Monday, August 22, 2011

Symmetry, Symbolism, and the Industrial Age in Lady Chatterley’s Lover

by G. Jack Urso

Lady Chatterley’s Lover is probably the one book by D.H. Lawrence that most people have heard of, if not have actually read. Of course, literary scholars turn to the novel to explore the many layers of meaning in Lawrence’s writing, usually centered on the sexual aspects of the novel. While certainly notable, the sexual themes are merely symptomatic of deeper issues that Lawrence explores, primarily the effect of industrialization on the individual in 19th century Britain.

Many of the characters in Lady Chatterley’s Lover reveal the inner truth of their lives through their sexual natures. The lower down the social order, the more comfortable the characters are with their sexuality, suggesting that the closer a person is to nature the less repressed they are sexually. This is no more true than with Lady Chatterley’s lover, Oliver Mellors, the gamekeeper. The source for this social and psychological dysfunction, to Lawrence, is the dehumanizing force of industrialization.

Lawrence explores these themes in Lady Chatterley’s Lover by creating symmetrical relationships between key characters and using symbolic imagery to reinforce those themes with the reader.


The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition (1982), defines symmetry as “A relationship of characteristic correspondence, equivalence, or identity among constituents of a system.” Connie and Clifford Chatterley, Oliver Mellors, and Mrs. Bolton all nurse some kind of psychological wound, in that the dehumanizing force of industrialism affects each of their lives.

Connie Chatterley is the character most readers identify with. At the most basic level, Connie’s journey of sexual self-discovery is one with which we all participate in at some point in our lives.

Far from the “Scotch hills or Sussex downs” she is accustomed to, Connie Chatterley is as much a stranger to the “coal-and-iron Midlands” as we are. As a result, she serves as the medium through which the reader uncovers the novel’s themes and characters, creating a subliminal connection between reader and character.

Lawrence also introduces various aspects of the novel to the reader as Connie herself discovers them; so she becomes an unwitting tour guide of sorts. As a result, the reader forms a natural sympathy with Connie, whether or not we identify with her psycho-sexual emotional crisis. This enables Lawrence to further the narrative naturally, without any forced expositions by the characters to set up the action or plot.  

Connie Chatterley comes to Wragby Hall to take her place alongside her titled, crippled, and impotent husband in his family’s ancestral home. The First World War has just ended, and the physical and psychological scars are dug as deeply into the human landscape has they are mirrored in the smoky, scarred, sterile landscapes of the Midlands. When Connie begins to experience the awakening of her sexual nature, she is set in the plush, fertile gardens and forest surround Wragby. The forest around Wragby itself is healing as its trees were harvested to build trenches during the war. These scenes create a symmetrical relationship between the characters and the land which reinforces Lawrence’s themes in the novel.

The dehumanizing force of industrialization continues to work in the outside in the town of Tevershall. The landscape becomes a psychological mirror reflecting on the outside what is occurring on the inside. By creating this symmetrical relationship, Lawrence is also preparing us to examine our own natures and question the impact of society and technology on ourselves  a concept which still appeals to us in the 21st Century.

Chatting up the Chatterleys

Clifford Chatterley’s crippled physical condition is an allegory for the impact of industrialism on the human spirit.  He is paralyzed as a result of wounds received in war, the ultimate expression of the dehumanizing nature of technology. He is as sterile as the infertile Midlands landscape and despite his deep psychological wounds, or because of them, he functions with the impersonality of a machine.

In Chapter 2, Lawrence describes Clifford Chatterley:

And he was neither liked nor disliked by the people: he was just a part of things, like the pit-bank and Wragby itself.” (Lawrence 15)

Lawrence establishes Clifford Chatterley as personifying the characteristics of the social class he comes from and the scarred landscape he is lord over. This relationship is symmetrical in that both the land and the man reflect the traits of the other. It is also symbolic as Lawrence uses this relationship to show the effects of industrialization on the psyche.

There is a dark, and to borrow a phrase from William Blake, fearful symmetry between Connie and Clifford Chatterley. Both are dealing with their sexual natures. Connie, however, confronts it while Clifford avoids it. Connie releases and explores her sexual self in nature, away from the palatial symbol of industrialism, Wragby Hall.

