• The Polyphony Team

‘“What is Cunt?” she said’: Obscenity, Concealment and Representations of the Vulva in D.H Lawrence

by Isabella Rooke-Ley

Polyphony, Volume 2, Issue 1 First published April 2020, Manchester

Abstract


This essay asks: what is cunt— or, rather, what does the female genitalia signify— in Lady Chatterley and Fig by D.H Lawrence? It is generally recognised that Lawrence’s texts are self-contradictory. Nowhere is Lawrence more contradictory than when he is referring to ‘cunt’. Yet, my argument— that, in Lady Chatterley, Lawrence’s use of the word ‘cunt’ is not a direct reference to the female genitalia (to the cunt) but, rather, is concerned with the concealment of the female genitalia (of the cunt)— is an un-theorised aspect of Lawrence criticism. This concealment is inextricably linked to the text’s figuring of the cunt and its pleasure as obscene and shameful. Analysing the link between the obscene, the female genitalia, concealment, and the putrefaction of figs, in Fig, I argue that what is at stake in Fig—as in Lady Chatterley— is the vulgarisation of, and the shaming of, the female genitalia and vulval pleasure. Furthermore, in asking ‘what is cunt?’, I also interrogate into the etymology of, and the cultural implications of the obscenity of, the word ‘cunt’ itself: in doing so, I posit why the word ‘cunt’ has come to signify the (most) obscene (word).

The female protagonist, in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, poses the question ‘“What is cunt?”' (see note one). This essay will respond to the same question in its attempt to analyse the way in which the cunt, or the female genitalia, is represented in Lady Chatterley (1928) and Fig (1923) by D.H Lawrence. It will focus mostly on the final variation of Lady Chatterley, although it will also bring into discussion some of the nuances produced by my analyses of the first and second variants of the text. The link between Fig and Lady Chatterley is un-developed within literary criticism. My essay originates a discussion about the striking links between these texts in terms of their representations of the female genitalia in relation to obscenity and concealment. This introduction will problematise the definition of ‘representation’. Symbolic representations of the female genitalia are not semiotically innocent or truthful. Therefore in asking, ‘what is cunt?’, this essay does not attempt to analyse verisimilitude in Lawrence’s representations of the female genitalia. Rather, I will use this question in order to investigate the wider implications of Lawrence’s vulval representations within the context of cultural attitudes towards the female genitalia, and of the larger issues of female sexuality, obscenity and concealment within culture. The first section of this paper will argue that Lawrence’s use of the ‘obscene’ word ‘cunt’, in Lady Chatterley, is not a direct reference to the female genitalia (to the cunt) but, rather, is concerned with the concealment of the female genitalia (of the cunt). The second section will analyse the links in Fig between the female genitalia, the vulgar, concealment and the putrefaction of the fig; it will bring into discussion the shaming of female genital pleasure that Fig is concerned with. The final sections of this paper will also discuss the shaming of female genital pleasure in Lady Chatterley. At the same time, I will be attentive to how Lawrence also, somewhat, allows for an ideological process of the ‘purification’ of female sexual pleasure in Lady Chatterley: that is, for the ideological removal of obscenity (of filth), and shame, from female sexual pleasure. However, it is only through a woman’s sexual pleasure in sodomy (when Mellors penetrates Connie’s anus) that the process of the removal of shame from female sexual pleasure can be complete. What is at stake in Fig and Lady Chatterley is a movement towards— and a desire for— the erasure of, or the discarding of, the ‘obscene’ female genitalia and its pleasure.


In this introduction it is appropriate to set out the implications of obscenity, Lawrence’s intentions of using obscene words, and the etymology of ‘cunt’. The word ‘obscenity’ is etymologically connected to the Latin term ‘obscēnus’, which means filthy, disgusting and indecent. In The Female Nude, Lynda Nead recognises that ‘the etymological roots of “obscene”’ also ‘convey the sense of matter that is [off-“scene”][,] […] [and] that cannot be shown. Obscenity therefore signifies that which […] is beyond the accepted codes of public visibility’ (see note 2). This essay will define the ‘obscene’ as that which is culturally deemed to be filthy, disgusting, improper or shameful, and so has to be concealed. The word ‘cunt’ was considered in the twentieth-century, the context in which Lawrence produced Fig and Lady Chatterley, to be an obscene term for the female genitalia. In Vagina, Naomi Wolf explains that the etymology of ‘cunt’ relates to the prehistoric Indo-European word base ‘cu’, which is a signifier for the feminine and is also cognate with later terms which signify the female genitalia. She explains that ‘cunt’ was only considered to be obscene by the end of the seventeenth-century and then became the most censored word in English language (see note 3). If obscenity has been culturally imposed onto the word ‘cunt’, then this suggests that the female genitalia is considered to be too filthy, improper and shameful to be displayed publicly. Thus, the imposition of obscenity onto ‘cunt’, and its subsequent censoring, also symbolises a desire for the censoring and concealment of the female genitalia within patriarchal culture. In his essay ‘Pornography and Obscenity’, Lawrence appears to be concerned with purging and purifying obscenity from obscene words: that is, with purifying the words that are condemned to be dirty and improper. He states that an individual’s ‘reaction’ to the ‘so-called obscene words’ is ‘almost sure to be […] condemnation’; however, he says that ‘the real [question should be]: Am I really shocked?— And the answer […] is bound to be: No […]. I know the word, and take it for what it is’ (see note 4). If Lawrence intends to take an obscene word for ‘what it is’, then this would imply that his use of ‘cunt’ should be taken neutrally and directly for the female genitalia. However, to problematise this implication, Lawrence’s use of ‘cunt’ is actually unable to signify a pure, or neutral, relation to the vulva; no symbolic representation offers a direct access to what it refers to. The semiotics of ‘cunt’ in Lady Chatterley are not innocent. Furthermore, Lawrence’s stated intentions also imply that, by using ‘cunt’, he allows for a direct confrontation with the female genitalia and therefore does not censor it. However, I argue that Lawrence is actually concerned with the concealment of the female genitalia. Linda Williams argues that, in ‘cleansing language of dirty implications’, Lawrence ‘bring[s] into the public realm the […] the secret, the taboo: the “secret entrances”, as he calls them in Lady Chatterley’ (see note 5). Williams misinterprets the implications of naming the vagina a ‘secret entrance’. The female genitalia is not ‘[brought] into the public realm’ of visibility in Lady Chatterley or Fig; the act of naming it a ‘secret’ is not an act of unveiling, but of concealing the vulva and regulating the obscene. Lawrence seems to be concerned with the visible display of obscenity: the filthy and the improper. By censoring the female genitalia, it seems that, for Lawrence, it is too obscene and filthy to be directly displayed. It is generally recognised that Lawrence’s texts are self-contradictory. Nowhere is Lawrence more contradictory than when he is referring to the vulva. Yet, Lawrence’s use of the obscene word ‘cunt’ as being, paradoxically, a form of concealment of obscenity is an un-theorised aspect of Lawrence criticism. Therefore this essay represents an important intervention in Lawrence studies.


