2/100: Sons And Lovers by D.H. Lawrence
Having read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, I expected another sexually charged novel but the first erotic scene does not even happen until the second half of the novel, and then you find more sensuality and passion between Paul and his mother, Mrs. Morel, than between Paul and his women, Miriam and then Clara. It is known that Lawrence was very close with this mother and her death left him inconsolable and physically ill for months, so this novel is certainly a tribute to the unique relationship he had with her. Yet, I can clearly see why critics and readers in Victorian England would be put off by this work and by Lawrence’s writings in general.
Paul and his mother are described as being in “ecstasy together” during happy moments like walking through the woods filled with bluebells, and during the times of grief and anguish they console each other like lovers do: there are scenes where Paul strikes his mother’s hair with his mouth on her throat and there are scenes where Mrs. Morel kisses him “a long, fervent kiss”. He calls her ‘little’, ‘my pigeon’, ‘my dove’, darling’, and she is to him “the chief thing”, “the only supreme thing”. Paul shows considerable talent for painting and he tells his mother that he does his best work when she sits there in her rocking-chair next to him. When he breaks up with Miriam, his disappointing “first love”, he comes back to his mother surrendered but content:
“He had come back to his mother. Hers was the strongest tie in his life. When he thought round, Miriam shrank away. There was a vague, unreal feel about her. And nobody else mattered. 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.”
This passage also exposes the crux of the matter. Paul truly can not escape the attraction and magnetism of his mother who is wholesome, real, loving and fully devoted to her children. She is not holding Paul from exploring life. In fact, she gives him all the freedom he wants, even if it makes her suffer at the choices he makes and she is never the first one to say what both already know. She speaks her mind only when he is ready to open up his and have an honest conversation with her and they have plenty of those. Devoid of a chance to fulfill her own dreams and ambitions, she seeks to fulfill herself through her children, Paul especially. She wants him to climb up the social ladder, to marry a lady but above all she wants him to be a happy man. That is her primary wish for her son:
“Then suddenly all her passion of grief over him broke out. “But it does matter!” she cried. “And you OUGHT to be happy, you ought to try to be happy, to live to be happy. How could I bear to think your life wouldn’t be a happy one!”
Now, what man would not want a mother like that? Hamlet wasn’t half as lucky and Odipus was too lucky and was cursed for it.
But as Paul enters romantic and later sexual relationship with women he can’t bear a thought of belonging to another woman fully and completely for this means not belonging to his mother, replacing her with someone else, and that he can not have. “I’ll never marry while I’ve got you — I won’t”, he tells her.
There is another battle Paul is losing and that one is a battle against time. His mother is getting older and more frail and he is not ready for this change: “Why can’t a man have a YOUNG mother? What is she old for?”, he asks her directly. He is angry with her at getting old. Imagine that! At the end of the novel, his mother dies of cancer suffering from excruciating pain for many months and the scenes describing the agony Paul is going though anticipating her death but also wishing for it are some of the strongest and the most heart-wrenching in the novel.
Paul is also shockingly honest. Lawrence was known for extreme and uncompromising honesty himself and I appreciate him passing down this quality to his character. It’s refreshing and it’s attractive. Paul is honest with himself, honest with his mother, and honest in all his relationships. He gives hell to his lovers sometimes but it’s important to him to examine his feelings and to speak the truth. He tells Miriam, who sucks joy out of his life with her absorbent intensive monopolizing sacrificial and melancholic love:
“You don’t want to love — your eternal and abnormal craving is to be loved. You aren’t positive, you’re negative. You absorb, absorb, as if you must fill yourself up with love, because you’ve got a shortage somewhere”.
On another hand, his honesty and the pureness of his feelings are liberating for another woman, Clara, who regains her self-confidence and power through relationship with Paul. His desire for Clara is tender, beautiful, and vulnerable at the same time and this part of the novel just carried me away with its beauty and intensity.
A truly unique quality of Sons And Lovers is its psychological depth. The way Lawrence writes does not leave a single detail, feeling, stir of the soul or sensation in the body unexamined or unexplored but it is the richness and depth of this examination that makes this story so modern, exciting and relevant.
I would imagine that Sons And Lovers would be of special interest to mothers who have adolescent sons as well as to any young people coming of age, men and women alike. I was touched by the story, delighted by its depth and its romance, and drawn by its honesty and melancholic beauty. It’s one of a kind.
Lawrence was 45 when he died alone, unappreciated and misunderstood away from England. He is buried (of all places!) in a small chapel near Taos in New Mexico. If I am ever there, I will want to pay my respects.