Connie Chatterley crosses the lines of class to love Mellors, who has also rejected the constraints of his own class. Likewise there is a symmetrical relationship between Clifford Chatterley and Mrs. Bolton, his nurse and caretaker. Rather than cross the lines of class to love each other, as Connie and Mellors do, they stay within the boundaries of their respective class divisions.

Clifford Chatterley’s expression of his sexual needs take on an oedipal form in his relationship with Mrs. Bolton. Indeed, it cannot be said they even love one another. Mrs. Bolton still harbors great pain from the loss of her husband, and, regarding Lord Chatterley, “she despised him and hated him” (Lawrence 292). To Mrs. Bolton, Clifford represents the establishment that labeled her husband a coward and deprived her from full compensation following his death. Inwardly resenting the ruling class, Mrs. Bolton is clearly obtaining some kind of perverse satisfaction by providing Lord Chatterley with what Lady Chatterley could not. The rot of industrialization and war permeates their relationship, as much as nature nurtures the relationship between Connie Chatterley and Oliver Mellors.

For his part, Clifford becomes “much sharper and keener than the real man he used to be” (Lawrence 291). Lawrence further describes Clifford as “letting go all his manhood, and sinking back to a childish position that was really perverse” and “as if his passivity and prostitution to the Magna Mater [Mrs. Bolton] gave him insight into material business affairs, and lent him a certain remarkable inhuman force” (Lawrence 291). Connie’s experience is passionately human, expressed in nature, and she becomes pregnant in what is a symbolic, human, fertile image. This is opposed to the sterile “inhuman” force that impregnates Clifford as a result of his intimacy with Mrs. Bolton.

Despite the keen mind that allows him success in his writing, or the technical work associated with the mines, Clifford is never able to see his wife drifting away from him. As Mrs. Bolton thinks to herself in Chapter 16: “Any man in his senses must have known his wife was in love with someone else, and was going to leave him” (Lawrence 289). While Lord Chatterley was not “inwardly surprised” at the news, he could never bring his conscious mind to accept it. In the end, what Clifford Chatterley is refusing to accept is his paralysis.

Clifford may over-compensate by playing the pompous lord of the manor, the learned man of letters, or the hard-nosed industrialist, but in those quiet moments with Mrs. Bolton as he reverts to a man-child he reveals the extent of his paralysis. The disconnection with his human self, however crippled physically, disables him emotionally.

Lawrence juxtaposes the relationships between Connie and Mellors with that of Clifford and Mrs. Bolton to define what he believes is a “healthy” relationship. In his letter to Katherine Mansfield in 1918, Lawrence is clear that be believes men must assert some kind of dominance in their relationships with women:

“I do think men must go ahead absolutely in front of their women. Consequently, the women must follow as it were unquestioningly.” (Boulton 163)

Mellors establishes dominance over Connie sexually while Clifford is sexually submissive to Mrs. Bolton. While healthy passion is the hallmark of Connie’s relationship with Mellors, the oedipal overtones of Clifford’s relationship with Mrs. Bolton define for the reader what Lawrence considers an “unhealthy” relationship; specifically, one in which the male is submissive to the female. Considering certain homoerotic imagery in Lawrence’s other works, such as Women in Love, the question of Lawrence’s definition of a healthy sexuality is not so straightforward a matter.


Symbolism is defined in the American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition (1982) as “The practice of representing things by means of symbols or of attributing symbolic meanings or significance to objects, events, or relationships.” The physical wounds of Clifford Chatterley and the “wounded” landscape of Tavershall, for example, are symbolic of the dehumanizing force of industrialism. Lawrence makes this link in chapter five when the narrative turns to talk of a strike:

“The colliers at Tavershall were talking again of a strike. And it seemed to Connie there again, it was not a manifestation of energy, it was the bruise of the war that had been in abeyance, slowly rising to the surface and creating the great ache of unrest, the stupor of the discontent. The bruise was deep, deep, deep-the bruise of a false and inhuman war. It would take many years for the living blood, deep inside their souls and bodies. And it would need a new hope.” (Lawrence 50)

Lawrence defines that “new hope” in the book as the celebration of the self by the exploration of experience of our sexual natures. The love created by the deep intimacy we see in such relationships as the one Connie has with Mellor, is, to Lawrence, the only thing that heals the wounds of war, or from the dehumanizing effects of industrialism.

