Sons and Lovers is seen as an autobiographical work in which Paul the hero represents D. H. Lawrence himself. In writing the novel, Lawrence was probably trying to reflect his experiences as a young man from a particular perspective. However, let us bear in mind that although this novel is regarded as largely autobiographical, we are treating it here as a fictional work of art because there are some distortions which makes fidelity to strict autobiographical facts impossible.
Sons and Lovers is a novel that presents the consequences of unnatural love on both the lover and the loved as exemplified in the relationship between Mrs. Gertrude Morel and Paul and on one hand and between Paul and Miriam on the other. You will discover and appreciate the story and the technique adopted when you read the novel.
Background of the Author
David Herbert Lawrence (1885-1930) was the son of a coal miner. He studied with the help of a scholarship and became a school teacher but later resigned to become a full -time writer. His mother who was also a school teacher had strong influence on his works. Lawrence eloped with and married the wife of a professor in 1912. He was forced to leave England in 1916 during the First World War because of his anti-war views and also because his wife was a German. He spent most of his later years in Italy.
The preoccupations of his writings are mainly sexuality, industrialisation and the working class. His novels include Sons and Lovers (1913), The Rainbow (1915), Women in Love (1921), and The Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). His novel, The Lady Chatterley’s Lover contained “explicit description of sexual acts in explicit language” and was “at the centre of a famous law case in the 1950s” the winning of the case by the publishers marked “an effective end to censorship of arts in Great Britain” (Stephen 2000, 307). D. H. Lawrence dedicated himself to the liberation of the society from its social and moral bondage especially as it concerns sexual liberation.
The novel presents the story of Walter Morel and his family who was frustrated by the system and is ultimately destroyed. Mr. and Mrs. Morel at the onset were attracted to each other but gradually, by the time William their first son is born, Mrs. Morel’s bitterness and disillusionment becomes so much that she begins to despise her husband. Consequently she becomes very lonely, devotes her attention to her sons and shuns her husband. This generates serious conflict between husband and wife which is carried through the novel as it later degenerates into violence and the near-anarchy in the family.
Mrs. Morel deliberately shuts Mr. Morel out of all family affairs and encourages the children to be hostile to him and they oblige by despising their father. Consequently, as he is alienated, his character deteriorates until he becomes brutalised, hot tempered and violent. All these affect the children negatively especially Paul who is very sensitive. Mr. Morel is presented as a man who could have been loving and caring, given a different circumstance. For he takes a cup of tea to his sick wife in bed and sometimes tells his children stories about the mine, or gets them to help him repair kettles or make fuses.
Mrs. Morel chooses her sons as lovers and expects the fulfillment her marriage lacks from them. She is emotionally attached to her sons in a relationship that could be called the Oedipus complex as is seen in the kind of possessiveness with which Mrs. Morel tries to cling to her sons once they grow up, and the hostility she directs towards their girl-friends.
This suggests that her feelings for her boys are much stronger than mere motherly love (Palmers 1996,206-7). As he grows older, William turns his attention from home, resists his mother and has affairs with numerous girls, in spite of his mother’s passionate love and her ill- concealed jealousy of his girl-friends. He becomes successful but vain, snobbish and desirous of social success. Gradually he becomes lost to the family and in the end the fast pace of the new life kills him.
Mrs. Morel now turns fully to her the younger son, Paul, who was conceived at the height of the estrangement between his parents. She is passionately attached to Paul and becomes the dominant force and influence in his life. The second section of the novel presents the conflict between Miriam and Mrs. Morel on one hand and the passionate feeling between Paul and his mother on the other hand. Paul loves his mother above every other person but loves Miriam too so is torn between the two women in his life. Unfortunately, Mrs. Morel’s influence is destructive in Paul’s life.
At a point Paul becomes estranged from both Miriam and Clara and his life shatters and with his mother’s death he becomes empty and helpless. He therefore needs someone to fill the void left by his mother’s death so turns completely to Miriam but Miriam could not fit into the shoe left by his mother. He becomes unstable. However, the author presents an optimistic future for Paul as the novel ends with the presentation of strong determination to live by Paul as clenches his fist and sets his mouth fast and walks towards the light of the city. He is “determined to take the path of life, not of death. He will not follow his mother. So he walks, not towards the darkness, but towards the lights of the city” (Palmer 1996, 219).
The major theme of the novel is love which runs through the novel in various forms. The novelist presents different perspectives of love and its effect on the characters. He believes in love but insists that it should be moderated and directed appropriately. Mrs. Morel’s inappropriate love towards her husband and children contributed to the disaster that enveloped all the members of the family. Miriam’s love is at the extreme as she longs to strangle and smother those she loves. The author also distinguishes between infatuation and true love. Mrs. Morel’s initial attraction to Walter Morel is based on her fascination that he is a highly sensuous man who contrasts with her own intellectuality and puritan upbringing. Unfortunately, this difference in their backgrounds precipitates the catastrophe in the novel because after the marriage, she discovers Walter’s obtuseness so finds it difficult to communicate with him.
In the novel, the theme of industrialisation is also explored. In early part of the novel, the author presents the contrast between the old system of mining and modern methods of mining. The old system did not pollute the environment and in which the welfare of the miners was taken care of. In that system, the countryside remained comparatively beautiful. In contrast the modern mechanised system is shown to be more efficient but leaves the miners and the countryside degraded.
Sons and Lovers is set in the coal-mining village of Bestwood and evokes a very powerful picture and analysis of life of the miners in the early 19th Century industrial England. Lawrence, as the son of a miner is able to capture a firsthand experience of the working-class life in a mining community and the result is a moving, realistic and powerful story. He presents the strengths and weaknesses of this society without idealisation and sentimentality. We see the fellowship, solidarity, and the general concern for the old, the poor and the sick among these people and the way they empathise with bereaved members of the community. The novelist also presents the poverty of people who have been exploited and degraded by an inhuman and unsympathetic industrial system that has forced them to live in squalor.
Unlike other major novelists, Lawrence does not contribute much towards the development of form in the novel because he is more interested in direct rendering of experience as it is actually lived than in a conscious aesthetic planning of the work. Consequently in Sons and Lovers there are no intricate plot and structure, no conscious effort to create suspense but he divides the novel into two halves, the first is a straightforward naturalistic presentation of working-class life in industrial England culminating in the death of the Morels’ first son, William. The second part is also another straightforward presentation of Paul Morel’s life, fortunes and pitfalls. However, the novelist is able to probe the psychological motivations of people’s actions.