Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence

Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence
Table of Contents
1. Sons and Lovers: Introduction
2. Sons and Lovers: D. H. Lawrence Biography
3. Sons and Lovers: Summary
4. Sons and Lovers: Characters

5. Sons and Lovers: Themes
6. Sons and Lovers: Style
7. Sons and Lovers: Historical Context
8. Sons and Lovers: Critical Overview
Sons and Lovers: Essays and Criticism
¨ Lawrence's novel as a Bildungsroman
¨ What Makes Sons and Lovers a Successful Novel
¨ The Literary Aspects of Sons and Lovers
10. Sons and Lovers: Compare and Contrast
11. Sons and Lovers: Topics for Further Study
12. Sons and Lovers: Media Adaptations
13. Sons and Lovers: What Do I Read Next?
14. Sons and Lovers: Bibliography and Further Reading
15. Sons and Lovers: Pictures
16. Copyright
Sons and Lovers: Introduction
Initially titled “Paul Morel,” Sons and Lovers, published in 1913, is D. H. Lawrence’s third novel. It was his
first successful novel and arguably his most popular. Many of the details of the novel’s plot are based on
Lawrence’s own life and, unlike his subsequent novels, this one is relatively straightforward in its
descriptions and action. The story recounts the coming of age of Paul Morel, the second son of Gertrude
Morel and her hard-drinking, workingclass husband, Walter Morel, who made his living as a miner. As Mrs.
Morel tries to find meaning in her life and emotional fulfillment through her bond with Paul, Paul seeks to
break free of his mother through developing relationships with other women. The novel was controversial
when it was published because of its frank way of addressing sex and its obvious oedipal overtones. The novel
was also heavily censored. Edward Garnett, a reader for Duckworth, Lawrence’s publisher, cut about 10
percent of the material from Lawrence’s draft. Garnett tightened the focus on Paul by deleting passages about
Sons and Lovers 1
his brother, William, and toning down the sexual content. In 1994, Cambridge University Press published a
new edition with all of the cuts restored, including Lawrence’s idiosyncratic punctuation.
Sons and Lovers is also significant for the portrait it provides of working-class life in Nottinghamshire,
England. Lawrence’s disgust with industrialization shows in his descriptions of the mining pits that dot the
countryside and the hardships and humiliation that working families had to endure to survive.
Sons and Lovers: D. H. Lawrence Biography
David Herbert Richard (D. H.) Lawrence was born in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, England, on September 11,
1885, the son of coal miner Arthur Lawrence and schoolteacher Lydia Beardsall. A novelist, critic, and poet
known for writing about the conflicts between men and women, Lawrence derived much of his material from
his childhood, which was fraught with tension. His mother resented his father’s hard drinking and lack of
ambition, and the two bickered and quarreled regularly. Lydia Beardsall eventually succeeded in turning her
five children against their father, and she developed an especially close bond with David, after having nursed
him back to life from a bout of double pneumonia during childhood. When she died in 1910, Lawrence’s
illness returned and almost killed him. After recovering, he quit his teaching post at the Davidson School in
Croydon, terminated his romantic relationships, and flung himself headlong into his writing career,
abandoning his middle-class desires and adopting a bohemian lifestyle. In 1912, he eloped with Frieda von
Richthofen Weekley, the wife of a professor at the University of Nottingham, who left her husband and three
small children to be with Lawrence.
A prolific writer, Lawrence published four novels, a play, a collection of poems, and a collection of stories
before he turned thirty. His first real success came with the publication of his third novel, Sons and Lovers
(1913), a fictionalized autobiography of his relationships with his mother and Jessie Chambers, a love interest
from his youth, and a social portrait of provincial life in Nottinghamshire. The novel describes Paul Morel’s
fixation on his mother, and how that fixation informs his other relationships. Much of Lawrence’s writing
addresses the intersections between sexual desire and class identity and the consequences of denying the
wants of one’s animal self. Subsequent novels and criticism cemented his reputation as an enemy of
bourgeois morality. Some of his betterknown works include The Rainbow (1915); Women in Love (1920);
Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious (1921); Fantasia of the Unconscious (1922); Studies in Classic
American Literature (1923); St. Mawr (1925); and The Plumed Serpent (1926). Lawrence’s most
controversial novel, Lady Chatterly’s Lover (1928), was accused of being pornographic, and its publishers
were taken to court.
Lawrence’s restless, peripatetic existence—he and Freida traveled constantly—came to an end on March 2,
1930, at Vence, in the south of France, when he finally succumbed to tuberculosis, which had plagued him for
most of his life.
Sons and Lovers: Summary
Chapter 1: The Early Married Life of the Morels
The first chapter of Sons and Lovers introduces the Morel family and describes the story’s setting, a
neighborhood called “The Bottoms,” where the miners live. Mrs. Morel is pregnant with her third child,
which she does not want because she has fallen out of love with her husband and because the family is poor.
When her husband comes home from working at a bar, the two argue over his drinking.
This chapter also contains a flashback to the time when Mrs. Morel met Walter at a Christmas party. She was
twenty-three, reserved, and thoughtful; he was twenty-seven, good-looking, and outgoing, and very different
from Mrs. Morel’s father. They are married by the following Christmas. Less than a year into their marriage,
Sons and Lovers: Introduction 2
however, Mrs. Morel discovers that Walter is not the man she thought he was. He does not own his house as
he said he did, and he is in considerable debt.
Two key events occur in this chapter. The first is when Walter cuts his son’s hair while his wife is sleeping.
Mrs. Morel views this as a betrayal, and the image of William, her favorite child, standing in front of his
father with shorn locks on the floor, stays with her. The second event occurs when Walter comes home drunk
late one night and fights with his wife. Walter locks his pregnant wife out of the house, letting her in later,
after he has slept off part of his alcohol.
Chapter 2: The Birth of Paul, and Another Battle
With the help of Mrs. Bower, a midwife, Mrs. Morel gives birth to a son. Walter arrives home, immediately
asks Mrs. Bower for a drink, has his dinner, and then goes upstairs to see his wife. The arrival of Paul
increases the tension in the house, as the couple continues to bicker and fight. Walter does not like to be
around his family, and the estrangement between the two adults grows. In one scene, Walter drunkenly pulls
out a drawer and throws it at his wife, hitting her and cutting her above the eye. He is ashamed of his actions,
but tells himself it is her fault. He spends the next few days drinking at a bar. Toward the end of the chapter,
Walter steals money from his wife’s purse, and then denies it when she confronts him. He stalks out of the
house with a bundle of his belongings saying that he is leaving, but he returns home that night.
Chapter 3: The Casting off of Morel— The Taking on of William
In this chapter, Walter falls ill, but his wife nurses him back to health. Mrs. Morel, however, is devoting more
and more of her attention to the children. She tolerates her husband, but does not love him. In the period after
Walter’s illness, the couple conceives another child, Arthur, who is born when Paul is one and a half years
old. Arthur becomes Walter’s favorite child and is like him both physically and temperamentally.
Walter and his wife fight over how to discipline their children and plan for their future. Mrs. Morel vetoes her
husband’s suggestion that William work in the mines; she finds him a job at the Cooperative Wholesale
Society instead. At nineteen, William takes a job in London, much to his devoted mother’s chagrin.
Chapter 4: The Young Life of Paul
This chapter focuses on Paul’s childhood, and all of the events narrated are in relation to his character. Mrs.
Morel and her husband still fight, and Walter drifts further away from the family, even though they have
moved from “The Bottoms” and into a new house. There are also moments when the family bonds, and Mrs.
Morel encourages the children to share the events of the day with their father. But overall, Walter is more
alienated than ever from his wife and children, especially Paul. A significant event occurs when Paul breaks
his sister’s doll and then experiences hatred for the doll. This echoes his father’s own behavior toward his
Chapter 5: Paul Launches into Life
In this chapter, Walter injures his leg, causing anxiety in his family and guilt in Mrs. Morel, who is concerned
for her husband’s health but guilt ridden because she no longer loves him. Paul, now fourteen, hunts for work
and lands a position with Thomas Jordan, a manufacturer of surgical appliances, as a junior clerk. William,
still in London, is now dating, and sends his mother a photograph of his girlfriend, Lily Weston. His mother is
not impressed.
