The novel begins with a generalization about the period in which the novel is written and in which it takes place: the narrator tells us "ours is essentially a tragic age" (5). This refers to World War I. The narrator thinks of the war as a "cataclysm" from which "we" need to rebuild. Constance Chatterley, the main character of this novel, too must live on, after the war, the narrator tells us.
Constance Chatterley, at age 23, had married Clifford Chatterley, age 29, in 1917 during the war, when he was on leave from the war. He had returned to the war after their marriage. But he was shipped back "in bits," paralyzed from the hips down, and spent two years in the care of a doctor.
Clifford returns to Wragby Hall in the Midlands of England, his home, in 1920. He is confined to a wheelchair, which has a small motor attachment to it. Yet Clifford is strangely cheerful in spite of his condition. The narrator notes though that he had a "watchful look, the slight vacancy… of a cripple… something inside him had perished" (6).
Constance is described as a country-looking girl with a sturdy body and dormant energy. However, while she looks like she had just come from the country, she actually had a very cultured upbringing. Her sister Hilda, and herself, are described as being quite "cosmopolitan" yet also "provincial," because they value pure social ideals. They had lived in Dresden at the age of 15, where they debated philosophy and sociology. There, it was the "talk that mattered supremely" (7), and love was not so important.
By age 18 both the girls had had love affairs, because they realized love was supposed to be important, and the men wanted it so badly. However, for them, lovemaking was a "primitive reversion" (7) and they liked the boys less afterwards for trespassing on their freedom. They yield though without really giving themselves away, and instead they "use this sex thing to have power over him" (7). She does so by waiting until he has orgasmed, and then using him merely as a tool while she achieves orgasm.
When the two girls return home during a vacation, their parents note that they have had sexual relations. The father thinks that life ought to take its course, and the mother allows the girls their freedom, never feeling that she has had it herself. The mother hadn't had freedom because she had some "old impression of authority on her mind or soul that she could not get rid of" (8).
The women consider the "sex-thrill" only as a sensation and remain free (9), whereas the men in the relationship tend to feel it with their whole soul. Unconsciously though, the narrator tells us, the men feel "rebuffed" (8) since the women do not seem to feel sex with their whole souls. The narrator compares the men to ungrateful, sulky children who are never satisfied.
The war comes and the women return home to their parents. Their mother has died a few months earlier. And the men they were in relationships with die before the Christmas of 1914. Hilda marries a man ten years older, a man who wrote philosophical essays and has a comfortable government job. She moves in an intellectual circle of people.
Constance meets Clifford Chatterley doing war work. He was an aristocrat. He is described as frightened of the lower classes, but at ease amongst other aristocrats. He was fascinated then by Constance's self-assurance in the world of chaos. He further thinks most things are ridiculous and likes to mock other things, such as fathers, governments, armies, and so forth. He likes Constance because she believes in something, whereas he thinks everything is ridiculous.
In 1916, Clifford's elder brother dies in the war, so Clifford becomes the heir to Wragby Estate. He is terrified of this. Sir Geoffrey, his father, wants him to produce an heir, but Clifford feels like Sir Geoffrey prescribes to a tradition that is ridiculous. The Chatterleys were characterized by a sense of isolation - having lived in the industrial Midlands where they were isolated from the middle and lower classes, and where their father was isolated from his own class. Emma does not want Clifford to marry because she thinks of it as a betrayal of their generation. However Clifford marries Constance in 1917. They have sex but it does not mean much to Clifford, which Constance likes. They think of their intimacy as deeper than sex. Sex is merely an accident for them, a merely organic process. Constance does want children though.
When Clifford returns from the war "smashed" (12), his father "dies of chagrin" (12).
Constance and Clifford arrive to live in Wragby in the fall of 1920. Constance feels that the Midlands, with its coal and iron traditions, are very ugly. The air always smells of something like sulfur, coal, iron, or acid. The people seem shapeless and haggard to her, although also mysterious. There is smut everywhere. Clifford professes to rather liking Wragby, thinking of the people as having "guts" (14).
There is no communication between Wragby Hall and the nearby Tevershall village. It is as if Clifford and Constance belong to another species. The narrator describes it as a "strange denial of the common pulse of humanity" (14). Lady Chatterley is puzzled a bit by the attitudes of the miner's wives. They act as if they are constantly trying to assert they are as good as she is. She learns to ignore them.
