Sexuality in Modernist Literature. D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover" as an Approach to Emancipation and Gender Equality

Seminar Paper, 2018

18 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Modernism: A Short Outline
2.1 Focus on Women

3. Lady Chatterley's Lover: The Main Characters
3.1 Constance’ Mental and Sexual Development throughout the Novel
3.3 Oliver Mellors
3.4 Clifford Chattlerey

4. Stylistic Aspects
4.1 Style of Narration
4.2 The Meaning of Place

5. Conclusion

6. Works Cited List

1. Introduction

One very important aspect in the discourse of feminism and emancipation has always been the self-determination of women concerning their bodies and their sexuality. Even today women's sexuality is still a subject of public interest and subject of public matter: Demonization of female sexuality, restraints of birth control and abortions are normal even in many modern countries, overprotective fathers and brothers who try keeping female family members from having sexual intercourse before marriage are quite common in strict Christian communities and many Muslim-shaped cultures. Yet, the worst occurrence of regulation of women’s sexuality is the female genital mutilation that is still practiced in many African countries.

Discriminatory treatment due to a person's biological sex has been an issue in nearly every people's history and even countries that now have gender equality went through a process of rejection, sometimes combatting and then eventually, awareness and acceptance of that very gender equality. In England, this process started with the expiring of the Victorian era: Modernism came and marked a new chapter in history. The simultaneous proceeding of industrialization and World War I led to the necessity of a major change of thinking- and action patterns. The habitual values and morals had to be questioned and this affected the ongoing women's movement. Conditions for women slowly began to change: their work force was highly needed, but as underpaid workers and without the right to vote, an uprising of the British women's movement was inevitable. General consciousness evolved for women's rights and needs, and feminist movements gained more and more popularity and attention.

As the new, controversial and revolutionary topic that women's equality was back then it was of course also approached by modernist literature. Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence was by far not the first novel, that dealt with women's desires and sexual needs, but it was one of the frankest and most blatant. Being too explicit about sexuality, the novel was even banned in the United Kingdom for several decades. In this paper it shall be proven that the discussion of female sexuality in the modernist novel Lady Chatterley's Lover is an approach to emancipation and gender equality.

To prove the thesis the novel shall be analyzed in terms of the style of narration, characterizations and stylistic aspects.

2. Modernism: A Short Outline

As opposed to other eras, the era of Modernism (late 19th to the mid of the 20th century) is not so much marked by tremendous politics and historical happenings, Modernism rather describes a mental evolution that has itself represented in applied arts. It tried to break with the strictness and the one-track philosophy of the past and all rules which defined the common way of thinking back then. Modernism can be understood as an alternative way of thinking, whose outcome is reflected in contemporary architecture, arts and especially in literature. In the field of Architecture, it was experimented with new lines and shapes although the motto "form follows function" was of immense importance since more and more people rushed into the bigger cities to profit from the vastly growing industrialization which then led to an increased need of living space. Newly designed buildings therefore tended to be of a more linear, unfussy design and grew higher and established a complete new streetscape.

Even more distinct was the impact on literature. Writers reacted to the industrialization and to the First World War by raising fundamental questions which eventually led to a societal rethinking in many areas. One of these areas was the questioning of the previous social structure, which hitherto was defined by the upper class as the leading class and males as the leading gender.

2.1 Focus on Women

With the beginning of industrialization women began to work. Gone was the Victorian era that liked to see a woman as the 'angel of the house', who ought to be modest, caring and at the same time literate and educated without the chance to ever make real use of these competences. Even though women's work during the industrialization was hard and not well paid it still paved the way for gender equality. With increasing employment, women naturally became more independent and self-determined. Now that many of them were hired and got into direct contact with work policies and politics in general they soon had the desire of being allowed to vote. This desire being denied many women started to protest und revolt against the British parliament. The suffragettes-movement did not even back off from violence: On the 21st of November 1911 they tried to enter the parliament and broke several shop windows on their way (cf. Zeit, 1)

The First World War also changed the situation: most men went away to defend England; their wives, sisters and daughters stayed home and had to keep the businesses running. They got used to handle things on their own without any male support or paternalism. When the war was over in 1918 women's independence had gotten unimpeachable and they were allowed to vote if they were over thirty. In the year 1928 the age-limit was then set down to 18 years.

Although the official status of women had changed for the better since the passing of the Victorian and Edwardian era, their private independence remained problematical. Many women worked full time and still had to manage children and household (cf. Hudson). A marriage was not only seen as a love-connection but mostly as a mutually beneficial connection. The man earned most of the money and the woman fulfilled the classic role of a mother and wife, and even if she had work and earned money herself it was often not enough to live completely independent from her husband. This mutual dependence can be seen as one reason for the low divorce-rate before the First World War. Furthermore, divorce was considered a scandal and only one in 450 marriages was divorced (cf. Thompson et al., 38 f.). This fact also gives information about morals and values at that time: Husband and wife had to stay together, not matter what happens. After the war, in the year 1923, the Matrimonial Causes Act was passed, which made "adultery by either husband or wife the sole ground for divorce" (ibid.) This meant especially for women an enormous ease because for them before this bill adultery itself was not enough reason for being divorced from her husband.

