Sons & Lovers.
A Short Summary.
The first part of the novel
focuses on Mrs. Morel and her unhappy marriage to a drinking miner. She has
many arguments with her husband, some of which have painful results: on
separate occasions, she is locked out of the house and hit on the head with a
drawer. Estranged from her husband, Mrs. Morel takes comfort in her four
children, especially her sons. Her oldest son, William, is her favorite, and
she is very upset when he takes a job in London and moves away from the family.
When William sickens and dies a few years later, she is crushed, not even
noticing the rest of her children until she almost loses Paul, her second son,
as well. From that point on, Paul becomes the focus of her life, and the two
seem to live for each other.
Paul falls in love with Miriam Leivers, who lives
on a farm not too far from the Morel family. They carry on a very intimate, but
purely platonic, relationship for many years. Mrs. Morel does not approve of
Miriam, and this may be the main reason that Paul does not marry her. He
constantly wavers in his feelings toward her.
Paul meets Clara Dawes, a suffragette who is
separated from her husband, through Miriam. As he becomes closer with Clara and
they begin to discuss his relationship with Miriam, she tells him that he
should consider consummating their love and he returns to Miriam to see how she
Paul and Miriam reconcile and are briefly happy,
but shortly afterward, Paul decides that he does not want to marry Miriam, and
so he breaks off with her. She still feels that his soul belongs to her, and,
in part agrees reluctantly. He realizes that he loves his mother most, however.
After breaking off his relationship with Miriam,
Paul begins to spend more time with Clara and they begin an extremely
passionate affair. However, she does not want to divorce her husband Baxter,
and so they can never be married. Paul’s mother falls ill and he devotes much
of his time to caring for her. When she finally dies, he is broken-hearted and,
after a final plea from Miriam, goes off alone at the end of the novel.1
First published in 1913, Sons and Lovers is regarded as D. H.
Lawrence’s first major novel. The novel has always been considered
controversial and has been banned many times in America and in Europe. This is
due to Lawrence’s frank treatment of human sexuality and sexual themes.
Most of what people have
objected to is Lawrence’s depiction of sex. Today, this matters less, but
considering the era in which he wrote, his portrayal is quite visionary.
Besides the vivid depictions of sex and sexuality in Sons and Lovers, Lawrence relied heavily on sexual symbolism. Much
of his symbolism was Freudian-based, as Lawrence was fascinated by the Austrian
psychiatrist and the then-emerging study of psychiatry.
However, this sexuality is not
the focus of the work. Sons and Lovers
primarily deals with two main themes. First is the conflict between the main
character, Paul Morel, and his mother, Gertrude Morel. This relationship is as
beautiful as it is destructive. The nature of their special relationship has
been noted as being “Oedipal.”
The other theme is attraction
and repulsion in love, explored through Paul Morel and his two lovers, Clara
and Miriam, who are quite opposites. Clara is a feminist who is married, and
Miriam is a sort of shy country girl.
The novel begins with Gertrude
Morel and her husband Walter, an unhappy marriage that provides so much
conflict in the life of their son Paul. Because of this relationship, Gertrude
spends more and more of her time doting on the children, Paul, William, Annie
and Arthur. However, she has the most intimate relationship with her middle
son, Paul. This relationship is a focal point for much of the work. As the
story progresses Paul grows from infancy to adulthood. During this time, Paul
discovers women. This leads to much and continuous conflict between these women
(Clara and Miriam) and Paul’s mother, who feels she is on conflict with them
for Paul’s affection. This conflict is the most basic, underlying idea in the
The conflict has many adverse
effects on Paul’s ability to form long lasting relationships with members of
the opposite sex. The conflict finally ends with the death of Gertrude. Her
death is arguably a necessary end to Paul’s continued lack of long lasting
The Morel family as a whole can
be seen as one full of distraught and a family that has been mismanaged.
Most of the family’s struggle is
rooted in the love/hate relationship between Walter and Gertrude Morel.
Gertrude “always felt a mixture of love and anguish for Walter”
(Lawrence 66). One of the largest problems with their whole marriage is that
they are quite opposite individuals. Walter was brought up with little
education or religion and is happy with the conditions of their poverty.
Gertrude, on the other hand, was brought up as a well educated, puritanical
woman with a natural penchant for bettering herself and a vehement hatred for
her socio-economic position.
How could it be that these two
opposites attract each other thus? Perhaps this attraction is rooted in the
presence of dual selves within the pair. For example, Gertrude is a Puritan by
nature, but a truly sensual being by demeanor. This should mesh quite nicely
with Walter’s boorish appearance and more gentle heart (54). Despite his
outward appearance, Morel does truly have a gentle nature. If he did not really
have a conscience, he would have left Gertrude out in the cold to freeze after
he locked her out. Instead, he opened the latch and let her in. He is so
ashamed by his behavior that he ran quickly to bed in order to avoid his wife.