Clifford had become even shyer because he was a cripple. Constance and he though were attached to one another, although in an "aloof modern way." "He was a hurt thing," the narrator tells us (15). This makes Constance stick to him more passionately. She notes though that he treats his miners as objects rather than men. She thinks of him as "not in actual touch with anything or anybody" (16), even though he is very dependent upon her. He writes stories that are very observant but lack a personal touch. He devotes all of his being to these stories, and Constance helps him, finding it thrilling.
Their physical life is very lacking. Constance keeps the house, but she thinks of it as a "methodical anarchy" (17). Everything is neat and orderly, but there is nothing to unite the whole of the house organically. Emma, the sister of Clifford, visits from time to time. She seems to resent Constance. Constance's father also comes to visit and he critiques Clifford's writing for having "nothing in it" (17). Constance doesn't know what this means. He says he doesn't want Constance to become a "demi-vierge" (half-virgin). He thinks that she's getting thin.
Clifford is offended. Constance knows though that Clifford wouldn't mind what she was, so long as he wasn't made to see it. "What the ey edoesn't see, and the mind doesn't know, doesn't exist" (18), the narrator so translates her thoughts to us.
The narrator sums up their life over two years as a life, "in the void" (18), as a non-existence. Constance is as if in a dream, in a simulacrum of reality, as if she had no substance to her, and no contact.
They have many guests at Wragby, and she acts as a hostess. She asks herself what is wrong with it. She gives no encouragement to the guests, mostly men, who might be interested in her sexually, because she knows it would torture Clifford. She has no real connection with anyone who comes into the house. She and her husband live in their ideas and in their books.
In these opening chapters, we are given an overview of Constance Chatterley's life, and the circumstances of her marriage to Clifford Chatterley. While the novel opens by telling of a post-war situation, it begins by telling of Constance's life before the war. She and her sister are cultured intellectuals, and they have relationships with men that are mainly mental in nature. The narrator hints though that something is missing in these interactions -- that the women have no real attachment to sexuality. The narration then seems to be structured around this theme of their missing attachment to having a real sex life as part of their existence. Instead, they seem to live entirely in the world of ideas, as they love their men only through their conversations.
Clifford is described as an aristocrat who is totally disconnected from the circumstances of his life. He looks at it all with some irony, detached from the affairs of others and daily life. He thinks of it all as ridiculous and absurd. He is detached from the meaning of the traditional social structures of the past, having no interest in inheriting the family estate and carrying on the legacy of his own class. There is something nihilistic in his approach to reality.
The difference between classes is a common theme in Lawrence's works, as Lawrence himself was from a working class family in the Midlands of England, known for their coal-mining industry. Constance is not quite an aristocrat, which is what appeals to Clifford, as she does not seem to fear the working classes as he himself does. Clifford is alienated not only from other classes, but his own class though, since he has rejected the structures of authority that uphold the values of his old class. There is a sense in which he has lost a sense of value because he has no consciousness of his own class affiliation - he can only view the world ironically.
Note that the language of these two chapters is very abstract. The narrator often abstracts from events and gives us an opinion of the overall feeling of an event, rather than telling us what occurs specifically. Further, it is never quite clear if the narrator is expressing his own opinion, the opinion of a character, a summary of a character's previously voiced opinion, or an unconscious feeling on the part of the character. This ambiguity could be a highly experimental use of narrative voice, because it does not assert the narrator exactly as an outside, third person perspective, but rather as empathizing and interacting with the characters in intangible ways.
It is notable that Lawrence seems to condemn the purely intellectual life here, and he wants to point to the fact that something is missing from this life -- he gestures towards an idea of "contact" which is missing in the lives of his characters. It is not clear yet though what this contact would consist of: does he mean a metaphysical, religious interaction with others? Does he mean a personal sense of communication? Is he talking about a purely physical kind of contact? The hints that a missing sex life is somehow representative of that which is missing leads us to assume that he strongly believes in the power of physical connections. However, such a physical connection also seems to tie in with class connections, as the Chatterleys are represented as totally disconnected from the middle class and lower class daily existence.