For most of its short generic life, the novel has depended on marriage and childbirth as signs of sexual relationship, and has had a difficulty representing sexual life beyond marriage and childbirth without the assistance of figurative language. In this paper, I want to discuss a few ways that novels can represent sex. I’ll then turn to some novels by D. H. Lawrence and argue for the peculiarity of his particular representational strategies in the history of the novel.
One way Lawrence shifts the novel’s terms comes from the adjustments he makes to what I see as the capitalist regime of the marriage plot. Under Lawrence’s hand, the rationale for marriage is no longer economic, nor does romantic love have to work to accommodate economic compatibility. For instance, Ursula Brangwen’s flirtation with Anton Skrebensky in The Rainbow resolves with her simultaneous realization that they are not sexually compatible and that their relationship must, therefore, end. Lawrence’s work is full of women who believe there is a significant connection between sexual compatibility and relationship’s continuance. What’s more, Lawrence gives these characters access to many kinds of sexual knowledge: no longer must decisions be made on attraction’s pull. Instead, sexual action gives knowledge that mere desire cannot reveal.
The marriage plot’s dominant mode implies that what makes you marriageable is your access to and accumulation of stuff. And while they seem to offer a respite from a marriage economy of exchange, attributes like good humor or quickness belong to the same system as things like really nice landscaping or £10,000 a year. For most of the respectable novel’s history, if sex offers a plausible route out of the capitalist logic of the marriage plot by virtue of its discombobulating effects on the body and the mind, sex’s description demands respectable cover. Symbol and metaphor covered the tracks of a narrative eye not quite able to perceive what it also wanted to show. And characters that bucked the novel’s insistence on organizing lives into marriageable, sociable worlds were, more often than not, jettisoned from the plot, or at least pushed to a novel’s periphery. I want to make a slightly different point: that the respectable novel’s insistence on both the centrality of the marriage plot and on the worthwhileness of acquisitiveness of all kinds necessarily enforces the mystifying puzzle of metaphorical sex. More, that it is not until metaphor releases its hold on sexual description that the novel makes good on sex’s self-shattering power.
In Mimesis, Erich Auerbach makes a series of connected points about the novel’s “atmospheric realism” (473). In Auerbach’s account, the novel’s ability to absorb multiple points of view, and to include within its framework multiple discourses, offers a major key to understanding its representative capacities. The novel exploits discourse’s referential fluidity, drawing together, via metaphor and allusion, divergent concepts, divergent ways of thinking about and categorizing the world. Auerbach explains how the thickness of historicized life can find full flesh within the representational system of the novel: "...in another passage from Pére Goriot he says of Rastignac that he had give himself up to the lessons and the temptations of luxury "with the ardor which seizes [grasps] the calix of a female date-palm for the fecundating dusts of its nuptials. It is needless to cite historical motifs, for the spirit of Historicism with its emphasis upon ambient and individual atmospheres is the spirit of his entire work" (Auerbach).
For Auerbach, Balzac’s mode depends on embedding multiple discourses in one novelistic moment. In this particular instance, the novelist uses scientific language drawn from botany to explain a feature of Rastignac’s commodity fetishism. Auerbach’s observation is true. But, one stunning thing about this is that Balzac here uses what can only be called plant sex as a metaphor for luxurious taste. While Balzac has to close the door on and cast his narrative eye away from the action of human sex acts, he has no difficulty saying that the desire to acquire is like a graphically rendered scene of rapacious date-palm sex. The anthropomorphic “nuptials” evoke a bawdy desire, the kind of desire that might be hard for Balzac to represent in a character’s life, but which adds a comic flourish when used to describe a character’s insatiable need for luxury. This is not to say sex is absent from the novel. Not at all. But the kinds of things referred to in this passage, the “calix,” the “fecundating dusts,” describe exactly the sexual organs of the date-palm. The most euphemistic move in this passage lies in the implication that this vegetable love is a wedding of sorts—it is not mistake that this is also the most humanizing impulse in this description.
There are, I would argue, two main kinds of sexual description in novels. The first—hermeneutic description—relies on interpretation to understand that what we are really talking about is sex. This is by far the most dominant in literary fiction, especially in literary fiction before modernism. The second—relational description—relies on describing the physical relationships among various body parts. This might be most familiar from pornographic fiction, or the quasi-pornographic description that binds together both contemporary literary fiction and the romance novel. And both methods of description can be used to produce explicit sex scenes, scenes that are unmistakably scenes of sexual act.
