D. H. Lawrence: “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”


Lady Chatterley’s Lover circulated widely in pirated copy for decades after its initial (self-)publication run, and was finally re-released, unexpurgated, in 1960, when Penguin won its censorship case. D. H. Lawrence’s most “scandalous” novel concerns the sexual and spiritual awakening of Constance Stewart Chatterley (nee Reid, called Connie). Having received an “aesthetically unconventional upbringing” and a good education in Europe, where she had an affair of the mind (and sort of the body) with a young German, Connie returns to England and marries the bright Clifford Chatterley in 1917 (2). By 1920, Clifford has returned from the war in a wheelchair, paralyzed and impotent, and the two settle at Wragby, the family estate at the collier town of Tevershall.

In a nod to Madame Bovary, at the start, Connie is “herself a figure somebody had read about” and her initial sexual experience only “marked the end of a chapter… very like the row of asterisks that can put to show the end of a paragraph, and a break in the theme” (17, 4). As the narrative continues and Connie becomes increasingly sexually frustrated and, subsequently, fulfilled, however, she abandons the conceptualization of the world through words and begins to favor the experience of the body. This is reinforced by Clifford’s constant, ineffectual quoting of poetry at the expense of really seeing or understanding the world around him:

“Sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes,” he quoted. “I don’t see a bit of connection with the actual violets,” she said. “The Elizabethans are rather upholstered.” (95)

The distance Lady Chatterley’s Lover effects between word and deed reverses the conventional wisdom of the novel, suggesting figurative language as mere surface and physical experience as true depth. The novel must therefore surmount its own skepticism about and resistance to language largely through self-awareness. Lawrence’s digression on the importance of the novel for the “flow of our sympathetic consciousness” seems explicitly to condemn, the other, purely visual, “celluloid” medium of the day (106). And, too, the narrative tone seems to shift into erotic high gear right along with Connie’s experiences, as though it were a rendering in words (repetitive, imperfect words that constantly undermine the power of words to represent that experience) of the inexpressible changes in her body and affect. It is not reading that is the problem (in fact, Lawrence takes pains to describe Mellors’ books), but quoting poetry in lieu of experiencing one’s environment (and this seems largely to be an attack on the upper class).

Though the novel employs unusually frank language about sex (notably the repeated use of “fuck” and “cunt,” the latter of which Lawrence transforms into a kind of mystical aura that extends beyond a woman and into the realm of shared sexual experience), it is not merely explicitRather, it plays constantly (pun intended) with a variety of available sexual puns and euphemisms, even as it purports to wear its sex on its sleeve. Constance’s very name ironically highlights her infidelity, and the transparency of names continues with the clingy Ivy Bolton (bolt-on), who attaches herself to Cliff, and with  Oliver Mellors, whose first name refers to “a tilt hammer used to shape nails and chains,” thus both literally referring to his former career as a blacksmith and figuratively relating to his re-shaping “molten” Connie from her machine-like mold.

Eric Naiman has argued for the importance of the “verbal squint” of the pun in Pnin (Nabokov, Perversely 97). Naiman contends that the appearance of a professor Konstantin Chateau in Pnin is one of the many hidden erotic clues to the novel, since the first syllable of his given name echoes as “con” (French for cunt) and the first syllable of his surname sounds like “chat” (French for cat, and close to chatte, or pussy) (78).

Strikingly, Constance Chatterly’s name presents an identical pairing; perhaps even plainer, since both con and chatte are fully spelled out. Naiman also points to the repetition of close, clothes, cock(er), snatch, and other puns that refer to poetry to bolster the case, all words that repeatedly show up in Lady Chatterley’s Lover (84-8). Such a reading gives new humor to Clifford’s limp assertion that even if Connie has a child out of wedlock, he “will make a perfectly competent Chatterley out of him” (197). It’s also worth considering that, if Connie does end up escaping herself as “chattel” and “pussy” by  marrying Mellors, her new initial syllables will be Con and Mel – the very “sweet cunt” the gamekeeper praises and possesses throughout the novel.

These puns are half-concealed, however; not only are they de-emphasized “by half” in descriptions of the wood as “full of the mystery of eggs and half-open buds, half-unsheathed flowers” (vagina is Latin for “sheath” and Mellors’ penis is repeatedly called a “bud”), but the reader is ambiguously both more sensually awake to language because of the explicit nature of the book and also not hunting for such hermeneutic clues, being sated with explicit description (130).

In a novel so avowedly about sexwhy such euphemistic fun? In the essay “A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” Lawrence writes that he hoped his novel will make “men and women able to think sex,” for after reading the taboo words, he claims, “people with minds realize that they aren’t shocked, and never really were, and they experience a sense of relief” (331-2). Perhaps one of the chief joys of this novel is the tension it creates between naturalizing truly open, free sexuality and mysticizing the “secret parts” of the particular, indescribably individual body of the lover, a tension which seeks to mimic the physical experience of sex itself.

Constance and Oliver may or may not escape the social constructs of their fictional world at the narrative’s close. But they have abandoned what bonds of class they can, they have fled from industry and mechanization to the country (pun, again, intended).  There will be a child, and there is already hope, represented by the names of their genitals, fully embodied: “John Thomas says goodnight to Lady Jane, a little droopingly, but with a hopeful heart” (328).