Chapter 6: Death in the Family
In this chapter, Arthur leaves home to attend school in Nottingham, where he lives with his sister, Annie. Paul
visits the Leivers’s farm where he meets Miriam Leivers. The “Death” in the chapter title refers to
William’s death. He dies after a short illness, and his mother is devastated. Paul falls ill with pneumonia, but
his mother nurses him back to health, and the two develop an intense emotional bond.
Sons and Lovers: Summary 3
Chapter 7: Lad-and-Girl Love
Paul develops a close relationship with Miriam, who aspires to transcend her working-class roots through
education. She takes care of Paul when he is sick and falls in love with him. Paul, however, remains
ambivalent about the relationship and struggles to define what he feels toward her. Mrs. Morel does not like
Miriam, because she believes that Miriam is taking Paul away from her.
Chapter 8: Strife in Love
The key events in this chapter include Arthur’s enlistment in the army and events illustrating Paul’s struggle
to define his feelings for Miriam while at the same time remaining emotionally faithful to his mother. Paul
also sees Clara Dawes, whom he tells Miriam he likes.
Chapter 9: Defeat of Miriam
This chapter details Paul’s recognition that he loves his mother more than Miriam and would never marry and
leave her. Compounding his love for his mother is his awareness that she is old now and not well. He breaks
off his relationship with Miriam, who remains angry with him for being so influenced by his mother.
However, Paul continues to visit the Leivers’s farm, where he later meets Clara again, but he tells Edgar,
Miriam’s brother, that he does not like Clara because she is so abrasive. He is both attracted to and repelled
by Clara’s dislike of men.
Annie marries Leonard, even though neither of them have much money, and Mrs. Morel buys Arthur out of
the army. Arthur returns home and promptly marries Beatrice Wyld.
Chapter 10: Clara
One of Paul’s paintings is sold for twenty guineas to Major Moreton. Paul discusses his success with his
mother, who expresses her desire that he settle down with a woman and make a better life for himself. Paul
visits Clara and meets her mother. He revises his opinion of Clara and secures a job for her. The two grow
closer, and Clara discusses her failed marriage with him.
Chapter 11: The Test on Miriam
Paul returns to Miriam, convinced that the “problem” between them stems from the lack of sexuality in their
relationship. He tells her that he loves her, and the two sleep together. However, the relationship deteriorates
when Miriam tells him that she feels they are too young to marry. Once again, Paul breaks off the relationship,
and the two become bitter toward each other.
Chapter 12: Passion
Paul spends more time with Clara, telling her that he has split up with Miriam. The two are extremely
passionate with each other, and Paul invites her to meet his mother. Paul later invites Clara and her mother on
a trip to the seaside.
Chapter 13: Baxter Dawes
In this chapter, Paul encounters Clara’s husband, Baxter Dawes, numerous times, and the two fight once,
with Dawes injuring Paul. Paul remains torn between his love for his mother and his desire to bond with other
women. He realizes that he will not be able to marry while his mother is still alive. At the end of the chapter,
Paul discovers that his mother is ill with a tumor.
Chapter 14: The Release
In this chapter, Gertrude Morel dies, after Paul—who cannot bear to see her suffer—and his sister give her an
overdose of morphine in her milk. Paul befriends Baxter Dawes, who is ill with fever, and eventually
facilitates his reconciliation with Clara.
Sons and Lovers: Summary 4
Chapter 15: Derelict
Paul is despondent after his mother’s death and contemplates suicide. Miriam meets him for dinner and
proposes that they marry, but Paul turns her down. Clara returns to Sheffield with her husband, so she is also
now out of Paul’s life. Walter Morel sells the house, and he and Paul take rooms in town. The novel ends
with Paul’s recognition that he will always love his mother, and he decides to stay alive for her sake.
Sons and Lovers: Characters
Baxter Dawes
Baxter Dawes is thirty-two years old and a big handsome man. He is Clara Dawes’s estranged husband. He is
a smith at the same factory as Paul, with whom he fights when Paul begins to spend time with Clara. Dawes is
moody, argumentative, and defiant and is fired from his job after fighting with his boss, Thomas Jordan.
Later, Dawes falls ill with typhoid fever. Paul visits Dawes in the convalescence home, and the two become
friends. Later, Paul tells Dawes that Clara has always loved him, and he helps Baxter and Clara reconcile.
Clara Dawes
Clara Dawes, the estranged wife of Baxter Dawes, is a childless, full-figured, blonde-haired, and sensuous
woman, and a friend of Miriam Leivers. She is proud and haughty, a supporter of women’s rights, and is
attracted to Paul’s animality. Clara and Paul have a passionate love affair, but she eventually returns to her
husband, nursing him back to health after he falls sick with typhoid fever. Although she was deeply attracted
to Paul, she never felt truly connected to him.
Mr. Heaton
Mr. Heaton is the Congregational clergyman who visits with Gertrude Morel after Paul is born. He is Paul’s
godfather and tutor.
Thomas Jordan
Thomas Jordan owns the factory where Paul and Clara and Baxter Dawes work. A strong-willed capitalist, he
fires Baxter Dawes after fighting with him. He eventually takes Paul under his wing and introduces him to
middle-class social life.
Miriam Leivers
The daughter of the family at Willey Farm, Miriam meets Paul when she is sixteen. She is serious,
self-conscious, somewhat spiritual, and does not like sex, though she sleeps with Paul, hoping that it will
make him love her. Miriam is like Paul’s mother in that both of them are morally prudish and strong-willed.
Even though Paul makes it clear he will not marry her, Miriam believes that their souls will always be
Annie Morel
A bit of a tomboy, Annie is Paul’s older sister, and the two spend much time together in childhood. She
becomes a junior teacher at the Board School in Nottingham, and marries her childhood friend, Leonard.
When their mother lies dying, she helps Paul give her an overdose of morphine.
Arthur Morel
Arthur is Paul’s younger brother and the favorite of Walter Morel, whom he resembles both physically and
temperamentally. He joins the army but hates it. After his mother buys him out of the army, he returns home
and marries Beatrice.
Gertrude Morel
Gertrude Coppard Morel is the first protagonist of Lawrence’s novel. Refined, intellectual, and deeply moral,
Sons and Lovers: Characters 5
she comes from a family of professionals. Her father was an engineer and her family long-time
Congregationalists. She marries Walter Morel when she is twenty-three years old, attracted to his swarthy
good looks, humility, and animated personality. After the birth of her first child, she falls out of love with her
husband and begins to actively despise him, looking for fulfillment in her relationships with her children,
particularly her sons, William and Paul. The intensity of her emotional bond with these two makes it difficult
for them to develop romantic relationships. She dislikes William’s girlfriend, Lily Weston, and is jealous of
Paul’s friend, Miriam Leivers. After William dies, she pins her hopes for the future on Paul. She wants him to
be successful and to escape a working-class miner’s life. Though she is deathly ill, she hangs onto life,
because she cannot bear to part from her son. Paul eventually helps her die by giving her an overdose of
Paul Morel
Paul Morel is the protagonist in the second half of the novel. Although his mother regrets being pregnant with
him because she does not believe the family can afford another child, she grows to love and protect him after
he is born. Paul is frail, sensitive, and artistic and develops a very close bond with his mother, hating to
disappoint her. The women he courts, Miriam and Clara, can never replace the bond he feels with his mother,
and when she dies, Paul feels their souls will be forever bonded. Paul’s search for identity is tied up in his
capacity to separate himself from his mother, and to understand the extent with which he is shaped by his
family and community life.
Walter Morel
Walter Morel is Gertrude’s husband and a coal miner. He is rugged, handsome, sensuous, and very practical,
deriving much of his joy in life from working and being with his fellow miners. Although he pledges not to
drink, he begins to after the birth of their first child. The Morels quarrel regularly, often over Walter’s
drinking. Gertrude grows to loathe not only Walter’s drinking but his crude and unsophisticated behavior as
well, and she enlists her children in hating their father. After his wife dies, he becomes a broken man, full of
regret and fear.
