Commentary Magazine

D. H. Lawrence and Our Life Today:
Re-reading “Lady Chatterley's Lover”

Anyone will defend D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover against censorship, but who will defend it as a novel? Who, for that matter, will attack it? No one. With the reissue (Grove Press, $6.00) of the original 1928 version at hand, everyone acknowledges a bit wearily that times have changed. The four-letter words and sexual scenes are no longer shocking; they have now become “natural” and “beautiful.” Recent novels display a greater abundance of such words and scenes. With one exception, modern conversation liberally employs (those words and many more; and the lady who falls in love with her husband’s gamekeeper is a familiar figure. Also, everyone knows now—even judges and journalists—that D. H. Lawrence was a “serious” writer, that he himself disapproved of pornography, that he was no ghost for the Olympia Press.

Still, a certain confusion remains. During this novel’s recent encounter with the law, it could be bought freely or sent anywhere by Railway Express; only the mails were closed to it. In no sense did the postal prohibition “symbolize” a general state of censorship: other, more shocking, even more obscene pronouncements have no trouble getting through the mails. Anyhow, Lawrence is hardly the innocent writer of censorship mythology: he was quite deliberate about introducing a sexual emphasis into this, the third version of his novel with its provocative title. Originally he had planned to call it Tenderness; only later did he develop his comprehensive ideology about cleansing the obscene words, “false shame,” the purgative effects of intentional frankness. Some readers deplore this hygienic intention, others applaud it, but few people would claim that this novel stands among Lawrence’s best fiction. Then, too, many people think the novel is “dated,” without resonance at the present time, but that if it arouses anyone’s sexual emotions, well and good, because novels should do so. What complicates the whole issue is a pervasive suspicion that all the liberality of thought, speech, and behavior which vanquished Victorianism, seems not to have had the anticipated beneficial effects on public or private life.

Problems of class and power and money have, if anything, been greatly exacerbated since the 20′s, not only in America, but in Europe as well. Nor is the sexual question “solved,” in any of its aspects. Indeed, many observers believe that sexual life has become increasingly mechanical and depersonalized, that the subjective sense of self, which once had its immediate sexual dimension, now expresses its demands in less private but more hidden forms—in the widespread hostility of modern life, in hidden, predatory ambition, in masked manipulation. People will talk easily about infant and adult sexuality, will talk or write about anything at all, will challenge any rule or code or custom; but they will not necessarily respond or listen, or expect others to respond.

I don’t think much can be made of the assertion that Lawrence’s themes are of no interest to us now. Tenderness, brutality and paralysis, manhood, womanhood, loyalty, response, passion, industrialism, nature and civilization, intellect, urban life, political organization, destruction, how to live—these themes still solicit our attention, speak to us, relate to our lives. Mellors, the gamekeeper, is as contemporary as he can be, living alone in a wood, raising pheasants for rich men to shoot, hopeless and apocalyptic about modern life. Clifford Chatterley, the paralyzed and impotent baronet, with his mechanical will and his childishness, still suggests something we know, the paralysis of natural feelings which provokes an overdeveloped will. And Connie, Lady Chatterley, with her confusions and vagueness and desire for fulfillment, is still to he found. More people than ever before are drawn to “natural” things, are aware of the consequences of mechanized life, of the dangers in our modern world. Why then the indifference, the hesitant and overly qualified response to Lawrence’s novel? Is the trouble to be found in Lawrence’s sexual ideas, which met resistance at first and will always be resisted because they are inherently disturbing, offensive, uncomfortable, revolutionary?



Actually, Lawrence’s sexual ideas are not at all “sexual,” but social. He argued repeatedly against sexual experiment, sexual license, sexual freedom and daring, so famous in the 20′s, and insisted on something more transcendent—so much so that he is frequently called a puritan! What really interested him were the implications of sexuality—for friendship, marriage, politics, intellect, social behavior, power; its implications for something beyond itself. And just at this point of Lawrence’s deepest interest, the novel is most ambiguous. There is no doubt that a specific quality of tender responsive life is evoked in the love of Connie and Mellors, and that Clifford’s paralysis is implied in his cold sophisticated brutality. But the novel does not bring Connie and Mellors together: their love is still to be acknowledged, their meaning is still to be realized, their child is still to be born.

