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Existentialism in D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover (Part 1)

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Following the First World War, a sense of existential crisis gripped the Western mindset. The Lost Generation wrote of the difficulty of finding meaning amidst the apparent futility of life. In his 1928 novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, D. H. Lawrence rejects this nihilistic attitude. By promoting both the Romantic notion of living in contact with the wild as well as the concept of living intuitively, Lawrence suggests that, despite the tragedy of the Great War, life can be full of meaning if only the passionless reasoning of the mechanical conquered world is escaped. It is first necessary to consider examples of Lost Generation works and the ideas presented in Lawrence’s essay “The Death of Pan”, before then analyzing how these ideas are elaborated by the symbolic roles of Clifford, Mellors, and Lady Chatterley in “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”.

Lost Generation writers such as T.S. Elliot, Ernest Hemingway, and James Joyce all reference the existential crisis, defined here as a deep, even obsessive concern about the meaning of life and the inevitability of death. Joyce sets the tone in his 1914 work “The Dead”, which ends with the protagonist realizing that “one by one, they were all becoming shades” [3] as he listens to the snow “faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and all the dead” [3]. Joyce's protagonist realizes that he has never known true love and is filled with fear that he will die having never known it.  Elliot’s poems are equally, and arguably more, occupied with the looming specter of death. In his 1915 work “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, death itself, “the eternal Footman” [1], holds the protagonist’s coat, snickering, as the latter struggles in the mire of his own indecision. Mr Prufrock, aged and balding, cannot take charge with his lover, despite his realization that he has been leaving life by the teaspoon. In his 1922 work “The Wasteland”, Elliot announces “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” [1], a powerful reference to the famous memento mori in Genesis: “for dust you are and to dust you will return” [6]. Lastly, in his 1933 work “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”, Hemingway portrays an old, deaf man drinking to assuage the “fear for his soul” [2], his despair at the overwhelming nothingness of life. Two waiters watch the man: the elder waiter sympathizes while his younger colleague cannot understand the drunk man's plight. The Lost Generation’s nihilistic attitude finds its counterpoint in Lawrence’s essay “The Death of Pan”.

In “The Death of Pan”, Lawrence outlines his idea of avoiding such existential crises by living in touch with nature, i.e. living, physically and intuitively, in the wild. Lawrence writes that, at first, humanity was inseparable from Pan, the ancient Greek god of the wild; there wasn’t even a word to distinguish the idea of nature from the idea of humanity: “when Pan was greatest […] he was nameless and unconceived, mentally. […] but when humanity was born into a separate idea of itself, it said Pan.” [5]. As humans intellectualized their surroundings with abstract thought, gradually losing their intuition, they transferred the work of the body to machines and used them to conquer the wild, killing Pan and establishing a mechanical world. But, Lawrence argues, “once you have conquered a thing, you have lost it. Its relationship to you collapses. […] [man] sits stupefied with boredom upon his conquest” [5]; a master slave relationship is no real relationship at all. In other words, modern man is bored because instead of hunting, killing his prey, bringing it back to the homestead, butchering it, eating it, and then making love to his wife –instead of living physically and intuitively– all he has to do is flip the occasional switch or lever to fulfill his every fleeting desire and wish.  This boredom manifests itself in part as the existential crisis, which is free to take root in the human psyche.

In contrast to man’s existentialist dilemma, Lawrence describes a simple tree, which “has its own aura of life” [5] and which “is within the allness of Pan […] it is just a tree. It is just a tree.” [5]. The great tree does not worry about the future; it lives day by day, month by month, amidst the elements and amidst the creatures of the forest. And so Lawrence asks “what can a man do with his life but live it?” [5] and “what does life consist in, save a vivid relatedness between the man and the living universe?” [5]. These two ideas represent the crux of his theory of living in touch with nature and, thereby, with oneself. He argues that it is truer to life to believe, “with a pantheistic sensuality” [5], in a human relationship with Pan. Humanity must choose to abandon its mechanical conquest of the wild, thereby resurrecting Pan so that life may once again be lived physically and intuitively. Indeed, if one does accept this attitude of oneness with the world, the existential crisis inherent to the Lost Generation is avoided; “there is no boredom, because everything is alive and active” [5]. For this reason, Lawrence believes that renewing the Pan relationship, i.e. living in touch with nature, is far better than a mechanical conquered world. The narrative of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” attempts to prove this belief.

The next part of the essay elaborates Lawrence developed the ideas he first introduced in “The Death of Pan” through the narrative of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”.

Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence - Restored Modern Edition
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  1. T.S. Eliot The Wasteland and Other Poems. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1998.
  2. Ernest Hemingway The Snows of Kilimanjaro and other stories. New York: Scribner, 1995.
  3. James Joyce Dubliners. New York: Dover Publications, 1991.
  4. D.H. Lawrence Lady Chatterley's Lover. Mineola: Dover Publications, 2006.
  5. D.H. Lawrence The Modern Tradition: Background of Modern Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.
  6. "Holy Bible New International Version." Bible Gateway. 15/04/2014 <Web >

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