What is Cunt?: Obscenity and Concealment


In LCL, Connie’s question, ‘“What is cunt?”’ (178), requires Mellors to define ‘cunt’ for her. He names ‘cunt’ as that which ‘“[he] get[s] when [he is] i’side”’ (178) of Connie. Necessary to his definition is not only the reduction of her genitalia to its vaginal orifice, but an image of the vagina with a penis ‘inside’ of it. Connie’s reply, ‘“Cunt! It’s like fuck then”’ (178), suggests that despite Mellors’ attempt to differentiate ‘fuck’ (178) from ‘cunt’, both of his definitions require the intervention of his penis. Mellors also defines the ‘cunt’ as that which the woman ‘gets when [he’s] i[n]side of [her]’ (178). If Connie ‘gets’ her cunt when his penis is inside of her then, according to Mellors, the ‘cunt’ can only be ‘fuck[ed]’ into being. The passage also, then, implies that the vaginal orifice is actually just an orifice in which the phallus produces the ‘cunt’ and, subsequently, the woman and man both ‘get’ it (see note 6). This signifies that the ‘cunt’ has to be shared between the sexes. Thus, ‘cunt’ is not used as a direct reference to the whole of the vulva. Mellors’ definition turns the ‘cunt’ into a phallocentric product. Similarly, in The Second Lady Chatterley, when Connie asks ‘“What is [cunt]?”’, Parkin defines it as ‘“what a man gets when ’e’s inside thee!”’ (see note 7). He adds, ‘“Yo’ wouldn’t know what cunt is”’ (381). This reference distances the ‘cunt’ from the woman. The narrator names the ‘cunt’ as an ‘indefinable sexual word’ (381), implying it is unnameable. This conceals the meaning of ‘cunt’. In The First Lady Chatterley Parkin says to Connie, ‘“you enjoy a bit o’ cunt wi’ me”’ (see note 8). Female enjoyment of ‘cunt’ has to be shared with the male. The semiotics of ‘cunt’ in all the text’s variations signify the phallic function, or enjoyment, ‘inside’ of the vagina instead of referring to the materiality of the vulva itself. Mellors’ reference to the necessity of ‘cunt-awareness’ (277), in LCL, is ironic: there is no desire in the text for the ‘awareness’ of the female genitalia.

Nead discusses the regulation of the obscene in relation to visual representations of the female nude. She refers to how within culture, the female sexual body has been defined as issuing filthy matter from its orifices and, consequently, has been perceived to be obscene. She argues that the purpose of classical conventions of art has been to make the female body displayable: this has required ‘the containment and regulation of the female sexual body. [These] […] conventions […] have worked metaphorically to […] seal orifices and […] prevent marginal matter from transgressing [those orifices]’ (see note 9). In order to make the female body visible, the filthy ‘matter’ issued from its orifices has to be made invisible via the classical artistic function of the sealing up of these orifices. Therefore, Nead argues that:

The history of the female nude can be seen as a relentless [] attempt to put the female body on show. [] [However] [r]ather than the female nude being seen as a progressive display of the body of woman, it can be understood instead as a kind of tyranny of invisibility, as a tradition of exclusions (see note 10). 

Within classical conventions of art, then, what seems to be an explicit display of the female nude is, paradoxically, a ‘tyranny of invisibility’. Whilst I will refer to the image of filthy matter being issued from the female bodily orifices within my analysis of Fig, here I am concerned with Nead’s theorisation of the association between representations of the female nude, obscenity and invisibility. Her theorisation of the tyrannical function of classical art pertains to Lawrence’s use of the obscene word ‘cunt’. While he appears to be explicitly displaying, or referring to, the female genitalia by displaying the ‘obscene’ word ‘cunt’, Lawrence is actually concerned with the concealment of the female genitalia (cunt). If, as for Nead, the obscene is that which has to be concealed (from public visibility), Lawrence seems to be implicitly defining the female genitalia as obscene. While Lawrence appears to purify words of their obscenity, his use of the word ‘cunt’ actually signifies a regulation (via concealment) of the obscenity of the very thing that ‘cunt’ refers to: the female genitalia. Lawrence’s use of ‘cunt’, far from purifying the word of its obscenity, actually reinforces the cultural perception that the female genitalia is obscene and must be concealed. Paralleling Nead’s concept that ‘the act of representation is itself an act of regulation’, Mellors’/Parkin’s representation of the ‘cunt’ actually manages to conceal the vulva and therefore is concerned with regulating the obscenity of ‘cunt’ (see note 11). The obscene ‘cunt’, according to the three variants of Lady Chatterley, is anything which cannot be shared with, and penetrated by, the male. This is why Mellors/Parkin defines ‘cunt’ as a vaginal opening with the phallus ‘inside’. The female genitalia is only presentable within these texts when it is turned into a product of the phallus or when its representation is phallocentric.


