Mortifying the Reader: The Assault on Verbal and Visual Consciousness in D.H. Lawrence's 'Lady Chatterley's Lover.'

By Burack, Charles M. | Studies in the Novel, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Mortifying the Reader: The Assault on Verbal and Visual Consciousness in D.H. Lawrence's 'Lady Chatterley's Lover.'


Burack, Charles M., Studies in the Novel


D. H. Lawrence is well known for his verbal and imagistic extravagances. What is less understood is his hostility toward the dominating influence of language and vision on Western consciousness. Today, we would say that he was opposed to the logocentrism and ocularcentrism of modern subjectivity.(1) Indeed, his understanding of these features of modern consciousness anticipates that of many postmodern theorists.

Lawrence's attack on the hyper-verbal-visual mind is particularly prominent in Lady Chatterley's Lover.(2) Critics have examined the novel's themes of speech and sight, but I will show how Lawrence's literary techniques attempt to highlight and undermine the reader's own linguistic and visual processes. These techniques have ideological values that partially subvert the patriarchal ideology voiced by the narrator and main characters and thus suggest that Lawrence may have had stronger sympathies with feminism than has been asserted. Feminist attacks on Lady Chatterley have generally overlooked the subversive implications of its formal structures. Kate Millett, for example, supports her critique by citing masculinist statements made by Mellors, but she ignores passages that undercut those messages.(3) She also fails to attend to broader intentional structures that undermine all dogmatic assertions made within the novel. Recently, Carol Siegel has demonstrated that Lawrence was not nearly as anti-feminist as has been claimed: he strongly identified with the women's literary tradition, sought out the literary advice and response of women, and sometimes encouraged women to write.(4)

While there have been several studies of technique in Lady Chatterley, none have focused on the relationship between technique and reader response.(5) Understanding this relationship is crucial because Lawrence was fundamentally concerned with using language to radically transform the reader's consciousness--to undermine stultifying orientations to self and world and to evoke more vivid and integrated modes of knowing and acting. For Lawrence, these stultifying orientations are rooted in a split consciousness formed by a splintered civilization that overvalues rational, reflexive and visual thought. I have developed a poetics of narrative technique and phenomenology of the reading experience that analyzes the implied textual effects on the novel's ideal reader. The investigation does not focus on the actual, historical impact of the novel on readers but rather on potential reader responses suggested by the novel's textual effects. In short, I concentrate on what Wolfgang Iser calls "the implied reader": the "network of response-inviting structures, which impel the reader to grasp the text."(6) While not limiting myself to Iser's particular methodology, I show how Lady Chatterley's textual effects invite and channel potential reader responses. Actual responses are always unique and involve a dynamic exchange between text and reader: the text verbally prestructures possible responses, and the reader actualizes one or more of those potentials through an act of construction. Reading strategies are shaped by the reader's interpretive community and by idiosyncratic features of the reader's life and reading experience. Iser argues that one of the main functions of literature is to call into question the reader's habitual understanding of social conventions. In my analysis of Lady Chatterley, I am assuming, as Lawrence surely did, a reader who is at least open to being transformed by novel reading. This "ideal reader" will be simultaneously resistant and receptive to change. Carol Siegel has shown that for many of Lawrence's novels, this ideal reader was probably female. My study, however, does not presuppose a female reader; rather, I assume that the literary devices are potentially effective for male and female readers.(7)

For Lawrence, as for Nietzsche, there is a "double rhythm of creating and destroying" in "true art. …

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