Obviously, what the novel suggests here is the fragility of new response, its imminence, the uncertainty of its course. This is a profound suggestion, because response is fragile, delicate, tender, uncertain; it can too easily be drugged or stopped or institutionalized by all the forms of organized psychic and social resistance. The lack of ending in Lawrence’s novel is, for some readers, its preeminent virtue, made into a principle. But no one should forget that our civilization has many long and honorable traditions for cherishing just such responses, and is not at all hostile to them. Indeed, any religious movement which attempts to release the spirit rather than preserve the letter of a doctrine shows this emphasis on response. Zen Buddhism is certainly an example, with its concentration on satori, the concrete experience of enlightenment. Hasidism too, and the discipline of art, and psychoanalysis, and education, and Ignatius Loyola’s spiritual exercises—despite their obvious differences, they share a certain goal the release from bondage of a faculty of response. They do not prescribe the conduct issuing from that response. These traditions remain vital, no matter how often they have been vulgarized and misinterpreted, and their major insight is of incalculable value: civilization would be the poorer without it.

Novels, however, must end—not necessarily with a “happy ending”—and Lawrence’s does not. Instead, all response is suspended, and ideology triumphs. Is this simply a minor matter, to be quarreled over by literary people but not really significant? I don’t think so. Novels end, otherwise we could not read them again. If we remain involved in their characters and situations and action, we can have no new response to them. Then, their action, and even action itself, becomes meaningless. In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Clifford and his world are made to embody all the deathly forces of modern civilized industrial life, and Connie and Mellors together embody a natural, spontaneous warmth of tenderness and fulfillment. But nothing happens. It’s not hard to see why the novel has been known for thirty years as a “dirty” novel, despite Lawrence’s and everyone else’s protestations. The sexuality which Lawrence saw at the center of life becomes completely isolated from life; sex is all that remains if the other relations of the novel are merely suspended. The tenderness which should affect life fails to radiate or to liberate anyone but Connie.



The problem is not simply that we cannot imagine Connie and Mellors in their future life together, or that it isn’t spelled out. We can’t imagine them, it’s true. But Clifford and Connie’s sister, Hilda, and all of Clifford’s smart world, his intellectual world, his mechanical and industrial and modern and civilized worlds which Connie and Mellors renounce—all remain untouched, unaware, unimplicated. Particularly striking is the way Mellors’s child from his first brutal marriage is completely forgotten—not only by Mellors and Connie, but by the author too. Is she returned to her brutish mother or to her ineffectual grandmother? What are the implications of the sexuality of Connie and Mellors? Their meaning, it seems, begins and ends with them.

I think the introduction of an explicit sexual emphasis in this third version—the words, the descriptions, the details—indicates Lawrence’s own sense of the ambiguity and perhaps even the hopelessness of the situation he evoked. Actually, the first version (published in 1944 by Dial Press as The First Lady Chatterley) is in some ways more tender, and it shows Connie’s awakening to passion more spontaneously, less ideologically. It is also more honest about the problem of civilized life and natural feeling. As rewritten for the third time, the gamekeeper’s character becomes more civilized, and Clifford begins with the character he merely reached before.

Interestingly enough, for a novel about passion, nothing really happens to Mellors in this passion. Sexually, the novel is concerned with Connie’s feelings; Mellors appears as her teacher, already awakened, and not deeply changed by the passion he awakes in her. There is, in fact, no adjustment of consciousness in the novel; it does not actually matter. I don’t think it can matter for the reader, so that anyone who knows and respects passion can only, with Lawrence, consider it an enclave or capsulated world entirely sealed off from life. This is true of Lawrence’s fiction altogether: there is no Lawrence story or novel in which the radical adjustment in consciousness really does matter in life. He insisted that it did, but his fiction reveals something different.

At this point, most writers on Lawrence stop and turn to a discussion of Lawrence’s own psychology, and the psychology of the reading public. This is a vast field, there is a good deal known about Lawrence, and there are many interesting things to be said about the circumstances of his early and later life which made certain themes appealing and urgent to him. There is much to be said also about the way Lawrence’s work affects the reading public. Such commentary is useful and even valuable, but in some ways it is beside the point. When, for example, we sense that what a book most wants to say to us is that civilized society is insane, there is something irrelevant about answering with a psychology of the author or reader—irrelevant, I mean, to what is being said, not of course irrelevant to knowledge in general. Is civilization insane? Does sexuality matter? Are mental life, abstract thought, industrialism destructive of human lifer? How should one live? It is to questions of this sort that Lawrence’s work still demands that we make some response. If literature is serious, we should recognize that Lawrence does mean What he says.