Kate Millett discusses the genital topography in Lady Chatterley. She posits that ‘there is, apart from the word cunt, no reference to or description of the female genitals: they are hidden and shameful’ (see note 12). To say ‘apart from the word cunt’ is problematic because even ‘the word cunt’, which appears to be a direct ‘reference to the female genitals’, allows the female genitalia to be ‘hidden and shameful’. Problematising Millett’s claim further, there are other references to the female genitalia other than the word ‘cunt’, such as ‘down theer’ (LCL, 178). However, what is at stake in all processes of naming or ‘referencing’ the female genitalia, within the variants of Lady Chatterley, is its concealment. In SLC, Parkin states that ‘“[Bertha] lifted her clothes up an’ showed me—you know what”’ (432). This statement signifies a paradox between Bertha displaying her vulva to the male and the language which acts as a veil for what is being displayed. In LCL, Mellors threads flowers into Connie’s ‘mound of Venus’ (212). The concealment of the female genitalia below the mons pubis is necessary in this vulval representation. Within the threading scene in FLC, even the ‘mound of Venus’ is absent. Furthermore, in LCL, Connie’s vagina is referred to as a ‘secret opening’ (223). The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term ‘secret’ as that which is ‘kept from knowledge […]; concealed’ (see note 13). The reader cannot discern anything about the vulva from this reference apart from it being an ‘opening’, and even that is ‘secret’. Discussing the cultural representations of the vulva, Virginia Braun and Sue Wilkinson state that it is ‘not to be displayed publicly’ and ‘[m]ild, non-specific […] euphemisms are employed to not name that part of women’s bodies’ (see note 14). Lawrence’s text also implies that the female genitalia cannot be directly named. Even though SLC and LCL make more references to the vulva than FLC, all three variations have the effect of concealing the female genitalia at the same time that they seem to name it, implying it is filthy and shameful: obscene.


The Female Genitalia Should Always Be Kept Secret


This connection between the female genitalia, obscenity, concealment and secrecy is also established in Fig. The first two stanzas of Fig describe ‘[t]he proper way to eat a fig, in society’ (see note 15). This establishes a relationship between eating a fig and social propriety. The third stanza then pronounces that there is a ‘vulgar way’ to eat a fig. Subsequently, the ‘fig’ is introduced as a metaphor for the female genitalia via the lines, ‘[t]he Italians vulgarly say, it stands for the female part; […]/[…]/[…] the yoni’ (see note 16). If the ‘fig’ ‘vulgarly […] stands for […] the yoni’, then the ‘vulgar’ eating of the fig is a metaphor for the image of cunnilingus. Fig produces a link between vulgarity, the eating of the fig and the female genitalia. The first two stanzas of Fig explain that the ‘proper way to eat a fig’ would be to ‘open it, so that it is a glittering, rosy, moist, honied […] flower’, and then to ‘tak[e] off the blossom with your lips’. The reader has no awareness of the ‘vulgar’, the female genitalia and cunnilingus at this point: this pertains to why the poem defines this ‘way’ of eating as ‘proper’. The lack of the vulgar and the female genitalia in the poem pertains to cultural propriety. The narrator allows the reader to ‘know’ about the fig as being a metaphor for the female genitalia only after the term ‘vulgar’ has been introduced. The OED defines ‘vulgar’ as the ‘obscene’ (see note 17). The reader’s knowledge of the female genitalia in the poem is, then, mediated by the poem’s categorisation of the female genitalia as obscene. The enjoyment of the fig which had been apparent in the description of the ‘proper way’ to eat a fig is absent in the description of the ‘vulgar way’. When obscenity is introduced, the object of the ‘fig’ changes: it looses its ‘honied’, ‘glittering’ aspect. Instead, the fig is only described as a ‘crack’, the erasure of which is enjoyed in ‘one bite’. So when the vulgar and the female genitalia are introduced, the ‘fig’ lacks description. The poem, similarly to Lady Chatterley, produces a relationship between obscenity, female genitalia and concealment.


As the reader becomes aware of the vulval metaphor, knowledge about the vulva is also inaccessible. The narrator also establishes a link between the ‘fig’, the ‘yoni’, and secrecy. The narrator states that ‘The fig is a very secretive fruit’ and, considering the fig stands for the ‘female part’, this links to the line: ‘the female should always be secret’. The use of ‘should be’ indicates a prescriptive judgement, implying that the narrator intends to keep the ‘female’, including the ‘female part’, a secret and concealed. The narrator censures the description of ‘the female’ and her ‘yoni’ from language. However, secrecy in Fig is ambiguous. The fig also ‘has its secret’. Considering the fig is metaphorical for the ‘the yoni’, these lines seems to be pertaining to some ‘female mystery’ that the female genitalia represents for the narrator. The OED also defines ‘secret’ as ‘knowledge of which is kept to oneself’ and also as ‘something […] unrevealed […]; a mystery’ (see note 18). Fig suggests that some ‘female’ knowledge is being kept from, and is inaccessible to, the narrator.

