Sex Over 70 Years and the Synecdoche

7 min read, EXPLICIT content

2 Books

2 Rhetorical devices

The Music in Prose – THL feature focused on writing that ‘sings’ and why




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It’s a double entendre, this letter’s headline, but it’s fitting. I’m not well-informed about sex over seventy though I hope to find out if I get there. The double entendre* is part of the writer’s and the comedian’s toolbox and here’s one from Zsa Zsa Gabor. A man in love is incomplete until he’s married. Then he’s finished. 

The sex in this letter has to do with the writing, the language of sex and how it changed over 70 years. Apologies to the 70 somethings who may be reading this, but there is no shortage of that type of counsel online; Google at will. What you have in this letter are samples of the language used by Gustave Flaubert and D.H.Lawrence.

Flaubert’s Madame Bovary landed him in court for obscenity and was first serialized in 1856. He was acquitted and the book went into print the next year. D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover first went into print in Italy in 1928, then in France the following year and not in England until 1932, a 72 year difference between the publication of the books. The Brits did not see fit to lift the ban on the uncensored version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover until 1960, categorizing it as pornography. Lawrence’s language is explicit. Flaubert for the times (1856) was implicit, but suggestive enough that he was taken to task.

Madame Bovary is considered one of the first novels of literary realism and depicted rural life and characters in an authentic way. I read Lydia Davis’s masterful 2010 translation from the French and she is a notable writer in her own right. If you know the author’s language for any work, read it in the original. All else is merely an attempt and I’m lucky enough to read the Davis translation.

Flaubert’s characters and the routine of a provincial country doctor, Charles Bovary, and his dreamy wife Emma, given to reading novels and romance, rise off the page. The striving apothecary, the scheming merchant, the innkeeper and her knowledge of the tavern’s guests remind me of Dickens. The couple are an unlikely pair, but Charles has means enough to secure her hand in marriage and he’s doting and docile, and for this reader, dumb. Not speechless, though he’s often that, but the willing fool. Such traits are in his character, which Flaubert outlines in the opening chapter.


The language about sex is not graphic, but implied. Emma has her first affair with a dashing patient of her husband’s. She dreams of a love like the love she reads about and surely Rodolphe fits the bill. He sees her as a tempting morsel in a delectable feast of femme fatales, a collection of letters padding his desk like notches on the belt.  When they plan to run away, he asks about her daughter, an afterthought to her and an obstacle he hopes will deter her. She clings to Rodolphe and he, the rogue that the reader knows him to be, begs off in a letter sent by his servant, then skips town. Flaubert describes his reaction to her professions.

He had heard these things said to him so often that for him there was nothing original about them. Emma was like all other mistresses; and the charm of novelty, slipping off gradually like a piece of clothing, revealed in its nakedness the eternal monotony of passion, which always assumes the same forms and uses the same language. He could not perceive–this man of such broad experience–the difference in feeling that might underlie the similarities of expression. Because licentious or venal lips had murmured the same words to him, he had little faith in their truthfulness; one had to discount, he thought, exaggerated speeches that concealed commonplace affections; as if the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest of metaphors, since none of us can ever express the exact measure of our needs, or our ideas, or our sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to inspire pity in the stars.

(MB by Flaubert, Translation Lydia Davis 2010, p. 167)

Where’s the Music in the Prose?

This page is marked and tabbed in my copy. Human speech is like a cracked kettle, because language has its limits. The limits of speech are the limits of our world, and the cad is incapable of understanding the subtleties and shades of feeling in his lovers and his interest in any depth in a more human connection, like the shallow creature that he is, slips away like the clothes.

The rhythm or cadence in this, even the translation, bursts with meaning and emotion, with tension and apt similes. Word for word with semicolon and em dash, commas, and full stops, the breathlessness and the desperation of Emma’s plea is an eternal monotony of passion  and chills the reader 150 years later. Bravo Flaubert! And Bravo Davis for her exquisite rendition of the notably fastidious author.

Sex with her second lover, the young legal clerk Leon, takes place in the infamous literary scene in Rouen in a carriage ride. She has recovered from her heartbreak with Rodolphe and worn the habit of a good wife and church goer. Yet, they rekindle a flirtation and Leon has lived in the world a bit now.  She writes him a letter to hold him off and they meet at the church late morning and when they finally find each other, he summons a cab for them.

“It’s quite improper, you know.”

“In what way?” replied the clerk, “They do it in Paris!”

She is falling again.

“Where does Monsieur wish to go? asked the coachman.

“Wherever you like!” said Leon, thrusting Emma into the carriage. And the heavy vehicle started off.

It went down the rue Grand-Pont, crossed the place des Arts, the quai Napolean, and the Pont Neuf, and stopped short in front of the statue of Pierre Corneille.

“Keep going!” said a voice issuing from the interior.

A hand appears out of the blinds at midday to toss off torn scraps of paper, which scattered in the wind and alighted, at a distance, like white butterflies, on a field of red clover all in bloom.  The cab is one of literature’s most notable synecdoches**, or representation of an item for another, the cab for sex. It was enough to put Flaubert in court.

