Social and sexual relationships are integral themes in Lawrence’s semi-autobiographical novel. Sons and Lovers can be described as a modernist text due to the unconventional relationship between the novel’s protagonist, Paul Morel and it’s heroine, Mrs Morel. This essay will discuss the effect of this love and the social conflicts on the narrative.
The novel begins with the chapter, ‘The early married life of the Morels’, and discusses the transformation of Walter Morel and Gertrude Morel’s marriage. This can be seen by Gertrude Coppard’s initial attraction to Walter’s carefree nature, ‘He came and bowed above her. A warmth radiated through her as if she had drunk wine’ (p. 10) and their eventual hatred and fear of one another, ‘”Why, nobody but a nasty little bitch like you ‘ud ‘ave such a thought.”‘(p. 22).
The breakdown in the relationship, is imperative to the narrative as it identifies Mr Morel as a violent husband, and Mr Mrs Morel as a strong, virtuous victim. This is illustrated when a violent, drunken Mr Morel, locks his pregnant wife outside in the cold. However, more objectively, both parties are bitter and violent to one another, ‘”Ah, wouldn’t I, wouldn’t I have gone long ago, but for those children”‘ (p. 22), however Mrs Morel is instantly made the victim. Keith Sagar makes an interesting point regarding the subjectivity of Sons and Lovers,
The question is whether Lawrence was in sufficient command of
his experience, had come to a sufficient understanding of it, to be
able to present it adequately in a novel. The charge against him is that,
consciously or unconsciously, he distorted the story in order to make
Paul and his mother come out of it better than they should, at the
expense of Miriam and his father (Sagar 1981: 11)
This extreme breakdown is very important to the plot as this creates a hatred for the father and an obsession with the mother, reaching a climax with Paul Morel’s love for his mother and vice versa.
It is debatable to say whether the novel is modernist in the sense of it being a Freudian text, however, this mother and son relationship is very unconventional, thus making it the central issue in the novel. Evidence of this is their inability to succeed in love, ‘”Paul-I’ve never had a husband-not really”‘ (p. 213) and ‘”You know, I don’t care about them, mother,”‘(p. 368). However, Lawrence does emphasise that the bond is a maternal one; this can be seen by their initial connection prior to his birth, ‘After a time, the child too melted with her in the mixing-pot of moonlight’ (p. 24).
The collapse of the marriage is mirrored by Paul’s unsuccessful relationships with Miriam Leivers and Mrs Clara Dawes, mainly because, like his mother, he sees himself to be superior and like his father he is brutal, ‘He hated her [Miriam] bitterly at that moment because he had made her suffer.'(p. 222). Furthermore, in light of the Oedipus Complex, mother and son sometimes behave overly passionate towards one another, ‘The mother and son walked down Station Street, feeling the excitement of lovers having an adventure together’ (p. 92) and ‘He stroked his mother’s hair, and his mouth was on her throat’ (p. 213). Just like lovers they often grew jealous, ‘”I shall sleep in my own bed”‘ (p. 215) and ‘”You weren’t suited for her”‘ (p. 300). This jealousy was taken from personal experience regarding D. H. Lawrence and his mother, thus making the novel more subjective and emotive
She is my first, great love…My mother has been passionately
fond of me, and fiercely jealous. She hated J [essie]-and would
have risen from the grave to prevent me marrying her (Boulton 1979: 195-7)
This jealousy and intense bond between mother and son determines the relationship between Paul and Miriam, just like Mr and Mrs Morel’s relationship determined the relationship of Paul and his mother. Miriam, like Mrs Morel and Paul aspires to escape her life, is not content being working class and thus turns to education and religion to better herself. However, Paul is discouraged to spend time with Miriam, as his mother is afraid that the girl will take her place in Paul’s affections, ‘”I can’t bear it…She’d leave me no room”‘ (p. 213). Thus, Paul subconsciously keeps Miriam at a distance and is weary of her intense love for him.
Through Miriam, Paul is introduced to Clara Dawes, a married suffragette and a caricature of a ‘modern’ woman. Clara’s character is a complete contrast to Miriam, as she appears to be a stronger woman, and a sensual alternative to Miriam. Mrs Morel favours Clara to Miriam as she seems less dependent on Paul and may even admire her as she has lived an independent life as a separated woman, something which Mrs Morel never had the chance to achieve.
However, Mrs Morel again becomes weary of her son’s choice, as she knows that Clara may still have feelings for her husband, Baxter Dawes. However, this inability to approve of her sons’ choices is a recurrent theme throughout the novel, as she similarly did not trust William’s fiancï¿½e, Louisa Lily Denys Western. This is stark evidence that Mrs Morel, will never be content as she is afraid that her sons will not choose an honest, strong woman and is increasingly jealous of her younger counterparts, Miriam and Clara. This repetitive jealously, creates a wave-like structure to the novel, which is similarly used to represented Paul’s moods regarding his love for Miriam.
Lawrence includes the unconventional relationship of Clara and Baxter Dawes in the novel to juxtapose with the failed relationships of Mr and Mrs Morel, and Paul and Miriam. The success of this relationship is interesting as it was very unusual for a woman to leave her husband, to live independently and to have an affair with her husband’s younger friend. However, the novel concludes with their reunion. Lawrence, may have decided that such a relationship should succeed as both people are equals, and are able to finally admit to their love and to their mistakes, ‘”Take me back!”‘ (p. 409).