Since the fig ‘stands for […]/[…]/ [t]he fissure, the yoni’, the juxtaposition and use of the direct article implies that ‘the fissure’ is the same thing as ‘the yoni’. An image of the ‘yoni’ as an orifice is produced. This image is then juxtaposed with a line that produces an image of a movement (or ‘conductivity’) which is being directed ‘towards the centre’. Similarly, the close proximity of the phrases ‘one orifice’ and ‘[t]he flowering all inward’ signifies a relation between the image of orifice and an ‘inward’ direction. The narrator’s statement, ‘[o]ne small way of access only’, indicates another reference to an entry point. Suggestively, the ‘small way of access’ signifies the possibility of access to the fig’s ‘secret’. Considering the ‘inward’ direction and the use of ‘access’, the ‘orifice’ imagery in the poem seems to be specifically linked to the narrator’s desire to ‘access’ the ‘centre’ of the yoni, possibly in order to reveal the ‘female mystery’ (see note 19). However, the ‘secret [is] unutterable’. This phrase is then juxtaposed with the line, ‘And milky-sapped, sap that curdles milk and makes ricotta’. Since the introduction of the vulgar changes the object of the fig into a metaphor for the yoni, it seems that the more vulgar the fig becomes, the more explicit the vaginal metaphor becomes. The coagulation of milk and its lumpy product, ‘ricotta’, is a ‘vulgar’ metaphor for the production of discharges issued from the vaginal orifice. This metaphor causes a repulsion in the reader which is directed towards the yoni. In her discussion of the category of the ‘improper’, Julia Kristeva presents ‘abjection’ as the loathing towards a symbol which disgusts or is ‘filth[y]’ (see note 20). She says that ‘[w]hen the eyes see or the lips touch that skin on the surface of milk […] I experience a gagging sensation [...] nausea makes me balk at that milk cream’ (see note 21). Here, the repulsion towards the consistency of milk presents an elementary example of abjection. Kristeva also discusses the dirt that culture associates with the matter issued from vaginal orifices, such as the ‘impure and contaminating […] menstrual defilement’ (see note 22). Similarly to Kristeva, Fig uses the repulsive image of congealed milk as a symbol of filth and the improper. Yet, within this same image of the ‘milky sapped sap’, the narrator is also playing on the cultural attitudes towards vaginal discharge as a symbol of dirt and vulgarity. This has the effect of hyperbolising the filth associated with vaginal discharge. Kristeva also says that ‘[w]hen food appears as a polluting object, it does so as oral object only to the extent that orality signifies a boundary of the self’s clean and proper body’ (see note 23). The object of food appears to be contaminating when the question of orality is involved, or when the contact with that food disturbs the identity of the body as ‘proper’ and ‘clean’. If contact with, or oral consumption of, a food object turns that ‘proper’ and ‘clean’ body, instead, into a marker of impropriety and filth, then the food object appears to be a polluting object. Similarly, in Fig, the ‘proper way to eat a fig’ is disrupted when the eating of the ‘fig’ becomes a metaphor for cunnilingus: the ‘proper way’ becomes the ‘vulgar way’. So the ‘yoni’, as oral object, appears to be a polluting object. To eat a fig, without it being a metaphor for the ‘yoni’, would not contaminate the ‘proper’ body. However, to eat the ‘yoni’ and its abject ‘milky […] sap’ would be to contaminate the ‘proper’ body with a symbol of filth, vulgarity and obscenity. The narrator suggests that the ‘proper’ is erased by the act of cunnilingus: the ‘proper’ is erased at the exact point at which the yoni becomes (polluting) oral object or object of contact (see note 24). Immediately after this abjection of the ‘yoni’, the narrator’s lexis returns to the ‘female mystery’ and to the ‘invisibi[lity]’ of the yoni. The abject description of the polluting ‘milky’ and ‘curdling’ ‘sap’ of the ‘yoni’ is juxtaposed with the lines ‘enclosed like any Mohammedan woman’ and ‘Its nakedness all within-walls’. These lines establish a link between a ‘woman’ and ‘nakedness’ in that both the ‘woman’ and ‘nakedness’ are being described as ‘enclosed’ (the use of ‘within-walls’ signifies an enclosure). An image of a woman’s ‘covert nakedness’ is implied: the ‘woman’ is not exposed, but enclosed in mystery. The narrator suggests therefore that ‘the inwardness of’ the ‘woman’ or ‘yoni’ is what the ‘eye will never see’. We can return to how the phrase ‘secret unutterable’ directly precedes— and is juxtaposed with— the abject description of the yoni: ‘And milky-sapped, sap that curdles milk and makes ricotta’. This abject vulval description is inserted in between and is surrounded by lines which produce images of secrecy, unknowability, enclosure and concealment: the abjection of the yoni is inextricably linked to the ‘female mystery’ that the narrator refers to. The use of juxtaposition implies that because the ‘yoni’ contains an ‘unutterable’ ‘secret’ which the narrator cannot access, the narrator violently imposes the signification of abjection onto the ‘yoni’. In other words, the abjection of the ‘yoni’ is a symptom of the narrator’s frustration with—and repulsion towards— the ‘yoni’ precisely for not having ‘utter[ed]’ its ‘secret’ (for enclosing some ‘secret’) and towards the ‘mystery’ of the ‘female’ since she withholds some inaccessible knowledge. As a consequence of this abjection, the narrator shames both the female genitalia and the ‘female mystery’.


