Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11362
D. H. Lawrence occupies an ambiguous position with respect to James Joyce, Marcel Proust, T. S. Eliot, and the other major figures of the modernist movement. While on one hand he shared their feelings of gloom about the degeneration of modern European life and looked to ancient mythologies for prototypes of the rebirth all saw as necessary, on the other he keenly distrusted the modernists’ veneration of traditional culture and their classicist aesthetics. The modernist ideal of art as “an escape from personality,” as a finished and perfected creation sufficient unto itself, was anathema to Lawrence, who once claimed that his motto was not art for art’s sake but “art for my sake.” For him, life and art were intertwined, both expressions of the same quest: “To be alive, to be man alive, to be whole man alive: that is the point.” The novel realized its essential function best when it embodied and vitally enacted the novelist’s mercurial sensibility. His spontaneity, his limitations and imperfections, and his fleeting moments of intuition were directly transmitted to the reader, whose own “instinct for life” would be thereby quickened. Lawrence believed that at its best “the novel, and the novel supremely,” could and should perform this important task. That is why he insisted that the novel is “the one bright book of life.” One way of approaching his own novels—and the most significant, by general consensus, are Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, Women in Love, The Plumed Serpent, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover—is to consider the extent to which the form and content of each in turn rises to this vitalist standard.
To be “whole man alive,” for Lawrence, involved first of all the realization of wholeness. The great enemy of human (and of aesthetic) wholeness, he believed, was modern life itself. Industrialization had cut man off from the past, had mechanized his daily life and transformed human relations into a power struggle to acquire material commodities, thereby alienating man from contact with the divine potency residing in both nature and other men and women. Modern Europe was therefore an accumulation of dead or dying husks, fragmented and spiritually void, whose inevitable expression was mass destruction. For Lawrence, World War I was the apotheosis of modernization.
Contemporary history provided only the end result of a long process of atomization and dispersion whose seeds lay in ancient prehistory. In Fantasia of the Unconscious (1922), Lawrence formulates a myth of origins that sheds light on his quest for wholeness in his travels among “primitive” peoples as well as in his novels. He describes a kind of golden age before the Flood, when the pagan world, both geographically and culturally, was a single, unified entity. This Ur-culture, unlike the modern fragmented age, had developed a holistic knowledge or “science in terms of life.” The primal wisdom did not differentiate among body, mind, and spirit; the objective and the subjective were one, as the reason and the passions were one; man and nature and the cosmos lived in harmonious relation with one another. Men and women all over the earth shared this knowledge. They “wandered back and forth from Atlantis to the Polynesian Continent.The interchange was complete, and knowledge, science, was universal over the earth.” Then the glaciers melted, whole continents were drowned, and the monolithic world fragmented into isolated races, each developing its own culture, its own “science.” A few refugees from the lost continents fled to the high ground of Europe, Asia, and America. There they “refused to forget, but taught the old wisdom, only in its half-forgotten, symbolic forms. More or less forgotten, as knowledge: remembered as ritual, gesture, and myth-story.”
In modern Europe, even these vestiges of the old universal knowledge had largely become extinct, and with them died what was left of the unitary being of man. First Christianity, with its overemphasis on bodiless spirituality, and then modern science, with its excessive dependence on finite reason as the instrument of control over a merely mechanistic world, had killed it. After the war Lawrence hoped, in traveling to lands where Christianity, modern science, and industrialization had not yet fully taken hold, to uncover the traces of the primalknowledge, if only “in its half-forgotten, symbolic forms.” By somehow establishing a vital contact with “primitive” men and women and fusing his “white consciousness” with their “dark-blood consciousness,” he hoped to usher in the next phase in the development of the human race. His novels would sound the clarion call—awakening the primordial memory by means of “ritual, gesture, and myth-story”—summoning “whole man alive” to cross over the threshold into the New World of regenerated being.
Although this myth of apocalypse and rebirth was fully articulated during Lawrence’s “wander years” after the war, it was clearly anticipated in his earlier works. There the horror of the modern world’s “drift toward death” and the yearning for some “holy ground” on which to begin anew were keenly felt. The initial experience of fragmentation in Lawrence’s life was obviously the primal conflict between his mother and father, which among other things resulted in a confusion in his own sexual identity. In the fiction of this period, the stunting of life by fragmentation and imbalance is evident in the portrayal of such characters as Miriam Leivers in Sons and Lovers, Anton Skrebensky in The Rainbow, and Gerald Crich in Women in Love, just as the quest for vital wholeness is exemplified in the same novels by Paul Morel, Ursula Brangwen, and Rupert Birkin, respectively. If the secondary characters in Lawrence’s novels tend in general to be static types seen from without, his protagonists, beginning with Ursula in The Rainbow and continuing through Constance Chatterley in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, are anything but static. Rather, they are volatile, inconsistent, and sometimes enigmatic. In The Plumed Serpent, Kate Leslie vacillates between intellectual abstraction and immediate sensuous experience; between egotistic willfulness and utter self-abandonment to another; between withdrawal behind the boundaries of the safe and the known, and the passionate yearning for metamorphosis; and so on. There is a constant ebb and flow in Kate’s behavior, even a rough circularity, that creates a spontaneous, improvisatory feeling in her narrative. Lawrence’s protagonists are always in flux, realizing by turns the various aspects of their natures, and this dynamism is largely what makes them so alive. They are open to life: in themselves, in their natural environment, and in other vital human beings.
Lawrence believed that the novel was the one form of human expression malleable enough to articulate and dramatize the dynamic process of living. In his essay “Why the Novel Matters,” he celebrates the novelist’s advantage over the saint, the scientist, and the philosopher, all of whom deal only with parts of the composite being of humankind. The novelist alone, says Lawrence, is capable of rendering the whole of “man alive.” He alone, by so doing, “can make the whole man alive [that is, the reader] tremble.”
The priestly or prophetic function of the novelist is clearly central to this aesthetic doctrine. Lawrence is one of the very few modern writers to assume this role and to do so explicitly. At times, this very explicitness becomes problematic. His novels are quite uneven; most are marred in varying degrees by hectoring didacticism that is less evident in his short fiction. Nevertheless, he needed the amplitude of an extended narrative to give voice to the several sides of his complex sensibility, as if to discover himself in the process. Perhaps that, as much as anything else, was the object of his quest. Collectively his novels represent a restless search for a form capable of rendering that sensibility fully and honestly.
Sons and Lovers
In a letter written a few months after the publication of Sons and Lovers, Lawrence made an admission that suggests that “art for my sake” could have been a cathartic as well as a heuristic function. “One sheds one’s sickness in books,” he wrote, “repeats and presents one’s emotions, to be master of them.” Sons and Lovers, his third novel, was the work that enabled Lawrence to come to terms, at least provisionally, with the traumas of his formative years. The more than two years he spent working and reworking the book amounted to an artistic and psychological rite of passage essential to his development as a man and as a writer.