William Morel
William Morel is the first son, and Gertrude Morel’s favorite child. He is smart, beautiful, and popular with
other children. When he turns 13, his father suggests that he work in the mines, but his mother finds an office
job for him. Later, he moves to London, where he finds a good job with a good salary. Like Paul, he cannot
develop a satisfying relationship with a woman because he is so close to his mother. He dates and then breaks
up with Lily Weston, a pretentious and helpless woman. When William dies, in his early twenties, his mother
becomes withdrawn and reclusive.
Jerry Purdy
Jerry Purdy is Walter Morel’s best friend and drinking buddy and is very much disliked by Mrs. Morel.
Mrs. Radford
Mrs. Radford is Clara Dawes’s mother. She is refined and stately-looking, yet pushy. She convinces Paul to
find a job for Clara at Jordan’s.
Louisa Lily Denys Weston
Lily is an attractive yet intellectually-limited girl whom William courts in London. She acts helpless and
makes many demands on William, but she behaves as if she were royalty. Williams grows to dislike her, and
she forgets all about him shortly after he dies.
Beatrice Wyld
Beatrice is a flirtatious girl who marries Arthur when he returns from the army.
Sons and Lovers: Characters 6
Sons and Lovers: Themes
Free Will
Lawrence addresses the issue of free will in his novel, asking to what extent his characters’ environment
influences their characters’ choices. Lawrence makes this explicit in his descriptions. For example, when
Paul begins to look in the newspapers for work, the narrator writes, “Already he was a prisoner of
industrialism . . . He was being taken into bondage. His freedom in the beloved home valley was going now.”
The modern industrial world, specifically as it manifests itself in the effect mining culture has on the Morel
family, shapes the characters’ desires. Mrs. Morel, who believes she is morally better than the miners, is
disgusted by what mining has made of her husband, and she pushes her children away from that work. She
finds jobs for both Paul and William so that they will lead better lives than their father. The sons have
difficulty making choices of their own. They are so driven to please their mother that they sacrifice their own
pleasure and needs to satisfy hers. Neither can develop emotionally healthy relationships with women, and
both struggle to balance their own wants with those of their mother. Another character who suppresses her
will for the needs of another is Miriam Leivers, who sleeps with Paul to please him, even though she feels
little sexual passion for him.
By explicitly depicting human sexuality in his novel, Lawrence flouted the moral conventions of the genre
and of society, and his notoriety grew. At least one publisher refused Sons and Lovers because of its sexual
content. Lawrence’s theories about human behavior revolved around what he called “blood consciousness,”
which he opposed to “mental and nerve consciousness.” Lawrence contended that “blood consciousness”
was the seat of the will and was passed on through the mother. This is obvious in Paul and William’s bond
with their mother and in Paul’s tenacity and emotional volatility, which his mother also shares.
Lawrence argued that modern society had somehow come to be dominated by mental consciousness and so
was largely unconscious of its own desires. He wrote about his theories of human behavior in Psychoanalysis
and the Unconscious (1921) and Fantasia of the Unconscious (1922), along with his theories about
male-female relationships. His controversial novel, Lady Chatterly’s Lover (1928), was accused of being
obscene and pornographic, and its publishers were taken to court. Lawrence also flouted moral conventions in
his personal life, eloping with Frieda von Richthofen Weekley, the wife of a professor at the University of
Some critics have argued that Paul’s relationship to his mother illustrates Freud’s Oedipus complex and have
characterized both Paul and Lawrence as being sexually tortured and repressed by the degree of their
emotional intimacy with their mother.
Lawrence’s characters illustrate the class contradictions at the heart of modern industrial society. Capitalism
pits classes against one another and even pits individuals of the same class against one another. Lawrence
develops this theme by depicting conflicts among various groups and characters. For example, William
feverishly climbs the social ladder, only to discover that he is more alienated from his family the further up he
climbs. His girlfriend, Lily, a pretentious and snobbish Londoner, holds herself above the working class and
condescends to the Morels, treating them as “clownish” people and hicks. Even Mrs. Morel, a former teacher,
has contempt for the work of her own husband and is disgusted by his miner friends, whom she considers
lowly. The starkest contrast between classes, however, is illustrated in the relationship between Thomas
Jordan, the capitalist factory owner, and his workers, whom he patronizes and quarrels with.
Sons and Lovers: Themes 7
Sons and Lovers: Style
Sons and Lovers is structured episodically. This means that the novel consists of a series of episodes tied
together thematically and by subject matter. Structuring the novel in this manner allows Lawrence to let
meaning accumulate by showing how certain actions and images repeat themselves and become patterns. This
repetition of actions and images is part of the iterative mode. By using this mode, Lawrence can blend time
periods, making it sometimes difficult to know whether an event happened once or many times. Lawrence is
using the iterative mode when he uses words such as “would” and “used to.”
Point of View
Point of view refers to the perspective from which the narrative is told. Sons and Lovers is told mostly from a
third-person omniscient point of view, as the narrator has access to the thoughts of the characters and moves
back and forth in time while telling the story. The first half of the novel focuses on Gertrude Morel and the
second part focuses on Paul. However, although Lawrence strives to create a narrator that is impartial and
presents material in an objective manner, the narrator occasionally makes editorial comments on the action, as
he does in the first part of the novel after Mrs. Morel has been thinking that her life will be one of continued
drudgery. The narrator intrudes, saying, “Sometimes life takes hold of one, carries the body along,
accomplishes one’s history, and yet is not real, but leaves oneself as it were slurred over.” Lawrence
alternates between showing and telling in the novel. When he shows, he simply describes the characters’
action and lets them speak for themselves. When he tells, he summarizes scenes and sometimes comments on
them. The narrator’s presence is most evident in the latter instance.
Sons and Lovers: Historical Context
1885–1910: England
Lawrence’s novel begins in 1885 and ends in 1911, roughly following the outline of Lawrence’s own life.
During that time, British miners battled their capitalist bosses for better pay and safer working conditions.
However, large swings in demand for coal contributed to industry instability, and it was common for miners’
unions to be rewarded a raise one year and presented with a cut in salary the next. As the rate of
industrialization increased, so did the gap between rich and poor. Nowhere was this gap more apparent than in
the difference between how the miners lived and how the owners of the mines lived. Lawrence’s father, on
whom Walter Morel is based, began working in the mines when he was ten years old. A typical week for him
consisted of six twelve-hour days, with only two paid holidays a year. One way out of the danger and poverty
of the mining life was through education. The Education Act of 1870, which attempted to provide elementary
education for all children, gave hope to the parents of many working-class children. The act allowed local
school boards to levy and collect taxes. Elementary schooling, however, was not entirely free until the 1890s,
when “board” schools could stop charging fees. Before that, parents were expected to pay between one and
four pence per week per child. William, Paul, Clara, and Miriam all went to school, which significantly
increased their chances of finding better work.
At this time, there was also a difference between public and private schools. Public schools were more
expensive than private schools, as private schools often received their funding from an endowment or from a
corporation, which ran them or hired a board of governors to do so. Social class was, and remains, intricately
entwined with education. Schools not only provided students with the basic skills to obtain jobs, but they also
offered students the chance to form friendships and alliances with other students and their families. Gaining
admission to the better schools, however, depended on the student’s family’s resources and connections.
As a result of the Education Act, industrialization, and urbanization, more positions in skilled and semiskilled
labor became available during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The number of clerks, for example,
Sons and Lovers: Style 8
quadrupled between 1850 and 1900, with the British government, particularly the Post Office, employing the
bulk of them. Vocational schools gradually replaced apprenticeships, and quasi-professional fields such as
photography, bookkeeping, and librarianship emerged, providing additional choices for those with the desire
or wherewithal to make better lives for themselves. There were more opportunities for men; however, women,
especially unmarried women, found work as typists, secretaries, and telephone operators.
