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Existentialism in D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover (Part 2)

By Edited Jul 6, 2015 0 0

scene from Lady Chatterley's Lover

In “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, Clifford personifies the mechanical conquest of the world and represents the progression away from intuition. He is another of the aforementioned Lost Generation, “the bruise of the too-great shock […] gradually spreading” [1] in his being. Crippled in action during the First World War, Clifford has lost the use of his legs and is impotent; he lives entirely in the mind, reasoning, passionless. At first he takes to writing stories, stories that are “in some mysterious way, meaningless. The observation was extraordinary […] but there was no touch” [1]. Since Clifford has no physical life these stories represent the entirety of his being, and so he desperately wants them to be popular. His pursuit of the illusory “bitch-goddess of Success” [1] is relentless. At his core, he wishes he was like Michaelis, the acclaimed Irish playwright who, “in his way […] had conquered the world” [1]. This desire for conquest draws an evident parallel between Clifford and the mechanical world. Though Clifford does attain quite a measure of recognition as a writer, it is not enough; he soon recognizes that there are other ways to capture success. He turns his attention to chemistry, to the Tevershall colliery near Wragby, letting himself “slide down to general idiocy in the emotional and ‘human’ mind” [1] as he focuses on the “uncanny cleverness of the modern technical mind” [1]. Clifford becomes an agent of the mechanical conquest, a proponent of “a life with utterly no beauty in it, no intuition, always ‘in the pit’” [1]. He becomes one of the industry men who, “like gods, or demons” [1], are entirely detached from humanity.

Mellors, the gamekeeper, embodies Clifford’s polar opposite: the Pan relationship. In many ways he represents the Laurentian ideal, though he too undergoes a progression. While Clifford deteriorates from artist to conqueror, Mellors lives more and more in touch with nature. Intrinsically, his role as gamekeeper demonstrates his harmony with the wild; he works and lives in Wragby’s forest, the last vestige of nature in the desolate landscape of collieries. He is the keeper of the pheasant chicks, one of which Connie describes vividly as “the most alive little spark of a creature […] utterly without fear” [1]. Apart from his proximity to the wild however, Mellors is not living in touch with nature as Lawrence defines it in “The Death of Pan”. His failed relationship with his wife and a number of unfulfilling affairs have scarred him; he has lost the sexual element of living physically. His emotional scars also prevent him from living intuitively; he thinks of the past and the future rather than engaging entirely in the present. At first he fears Connie: “he dreaded with a repulsion almost of death, any further human contact. He dreaded […] her female will” [1]. Even when they do begin their affair he is still afraid, afraid of what the future has to hold, asking Connie: “don’t you care about the risk? […] You should care. Don’t care when it’s too late” [1]. Yet he cannot suppress his rekindled passion, which finds its culmination in the cathartic scene where he and Connie engage in “a Bacchanal fleeing through the woods” [1], making love in the forest like animals. Mellor is redeemed by his relationship with Connie, regaining the whole touch of nature he previously held so dear.

Lady Chatterley plays the role of the human following the recommendation of “The Death of Pan”, moving from Clifford, the personification of the mechanical world, to Mellors, the embodiment of life in touch with nature. Indeed the opening sentence of the novel foreshadows her transition from existential crisis to living with meaning: “ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically” [1]. Connie is unable to find meaning with her husband. Sex is, of course, impossible, but she yearns for a child. Nonetheless, when Clifford begins writing Connie is initially enthused by her part in the process. She soon realizes, however, that the stories are entirely vacuous, and are pulled “out of nothingness: […] nothing in it” [4] simply to earn “the mysterious nothingness of money” [1]. As the years pass without change, and her exposure to the shallow parading of the life of the mind continues unabated, the existential crisis sets itself upon her. Her life seems without meaning, she is childless and she realizes that death is steadily approaching: “her body was going meaningless, going dull and opaque, so much insignificant substance. […] She was old, old at twenty-seven” [1]. The absence of the sexual part of living in touch with nature makes her situation unbearable; no amount of exposure to the wild forest can replace it. The breaking point comes when Clifford turns his attention to the Tevershall colliery; he existential crisis worsens, becoming “a kind of terror […] of the incipient insanity of the whole civilized species” [1]. And so she is drawn inexorably to Mellors, certainly out of a desire for sex, for physical, haptic communication, but also to escape this overarching existential terror. Connie casts off from her husband and ventures into a life of passion, a life in touch with nature. Mellors gives her the child for which she had yearned. At last, she openly contradicts Clifford, declaring that “the life of the body is a greater reality than the life of the mind: when the body is really wakened to life” [1]. Her physical, intuitive affair has allowed her to find life’s meaning, ridding her of the existential crisis.

In conclusion, by presenting Connie’s transition from a life of the mind to a life in touch with nature, D.H. Lawrence uses the narrative of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” to buttress the ideas he presents in “The Death of Pan” and to thereby contradict the nihilism of the Lost Generation. The existential crisis is a conceit of the mind; life is full of meaning if only it is lived through the body. As Lawrence himself said, “life and love are life and love, a bunch of violets is a bunch of violets, and to drag in the idea of a point is to ruin everything. Live and let live, love and let love, flower and fade, and follow the natural curve, which flows on, pointless”.

Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence - Restored Modern Edition
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Bibliography

  1. D.H. Lawrence Lady Chatterley's Lover. Mineola: Dover Publications, 2006.

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