Tenderness: Thoughts on "Lady Chatterley's Lover"

Last week I closed the back cover on Lady Chatterley’s Lover and sighed, “Oh that was lovely.” While I adored it at the end, it was more difficult a book than I had anticipated, and while reading, I wasn’t entirely sure what to think of it. Here’s why.

It’s so not a love story. And it’s also not a story about a woman’s infidelity a la Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina. The titles offer a little insight into the differences: this novel is more about Lady Chatterley’s lover than it is about Lady Chatterley herself. It’s about a postwar world where the effects of industrialization are seeping into everyday life and nearly eradicating pure human emotion (or at least that’s what the author/characters discuss). The beautiful, lush, idyllic English country is being replaced by mining and industry and dirty, grotesque workers and everything is horrible and the future looks so bleak. The first World War just ended. This is the modern age.

“Men not men, but animals of coal and iron and clay. Fauna of the elements, carbon, iron, silicon: elementals. They had perhaps some of the weird inhuman beauty of minerals, the lustre of coal, the weight and blueness and resistance of iron, the transparency of glass.”

589065Responding to this social climate are three main characters: Constance Chatterley, her husband Clifford, and her lover, Oliver Mellors. Before her marriage to Clifford Chatterley, Constance Reid was an intellectual and sexually liberated member of Scottish nobility. She’s a social progressive, yet she marries landed gentry and definitely feels the discrepancies between what she believes and what her husband and the aristocracy stand for. She’s also a sexual being married to a man who is paralyzed from the waist down. So–not ideal.

The real conflict in this novel is the tension between Constance’s husband and her lover, but their fight is not for Constance. This is a war of ideals and ideas; Clifford Chatterley represents massive industrialization and what Lawrence saw as the dehumanization of mankind. Clifford is a slave to faux intellectualism; as a famous author, he writes grand novels but they “have nothing in them.” He’s a manipulator of words, a cold, insensitive man, and a member of the privileged moneyed classes who have no sympathy for the working classes but believe they are more suited to rule.

Then there is Oliver Mellors, the Chatterleys’ gamekeeper. Born into the working class, Mellors has the intelligence and the qualities necessary to lead. After working as a blacksmith, Mellors joins the army in the first World War and quickly rises within the ranks, eventually achieving status as a lieutenant. A bad case of pneumonia forces Mellors to leave the army and afterward, he rejects his higher status to become a humble gamekeeper. He can speak proper English but chooses to speak in the Derbyshire dialect. He lives a simple life and wishes to be left alone and isolated from the hostile world, to the point where he becomes as hostile to others and they are to him.

“Because when I feel the human world is doomed, has doomed itself by its own mingy beastliness, then I feel the colonies aren’t far enough. The moon wouldn’t be far enough, because even there you could look back and see the earth, dirty, beastly, unsavory among all the stars: made foul by men. Then I feel I’ve swallowed gall, and it’s eating my inside out, and nowhere’s far enough to get away. But when I get a turn, I forget it all again. Though it’s a shame, what’s been done to people these last hundred years: men turned into nothing but labor-insects, and all their manhood taken away, and all their real life. I’d wipe the machines off the face of the earth again, and end the industrial epoch absolutely, like a black mistake. But since I can’t, an’ nobody can, I’d better hold my peace, an’ try an’ life my own life.”

Enter Constance Chatterley. The original title for this novel was “Tenderness,” and with this clue, the theme of the novel becomes much clearer. Constance Chatterley grows to despise her husband because of his slavishness to the “bitch-goddess,” Fame, and because of how cold and arrogant he is socio-politically. Mellors attracts her because he is tied to the earth, pure and honest. They begin an affair and their passion with each other becomes redemptive for both of them. In an industrial world, what they find in each other is a ancient tenderness between two people who are both intelligent and animalistic. They don’t reject their passion or their bodies. And they find freedom in each other.

“They won’t be able to blow out my wanting you, nor the little glow there is between you and me…You can’t insure against the future, except by really believing in the best bit of you, and in the power beyond it. So I believe in the little flame between us…It’s my Pentecost, the forked flame between me and you.” –Mellors

Clifford, bound to a engined wheelchair, is basically half-machine and acts like it, perpetually cold and robotic, yet childish in his tantrums. Mellors struggles constantly with the hostile world, in the form of his sociopathic ex-wife and virtually anyone else who judges him for his lifestyle and for the way he speaks. But it’s Mellors who is the tender one, the “noble hero,” the purest form of man who strives to live his life outside the social influence of the world. Lawrence argues that the strict society destroys the purity of humanity. Constance and Mellors seek to combat its influence and live outside of the world.

The book is aggressively anti-feminist in the way the male characters talk about sex, which I didn’t realize from reading the first chapters. It’s a shame, but not altogether surprising. Exploring sex and sex politics in this time period through literature was virtually unheard of: this book was banned from publication in England at all. But it’s still worth a read if only to learn more about the politics of sex in the interwar period. But it is a lot more than that.

It’s books like these that make me wish I were still taking literature classes in college. I would have loved to analyze this book and write a couple papers on it–but I am such a dork for saying so. There’s so much here to learn.


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  • What a great review. I didn’t know much about this book except for the fact that it has attained “classic” status, though I didn’t know why it had earned it. The anti-industrialization elements very much appeal to me. It’s the same thing happening now, when people claim that technology will “save us”! Added to my to-read list. 🙂

    • Thanks! It really is a very complex read, and I’m glad you enjoyed the review!

  • Wonderful insight into a complex novel that is, as you so clearly understood, about a great deal more than what the title would suggest. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this.

    • Thanks for your feedback! Glad you enjoyed it.