While Lawrence was lambasting industrialization and the loss of humanity’s bond with the land, rural people
were pouring into cities throughout the nineteenth century, seeking a better life. The agricultural depression of
the 1870s further depleted the number of farmers, and by the turn of the century more than 80 percent of
Britain’s population lived in cities. The “faintly humming, glowing town” toward which Paul walks at the
end of the novel is full of telephones and buses, trams, automobiles, and subway trains.
Sons and Lovers: Critical Overview
In general, reviewers praise Sons and Lovers, though when doing so, they just as often point out its
shortcomings. A writer for the The Saturday Review, for example, gives the novel this backhanded
compliment: “The sum of its defects is astonishingly large, but we only note it when they are weighed against
the sum of its own qualities.” A reviewer for the New York Times Book Review has reservations with the
novel’s style, writing in an essay titled “Mother Love,” “It is terse—so terse that at times it produces an
effect as of short, sharp hammer strokes.” However, the same writer calls the book one of “rare excellence.”
Writing almost a decade later in 1924, in her essay “Artist Turned Prophet” for The Dial, Alyse Gregory
asserts that Lawrence is at his very best in Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, and Twilight in Italy. In these
works, Gregory argues, Lawrence’s “febrile and tortured genius flows richly and turbulently. Every passing
stir upon his sensitiveness is passionately or beautifully recorded.”
Predictably, the novel also caught the attention of the psychoanalytic community. In his essay “Sons and
Lovers: A Freudian Appreciation” written for The Psychoanalytic Review, Alfred Booth Kuttner uses Freud’s
psychosexual theory of the oedipal complex to explain the choices Paul Morel makes. This approach, like
many of Freud’s theories themselves, was later widely attacked as being reductive. More recent criticism of
the novel has drawn on the theories of Jacques Lacan, among others. Earl Ingersoll, for example, in his essay,
“Gender and Language in Sons and Lovers,” argues that a Lacanian approach to the novel is more productive
than the Freudian psychoanalytic approach critics such as Kuttner have taken. Exploring the relationship
between language and the characters’ interactions, Ingersoll charts Paul’s maturation as a movement from
“the text of the unconscious associated with the mother to the empowerment of metaphor associated with the
Name-of-the-Father.” Ingersoll links highbrow English with the mother and lowbrow with the father.
Sons and Lovers: Essays and Criticism
Lawrence's novel as a Bildungsroman
Sons and Lovers is an example of a Bildungsroman, an autobiographical novel about the early years of a
character’s life, and that character’s emotional and spiritual development. The term derives from German
novels of education, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, which
details the experiences of an innocent young man who discovers his purpose and passion in life through a
series of adventures and misadventures. Lawrence offers up a rendering of his own first twenty-five years of
life in more or less chronological order, showing how Paul Morel must negotiate the pull of family and culture
to cultivate his individuality.
Sons and Lovers: Historical Context 9
By writing a novel that is predominantly based on people and times from his own life, Lawrence implicitly
invites readers to treat the work as nonfiction. This has often led to confusion, however, as some of the events
in Sons and Lovers have no factual basis in Lawrence’s life but rather are symbolic dramatizations of his key
emotional struggles. The character in the book that has occasioned the most controversy is Miriam Leivers,
whom Lawrence based on Jessie Chambers, a friend from his youth. Chambers encouraged Lawrence to
rewrite the novel after he had sent her a draft. She was disappointed in the revision as well, because she felt it
did not accurately portray their relationship. Chambers attempted to tell the “real” story of her relationship
with Lawrence in her own memoir, D. H. Lawrence: A Personal Record.
The relationship between Paul and Miriam that Lawrence describes fulfills the conventional criteria of the
Bildungsroman, which often includes a detailing of the protagonist’s love affairs. Critic Brian Finney is even
more specific in his description of the genre’s criteria in his examination of the novel D. H. Lawrence: Sons
and Lovers when he writes, “Normally, there are at least two love affairs, one demeaning, and one exalting.”
In this scheme, Miriam, of course, represents the “demeaning” relationship. Although she gives herself to
Paul sexually, she does so reluctantly, sacrificially, and without passion.
Finney describes other criteria of the Bildungsroman:
The child protagonist is usually sensitive and is constrained by parents (the father in
particular) and the provincial society in which he or she grows up. Made aware of wider
intellectual and social horizons by schooling, the child breaks with the constraints of parents
and home environment and moves to the city where his or her personal education
begins—both in terms of discovering a true vocation and through first experiencing sexual
Paul certainly fulfills the criterion of being sensitive. Lawrence describes him as “a pale, quiet child” who
“was so conscious of what other people felt.” However, the primary constraint on his development is his
mother, rather than his father. It is Mrs. Morel that Paul resembles and loves and who forms the psychological
barrier that Paul repeatedly comes up against in his drive to know himself. Mrs. Morel, though, is also a
facilitator in Paul’s development, as she attempts to shield him from her husband’s vulgar habits and rescues
him from a life in the mines.
Mrs. Morel also attempts to mitigate the effects that the society in which they live have on her children.
Bestwood, a thinly-veiled version of Eastwood, where Lawrence was born, is the setting of the novel, and in
the opening chapter Lawrence recounts the history of the Midlands countryside, Mrs. Morel’s childhood, and
the time when she met and married Walter Morel. This narrative strategy of describing the factors that
contributed to Paul’s conception allows Lawrence to foreground the influence of Paul’s environment and
family life on the development of his character. Paul was born in “The Bottoms,” a six-block area of housing
for miners. Life in “The Bottoms” is largely one of ongoing despair. After a day in the mines, the men drink
and cavort, while their wives tend to domestic chores such as cooking and cleaning. Mrs. Morel is unlike the
other wives in that she comes from a higher social station and had expectations for a better life. In The
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Kinglsey Widmer describes Mrs. Morel primarily as a destructive figure in
Paul and William’s lives, writing:
Her Protestant ethos of self-denial, sexual repression, impersonal work, disciplined aspiration,
guilt, and yearning for conversion-escape, not only defeats her already industrially victimized
coal-miner husband but also contributes to the defeat of several of their sons.
Paul’s “defeat,” however, is only possible because Paul knows the difference between success and failure.
Without his mother’s sour but demanding presence and her daily disillusionment with the world, Paul might
not have developed his love for painting or his desire to transcend his provincial roots. Paul’s tortured
Lawrence's novel as a Bildungsroman 10
relationship with his mother actually allows him to develop his own ideas about the meaning of individuation
and fulfillment. By having to balance his need to please her with his need to have a healthy sexual and
emotional relationship with a woman, Paul arrives at an understanding about himself and what he can and
cannot control.
This self-understanding, a crucial phase of character development in a Bildungsroman, entails the knowledge
that there is less in life that Paul can control than his mother has taught him. Mrs. Morel believes that through
hard work, will power, and self-denial one could move up the social ladder and find contentment. What she
does not grasp is the extent to which the self suffers from such desires. Paul discovers through his relationship
with Clara that the temperament he has inherited from his mother is destroying him. He comes to realize that
attempts to deny passion or to manage the contents of his consciousness are doomed to fail. Critic Helen
Baron claims that Lawrence embeds his own understanding about human consciousness not only in Paul’s
character but also in the very style of the writing. In her essay, “Disseminated Consciousness in Sons and
Lovers,” Baron writes that Lawrence tests readers’ assumptions that the will can control what the body feels
and the mind thinks, claiming Lawrence represents consciousness as something that cannot be contained.
“Lawrence’s exploration of consciousness,” Baron writes, “is so strongly embedded in the narrative tissue
that the very words themselves are treated as cells with permeable boundaries.”
In addition to Paul’s “education” in the ways of love and human consciousness, he also developes his talent
for painting, even selling a few paintings. Paul’s passion to paint stands in for Lawrence’s own passion to
write, and, by describing Paul’s growth as an artist, Lawrence participates in the literary tradition of the
Kunstlerroman, which is a novel that describes the early years and growth of an artist. James Joyce’s Portrait
of the Artist as a Young Man is another such novel that is both Bildungsroman and Kunstlerroman.
