Banned Books: Lady Chatterley’s Lover & Lolita- An Analysis
Only a year separates the publication in the United Kingdom of D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, but both were vilified by opponents of their publication as pornographic, yet the novels could hardly be more different in the way they are written. Although both novels quickly gained popular notoriety, while being lauded by critics as worthy of publication, they could hardly differ more as novels, and they both subvert and transgress social, ethical and literary norms in complex and different ways. This essay will examine each text in turn to discover which novel is the more subversive and which the more transgressive.
In Lady Chatterley’s Lover it is difficult to separate the social and ethical, because Lawrence was writing in a different context, so what was considered unethical was influenced by the social norms of the time. The book gained its infamy for the frequent use of “fuck” and “cunt” – which Lawrence defended and tried to explain in an essay “A Propos of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’” (1930):
If I use taboo words, there is a reason. We shall never free the phallic reality from the ‘uplift’ taint till we give it its own phallic language and use obscene words. (quoted in Hughes, 32).
In other words Lawrence is trying to restore the dignity and tenderness to words which should be used naturally and gently between lovers.
There are other norms which it transgresses. Socially and ethically, it involves an adulterous affair which ends in divorce – at a period in history when divorce was considered a social stigma and certainly unethical. More importantly, it it transgresses boundaries of class because Connie Chatterley has an adulterous affair with a working class man. Her husband has told her that he will understand if she has an affair because of his impotence, and he will accept as his own child any she might have by another man provided she uses her “natural instinct of decency and selection” and she does not allow “the wrong sort of fellow [to] touch [her]. (Lawrence, 49). This is a clear warning to restrict her affairs to people of her own class. The novel also breaks a sexual taboo by describing anal sex – which was still considered a criminal offence even if committed by a man and his wife. Finally, Mellors uses taboo words feely and teaches them to Connie – the implication being that a woman of her class would not know such words. This taboo language, we note, normally excludes women: when Mellors meets Connie’s father, the latter merrily and laughingly uses taboo words to describe his daughter (Lawrence, 321). Lawrence does not merely subvert these norms – he transgresses them all by including them in the novel.
Does he subvert literary norms? In some ways he does – the frequent use of taboo words had never before appeared in a novel by a recognized writer; adultery had been portrayed before (but never so graphically) and almost always between social equals or between a man of higher class than the woman. But all this is subversion and transgression merely at the level of lexis. Take away the taboo words and the graphic sex and we are left with an ordinary state-of-the-nation novel imbued with Lawrentian symbolism and significance.
Clifford Chatterley, crippled and impotent, is the old order which must be swept away if England is to improve and be re-born; even the chopped down part of the wood could be taken to symbolize the war; the mines are the sterility of modern life to which Lawrence was so opposed; and Mellors is the natural man, a descendant of the medieval Green Man, “the mythic fertility figure who will effect, along classical lines of death and re-birth, Connie’s regeneration.” (Humma, 92) Mellors’ first appearance in front of Connie is described aggressively by Lawrence. He looks as if he is about “to attack” Connie and Clifford with “swift menace” and he seems to have appeared as a “sudden rush of threat out of nowhere” (Lawrence, 51) As Humma says, Mellors “represents a direct challenge to Clifford’s way of life and Connie’s sterile existence.” (Humma, 93) Wuchina comments that Clifford is
A basically insecure man who relies on his inherited class position, and later his wife, as defences. Clifford is not a man of signal character; he depends on his material class appurtenances. (Wuchina, 56)
Therefore, in literary terms Lady Chatterley’s Lover is actually a very traditional, didactic novel which promotes Lawrence’s philosophy of the religion of the phallus. Hughes summarizes Lawrence’s position well:
Perceiving the life of modern man as one of alienation and conformity in a mechanized environment, Lawrence developed a profound, almost religious belief in the importance of spontaneous and natural feelings, especially the sex drive (Hughes, 28).
Despite the histrionic vilification that Lady Chatterley’s Lover received it is actually, in literary terms, a very conventional text, except on the level of lexis and ideas. Coetzee argues that Lawrence does transgress taboos through the language and subject matter of his novel, but he concludes that “the very existence and power of the novel depends on the existence of those taboos.” (Coetzee, 62).