… the townspeople would stare wide-eyed in amazement at this thing so unheard of in the provinces, a carriage with drawn blinds that kept appearing and reappearing, sealed tighter than a tomb and tossed about like a ship at sea. (p. 218)

The 2010 Lydia Davis Translation of Madame Bovary and Lady Chatterley’s Lover


Lawrence’s language makes Flaubert’s seem sedate but the Victorian age is over; it’s been 72 years. Lady Chatterley or Connie for Constance–ironic choice for her name–is the sexual, worldly, and culturally bohemian spouse of Clifford Chatterley, who came back from the war in 1918 paralyzed, impotent. Clifford and Connie. He’s a man of the mind and becomes consumed in his business. She wants more than a companion and discovers that the sensual part of a relationship is an essential and vital force. She is drawn to the woods and nature to fill the void, and finds sex and love with her husband’s gamekeeper, Mellors, a former soldier, living estranged from his wife.

Lawrence writes the character of Mellors using his local accent. He had become an officer in the army and could speak well enough in company, but preferred to revert to his dialect, which works well for the topic of his erection.

The man looked down in silence at the tense phallos, that did not change.—“Ay!” he said at last, in a little voice. “Ay ma lad! tha’re theer right enough. Yi, tha mun rear thy head! Theer on thy own, eh? an’ ta’es no count O’ nob’dy! Tha ma’es nowt O’ me, John Thomas. Art boss? of me? Eh well, tha’re more cocky than me, an’ tha says less. John Thomas! Dost want her? Dost want my lady Jane? Tha’s dipped me in again, tha hast. Ay, an’ tha comes up smilin’.—Ax ‘er then! Ax lady Jane! Say: Lift up your heads, O ye gates, that the king of glory may come in. Ay, th’ cheek on thee! Cunt, that’s what tha’re after. Tell lady Jane tha wants cunt. John Thomas, an’ th’ cunt O’ lady Jane!—”

“Oh, don’t tease him,” said Connie, crawling on her knees on the bed towards him and putting her arms round his white slender loins, and drawing him to her so that her hanging, swinging breasts touched the tip of the stirring, erect phallos, and caught the drop of moisture. She held the man fast.

“Lie down!” he said. “Lie down! Let me come!” He was in a hurry now.

And afterwards, when they had been quite still, the woman had to uncover the man again, to look at the mystery of the phallos.

“And now he’s tiny, and soft like a little bud of life!” she said, taking the soft small penis in her hand. “Isn’t he somehow lovely! so on his own, so strange! And so innocent! And he comes so far into me! You must never insult him, you know. He’s mine too. He’s not only yours. He’s mine! And so lovely and innocent!’ And she held the penis soft in her hand.

He laughed.

“Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in kindred love,” he said.

(Link to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Chapter 14)

This passage, among many others, and its words were likely what the Brits censored  until 1960! To read about the tense phallus, the erect phallus, and the tiny soft little bud of life  in this book, sex is not tawdry, it is natural and beautiful. It’s the progress of a man’s physical love and Connie is charmed. The passage shows an intimacy that went beyond the physical, connected as the lovers were in body and soul. Mellors finds such physical and spiritual love inseparable, a love that had eluded him in his marriage. Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in kindred love, he says to her.

Is there music in Lawrence’s passage? Yes, of a sort, especially the colorful language he employs for Mellors description of his erection, the frank dialect of his roots in the coal mining town, his childhood and profession as a blacksmith, before he had left. His voice rings true, because Lawrence himself was the son of a barely literate miner from the Midlands of England. And a character’s voice may be a key melodic line, a critical part of the story and in this case, the title of the book. Connie speaks English well enough and proclaims, the soft small penis as somehow lovely, strange, innocent and he’s mine too!

Writing on Sex over 70 Years

Flaubert’s writing about sex and Lawrence’s writing about sex may be apt for the times, or not. Flaubert was pushing the envelope of realism and Lawrence wrote as he believed love to be. Madame Bovary transformed the novel, so the authenticity was pushing beyond the norms in the mid 1800s. Lawrence showed me that John Thomas and cunt and numerous words stashed away in huts of impropriety have roots in a longer oral tradition.

Sex and love in all its forms have been around for centuries, millennia. The filters of society have a way of warping and twisting the view it has on its perch at any period. Thanks to Flaubert and Lawrence, readers may experience the ecstasies and sorrow, the passions and the pains felt by the lover and the beloved over generations.

Footnotes – the Easter egg of the TreeHouseLetter

*Double Entendres – a rhetorical device using words or phrases in a given context which can be taken in two ways.

**Synecdoche is a rhetorical trope or figure of speech – word or phrase in which the part is used to represent the whole or vice versa. As an example: All hands on deck. Hands for sailors. Boots on the ground. Boots for soldiers. The cab represents sex with its drawn blinds that kept appearing and reappearing, sealed tighter than a tomb and tossed about like a ship at sea.

-A hardy shout-out to my fellow book buddy KC who shared the college Jeopardy question about the authors and the sixty to seventy year span between the publication dates.

-There is so much more to these novels than the language of sex. My friend and mentor Pinckney Benedict would say, every page, every single page ought have sex or violence in it. That’s why readers read, the tension, the resolution of tension. Ok, maybe. Agree or not, it has stayed top of my mind. I encourage you to read both books, because the sex is there and a whole lot more.

A Wicked Cab Ride Around Rouen, With Madame Bovary  Normandy, Then and Now, DEC 12, 2015

-Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence for free on Project

-Read the Lydia Davis translation of Madame Bovary by Flaubert.

Feb 27, 2022


About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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