Sons and Lovers

D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930)

D.H. Lawrence’s patently autobiographical Sons and Lovers (“S&L”) is the book that put the author on the map. His Lady Chatterley’s Lover (“LCL”) isn’t far behind, with the lesser known, Women in Love (“WIL”), ranking third, although WIL was the author’s favorite. S&L, which the author re-wrote four times, offers one of the most powerful evocations of family life in American literature. He vividly describes life in a coal mining family that is dominated by a matriarchal mother. His lead character, Paul Morel, and Lawrence are one and the same, providing a painfully believable character. Like WIL and LCL, S&L peels many layers off the then mores and was a cultural shocker for its times, especially to those who weren’t concurrently reading Freud and Jung.

As in WIL, Lawrence portrays women as inhibited and self-sacrificing in sexual matters, but as confrontational, manipulative and domineering in general, and, here, he concentrates on what Freud was making known as “the universal Oedipus complex” – i.e., the son’s sexual attraction to his mother (based on Greek mythology wherein Oedipus abandoned his father and married his mother). While there is no evidence that Lawrence read Freud, or vice versa, it seems likely that they did, as they agreed on Freud’s central (and controversial) theme: sex drives human conduct, and there can no doubt that sex obsessed Lawrence – almost as much as did his mother. Freud’s “Psychology of Love” asserts that where men love they do not desire and, where they desire, they do not love – perhaps explaining male-philandering, at least in some cases – although there is ample evidence to refute a dichotomy between desire and love.

The core theme presents a refined woman who marries into the lower class and has an unhappy life. While she has passion for her husband, and her children are born of that passion, she later selects two of her sons as lovers. The sons become jealous of their father and grow to loathe him, nor can they love other women, as their mother is the strongest figure in their lives. Their mother becomes their obsession. (His fascination with the name “Gretchen” is in evidence, as he used it for his mother in S&L as he did for his lead heroine in WIL. However grating the name, it was the name that Shakespeare used for Hamlet’s mother and that Goethe used as a lead character in Faust.) Paul Morel, a budding artist, then falls in love with a young woman who almost breaks Paul’s mother’s hold on him, but his mother’s grasp proves too strong. (Paul and his sister toy with the idea of killing their mother.) In the end, Paul casts off his mistress to attend to his dying mother and is left naked, stripped of everything, as his mother drifts toward death. Unresolved conflicts prevail with Lawrence, as they did with Shakespeare, Goethe, Dreiser and many others.

“Never trust the teller; trust the tale,” is one of Lawrence most quoted remarks. How’s that? Characters in literature, like puppets on a ventriloquist’s knee, do what their creators dictate and thus may lay bare the innermost feelings of their creators, but is S&L great literature? For its time, it was surely fascinating, and it contributed to a relaxation of attitudes toward sex, as did all of Lawrence’s works, and it revealed Lawrence’s tortured mind and unhappy life, but is it great prose? Not to this reader. To compound the oppressive themes, his prose is burdened by countless unexplained phrases, a pedantic affinity for foreign phrases, sometimes debilitating grammar, a paucity of beautiful imagery, an overuse of some words in close proximity, and pointlessly disruptive and awkward phrasing. Sexual maladjustments can grow boring, especially today when they are so de rigueur. Dickens, Tolstoy, Poe, O’Henry, Dreiser, Mitchell and many others have simply spoiled us. Lawrence’s day is past.