Sons and Lovers by English writer David Herbert Lawrence (11 September 1885 – 2 March 1930 ) is a marvelous combination of autobiography, fiction, and psychology. It sits proudly at the 9th spot in the Modern Library’s list of 100 best novels of the 20th century. It is a deeply psychological, semi-autobiographical tale of complex human emotions and relationships. This novel shows how hurtful and disdainful virtue can be. How stifling love can be. How even the reverence for mother can turn into an obsessive compulsion and lead to a lifelong misery.
Here’s what makes Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence so great:
Review of Sons and Lovers
The book draws a lot from the author’s own life. Yet, it is not a biography. The author uses personal experiences as building blocks of his narrative. But he colors the facts with shades of fiction. Like his own father, Walter Morel (the hero’s father) too is a barely literate miner with unrefined manners and habits. Like his mother, hero’s mother Mrs. Gertrude Morel is a refined woman steadfast in her principles. Several other characters like hero’s brother William are also drawn from reality. Paul Morel’s feelings towards his parents and his love interests are also similar to the conflicts Lawrence himself experienced
The Oedipal Complex:
Oedipal or Oedipus Complex is a famous theory of Sigmund Freud (Neurologist and founder of Psychoanalysis). It takes its name from a Greek play Oedipus Rex in which the title character Oedipus is prophesied to murder his father and have sex with his mother. In Oedipal Complex the boy feels attracted towards his mother. He may even dislike his father or feel he is competing against his father for his mother’s affections.
This theory forms the basis of Sons and Lovers. You can hear it even in the title. Sons are lovers. No, there is no incest in the book. But the psychological feeling is strong and binding. Paul loves his mother so much that he can be satisfied with no other woman. He hates his father and often wishes him dead. In the novel, even the mother is caught in this complex. Dissatisfied with her husband, she gives all her love to her sons. She hates their girlfriends, hates her husband, and cannot think of life beyond her sons.
There are numerous scenes in the book in which the togetherness of the mother and son is described in terms of togetherness of lovers. Even their conversation sounds like conversation of lovers.
Paul calls his mother ‘my love, my pigeon.’
When he gives her a flower, author writes, “Pretty!” she said, in a curious tone, of a woman accepting a love-token.“
When Mrs. Morel goes on a trip with Paul, “The mother and son walked down Station Street, feeling the excitement of lovers having an adventure together.”
When Mrs. Morel is ill, “He kissed her again, and stroked the hair from her temples, gently, tenderly, as if she were a lover.” And “He kneeled down, and put his face to hers and his arms round her: “My love—my love—oh, my love!” he said.
Sons and Lovers is a book of complex relationships. The love of all major characters in the book is a mix of love and hate. Love that is strong and true, yet guilty. Love that binds, and gives more misery than happiness. Be it the relationship of hero’s parents, or his own romantic relationships with women, there’s hate, misery, and guilt mixed with the love.
Women in Sons and Lovers:
Although the book centers around the hero Paul Morel, it is the women characters that are the highlights of this novel. There are three main women characters in this book. Paul loves all three of them. Yet, none can give him total happiness.
Gertrude Morel – the mother:
Mrs. Gertrude Morel comes from a line of poor but dignified, haughty puritans. She has a small figure, but is a robust, strong woman of high morals. She does not approve of dancing, loves long, intellectual conversations with men of learning, has a quiet but unforgiving temper, hates where she lives, looks down upon her neighbors who are all wives of miners, strives to make her house spotless even when ill, and remains a dutiful mother and wife even when her heart feels crushed under the confining burden. And she is adored by all her children. “no movement she ever made, could have been found fault with by her children.”
She is Paul’s first love and she keeps her hold on him even after her death. She’s an educated, refined woman of high principles. She falls in love with a handsome, sensuous miner. It does not take her long to realize the demeaning limits her poverty puts on her and the lack of manners and principles in her husband. Despairing of her husband, she transfers her love to her sons. First her eldest son William. After she loses William, she turns to Paul. Her extreme love for her sons binds them so tightly that they can unite with no other woman. A vital part of them always remains tied to their mother. And even when they try to form romantic relationships, Mrs. Morel hates their girlfriends. And that makes her sons even more dissatisfied with their lovers.
Miriam – the soul mate:
Miriam is Paul’s first girlfriend. She is a beautiful girl living a secluded life in her family’s farm. She is deeply religious and a woman of deep, intense feelings. “There was no looseness or abandon about Miriam. Everything was gripped stiff with intensity, and her effort, overcharged, closed in on itself.” The intensity of her emotions and love often feel stifling to others, including Paul.