In the Victorian era the status of female sexuality was limited to reproductive reasons. The sensual dimension of it was only discovered in the beginning of the 20th century and understandably research of women's sexuality in its early stages was nowhere near present day's state of information. The Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud, who was widely known all over Europe at that time and whose theories found great audience, tried to approach and explain women's sexuality with terms like 'castration complex' and 'penis-envy' (cf. Freud, 173). In his work Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality he speaks of women's penislessness as a "defect" (Freud, 176) and states that women recognize it as a characteristic of their inferiority to men; Men on the other hand would see themselves as the superior gender for the exact same reason (Freud, 173). Freud does not explain female sexuality as an independent subject but sets it in relation to male sexuality. To put it in a nutshell: He designed a construct of the value of men and women exclusively based on their reproductive organs.

Furthermore, Freud gets even more specific about the female sensation of sexuality and claims that the only pleasure worth striving for comes from vaginal and not from clitoral stimulation. In fact, he describes orgasms from clitoral stimulation being inferior and premature (cf. Freud, 169).

Freud's theories were of big influence and his statements reflected the zeitgeist and common beliefs of that time. His theories consolidated people in their already existent belief of certain sexual gender characteristics and ultimately led to the consequence that women felt regulated, less important and inferior in perception of their own sexuality.

3. Lady Chatterley's Lover: The Main Characters

3.1 Constance’ Mental and Sexual Development throughout the Novel

The novel's plot sets in right after the end of World War I and evolves itself completely in the 1920’s. The narrator gives an insight into Constance Chatterley's life, mentioning important milestones that have contributed to the character as which she is described later. Thereby the reader gets introduced to the status quo from which onwards the actual story begins to unfold. Furthermore, the reader gets a characterization of Constance in her teenage years, some of which she and her sister Hilda spend in Germany where they both have their first sexual experiences with men by the time they are eighteen (cf. Lawrence, 49). Although Constance is depicted as sensual and passionate later in the novel, her first love encounters with fellow students are described as a "primitive reversion" and an "anti-climax" (Lawrence, 49) compared to the vivid discussions about philosophy, sociology and arts she has had with these men. She does not have her sexual affair for her own sake but only to please the man she is with: "The girls were doubtful, but then the thing [sex] was so much talked about it, it was supposed to be so important. And the men were so humble and craving. Why couldn’t a girl be queenly, and give the gift of herself?" (Lawrence, 49). Connie sacrifices herself although she feels her "privacy and inner freedom" being trespassed and thus being less in love with the boy afterwards (Lawrence, 49). Sex does not play an important role to teenage Constance, neither on the physical and sensual level nor on the mental and moral one. The narrator states: "And a woman had to yield. A man was like a child with his appetites. A woman had to yield him what he wanted, or like a child he would probably turn nasty and flounce away and spoil what was a very pleasant connexion." (Lawrence, 49 f.) This statement is an explanation for Connie’s indulgence. Yet she is not unwilling to have intercourse, it is more of a giving-in to somebody else’s wish. She thinks that sex is the part she as a woman has to fulfill to keep a relationship intact and her man in a good mood. In the description of Connie's and Hilda’s first sexual encounters it can be seen, that their sexual desire is not equal to that very distinct one of their partners. They do not take the same thrill from it and "nearly succumb to the strange male power" (Lawrence, p. 51). Contemporary morals still had a huge influence on people's perception and imagination of love and marriage, but these morals do not find mention in the novel and therefore do not play a role for Connie. Having had an "aesthetically unconventional upbringing" (Lawrence, 48) Connie is used to be free in her decisions and without parental control. From an early age on, she and her sister have travelled a lot, got to know arts and different sociological modes of thought. This rather off-beat education has led Connie to being "not the least daunted by either art or ideal politics" (Lawrence, 48) which is why she does not have any moral concerns and does not show affected constraint.

After her return to England she meets Clifford Chatterley, a young man from an aristocratic family. They marry and have a month of honeymoon, before he has to go back to Flanders to take part in the First World War. After a couple of months, Clifford gets injured very severely and returns as a paralyzed man, who from then on is reliant on a wheelchair. At first, Connie is not too heavily affected by Clifford’s disability. Clifford is wealthy and hires people who help him with matters of physical nature, while Connie keeps him company and listens to him when he speaks or reads to her (cf. Lawrence, 60). In the beginning, Constance and Clifford are still attached to one another but as time passes, Connie begins to feel out of contact to the real world and realizes how much she misses bodily touches: “Connie was aware, however, of a growing restlessness. […] It thrilled inside her body, in her womb […]” (Lawrence, 63). In these lines the reader first learns about Connie’s longing for touches and sexual fulfillment. She can no longer endure the absence of sexual intimacy and “[loses] touch with the substantial and vital world” (Lawrence, 63).

Constance’s first sexual encounter after years of abstinence happens with Michaelis, a thirty-year-old Irish playwright, who comes to Wragby following an invitation of Clifford’s. Connie immediately feels attracted to Michaelis and seeks his company in the early morning hours when Clifford is still in his chambers. After their first time together, Michaelis leaves the room for a couple of minutes and then returns to Connie in the assumption she might now hate him.


Excerpt out of 18 pages


Sexuality in Modernist Literature. D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover" as an Approach to Emancipation and Gender Equality
University of Paderborn
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Sexuality, Modernism, Lady Chatterley's Lover, D.H. Lawrence, Gender Equality, Feminism, Emancipation, Equality
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Alice Sturm (Author), 2018, Sexuality in Modernist Literature. D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover" as an Approach to Emancipation and Gender Equality, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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