Under the Volcano and Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Through the course of the twentieth century, a great deal of growth took place in civilized nations. With the great changes in political and social climates came the need for change in the arts, to capture and convey peoples’ changing attitudes toward the human condition in a way that could be better understood. The work of D. H. Lawrence broke form with Victorian literature and is now considered modernist. Among his most famous works is the novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which tells the story of an upper-class British woman who has an affair with her husband’s gamekeeper. The novel was incredibly controversial primarily because it is so sexually explicit, but its exploration and critique of traditional British values doubtlessly were controversial, as well. As the second World War approached, so did postmodern literature, including Malcolm Lowry’s novel, Under the Volcano, a novel about an alcoholic British consul in Mexico who deals with the rise of fascism and the failure of his marriage. These authors, in their respective novels, employ characters with complex psychological issues to explore larger themes including politics and philosophy.

The main characters in Lady Chatterley’s Lover provide a great deal of insight into Lawrence’s ideas about psychology. Lawrence provides the psychological background for Connie and Clifford early in the novel, emphasizing both the significance of their status as upper-class citizens and their respective phases of rejection of traditional values. Clifford’s early adulthood is marked by the fact that he serves in a war that he doesn’t seem to take very seriously. The war, however, takes him seriously, leaving him paralyzed for life. Connie married him just before the war and didn’t seem too take the marriage too seriously. The two are trapped in a marriage that doesn’t seem to promise much in the way of fulfillment to either. When Clifford moves from writing to business to find the fulfillment and validation that Connie could never give him (because he could never earn it), Connie finds herself involved with Mellors. She is more satisfied and fulfilled by her relationship with him, apparently because he is a dominant lover, taking what he wants while giving her what she needs. Traditional values of the Victorian age would condone neither a relationship between classes such as this one nor such a sensuous and passionate involvement. Lady Chatterley is not only a sexual woman; she is a passionate woman who is only satisfied by a virile and masculine partner. Clifford’s physical impotence as a lover is a manifestation of what Lawrence seems to suggest is a characteristic impotence. Clifford and men like him seem to believe that they are entitled to the benefits the world has to offer, and so they are incredibly dejected when the world does not deliver. Mellors, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to want anything from the world, but when Connie comes to him, he responds by putting forth the effort to make her his, in a much deeper and more real sense than that of marriage.

In Under the Volcano, the most psychologically significant character is, by far, Geoffrey. The struggle of his alcoholism against his genius and against his whole being sets the stage for his relations with the other main characters in the novel, as well as his interaction with the increasingly fascist world around him in Mexico. Yvonne and Hugh are psychologically significant, as well, in that they are well-written and believable characters with very real psychological complications. They are not given nearly as much depth as Geoffrey, however. Yvonne seems to be nearly as compelled psychologically to Clifford as he is to mescal and his remorse at having lost her. She seems to be an intelligent woman of respectable status; it seems to be a testament to Geoffrey’s greatness that she married him and is still so in love with him. Of course, the possibility remains that her desperate need to repair their relationship might spring from her overwhelming guilt at having cheated on him. To have her back, though, does not serve Geoffrey’s purposes, as he prefers the misery of his “paradise of despair” to the romantic notions of what life could be if they were to repair their relationship. In the end, he seems to surrender to the idea that this paradise of despair will be too difficult to maintain as it progresses. He stands up against the fascists who were responsible for the death of the Indian in the road earlier in the day, simultaneously distinguishing himself from the weak and frightened cast of people around him and finding an escape from the torture of living in a world that stifles his genius.

These novels, while psychologically complex, also deal with a number of political and philosophical ideas. Through the characters and the atmosphere of the world in which their stories take place, Lowry and Lawrence deliver complex reactions to the political climate of the world in the early twentieth century. The problems experienced by the characters in these novels are symptomatic of the conditions of the world at large, and in their struggles they respond in ways that demonstrate the changing values of the world around them. These characters are at the edges of a society that is growing outward in many directions, the result of all of the growth and change in the world at the time. Both of these writers have succeeded in creating complex novels that address the political and social questions of the era through the stories of their characters.