The bleak, scarred, sterile Midlands landscape around Tevershall is symbolic of the dehumanizing effect of industrialization. Indeed, industrialization is seen to have sucked the life out of the town. In Chapter 9, Clifford, having been stirred by his relationship with Mrs. Bolton to show interest in the world, takes notice of what is going on in the mines.

“Tevershall pits were running thin . . . Tevershal had once been a famous mine, and had made money. But its best days were over.” (Lawrence 105)

Clifford, and by extraction, Western society itself, “were running thin,” their “best days were over.” Clifford is spurred into action to prevent the inevitable loss of a limited resource, in this case, coal. While at first one might think that Clifford Chatterley is finally snapping out of his funk, he is, in fact, fighting reality.

The highly ordered class structure of English society may have served a purpose a thousand years ago, but its time was past. That was, in part, what World War I was about, or, at least, its affect. Who else would be able to see that if not an officer like Clifford Chatterley, who served in the trenches and was crippled for his efforts? Nevertheless, he does not. By attempting to save the mines and trying to turn a profit again, Clifford is attempting to save himself and justify the existence of a system that has seen “its best days,” thereby also justifying his own crippled existence. To Lawrence, this is a form of madness.

In Chapter 11, Connie goes on a drive through the surrounding area. Lawrence describes the blight of the landscape:

“the blackened brick dwellings, the black slate roofs glistening their sharp edges, the mud black with coal-dust, the pavements wet and black.” (Lawrence 152)

“The Wesleyan chapel, higher up, was of blackened brick and stood behind iron railings and blackened scrubs.” (Lawrence 152)

“The church was away on the left, among black trees.” (Lawrence 153)

“There was something uncanny and underground about it all. It was an under-world. And quite incalculable. How shall we understand the reactions in half-corpses?” (Lawrence 153)

Lawrence is using repetitions of the word black to underscore the killing effect industrialism is having on the town. A connection is beginning made between the work that sustains Tevershall, the mines, and what the town is turning into  a half-dead town on the verge of extinction. Tevershall itself seems to be turning inside out, becoming a dark surface reflection of the mines. How much more so than the people who inhabit the town, or rule from Wragby Hall, or, perhaps, even ourselves, the readers? Does industrialization, now incarnate in the technology age of the 21st century, continuing to rob us of our humanity and life? If Lawrence were to write Lady Chatterley’s Lover today, would he make Clifford Chatterley a crippled software magnate? A Bill Gates in a wheelchair? One can only speculate.

The Effects of Industrialism on the Human Spirit

In Chapter 10, we share Mellors’ thoughts as he walks through the wood surrounding Wragby Hall, considering his previous withdrawal from society:

“It was not women’s fault, or even love’s fault, nor the fault of sex. The fault lay there, out there, in those evil electric lights and diabolical rattlings of engines. There, in the world of the mechanical greedy, greedy mechanism, and mechanized greed . . . ready to destroy whatever did not conform.” (Lawrence 119)

Industrialism leads to a loss of individuality for Lawrence. As Tevershall slowly took on the physical characteristics of the mines, are we not also in danger of taking on the characteristics of mechanized industry and lose what makes us human in the process? Mellors echoes Lawrence’s thoughts on this matter:

“All the lot. Their spunk’s gone dead—motor-cars and cinemas and aeroplanes suck the last bit out of them. I tell you every generations breeds a more rabbit generation, with indiarubber tubing for guts and tin legs and tin faces. Tin people! It’s all a steady sort of bolshevism-just killing off the human thing, and worshipping the mechanical thing. Money, money, money, money! All the modern lot get their real kick out of killing the old human feeling out of man, making mincemeat of the old Adam and the old Eve.” (Lawrence 217)

Lawrence is making clear what he has been hinting at through the portrayal of Clifford as paralyzed, the sterility of the scarred Midlands landscape, and Connie’s own physical wasting away before she gets involved with Mellors. These are symbols for the major theme in the novel the dehumanizing effect of industrialization. The pace of our lives increases to keep up with the pace of technology. As our lives becomes more dependent on our machines, we thus become more like those machines.

