The three main characters represent strikingly different attitudes toward love. Clifford Chatterley has been horribly wounded in World War I, paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair. Even before the war he was repressed, but the war dramatically turns him into an obvious symbol of what repels Lawrence in modern life: the cold and dry life of the mind. As a captain of industry and an authoritarian technologist, Clifford ironically becomes an ally of the very forces that crippled him.
Connie Chatterley is repressed in a much more subtle way. She grows up in the household of elegantly aesthetic and casually radical parents, but her thoroughly modern independence is, according to Lawrence, superficial and evasive. Connie is the intellectual equal of the men around her, and she is liberated enough to indulge in various sexual affairs, but she always withholds rather than gives herself, and this leaves her free but perpetually unsatisfied.
Mellors, the gamekeeper on the estate, is the vital center of the novel. Although not without flaws, he is the exact opposite of his nominal master, Clifford, and the true lover and teacher of Connie. Mellors is passionate but marvelously self-controlled, at home with natural processes of birth and growth, and capable of great tenderness as well as fearless honesty. Through lovemaking with Mellors, described in explicit and intimate detail, Connie becomes vulnerable but also radiantly sensitive and alive. Lawrence’s great hope is that this kind of lovemaking can forge peace and joy for mankind.
Lawrence is criticized by some for daring to write openly about private, sexual secrets and by others for pretending to liberate men and women but actually constructing a myth whereby women are forced to worship phallic gods. Nevertheless, Lawrence’s honesty about sexual matters is bracing (and in any event not as shocking as it was years ago). His novel, whether we subscribe to his love ethic, is a powerful critique of a modern world that spends its energy on tyranny and technology rather than love.
Balbert, Peter. D. H. Lawrence and the Phallic Imagination . New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. A group of...
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