The nature of these two subgenres almost demands that they follow the literary tradition of realism, which
Lawrence does as well. Realistic novels portray character, setting, and action in a recognizable and plausible
way. They are located in a specific time or historical era and in a specific cultural milieu. Authors of realistic
novels often rely on the use of dialect and concrete details of everyday life to compose their stories, and they
make clear the motivations of characters’ actions, emotions, and thoughts. Often, such novels depict the
working class. Although written just a decade into the twentieth century when literary modernism was
emerging, Sons and Lovers belongs to the tradition of nineteenth-century realism in its attention to detail and
locale, and its attempt to accurately depict a way of life.
Because it has straddled the border between fiction and fact, Sons and Lovers has become a lightning rod for a
number of Lawrence critics seeking insight into the writer’s growth as an artist. As a Bildungsroman, the
novel offers clues as to how Lawrence viewed his emotional and aesthetic maturation. Like Lawrence, Paul
has to overcome the death of his mother and enter a world he has to remake in order to survive. Fighting the
impulses to destroy himself, Paul sets his mouth tight and marches off to town to start anew.
The year after this novel was published, Lawrence married Frieda von Richthofen Weekley, the upper-class
ex-wife of a university professor; Lawrence had been involved with her since 1912. Like Paul’s mother and
Lawrence’s own mother, Lawrence chose a mate outside of his own class. The two would remain together
until Lawrence’s death.
Source: Chris Semansky, Critical Essay on Sons and Lovers, in Novels for Students, Gale, 2003.
What Makes Sons and Lovers a Successful Novel
D.H. Lawrence’s first and most conventional novel, Sons and Lovers, is already the work of an accomplished
writer. Grounded in the novelist’s autobiography, it is in the fullest sense a sentimental education. Unlike his
What Makes Sons and Lovers a Successful Novel 11
other works, this novel has a fully integrated plot, relatively little sermonizing, and characters with firm flesh
over their analogized bones. If they stand for something, as Lawrence’s characters always do, we are not told
what. On the other hand, many of the qualities we have learned to associate with this writer are already
present: the lavish descriptions of natural phenomena; the use of epic tags as a powerful rhythmic device to
establish the resonances of the personae; the erotic thrust of the language; the tendency to refresh images by
inverting their conventional charge; the quirky psychology; and the nervous episodic shifts. Add to this the
writer’s occasionally embarrassing use of naive hyperbole.
Most striking is Lawrence’s use of the double or interlace plot so reminiscent of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina,
though here the pattern is far less mechanical than it is elsewhere. The novel’s basic plot line concerns the
powerful oedipal attachment developed by Paul Morel’s clever, sensitive, frustrated mother, a coal miner’s
wife tied to a coarse, strong-willed, and occasionally brutal man. A major strand relates to the story of that
marriage and her attempts to achieve fulfillment through, first one, and then a second son. Significantly, the
novel begins with a full treatment of the pre-Paul experience, her courtship and early disillusionment, the
nurturing of her first two children in the dingy miner’s house and the devolution of Morel into what is too
readily perceived to be a drunken brute. Lawrence is too subtle to indulge in crude typing here. Both the
disappointed wife and her husband emerge as complex figures at once internally consistent and capable of
surprising shifts in mood and behavior. Her story dominates, however, delineating among other things her
efforts to raise her children above the life imposed by the miners’ existence.
The mother’s life is poised against the wellarticulated maturation or Bildung, of her physically fragile and
sensitive second son, Paul. It is this boy who, after the death of his brother William, captures his mother’s
imagination and becomes the focus for her affections and ambitions. The novel recounts how the boy
gradually extricates himself from his engagement with her. To accomplish this Lawrence resorts to a complex
shifting perspective, brief scenes, and frequent bald statements of attitude. This enables him to give
appropriate time and the right valence to each of the many protagonists and, more importantly, to phase out
the mother as the center of Paul’s creative and amorous life.
Anything but reticent, Lawrence combines the flat statement of emotion and attitude with a vividly
impressionistic system of reactive prose vignettes. Thus we have the astonishing moments of affinity through
nature which characterize some of the more vivid scenes: e.g., Paul’s communion with his mother over some
flowers and the painful botanical encounters with his first girl, Miriam. Though generally grounded in
physical circumstances, the action of this “psychological” fiction is detailed with extraordinary clarity and
mood-making precision. It is developed precisely through personal encounters that tend to be highly
formulaic, conveyed through the reciprocal awareness of two dueling or communing characters: “[Miriam]
suddenly became aware of his keen blue eyes upon her, taking her all in. Instantly her broken boots and her
frayed old frock hurt her.” If, on occasion, this laying bare of nerve endings grates, in the long run, the novel
succeeds because it records not only minute shifts in the mood of its personae but also because, by locating
the action on the level of human interactions, it traces the vicissitudes and motivates the development of
Paul’s spirit. Only Tolstoy has been willing and able to do this on so broad a scale, though Tolstoy is capable
of more objectivity than Lawrence.
If at times we may feel that less would be more (as it is in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist), we may still find
Lawrence’s slow accretion of poignant detail and his rhythmic reiteration of personality and physical traits
effective. Furthermore, the short scenes enable the writer not only to shift mood and pace, but also to move
from emotional intensity to analysis. What makes this tale of a man and three women convincing and
engrossing is undoubtedly Lawrence’s ability to convince us that shadings of attitude, the minimal signals to
which characters respond, are indeed important. Lawrence make us sensitive to the impact of casual remarks,
glances, gestures, their capacity to signal turning points in a relationship.
What Makes Sons and Lovers a Successful Novel 12
Ultimately it is the anti-oedipal thread wound by Mrs. Morel’s two younger rivals that saves Paul, that and
his mother’s pathetic death. In Miriam, he finds a generous but unsatisfactory surrogate, a young woman
willing to sacrifice herself on the altar of his sensibility. This is the rival his mother forcefully rejects. By
contrast, the older and more self-reliant Clara Dawes, for whom Paul must battle the brutal Dawes, defines
Paul’s sexual and emotional freedom without challenging his mother’s role. Together, these women set him
on the road to the “faintly humming glowing town” of his maturity.
Paul’s relationships are all tense and experimental, and though he is clearly the focus of much of the action,
neither he nor any of the women is unambiguously admirable or even completely adequate to the moment. It
is to this excruciating balance of tensions set against the everyday world of a working-class family that Sons
and Lovers owes its success, to this and to its meticulously honest and painfully engaging chronicle of Paul’s
identity crisis.
Source: David Hayman, “Sons and Lovers: Novel by D. H. Lawrence, 1913,” in Reference Guide to English
Literature, 2d ed., edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, Vol. 3, St. James Press, 1991, pp. 1862–63.
The Literary Aspects of Sons and Lovers
There are two traditional approaches to Sons and Lovers, one of which treats the novel as a psychological
study, emphasizing particularly Paul’s Oedipal complex; the second of which focuses on the
autobiographical, exploring the many passages where Lawrence seems to be retelling his own experience
fictionally (the scenes of family life, the mining background, Paul and Miriam’s relationship.) While the first
approach risks reducing the novel to a case history, the second has the danger of undermining Sons and
Lovers’ effectiveness as fictional vision, turning it instead into a confessional autobiography, and vitiating
Lawrence’s achievement with plot, symbol, dramatic scene, and invented character. Moreover, these two
approaches often join forces, so that autobiography is used to support the claims of psychological analysis,
psychological generalizations cited to strengthen the autobiographical critique—especially where there are
gaps in what we know of Lawrence’s life. An example of the latter treatment is the attempt to clarify the at
best hazy identity of the original for Clara Dawes (Louie Burrows? an unidentified Nottingham mistress?
Frieda, later Lawrence’s wife?) by referring to what psychology calls “the reaction formation,” in particular
Lawrence’s attempt to escape his mother’s domination by drawing close to an opposite. Both of these
approaches, the autobiographical and the psychological, lead to interesting questions and cruxes in the novel,
offering the student opportunity to consider two kinds of critical literature. On the one hand he gets to study a
literary rendering— and a superb one—of the Oedipus complex; on the other, he can absorb the facts of
Lawrence’s life as they are recorded in his letters, in autobiographical sketches and in memoirs about his
“Sons and Lovers” period.