The novel spans the first twenty-six years in the life of Paul Morel. Because of the obvious similarities between Paul’s experiences and Lawrence’s, and because the story in part concerns Paul’s apprenticeship as an artist—or, more accurately, the obstacles he must overcome to be an artist—the novel has been seen as an example of a subspecies of the bildungsroman, the Künstlerroman. Comparison with James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) suggests, however, how loosely the term applies to Lawrence’s novel. Where Joyce scrupulously selects only those scenes and episodes of Stephen Dedalus’s life that directly contribute to the young artist’s development (his first use of language, his schooling, his imaginative transcendence of sex, religion, and politics, his aesthetic theories), Lawrence’s focus is far more diffuse.
The novel opens with a conventional set-piece description of the town of Bestwood (modeled on Eastwood) as it has been affected by the arrival and growth of the mining industry during the last half century. This is followed by an account of the courtship and early married life of Walter and Gertrude Morel, Paul’s parents. Even after Paul’s birth, the main emphasis remains for many chapters on the mother and father, and considerable space is devoted to their first child, William, whose sudden death and funeral conclude part 1 of the novel. Paul’s interest in drawing is mentioned halfway through part 1, but it is not a major concern until he becomes friends with Miriam Leivers in part 2, and there the companionship itself actually receives more attention. Though the comparison does an injustice to the nature of Lawrence’s real achievement in the novel, perhaps Sons and Lovers more nearly resembles Stephen Hero (1944), the earlier and more generally autobiographical version of Joyce’s novel, than it does the tightly constructed A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
When, in the late stages of revision, Lawrence changed his title from Paul Morel to Sons and Lovers, his motive was akin to Joyce’s when the Irishman discarded Stephen Hero and began to rewrite. The motive was form—form determined by a controlling idea. The subject of Sons and Lovers is not simply Paul’s development but his development as an instance of the pattern suggested by the title; that pattern involves the Morels’ unhappy marriage, the fateful experiences of Paul’s brother William, Paul’s frustrated relationship with Miriam, and his later encounters with Clara and Baxter Dawes, as well as Paul’s own maturation. For Lawrence, the pattern clearly had wide application. Indeed, in a letter to Edward Garnett, his editor, written a few days after completing the revised novel, Lawrence claimed that his book sounded “the tragedy of thousands of young men in England.”
This claim, along with the change in title and the late revisions designed to underscore a theme already present in the narrative, was probably influenced by the discussions that Lawrence and Frieda had in 1912 regarding Freud’s theories, of which Frieda was then an enthusiastic proponent. (There is no evidence of Lawrence’s awareness of Freud before this.) In a more general sense, the “tragedy” was rooted historically, as the novel shows, in the disruption of natural human relationships that was one of the by-products of modernization. Directly or indirectly, the characters in the novel are entrapped by the materialistic values of their society, unable even when they consciously reject those values to establish true contact with one another. Instead they tend to treat one another as objects to be possessed or manipulated for the purpose of self-gratification.
Thus Mrs. Morel, frustrated by her marriage to her coal miner husband, transfers her affections to her sons, first to William, the eldest, and then to Paul after William’s death. Walter Morel, the father, becomes a scapegoat and an outcast in his own home. Whether consciously or not, Mrs. Morel uses her sons as instruments to work out her own destiny vicariously, encouraging them in pursuits that will enable them to escape the socially confining life that she herself cannot escape, yet resenting it when the sons do begin to make a life away from her. Paul’s fixation on his mother—and his hatred of his father—contributes to a confusion of his sexual identity and to his inability to love girls his own age in a normal, healthy way. In the same letter to Edward Garnett, Lawrence characterized this inability to love as a “split,” referring to the rupture in the son’s natural passions caused by the mother’s possessive love.
The split causes Paul to seek out girls who perform the psychological role of mother surrogates: Miriam, an exaggerated version of the spiritual, Madonna-like aspect of the mother image; and the buxom Clara Dawes, who from a Freudian viewpoint represents the “degraded sex object,” the fallen woman, equally a projection of the son’s prohibited erotic desires for his mother. Because Paul’s feeling for Miriam and Clara are thus compartmentalized and unbalanced, both relationships are unfulfilling, a fact that only reinforces his Oedipal bondage. At the same time, part of the responsibility for the unsatisfactory relationships belongs to Miriam and Clara themselves, both of whom exploit Paul to help them fulfill their own private fantasy lives. The world of Sons and Lovers is populated by isolated, fragmentary souls not unlike the inhabitants of T. S. Eliot’s 1922 The Waste Land (“We think of the key, each in his prison/ Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison”).
A decade after the appearance of Sons and Lovers, Lawrence declared that of all his books, it was the one he would like to rewrite, because in it he had treated his father unfairly. By then, of course, he was overtly committed to finding embodiments of “whole man alive” and, in retrospect, his father seemed to offer such an embodiment. When he wrote Sons and Lovers, however, he had not yet fully come to appreciate the importance of his father’s unaffected male vitality. Although occasionally Walter Morel appears in a favorable light, the novel generally emphasizes his ineffectuality as a husband and father. The Oedipal conflict on which the story hinges perhaps made this unavoidable. In any event, the struggle to attain wholeness is centered in Paul Morel.
Because Paul’s mother is “the pivot and pole of his life, from which he could not escape,” her death amounts to the great crisis of the novel. The terrible spectacle of her agony as she lies dying slowly of cancer torments Paul until, by giving her an overdose of morphine, he commits a mercy killing. Unconsciously, the act seems to be motivated by his desire to release her from her debilitating “bondage” as wife and mother, the roles that have made her erotically unattainable to Paul. Her death is followed by an eerie, Poe-like scene in which the shaken Paul, momentarily imagining his mother as a beautiful young sleeping maiden, stoops and kisses her “passionately,” as if to waken her like the handsome prince in a fairy tale, only to be horrified by her cold and unresponsive lips. It is a key moment, adumbrating as it does the writer’s subsequent shift in allegiances to the “sensuous flame of life” associated with his father. For Paul, however, the loss of his mother induces a period of deep depression (interestingly enough, guilt is not mentioned) in which his uppermost desire is to reunite with his mother in death. This “drift towards death” was what Lawrence believed made Paul’s story symptomatic of the times, “the tragedy of thousands of young men in England.”
Nevertheless, the novel does not end tragically. Paul, on the verge of suicide, decides instead to turn his back on the “immense dark silence” where his lover/mother awaits him and to head toward the “faintly humming, glowing town”—and beyond it, to the Continent, where he plans to continue his artistic endeavors (just as Lawrence did). Some readers have found this last-minute turnabout implausible, a breakdown in the novel’s form, but Lawrence anticipates Paul’s “rebirth” by having him realize, after his mother’s death, that he must finally sever his ties to both Miriam and Clara. For him to have returned to them then for consolation and affection would have meant that, inwardly, he was still cherishing some hope of preserving the maternal bond, even if only through his mother’s unsatisfactory substitutes. When Paul effects a reconciliation between Clara and her estranged husband Baxter Dawes, who has been presented throughout in terms strongly reminiscent of Walter Morel, he is (as Daniel A. Weiss and others have observed) tacitly acting out a reversal of the original Oedipal conflict. If the primary emphasis of Sons and Lovers is on the tragic split in the emotional lives of the Morels, its conclusion finds Paul taking the steps necessary to begin to heal the split in himself. Only by so doing would Paul, like Lawrence, be able to undertake a quest for vital wholeness. That quest would become the chief subject of the novels following Sons and Lovers.