For instance, when Emma Bovary’s blood turns into milk, when she hears a call from somewhere in the forest, we are meant to read that her encounter with Rodolphe produces sexual climax. Hermeneutic description depends on a limited array of images or concepts to work as sexual description, and this is primarily how novelists, until very recently, evoke sex in their texts. Waves, oceans, blooms, and illuminations mark sexual act within the respectable novel, and allow a writer to refer to sexual action without realistically describing the act itself. Descriptive haze lets a reader experience sex’s capacity to dislocate both personal experience and the social fabric in which one is embedded, and alerts one to the fact of sex’s occurrence, but it also absolves the writer of a particular kind of obscenity, one that comes of naming things as they are.
A hermeneutic mode can also undergird moments of desirous delight, an effect familiar to readers of Middlemarch: “After sitting two long moments while he moved his whip and could say nothing, Lydgate rose to go, and Rosamond, made nervous by her struggle between mortification and the wish not to betray it, dropped her chain as if startled, and rose too, mechanically. Lydgate instantaneously stooped to pick up the chain.” But, Eliot does not stop there with the chain that Rosamond drops being picked up by Lydgate. She extends its reach into the figurative space of the novel: “The moment of [Rosamond’s] naturalness was the crystallizing feather-touch: it shook flirtation into love. Remember that the ambitious man who was looking at those Forget-me-nots under the water was very warm-hearted and rash. He did not know where the chain went; an idea had thrilled through the recesses within him which had a miraculous effect in raising the power of passionate love lying buried there in no sealed sepulchre, but under the lightest, easily pierced mould” (301).
This is and is not a sex scene. It is certainly a model of hermeneutic description. Within the frame of the novel, we are not supposed to read that Rosamond and Lydgate engage in any illicit sexual act before their marriage a bit later in the novel. But we are supposed to perceive the sexual attraction that undergirds that eventual marriage. The referential seams that bind Rosamond’s chain to the narrator’s figurative chain are the same seams that bind the Forget-me-nots that stand in in Lydgate’s vision and the narrator’s metaphor for Rosamond’s eyes. But, more, we vividly see the proximity between this particular novel’s description of a scene that is happening to its characters and the novel (as a genre’s) language for sex’s occurrence (note the whip, the chain and the moving bodies in close proximity). In Eliot’s scene, the scene’s subject becomes vivified—becomes vital—only after we register that it is locked into a system of signs that refracts outwards from this diegetic moment. Eliot’s narrative voice “picks up” an image that registers an insistent change between two of her characters and then turns it into a figurative device to offer narrative comment on the rapidly developing affair.
Hermeneutic description’s flexibility, its dependence on other registers, on other modes of framing, allows for its use in both scenes of sexual act and scenes that use sexual desire to imply attraction, connection, and the potential of sexual disruption. In his evocative use of the hermeneutic, D.H. Lawrence might be more Victorian than many of his modernist brethren. For Lawrence’s pen, the bewildering tangle of hermeneutic description might as easily apply to using a microscope as it would to sexual intercourse. But there are problems with that application, as we can see if we turn to Women in Love.
Lawrence criticism marks out the heiress Hermione Roddice, a tightly wound "New Woman,” as a sign of Lawrence’s dismissal of certain kinds of womanly self-development. In Leo Bersani’s influential essay on “Lawrentian Stillness,” he makes the point that frictional, self-gratifying sex works, throughout Lawrence’s body of work, to signal psychological (and perhaps cultural) complacency or contagion. Hermione has been romantically involved with the novel’s Lawrentian avatar, Rupert Birkin, and the intimation is that, like Mellors’s Bertha Coutts, Hermione’s sexual expression revolts Birkin. For Lawrence, both the rapacious frottage of a Bertha and icy disinterest (or, an interest that is purely political, in the case of the intellectually aspirational Hermione) produce diminished, miserable sexual lives. But in the Lapis Lazuli episode in “Breadlby,” Hermione responds violently to Birkin’s disdain. And, in her response, we get the most explicit (and explicitly sexualized) account of her character’s stunning perversity:
Then swiftly, in a flame that drenched down her body like fluid lightening, and gave her a perfect, unutterable consummation, unutterable satisfaction, she brought down the ball of jewel stone with all her force, crash on his head. But her fingers were in the way, and deadened the blow. Nevertheless down went his head on the table on which his book lay, the stone slid aside and over his ear, it was one convulsion of pure bliss for her, lit up by the crushed pain of her fingers. (Women in Love 105)
Hermione feels compelled to continue her attack, “A thousand lives, a thousand deaths mattered nothing now, only the fulfillment of this perfect ecstasy.” But, of course, Birkin stops her hand: “No you don’t, Hermione,” he said in a low voice. “I don’t let you” (105-6). Crucially, Lawrence draws the metaphors mobilizing this scene’s violence from hermeneutic, novelistic descriptions of sex act. Hermione is “like fluid lightening,” she experiences “unutterable consummation,” and, in her final attempt, Hermione experiences a “convulsion of pure bliss.” Now, in most literary scenes, a “convulsion of pure bliss” can only mean one thing. But here the violence underscores the perversity of Hermione’s character. Her sexual life is so closely connected to her desire for power and domination that in this moment the two become hopelessly entangled.
