This was my first experience of reading Lawrence, and now that I’ve finished, I can happily say I was pleasantly surprised. Initially, I found the chapters to be incredibly long and rather monotonous, but as the story progressed, it became more of a page-turner than I expected. It wasn’t, however, the gripping plot that kept me interested, for there really wasn’t much of a plot at all. It was the characters, and the intensely woven relationships between them, that had me wanting more.
Sons and Lovers is said to be semi-autobiographical; if this is true, then Lawrence certainly had a very interesting relationship with his mother. The novel’s protagonist is Paul Morel, a young man with an intense, passionate love for his mother, and an intense hatred of his father. As I read, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the story of Oedipus, such were the relationships between them.
Initially, I felt some compassion for Paul, sorrow for the power his mother had over him, and pity for the choices he made. However, by the end of the novel, I didn’t like him at all. He seemed spoiled and pathetic, incapable of thinking for himself at the same time as incapable of thinking of anyone but himself. He was selfish and arrogant, unfeeling and rather nasty at times. I think Lawrence made him out to be made this way through his mother’s influence, but I simply didn’t like him.
I feel a bit “meh” about Mrs Morel. A less-than-ideal marriage, the death of a child, living beneath her station…everything points towards a woman unlucky in love and life. Her actions didn’t seem malicious or cruel; I don’t believe she set out to ruin her sons’ potential love lives, but instead she wished for them to be happier in their marriages than she was.
Miriam, Paul’s childhood love, seemed to be the sweet girl-next-door kind of character; meek and supplicating, she came across as being willing to do, and put up with, anything for love. However, by the end of the novel, it was evident that despite her apparent meekness, she was incredibly strong and perceptive. Her ultimate realisation of the truth of her relationship with Paul made me want to give a little sigh of celebration; I was proud of her.
I didn’t like Clara Dawes, Paul’s older lover, initially, but as her relationship with Paul developed, and her character along with it, I found her to be rather endearing and likeable. She was strong in character, but possessed a fragility in stark contrast to this strength, which made her brashness seem like a front. She was quite a different character to Miriam in this regard, and in the end, I liked her best.
As I mentioned above, there wasn’t really much of a plot to Sons and Lovers. However, Lawrence is said to have summarised it in a letter to his editor in late-1912:
- It follows this idea: a woman of character and refinement goes into the lower class, and has no satisfaction in her own life. She has had a passion for her husband, so her children are born of passion, and have heaps of vitality. But as her sons grow up she selects them as lovers — first the eldest, then the second. These sons are urged into life by their reciprocal love of their mother — urged on and on. But when they come to manhood, they can’t love, because their mother is the strongest power in their lives, and holds them. It’s rather like Goethe and his mother and Frau von Stein and Christiana — As soon as the young men come into contact with women, there’s a split. William gives his sex to a fribble, and his mother holds his soul. But the split kills him, because he doesn’t know where he is. The next son gets a woman who fights for his soul — fights his mother. The son loves his mother — all the sons hate and are jealous of the father. The battle goes on between the mother and the girl, with the son as object. The mother gradually proves stronger, because of the ties of blood. The son decides to leave his soul in his mother’s hands, and, like his elder brother go for passion. He gets passion. Then the split begins to tell again. But, almost unconsciously, the mother realizes what is the matter, and begins to die. The son casts off his mistress, attends to his mother dying. He is left in the end naked of everything, with the drift towards death.
I love this summary, and think it explains everything so perfectly without spoiling anything, that I don’t feel the need to expand further. Besides, Lawrence used the word “fribble” (used here to refer to a frivolous, wasteful, materialistic person), which isn’t a word you hear…well…ever, really!
Sons and Lovers gets 4/5 stars for me; it loses half a point for the first few chapters which sent me to sleep, and half a point for the lack of any real plot. Definitely worth a read, and the effort of persevering through the first part to get to the good bits.