The character of Miriam is modeled after Jessie Chambers. D.H. Lawerence loved Jessie but could not establish a satisfactory relationship with her. Similarly, Paul Morel and Miriam love each other dearly. They love talking to each other. Miriam can touche Paul’s soul just as his mother does. “From his mother he drew the life-warmth, the strength to produce; Miriam urged this warmth into intensity like a white light.” And there lies the problem. Paul’s mother hates Miriam because Paul loves her so much. She feels Miriam will take up whole of Paul and will leave nothing for her. She thinks, “She is one of those who will want to suck a man’s soul out till he has none of his own left.” Mrs. Morel cannot yield her son’s heart and soul to another woman. This casts a shadow on Paul’s love for Miriam.
Miriam too has her own hesitation. Paul wants her to take him as a woman takes a man. But she feels scared of the passionate man in him and wants only to be his soul mate. Her intense love stifles him. His passion scares him. “He was afraid of her. The fact that he might want her as a man wants a woman had in him been suppressed into a shame. When she shrank in her convulsed, coiled torture from the thought of such a thing, he had winced to the depths of his soul. And now this “purity” prevented even their first love-kiss. It was as if she could scarcely stand the shock of physical love, even a passionate kiss, and then he was too shrinking and sensitive to give it.” “He hated her, for she seemed in some way to make him despise himself.”
They both know they love each other. They also know they will never be happy with each other. Because they want different things. “She could not take him and relieve him of the responsibility of himself. She could only sacrifice herself to him—sacrifice herself every day, gladly. And that he did not want. He wanted her to hold him and say, with joy and authority: “Stop all this restlessness and beating against death. You are mine for a mate.” She had not the strength. Or was it a mate she wanted? or did she want a Christ in him?”
Clara – the passion:
Clara is Paul’s second girlfriend. She is gorgeous, but older than him and already married. She is a working, independent woman separated from her husband (but not divorced). In a way, she and her husband to Paul are like his own mother and father. Here, he is free to hate this father figure and have sex with the woman. Mrs. Morel does not hate Clara as much as she hates Miriam. Because she knows Clara will not be able to hold Paul. Their relation is only based on passion. Not being a soul mate, she will never satisfy Paul.
Clara herself realizes this soon. Even when she and Paul are making love, she feels he is not with her. “She knew she never fully had him. Some part, big and vital in him, she had no hold over.” She feels the man is making love to a woman, but Paul himself is elsewhere and she does not matter to him. “You’ve never given me yourself.” she tells him. “I feel,” she continued slowly, “as if I hadn’t got you, as if all of you weren’t there, and as if it weren’t ME you were taking—”
She later re-unites with her husband. Even Paul helps this man and becomes his friend, perhaps to lessen his guilt. This guilt might even include the guilt he feels for hating his father.
Walter Morel is also a major and very complex character. He is Paul’s father. The man hated by his wife and children. The man whom his children wish dead. Who becomes an outcast in his own family.
He is of easy principles, rude and filthy manners, barely literate, and addicted to drink. His family thinks him a villain. Yet, the author does not let readers hate him. How can you hate a man that is described with the words, “the dusky, golden softness of this man’s sensuous flame of life, that flowed off his flesh like the flame from a candle.“
Walter is a hearty, robust man who laughs freely, loves dancing, whistles while working in his home, loves going on long walks and can instinctively make himself look handsome even in poor clothes. And even in his middle age, he retains the body of a 28 year old man.
Like his other miner friends, he drinks a lot. Whatever he can spend in drinking, he does. But he never drinks more than what his weekly budget allows. He never misses work due to his drinking. Works hard. Makes his own breakfast so his wife does not have to wake up early. Remains loyal to his wife even when he knows she does not love him. “He would dearly have liked the children to talk to him, but they could not.” As his family alienates him, he falls lower and lower. His sensuous beauty, strength, pride, potential for betterment are crushed and he becomes a mean old man. His wife’s strict unsympathetic attempts end up breaking him.
As the author says, “She fought to make him undertake his own responsibilities, to make him fulfill his obligations. But he was too different from her. His nature was purely sensuous, and she strove to make him moral, religious. She tried to force him to face things. He could not endure it.” “She could not be content with the little he might be; she would have him the much that he ought to be. So, in seeking to make him nobler than he could be, she destroyed him.” “The author also says, “She would have felt sorry for him, if he had once said, “Wife, I’m sorry.” But no; he insisted to himself it was her fault. And so he broke himself. So she merely left him alone. There was this deadlock of passion between them, and she was stronger.” And so, there’s misery for both.
