When I began reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover—the first complete, unexpurgated version published in the United States (in 1959)—I thought it was going to like Peyton Place: I would be able to see how it might have been shocking at the time, but compared to modern works, it would seem quite tame. Instead, the sex scenes were written incredibly explicitly, and I find them fairly edgy even from a modern perspective. But the thing that saves the sex from being gratuitous and merely pornographic is that it serves a higher narrative purpose than mere titillation (but barely. Which is not intended as a pun. I think it might be impossible to write about this book without a number of unintentional puns).
Lawrence uses sex to illustrate the central conflict in the story between the intellectual and the physical. Connie initially is described in very physical terms. She’s a sturdy Scottish lass, a womanly creature unlike the thin, boyish figures popular for women at that time (the 1920’s). She’s “full of unused energy,” Lawrence tells us. She’s not inexperienced in sexual matters, but she sidelines their importance in favor of intellectual intimacy. She goes so far as to marry Clifford, a man for whom sex is also a small matter.
“No, the intimacy was deeper, more personal than that. And sex was merely an accident, or an adjunct, one of the curious obsolete, organic processes which persisted in its own clumsiness, but was not really necessary.”
When her new husband returns home from the war paralyzed, their relationship turns almost entirely to the intellectual, with the exception of the everyday care-taking of Clifford’s physical self, which Connie provides for him.
For a period, Connie is satisfied by the intimacy of their intellectual connection, but after a while, she begins to grow restless. There’s this “unused energy” that she’s tried to deny, this draw to the physical that she tries to reason herself out of, to no avail. Gradually, she comes to dislike Clifford and seeks to withdraw from him.
“Between him and Connie there was a tension that each pretended not to notice, but there it was. Suddenly, with all the force of her female instinct, she was shoving him off. She wanted to be clear of him, and especially of his consciousness, his words, his obsession with himself, his endless treadmill obsession with himself, and his own words.”
She outsources Clifford’s physical care to a hired servant and distances herself from their intellectual connection, eventually leaving nothing at all between them. Then Mellors enters the story. He is a man who is not unintelligent but who chooses to live and connect more through the body than through the intellect. With him, Connie is drawn into a deeper intimacy than she’s ever experienced through intellectual connection.
In this book, the denial of the physical is evident not just in the bedroom. Everywhere we see the pursuit of profit and intellectual innovation trumping the physical. Lawrence shows us the coal mine, in which the miners toil for three shifts a day, trudging home physically lopsided, deformed by the unnatural work they do underground. He shows us the unnaturally stark light in the bald patch of the forest where a stand of old-growth trees was chopped down to support the war effort. He shows us the ugliness of the town, erected in haste and without care to support the labor needs of the mines. We smell the choking fumes of the mills, so incongruous but so intractable in the otherwise idyllic English countryside.
The blame for this dangerous and lopsided shift to the intellectual over the physical is borne by both the individual and the culture. The individual is carried away by the prejudices of the culture and the pressures of class, and he feels impotent to effect change. But Lawrence shows us that this is a willing impotence. The individual knows inwardly that there is something missing, something awry, but he refuses to confront it head-on, preferring to sublimate it. When it becomes so apparent that it he can no longer deny it, this missing bit breaks him.
I can see that Lawrence has shown us this process using sex as the centerpiece. I can see that it’s fitting. It’s an act and a drive that is so basic and so commonly denied and tabooed by the culture even nearly 100 years after Lawrence wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover that it makes sense to use it to illustrate the denial of the physical in favor of the intellectual. But some of it didn’t ring true to me when it came down to a one-man-one-woman level. The initial sexual encounter between Connie and Mellors seemed like it came almost out of nowhere. There was a build-up to it, the tension between the two parties, but it was subtle in contrast to the stark description of the consummation. When it happened, I was like, “Really? Just like that?”
I didn’t really see what drew Connie and Mellors to one another. Once they were together, once I as a reader accepted their closeness to one another, the progression and the deepening intimacy made sense, but the initial couple of encounters seemed unlikely to me. In addition, the language around sex was kind of awkward. If I ever go back and read this book again, I’m going to underline every occurrence of the words “loins” and “womb.” I swear they must appear five times on each page. And while I won’t go into details, there are really a lot of assumptions that I find distasteful about just what’s acceptable and “right” when it comes to sex—and this is among the participants in the explicit sex scenes, not those trying to downplay it.
For me, the saving grace of the book and what makes it unique among the books that I’ve read is that the sex really is a vehicle for addressing a broader theme. Even in all its explicitness and all of its assumptions, the sex in this book can really just be looked at as another way of experiencing the physical and making a connection with another person. In the end, I find the book to be about balance and about the danger—to ourselves, to others, to nature and the world at large—of denying an aspect of ourselves.
It’s an interesting read, but definitely not one I want my seven-year-old to open up and say, “What are you reading, Mommy?”