Suddenly, the ‘secret’ of the ‘fig’ is exposed: ‘the fig has kept her secret long enough./ So it explodes, and you see through the fissure’. As we have seen, Fig produces a movement (or ‘conductivity’) ‘towards the centre’ of the fig, which portrays the narrator’s fixation with ‘accessing’ the ‘centre’ of the yoni, where some female ‘secret’ supposedly resides. After the fig ‘explodes’, the ‘fissure’ of the fig finally opens wide enough so that one can ‘see through’ this opening, towards the centre: here, the ‘fissure’ finally provides a means of access to the ‘centre’, to the ‘secret’. The last ten stanzas of Fig are concerned with the ‘exposure of her secret’: the pronoun indicates that the ‘fig’ (referred to here as ‘her’) is a signifier for the female, as well as the female genitalia. (This is why the ‘secret’ of the ‘fig’ is inextricably linked to the ‘female mystery’ that the narrator refers to). The narrator uses a simile to compare the disclosure of the female ‘secret’ to a ‘prostitute’: this implies that the secret that is ‘laid bare’ is (or is linked to) female sexuality or female genital (yonic) pleasure. After the image of a ‘prostitute’ is introduced, there is a repetition of the term ‘over-ripe’. It is when the female sexual ‘secret is laid bare’ that a language of ‘rottenness soon sets in’. The narrator directly relates the symbol of the ‘prostitute’ to the language of the putrefaction of the fig: since the fig is a metaphor for both the female and the female genitalia, the narrator links prostitution to the rotting, or rottenness of, the female sexual body. Discussing the patriarchal and condemnatory portrayal of female sexuality, Millett turns to the symbol of the prostitute. She states that ‘[t]he degradation in which the prostitute is held […] [is a] reflectio[n] of a culture whose general attitudes toward [female] sexuality are negative’ (see note 25). The narrator of Fig, similarly, holds the ‘prostitute’ in contemptby defining prostitution as a form of sexual corruption of the female. The narrator therefore produces a link between female sexuality, or female sexual pleasure, and shame (see note 26). When the female keeps knowledge (the ‘secret’) to herself so that the narrator cannot access it, she is portrayed as abject; but then she is, paradoxically, also portrayed as abject and filthy (via the language of putrefaction) for ‘making a show of her secret’ (her sexuality).


Fig pertains to the wider implications of the cultural attitudes towards the obscene words ‘cunt’ and ‘cunnilingus’. The ‘cun’ prefix that both of these words share derives from the Latin word ‘cunnus’, meaning the vulva. Furthermore, in Vagina, Wolf states that this prefix (‘cun’) ‘has two lines of descent, […] cunt, on the one hand, and cunning on the other. […] Cunnilingus […] is one of the cuni- related words’ (see note 27). The words ‘cunt’ and ‘cunnilingus’ therefore both produce a linguistic connection between female sexuality and knowledge. Furthermore, the word ‘cunnilingus’ has an etymological connection to both the Latin terms ‘cunnus’ and ‘lingere’ (‘to lick’). Since the Latin word ‘lingua’ signifies ‘tongue’ as well as ‘language’, the word ‘cunnilingus’ signals an etymological connection to the vulva (or the licking of the vulva) and language, through which knowledge can be revealed. As with the word ‘cunt’, patriarchal culture regards the word ‘cunnilingus’ to be an obscene word (see note 28). The subsequent censoring of the word ‘cunnilingus’ from public visibility therefore reveals a general cultural attitude that the female genitalia, female sexual pleasure, as well as a female’s possession of knowledge signify filth and vulgarity (see note 29). This cultural attitude pertains to the linking of cunnilingus, the ‘unutterable’ female ‘secret’ and female sexuality, in Fig, to vulgarity. Fig reveals a misogynistic revulsion towards the female genitalia, the possession of female knowledge, and the exposure of female sexuality or female genital pleasure, all onto which the narrator imposes the signification of obscenity through a language of abjection and putrefaction.


Women, in Fig, finally start to ‘cry’ out their secret which, instead of being ‘unutterable’, ‘Becomes an affirmation through […] lips’. The symbol of ‘lips’ is associated with the women’s speech and the crying out of their secret and knowledge. Women’s mouths and their genital labia are both denoted by ‘lips’. Considering the vulval metaphors in Fig, the ‘affirmation through […] lips’ also pertains to the affirmation of the ‘secret’ of female sexuality which, as the narrator demonstrates, the yoni ‘[lays] bare’. The affirmation of female sexuality is not only implied by the imagery of prostitution, but also by the orgasmic image produced when the women ‘cry’, ‘Let us burst into affirmation’. This link emphasises that the affirmation of the secret is linked to female sexuality and female sexual pleasure. In Pornography and Obscenity, Lawrence defines masturbation through the use of the term ‘dirty little secret’; he then says that this ‘secret is cunning’ and is difficult to erase (see note 30). Lawrence portrays masturbation— and the cunningness associated with it— as that which is ‘dirty’, obscene and, subsequently, as that which should be expunged. Through the imagery of abjection and ‘rottenness’, Fig also implies that the female’s secret is ‘dirty’ because of its relation to the vulva, female sexual pleasure and cunningness. The narrator, subsequently, desires for the fig to be discarded. After the women’s affirmation of their sexuality, the narrator uses the declarative statement, ‘They forget, ripe figs won’t keep’. The narrator reaffirms an image of the fig’s putrefaction which links to the line ‘That’s how women die too’. Through the image of the death of the fig and women, the narrator reveals a desire for the ‘vulgar’ female genitalia to be expunged and for the death of female knowledge and pleasure.


