D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers was far easier to read than his later work Women in Love, although little of any consequence happens to the morose protagonist, the original mama’s boy of western literature, the human fungus Paul Morel. The book appears at #9 on the Modern Library 100 and is on the (unranked) Bloomsbury 100; it made the honorable mention list of 100 in the original Novel 100 and moved up to #62 when Daniel Burt revised the list in 2010.
Paul Morel stands in for Lawrence in this semi-autobiographical work, mirroring Lawrence’s peculiarly close relationship with his own mother and its effect on his attempted affairs with two women. The fictional Morel is the third child and second son of a working-class couple whose marriage has deteriorated through the father’s drinking and the mother’s domineering personality, a conflict that causes Paul and his older brother William to lose respect for their father entirely as they age. Paul forges an unusual bond with his mother that hinders him in two relationships in his late teens and early twenties, one with the innocent, smothering Miriam, the other with the more independent yet conflicted Clara.
Paul himself is a drip – enough that the literary critic Harold Bloom referred to this novel as “a portrait of the artist as a young prig.” Paul is obsessed with some kind of inner spiritual satisfaction independent of religion that he would find in love, but only finds it, for reasons never entirely clear to me, in his relationship with his mother – who does not satisfy his intellectual or artistic pretensions, only reveling in his modest successes, while discouraging his relationship with the sweet but nonintellectual Miriam, viewing her as a rival for her son’s affections. That affair sours when Paul discovers the more wordly Clara, separated from her husband under circumstances that Lawrence deliberately obscures from the reader until later, and with whom Paul has an affair that revolves more around sex than love (cast as “passion” within the book), an affair that withers later when Paul’s mother begins to die of cancer and when Paul meets Clara’s husband, a dim-witted brute severely damaged by his wife’s abandonment.
Even though Lawrence modeled Paul after himself, the emotional center of the novel isn’t Paul but Paul’s mother, who married beneath herself, grew miserable with her choices, and chose to focus her energies on her sons, first William and then Paul, living vicariously through them and manipulating them emotionally to try to influence their choices. She fails with William, and when that bond is beyond recovery, she turns to Paul, molding him as she sees fit, directing him in the workplace and in romance to the point where he cannot form a sound adult relationship with another woman while she still lives. There is no hint of untoward behavior, but the “Lovers” of the book’s title are clearly William and Paul, the surrogate loves of their mother’s otherwise unhappy life.
The saving grace of Sons and Lovers is the sheer intensity of Lawrence’s descriptions of emotions, both within Paul’s head and through his dialogue with his mother, Miriam, and Clara. It’s difficult to make passages that revolve around thought and feeling into compelling reading, yet Lawrence’s prose here never flagged – his familiarity with poetry is evident, as is his deep connection to the material. Paul’s a nebbish, more antihero than here – after he breaks with Miriam, you’re like, dude, cut the damn cord already – but Lawrence can invest the reader in Paul’s story despite that emotional immaturity.
Next up: I just finished Dan Koeppel’s superb non-fiction book Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World.