The assertion of Lady Chatterley’s Lover is that civilized society is insane. This means that civilized morality, thought, economy, social relations, mechanization are all sterile and destructive; that civilized emotions are either paralyzed or barbaric; that civilized sexuality is brutal, or cerebral, or infantile; that will is substituted for feeling and manipulation for response; that personal failure is reflected in social disaster, which in turn creates and reinforces dehumanization. This complex hypothesis is presented partly in fiction but more in didactic rhetorical terms. Some of the characters are involved in action which suggests the themes, and a large part of the novel is occupied by discussion of them. These assertions are what people mean when they speak of Lawrence’s “ideas”; they don’t mean his poetic or fictional ideas, which excite little controversy and exercise scant influence. Rather, it is Lawrence’s explicit hypotheses and insights about sexuality, nature, and civilization which provoke adherence or disaffection.

The question of nature and civilization is widely discussed at the present time, in many different forms: it crops up in matters of private morality and public behavior, in relation to the angry young men and the beatniks, to juvenile delinquency, underdeveloped countries, child-rearing, urban life, and so on. We have not, of course, discovered the question fox ourselves: it has been on the mind of the civilized world for some time. One need not have any historical sense at all to observe nowadays that quite a lot of people are unhappy with civilization. The etiology of it may be disputed, but the phenomenon is obvious.

Frequently it is expressed in attitudes of resignation and despair, in the recognition of necessity variously interpreted, in automatic indignation about “conformity,” in the obsessive references among educated people to Freud’s stoicism. Many people whose lives are not marked by tragedy or extreme conditions, who have enjoyed much of the world’s goodness, power, and approbation, nevertheless find life exhausting, offensive, desperate, and feel sold or swindled. Some people accept this and develop cynical or predatory methods for achieving their own ends in our “racket society,” others assign responsibility to outside agents and lean toward conspiracy theories. Some submit, others embrace hostility. The whole subject is discussed particularly with reference to the machines which enslave and even imitate us. Possibly the idea of progress or liberalism or the French Revolution, the Civil War or the Reformation or even the Industrial Revolution, has been the cause of unhappiness and disorder. There is also a widely held belief that not any single aspect or event of civilization is responsible but rather it is civilization itself which deprives us of happiness. Perhaps nothing so recent as mechanization or even the transition to agriculture should be singled out. Should the error be located further back? In the Garden of Eden, or in the primal horde, when the sons overthrew the father, when the fathers destroyed the mothers? “Our natures do pursue / Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,/ A thirsty evil; and when we drink we die.”

This historical fate would not impress us if it were not at once so intimate and so grand, if it were not recapitulated, as the scholars say, in personal history. Anyone who has learned to talk is implicated, for instance; and one need not be an intellectual to have made the enormous cultural jump from the instinctual roar to the complex abstract mental operation of speech. Few events afterward will be so important as this early progress, this early renunciation.



In Lawrence’s novel, it is important to see that he doesn’t oppose a barbaric Mellors to a civilized Clifford Chatterley. In fact, he took pains to make the Mellors of the third version a much more complex and civilized person than the Parkin of the first version. Mellors is not only sexually independent, but also classless and transcendent: more truly delicate in his manners than the upper classes, more truly intelligent (than an intellectual, more truly sexual than a libertine, more physically in touch with himself than a miner. He suggests not merely a working-class or peasant ethos, a simplicity which can be lovingly patronized by complex people, but almost a different kind of civilization, with an ancient code of skill, manhood, pride, and independence. Is it the code of a nomad culture, the kind which preceded our own and preceded even the agricultural civilization before ours? We don’t know, it seems like that. Whatever it may be, we inevitably translate it into the terms available to us. The mind produces a contemporary example: say, the nomadic Mongols, who are just now facing industrialization. They are not barbarians, they live by an ancient code, and precisely one of skill, manhood, pride, and independence. We also know that the proud, manly Mongols have a life expectancy of about thirty years and are prey to all the diseases that accompany their stage of civilization, and that starving beggars’ corpses used to be eaten by dogs. Is Mongol life richer, more vital, less dehumanized than our own? We cannot know; nor can they. Should they resist the industrialization which will destroy their code? The question is impossible.

Of course Lawrence did not have Mongols in mind, nor necessarily Italians, Mexicans, Gypsies, or gamekeepers, although they figure in his novels and stories as images of a spontaneous lost life. The code of manhood he preached was transcendent and invisible—a faculty of being, not a pattern of conduct. The image of a fulfilled natural life was not intended to be limited by specific conditions, nor was the larger social image it implies to be identified with a primitive culture. And yet they must and should be so identified, because we don’t live in a world of essences: codes, manhood, nature, civilization, we encounter them all in specific conditions; there is no other way. Also, Lawrence’s images of unfulfilled life are always vividly and clearly specific: in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Clifford is paralyzed both physically and emotionally, and the social image is unmistakable, it is the modern world itself. This gives the love of Connie and Mellors a doom and a pathos which go beyond possibility. Connie cannot leave Clifford, but if she stays with him, she destroys herself and conspires in the general destruction.

