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Lady Chatterley's Lover | Study Guide

D.H. Lawrence

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Lady Chatterley's Lover | Themes


In papers published after his death, D.H. Lawrence called Lady Chatterley's Lover a book of life. Lawrence believed the way to be fully alive was through sexual maturity. The restorative power of sex is the dominant theme of the novel, and it underlies the related themes of love, voids, and industrialization. These themes also reflect the social, economic, and political malaise of postwar Britain.

Restorative Power of Sex

In the essay "Why the Novel Matters," D.H. Lawrence stated that being alive is the only thing that matters. He believed novels could show people what it means to be alive. This was his goal for Lady Chatterley's Lover. He felt too many people were walking through life as "dead men," and he hoped by reading his novel they would hear his message about the restorative power of sex and become healed.

In that essay Lawrence described what it means to be alive: a person must be wholly alive, including the physical, or sexual, self. And "when the man goes dead, a woman goes inert." In Lady Chatterley's Lover Clifford Chatterley has "gone dead" because of a war injury that paralyzes his body from the waist down. Thus, he and his wife, Connie Chatterley, cannot engage in sexual intercourse, although they share the intimacy of living together and engaging in intellectual discussions and companionship. For several years this sustains their relationship, but over time it becomes meaningless to Connie, and she develops a bad case of boredom: nothing seems to matter, nothing brings her pleasure, and she wonders why she was alive.

Connie attempts to fill the void in her life by having sex with Michaelis, a friend of her husband's. The affair does not fill the void. She enjoys the sexual pleasure but has no meaningful connection with Michaelis. After Michaelis breaks it off with her, she becomes even more despondent, and her body begins to show physical signs of her discontent.

After Connie has sex with Oliver Mellors, she begins to come alive. At first she holds herself back from him, even during sex. But once she gives of herself both physically and emotionally, she blossoms. And so does Mellors. He, too, has been long celibate; this is the first sexual activity he has had in years. He was hurt in love by his estranged wife, and he vowed off all physical contact with women in order to avoid future wounds. But Connie sparks the physical desire in him, and he responds to it. They work through their fears and issues related to their both being married to someone else and the difference in their social classes. Connie conceives a child, and this strengthens their bond.

Lawrence did not believe that sexual maturity alone would heal people. They needed to have an emotional, or psychic, bond also. Physical touch, though, could lead to that bond, as it does for Connie and Mellors. Lady Chatterley's Lover is the story of growth, of coming alive through physical tenderness, which then leads to love.

In order to communicate his message, Lawrence portrayed sex as natural and instinctual rather than as sinful and shameful. Thus he used straightforward language to describe the human body and sexual intercourse rather than socially acceptable words that carried negative connotations. Nowhere in the novel, as the courts found in the obscenity trials, does he use language for voyeuristic or purely sexual purposes. He does not attempt to arouse the reader or associate fantasy-type thinking with his descriptions of sexual activity. They are simply forthright portrayals of an act common to most humans.

One way Lawrence communicates this message is by contrasting the life of the mind with the life of the body. Clifford Chatterley embraces the cerebral and disavows the physical life. He surrounds himself with words and intellectual friends and does not engage in even the merest touch with his wife. He asserts the body is inferior to the mind, telling Connie in Chapter 16, "The life of the body is just the life of the animals." He further asserts that "whatever God there is is slowly eliminating the guts and alimentary system from the human being, to evolve a higher, more spiritual being." Connie rejects his view and describes her personal experience with the life-affirming power of sex by saying "whatever God there is has at last wakened up in my guts, as you call them, and is rippling so happily there, like dawn."


D.H. Lawrence thought that England's salvation rested on improving the relationship between men and women. To achieve better relations, men and women needed to shed the obstacles that kept them from being sexually intimate with each other, for Lawrence believed physical intimacy was an essential part of life and could help people heal and relate to others. But sex alone was not sufficient to deepen the connections between people or help them come more fully alive. Lawrence believed both love and tenderness, in addition to warm physical contact, were needed for men and women to be in perfect harmony.

Lady Chatterley's Lover explores different concepts of love by presenting how the various characters perceive love. Clifford Chatterley considers love an intimacy in which "it's the life-long companionship that matters," not the "sleeping together once or twice." He views the habit of living together more enduring and more important than physical intimacy. He has an overall low opinion of sex, describing it as an "occasional spasm of any sort."