It is my contention in this essay that seeing Sons and Lovers against the pattern of the traditional
Bildungsroman illuminates many of the literary aspects of the novel about which neither the psychological nor
the autobiographical approach cares and that this view does justice to one of Lawrence’s best artistic
achievements. In addition, because the Bildungsroman emerges in the nineteenth century and continues into
our own, its focus on the conflict between an alienated individual and the cultural forces (family,
neighborhood, class, religious and ethical milieu) against which this individual seeks to establish himself
relates directly to the lives of our students. Moreover, the kind of conflict I have outlined comprises the real
plot of Sons and Lovers, expressed jointly in Paul’s struggle to free his soul from his mother and to become
an artist where economic necessity all but rules out such a possibility. Paul’s movement toward selfrealization
is expressed symbolically in his rejection of adjustment to the everyday (an adjustment made by
his brother Arthur and sister, Annie) in favor of the starry night in which he finds hope at the novel’s end; in
his attraction to cities (first Nottingham, then London, and ultimately perhaps even Paris) instead of “The
Bottom” or, later, the houses on Scargill Street; and in his refusal to make life for himself in terms of
The Literary Aspects of Sons and Lovers 13
provincial possibilities. But before an examination of the specific details of Sons and Lovers, it would be wise
to review some of the general characteristics of the Bildungsroman.
The Bildungsroman (“novel of self-development” or “apprenticeship novel” are the best English
equivalents) features a protagonist, an apprentice to life, whose goal is to master it so that he can achieve an
ideal or ambition, fulfillment of which will heighten his sense of self. A look at related types of fiction may
serve to clarify the Bildungsroman itself. Close to the confession and the autobiography, the Bildungsroman is
often a first or second novel which fictionalizes its author’s growing up. It is also similar to the picaresque
novel, though in the Bildungsroman the journey through life has been internalized; adventures are important
principally for their effect on the protagonist’s psychological development and sense of self. The
Bildungsroman protagonist is usually more passive, reflective, intellectual and artistic than his picaresque
counterpart, probably because the author, himself introverted and creative, has fashioned his character out of
himself. Still another type of related fiction is the initiation story or novel, though here the focus is a single
moment of vision where the protagonist accepts either the code of his elders or the hard facts of life itself, or
both (e.g. Faulkner’s “The Bear,” James’ “The Lesson of the Master,” Crane’s “The Red Badge of
Courage”). Compared to the initiation novel, the Bildungsroman compounds the choices which the central
character is called upon to make, forcing him to define separately but in a continuous process his values in
regard to four crucial concerns: vocation, mating, religion, and identity.
All of these decisions must be made without the aid of formal education, for whenever schooling is depicted
in novels of self-development it is shown to be sterile and hopelessly anachronistic, if not downright farcical
(e.g. Pendennis, Great Expectations, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel). One sometimes suspects that the
impetus for a fictional sub-genre which shows protagonists designing and shaping their own lives is the need
to respond to a culture where the educative institutions (schools, churches, family and class traditions) are in
chaos. While the college teacher understandably will feel a bit defensive pointing out the Bildungsroman’s
typical assessment of formal education—Sons and Lovers doesn’t even bother to mention Paul’s schooling—it
should be noted this decision results from wider forces than mere pedagogical incompetence. It is no accident
that the Bildungsroman emerges strongest in the nineteenth century, for it is during this epoch that the
traditional class society and its heavily class-weighted institutions and values, in effect since the Renaissance,
undergo pressure and serious erosion. It is in this century too that for the first time a young man who was not
born a gentleman could choose to ignore the social status and even the particular work of his father without
necessarily facing near-suicidal odds (see, for example, Robinson Crusoe’s regrets and guilt over ignoring his
father’s advice). While large numbers of the more intelligent and energetic members of the lower and middle
classes sought to rise above their inherited stations in life, the educational system continued to reflect an
outmoded society where class determined the content and quality of one’s education. Hardy’s Jude the
Obscure illustrates perfectly the disparity between its stonecutter hero’s ambitions and the educational
opportunities available to one of his class. In Sons and Lovers Paul Morel’s education is casual rather than
institutional; he is tutored in French and German by the local minister, Mr. Heaton; coached in composition
by his brother William; encouraged in his art by his mother; and self-taught when it comes to literature,
Miriam serving in both of the last two instances to inspire Paul to his best.
The same independence which characterizes Paul’s education helps to prevent his capitulation to the
economic and social outlook of his elders and peers, though his mother’s distaste for her husband and the
way of life he stands for certainly stiffens her son’s resistance. Like many of his nineteenth-century
predecessors, Paul shows considerable pluck, resilience and idealism in pushing his way toward an artist’s
future, though the usual stress laid by critics on his Oedipal conflict undermines our sense of Paul’s
consistency and force of character. Persistent belief in his future as an artist accounts for Paul’s refusal to
accept provincial goals and expectations. Surprisingly, economics plays a much larger role in Sons and Lovers
than is often recognized, partly because it bears little if any relationship to Paul’s psychological emergence,
nor much more to Lawrence’s own personal experience (though his letters reveal considerable concern over
his finances, Lawrence never allowed making a living to interfere with his writing).
The Literary Aspects of Sons and Lovers 14
Simply expressed, the economic question in Sons and Lovers sets earning against creating. Four times in the
novel the reader gets detailed accounts of the coal miner’s finances: how pay is divided in the family, pp.
17–18, pp. 69–72 (collecting wages at the company office), p. 87 (compensation when Morel is injured) and
pp. 198–201 (dividing the pay among four butties). Obviously, Lawrence is recalling these details from his
own experience and such scenes help to establish the realistic depiction of turn-of-the-century life among
Midlands miners for which Sons and Lovers is justly famous. But beyond this relationship to realism, these
scenes fit the money or wage motif of the novel on the whole, a motif which sounds a relentless and
unavoidable bass note against which Paul’s lyric fantasies of artistic fruition must compete. Each time Paul
receives a raise at Jordan’s or moves up in the hierarchy there, we are told about it. Likewise, William’s
mercurial rise to something like gentleman’s status in London law office circles stands both as exemplum and
warning to Paul; William’s record is more than merely that of an older sibling, for he was Mrs. Morel’s first
son—and “lover”— though he has escaped only to die prematurely. Later in the novel, when Paul seems to
believe he can have art and money too, imagining himself a popular and therefore well-to-do artist, the
alliance between art and income seems a romantically founded and improbable one. In a scene which follows
a passage where Mrs. Morel angrily denounces her husband for leaving her too little money for the week (“a
measly twenty-five shillings!”), Paul shows Miriam his designs for “ decorating stuff, and for embroidery.”
“With a touch of bitterness” he explains, “I did it for my mother, but I think she’d rather have the money.”
Later, in the first paragraph of Chapter XII, “Passion,” we are informed that Paul is beginning to earn a living
through his textile and ceramic designs, while “at the same time, he laboured slowly at his pictures.”
Furthermore, Paul’s integrity as an artist (he has to accept less money for a commissioned painting because
he will not paint what is demanded of him) and the peculiar subject of his painting, luminous figures “fitted
into a landscape,” don’t promise the kind of success Paul imagines for himself. Regardless, however, of his
probable future, Paul here faces a problem which confronts all protagonists in self-development novels—how
to make a living. If we fail to consider the vocational and economic issue in Paul Morel’s development, we
thin out and over-simplify his struggle toward self-realization. Knowledge of the typical Bildungsroman
protagonist alerts us to this aspect of Lawrence’s novel.