There are lots of ways that what Lawrence proscribes for sexual life is limiting and strange. Kate Millet and Christopher Craft are just two of the many critics whose observations about what is and is not allowed in Lawrentian sexual life offer corrections to his admittedly masculinist and heterosexist vision. But, what I am marking out here is his interest in divesting sexual life from social and political frames as a way of salvaging sexual life’s dislocating, unequivocal weirdness. In other words, Lawrence anticipates a disarticulation of sex (acts) from the organizing concept of sexuality. What this moment shows us, once and for all, how the language the novel uses for sexual life, words like “lightning,” “bliss,” “consummation,” are always already metaphorical. And Lawrence begins to realize he has to name names if he's going to dislocate sexual life from disciplinary bounds. The problem, of course, is that metaphor itself has an alternative capacity to dislocate, one that generates some of the most evocative scenes of sexual description in Lawrence.
It is this realization that spurs him on, in Lady Chatterley, to use intimate, some might say obscene, words to name the actions and body parts of his characters. “What is cunt,” Connie asks. To which Mellors replies: “An’ doesn’t ter know? Cunt! It’s thee down theer; an’ what I get when I’m i’side thee—an’ what tha gets when I’m i’side thee—it’s a’ as it is—all on’t!” (Lady Chatterley 178). Connie’s ungrammatical question highlights the strangeness of Mellors’ response. The capaciousness of the term is impressive—in Mellors’ view, cunt’s meaning can include reference to both his and Connie’s genitals, to the experience of sex itself, as well as the particular kind of achievement one partner gets from sex with the other: “what I get when I’m i’side thee.” Mellors’ explanation highlights the political power expletive has in Lady Chatterley, but it also draws attention to how conceptually fungible explicit language is for the characters that use it. The Lawrentian sexual revolution hinges on naming parts and actions but not exactly acts (things enter other things, body parts get named, and, through all of this, obscenity gains traction. But Lawrence never says, "This scene is a scene of anal sex”). Instead, the scenes themselves emphasize bodily interaction, while characters’ discussion of events allows a different kind of explicitness to reign. Here is Lawrence’s most widely discussed sex scene:
It was a night of sensual passion, in which she was a little startled, and almost unwilling: yet pierced again with piercing thrills of sensuality, different, sharper, more terrible than the thrills of tenderness, but, at the moment, more desirable. Though a little frightened, she let him have his way, and the reckless, shameless sensuality shook her to her foundations, stripped her to the very last, and made a different woman of her. It was not really love. It was not voluptuousness. It was sensuality sharp and searing as fire, burning the soul to timber. (246)
This passage slightly blends two kinds of explicit description. The dominant mode is hermeneutic (“thrills of tenderness,” “her last,” “foundations,” “burning the soul to timber”). And Lawrence limits the relational language to verbs: Connie is “pierced again.” The imbalance between the descriptive strategies here demonstrates the difficulty in incorporating relational description into scenes, even though the language that makes up relational description relies on verbs and prepositions, words that mark out the actual placement and movement of bodies in an act. “Pierce” is itself a tricky word: it describes the act evoked here, Mellors anally penetrates Connie, but it has a metaphoric tinge to it, reminding the reader, perhaps, of cupid’s arrow, of penetrations of all kinds, of Middlemarch’s mould.
A bit before this central scene, Mellors explains his marriage to Bertha Coutts to Connie:
“Well, I married her, and she wasn’t bad. Those other 'pure' women had nearly taken all the balls out of me, but she was all right that way. She wanted me, and made no bones about it. And I was as pleased as punch. That was what I wanted: a woman who wanted me to fuck her. So I fucked her a good un” (Lady Chatterley 201).
What’s striking here is the scene’s relational method. Mellors relies on an explicit verb, “fuck,” to explain his married actions. And this conversational transparency becomes central to the functional power of Connie’s relationship with the gamekeeper. Other characters don’t fare as well under this new, transparent regime. In a letter to Connie, Ivy Bolton, Clifford’s nurse, writes about Mellors’ former treatment of Bertha: “[She] goes about saying the most awful things about him, how he has women at the cottage, and how he behaved to her when they were married, the low, beastly things he did to her, and I don’t know what all” (263). “Low” and “Beastly” are more euphemistic than hermeneutic, though they share some resemblance to the vague dazzlement of Connie’s sexual awakening. Mellors’ interest in anality is, in Ivy’s eyes, something that connects him to animals. The logic of this observation isn’t surprising, but in a novel where characters like Mellors and Connie can talk about penises, cunts and fucks, Ivy’s euphemism stands out as conceptually impoverished. As old fashioned.