Shooting the Pussy


In LCL, Mellors describes Bertha’s genitalia to Connie. Instead of it being ‘soft down there, like a fig’, it is ‘a beak’ which ‘rubbed and tore’ at him (201). He says, it was ‘as if she had no sensation in her except in the very outside top tip’ of her beak (201). Here, ‘sensation’ refers to female genital pleasure. The ‘top’ and ‘tip’ of her ‘beak’ suggests an indirect reference to the clitoris, thus emphasising the process of naming as an act of concealment of the female genitalia. The tearing ‘top’ makes him ‘sick’, signifying a repulsion towards Bertha’s clitoris. The juxtaposition of ‘sick’ and the exclamatives ‘Self! self! self!’ (202) suggests a repulsion towards Bertha’s clitoral self-enjoyment in the moments when she ‘bring[s] [herself] off’ (203). This produces in Mellors a desire ‘to kill her’ (203). Mellors’ desire reemerges when he says, ‘“If only I could have shot her”’, as well as, ‘“I could wish the […] Berthas all dead […]. […] I ought to be allowed to shoot them” (280). The text therefore associates the scene in which Mellors ‘shot’ a ‘pussy’ (59) with Mellor’s desire to ‘shoot [Bertha]’. Green’s Dictionary of Slang states that, although the word ‘pussy’ is the ‘name for a cat’, by the eighteenth century the meaning of ‘pussy’ was extended to refer to ‘the female pudendum’ (see note 31). The shooting of the ‘pussy’ is allegorical for Mellors’ ‘wish’ to erase the genitalia of the ‘Lesbian’ women who ‘go on writhing their loins till they bring themselves off against your thighs’ (203), and particularly his wish to erase clitoral pleasure. Similarly, in the moment when Michaelis shames Connie for not ‘“go[ing] off at the same time as a man”’(53), and for using the penis in a way that is similar to a sex object or ‘tool’ (8), his speech ‘killed something in her’ (54). What is ‘killed’ or erased is Connie’s capacity to ‘bring’ herself off again after her subjection to this shame directed towards her genitalia by Michaelis. The shooting of the ‘pussy’ scene is juxtaposed structurally with this scene. This dramatises the text’s link between the shooting of the ‘pussy’, the shaming of the female genitalia and the desire for the erasure of women who do not share the enjoyment of the ‘cunt’ with the male (women who Mellors defines as ‘Lesbian’). Green also states that the meaning of ‘pussy’ also refers to ‘the female pubic hair’ (ibid. 380). This meaning is applicable to SLC, in which Parkin’s shooting of the ‘pussy’ indicates Mellors’ repulsion towards Bertha’s ‘black [pubic] hair’ (432), which he eventually shaves. The word ‘pussy’ is a signifier for different aspects in relation to the female genitalia. This is why, despite the texts’ different implications concerning the vulva, the shooting of the ‘pussy’— as a metaphor for the repulsion towards, as well as the shaming and erasure of, the female genitalia— is applicable to all variations of the text. SLC and FLC use the masculine pronoun to refer to the dead ‘pussy’. It could be argued that this disturbs my argument concerning its relation to the female genitalia. However, the pronoun signifies an absence of the feminine, symbolising the erasure of the feminine in the act of shooting the ‘pussy’. Also LCL uses ‘it’ to refer to the ‘pussy’, reemphasising the absence of the ‘she’. Similarly to Fig, the act of shooting the ‘pussy’ establishes a link between the metaphorical use of the female genitalia, shame and the misogynistic ‘wish’ for the erasure, which is conveyed through a language of death, of the self-pleasuring female genitalia.


The Route to Purification


LCL does not, though, portray all aspects of female vaginal pleasure as filthy and obscene. When Connie is having vaginal sex, her pleasure is conveyed through an image of ‘waves rising and heaving’: ‘she was like the sea’ (174). The simile then changes into the metaphor, ‘she was ocean’ (174), so that her whole being becomes defined by her pleasure. Similarly, whilst having vaginal intercourse in SLC, ‘her life seemed to sway like liquid in a bowl’ (341). Whilst Carol Siegel recognises Lawrence’s texts’ inherent misogyny, she argues that the intrinsic importance with which they represent woman as water, as a symbol for female desire, is a feminist endeavour. Siegel states that in Lawrence’s texts,

[t]he female flood becomes not the sign of the (feminised) shameful and [] that-which-must-be-repressed, or the solvent of all women’s [] desires, in which [] men can voluptuously bathe, but a force for the liberation of [a woman’s] desires (see note 32). 

Similarly, the oceanic imagery in LCL and SCL does not ‘shame’ or ‘repress’ female sexual pleasure. However, to problematise Siegel’s argument, whilst these oceanic portrayals of vaginal pleasure are not misogynistic, they are phallocentric. The pleasure in these vaginal sex scenes is, then, ‘not the sign of the (feminised) shameful’, nor is it ‘that-which-must-be-repressed’, because it is a product of the phallus. When Connie ‘was ocean’, she becomes ‘disclosed, and […] the billows of her rolled away […], uncovering her’ (174). It is only with regards to descriptions whereby the penis is inside of the woman, and when her sexual pleasure is purely produced by— and shared with— the phallus, that female sexual pleasure is not regarded to be shameful. It is in these moments that the female sexual body is ‘uncovered’: this implies that phallocentric female sexuality does not require censorship in the text. However, Connie’s body is then redefined as a ‘secret’ (174) when the phallus ‘drew out’ of her vagina. In the absence of the phallus, the text establishes a link between female sexuality, female genitalia, concealment and, thus, dirt and shame (obscenity) (see note 33). The text states that when the penis ‘drew out and left her body, the secret sensitive thing, she gave a […] cry of pure loss’ (174). The juxtaposition of the words ‘pure loss’ alludes to the loss of the woman’s purity: when the phallus is removed, the woman looses purity. The scenes in which the penis penetrates the vagina seem to allude to a partial process towards the purification of the female genitalia. Therefore, the vaginal intercourse scenes are less concerned with filth than are the text’s portrayals of clitoral and female self (genital) enjoyment. However, vaginal sex and the phallic penetration of the vagina cannot completely purify— cannot fully eradicate— the shame and dirt (obscenity) that the text associates with female sexuality and female genitalia.