Paul, the hero of the book, is caught in the Oedipal complex. He loves three women. They love him back. Yet, he can belong to none of them.
He loves his mother with all his heart. “The deepest of his love belonged to his mother.” She is his soul. Yet, she cannot give him the physical passion his youth craves for. But “His soul seemed always attentive to her.” He is at peace only when he knows he loves his mother best. “There was one place in the world that stood solid and did not melt into unreality: the place where his mother was. Everybody else could grow shadowy, almost non-existent to him, but she could not. It was as if the pivot and pole of his life, from which he could not escape, was his mother.” The future he plans with his mother is, “But I shan’t marry, mother. I shall live with you, and we’ll have a servant.” He tells his mother, “I’ll never marry while I’ve got you—I won’t.”
He loves Miriam. She touches his soul like his mother does. And so, he also hates her because her love makes him feel guilty of betraying his mother. He must love his mother best or he cannot be at peace with himself. He wants Miriam to soothe his body and leave his soul for his mother. But Miriam must have the union of souls otherwise there’s a distance between them. Her heart is seeped in religion and shrinks from physical intimacy. Paul wants Miriam to want the male in him. But bodily passion for her is a sacrifice that she has to suffer for love. Paul knows this and hates himself for scaring her by his passion.
“She fretted him to the bottom of his soul. There she remained—sad, pensive, a worshipper. And he caused her sorrow. Half the time he grieved for her, half the time he hated her. She was his conscience; and he felt, somehow, he had got a conscience that was too much for him. He could not leave her, because in one way she did hold the best of him. He could not stay with her because she did not take the rest of him, which was three-quarters. So he chafed himself into rawness over her.” He feels he owes himself to her, yet cannot give himself fully. “She was only his conscience, not his mate.”
He knows that his love for Miriam hurts his mother. So he hurts Miriam and is cruel to her. Then he hates himself for hurting Miriam and feels she is too good and he too unworthy. Mrs. Morel once says to him, “I can’t bear it. I could let another woman—but not her. She’d leave me no room, not a bit of room—” And
immediately he hated Miriam bitterly. “And I’ve never—you know, Paul—I’ve never had a husband—not really —” He stroked his mother’s hair, and his mouth was on her throat. “And she exults so in taking you from me—
she’s not like ordinary girls.” “Well, I don’t love her, mother,” he murmured, bowing his head and hiding his eyes on her shoulder in misery. His mother kissed him a long, fervent kiss. “My boy!” she said, in a voice trembling
with passionate love.”
Paul and Miriam know they love each other truly and ardently. But they also know they will never be happy with each other. Miriam’s religion and Paul’s mother will always be between them
But Clara is not a competitor of his mother. She does not have that depth to touch his soul. Paul does not feel connected with Clara. He has passion for her. She’s gorgeous. But she’s nothing like her mother. He respects her. He cares for her. Loves her even. But he does not love/hate here like Miriam. She only satisfies his body, but not his heart. And so, he remains unsatisfied even with her. “There was a big tenderness, as after a strong emotion they had known together; but it was not she who could keep his soul steady. He had wanted her to be something she could not be.”
Clara knows it. And so, she too cannot separate herself fully from her husband. She knows Paul will never belong to her as her husband does.
Paul is caught in a trap where he feels guilty of giving his heart to anyone. Yet, cannot feel fulfilled otherwise. His mother’s love has forever cast a shadow on his love life. He knows “He would never make sure ground for any woman to stand on.” He wonders, “Why—why don’t I want to marry her or anybody?” and tells his mother, “And I never shall meet the right woman while you live,”
Sons and Lovers is a magnificent literary masterpiece. Brilliant characterization, masterful weaving of facts with fiction, and layer upon layer of psychological conflicts form the highlights of this book. The plot is tightly knit and moves at a steady pace. Relationships form its cornerstones and binding elements. Some characters speak in dialect. Some characters maybe hard to relate to. Like Miriam who seeks happiness in sacrifice, rather than in love. Yet, all characters are vivid and believable and layered. No character is simple and straightforward. It is primarily a character-driven book. The characters create their own pitfalls. They decide their own escapes. Some succeed in escaping, some don’t.
If you like reading books with intense story, complex characters and psychological depths, do check out Sons and Lovers.
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