In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lawrence addresses the postwar political climate of the world, and especially Europe, through the lens of a British story. Clifford Chatterley is born into an upper-class family of status but reaches late adolescence and early adulthood without a deep sense of loyalty to the customary values of the time. Connie doesn’t seem to buy into the traditional values structure, either. Certainly most generations throughout history have experienced a phase of rebellion against their parents and the values structures in place as they come of age, but Lawrence’s novel seems to suggest that there is more happening than simple rebellion. With the rise of industry and globalization, the world is changing rapidly during the course of this story’s events, and that rebellion gives way to significant shifts in attitudes toward traditional ideas about the roles of men and women in society and in relationships with each other. Connie and Clifford’s marriage to each other is not in conflict with traditional values, but the complications brought forth as a result of Clifford’s injuries in the war and the failures of traditional means to satisfy the two in the relationship (both very literally and figuratively) emphasize the need for re-evaluation of custom. Clifford resorts to writing and to industry as means for fulfillment—nothing new for a man to do—while Connie suffers an unfulfilling life until she is able to find meaningful relation to another human in her relationship with Mellors. Lady Chatterley’s Lover is very much a novel about the breakdown of a specific relationship, but it is also a novel about the failings of traditional values in a changing world that cause that breakdown. Lawrence does a wonderful job of illustrating the shortcomings of traditional values and how those shortcomings affect people who are not content to settle for what society deems appropriate.

Lowry sets Under the Volcano up during World War II and uses the political tensions of the world as an important backdrop for the story of the consul’s failing marriage and alcoholism. Britain’s withdrawal from Mexico and Geoffrey’s subsequent withdrawal from service as a British Consul to Mexico play an important role in the downward spiral of his alcoholism. Most importantly is the rise of fascism as his alcoholism progresses, which seems to exacerbate his frustration with his situation. More than ever he would like to write and make a difference, but his frustration with the state of affairs, while potentially all t
hat much more reason to make his message heard, also seems to serve as an reason for despair. With such an overwhelming problem as fascism, work toward positive change likely seems incredibly futile. This would be especially true in Geoffrey’s case, as his basis for believing in people’s goodness and ability to overcome is founded in his relationships with Hugh and Yvonne, not to mention his own wavering faith in himself. If he cannot even manage to switch from mescal to that nutritious Mexican beer, how could humanity be expected to overcome fascism? How does he expect that he will be able to reach people with his philosophical and mystical ideas if he can’t even communicate to Yvonne and Hugh his true state of being? The pathologies of the world climate can illustrate themselves through the individuals of the world. Geoffrey’s condition—genius stifled by an oppressive affliction—might serve as a parallel for humanity—potentially beautiful and creative but stifled by the oppression of fascism and materialism. In the end, Geoffrey’s stand against the oppression of fascism is the very catalyst for his destruction. Certainly efforts to shake off the rule of oppressive regimes have been destructive to humanity, and perhaps Lowry foresaw a time when powerful nations pitted against each other could potentially threaten the existence of humanity. Whether or not this was something he intentionally included in his novel, he very effectively creates a story of rich, deep characters in an incredibly well-illustrated time and place.

Novels of modern and postmodern writers display the reactions of those writers to the changing times of the twentieth century. Lawrence’s novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, highlights the breakdown of traditional values in British life after the World War I through the disintegration of Connie and Clifford’s marriage. Lawrence explores the minds of Connie, Clifford, and Mellors, among others, to illustrate the changing attitudes and sensibilities of the modern age and the politics of a world undergoing great changes. Lowry wrote during World War II, and his work demonstrates an even greater disintegration of the values and sensibilities of the civilized world struggling to incorporate the changes of industrialization and the beginnings of globalization. Lowry’s postmodern novel demonstrates heightened desperation and anxiety in the cast of characters and in the political atmosphere of Mexico as an indication of the world at large. Lowry and Lawrence have helped to document some of the great changes of the twentieth century through modern and postmodern literature in their novels.

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