But, the mistake would be to see any of these scenes as “coded,” or unclear, or to see one as “open,” made more legible than another. Speaking of another Balzacian code, Barthes says: “Euphemism is a language” (S/Z 120). And euphemism is also explicit. The hermeneutic quality of the anal sex scene rests on a need for readerly interpretation: unless we read “foundation” as a short hand for “fundament,” or “anus,” we might miss the detail that defines this sex act against others in the book. But this is not to say the scene is obscure at its, excuse the pun, root. Undeniably, sex happens in this described moment. Lawrence’s achievement is his simultaneous use of two oppositional representational strategies within one novel. More, that his most loved characters, the features of the text wherein Lawrentian value might be said to reside, use both modes to explain sex’s importance to themselves, and to describe the same kind of act performed at different times with different partners; that is to say, performed differently. It’s true that there is a strange lag between the kind of description that can describe an act as it unfolds and the description used to describe an act that has passed, but what’s striking, and what I want to linger on as I end, is that in Lady Chatterley, both regimes can be used fluidly by the same character. By showcasing Connie’s and Mellors’ descriptive capacities, Lawrence presents an implicit criticism of characters like Ivy Bolton, characters whose dependence on euphemism cannot expand to include expletive. Not because expletive is necessary, but because the tension between the descriptive systems is. It is only by using both systems that a space can open within description to evaluate each act on its own terms instead of organizing it into a hierarchy of activity or a categorical list. But, the characters the novel most values, Mellors and Connie, use both kinds of description in order that they might have sexual conversations.
Earlier, I implied that the marriage plot argues for a connection between your loveability and your stuff. But in the brief window I’ve been describing, the novel’s newfound explicitness can dislodge the security of that alignment, a security that is in some ways borne by the verve of hermeneutic description. But this isn’t to argue for a sea-change. The novel doesn’t jettison sex’s metaphorical description just because it learns to swear. Not entirely. Much has been said on the novel’s capacity to absorb the shock of the new. But I will end with two ways this dialectic has been resolved (there are others). In Alan Hollinghurst’s controlled hands, sex becomes explicitly political. His use of expletive scaffolds those scenes he finds politically generative, his gay sex scenes. Heterosexuality, while compulsory in the world he describes, happens almost entirely off stage. Consider this delicately, intimately described conversation early in The Line of Beauty: “Yeah…shave it…” said Leo, between grunted breaths as Nick got quicker and bolder, “get arse-knit…fucking murder…on the bike…” Nick kissed the back of his neck” (Hollinghurst 36). Alternately, we have the cynicism of Bret Easton Ellis. In Patrick Bateman, Ellis writes a character whose forays into the explicit all look the same. In this mode, the novel’s sensually evocative possibility is hampered by its applicability to gruesome depictions of violence. Fucking becomes killing becomes fucking.
I’ve been saying Lawrence’s descriptive technology borrows from two widely adopted representational regimes. This exposes what can only be called a descriptive dialectic. And, it is this dialectic that, if it allows kinds of sex experience to be untethered from kinds of act, also allows the space between marriage and sex to be made visible, exposing an important gap between the world of exchange and the world of sense. Lawrence’s simultaneous deployment of both strategies shows there are ways of understanding a marriage plot that don’t rely on evaluative assessments: Connie’s relationship with Mellors is neither good nor bad, it is only human, by which I mean animal. It might seem like this final point argues for the ascendency of relational description, but the force of expletive needs the seductive confusion of the hermeneutic to approach the strangeness of lived experience. Sex, it turns out, always needs metaphor, always needs translation. And it needs it most when it’s called most clearly by its name.
 In French, the word is “hyménée,” which makes the connotation perhaps more explicit in English.
 Think of this description of the Countess’s entrance: “She was coquettishly dressed in a fine white woolen wrap with knots of rose-coloured ribbon. Her hair was carelessly done up as Parisian women wear it in the morning. Her perfume filled the air; she had probably just come from a bath and her beauty seemed, as it were, softer and more voluptuous; her eyes had a liquid brilliance. Young men’s eyes see everything; their spirit reacts to the charm a woman radiates just as plants breathe in the substance they need from the air” (Old Goriot 81).
Joss Marsh discusses the development of explicit language in Word Crimes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).
 Although, in Lady Chatterley, Lawrence tends to use hermeneutic description to evoke a sensation of immediacy and ongoingness, and so uses it to describe a sex scene as it is happening. Alternately, he uses representational description to explain how something has happened in the past.
 Discussing another Balzacian euphemism, Roland Barthes says: “To read into this scene at the theater a solitary orgasm, to substitute an erotic story for the euphemistic version, this operation of reading is based not in a lexicon of symbols, but a systemic cohesion, a congruence of relationships. It follows that the meaning of a text lies not in this or that interpretation but in the diagrammatic totality of its reading, in their plural system” (S/Z 120).