As sometimes happens to a writer after he has successfully struggled to transform autobiography into art, Lawrence reacted against Sons and Lovers almost as soon as he had finished it. The process of reevaluating the influence of his parents, begun in his revisions of the novel and particularly evident in its concluding chapters, continued apace. His nonfiction of the period exhibits a growing hostility to women as spawners of intellectual and spiritual abstraction and the early traces of his interest in the reassertion of the vital male. Lawrence reacted also against certain aspects of the narrative technique used in Sons and Lovers. As he worked on his next novel, initially called The Sisters, he found that he was no longer interested in “visualizing” or “creating vivid scenes” in which characters revealed themselves through dramatic encounters and dialogue. Theconventions of plot and the “furniture” of realisticexposition bored him. Moreover, the traditional methods of characterization were positively a hindrance to the kind of novel he felt he must write.
Lawrence had in fact embarked on a long and difficult struggle to create a new kind of novel, unprecedented in English fiction. When his publisher balked, Lawrence defended his experiment in an important letter that clarifies his intentions not only in what would eventually become The Rainbow and Women in Love but in most of his subsequent fiction: You mustn’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 than any we’ve been used to exercise, to discover are states of the same radically unchanged element. (Like as diamond and coal are the same pure single element of carbon.)
What all this suggests, and what is implicit in the novels themselves, is that the conventions of realism, which were developed preeminently in the English novel of the nineteenth century, are inadequate tools for use by a writer whose aim is the transformation of the very society whose values were embodied in realism. The “old-fashioned human element,” “the old stable ego,” the “certain moral scheme” prescribing “consistency” and linear development—these were relics of positivism, bourgeois humanism, and other ideologies of a dying culture. Lawrence gropes a bit in the attempt to describe their successors, but it is clear enough that the “other ego,” the “physic” or nonhuman in humanity, and the“radically unchanged element” whose “allotropic” transformations determine a “rhythmic form” along lines unknown, are references to the mysterious source of vital energies capable (he believed) of regenerating both art and society.
The Rainbow applies these ideas in a most interesting way. It is an elegiac study of the dying culture, written in Lawrence’s revolutionary “new” manner. The story spans three generations of the Brangwen family, beginning with the advent of industrialism around 1840 in the rural Erewash valley—signaled by the construction of canals, the collieries, and the railroad—and continuing up to the first decade of the twentieth century. The theme is the destruction of the traditional way of life and the attempt, by the Brangwens, either to accommodate themselves to that loss or to transcend it by discovering a new basis for being.
The novel opens with a rhapsodic prose poem telescoping two hundred years of Brangwens into archetypal male and female figures living in “blood intimacy” with one another and with the land: “The pulse of the blood of the teats of the cows beat into the pulse of the hands of the men. [The men] mounted their horses and held life between the grip of their knees.” Despite their “vital connection,” however, there are opposing impulses in the male and the female principles that become increasingly important as the story proceeds. The Brangwen men, laboring in the fields of the Marsh Farm, are compared with the rim of a wheel revolving around the still center that is hearth and home; the women, like the axle of the wheel, live in the still center but always direct their gaze outward, beyond the wheel’s rim toward the road, the village, the church steeple, “the spoken world” that is encroaching on the horizon. This tension between centripetal and centrifugal forces, the rim and the axle, is fruitful so long as the Brangwens live in harmony with the land, for it is a reflection of the cyclical processes of nature in which the clash of opposites generates change and growth.
With the second generation, however, the principal Brangwen couple, Will and Anna, leaves the land and moves to the industrial town of Beldover, where Will works in a shop that produces machine-made lace. The seasonal cycle is replaced by the Christian liturgical calendar, in Lawrence’s view a step toward abstraction. The old male-female opposition, having lost its former function as the means by which men and women participate in the dynamic rhythms of nature, becomes a destructive force. The marriage of contraries loses impetus because it now reflects not nature but the mechanisms that are dividing society. Husband and wife settle into a fixed domestic routine, typically Victorian, of piety (on Will’s side) and child rearing (on Anna’s). Anna’s “outward” impulse is thus sublimated, and, like Gertrude Morel in Sons and Lovers, she counts on her children to act out her frustrated quest beyond the pale.
Most important of these children is the oldest daughter, Ursula, who, with her sister Gudrun, will also figure prominently in Women in Love. Ursula has been called “the first complete modern woman” (Marvin Mudrick) and, even more sweepingly, “the first ’free soul’” (Keith Sagar) in the English novel. It is Ursula, a member of Lawrence’s own generation, who finally breaks out of the old circle of life. As she grows into womanhood she challenges and ultimately rejects traditional views of religion, democracy, education, free enterprise, love, and marriage. She is the first Brangwen female to enter a profession and support herself (as a schoolteacher); she attends the university; she travels to London and the Continent. On several levels, then, her “centrifugal” movement takes her far afield. Despite her explorations, however, she has no sense of who she really is. The traditional order, which formerly provided a living relationship with nature and with other men and women, has all but collapsed. Motivated only by her isolate will and unreciprocated by any meaningful male contrary—as is amply demonstrated by her unsatisfying love affairs with Winifred Inger, her schoolmistress, and the shallow Anton Skrebensky—Ursula’s quest becomes a desperate exercise in redundancy and futility, her vital energies randomly dispersed.
The novel ends as it began, symbolically. In the last of a series of “ritual scenes,” in which characters are suddenly confronted with the “physic” or nonhuman “ego” that is the mysterious life force, Ursula encounters a herd of stampeding horses. Whether hallucinatory or actual, the horses seem to represent the “dark” potencies that she has tried so long to discover on her quest and that have so far eluded her. Now, terrified, she escapes. Soon after, she falls ill with pneumonia, miscarries a child by Skrebensky, and lies delirious with fever for nearly a fortnight. All this is fitting as the culmination of Ursula’s abortive, well-driven quest. Her “drift toward death,” more like a plunge finally, is even more representative of her generation’s crisis than Paul Morel’s was in Sons and Lovers. As in the earlier novel, furthermore, Lawrence attempts to end The Rainbow on a hopeful note. After her convalescence, Ursula awakes one morning on the shores of what appears to be a new world, “as if a new day had come on the earth.” Having survived the deluge, she is granted a vision of the rainbow—a symbol related to but superseding the old closed circle—which seems to offer hope for the regeneration not only of Ursula but also of her world.
