464 pages 1999
edition (August 1999)
Sons and Lovers was the first modern portrayal
of a phenomenon that later, thanks to Freud, became easily
recognizable as the Oedipus complex. Never was a son more
indentured to his mother's love and full of hatred for his
father than Paul Morel, D.H. Lawrence's young protagonist.
Never, that is, except perhaps Lawrence himself. In his 1913
novel he grappled with the discordant loves that haunted him
all his life--for his spiritual childhood sweetheart, here
called Miriam, and for his mother, whom he transformed into
Mrs. Morel. It is, by Lawrence's own account, a book aimed
at depicting this woman's grasp: "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."
Of course, Mrs. Morel takes neither of her two elder sons
(the first of whom dies early, which further intensifies her
grip on Paul) as a literal lover, but nonetheless her psychological
snare is immense. She loathes Paul's Miriam from the start,
understanding that the girl's deep love of her son will oust
her: "She's not like an ordinary woman, who can leave me my
share in him. She wants to absorb him." Meanwhile, Paul plays
his part with equal fervor, incapable of committing himself
in either direction: "Why did his mother sit at home and suffer?...
And why did he hate Miriam, and feel so cruel towards her,
at the thought of his mother. If Miriam caused his mother
suffering, then he hated her--and he easily hated her." Soon
thereafter he even confesses to his mother: "I really don't
love her. I talk to her, but I want to come home to you."
The result of all this is that Paul throws Miriam over for
a married suffragette, Clara Dawes, who fulfills the sexual
component of his ascent to manhood but leaves him, as ever,
without a complete relationship to challenge his love for
his mother. As Paul voyages from the working-class mining
world to the spheres of commerce and art (he has fair success
as a painter), he accepts that his own achievements must be
equally his mother's. "There was so much to come out of him.
Life for her was rich with promise. She was to see herself
fulfilled... All his work was hers."
The cycles of Paul's relationships with these three women
are terrifying at times, and Lawrence does nothing to dim
their intensity. Nor does he shirk in his vivid, sensuous
descriptions of the landscape that offers up its blossoms
and beasts and "shimmeriness" to Paul's sensitive spirit.
Sons and Lovers lays fully bare the souls of men and
earth. Few books tell such whole, complicated truths about
the permutations of love as resolutely without resolution.
It's nothing short of searing to be brushed by humanity in
this manner. --Melanie Rehak