A second characteristic of all Bildungsromane is that their protagonists must always decide on a suitable mate
or at least define the ideal who waits in the near-distant future; the central figures in selfdevelopment novels
are thus, among other things, apprentice lovers. This aspect of Sons and Lovers has received close attention
from critics of all persuasions; if the plot of mother-son love itself is not enough, Lawrence’s treatment of
Gertrude, Miriam, and Clara, and their respective relationships to Paul have aroused heated debate, charge and
counter-charge. The way in which the novel appears to blame Gertrude for dominating and almost destroying
Paul and to indict Miriam for her near-frigidity and squeamishness has given rise to a great deal of angry
discussion almost from the day the novel appeared. In our own time by far the most provocative attack on this
aspect of Sons and Lovers has been Kate Millett’s in Sexual Politics. Writing from a Marxist-feminist
perspective, Millett accuses Paul (and by implication, Lawrence) of using the three women in his life, then
discarding them when they no longer serve his self-centered interests. Millett describes Paul as the
“perfection of self-sustaining ego” and states, “the women in the book exist in Paul’s orbit and cater to his
needs: Clara to awaken him sexually, Miriam to worship his talent in the role of disciple and Mrs. Morel to
provide always that enormous and expansive support. . . .” Despite the bluntness and even crudeness of her
critique, and the fact that in regard to Gertrude, Millett seems to contradict herself (elsewhere in her
discussion she calls the novel “a great tribute to his mother and a moving record of the strongest and most
formative love of the author’s life”—one must admit some truth to the charge.
Students today are especially sensitive to the treatment of female characters in fiction, particularly where, as
in Sons and Lovers, there is sufficient development to assess a life pattern or unachieved potential in these
lives. Undeniably, Gertrude’s life is laid before us; we know enough of her history to see the sources of her
aspirations, first for herself, then for herself and her husband, finally for her successive sons. Her sense of
entrapment in a deadend marriage to Morel, her envy of Mrs. Leiver’s life, her vicarious participation in life
through her children—these and other details allow us to know her predicament. And when, in her final illness,
The Literary Aspects of Sons and Lovers 15
Paul administers a fatal dose of morphine, her victimization—by unavoidable pregnancies which bind her
tighter to her despised mate and which sap her strength and by a culture which discourages women from
working in the world—is made final by her son. Likewise, Clara and Miriam, opposite as they are in character,
seem purposeless and incomplete unless they can join in a vitalizing relationship with a male. Clara—listless,
cynical and cold (several scenes show her kneeling before a fire, presumably trying to imbibe its warmth)—
drifts until she consummates her relationship to Paul, who, when he realizes their relationship is merely
physical, brings Clara and her estranged husband Baxter back together again. Miriam’s faith that Paul will
ultimately return to her, that his spiritual and idealistic side will triumph over his need for sex, seems pathetic
finally, in view of her sacrificial sexual surrender to him, her compulsive chapel going when Paul is involved
with Clara, and his final dismissal of her: “ ‘Will you have me, to marry me?’ he said very low . . . ‘Do you
want it?’ she asked very gravely. ‘Not much,’ he replied, with pain.”
The tradition of the Bildungsroman itself provides an explanation for this apparent male bias, for fiction with
a developmental focus always slights characters not of the protagonist’s sex, and for that matter, all the other
characters. One of the distinguishing traits of the apprenticeship novel is the strong central figure for whose
experience and development the lesser figures exist, and from whose process of self-realization the novel
receives one of its principal unifying elements. Futhermore, the novel of self-development generally is written
from a narrowly omniscient point of view, the author standing beside his character, as it were, and most often
interpreting experience through his character’s mind, senses and emotions. Thus the Bildungsroman’s
customary point of view adds to a sense of the protagonists egoism and lends emphasis to his seeming
exploitation of the novel’s other figures.
Because mating plays such a significant part in maturation—and thus in apprenticeship fiction— protagonists,
whether male or female, will inevitably use and exploit at least several members of the opposite sex.
Thackerary’s Pendennis, for example, eponymous hero of the novel sometimes called the first
Bildungsroman in English (1849– 1850), is involved several times (with Fotheringay, an Irish actress; with
Fanny Bolton, a “poor but honest” girl from the lower classes; and with Blanche Amory, a continental
adventuress in the manner of George Sand and her heroines) before succumbing in marriage to his mother’s
ward, companion and protege, Laura, whom he has all but ignored through most of the novel. Similarly, in
Lawrence’s The Rainbow, Ursula Brangwen, a typical Bildungsroman heroine, rejects two men who want to
marry her, Anthony Schofield and Anton Skrebensky, because, as she thinks to herself after rejecting
Anthony, “ultimately and finally, she must go on and on, seeking the goal that she knew she did draw nearer
to.” Thus Millett’s account of Paul’s position at the conclusion of Sons and Lovers (“Having rid himself of
the two young women, . . . Paul is free to make moan over his mother’s corpse, give Miriam a final brushoff,
and turn his face to the city) is hardly very convincing when one has in mind fictional tradition, in particular,
the Bildungsroman’s tendency to adopt the protagonist’s point of view, to maximize for the reader the
central figure’s sense of self-concern, to give other characters instrumental rather than independent functions.
Ursula Brangwen’s goal in The Rainbow, “to be oneself . . . a oneness with the infinite,” realized in botany
lab as she peers down a microscope after her professor had denied any mystical dimension in life, brings us to
both of the remaining concerns of the Bildungsroman protagonist: his quest for identity and for the right
relationship to the transcendent and non-human in the universe. Admittedly, some apprenticeship novels
(Pendennis, Pere Goriot), in their intensive treatment of social reality, largely ignore supernatural and
intangible realities. Yet from Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1833–1834) on, the religious crisis and the more
general search for the transcendent meanings of life have typified novels of self- development. For Paul Morel
as for Ursula, religious sense and identity are deeply intertwined; this interrelationship has become, of course,
a hallmark of Lawrence’s mature fictions, where a knowledge of oneness is brought about by an interfusion
of the individual and the natural world via sex or a “lapsing out” of consciousness. It is quite easy to misread
symbolic scenes in Sons and Lovers—and I think Millett and others are guilty of this—through failing to take
into account Lawrence’s idea of one’s relationship to the infinite. It is possible for instance to interpret
Paul’s vision of Clara bathing—he sees her as “not much more than a clot of foam being blown and rolled
The Literary Aspects of Sons and Lovers 16
over the sand . . . just a concentrated speck blown along, a tiny white foam-bubble, almost nothing among the
morning”— as his belittling of her, preparatory to his terminating their relationship. In fact, Millett evaluates
the scene as follows: “Paul converts himself into a species of god in the universe before whom Clara dwindles
to the proportions of microscopic life.” Other critics have judged Paul lost and despondent in the final
paragraphs of the novel because he feels like “so tiny a spark” being pressed into extinction. Both
assessments are wrong, for they ignore the implicit paradox in Lawrence’s definition of self, where real being
requires this feeling of tininess, of being infinitessimal. Millett, in her eagerness to indict Paul’s
self-centeredness, ignores this essential of the world-view Lawrence establishes in Sons and Lovers. An
opposite view to Millett’s, one which venerates Lawrence’s mystical vision where Millett only scorns it, has
been recently expressed by Joyce Carol Oates. Acknowledging the irritating challenge of Lawrence’s love
ethic, Oates declares Lawrence to be, not as Millett would have it, a sexual reactionary, but “too radical for us
even today.” Lawrence, Oates continues, “goes back beyond even the tradition women are rebelling against,
today, to a mystical union based upon the primitive instincts of our species, but carrying us forward into pure
spirit.” He may well be abrasive, “yet one comes to believe that Lawrence is absolutely right.”
Still another recent critic, Calvin Bedient, has effectively argued that for Lawrence the fusion of soul which
the author himself felt with his mother transcended the Oedipal, giving Lawrence—and therefore his fictional
projection Paul—the sense of a mystical oneness next to which other relationships to women seem ordinary,
flat, and merely personal. Only at the peak of physical or sexual exhilaration does Paul experience the infinite;
such moments occur when he is swinging in the Leiver’s barn, riding his bicycle recklessly home after a
strained evening at the farm, making love with Clara on a steep clay river bank or with Miriam in a pine
grove. As Paul expresses it after the latter experience, “the highest of all was to melt out into the darkness and
sway there, identified with the great Being.” Bedient is convincing when he suggests that although Lawrence
wasn’t aware of it in Sons and Lovers, the work conveys rather fully its author’s vision of the highest state of
being and how that state can be obtained.