On both levels, however, the symbolic promise is less than convincing. Unlike Paul Morel, Ursula has not performed any action or had any insight that suggests that her final “rebirth” is more than wishful thinking. As for the modern world’s regeneration, when the novel appeared, in September, 1915, nothing could have been less likely. Lawrence hated the war, but like many other modern writers he saw it as the harbinger of the apocalypse, accelerating the advent of a new age. Before long he realized that he had “set my rainbow in the sky too soon, before, instead of after, the deluge.” The furor provoked by the novel must have made the irony of his premature hopefulness all the more painful. In the teeth of that furor and the public persecution waged against Frieda and himself as supposed German spies, Lawrence set about writing Women in Love, considered by many today his greatest novel and one of the half dozen or so masterpieces of modern fiction.
Women in Love
Whatever their differences with respect to the emphasis placed on the operations of the “physic,” or nonhuman, forces in humanity, Sons and Lovers and The Rainbow share several important traits that set them apart from most of Lawrence’s subsequent novels, beginning with Women in Love. For one, they have in common a narrative structure that, by locating the action firmly within a social context spanning generations, subscribes to the novelistic convention of rendering the story of individuals continuous with the larger movements of history. Women in Love takes up the story of the “modern” Brangwens about three and one-half years after the end of The Rainbow but, in contrast to the earlier novel’s sixty-six-year span, concentrates attention onto a series of loosely connected episodes occurring within a ten-month period, from spring to winter of 1909 or 1910.
One result of this altered focus, at once narrower and relatively looser than that of the earlier novels, is that the social background seems far more static than before. The great transformation of society known as modernization has already occurred, and the characters move within a world whose ostensible change is the slow, inward process of decay. The shift of emphasis is evident also in the protagonists’ attitudes toward society. The conclusions of the earlier novels—Paul’s turning away from death toward the “humming, glowing town,” and Ursula’s vision of the rainbow offering hope that a corrupt world would “issue to a new germination”—imply that Western civilization could still respond to the most urgent needs of the individual. In Women in Love that assumption has completely vanished. Thus, although Lawrence originally conceived of The Rainbow and Women in Love as a single work and would later describe them as forming together “an organic artistic whole,” the latter novel embodies a far darker view of the world. As Lawrence once said, Women in Love “actually does contain the results in one’s soul of the war: it is purely destructive, not like The Rainbow, destructive-consummating.”
The phrase “purely destructive” only slightly exaggerates the despairing nature of the novel’s apocalyptic vision. Certainly its depiction of modern society as a dying tree “infested with little worms and dry-rot” suggests that the impetus toward death and destruction is so pervasive as to make the war all but inevitable. In the novel, the working class, far from resisting the dehumanizing mechanism of the industrial system, is “satisfied to belong to the great wonderful machine, even whilst it destroyed them.” The leisure class is seen as similarly deluded and doomed. Hermione Roddice’s chic gatherings at Breadalby, her country estate (modeled on Lady Ottoline Morrell’s Garsington), offer no genuine alternative to the dying world but only a static image of the “precious past,” where all is formed and final and accomplished—a “horrible, dead prison” of illusory peace. Meanwhile contemporary art has abdicated its time-honored role as naysayer to a corrupt social order. Indeed, in the gay artist Halliday, the promiscuous Minette, and the other decadent bohemians who congregate at the Pompadour Café in London, Lawrence clearly implicates intellectual and artistic coteries such as Bloomsbury in the general dissolution of modern society.
That the pandering of the modern artist to the death-drive of mechanistic society was a general phenomenon and not limited to England is emphasized near the end of the novel with the appearance of Loerke, a German sculptor whose work adorns “a great granite factory in Cologne.” Loerke, who asserts on one hand that art should interpret industry as it had formerly interpreted religion and on the other that a work of art has no relation to anything but itself, embodies the amorality of modernist aesthetics from Lawrence’s viewpoint. Dominated by “pure unconnected will,” Loerke is, like Hermione, sexually perverse, and, like the habitués of the Pompadour, he “lives like a rat in the river of corruption.”
All of these secondary characters in Women in Love exemplify the results of the displacement of the traditional order by industrialization, or what Lawrence terms “the first great phase of chaos, the substitution of the mechanical principle for the organic.” Except for Hermione, they are consistently presented from without, in static roles prescribed for them by a static society. Against this backdrop move the four principal characters: Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen, who are sisters, and Rupert Birkin and Gerald Crich, who are friends. The interweaving relationships of these four, highlighted in scenes of great emotional intensity and suggestiveness, provide the “rhythmic form” of the novel. Notwithstanding their interactions with external society and their long philosophical arguments, they are chiefly presented in terms of a continuous struggle among the elemental energies vying for expression within them. Mark Schorer aptly describes the book as “a drama of primal compulsions.” The “drama” concerns the conflict between the mechanical will and the organic oneness of being, between the “flux of corruption” or death and the regenerative forces of life, as these are variously embodied in the four main characters and their constantly shifting relationships.
Birkin, full of talk about spontaneity and “pure being” and the “blood-knowledge” available in sensuality, is clearly a spokesman for certain of Lawrence’s favorite ideas. Considering this, it is interesting that from the outset the novel emphasizes his involvement in the death fixation of modern society at large. He has been one of the “mud-flowers” at the Café Pompadour. In addition, he has been for several years involved in an affair with the perverse socialite Hermione, an affair that has degenerated into a hysterical battle of wills, sapping Birkin of his male vitality. As he tells Gerald, he wants above all to center his life on “the finality of love” for one woman and close relationships with a few other friends, but his goal is frustrated by the lingering parody of it represented in Hermione and the London bohemians. It is therefore significant that he is frequently ill and once goes to the south of France for several weeks to recuperate. His sickness is as much spiritual as physical. Dissatisfied with his prosaic career as a school inspector and frustrated in his relationships, he often finds himself “in pure opposition to everything.” In this depressed state he becomes preoccupied with death and dissolution, “that dark river” (as he calls it) that seethes through all modern reality, even love. Not until after his violent break with Hermione, during which she nearly kills him, does Birkin begin to find his way back to life.
Unlike Birkin, Gerald does not believe that love can form the center of life. Instead he maintains that there is no center to life but simply the “social mechanism” that artificially holds it together; as for loving, Gerald is incapable of it. Indeed the novel everywhere implies that his inability to love derives from his abdication of vital, integrated being in favor of mere social fulfillment. As an industrial magnate (he is the director of the local coal mines and has successfully modernized them), Gerald advocates what Birkin calls the “ethics of productivity,” the “pure instrumentality of mankind,” being for him the basis of social cohesion and progress. If society is essentially mechanistic, Gerald’s ambition is to be “the God of the machine” whose will is “to subjugate Matter to his own ends. The subjugation itself,” Lawrence adds significantly, “was the point.” This egotistic obsession is illustrated in a powerful scene in which Gerald rides a young Arab mare up to a railroad track and, while Gudrun and Ursula look on aghast, he violently forces the terrified mare to stay put as the train races noisily by them. The impact of this cruel assertion of will to power registers forcefully on Ursula, who is duly horrified and outraged, and on Gudrun, who is mesmerized by the “unutterable subordination” of the mare to the “indomitable” male.