Connie Chatterley initially accepts Clifford's view of love and believes the intimacy of being together is what love is all about. Over time, though, she feels something is missing, and it is: they have no physical contact. She seeks out sex as she realizes there is a physical side to her that is dead and devoid of life. She tries to keep sex and love separate, having an affair with Michaelis purely for the physical pleasure it brings. With Mellors she comes to realize that being open to physical touch makes her more receptive to love. The difference is the tenderness she and Mellors share for each other. They learn more about each other, and this is the foundation for their connection and growing love for each other.

For Mellors love has always been about tenderness and sex. When Connie asks if he loves her, he tells her he loves that he can "go into" thee. It is not the mere fact he can physically enter her that matters. He was married to and has had sex with other women and no longer loves them. Nor does he desire sexual activity alone. In fact he would rather avoid sex for the sake of sex. What matters is the woman's response to him, or what they share. When Connie presses to know if he likes her, he says, "I love thee that tha opened to me." The mutual desire and physical sharing is what matters and helps them to build a love that endures even when they are physically separated from each other.

Connie and Mellors's love is more than desire and tenderness. They struggle to overcome their fears of losing vital parts of themselves in their physical desire for each other. Connie fears losing her will to a man; Mellors fears losing the protective shield he has built to protect himself from the pain he has experienced with women. Both learn to address these fears and find ways to overcome them, thus deepening the bond between them. Neither was able to do this with previous partners.

Connie and Clifford seldom discuss their personal relationship or issues that matter regarding it. Mellors and his wife may have been more open about addressing their differences, but they were unable to resolve them as they both wanted incompatible things.

The concept of love, and how Connie and Mellors view it, is evident in their discussion about having a child. Mellors fears bringing a child into the world since the world is so unsuitable. Connie reassures him that love can overcome any negative influences of the world, telling him, "Be tender to it, and that will be its future already." That becomes their mantra and foundation for love: be tender.

Tenderness is also the foundation for Mrs. Bolton's love for her deceased husband. Ted Bolton died 22 years before the action of the novel, but she loves him as if he were still alive. She misses his physical presence and touch, but their marriage was one of emotional tenderness and sharing also. She explains to Connie that Ted was "never lord and master. But neither was I." They knew each other, communicated well, and responded to each other's needs and desires. They really cared for each other in a way that transcended all other relationships.


In Lady Chatterley's Lover D.H. Lawrence expresses his belief that industrialization has a dehumanizing effect on society, and people can negate this effect by pursuing tenderness and following their natural instincts in their intimate relationships. The Industrial Revolution had transformed England from an agricultural country to an industrial one, and as a result the machine had become more important than the individual. The machine fed the economy, and the economy sustained the society. Workers lost their value as individuals and humans and were merely the human form of the machine, or cogs in the mechanized economy.

Lawrence believed industry turns people into soulless creatures, whose only aspirations are to work harder so they can earn more money. Workers sacrifice their selves for the goals of the industry, and the industry goals are to enrich the industrialists, not the workers. The industrialists justify their self-interests by citing the benefits their industry provides to workers, such as job opportunities and community development, and ignore its dehumanizing effects, such as mindless work and industrial blight. They claim no one forces the workers to take on the jobs, ignoring that no other options exist for working-class people to support themselves. And industry spreads like a cancer, for in order "to keep industry alive there must be more industry."

Connie Chatterley describes these industrialists as creatures like "invertebrates of the crustacean order, with shells of steel, like machines, and inner bodies of soft pulp." And she believes these industrials have created "a new race of mankind" that is "over-conscious in the money and social and political side" but intuitively dead. She calls them half-corpses who exist in an underworld. She considers the workers—at least those who work in coal, iron, and metal work—as "only the grey half of a human being," believing the iron and coal had corroded their bodies and souls.

To his discredit, according to Lawrence, Clifford Chatterley considers the workers animals, not men. Their function is to serve. They are the masses, and as the masses they are unalterable. Furthermore, he thinks the masses have been poisoned with education. In other words the masses now aspire for social mobility, which conflicts with their inherent purpose to serve. Whips should be used to remind the masses of their place. They "have been ruled since time began, and till time ends, ruled they will have to be. It is sheer hypocrisy and farce to say they can rule themselves." Unlike Lawrence he believes "the individual hardly matters."