Bolshevism is seen a force that further dehumanizes us. Early in the book, the character Charlie May says, “Each man is a machine-part, and the driving power of the machine, hate: hate of the bourgeois! That, to me, is bolshevism (Lawrence 38).”

Indeed, to Lawrence it appears that bolshevism is at the very apex of the expression of this dehumanizing force. Remarks critical of bolshevism are made throughout the book by different characters. The reference to Adam and Eve at the end of Mellors’ speech in Chapter 15 reminds one about how they felt ashamed at their own nakedness after being exiled from Eden. After Mellors' speech on the dehumanizing effect of industrialism, he and Connie quite literally return to nature.

The Bacchanal

Shortly after the aforementioned scene in Chapter 15, comes the highly symbolic scene where Connie and Mellors both go out dancing and laughing in the rain naked. The scene is rich with symbolism and evocative of an ancient Dionysian rite. They are like Adam and Eve returning to Eden, unashamed of their own nakedness. Lawrence sets the stage for the scene in Chapter 10, when he describes the new sensations stirring within Connie Chatterley, “Ah yes, to be passionate like a baccante, like a bacchanal, fleeing wild through the woods” (Lawrence 136).

It is no coincidence that Lawrence places this symbolic ritual after Mellors’ speech on the effects of industrialization on the human being. Lawrence is suggesting that at some point in our lives we all need to run “wild through the woods” to reclaim our true natures, or, at least, our natural state of being.


In Chapter 7 we encounter Lady Chatterley as she examines her naked body in a full-length mirror. It is clearly a scene symbolic of self-discovery. As Connie follows the contours of her body and considers the changes brought on by age, we share in the experience as she considers past loves, her insecurities, and vanity. Lawrence’s ideal of love is at least partly defined in this scene as a “healthy, human sensuality that warms the blood and freshens the whole being” (Lawrence 71). Connie desires an intimate, physical knowledge of herself, not an abstract philosophical concept. Indeed, in the scene following, an exchange between Tommy Dukes and Harry WInterslow strikes a chord with Connie.

“Certainly nothing but the spirit in us is worth having,” said Winterslow.

“Think so?-Give me the resurrection of the body! Said Dukes. “But it’s come, in time-when we’ve shoved the cerebral stone away a bit, the money and the rest. Then we’ll get a democracy of touch, instead of a democracy of pocket.”

Something echoed inside  Connie. “Give me the resurrection of the body! The democracy of touch!” She didn’t know what the latter meant, but it comforted her, as meaningless things do.” (Lawrence 75-76)

The period of time Connie spends in Italy provides us with two related events that have a symmetrical relationship. While in Venice, Michaelis, her lover from early in the book, turns up. Shortly afterward, she receives a letter form Clifford in which she learns Mellors’ wife has turned up. As Lord Chatterley will later refuse to divorce Lady Chatterley, so too does Mellors’ wife, Bertha. These events serve to move Connie and Mellors closer to the point of escaping Wragby once and for all.

The Boulevard of Broken Themes

Lady Chatterley’s Lover compels us to confront our own sexuality and to question how free we actually are in that regard. Certainly, the themes of sexual freedom and the freedom to love are invariably mentioned in any discussion of this novel; however, Lawrence is dealing with something a bit more complex than sexual liberation alone. Rather, it is the danger of industrialization as a threat to our humanity that is the driving force behind the action. This is a theme that appeared in other genres after World War I. Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1927), released about the same time as Lady Chatterley’s Lover, deals very prominently with this theme. In this way, Lawrence is echoing the anxieties of his generation.

Since the pace of technology is not likely to cease anytime soon, the themes Lawrence explores in Lady Chatterley’s Lover will likewise remain relevant for many generations to come. It is the timeless quality of the major theme, discovering who we are by exploring and experiencing our sexual nature, which brings us back to this important novel. Lawrence encourages us to reassess our place in society and seek out our true natures by experiencing the close, intimate joy two people share in an equal, loving relationship. Few other experiences leave us so vulnerable and open as when we are in love when the essential truth of our being is exposed to another human for evaluation, judgment, and, hopefully, acceptance.

Works Cited
Boulton, James T. The Selected Letters of D.H. Lawrence.
              Cambridge: University Press, 1997. Print.

Lawrence, D.H. Lady Chatterley’s Lover. London: Penguin Books
              Ltd., 1994. Print.

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