After abortive affairs with other women, Birkin and Gerald are inevitably attracted to the Brangwen sisters. The protracted ebb and flow of the two relationships is tellingly juxtaposed in a series of scenes richly symbolic of the central dialectic of life and death. Meanwhile, not content with the romantic promise of finding love with a woman only, Birkin proposes to Gerald that they form a vital male bond as of blood brothers pledged to mutual love and fidelity. Whatever its unconscious origins, the intent of the offer is clearly not sexual. As the rest of the novel demonstrates (anticipating a theme that becomes more central and explicit in subsequent novels such as Aaron’s Rod and The Plumed Serpent), Birkin is searching for a kind of pure intimacy in human relationships. He seeks with both men and women a bond of blood and mind and spirit—the integrated wholeness of being that for Lawrence was sacred—that when realized might form the nucleus of a new, vital human community. Because of Gerald’s identification with the mechanism of industrial society, Birkin’s repeated offer of a Blutbrüderschaft amounts to an invitation to a shared rebirth emblematic of epochal transfiguration, an apocalypse in microcosm. Because of that same identification, of course, Gerald, confused and threatened, must refuse the offer. Instead he chooses to die.
The choice of death is brilliantly dramatized in Gerald’s impassioned encounters with Gudrun. Despite her earlier identification with the mare he brutally “subordinated,” Gudrun might still have offered him the sort of vital relationship that both so desperately need. At any rate, had they been able to pursue their potential for love, the sort of shared commitment to mutual “being” that Birkin offers Gerald and that he eventually discovers with Ursula, regeneration, however painful and difficult, could have been realized. Rather than accept this challenge, however, Gerald falls back on his usual tactics and tries to subjugate Gudrun to his will. After his father’s death, he becomes acutely aware of the void in his life and turns at once to Gudrun—walking straight from the cemetery in the rain to her house, up to her bedroom, his shoes still heavy with mud from the grave—not out of love but desperate need: the need to assert himself, heedless of the “otherness” of another, as if in so doing he could verify by sheer force of will that he exists. Because this egotistic passion is a perversion of love as Lawrence saw it, however, and because Gerald’s yearning for ontological security is a perversion of the quest for true being, Gerald’s anxieties are only made worse by his contact with Gudrun. For her part, Gudrun, unlike the helplessly dominated mare, never yields herself fully to Gerald. In fact, she does all she can to thwart and humiliate him, and their relationship soon becomes a naked battle of wills. It is redundant to say that this is a battle to the death, for, on the grounds that it is fought, the battle itself is death in Lawrencian terms. In the end, Gerald, whose aim all along as “God of the machine” had been to subjugate Matter to his will, becomes literally a frozen corpse whose expression terrifies Birkin with its “last terrible look of cold, mute Matter.” Gudrun, headed at the end for a rendezvous with the despicable Loerke, arrives at a like consummation.
Whatever Lawrence might say about the “purely destructive” forces at work in Women in Love, in the relationship of Birkin and Ursula he finds a seed of new life germinating, albeit precariously, within the “dark river of dissolution.” After the severance of his nearly fatal tie with Hermione, Birkin finds himself for a time in a quandary. Believing as he still does that the only means of withstanding dissolution is to center his life on close human ties, he casts about him to discover precisely the kind of relationship that will best serve or enact his quest for being. The “purely sensual, purely unspiritual knowledge” represented by a primitive statue of an African woman impresses Birkin but finally proves too remote a mystery for him to emulate; in any event, the modern female embodiments of this “mystic knowledge” of the senses are, like Hermione and Gudrun, will-dominated and murderous. A second way is that represented by the proposed bond with Gerald, the “Nordic” machine-god who for Birkin represents “the vast abstraction of ice and snow,snow-abstract annihilation.” When these alternatives both reveal themselves as mere “allotropic” variations of the flux of corruption from which he seeks release, Birkin finally hits upon a third way, “the way of freedom.” He conceives of it in idealistic terms, as the paradisal entry into pure, single being, the individual soul taking precedence over love and desire for union, stronger than any pangs of emotion, a lovely state of free proud singleness, which accepted the obligation of the permanent connection with others, and with the other, submits to the yoke and leash of love, but never forfeits its own proud individual singleness, even while it loves and yields.
It is a difficult and elusive ideal, and when Birkin tries, laboriously, to describe it to UrsulA&Mdash;inviting her to join him in a new, strange relationship, “not meeting and minglingbut an equilibrium, a pure balance of two single beings” dynamically counterpoised as two stars are—she mocks him for dissimulating. Why does he not simply declare his love for her without “dragging in the stars”? She has a point, and Lawrence’s art only benefits from such moments of self-criticism. Still, these paradoxical images of separateness in union, of a bond that finds its strength in the reciprocal affirmation of “otherness,” do express, like the wheel’s axle and rim in The Rainbow, Lawrence’s essential vision of integrated, dynamic relationships. Furthermore, only by actively pursuing such a marriage of opposites, in which the separateness of each partner is necessary to the indissolubility of the bond, can both parties be caught up in something altogether new: “the third,” which transcends individual selves in the oneness of pure being. For Lawrence this is the true consummation, springing up from “the source of the deepest life-force.”
So polluted had the river of life become in modern Europe, however, that Lawrence could no longer bring himself to believe that this transcendence, ephemeral as it was to begin with, could survive the general cataract of dissolution. Moreover, even when Birkin and Ursula do find fulfillment together, it is not enough; for Birkin, at any rate, the new dispensation must involve other people as well as themselves. For both reasons, the quest for integrated wholeness of being, a mystery into which Birkin and Ursula are only new initiates, becomes translated into a pilgrimage through space. They must depart from the old, dying world and, like Lawrence and Frieda after the war, proceed in search of holy ground. The primary focus of subsequent novels, this quest is defined in Women in Love simply as “wandering to nowhere,away from the world’s somewheres.” As “nowhere” is the translation of the word utopia, the social impetus of the search is implicit. “It isn’t really a locality, though,” Birkin insists. “It’s a perfected relation between you and me, and othersso that we are free together.” With this ideal before him, Lawrence was poised at the crossroads of his career.
In the postwar novels, which present fictionalized versions of his and Frieda’s experiences in Italy (Aaron’s Rod), Australia (Kangaroo), and Mexico (The Plumed Serpent), the quest translates increasingly into a sociopolitical doctrine projected onto whole societies. The bond between men and the fascination of powerful male leaders became more and more of an obsession in these novels. Lawrence tried mightily to remain faithful to the notion that the regeneration of societies should correspond to the “perfected relations” between individuals. The analogy presented difficulties, however, and the struggle to express his essentially religious vision in political terms proved fatal to his art. There are brilliant moments in all of these novels, especially in The Plumed Serpent, yet the alien aspects of the foreign lands he visited finally obscured the central issues in what was, at bottom, a quest for self-discovery. Women in Love, still in touch with the real motives of that quest and yielding immediate access to its first (and, as it turned out, finest) fruits, offers the richest rendering of both the modern drift toward death and its Lawrencian antidote, “whole man alive.”
