The Great War and its effects in D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

18 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of contents

I. Introduction

II. The consequences of the Great War for British society

III. Lawrence’s attitude towards the war and post-war England

IV. The effects of the war in Lady Chatterley’s Lover
1. Injury and trauma
2. Industrialism
3. Intellectualism
4. Rebirth of love and sexuality

V. Conclusion

VI. Bibliography

I. Introduction

A lot of British literature from the 1920’s reflects on the life of post-World War I England and the experiences of the war. Using the words of Samuel Heynes in A War Imagined, “war writing and Modernist writing interpenetrated each other” (Heynes 1990: 458). Aldous Huxley, for example, illustrates satirically the fragile post-war English intellectual life in his works Crome Yellow and Mortal Coils. In Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, Virginia Wolf portrays the war with a female voice. Also, T. S. Eliot’s early poetry is preoccupied with post-war society. He saw the Jazz Age after the war as a breakdown of civilisation and its values (cf. Brockhampton Dictionary of Literature 1995: 72, 110, 246).

Also in D. H. Lawrence’s writings the aftermath of the war plays an important role. Lawrence concentrated on the psychological and social effects of the war and drew from own experiences for his writing. Lady Chatterley’s Lover demonstrates how the war changed English society and the individual. Lawrence, who was a strong opponent of the war, describes the negative effects of it. He combines all the themes that Huxley, Woolf, and Eliot present in their writings, mocking intellectualism and the collapse of civilisation, and describing female suffering and fulfilment. However, he leaves the reader with a hope note, ending his novel with the fulfilling relationship between the protagonists Connie and Mellors. Although the words are “Ours is essentially a tragic age”[1], Lady Chatterley’s Lover ends with a promising letter of Mellors in which he looks into the future “with a hopeful heart” (LCL 314). This emotional journey from a shattered society to a life-affirming one is the main idea of the book. “It proposes the possibility of vital connections between men and women, the need for a radical change in consciousness, the self-affirmation and triumph of life in opposition to the destructive and sterilizing forces of the modern world” (Meyers 1990: 357).

Taking this idea of a renewed society as a starting point, this paper examines the effects of the war in the novel and analyses the significance of and injury and trauma, elaborates on the role of intellectualism and industrialism in post-war England, and considers the importance of love and sexuality. Before analysing the novel itself from this point of view, a historical context is given, in which the effects of the Great War on English society are described. In addition, Lawrence’s attitude towards the war and his perception of post-war England is illustrated and supported by excerpts from his letters, in which his frequent communication with fellow artists, friends, and family members is expressed.

II. The consequences of the Great War for British society

The First World War brought on many fundamental changes for the post-war society of Europe and Britain. Many suffered from physical and mental injuries, were hit by economic and political changes, and affected by the collapse of a long established socio-cultural system. Arthur Marwick notes in Britain in the Century of Total War that “society in the Twenties and Thirties exhibited all the signs of having suffered a deep mental wound, to which agony and the bloodshed, as well as the more generalised revulsion at the destruction of an older civilisation and its ways contributed” (Marwick 1968: 62).

The years after the war were characterised by strikes, wage-cuts, and unemployment. From the end of the war until 1921, the number of unemployed increased to more than two million. Different trades were on strike as they fought to keep their wartime pay, whereas employers reduced the wages to levels before the war (cf. Hynes 1990: 355). This industrial turbulence peaked with the advent of the general strike in May 1926. Coal mine owners intended to reduce wages and increase working hours in order to survive a collapse in the industry. This attempt resulted in a general strike lasting almost seven months. The strike assumed vast proportions so that it “was not a strike, people said, it was a revolution” (Hynes 1990: 408). Within one week four million workers refused go to work. For seven months the miners were locked out. Besides, the railroad network collapsed and the complete British industry was ground to a halt (cf. Meyers 1990: 356). Although the strike was “the greatest industrial dispute ever know in Britain” (Holderness 1982: 220), the workers and their union eventually lost their struggle. Being politically weakened and bitterly impoverished, they went back to work in November (cf. Holderness 1982: 220-221).

In addition, traumas from loss, injury, and death occupied British society for many years after the war. Numbers can only be estimated: 750,000 people died, approximately 1.6 million British soldiers were physically wounded, and about 200,000 suffered from mental disorders. Not only were many of the men who endured physical injuries limited in their job and everyday life, but sexual impotence was a probably more severely debilitating response to the war. Moreover, shell-shock was likely to be the most terrible consequence of the war. This phenomenon was diagnosed in vast numbers regardless of class, rank, or age. Furthermore, for many, the trauma continued to affect their lives for many years after the war and the symptoms were outwardly not always recognisable (cf. Cole 2003: 188-193). Due to the physical and psychological wounds, masculinity had to be redefined as the war left a lot of men vulnerable and weak.

People were not only physically and psychologically injured or troubled during the Depression era, but also dislocated in their environment. The war and its aftermath broke open traditional economic, class, and gender norms. When the soldiers returned back to their families and their jobs, they found themselves in a different socio-cultural situation (cf. Cole 2003: 190). The war had destroyed the security of the class system leaving the population unsure of their social background. Especially the middle classes lost the faith in their social status as they experienced poverty for the first time (cf. Heynes 1990: 358-359). After the war, women attained new political, economic, and educational prospects and privileges. As they had to fend for themselves during the war, they also gained more self-confidence. This new confidence of many women, combined with their husbands’ traumata caused a destabilisation of gender roles. Increased sexual and communicative crises in relationships and divorces can be interpreted in relation to this particular historical context (cf. Heynes 190: 361-364, 375).