LCL implies that the purification of this shame and dirt can only be completed via anal sex. Although the words used to describe it are indirect, the scene in which Connie is ‘pierced with piercing thrills’, that are ‘different, sharper’ (246) signifies sodomy. Not only do the thrills ‘[pass] through her bowels’, but the text distinguishes this penetration of Connie as being ‘different’ from her other sexual penetrations. In an effort to differentiate this penetration from the others, the text defines it as being transformative for Connie: ‘it made a different woman of her’ (246). What is involved in Connie’s transformation is the ‘Burning out of the shames […] in the most secret places’ (247). Although her anal orifice is, similarly to her vagina, defined as a ‘secret’, what differentiates it from her vagina is that it is the ‘route’ through which the woman becomes ‘shameless’ (247). It is during the process of anal sex, from which ‘she would have thought a woman would have died of shame’, that, ‘instead’, ‘the shame died’ (247). The implications of sodomy in LCL are misogynistic and phallocentric because what the text implies is that ‘shame’ is inherent in a woman (and inherent to female sexuality) and that a woman’s ‘shame […] can only be chased away by the’ penis: ‘by the phallic hunt of the man’ (247). The death of the woman’s shame is a symptom of specifically the phallus and its penetration of the woman’s arse. Furthermore, sodomy is defined by the text as ‘necessary to burn out’ the ‘shames […] of the body into purity’ (247). Thus, the purging of the ‘shame’ of the female sexual ‘body’ via sodomy is defined as a process of the woman’s purification. This expunging of shame produces a tension with Fig, in which female sexuality is ceaselessly shamed, degraded and abjected. However, the text’s purification of (shame from) the female sexual body and female sexuality is phallocentric and, like Fig, misogynistic. While there is no appearance of anal sex in the first variation of Lady Chatterley, the second variation portrays the sodomy scene, in which Connie ‘felt she was mated’, in a similar way: ‘she thought she would have been ashamed. But she was not ashamed’ (476). However, the final variation dramatises the function of sodomy as a process of the purification of a woman via the ‘phallic hunting out’ (247) of her shame. Anna Schaffner discusses the sexological construction of perversions in the nineteenth-and-twentieth centuries. She argues that, despite the Victorian and sexological categorisation of sodomy as a perversity, sodomy functions within Lady Chatterley, instead, ‘as a cure for the perversity of modernity’ (see note 34). Similarly, I argue that Lawrence uses the culturally defined ‘obscene’ act of sodomy, paradoxically, as a vehicle to purify that which is culturally deemed to be obscene and shameful: namely, female sexuality and the female sexual body. At the same time, my argument produces a tension with Schaffner’s. She argues that the sodomy scene in Lady Chatterley is homoerotic. However, the anal orifice that is being penetrated by the phallus in this scene is a woman’s: Schaffner’s overemphasis of the homoerotic implications of the sodomy scene therefore reveals an ignorance of the implications that the sodomy scene has for a woman and the purification of obscenity in relation to female sexuality. Since it is a woman’s anal orifice that is the route through which the phallus ‘hunt[s] out’ the shame of the woman, the vagina is bypassed when it comes to the purging of shame from female sexuality. The fact that the female genitalia is absent in this sodomy scene does not automatically mean that this scene should only be read as homoerotic: it is this very absence of the female genitalia which is vital for understanding why sodomy, in Lady Chatterley, signifies the purification and the purging of shame from the woman. Lady Chatterley, as we have seen, is concerned with the concealment of the ‘cunt’ and the expunging of female genital pleasure (or ‘Lesbian’ pleasure) which is not phallocentric, implying that the ‘cunt’— especially when it is not shared with the phallus— is obscene. Sodomy therefore is a process of the purification of the obscenity and shamefulness of female sexuality precisely because the ‘cunt’, which the text defines as obscene, is bypassed and absent. All three versions of Lady Chatterley require the concealment of the female genitalia; however the reader can trace a general movement, that is produced as Lady Chatterley is developed and republished, of the plot towards a need for sodomy. In other words, the progression of the plot of Lady Chatterley via Lawrence’s rewritings of it, is partly structured by a movement towards a need for the phallocentric purification of the obscenity and shame of female sexuality and the female body, for which the phallus and the bypassing of the ‘cunt’ is necessary.


In Pornography and Obscenity, Lawrence states that ‘the attempt to […] do dirt on [sex] […] is unpardonable’ (see note 35). He says that when an individual does ‘dirt on’ sex then ‘any signof sex in a woman becomes a show of her dirt’ (see note 36). This implies that Lawrence’s mission is to purify the dirt associated with ‘any sign of sex in a woman’. Yet Lady Chatterley and Fig, paradoxically, ‘do dirt’ on the female genitalia by censoring it, which implies that it is too dirty to display or represent, or abjecting it. In Fig, when the ‘sign of sex in a woman’ is exposed, this is portrayed as ‘vulgar’. Furthermore, Fig conveys the dirt of the female genitalia and sexuality through a language concerned with the vulgarisation, abjection, shaming and putrefaction of the fig. Although Lady Chatterley shows a movement towards the purification of the dirt and shame associated with the ‘sign of sex in a woman’, ultimately, for ‘sex in a woman’ not to be dirty, the text implies that this dirt can be removed only through sodomy: an act in which the ‘cunt’ cannot be displayed. The text’s strategy for purifying the obscenity of the ‘cunt’ is to expunge the representation of the female genitalia: is to not display the ‘cunt’ at all. Both Lady Chatterley and Fig reveal a movement towards the erasure of the female genitalia; however, Fig conveys this movement via a process of shaming and putrefaction, while Lady Chatterley conveys this movement via a process of purging shame and purification. While these processes are different, they still manage to maintain the link between the female genitalia, obscenity, shame and concealment.

References


1: Subsequent references to this text are cited here: D.H Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (London: Penguin Books, 1994) p178. Hereafter, I will refer to this final publication of Lady Chatterley as LCL.

2: Lynda Nead, The Female Nude (London: Routledge, 1992) p90. When Lady Chatterley was first published, it was banned from ‘public visibility’ for its use of obscenities.