Nabokov could hardly be accused of didacticism in Lolita. I find it ironic that their publication dates are so close and both novels were accused of being pornographic, when in terms of tone and overall effect they are so dissimilar. Lolita transgresses only one social and sexual norm in that it describes the relationship between an adult man and a pre-pubescent girl. Humbert Humbert is a paedophile, but even that fact is put into context by the bland and utilitarian Foreword by John Ray which makes it clear that what follows are the words of a “panting maniac” (Nabokov, 7). Furthermore, Humbert is Lolita’s step-father which raises the traumatizing idea of incest. However, almost everything about Lolita is deeply subversive – even Ray’s foreword – because it is such a deeply comic novel. At the same time, it creates empathy for its narrator, the child-rapist, step-father of Dolores Haze. Even this creation of empathy for a character so inherently loathsome is not unusual in literature: watching Macbeth we might sympathize with a mass-murdering tyrant; Satan in Paradise Lost is often seen by readers as a more sympathetic character than God.
At the end of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Connie and Mellors are about to leave England. At the end of Lolita Humbert Humbert has been brought to trial and executed. As a morality tale, its message could not be clearer, but, more importantly, on the penultimate page of the novel Humbert stands on a hill listening to the medley of sounds coming from a school playground in the valley below and he realizes “that the most hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord” (Nabokov, 324). The next paragraph starts “This then is my story. I have re-read it. It has bits of marrow sticking to it, and blood, and beautiful bright-green flies. At this or that twist of it I feel my slippery self eluding me, gliding into deeper and darker waters than I care to probe.” (Nabokov, 324). Tony Moore in ‘Seeing Through Humbert’ (Zunshine, 91-115) says of this passage that it is
One of the most illuminating moments in the book, calling for a decisive focal adjustment through retrospective re-orientation. His language is tasteful and reticent, devoid of the Humbertian trademarks of parody, self-parody, cynicism, satire, disdain, double entendre, and scornful desire to display how many more books he has read than his readers. (Zunshine, 105)
Before this Humbert had admitted to himself and to us that “even the most miserable of family lives was better than the parody of incest, which, in the long run was all I could offer the waif.” (Nabokov, 302) In a longer passage, which I want to quote at length , we see the narrator’s remorse:
Unless it can be proven to me... that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, then life is a joke), I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art. (Nabokov, 298)
“Articulate art” sums up what this novel is about: the creation of a work of art, an aesthetic view of literature which is far removed from Lawrence’s didacticism and ponderous religion of the phallus. Nabokov, through Humbert, subverts, through satirical observation, American values, culture and society by presenting himself as a sophisticated European who knows better. This subversion is not on ethical or social grounds, but largely on grounds of taste and aesthetic values and is seen throughout the novel, but especially on Humbert and Lolita’s epic road trips across America where nothing is taken seriously and everything is mocked, from the decor in the motels to the tourist sites enticing them to visit. Even Lolita’s own Hollywood-based culture is constantly mocked by Humbert’s sneering cynicism and even by the way he writes. The style of Lolita is characterized by anagrams, puns, allusions – to literature, music, paintings, ballet, alliteration, rhetorical questions, asides to the reader or the ladies and gentlemen of the jury, neologisms, apostrophe, parenthesis, and by phrases from French and Latin. This is especially important because it is the style of America that Humbert is so critical of.
“Articulate art” – I return to this phrase because it is also used for purposes other than satire. The same brilliant style is employed to describe Lolita as she appears in Humbert’s fantasy vision of her, not as the ordinary, mundane girl that she really is. Probably the best example of this is the sequence where Humbert describes Lolita playing tennis (Nabokov, 243-246). It is a beautiful, magical, transformative piece of writing, because if you read it carefully it shows that in reality she is a terrible tennis player, but for Humbert, and perhaps for Nabokov, that pragmatic concern is subsumed beneath the beauty, elegance and vivacity of the style. Most of the original defenders of the novel from the accusation that it was pornographic, chose to justify it on grounds of style, as well as the fact that Humbert is punished at the end and also shows remorse. For example, F W Dupee in an original review in ‘Anchor Review’ (91) wrote
Lolita is a masterpiece of grotesque comedy, partly an unsubdued wilderness where the wolf hunts – a real wolf howling for a real Red Riding Hood.
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- David Wheeler (Autor), 2011, Banned Books: "Lady Chatterley’s Lover" and "Lolita" - An Analysis, München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/179456