert's (ostensibly closest to Lawrence's own desires) articulations on "freedom" and "freedom together" are simultaneously made endearing to the reader and ironized. It seems that Lawrence truly thinks something of Rupert's yearnings for how one can live free while still alive and amidst all of what is expected of one from the society of others yet also feels humbled by the inexpressibility of such yearnings and the inevitably ironic "overblownness" of attempted expression. This irony becomes most manifest in the scene in Pompadour cafe in London, where bits and pieces of Rupert's letters are read aloud and mocked by a group of young bohemians. When he finally admits to loving Ursula, he is only able to say so with irony and mocking his own submission to a convention in which he does not wish to follow.
In fact, Rupert despises Hermione Roddice, his mistress, for her obsession with appearances and conventions, always trying to see herself as others see her, unhealthily preoccupied with self-reflexive. He criticizes Hermione for being like the Lady of Shalott, always seeing life reflected, as if in a mirror. Eventually, Rupert has tortured Hermione about this to the point where she tries to kill him by crushing a paperweight on his head. After this incident, Rupert runs out and lies down in the grass outside, naked, resenting his own fear at being discovered in this position and thinking on how the nausea of reflexivity might be "cured" if there were no other people in the world.
Finally, an important way in which Rupert differs from Ursula is that he believes in the need for fulfilling male-to-male relationships; he wishes to exact both a pledge from Gerald as well as Ursula, but he fails to exact one from Gerald. This failure, as critic Max Levenson has explained, is actually a crucial one, because it is this "aspiration beyond marriage that acts back upon the marriage itself" enabling a "passion of opposition" which is crucial to the most functional relationship in the work. (See "The passion of opposition" in Women in Love: none, one, two, few, many" in Modernism and the Fate of Individuality).
Gudrun Brangwen: Gudrun primarily views life in an ironic and playful manner; like Rupert, she wants also to escape from the trap of reflexivity. When she and Ursula go off to an island together during the Crich "Water Party," Gudrun becomes fascinated with dancing before a group of cattle because of the escape such an experience offers from the self-consciousness that inheres in being watched by other humans (especially men). Additionally, she becomes interested in the inaccessible life of cattle, an alien perspective apart from human consciousness. Predictably then, when Gerald interrupts, Gudrun is very angry at the interruption.
Gudrun becomes drawn to the artist/sculptor Loerke because he shares a fascination with non-human perspective. As Gudrun puts it, while in a discussion of art between herself, Loerke, and Ursula, "The two things [artist and his/her art] are quite and permanently apart, they have nothing to do with one another. I and my art, they have nothing to do with each other. My art stands in another world, I am of this world" (Italics are mine). Both Gudrun and Loerke see the making of art as a way to make something that, in its existence as a non-human thing, becomes an attractively alien perspective.
Gudrun's sense of radical freedom is to feel like she is never "giving herself away": life's a bit of a game for her, and to win is to prevent others from knowing aspects of her humanity (this becomes difficult, particularly in relation to Gerald, as she finds that she feels drawn to his violence, his need for her, and his need to conquer her--when Ursula looks disgustedly on Gerald violently subduing his mare, Gudrun is fascinated).
Yet, despite the certain aloofness which characterizes Gudrun's ironic and playful stance towards life, she also exhibits a kindness that other characters seem to lack. When Thomas Crich is dying, despite her belief that his faith in her as a mentor for Winifred, his favorite, she plays the part and submits herself to conventional ways of thinking in order to ease his heart as he slips away. At the Pompadour, Gudrun takes Rupert's letters away from the bohemians, feeling like she needed to save the ideas of a thinking individual from the mockery of those who do not understand.
Gerald Crich: Gerald is the most violent of the group, described as "mechanical" in his living and allegorized by his activity as an industrial magnate. He is also Cain, since as a young boy, he accidentally shot off a gun which killed his younger brother. This early violence seems to remain a latent aspect which Gerald maintains through his life.
The chapter entitled "Industrial Magnate" traces the fortunes of the Crich family mine through the generations and is as much a history of personal temperaments as a more generalized history of industrial capitalism in transition from the nineteenth to twentieth centuries. When the mines were under Thomas Crich, the ideal was a sort of love between the industrial master and his workers -- Thomas saw to it that the mines produced wealth that would then feed and nourish the workers; material progress would keep the workers connected to the fruits of their own labor and to their benevolent boss. Soon however, this would give rise to a knowledge of "democracy," the idea of "equality" and a sense that it was unfair that the boss should get a greater share. Riots ensued, and Lawrence describes how the people's adherence to "democracy" and "equality" become akin to a blind religious fervor; "equality" becomes a sort of totem for their war cry. Reacting to this, Gerald's governance represents late stage capitalism, where through sheer will to dominance, he brings about a new mechanical order where the will to greater and greater material production becomes the new religion for each and every man who is a cog in the machine. Gerald has created a "mystic machine" wherein human power (his own included) becomes invisible; in a word, man has become closer and closer to the perfection of the mechanical, and it is to this "new and terrible purity" that men now bow down. Committed to this terrible yet pure materialism, Gerald rejects Birkin's offer of a relationship with potentially spiritual dimensions.
Accompanying Gerald's materialism seems to be an animalism which motivates his pursuit of mistresses like the Pussum and then of Gudrun (whose sexual attraction for him includes a clearly maternal component). Still, this animalism seems limiting for Gerald; ultimately, he seems to direct himself towards the extreme of anti-humanism, the inanimate. His death by freezing and his inanimate, material body displayed before Birkin at the end suggest that he has ironically achieved such a state.