In truth, the conflict is caused
by economic problems. Gertrude was devastated by her inability to improve her
station in life. She cannot do so with Walter as the family’s breadwinner. She
sees his failings as a provider as a total lack of manhood in his character.
The only time that she or anyone else in the family sees a hint of redemption
was when Walter would sing or was “tinkering away in the garden…happy in
his man’s fashion” (Lawrence 20).
Gertrude is mostly responsible
for her children’s problems. At an early age, she teaches them all to repudiate
their father’s poor education and his pit crew manners. This instills the
children with a “crippling interdependence” that will lead to great
problems within the family (Scott 43).
Gertrude drives William to his
deathbed. She causes him to strive so hard to better himself that he works
himself to death for the attainment of his goals. Gertrude pushes her sons to
the limit by trying to achieve the success that she pines away for by acting
vicariously through them (Scott 43).
This vicarious living presents
itself most strongly in Paul. It is manifested in an almost Oedipal
relationship between the two. Paul and his mother connect on a very deep level.
So deep, in fact, that Gertrude’s greatest torture upon her death bed is
realizing that she is dying just as Paul may finally be achieving success in
the artistic community. She had begun to lose hope with Paul during his content
years as a lowly clerk. But, with his acceptance in a respectable profession,
he has thrown off the shackles of poverty (Scott 43).
One of the most profound effects
of the family’s internal struggle is manifested in Walter’s thirst for beer. His
ostracization from the family unit causes him to seek out the community
provided by pubs in order to belong. The rest of the family does not see this
as the reason for his drinking, instead blaming the problem on his
irresponsibility (Scott 43).
Thus, the Morel family is caught
in a tempest of conflict. The struggles between Gertrude and Walter are passed
on into the children, causing them to resent their father and get dangerously
close to their mother. In short, internal struggles, rather than external ones,
cause the family’s dysfunction.3
Power struggles are highlighted
as well throughout the novel. Paul Morels imprisoning relationship with his
mother cripples all his other relationships. Early on it is evident that Mrs.
Morel substitutes attachment fir her sons for the broken connection with her
husband, and what results is her certain domination over Paul in particular.
What begins as a warm, wholesome attachment between mother and child later
becomes shaded with incestuous overtones and ends as the controlling force in
When Paul is born, his mother
has already turned away from physical responsiveness to her husband, and indeed
to everything, except for her love of flowers and the flowers of her womb, her
children. The movement of the mother away from normal relationships lies
heavily on Paul, and caught, as it is in the life cycle of blooming and dying
vegetation, seems doomed toward death. The result for Paul seems to be the
inability to respond to the women in his life both sexually and
With Miriam, his first love,
Pauls primary contact is spiritual and cerebral, and the once mutual
attraction crumbles into bitterness, hurt and rejection, because neither can
respond to their physical life force or integrate it into their attempted communion
of souls. Part of the difficulty in this relationship, Lawrence seems to be
implying, is that Miriams attraction to Paul is attracted, that she rejects
the spontaneous physical response available to them and prefers the higher
level of affection and spiritual communion and intellectual interchange. This
obstruction seems a consequence of her sex, class and environment resulting in
a kind of liberalization of womankind through education, a theme that Lawrence
continues to treat in later novels.
When Paul, physically aroused,
finds no natural response in the girl who seems to love him, he is confused,
helpless, and becomes even cruel. Unable to assert himself, or even to accept
as natural his unquenched longings he is unable to continue in the
mental/spiritual relationship with the girlbecause his mother alone already
owns his soul. The relationship is ruptured, Pauls personality suffers a kind
of tearing or splitting, another favorite image in Lawrence, and in his next
relationship Paul realizes at some unconscious level he must leave his soul
somewhat free for his mother and participate on a kind of detached physical
Thus, in his relationship with
Clara, it is the primarily bodily maleness of Paul bonding with the primarily
bodily femaleness. Obviously, the danger is to oversimplify the Paul/Miriam and
Paul/Clara relationships. It is true that the contact with Clara puts Paul at
least temporarily into richer contact with his own body, his phallic
consciousness, as Lawrence would say, whereas in his sterile relationships with
his mother and Miriam Paul has had to forego this fuller consciousness. Now he
experiences what he believes is a kind of paradisiacal kind of love and
fulfillment. After lovemaking he refers to coming out of some dark current of
unconsciousness to be carried by life in love.