Oliver Mellors represents the opposite of Clifford and embodies Lawrence's theme of rejecting industrialization and embracing basic instincts to become real and alive. Mellors calls the workers "labor insects" and believes industrialization has stripped them of their manhood and the opportunity to live real lives. Lacking autonomy, their dependence on their employers has made them docile and soulless. Seeking some type of meaning in life, they grasp what is within their reach—more money, consumerism, and transitory pleasures—rather than self-development and fulfillment in personal relationships. Mellors describes industrialization as "killing off the human thing," resulting in spunkless, dead people who worship "the mechanical thing" and chase after "motor-cars and cinemas and aeroplanes" that "suck that last bit out of them." He wants a different type of life for himself and Connie, one in which they live for something other than making money, either for themselves or someone else. He wants to "drop the whole industrial life an' go back" to another way of life based on natural instincts and tenderness between a man and a woman. His solution for the industrial problem is for people to go naked and handsome and to learn to live "without needing to spend." In this way they can be "alive and frisky," or really alive.


D.H. Lawrence believed a void existed in people—both individually and collectively, as a society. The void was characterized by a sense of emptiness or loss of meaning that kept people from connecting with others and being fully alive. Instead, people felt empty, alienated, and dead inside. Some people attempted to fill the void by pursuing things that only deepened the void, such as success, mindless activities, consumerism, or intellectualism.

This void was acutely felt by many in postwar England, which was characterized by a deep social malaise. It had suffered enormous human casualties and injuries as well as social, economic, and political consequences. People's faith in the world as they knew it had forever been shattered, and they were reluctant to believe in anything. The overwhelming sense of a void for an entire generation is described in Chapter 6 as "All the great words, it seemed to Connie, were cancelled for her generation: love, joy, happiness, home, mother, father, husband, all these great, dynamic words were half dead now, and dying from day to day." All of these things which had been so important for prior generations had lost their meaning to the young generation of the 1920s and 1930s, and they had been replaced with nothing of substance.

This void was created, in part, by the war and by the dehumanization of industrialism. Lawrence feared the void would result in the "death of all desire, the death of all love," and the loss of the human spirit. He believed the solution—and humanity's salvation—rested in people getting in touch with their basic instincts and forming human connections that gave meaning to their lives.

Clifford Chatterley returns from the war partially paralyzed. Long after his health is restored, his wife, Connie Chatterley, notes that though he is alive, his war injury seems to have killed something in him, and that death seeps into his spirit, leaving him hollow and vacant inside. He tries to fill the void in his life by writing meaningless stories, pouring energy into his plans for coal, and talking about other people's ideas rather than expressing his own feelings and ideas. His life lacks both physical intimacy and emotional intimacy.

After a few years of marriage Connie Chatterley looks for something more substantial than her mental life and the sexless intimacy she shares with her husband. She has become quite dispirited about life and feels nothing has meaning. This results in weight loss, listlessness, and emotional despondency. Her void is the result of the lack of physical and emotional intimacy with her husband. She tries to fill this void by having an affair with Michaelis, but their relationship lacks tenderness and love. She also wants to have a child, believing that bearing a child will activate the womanhood in her and fulfill her life. As she awakens her sensuality, she begins to fill the void in her life. She learns to follow her basic instincts and forms a tender, loving relationship with Oliver Mellors, which makes her feel she has come alive again.

Oliver Mellors is filled with a sense of despair that threatens at times to overwhelm him. He achieved a certain measure of satisfaction from his career in the army, but it ended with the war. He returns to Tevershall and has to take a less satisfying position as a gamekeeper. He hates industrialization and wants to avoid working for money at all costs as he feels it threatens his very soul. He also wants to avoid all women: they have been the source of great emotional pain in the past. He wants solitude and enjoys working as the gamekeeper at Wragby because it provides a refuge from the rest of the world and allows him to care for the estate's wildlife, which he finds meaningful and satisfying. When Connie comes into his life, he fears she will pierce the protective armor he has built to protect his void from growing. She does destroy it, but in its place they create a meaningful relationship, and he begins to live again, something he thought he was done with.

Other characters also have voids. Several of the young intellectuals who visit Wragby to talk are unable to form close relationships with women and view sex as merely an exchange of sensations, like talking. The working-class people in Tevershall are portrayed as wage slaves; life offers them nothing "apart from the care of money." Industrials pursue power and, in the process, crush the human spirit of those who work for them and then seek to expand industry as a way to feed its perpetual need for resources to keep it alive.

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