The greatness of Lady Chatterley's Lover lies in a paradox: it is simultaneously progressive and reactionary, modern and Victorian. It looks backwards towards a Victorian stylistic formality, and it seems to anticipate the social morality of the late 20th century in its frank engagement with explicit subject matter and profanity. One might say of the novel that it is formally and thematically conservative, but methodologically radical.
The easiest of these assertions to prove is that Lady Chatterley's Lover is "formally conservative." By this I mean that there are few evident differences between the form of Lady Chatterley's Lover and the form of the high-Victorian novels written fifty years earlier: in terms of structure; in terms of narrative voice; in terms of diction, with the exception of a very few "profane" words. It is important to remember that Lady Chatterley's Lover was written towards the end of the 1920s, a decade which had seen extensive literary experimentation. The 1920s opened with the publishing of the formally radical novel Ulysses, which set the stage for important technical innovations in literary art: it made extensive use of the stream-of-consciousness form; it condensed all of its action into a single 24-hour span; it employed any number of voices and narrative perspectives. Lady Chatterley's Lover acts in many ways as if the 1920s, and indeed the entire modernist literary movement, had never happened. The structure of the novel is conventional, tracing a small group of characters over an extended period of time in a single place. The rather preachy narrator usually speaks with the familiar third-person omniscience of the Victorian novel. And the characters tend towards flatness, towards representing a type, rather than speaking in their own voices and developing real three-dimensional personalities.
But surely, if Lady Chatterley's Lover is "formally conservative," it can hardly be called "thematically conservative"! After all, this is a novel that raised censorious hackles across the English-speaking world. It is a novel that liberally employs profanity, that more-or-less graphically--graphically, that is, for the 1920s: it is important not to evaluate the novel by the standards of profanity and graphic sexuality that have become prevalent at the turn of the 21st century--describes sex and orgasm, and whose central message is the idea that sexual freedom and sensuality are far more important, more authentic and meaningful, than the intellectual life. So what can I mean by calling Lady Chatterley's Lover, a famously controversial novel, "thematically conservative"?
Well, it is important to remember not only precisely what this novel seems to advocate, but also the purpose of that advocacy. Lady Chatterley's Lover is not propaganda for sexual license and free love. As D.H. Lawrence himself made clear in his essay "A Propos of Lady Chatterley's Lover," he was no advocate of sex or profanity for their own sake. The reader should note that the ultimate goal of the novel's protagonists, Mellors and Connie, is a quite conventional marriage, and a sex life in which it is clear that Mellors is the aggressor and the dominant partner, in which Connie plays the receptive part; all who would argue that Lady Chatterley's Lover is a radical novel would do well to remember the vilification that the novel heaps upon Mellors' first wife, a sexually aggressive woman. Rather than mere sexual radicalism, this novel's chief concern--although it is also concerned, to a far greater extent than most modernist fiction, with the pitfalls of technology and the barriers of class--is with what Lawrence understands to be the inability of the modern self to unite the mind and the body. D.H. Lawrence believed that without a realization of sex and the body, the mind wanders aimlessly in the wasteland of modern industrial technology. An important recognition in Lady Chatterley's Lover is the extent to which the modern relationship between men and women comes to resemble the relationship between men and machines.
Not only do men and women require an appreciation of the sexual and sensual in order to relate to each other properly; they require it even to live happily in the world, as beings able to maintain human dignity and individuality in the dehumanizing atmosphere created by modern greed and the injustices of the class system. As the great writer Lawrence Durrell observed in reference to Lady Chatterley's Lover, Lawrence was "something of a puritan himself. He was out to cure, to mend; and the weapons he selected for this act of therapy were the four-letter words about which so long and idiotic a battle has raged." That is to say: Lady Chatterley's Lover was intended as a wake-up call, a call away from the hyper-intellectualism embraced by so many of the modernists, and towards a balanced approach in which mind and body are equally valued. It is the method the novel uses that made the wake-up call so radical--for its time--and so effective.
This is a novel with high purpose: it points to the degradation of modern civilization--exemplified in the coal-mining industry and the soulless and emasculated Clifford Chatterley--and it suggests an alternative in learning to appreciate sensuality. And it is a novel, one must admit, which does not quite succeed. Certainly, it is hardly the equal of D.H. Lawrence's great novels, Women in Love and The Rainbow. It attempts a profound comment on the decline of civilization, but it fails as a novel when its social goal eclipses its novelistic goals, when the characters become mere allegorical types: Mellors as the Noble Savage, Clifford as the impotent nobleman. And the novel tends also to dip into a kind of breathless incoherence at moments of extreme sensuality or emotional weight. It is not a perfect novel, but it is a novel which has had a profound impact on the way that 20th-century writers have written about sex, and about the deeper relationships of which, thanks in part to Lawrence, sex can no longer be ignored as a crucial element.