I think this must be the reason why the novel does not end. And further, it suggests why the novel has an essentially depressing effect, not at all the effect of tragedy—in spite of Lawrence’s devotion to life and in spite of the novel’s intended effect of life-enhancement.

How should this be possible, given Lawrence’s well-known views, given the novel’s assertions? Perhaps it is because the qualities of life are isolated in Connie and Mellors, and withdrawn so completely from the world around them, with no possibilities for renewal. The conditions of the modern world, so specific and detailed, show an exhaustion of real vitality both masked and expressed by pervasive mechanization. This world is, in terms of What matters, meaningless; and there is no way for its meaning to be renewed. Clifford, who is the image of this world, is permanently paralyzed and impotent; and this aspect of finality underlies all the assertions about the doom of modern life which have their focus in Clifford and his world. Mental life, modern politics, social organization, relations between men and women, abstract thought, careers, vocations, the artifacts of civilization, and civilization itself—all are unrenewed and un-renewable, meaningless. The people who treat others or themselves as objects remain forever unredeemable, the mechanization of our life is irreversible.



Why Lawrence thought this, or why anyone else might come to think it, why it was a belief peculiarly appropriate for the 20′s, are interesting but irrelevant questions. More important, I think, is that it is false both about nature and about civilization. Nature is not unrenewable or unrenewed or exhausted of its vitality, although machines can lose the source of their energy and lose it irrevocably. Nor can life be isolated. Life is not life if only a few people have it, if only a single pair in a cottage in a wood represent it—in the same sense that the energy of nature does not belong to one tree, one flower or one horse, but to all trees, all plants, all animals, in what used to be called the whole Creation. It is suggested in the novel that Clifford would always have been an impotent person, that his physical paralysis was an accident which only confirmed the self he already had. And the others of his world, men and women, merely lack such extreme outward signs of their inner nullity. Are Clifford and his world not a part of the Creation, then? Was life denied them at the beginning, was it denied to the civilization they stand for? And for all time? Or, put the question differently: do others really exist?

It is true that modern life offers countless opportunities for dehumanization. There is always someone wanting to treat you or me as an object or abstraction, and there are always people offering themselves as objects. Each of us has the faculty for denying that others really exist. And this is true for everyone, in every kind of life. The past was not immune to it, simple people are not less vulnerable than complex people, and primitive people live by abstractions. No one is safe: we live in a world of objects. We also live in a world of subjects, and each can be mistaken for the other, each can be denied. For many people in our society there are no really personal feelings of existence; these are reduced to an attack of extreme anxiety, a moment of terror driving across the Queensborough Bridge, a sudden nausea. And our society prescribes the cold bath, the locked razor, because the self can be overwhelmed by animate objects. If others do not exist, if they are only objects, then how can we be sure that we exist? In fact, many people are not at all sure.

The advanced state of our civilization tends to make us more alert to what is mechanized out of its animal nature, and less sensitive to other forms of dehumanization. The fact is that the condition of our times can be matched and even rivaled by the dehumanization of other times. Just because we have given up the idea of progress in civilization, there is no need to embrace its opposite—the concept of progressive dehumanization. No past examples of passional exuberance, of vital unmechanical life, fail to exhibit the dehumanization of whole classes or races. Individuals and entire groups of people have been dehumanized by others or by themselves, in every ancient or modern culture: we should not be deceived by the forms of dehumanization unlike our own.

Thus, I am not at all sure, as many people seem to be, that this present stage of civilization is more dehumanized or dehumanizing than other stages. In a sense, we are not able to judge; we merely inherit this past, we do not live it, and we can’t choose other lives. Even an attempt at such a choice betrays itself by its self-consciousness, its unnaturalness. And then, as Kierkegaard has observed, every generation has its own task. We encounter that task only in the conditions of our own times, not in the imagined or reported lives of others. It is in this sense that civilization is always renewed; it has never the finality of being concentrated or ended in a single generation, in a single form of life, in a single person.

Consider the story of the old lion tamer who was asked to account for his long and brilliant career, and who replied modestly, “Oh, it’s really very simple. All you do is go in the cage and be very careful to do the same thing every time. Because, you know, all lions are essentially the same.” His questioners thought his answer merely confirmed what they knew all along, so they politely prepared to leave. “Of course,” he added, “you must be very careful never to forget one thing: every lion is different.”



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