Book review: Sons and Lovers

Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence. Recommended.

Sons and Lovers is said to be the most autobiographical of D. H. Lawrence’s novels; according to the introduction by Benjamin DeMott, some critics have found it too flatly so. Like the protagonist Paul Morel, Lawrence was born to a coal miner and a woman who has married beneath her class, and his older brother died young, DeMott notes. Many other details coincide as well.

Unlike some of Lawrence’s other works, such as Women in Love, in which Lawrence explores lofty themes in a philosophical and often grim tone, Sons and Lovers is as down to earth as Paul’s rough, violent, yet congenial father Walter. Despite his many apparent and iterated flaws, Walter Morel is shown as a whole person rather than a fictional creation, with a gentle, content, industrious side, at least when he’s sober. Perhaps his “smallness” is a function of where he is and who he is expected to be rather than who he could be. He’s so tied to his lot in life, the mining life, that it never occurs to him that his more gifted sons could aspire to more. That they achieve more is a source of both pride and derision for Walter Morel. Although Walter is a background character (to both reader and to the Morel family), it is he, “an outsider,” who forges the bond between Gertrude Morel and her sons, first William, then Paul.

Gertrude Morel is not the first woman to try to live her life through her children, but her hold over her sons dooms their relationships with other women to failure and leaves them deeply unsatisfied and unhappy. Her motivations may be questionable, but she is sometimes right. William’s fiancée Lily would have cost him dearly, emotionally and financially, had he lived to marry her, and Mrs. Morel sees her own mistake of a marriage in his future. Although she makes her beliefs known, she seems willing to let William make his decision and suffer the consequences.

Having learned from the experience with William, Mrs. Morel takes a different approach with Paul, who seems to be her last, best hope for justifying her own life. Her relationship with Paul becomes overtly sexual. When they go out together, they behave like lovers on a date. “He stroked his mother’s hair, and his mouth was on her throat.” When Paul tells his mother that he doesn’t love Miriam (how can he?), she “kissed him in a long, fervent kiss. ‘My boy!’ she said, in a voice trembling with passionate love. Without knowing, he gently stroked her face.”

It would be too easy to attribute all this to an Oedipal complex, but it is more complicated, as life is. Paul serves as Mrs. Morel’s alter ego, pseudo-lover, and breadwinner. Everything she did not or cannot have must be Paul’s. She is savvy enough to know who is a threat to her hold and who is not. She recognises in Miriam a woman much like herself — intelligent, thwarted, let down by men, hungry for a kindred spirit or soul mate. Paul, too, is aware of this and hates Miriam for it — and for the fact he does, indeed, love her, making him unfaithful to the woman to whom he owes his fidelity. There are spiritual overtones as well, as the religious Miriam tries to sacrifice herself for Paul, whom she sees as a “Walter Scott hero.” This sacrifice repels Paul ever further.

Mrs. Morel rightly perceives that Clara Dawes is not a threat to her — she is fascinating, attractive, enigmatic, and sensual, but she lacks the ability to be more to Paul than a diversion from Miriam, Mom, and himself. Knowing that nothing of importance will come of this affair, Mrs. Morel even encourages it. It cannot divert Paul from her, and it fails as a result.

In the end, the only intimacy Paul is capable of is with his mother. She has come between him and his own consciousness — and he has allowed her. Everything is filtered through her. How she has achieved this is not always clear, as she uses more than rhetoric and conscious effort to mold Paul. When he wishes her dead, there is hope that then he would begin to live. “Mother!” he whimpered. “Mother!” Then: “He would not take that direction, to the darkness, to follow her.” With the past buried, there may be a future for him. Only Lawrence knew as he wrote this most human of his novels.

25 May 2003
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf


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