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It is enthralling to see how themes in different novels can often converge despite staying concealed from the eye of a casual observer. At times, the true theme of a tale is so deeply embedded that one has to dig out the superficial veneer to get to it.
'Lady Chatterley's Lover', a classic by DH Lawrence, perfectly exemplifies this view. Prima facie, it is a story about adultery though close reading of the text can throw up surprising epiphanies.
Penned and published in 1928, the highly controversial novel has had to endure the murderous gaze of prudish critics who lambasted the book severely at the time of its release. It was strongly condemned for its unapologetic sexual tone and graphic imagery which bordered on the taboo. But was there more to it than what met the eye of the immediate society?
The novel, sprawled over 300 pages, chronicles the story of Lady Constance Chatterley who is matrimonially chained to a man half-paralyzed. The lady's youthfulness is waning away behind the mundaneness of the usual chores of a life that is prosaic at its best. She is deprived and her body discovers redemption in the company of their keeper Oliver Mellors. What follows is social blasphemy, a torrid affair of adultery between a woman of higher stature and a man from the lower rung.
But though the woman's need for physical pleasure at the prime of her youth cannot be refuted, it is significant to discern the strong undertone of loneliness which is constant throughout the story. Lady Chatterley is not merely physically unsatisfied with her crippled husband but is also living in mental isolation. The disparate mindsets of the two people, with the man as a snooty high-nosed gentleman and the egalitarian woman bearing irrevocable sympathy towards the menial class, further distance her from Mr. Chatterley and intensify her loneliness. Her silent disapproval turns her away from him (even without her realizing so), makes her apathetic to his industrial ambitions and eventually makes her fully aloof, thus aggravating her solitariness.
So, should 'adultery' be labelled as the theme of the story, as has been done by generations of readers and critics? Or is 'loneliness' the underlying and the truer theme of the book?
Despite the above arguments which advocate for the permanence of loneliness, the question is debatable and cannot be put to rest easily. Theme is supposedly more concrete than motif and while the former is a constant, the latter is recurrent. There is a very thin line there as far as this novel is concerned, but probably it would be just to declare a woman's mental solitariness as the veritable theme, with the her recurrent sexual affairs as the motif.
“Lawrence was preaching sex as a kind of sacrament, and more than that, one that would save us all from the results of war and the nastinesses of our civilisation. …. ‘it is the crime of our times, because what we need is tenderness towards the body, towards sex, we need tender-hearted fucking.’” [Doris Lessing's introduction to the new Penguin Classic edition]
On similar lines, one can put another classic on the table. Tagore's 'Chokher Bali' is similar in its theme even though here it is the man who goes out of his way to surrender to an extramarital fling. Mahendra, on finding no mental connection with his beautiful wife Ashalata, gets drawn towards Binodini, a widow who has come to stay at their home and with whom he is able to strike fascinating intellectual conversations.
While Mahendra's attraction towards Binodini may be attributed to his need for a woman of his type, the imposing question that raises its fangs and demands to be answered is 'whether his felonious actions are governed by carnal desire or by the need for quenching a personal loneliness.' And once again, we find ourselves at a crossroad since the puzzling question can have multiple answers just the way this literary work can be interpreted in multiple ways.
It would appear that perhaps both are alone in their own rights (physically, mentally and figuratively) and they seek not merely sexual gratification but intellectual accompaniment. So, it wouldn't be wrong to call it a book dealing with loneliness rather than with adultery. Here too, we see aloneness as the theme and sex as the motif. But opinions will always be divided and many will see it the other way round (i.e. sex as the theme and aloneness as the motif).
Interestingly, both the pieces have been penned around the same time (1928 an 1903) and both project the woman in a negative light, without spraying much stain on the man's character. If Lady Chatterley and Binodini were wrong to tread on this path, then Oliver Mellors and Mahendra were equally wrong, if not more. But it is unfortunate that these stories are set in a patriarchal society which also hints at the underlying theme of male chauvinism; something which Lawrence and Tagore have masterfully expounded.
CL- Jadavpur University