However ill defined the object of his protagonists’ plans for flight from Europe, ever since the cataclysm of 1914-1918, Lawrence himself had determined to relocate in the United States. Florida, California, upstate New York, New Mexico—all at one time or another figured as proposed sites of his American Dream. In one of these areas, apart from the great urban centers, he would establish a utopian colony to be called Rananim. There he would start over again, free from the runaway entropy of modern Europe. In America, and more particularly aboriginal America, he believed that the Tree of Life remained intact, its potency still issuing “up from the roots, crude but vital.” Nevertheless, when the war ended he did not go to America straightaway but headed east, not to arrive in the Western Hemisphere until late in 1922. During this prolonged period of yearning, his vision of America as the New World of the soul, the locus of the regeneration of humankind, took on an increasingly definite form. He was imaginatively committed to it even before settling near Taos, New Mexico, where he and Frieda lived on a mountain ranch for most of the next three years.
After studying the classic works of early American literature, he decided that he would write an “American novel,” that is, a novel that would invoke and adequately respond to the American “spirit of place.” For Lawrence the continent’s daemon was the old “blood-and-vertebrate consciousness” embodied in the Mesoamerican Indian and his aboriginal religion. Because of four centuries of white European domination, that spirit had never been fully realized, yet despite the domination it still lay waiting beneath the surface for an annunciation. The terms of this vision, even apart from other factors having to do with his frustrating contacts with Mable Dodge Luhan and her coterie of artists in Taos, all but made it inevitable that Lawrence would sooner or later situate his American novel in a land where the Indian presence was more substantial than it was in the southwestern United States. The Pueblo Indian religion impressed him deeply with its “revelation of life,” but he realized that for a genuine, large-scale rebirth to occur in America, “a vast death-happening must come first” to break the hold of the degenerate white civilization. It was natural enough that he turned his eyes south to Mexico, a land that actually had been caught up in revolution for more than a decade—a revolution moreover in which the place of the Indian (who constituted more than 30 percent of the population) in the national life was a central issue. Reading pre-Columbian history and archaeology, Lawrence found in Aztec mythology a ready-made source of symbols and in the story of the Spanish conquest an important precedent for his narrative of contemporary counterrevolution and religious revival.
The Plumed Serpent
The writing of his Quetzalcoatl, the working title of what would become The Plumed Serpent, proved unusually difficult, however. Kangaroo had taken Lawrence only six weeks to write; Aaron’s Rod and The Lost Girl were also composed in sudden, if fitful, bursts. In contrast, he worked on his “American novel” off and on for nearly two years, even taking the precaution of writing such tales as “The Woman who Rode Away,” “The Princess,” and “St. Mawr” (all of which have much in common with the novel), and the Mexican travel sketches in Mornings in Mexico, as a kind of repeated trial run for his more ambitious project.
One reason the novel proved recalcitrant was that Lawrence became increasingly aware during his three journeys into the Mexican interior that his visionary Mexico and the real thing were far from compatible. The violence of the country appalled him; its revolution, which he soon dismissed as “self-serving Bolshevism,” left him cold; and most important, its Roman Catholic Indians were demonstrably uninterested and seemingly incapable of responding to the sort of pagan revival called for by Lawrence’s apocalyptic scheme. So committed was he to his American “Rananim,” however, that he was unwilling or unable to entertain the possibility of its failure. Rather than qualify his program for world regeneration in the light of the widening breach between his long-cherished dream and the disappointing reality, he elaborated the dream more fully and explicitly than ever, inflating his claims for it in a grandiose rhetoric that only called its sincerity into question. Had he been content with a purely visionary, symbolic tale, a prose romance comparable in motive with William Butler Yeats’s imaginary excursions to “Holy Byzantium,” such questions would probably not have arisen. Lawrence, however, could not let go of his expectation that in Mexico the primordial spirit of place would answer to his clarion call.
At the same time, the realist in Lawrence allowed evidence to the contrary to appear in the form of his extraordinarily vivid perceptions of the malevolence of the Mexican landscape and its dark-skinned inhabitants. Even these, however, were forced into the pattern of New World apocalypse. In his desperation to have it both ways, doggedly asserting the identity of his own spiritual quest and the course of events in the literal, external world, he contrived a kind of symbolic or mythic formula in which sexual, religious, and political rebirth are not only equated but also presented as mutually dependent. The result, according to most critics, is a complicated muddle in which the parts, some of which are as fine as anything he ever wrote, do not make a whole. For Lawrence, however, the muddle itself would ultimately prove instructive.
In a sense, The Plumed Serpent begins where Women in Love ends. The flow of Birkin and Ursula’s relationship in the earlier novel is directed centrifugally away from England toward a nameless “nowhere” of shared freedom in pure being. In The Plumed Serpent, the protagonist, Kate Leslie, having heard the death knell of her spirit in Europe, has arrived at the threshold of the New World of mystery, where a rebirth awaits her “like a doom.” That the socialist revolution has addressed only the material needs of Mexicans and left their dormant spirit untouched suggests that Mexico is also in need of rebirth. Disgusted by the tawdry imitation of a modern European capital that is Mexico City, the seat of the failed revolution, Kate journeys westward to the remote lakeside village of Sayula. Sayula also happens to be the center of a new-Aztec religious revival led by Don Ramón Carrasco, who calls himself “the living Quetzalcoatl.” The boat trip down the “sperm-like” lake to Sayula begins Kate’s centripetal movement toward her destiny, and also Mexico’s movement toward an indigenous spiritual reawakening; both movements are directed, gradually but inexorably, toward an “immersion in a sea of living blood.”
Unlike Birkin and Ursula of Women in Love, Kate, a middle-aged Irish widow, wants at first only to be “alone with the unfolding flower of her own soul.” Her occasional contacts with the provincial Indians inspire in her a sense of wonder at their “dark” mystery, but at the same time she finds their very alienness oppressive and threatening. She feels that the country wants to pull her down, “with a slow, reptilian insistence,” to prevent her “free” spirit from soaring. Since Kate values her freedom and her solitude, she retreats periodically from the “ponderous, down-pressing weight” that she associates with the coils of the old Aztec feathered serpent, Quetzalcoatl.
Don Ramón explains to her that she must submit to this weight on the spirit, for by pulling her down into the earth it may bring her into contact with the deep-rooted Tree of Life, which still thrives in the volcanic soil of primordial Mexico beneath the “paleface overlay” on the surface. This injunction is aimed not only at Kate but also at contemporary Mexico itself, which, beckoned by the pulsating drumbeats and hymns of the Men of Quetzalcoatl, is urged to turn its back on the imported white creeds (Catholicism and Bolshevism) and rediscover its indigenous roots. Only by yielding their hold on the conscious will can the “bound” egos of the Mexicans as well as of Kate achieve a transfiguration, symbolized in the novel by the Morning Star. Indeed, as a representative of white “mental consciousness,” Kate is destined to perform an important role in the new dispensation in Mexico. Ramón’s aim is to forge a new mode of consciousness emerging from the dynamic tension between the white and dark sensibilities. The new mode is embodied by Ramón himself, in his capacity to “see both ways” without being absorbed by either, just as the ancient man-god Quetzalcoatl united the sky and the earth, and as the Morning Star (associated with Quetzalcoatl) partakes of both night and day, moon and sun, yet remains itself.
