Lady Chatterley's Lover begins with the marriage of Clifford Chatterley, a young baronet, to Constance Reid. Clifford is the heir to an estate, Wragby, in the English midlands; Constance--or Connie, as she is usually called in this novel--is the cultured, intellectual daughter of a Scottish painter, Sir Malcolm. The marriage takes place during the first World War, a shattering experience for England and all of Europe, and quite literally for Clifford, who is badly injured in combat, paralyzed from the waist down and rendered impotent. By way of background, we learn that Connie was raised in a socially-permissive atmosphere: both she and her sister Hilda had love affairs in their teenage years.
At the war's end, Clifford and Connie live at Wragby, near the grim, soulless coal-mining village of Tevershall. The handicapped Clifford has become totally dependent on Connie, and Connie tends to him diligently and sympathetically. But she notices that he seems curiously detached from his surroundings, disconnected from other people; he is unable to relate to the workers in the coal mines that he owns, seeing them more as objects than as men. Clifford becomes a successful author, absorbed in writing short stories, and Wragby becomes a sort of salon for young intellectuals. Connie is, at least for a while, entranced by this intellectual life, her world structured by literature and ideas. But her father, Sir Malcolm, intimates that there is a danger in living an intellectual life devoid of sensuality, in living as Connie does with Clifford.
As time goes by, Connie becomes restless, beginning to realize the truth of her father's warning, to see that her life is filled with empty words, and not the vitality of the sensual. Her bouts of restlessness coincide with the visit to Wragby of a young playwright, Michaelis. Despite his success, the Irish Michaelis is treated by the British aristocratic intelligentsia as an outsider; Connie is attracted by his outsider's aloofness, and sympathizes with his mistreatment. She begins an affair with him which, while not fully satisfying sexually--Connie gets sexual satisfaction from him, but only on her own initiative, after he has arrived at orgasm--temporarily rouses her from her doldrums.
Lady Chatterley's Lover begins with a paragraph that establishes the social and cultural context for all that follows. Like many modernist, postwar writers, D.H. Lawrence believed that the first World War was a vast tragedy, one that had thrown Europe into chaos, casting doubt on all that civilization had previously believed meaningful. The problem was how to continue to live after the apocalypse: "Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes." Lady Chatterley's Lover is a novel with profound social, political and cultural concerns. It interests itself not just in the love affair between Connie and Mellors in particular, and not just in personal relationships in general, but in the structure and survival of Western society.
Clifford Chatterley becomes a figure for the aristocracy and intelligentsia of postwar England. In the years after the war, the poet Ezra Pound referred to European civilization as a "bitch gone in the teeth," an old and useless dog. In Lady Chatterley's Lover, postwar England is depicted as crippled and impotent: Clifford functions as an allegorical figure as much as he does as a real character. His physical emasculation reflects an internal weakness and emptiness. He becomes incapable of breeding his own heir. This is a novelistic device, but it also must be seen as a social commentary; Lawrence is concerned that without a radical reconception of personal relationships and social order, England will not perpetuate itself, will not survive its "tragic age" except as an agglomeration of corporate machines.
The first indictment in this novel of postwar English society comes as a critique of English intellectual life. Clifford becomes a successful author, but his art proves devoid of meaning, incapable of forging a real connection between him and his wife. Connie is temporarily entranced by the world of letters, but she finds, as the novel progresses, that intellectual life is nothing but letters without substance, a vain, foolish striving for success. This theme of the emptiness of intellectual life is handled most thoroughly through Lawrence's devastating depictions of the bohemian salons at Wragby in later chapters.
It is telling that the first person to warn Connie of the dangers of eschewing the physical is Sir Malcolm, her lusty Scottish father. Sir Malcolm is a painter of the old school; a member of the Royal Academy, he paints traditional, figural Scottish landscapes, in contrast to the non-representational art that dominated avant-garde European painting after the war. Sir Malcolm is also an unabashed proponent of sensual living, urging Connie to have an affair and--much later in the novel--bonding instantly with Mellors over frank, earthy discussions of sexual prowess. Note that in Sir Malcolm, the wild Scotsman in touch with both his artistic and sensual sides, Lawrence joins conservative artistic technique with unconventional sexual mores. This blend of conservatism and unconventionality is evident throughout the novel, and it may be held up as Lawrence's ideal.