3: Naomi Wolf, Vagina (Great Britain: Virago Press, 2012) pp247-267.

4: D.H Lawrence, ‘Pornography and Obscenity’ in ed. James Boulton, The Cambridge Edition of the Works of D.H Lawrence: Late essays and Articles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) p238.

5: Linda Williams, Sex in the Head (Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993) p104

6: See p245 for another example: ‘“[Connie] comes ter me for a bit o’ cunt […]. A man gets a lot of enjoyment out o’ that lass”’. This implies she goes to Mellors to ‘get’ her cunt. This statement also focuses on the male enjoyment of the ‘cunt’.

7: Subsequent references to this text are cited here: D.H Lawrence, ‘The Second Lady Chatterley’ in ed. Dieter Mehl and Christa Jansohn, The Cambridge Edition of the Works of D.H Lawrence: The First and Second Chatterley Novels (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) p381. I will refer to this text as SCL.

8: Subsequent references to this text are cited here: D.H Lawrence, ‘The First Lady Chatterley’ in ed. Dieter Mehl and Christa Jansohn, The Cambridge Edition of the Works of D.H Lawrence: The First and Second Chatterley Novels (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) p77. I will refer to this text as FCL.

9: Nead, Nude, p6.

10: Ibid. p60.

11: Ibid. p9.

12: Kate Millett, Sexual Politics (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000). p239.

13: OED <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/174537?rskey=x5z3M5&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid> Date accessed 26/04/2018.

14: Virginia Braun and Sue Wilkinson, ‘Socio-cultural Representations of the Vagina’ in Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, no.1, vol.19 (2001) pp19-20.

15: Subsequent references to this text are cited here: D.H Lawrence, ‘Fig’ in ed. Christopher Pollnitz, The Poems: Volume 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) pp232-235.

16: The ‘yoni’ is the Hindu name for the vulva.

17: OED <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/224849?rskey=y0o6Cd&result=2&isAdvanced=false#eid> Date accessed 26/04/2018.

18: OED <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/174537?rskey=6BYUpV&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid> Date accessed 26/04/2018.

19: The numerous indirect names for the ‘yoni’ indicate the narrator’s attempts to name it. The female ‘mystery’ signifies how the narrator cannot sufficiently name it. However, paradoxically, the narrator is also using indirect names (‘fig’, ‘the female part’, ‘mystery’) because ‘the female should always be secret’: the narrator, at the same time, wants to conceal the vulgarity of the female genitalia by not directly naming it. This pertains to the regulation of the obscenity of the cunt in Lady Chatterley.

20: Julia Kristeva, trans. Leon S. Roudiez, Powers of Horror (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982) p2.

21: Ibid. pp2-3.

22: Ibid. p77.

23: Ibid. p75.

24: See Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse: ‘The [genital] filth of women is a central conceit in culture: […] menstrual filth, […] filth down there, between the legs, in the hole, the wound oozing blood and slime, dirt and smell; the dirt inherent in the genitals […]-wash, slut, wash. She is dirt and what she touches is dirt because she contaminates’. Dworkin’s theorisation links to the narrator’s concept of the ‘yoni’ in Fig as an oral object of pollution: ‘even goats’ won’t taste it. The olfactory, tactile and taste imagery associated with this ‘milky […] sap’, or discharge, are all defined by the adjective ‘strange’. The link between Dworkin’s text and Fig indicates the narrator’s misogynistic shaming of the female genitalia. Andrea Dworkin, Intercourse (New York: Basic Books, 2007) p223.

25: Kate Millett, Sexual Politics (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000) p123.

26: In LCL, Connie looks ‘at herself naked in the […] mirror’: the undesirability of her body is defined through the negations ‘sapless’, ‘unripe’ and ‘meaningless’ (70). In Fig, female meaning, women’s ‘over-ripe[ness]’, as well as their ‘milky […] sap’ is repulsive to the narrator. The negations which define Connie’s body are, suggestively, the characteristics which the narrator of Fig desires to impose onto women. In FLC, Connie associates her body with ‘vulgarity’ (18) and she ‘put[s] a […] veil over her face, like a Mohammedan woman’ (18). Also, FLC states that Connie’s ‘lips […] spoke [a] silent language’ (18). The narrator of Fig shames the exposure of the ‘Mohammedan woman’s’ nakedness, implying a desire for re-concealment. Furthermore, the narrator wants to silence the women’s sexuality which is affirmed through their ‘lips’. Since Connie perceives herself in the same way that the narrator seems to want to portray women as in Fig, these scenes seem to signify the shame and disgust with which women have been made to view their bodies.

27: Wolf, Vagina, pp261-262.

28: 'Cunnilingus’ is defined as an obscene word in Lynn Holden, Encyclopaedia of Taboos (Oxford: ABC-CLIO, 2000).

29: The narrator refers to ‘when Eve’ ate the ‘apple of knowledge’ and became ashamed of her nakedness. This indicates that Eve is shamed for exposing her sexuality at the same time that she gains ‘knowledge’, dramatising the relevance of my etymological discussion of ‘cunnilingus’.

30: Lawrence, ‘Obscenity’, p247.

31: Jonathan Green, Green’s Dictionary of Slang (London: Chambers, 2010) p380.

32: Carol Siegel, Lawrence Among the Women (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991) p183.

33: Also, after mutual orgasm with Connie and phallic withdrawal, Mellors ‘must cover her’ (134).

34: Anna Katharina Schaffner, Modernism and Perversion (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) p107.

35: Lawrence, ‘Obscenity’, p241.

36: Ibid. p242.

Polyphony, n. 
The style of simultaneously combining a number of parts, each forming an individual melody and harmonizing with each other.

  • Black Facebook Icon
  • Black Twitter Icon
  • Black Instagram Icon
  • Black LinkedIn Icon