Thus described, this doctrine may seem a welcome elaboration of the star-equilibrium theory of human relationships advanced by Birkin in the earlier novel. The transcendent emergence of “the third,” at best an elusive idea of divine immanence in Women in Love, seems to be clarified by the Aztec cosmogonic symbolism of The Plumed Serpent. Undoubtedly the latter novel is the fullest statement of Lawrence’s vitalist religion, yet there is something in the very explicitness of the religion in the novel that renders it suspect. As if in tacit acknowledgment of this, Lawrence, impatient with the slow progress of Don Ramón’s appeal to the spirit, introduces a more overt form of conquest. When both Kate and Mexico fail to respond unequivocally to the invitation to submit voluntarily, Ramón reluctantly resorts to calling on the assistance of Don Cipriano Viedma, a full-blooded Indian general who commands a considerable army. Although Lawrence attempts to legitimate this move by having Ramón induct Cipriano into the neo-Aztec pantheon as “the living Huitzilopochtli” (the Aztec god of war) and by having Kate envision Cipriano as the Mexican Indian embodiment of “the ancient phallic mystery,the god-devil of the male Pan” before whom she must “swoon,” the novel descends into a pathological nightmare from which it never quite recovers.
It is not simply that Cipriano politicizes the religious movement, reducing it to yet another Latin American literary adventure that ends by imposing Quetzalcoatlism as the institutional religion of Mexico; nor is it simply that Cipriano, with Ramón’s blessing, dupes Kate into a kind of sexual subservience that puts Gerald Crich’s machine-god efforts with Gudrun (in Women in Love) to shame. The nadir of the novel is reached when Cipriano performs a public execution, stabbing to death three blindfolded prisoners who have betrayed Ramón. This brutal act is given priestly sanction by Ramón and even accepted by Kate, in her new role as Malintzi, fertility goddess in the nascent religion. “Why should I judge him?” asks Kate. “He is of the gods.What do I care if he kills people? His flame is young and clean. He is Huitzilopochtli, and I am Malintzi.” Their “godly” union is consummated at the foot of the altar in the new temple of Quetzalcoatl. At this point, if not before, the threefold quest for “immersion in a sea of living blood” ceases to serve a metaphorical function and becomes all too chillingly literal.
With its rigidified “mystical” doctrine, its hysterical rhetoric, and its cruelly inhuman advocacy of “necessary” bloodshed and supermasculine dominance, The Plumed Serpent offers what amounts to a perfect Lawrencian hell but persists in celebrating it as if it were the veritable threshold of paradise. The novel has found a few defenders among critics enamored of “mythic design,” but Harry T. Moore is surely correct in calling it “a tremendous volcano of a failure.” Though for a short time he thought it his best novel, by March, 1928, Lawrence himself repudiated The Plumed Serpent and the militaristic “leader of men” idea that it embodies.
Nevertheless, The Plumed Serpent marks a crucial phase in Lawrence’s development, for it carries to their ultimate conclusion the most disturbing implications of the ideas that had vexed his mind ever since the war. Submersion in the “dark blood,” as the novel demonstrates, could lead as readily to wholesale murder in the name of religion as to vital and spontaneous relations between men and women. By courageously following his chimerical “Rananim” dream through to its end in a horrific, palpable nightmare, Lawrence accepted enormous risks, psychological as well as artistic. The effort nearly cost him his life, bringing on a severe attack of tuberculosis complicated by malaria. In the few years that remained to him, however, he was in a real sense a man reborn, able to return in imagination (in The Virgin and the Gipsy and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, among other works) to his native Midlands, where he could once again take up the quest for “whole man alive,” happily unencumbered by the grandiose political imperatives of world regeneration. Purging him of this ideological sickness, the writing of The Plumed Serpent proved as salutary to his later career as Sons and Lovers had been to his period of greatest accomplishment.
When Lawrence settled in southern Europe after leaving America in late 1925, he began to reshape his spiritual map in ways suggestive of his shifting outlook during his last years. The problem with the United States, he decided, was that everyone was too tense. Americans took themselves and their role in the world far too seriously and were unable to slacken their grip on themselves for fear that the world would collapse as a result. In contrast, the Europeans (he was thinking chiefly of southern Europeans rather than his own countrymen) were freer and more spontaneous because they were not controlled by will and could therefore let themselves go. At bottom, the European attitude toward life was characterized by what Lawrence called “insouciance.” Relaxed, essentially free from undue care or fret, Europeans were open to “a sort of bubbling-in of life,” whereas the Americans’ more forthright pursuit of life only killed it.
Whether this distinction between America and Europe has any validity for others, for the post-America Lawrence it meant a great deal. In The Plumed Serpent, his “American novel,” instead of realizing the free and spontaneous life flow made accessible by insouciance, he engaged in an almost hysterical striving after life writ large, resorting to political demagoguery and a formalized religion fully armed with rifles as well as rites. Apparently aware in retrospect of his error, he eschewed the strong-leader/submissive-follower relationship as the keynote to regeneration. In its place he would focus on a new relationship: a “sort of tenderness, sensitive, between men and men and men and women, and not the one up one down, lead on I follow, ich dien sort of business.” Having discovered the virtues of insouciance and tenderness, Lawrence began to write Lady Chatterley’s Lover, one of his most poignant, lyrical treatments of individual human relations.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover
As always in Lawrence, the physical setting offers a crucial barometer of sensibility. In this case the treatment of setting is indicative of the novelist’s loss of faith in the “spirit of place” as a valid embodiment of his quest. In comparison with his other novels, Lady Chatterley’s Lover presents a scene much reduced in richness and complexity. Wragby Hall, the baronial seat of the Chatterleys, is described as “a warren of a place without much distinction.” Standing on a hill and surrounded by oak trees, Wragby offers a view dominated by the smokestacks of the mines in and around the Midlands village of Tevershall. Like Shortlands, the Criches’ estate in Women in Love, Wragby and its residents attempt through formal artifice to deny the existence of the pits from which the family income derives. The attempt is futile, however, for “when the wind was that way, which was often, the house was full of the stench of this sulphurous combustion of the earth’s excrement,” and smuts settle on the gardens “like black manna from skies of doom.” As for Tevershall (“’tis now and ’tever shall be”), the mining village offers only the appalling prospect of “the utter negation of natural beauty, the utter negation of the gladness of life,the utter death of the human intuitive faculty.” Clearly Wragby and Tevershall are two sides of the same coin minted by the godless machine age. Between the two is a tiny, ever-diminishing remnant of old Sherwood Forest. The wood is owned by the Chatterleys, and many of its trees were “patriotically” chopped down during the Great War for timber for the allies’ trenches.