III. Lawrence’s attitude towards the war and post-war England

As Lawrence and most of his friends did not serve in the First World War, he was not involved directly. He adopted a pacifist attitude, but did not want to convince other people to resist (cf. Delany 1979: 238). He also remained uncommitted in charity work for refugees or wounded soldiers like other English writers did (cf. Hynes 1990: 11). Nevertheless, the war affected him emotionally. As early as September 1914 he reacted cynically and hatefully:

The war makes me depressed, the talk about the war makes me sick, and I have never come so near to hating mankind as I am now. They are fools, and vulgar fools, and cowards who will always make a noise because they are afraid of the silence. I don’t even mind if they’re killed. But I do mind those who, being sensitive, will receive such a blow from the ghastliness and mechanical, obsolete, hideous stupidity of war, that they will be crippled beings further burdening our sick society. (The Collective Letters I 290-291)

Lawrence regarded the war as chauvinistic behaviour and blind stupidity, which would leave both sides severely damaged no matter who won it. He believed in the decay of European civilisation, which would end up in its final collapse. In 1916, he stated without any hope that “the world is gone, extinguished, like the lights of last night’s Café Royal – gone for ever” (Collected Letters I 411). His aversion to war is particularly visible in his changing attitude towards England. His experiences during medical examinations for the war made him conscious of the degradation and loss of individuality and humanity. This awareness and the change of the government[2] caused Lawrence’s wish to leave England and start a new life in Mexico, Italy, or New Mexico (cf. Koh 2003: 162-163): “I have cared deeply and bitterly [about England]. But something is broken. There is not any England. One must look now for another world. This is only a tomb” (Collected Letters I 501).

Despite his despair, he did not stop to have philosophical and political visions for a peaceful society. In correspondence with Bertrand Russell[3], whom he first considered a supporter in his opposition to the war, Lawrence expressed his feelings about democracy. He blamed the weakness of England’s democratic leader to be responsible for the war. Therefore, democratic participation had to be abolished in favour of strong sole aristocratic leadership: “You must drop all your democracy. […] There must be an aristocracy of people who have wisdom, and there must be a Ruler: a Kaiser” (Collected Letters I 352). Russell, however, was an advocate of democracy and disapproved of Lawrence’s attitude.

Lawrence’s views are judged by scholars as naïve and unsteady, and as led by unreflected passion rather than rational thinking. In addition, before he expressed belief in aristocracy as a means for peace, he had favoured socialism as the basis for a fair society. On 26 February 1915 he wrote to Russell, claiming that socialist ideas supported non-violent cohabitation of nations and classes (cf. Meyers 1990: 164-172):

I have only to stick to my vision of a life when men are freer from the immediate material things, where they need never be as they are now on the defence against each other, largely because of the struggle for existence, which is a real thing, even to those who need not to make the struggle. So a vision of a better life must include a revolution of society. And one must fulfil one’s vision as much as possible. And the drama shall be between individual men and women, not between nations and classes. (Collected Letters I 323-324)

Lawrence’s opposing views on political systems were driven by the desire for individual fulfilment rather than national concerns. He wanted to escape from the terror of the war and planned the nucleus for a better society. He had an idealistic community in mind, where he would live with friends and share with them artistic ambitions, discussions and communal domestic life. In a letter to Katherine Mansfield, he expressed his hopes for a new harmony in contrast to the war, using the image of spring:

I want so much that we should create a life in common, a new spirit a spirit of unanimity between a few of us who are desirous in spirit, that we should add our lives together, to make one tree, each of us free and producing in his separate fashion, but all of us together forming one spring, a unanimous blossoming. It needs that we be one in spirit, that is all. (Collected Letters I 401)

The idea for this community, which was called Rananim[4], was not turned into reality. Lawrence had bad arguments with Catherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry, who lived together with Lawrence and his wife Frieda in Cornwall (cf. Delany 1979: 39-41, 68-79). Besides, Lawrence’s wish to liberate himself from a war-shattered society resulted in a mental imprisonment: “While it [the war] lasts, we are more or less trapped. When it is over, we can clear out of this world, for ever. I tell you my Rananim , my Florida idea, was the true one. Only the people were wrong. But to go to Rananim without the people is right […]” (Collected Letters I 483). This quotation shows that Lawrence felt alone with his ideals. Rananim as a collective project became even more unrealistic and deteriorated because of individual resistance.


[1] D. H. Lawrence: Lady Chatterley’s Lover, 5. All subsequent quotations will be marked LCL.

[2] Lawrence regarded the new Prime Minister a demagogue, who took advantage of the ignorance of the people (cf. Koh 2003: 163).

[3] Bertrand Russell was a lecturer at Trinity College. Lawrence met him through their mutual friend Lady Ottoline Morrell (cf. Meyers 1990: 164).

[4] The name Rananim is taken from the Hebrew words ranenu raninim of Psalm 33 (cf. Meyers 1990: 172).

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The Great War and its effects in D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover
University of Freiburg
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Daniela Wack (Author), 2004, The Great War and its effects in D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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