Revitalizing the Reader: Literary Technique and the Language of Sacred Experience in D.H. Lawrence's 'Lady Chatterley's Lover.'

By Burack, Charles M. | Style, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview
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Revitalizing the Reader: Literary Technique and the Language of Sacred Experience in D.H. Lawrence's 'Lady Chatterley's Lover.'


Burack, Charles M., Style


The famous sex scenes in Lady Chatterley's Lover have been celebrated for their beauty, verity, and liberating power. They have also been attacked as tedious, naive, sexist, and obscene. While it has been observed that the scenes represent the erotic initiation of Constance Chatterley, what has not been realized is that they are part of a narrative structure designed to initiate the reader.(1) The aim of this initiation is to transform the reader's consciousness. Through an analysis of the literary devices and sacred discourses deployed in the erotic episodes, I demonstrate that the initial attempt to revitalize readers eventually gives way to a deconstructive impulse that prevents readers from forming new erotic dogmas and encourages first-hand exploration.

It is sometimes forgotten that Lawrence was fundamentally a religious artist: that is, his sensibilities and artistic aims were profoundly shaped by his ongoing experience of the divine. In February 1913, a month before he began composing his greatest novels, The Rainbow and Women in Love, he wrote to the artist Ernest Collings that "I always feel as if I stood for the fire of Almightly God to go through me - and it's a rather awful feeling. One has to be so terribly religious, to be an artist" (Letter 550 in Letters 519). Throughout the rest of his career he continued to identify artistic inspiration and religious sensibility. A year before his death, he reasserts that the imagination is an essentially sacred faculty energized by bodily feeling.(2)

As a novelist, Lawrence turned to world religions not only for symbols, myths, and rites to use in his works, but also for ritual forms to structure his narratives and guide his technical innovations. Because his ultimate aim was to produce a spiritual transformation in his readers by evoking "new, really new feeling," especially the numinous "feeling of being beyond life or death," he became particularly intrigued with the structure and function of religious initiation rites (Phoenix 520, 527-28). In theosophy and cultural anthropology, he learned that an initiation rite is a transformational process typically comprised of two phases: a destructive phase in which the novitiate's ordinary modes of consciousness and action are disintegrated and purged, and a creative phase in which new, sacred modes are established that enable the awareness of or union with divinity.(3) The "double rhythm of creating and destroying" in Lawrence's major novels is precisely the dual rhythm of initiation (Studies in Classic American Literature 70).(4)

The narrator of Lady Chatterley also implies that novels should have a two-phased initiatory structure: in the first phase, the "properly handled" novel should "lead" the reader's "sympathy away in recoil from things gone dead"; in the second phase, it should "reveal the most secret places of life" by "cleansing and freshening" the "tide of sensitive awareness" (106). My investigation shows that these two phases determine the choice and arrangement of techniques and diction in Lady Chatterley. In the destruction phase, Lawrence tries to dissolve and expunge the reader's deadening sexual ideas and inclinations. In the sacralization phase, which focuses on the erotic encounters between Connie and Mellors, Lawrence attempts to vitalize, expand, and unify the reader's consciousness and thereby engender a sacred experience. The disintegration stage dominates the first half of the novel, while the vitalization stage governs the second half. As one stage wanes, the other waxes, and each is characterized by an array of structures, techniques, and discourses. The two distinctive arrays of language suggest two different narratorial consciousnesses: a narrator who seeks to break down the reader's mindset, and a new or renewed narrator who seeks to build up a fresh awareness. In this essay, using the sex scenes as exemplars, I examine how the sacralization phase operates.

My investigation does not focus on the actual, historical impact of the novel on readers, but rather on potential reader responses implied by the novel's textual effects.

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