It is here that Constance (Connie) Chatterley and her lover, Oliver Mellors, the gamekeeper, find—or rather create—life together. As Julian Moynihan has observed, the little wood symbolizes “the beleaguered and vulnerable status to which the vital career has been reduced” at the hands of modern civilization. The old centrifugal impulse for a faraway “nowhere” has yielded to a desperate centripetal flight toward refuge from the industrial wasteland. Try as they might to find sanctuary within the wood, however, the lovers must recognize that there is no longer any room in the world for true sanctuary, much less for a “Rananim.” “The industrial noises broke the solitude,” Lawrence writes. “The sharp lights, though unseen, mocked it. A man could no longer be private and withdrawn. The world allows no hermits.” The geographic focus of the Lawrencian quest is no longer able to provide a modicum of hope and so yields to a new, scaled-down, more intimate image: the human body.
The sterility and spiritual paralysis of the modern world are embodied by Clifford Chatterley, Connie’s husband. A paraplegic victim of the war, Clifford is both literally and symbolically deadened to the life of the passions. All his energy is directed to verbal, abstract, or social undertakings in which actual contact is minimal. Clifford believes in the form and apparatus of the social life and is indifferent to private feelings. A director of mines, he sees the miners as objects rather than men, mere extensions of the pit machinery. For him, “the function determines the individual,” who hardly matters otherwise. Clifford also writes fashionably shallow stories and entertains other writers and critics to curry favor. He modernizes the coal mines with considerable success. Thus in broad outline he resembles Gerald Crich of Women in Love, but in the far simpler world of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lawrence chooses not to cloud matters by giving his antagonist any redeeming qualities. The reader is never invited to sympathize with Clifford’s plight. Motoring around Wragby Hall in his mechanical wheelchair, Clifford coolly urges Connie to have a child by another man—the “sex thing” having been of no particular importance to him even before the war—so that he can have an heir to Wragby. By the end of the novel, he turns to his attendant Mrs. Bolton for the only intimacy left to him: a regressive, perverse form of contact. Such heaping of abuse onto Clifford, far in excess of what is needed to establish his symbolic role, undoubtedly detracts from the novel.
So long as she remains with Clifford, Connie finds herself in a condition of static bondage in which her individuality is circumscribed by the function identified in her title. A “lady” by virtue of her marriage, she is not yet truly a woman. Sex for her is merely a “thing” as it is for Clifford, an instrument of tacit control over men. She is progressively gripped by malaise. Physically she is “old at twenty-seven, with no gleam and sparkle in the flesh”; spiritually she is unborn. Her affair with Mellors is of course the means of her metamorphosis, which has been compared (somewhat ironically) with the awakening of Sleeping Beauty at the handsome prince’s magical kiss. Less obvious is the overlapping of this fairy-tale pattern with a counterpattern of male transformation such as that found in the tale of the Frog Prince. For Mellors, too, is trapped in a kind of bondage, alone in his precarious refuge in the wood. The “curse” on him is his antipathy to intimate contacts, especially with women, after his disastrous marriage to the promiscuous Bertha Coutts.
The initial encounters between Connie and Mellors in the wood result only in conflict and hostility, as both, particularly Mellors, cling to their socially prescribed roles and resist the challenge of being “broken open” by true contact with another. When they finally do begin to respond to that challenge, however, it is Mellors who takes the lead in conducting Connie through her initiation into the mysteries of “phallic” being. With his “tender” guidance she learns the necessity of letting go her hold on herself, yielding to the “palpable unknown” beyond her conscious will. She discovers the importance of their “coming off together” rather than the merely “frictional” pleasures of clitoral orgasm (a notion acceptable within Lawrence’s symbolic context if not widely endorsed by the “how to” manuals of the Masters and Johnson generation, of which Lawrence would no doubt have disapproved). When she tries to get Mellors to tell her that he loves her, he rejects the abstract, overused word in favor of the earthier Anglo-Saxon language of the body and its functions. On one occasion he even introduces her to sodomy so as to “burn out the shames, the deepest, oldest shames, in the most secret places.” The result of all this, paradoxically, is that the couple arrives at the state of “chastity.” Having broken their ties to the sterile world, they are able to accept an imposed separation until it is possible, after a period of waiting for Mellors’s divorce to occur, for them to live together in hope for their future.
In an aside in chapter 9, Lawrence, asserting that it is “the way our sympathy flows and recoils that really determines our lives,” affirms that the great function of a novel is precisely to “inform and lead into new places the flow of our sympathetic consciousness” and to “lead our sympathies away in recoil from things gone dead.” As a statement of intention, this will do for all of Lawrence’s novels. Of course, even the best of intentions do not necessarily lead to artistic achievement. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, though in many respects a remarkable recovery after the dead end that was the “leadership novels,” is nevertheless flawed by the very directness with which it follows the “flow and recoil” idea. For one thing, the deck is too obviously stacked against Clifford. Lawrence never takes him seriously as a man; by making him the stationary target of so much scorn simply for what he represents, Lawrence in effect replicates Clifford’s own treatment of people as mere objects or functions.
Because the “recoil” against Clifford as a “thing gone dead” seems facile and almost glib, Connie’s counterflow toward Mellors seems also too easy, despite Lawrence’s efforts to render her conflicting, vacillating feelings. Another part of the problem lies in the characterization of Mellors, who, after his initial reluctance, proves to be a tiresomely self-satisfied, humorless, “knowing” spokesman for the gospel according to Lawrence. Connie, however, is a marvelous creation, far more complex than even Mellors seems to realize. She is a worthy successor to Lawrence’s other intriguing female characters: Gertrude Morel, Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen, Alvina Houghton (of The Lost Girl), and Kate Leslie.
At his best, in Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, and especially Women in Love, Lawrence manages to enact the flow and counterflow of consciousness, the centrifugal dilation and the centripetal contraction of sympathies, in a far more complex and convincing way than he does in his last novel. Notwithstanding his battles with Mrs. Grundy, the underlying impulse of all his work is unquestionably moral: the passionate yearning to discover, celebrate, and become “whole man alive.” The desperateness with which he pursued that elusive ideal in both his life and his art sometimes led him to resort to a bullying, declamatory didacticism, which took the chance of alienating his readers’ sympathies.
Lawrence’s moral vision was most compelling when embodied and rendered in dramatic or symbolic terms rather than externally imposed by “oracular” utterance and rhetorical bombast, but “art for my sake” necessarily involved him in these risks, of which he was fully aware. At a time when aesthetic objectivity and the depersonalization of the artist were the dominant aims of the modernists, Lawrence courageously pursued his vision wherever it might lead.
Through his capacity for outrage against what he considered a dying civilization, his daring to risk failure and humiliation in the ongoing struggle to find and make known the “vital quick” that alone could redeem humanity and to relocate humankind’s lost spiritual roots, Lawrence performed the essential role of seer or prophetic conscience for his age. Moreover, because subsequent events in the twentieth century more than confirmed his direst forebodings, his is a voice that readers today cannot afford to ignore. While many are decrying the death of the novel amid the proliferation of the much-ballyhooed “literature of exhaustion,” one could do worse than turn to Lawrence to find again the “one bright book of life.”
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support