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I had read D H Lawrence’s 1920 novel Women in Love when I was an undergraduate. It was on one of those courses where you have to read a book every week and then come to a discussion where you have to have something intelligent-sounding to say about it. Back then, I do not think that I had even finished Women in Love. This was not because it was boring or difficult but simply because two thirds of the way through it and I was exhausted.

At the discussion, we had all suggested what the various items in this novel might symbolise, which is rather like trying to communicate the force of an avalanche by recounting what colour it is. We were at an age, or from a period of history, when there was still too much blocking the view between us and the novel. Even so, I have always since held a kind of puzzled respect for it.

Prior to deciding to read it again this year (twenty years later, in fact), I could remember hardly anything about it. I remembered that it had been written by the son of a coal miner and yet that most of the characters had had spuriously middle-class names such as “Ursula.” I remembered a scene in which someone had thrown stones at the moon’s reflection in a pond and philosophised over this. And I remembered the rabbit.

Unlike with everything else I remembered the rabbit vividly. I still had a perfect mental picture of it writhing and kicking as it was held up in the air by its ears. A glowing, unearthly figure, as expressive as though it had been wrought by Edvard Munch.

If there is any literary classic that can be faithfully – even ceremonially – revisited every Easter, rather as some readers will do at Christmas with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, then it is surely Women in Love. As with the Easter festival, a huge totemic rabbit pulsates at the very heart of this novel. As with Easter, take the rabbit out of Women in Love and this novel seems suddenly much meeker and less remarkable.

This rabbit is only a detail and yet it also feels like an entire extra dimension of this novel. Undergraduates for whom Women in Love is tabled for discussion will demonstrate over and over again what this rabbit symbolises to their perfect mathematical satisfaction. This never does anything to explain the rabbit. Before we deal with what the rabbit symbolises, we have to ask why a rabbit? Why not a billy goat or a cockerel? What exactly is it about this animal that drops so utterly into place?

But I am being terribly rude. This rabbit has a name, after all. Meet Bismarck. How do you do, Bismarck?

Gudrun Brangwen, one of the women in Women in Love, is working as a personal tutor to Winifred Crich, the daughter of the local mine owner. One day Gudrun and Winifred venture off to draw Bismarck, a “great black-and-white rabbit” who is kept in a hutch near to the stables of the Crich estate. When Gudrun lifts Bismarck from his hutch – by his handles, so to speak – he goes absolutely berserk, thrashing in the air and scratching Gudrun with his claws. The berserk Bismarck is “magically strong” and “demoniacal” and he is “spread on the air… flying, looking something like a dragon.”

Gudrun, a mere woman, is never quite on top of Bismarck. Fortunately, Winifred’s elder brother, Gerald, appears and he subdues the beast. “‘I know these beggars of old’,” he mutters:

Then a sudden sharp, white-edged wrath came up in him. Swift as lightning he drew back and brought his free hand down like a hawk on the neck of the rabbit. Simultaneously, there came the unearthly abhorrent scream of a rabbit in the fear of death.

Happy Easter! So far it is perfectly obvious what this rabbit symbolises. Brutal, uncomprehending, mistreated, and living purely in the present, he represents the working-class miners who Gerald, their employer, has subdued with the same ruthlessness. Gerald knows these beggars of old.

The choice of a rabbit here involves a sublime affront to the socialist. Striking miners – the politically-organised working class – cannot take over and seize control of their own destinies if they are revealed to be nothing more than a rabbit. In being reduced to the limited functions of such an automaton, their world becomes one purely of immediate needs, rather than of any longer-term social aspirations. The entire tragic history of the Miners’ Strike of 1984 is being apparently told here in a brief interaction with a rabbit, sixty years before this strike had been even thought of.

Yet I am not sure that the rabbit can be pinned down here; or if it is pinned down, it is still characteristically “sulking.” There is actually a messy overspill between the “striking” rabbit and the immense industrialist who subdues him, with each mirroring certain qualities of the other. Although the rabbit is named Bismarck, it is Gerald who more resembles the German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, in performing the role of the splendidly square, virile and moustachioed champion. And there is a recognisable premonitory gleam to the rabbit’s struggle, in that Gerald will similarly struggle and then be subdued in the novel’s final pages. This rabbit is perhaps ultimately just a telltale titbit of Gerald.

So the symbolism is haunting but it is never the be all and end all. Lawrence was a writer and a poet who had observed animals with a unique fascination and alertness. As a consequence, he describes them with a skill that is unmatched anywhere else within English literature. But this might be a matter of perspective rather than of skill. Lawrence is always enrapt in animals and breathlessly pouring over them, in what seems to be somehow a survival in him of something very rare and precious: the child’s reverence for the natural world. We indeed approach Bismarck in the company of Winifred, an unusually sensitive child.