Yet, a novice, Paul fears the
powers Clara has over him and finally lets their relationship wither as the
demands of a sick and dying mother call him home. At this time in his life,
when Paul seems most aware of his mothers hold on him, when he himself is
apparently sucked into the drift toward death at her side, he is drawn into
another relationship perhaps as fruitless and death signifying, the one with
Is this relationship with Dawes
Pauls initiation in homosexual love? It seems so only in the most general
sense. True, Paul fights bodily with Dawes, often a metaphor for homosexual
bonding: an accepted kind of surrogate sexual experience between men. The bloody
and almost unconscious participation in the fight does seem to initiate him
into a more vital awareness of his own physical presence. After Paul
recuperates from this violent loss of a virginity of sorts, a kind of courtship
with Dawes begins, with Paul visiting the ailing man, bringing gifts, even
showing affection and setting him up in new lodgings and a job.
The Paul/Dawes relationship can
be seen as possibly one in which Paul Morel reencounters the father of his
life, and thus his own masculinity through the presence of a virile, less
spiritual person in whom the dark consciousness reigns. This analogy seems
plausible considering Pauls efforts at reconciling Dawes and his wife, a kind
of substitution for reconciling his own mother and father.
But this aspect of the
relationship, Paul as reconciler, becoming almost passive and non-participant
in the ensuing relationship seems one more way Lawrence symbolizes a true
coming together of persons, as if only through Paul can the broken relationship
come again to be melded together.
In any case, all the
relationships in Sons and Lovers seem to involve power struggles: Mrs. Morel
wrenches power from her husband by turning from his sexual presence and then
dominating, even emasculating her sons; she controls Pauls devotion through
the imposition of her values and aspirations and thus weights down that
Miriam, apparently passive and
devoted to Paul, is in effect constantly trying to assert her will over his. To
possess him, he fears, and that love disintegrates. Clara accuses Paul of
controlling how much of himself he will give to her or takes back of her in
return, complaining that he cannot or wont come out to her. Moreover, Paul
controls their relationship time wise, dissolving it when it seems superfluous
He also initiates the
relationship with Dawes, except for the older mans early attempts to engage
him in combat, thus drawing him out of passivity and finally only allowing him
to reassert his rights with Clara under his (Pauls) domination. 4
Although the themes in Sons and Lovers are varying and complex, this work by D.H.Lawrence
is characterized by his presentation and treatment of human sexuality. While he
wrote about and described physical love, he also dealt with human sexuality in
more subtle ways. Primarily, he used symbolism to deal with the sexual themes
that were behind his novels. Many of his symbols are based on the work of
Austrian psychiatrist, Sigmund Freud. Lawrence’s use of Freudian psychology was
largely due to his meeting of Freud during the writing of Sons and Lovers (Clark 46).
Lawrence’s symbolism is also
interesting because much of it is not quite as obvious as one might assume.
Many of the symbols used in Sons and
Lovers are phallic in nature, and are centered on the novel’s main idea
that the phallus has much power over the relationships of men and women.
An example of this core thought
lies in the following passage:
The great horse breathed
heavily, shifting round its red flanks, and looking suspiciously with its
wonderful big eyes upwards from under its lowered head and falling
The horse represents the natural
and unforced power that will cause a rift in Paul and Clara’s relationship, a
rift that will lead Paul to Miriam. The horse is a classic Freudian phallic
symbol. Thus, Lawrence’s core idea is alluded to. The horse’s unbridled vigour
represents a rift the influence the phallus will have on Paul and Clara and
Another phallic symbol used by
Lawrence is the hen. In one part of Sons
and Lovers, Miriam is afraid of letting a hen peck seed out of her hand.
Later, when she overcomes this fear, Paul comes upon Miriam warily feeding the
hen and provides comfort during Miriam’s ordeal. Paul provides such phrases as
“It wont hurt you” (Lawrence 172) and other supportive phrases that
bring to mind the physical act of love. The hen is representative of the
phallic power once again acting upon the man and woman. In this case, a force
draws the two together.
Besides the kind of sexual
symbolism that has many levels of meaning and importance, is a kind that is
superficial. Lawrence is, perhaps, best known for his use of more blatant
symbolism (Van Ghent 22). This use of sexual symbolism is obvious and not intended
to convey any deep and insightful meanings. This use of symbolism exits
primarily to provide mood. In the sequence in which Clara and Paul first
consummate their relationship, Clara’s red carnations drop their petals all
over her clothes and on the ground. The representation is obvious: the end of
her virginity. Lawrence was very fond of blatant symbolism such as this.
Sons and Lovers was Lawrence’s first great novel, and many of the
devices he used in its writing became trends in his later works. 5
1. Sons and Lovers, an overall summary, http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/sonsandlovers/summary
2. Sons and Lovers
The Morels, A Case Study in Dysfunction, http://www.shs.springfield.k12.il.us
Eleanor Sullo, D. H Lawrence and the relationships in ‘Sons
and Lovers’, http://www.essortment.com/in/Literature.Books/index.htm
5. Symbolism in Sons
and Lovers, http://www.shs.springfield.k12.il.us