Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 958
Constance Chatterley feels that her life is empty and pointless. A well-educated young woman in her mid-twenties, Connie had married Sir Clifford Chatterley in 1917 when he was on leave from the army and then tried to remain cheerful and encouraging during the two years he spent recovering from severe...
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- Critical Essays
Constance Chatterley feels that her life is empty and pointless. A well-educated young woman in her mid-twenties, Connie had married Sir Clifford Chatterley in 1917 when he was on leave from the army and then tried to remain cheerful and encouraging during the two years he spent recovering from severe wounds suffered when he returned to battle in France. Now that Clifford is paralyzed from the waist down, Connie’s life with him is primarily restricted to Wragby, the Chatterley family estate in the English Midlands, where she assists him with the short fiction he is producing with the aim of satisfying “a lame instinct for publicity.” She finds the life of a baronet’s wife to be stultifying in spite of her wish to be of support to her husband. She finds the grimy coal towns of the Midlands soulless and ugly and fears that her separation from sensual experience is leading toward a very premature numbing of her still-embryonic passionate nature.
Aside from a brief interlude in Germany when she was eighteen, and her contact with Sir Clifford before his injury, Connie has had no opportunity to develop a sense of real sexual intimacy. Her growing restlessness and feelings of futility, combined with her distaste for many of the obligations of a landed aristocrat’s wife, render her susceptible to the invitation of an Irish playwright, Michaelis, to begin an affair, but his “small boy’s frail nakedness” and his calculated, commercial approach to art dishearten Connie. She tries to find something positive in her relationships with Sir Clifford and with “Mick,” but she feels there must be more to a life with a man. As a means of making some kind of connection to a more vital aspect of life, and in response to her revulsion at the mechanized, money-mad world in which she lives, she begins to spend time in the woods around Wragby. One day, on a walk in the wilderness, she comes upon the cottage of Oliver Mellors, Sir Clifford’s gamekeeper.
Mellors, who is almost forty, is very much at home in the wild; he is a former scholarship student and former soldier who grew up in Tevershall, a nearby coal town. He is separated from his wife, Bertha Coutts, and has a daughter who lives with his mother. Connie gradually begins to appreciate Mellors’s sensitivity and intelligence. Although their early contacts are frequently contentious, Mellors grows steadily more sympathetic about Connie’s unhappiness and, in the course of his comforting her, the two become involved sexually. Both of them recognize the terrible consequences of an affair, but the passionate attraction they share continues to draw them together as they discover that there is much more than just an erotic bond between them. Meanwhile, Ivy Bolton, a widow and nurse, is hired to help Sir Clifford with the basic tasks of his life, and this further enables Connie and Mellors to spend time together.
As Connie and Mellors become more deeply involved, Connie resolves to spend an entire night with the gamekeeper in his cottage in the woods. In a symbolic sense, this marks a turning point in Connie’s life. She begins to consider the possibility of having a child, of leaving Clifford, and of beginning a new life with Mellors, who remains very much aware of the obstacles they face.
Connie’s sister Hilda arrives at Wragby in preparation for a visit to the Continent that the women are to make with their father, and Mellors, blunt and direct as always, immediately alienates Hilda. Connie takes Mellors’s side, and in doing this, she realizes that she is no longer really dependent on the opinions of others—either men or women—that have previously ordered her life. In her travels with her sister and father, Connie is not particularly engaged by either London or Paris because she is preoccupied with the possibility of joining Mellors; Venice, their holiday destination, seems to her frivolous and shallow. Back in England, Mellors has to deal with the return of his estranged wife, who, apparently not entirely mentally stable, is trying to reclaim a place in his life, as they had not been officially divorced after she deserted him.
In Venice, Connie tells her father that she is pregnant, and a plan is proposed in which Connie would tell Sir Clifford that Duncan Forbes, an artist, is the child’s father. Forbes is willing to cooperate if necessary. In London, Connie’s father has a jovial meeting with Mellors, but then Mellors savages Forbes’s paintings, speaking with characteristic candor and insight, an indication of the absurdity of the entire scheme. Connie attempts to carry out the deception, but in the course of her discussion with Sir Clifford when she returns to Wragby, her displeasure with all of the demands of a “proper” society, one that requires that appearances be maintained regardless of the human cost, drives her to a complete disclosure of her relationship with Mellors.
Sir Clifford, both enraged and distraught, obstinately refuses to grant Connie a divorce. Connie leaves Wragby to stay with Hilda in Scotland, and Mellors finds work on a farm, where he hopes to accumulate some savings while he and Connie wait for his divorce from Bertha to become official, for his and Connie’s child to be born, and for the possibility that Sir Clifford might decide to grant Connie a divorce. Mellors writes a letter to Connie from the farm, where he feels comfortable and among friends; in the letter he expresses his hope that in spite of their problems, the intensity of their love, which brought “a flame into being,” can sustain them until they can achieve a more permanent union in the future.