A roughly contemporary short story called “Adolf” (1919) is a beautiful mini-biography of a wild rabbit that Lawrence and his siblings had attempted to tame as children. This story was obviously written prior to the rise of Nazism, so it is merely a strange coincidence that both of Lawrence’s starring bunnies are named after warmongering German Chancellors. The boy Lawrence encircles Adolf inquisitively, appraising him from every angle and reporting back on every fleeting detail of his behaviour. It becomes quite apparent here why rabbits are so mysterious. They possess huge, deep, eloquent eyes but, unlike dogs and cats (which are predators), these animals have evolved to move about largely in silence.

Our foremost impression during “Adolf” is not necessarily of the rabbit but of this boy and his preternaturally clear eyes and also of his sad wisdom. However plaintive the boy’s overtures to Adolf, he can see that the rabbit is always rather like a bubble that is swirling down a river of death. It can be thoughtlessly popped at any moment. This rabbit might be mesmerisingly beautiful but the universe cares nothing for it. The boy is also wise enough to understand that he can never make any connection with this rabbit. He describes Adolf “looking at me while not looking at me” and he concedes that he “couldn’t really love him, because he was wild and loveless to the end.”

In Lawrence’s writing, animals are eternally self-contained creatures and they cannot be hurried out of their own lives into some anthropocentric meaning. It is noted of Adolf that, “love and affection were a trespass upon it,” which likens the boy’s potential love for the rabbit almost to an imperialist invasion. Rather than trespassing within the animal’s world, Lawrence limits himself to dwelling within the aura that surrounds the animal. Ideally, his descriptions will possess a purity that is unpolluted by human needs and assumptions. They should be self-effacingly observational.

Bismarck is henceforth always handicapped as a symbol. After all, symbolism inevitably involves some second meaning that will lie completely outside of the animal’s aura. In the popular understanding that symbolism usually works with, a rabbit is a common, foolish and paltry animal. Lawrence explodes this cliché and he rummages around in the shattered ruins until he has located a creature that is “diabolical” and “like a dragon.” The rabbit is like the working class, he proposes mildly. Moments later, he is hinting that the rabbit is too unpredictable to have any such settled status as a symbol:

And suddenly the rabbit, which had been crouching as if it were a flower, so still and soft, suddenly burst into life. Round and round the court it went, as if shot from a gun, round and round like a furry meteorite, in a tense hard circle that seemed to bind their brains. They all stood in amazement, smiling uncannily, as if the rabbit were obeying some unknown incantation.

Significantly, and unlike with a previous animal, the pekinese dog Looloo, Bismarck is never drawn. Only Lawrence manages to capture it, in a confused, constantly changing picture that is like several sketches squashed all on top of each other. Gudrun and Gerald veer off at a tangent into double-entendre, into implicitly attributing all of the rabbit’s “madness” to its sexual frustration. This interpretation of Bismarck’s behaviour might appear to be readily corroborated by an article on the blog Loving Bunnies:

My pet rabbit, Frodo, has turned into a terror in recent weeks. He gnaws on his cage bars for hours on end, struggling to break out…Hell hath no fury like a sexually frustrated male rabbit. Currently, Frodo and his mate are taking a hiatus in between litters, and the frustration is driving the male absolutely bonkers. Aggression and destructive behaviors are extremely common among male rabbits who feel sexually frustrated…

Bismarck may be tortured by glimpses of wild female rabbits popping up around his hutch. But it is actually rather cheeky of Gudrun to write off all of Bismarck’s tempestuousness as libido. After all, she is the one who is holding him up by the ears.

This is very shocking when you think about it. How can such a fascinating and liberated female character be so stupid or, alternatively, so cruel? She probably acts this way out of fear – to keep the rabbit’s claws at the greatest distance – but she must know that this will be painful and distressing for the animal.

There might be also a sense that Gudrun does this because she can. We will remember that she had earlier slapped Gerald. This rabbit, with its name that echoes Gerald’s dynamic leadership, is like a smaller, handier version of the supremo that is going spare. He can be tortured cathartically without any inconvenient consequences to her. We might remark, with a faint Freudian smirk, that another rabbit, Adolf, is also picked up by his ears in Lawrence’s writing and this is by a character who appears to be based upon Lawrence’s own mother.

Even so, Bismarck seems altogether too mountainous to be concreted over with these practical explanations. Lawrence himself leaves the last word to Winifred. She marvels that the rabbit is “so mysterious.” This could merely show her (sexual) innocence but it feels nonetheless like the correct attitude of holy awe with which the reader should behold Bismarck. Innocence is, we should remember, the most prized state-of-mind within Lawrence’s system when it comes to looking at animals. Winifred is doubtless aware of the hopelessness of the make-believe that she can ever be the rabbit’s “mother” and she is probably the observer who is the most open to his vivid, totemic magnificence.

Further Reading. The incongruity of rabbit viciousness is similarly explored in Beatrix Potter’s 1906 tale for small children The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit. As with Bismarck, we have only a brief encounter with the Fierce Bad Rabbit. We never learn why he is so fierce and bad and whether he remains so after his whiskers and tail are, in Potter’s punitive morality, blasted off by a passing hunter. Neither is it known whether Potter’s story had ever had any input into Women in Love.

Tychy wishes all readers a Happy Easter.

[Previously on Tychy: “Christian Theology and the Easter Bunny.”]