This theme of equality is illustrated by the successful (although minor) relationships of Annie Morel and Leonard, and Arthur Morel and Beatrice Wyld. The latter relationship is interesting as Arthur Morel is represented as a parallel to his father, as he is reckless, strong and happy being working class. His relationship with Beatrice Wyld is playful and equal. For instance, in a subconscious need to be accepted by ‘Beat’, Arthur, ‘liked to lapse into dialect when he talked to her’ (p. 247) and equally Beatrice ‘would sometimes smoke with him’ (p. 247). This downward convergence in the soldier’s speech is sometimes used by Paul when talking to his male friends and flirting with Clara and Beatrice. This may be evidence of a fear of sounding too socially superior in front of his friends or a form of escapism from his and Miriam’s serious conversations.
The novel is also made up of certain social relationships which help to shape the narrative, into one of conflict, making Sons and Lovers a social tragedy.
Firstly, Mrs Morel is completely isolated from the community in which she lives. This is partly her own fault, as can be seen by her inability to interact with and trust her neighbours, ‘she shrank a little from the first contact with the bottoms women’ (p. 2) She also held the belief that she was superior to them, ‘she enjoyed a kind of aristocracy among the other women of the “between” houses, because her rent was five shillings and sixpence instead of five shillings a week’ (p. 2). This opinion of the coal mining families is absorbed by Paul and William, who are pushed to achieve a higher status. This can also be explained by the isolation and hatred of Mr Morel both in the family and in the novel.
This aspiration to become middle-class is evident among Mrs Morel, William, Paul, Clara and Miriam. William tries to achieve this by working away in London, an engagement to a materialistic ‘lady’ and by taking part in any and every activity. However, Mrs Morel was both aware and jealous of this over exertion when she said, ‘”You are doing too much”‘ (p. 134). William’s death is an ominous prediction of Mrs Morel’s, Paul’s and Miriam’s fate at the end of the novel; arising from their inability to be content with their lives. Furthermore, characters such as Mr Morel, Arthur, Annie and Clara had much happier futures ahead of them at the end of the novel.
Paul behaves very much like his mother when he is in his youth and sees those around him as being inferior, ‘”But wasn’t Mr. Jordan common, mother?”‘ (p. 96). Paul is slightly introverted and uses art and education as a way to better himself and to please his mother, believing that her life will be wasted unless he achieves for her. However as the novel progresses Paul becomes more independent and is able to interact with all people, seeing them as equals. This is evident in his interaction with the factory girls. This can also be seen by his open mindedness regarding women’s rights when bickering with Clara Dawes over a fellow suffragette, Margaret Bonford, ‘”I’m sure she wouldn’t mind darning even my stockings…Just as I wouldn’t mind blackening her boots if she wanted me to”‘ (p. 231).
Clara turns to politics as a form of escapism and she is the feminist element in the novel. However she can also be fragile and self-conscious as she is ashamed of her upbringing, ‘She flushed deeply…it seemed as if she did not like being discovered in her home circumstances’ (p. 259).
Miriam is the most isolated and unfulfilled of all the characters in the Lawrentian world as she is not sexually satisfied, she is distanced in the family unit and only has Paul as a friend. However, this sole relationship is sometimes one-way when Paul agrees with Mrs Radford that, “she’s a bit too much above this world…She’ll never be satisfied till she’s sot wings and can fly over everybody’s head”‘ (p. 261). Miriam’s religious intensity is overwhelming for Paul, and their friendship is never stable nor progressive.
Nevertheless, despite all principal characters not being content with their lives, none are ostentatious. For example, the female characters are always self-conscious when dressed up. Mrs Morel, for instance is always humble and almost embarrassed when she wears a new item of clothing that may have made her look more ladylike, ‘Mrs. Morel had white tips in her bonnet, and some white on her blouse, and was teased by both her sons for fancying herself so grand’, (p. 245) and ‘”Yes; they make me look so fine, I hardly know myself”‘, (p. 372). Mrs Morel and even Clara, are very self-conscious of their appearance, which suggests that they may think of themselves as inferior in some way, not able to express themselves in predominantly male society.
The gap between the working class and Paul, Miriam and Mrs Morel, is further symbolised by Lawrence’s use of long, flowing prose when describing nature. Lawrence uses extensive adjectives to describe the flowers which symbolise their characters. The use of nature in the novel depicts the characters as being moral and true. Mrs Morel, respects nature as a sign of freedom and love, for instance when Mr Morel locks her outside, she turns to her flowers in her loneliness, ‘following it with her eye roused her’ (p. 24).
When she is near death, she is uplifted to see that her flowers have bloomed, ‘”There are my sunflowers!”‘ (p. 378). Many of the Paul and Clara love scenes are set amongst nature; rivers and seas, help to illustrate their passionate love but also exemplifies the repetitive, ‘wave’ effect of Paul’s emotions. Miriam, however, treats nature as she regards Paul. She is overly devoted to such beauty as they are of God’s creation, and her intense love for flowers often agitates Paul.
However, the working class is sometimes referred to in a more sinister way. For example, Mr Morel spends his days in underground darkness, symbolising his rooted, disagreeable nature within the novel.
In conclusion, Lawrence challenges conventional attitudes to social and sexual relationships through the character of Paul Morel. The episodic novel takes the reader on a journey of Paul’s life, which is faced with a divided upbringing and thus leads to divided loyalties towards those he loves. He is unable to have conventional relationships, as these too are divided. He is torn between the smothering love of his mother, the suffocating intellectual and spiritual love of Miriam, and the shallow sensual love of Clara.
The protagonist is finally free from this division with the death of his mother, and his journey into the ‘phosphorescence’ marks the beginning of his new life. This open ending is typical of modernist literature and together with the psychoanalytic element of the novel, and the controversy of Paul’s relationship with his mother; Sons and Lovers is a modernist novel.