In counterbalance to those scenes where Paul lapses out of consciousness, often outdoors and frequently at
night, Sons and Lovers furnishes occasional comments on its protagonist’s changing relationship to
traditional religious life and practice; Paul’s fall from orthodoxy coincides with the growth of his mystic
awareness and his ability to summon it, while, on the literal level, it evidences his growth away from the
Morel family’s habitual and easy chapel going. At twenty-one, we are told, “he was beginning to question
the orthodox creed;” the following spring “he was setting now full sail towards Agnosticism, but such a
religious Agnosticism that Miriam did not suffer badly.” The term “religious Agnosticism” indicates, I think,
the growth in Paul of the mystical sense I have been describing, “agnostic” both because Lawrence speaks of
God only metaphorically and because Paul’s “religion” has nothing to do with any institutional faith.
Later in the novel Paul clarifies the nature of his religious belief in an argument with Miriam: “It’s not
religious to be religious . . . I reckon a crow is religious when it sails across the sky. But it only does it
because it feels itself carried to where it’s going, not because it thinks it’s being eternal.’ The crow’s lack of
consciousness, its utter passivity— “it feels itself carried to where it’s going”— corresponds to Paul’s (and
Lawrence’s) sense of the religious as opposed to Miriam’s.
What Sons and Lovers depicts in the way of identity for the protagonist, then, is two-fold; there is the Paul
who is second son to the Morel family, a Bestwood provincial aiming for the artist’s life, the one whose
personal history and day-by-day development the novel charts, and there is the Paul who is increasingly
opened up to manifestations of a living natural universe, a speck of which he is and in whose dark precincts
his mother exists “intermingled.” It is this mystical level of identity that Lawrence illuminates so effectively,
for the first time in Sons and Lovers; it is indeed hard to think of another novelist who conveys this dimension
so convincingly. Thus Lawrence is able to contribute to the Bildungsroman and to English fiction generally a
deeper interpenetration of the human and the vital natural world than had been previously envisioned—or than
has been created fictionally since.
The Literary Aspects of Sons and Lovers 17
Paul’s two-level identity is further clarified by his symbolic association with several biblical and
mythological figures. When he is an infant, his mother imagines him a Joseph, though later in the same scene
she suddenly declares “I will call him Paul.” When he is courting Miriam, Paul himself assumes a special
relationship to the constellation Orion: “Orion was for them [Paul and Miriam] chief in significance among
the constellations.” These connections to astrological and biblical mythology in themselves suggest both the
everyday and the vitalistic identities of Paul, the individual myths containing, moreover, details pertinent to
all the typical self-developing protagonists in general and to Paul Morel in particular. Paul’s similarity to his
apostle namesake comes out most clearly in his relationship to Miriam; to her he is a stern moralist and
rule-giver, whose irritability presages radical growth, though the principles of Paul’s ultimate ethic come
close to inverting his biblical predecessor’s.
Pauls’ connections to Joseph are perhaps more obvious; like Joseph, he is a younger and favored son who
leaves his father and homeland, and, after a period of bondage, is proclaimed a genius among a foreign
people. (The biblical story of Joseph, is, in fact, a prototype of the novel of self-development.) When Walter
Morel is injured in the pits, Paul is forced to give up his painting and his fantasies of where his art might take
him— “His ambition . . . when his father died [was to] have a cottage with his mother, paint and go out as he
liked . . . And he thought that perhaps he might also make a painter, the real thing.” The scene in which the
news of his father’s injury reaches home captures beautifully Paul’s intense devotion to his art in the midst
of family catastrophe; while Mrs. Morel bustles about preparing to see to her despised yet needing mate, Paul
continues with his painting. “Bondage” for Paul is explicitly related to the laboring world; forced by his
father’s mishap to seek a job, he reflects: “Already he was a prisoner of industrialism . . . He was being taken
into bondage. His freedom in the beloved home valley was going now.” Later, on his way to be interviewed at
Jordan’s surgical appliance factory, Paul passes through the company yard, which Lawrence describes as
being “like a pit,” recalling the pit in which Joseph is abandoned by his brothers. Whereas Joseph ultimately
triumphs as the Pharaoh’s dream interpreter, Paul’s victory is to be an artistic one.
Orion, third of the mythic figures with whom Paul is associated, symbolizes perfectly the progressive,
self-achieving element in the Bildungsroman hero. Sword raised, feet in bold stride, Orion represents the
battle-ready hunter in the process of his quest. It is important to recognize the disparity between the reserved,
even diffident Paul and his mythological inspiration in the northern night sky; Orion, like Paul’s mother, is,
as the novel concludes, a source of inspiration, permanently fixed and shining, not a symbol of the
already-achieved. Whatever wounds the death of his mother aggravates in Paul, he imagines her star-like and
everpresent, like Orion, the hunter, an encouragement to go on.
The concluding pages of Sons and Lovers present several difficult but ultimately answerable question as to
Paul’s probable future which the apprenticeship novel can help clarify. In an interesting article entitled
“Autobiograph in the English Bildungsroman,” Jerome Buckley argues that because the novel of
self-development is highly subjective, commonly fictionalizing the author’s own experience, “the novel has
frequently an inconclusive or contrived ending,” its creator being too close to the experience being retold “to
achieve an adequate perspective on (it).” “Sons and Lovers,” he adds, “scarcely persuades us that Paul Morel
at last finds the release from his fixation that Lawrence apparently won, perhaps in the very act of writing the
novel.” Commenting on the final paragraph of Sons and Lovers, Buckley asserts that “nothing has prepared
us for so positive a resolution. If Paul is at last free and whole, his victory is not inherent in his story; it is
imposed upon it from without.” Even with the added weight of Lawrence’s own judgment on the ending
(“Paul is left in the end naked of everything, with the drift toward death”) I would maintain that Paul’s
triumph is “inherent in his story” and that a knowledge of the Bildungsroman, precisely in those
characteristics I have been discussing, helps us to see the rightness of the final affirmation.
Paul’s trajectory all through Sons and Lovers, like that of many other Bildungsroman protagonist (Ursula
Brangwen, Wilhelm Meister, and Augie March among them) has been away from pressure to
conform—whether social, familial or economic— and toward the accomplishment of his own ideal. Paul’s
The Literary Aspects of Sons and Lovers 18
brother, first William, then Arthur, are foils to his aspiration; William prostitutes his attractive personality for
social and business success; Arthur, initially rebellious and impulsive, capitulates to provincial expectations:
“He buckled to work, undertook his responsibilities, acknowledged that he belonged to his wife and child.”
William’s life, presented in far more detail than Arthur’s, forms a compressed Bildungsroman in itself,
wherein his mercurial rise to social and financial success, his quick movement from the provinces to London,
and his absurd romance with Gypsy Western come close to forming a grim parody of apprenticeship fiction.
William’s rapid and thoughtless climb contrasts dramatically with Paul’s slow, painful, self-conscious
struggle toward freedom and selfrealization. The dramatic contrast between the two brothers serves to support
the promising view of Paul’s future suggested by the final paragraph of Sons and Lovers; Paul’s values are
nothing like his older brother’s, and Paul consciously rejects a business career and the social approval and
circumstances William is so desperate to gain. Lawrence reflects this difference symbolically when Paul goes
to Nottingham to receive first prize for his painting. Dressed in William’s altered evening suit, Paul “did not
look particularly a gentleman.” Moreover, Paul argues vigorously against his mother’s advice that he ought
“in the end to marry a lady.” Having refused to follow William’s ambitions, condemned by Lawrence’s tone
and treatment as well as by the obvious pattern of self-destruction and folly implicit in the older brother’s
choices, Paul is freed from William’s fate.
Further proof that Paul’s victory is not as Buckley maintains, “imposed . . . from without,” is the evolution in
Paul’s mystical sense of self, which I’ve touched on earlier. From those early occasions when we see Paul in
a state of natural exhilaration to later scenes when he expresses his positive sense of lapsing out of
consciousness after making love to Miriam (“the highest of all was to melt into the darkness and stay there,
identified with the great being,”) the alert reader is readied for the final vision when Paul sees his mother as
“intermingled” with the night: “she had been one place, and was in another; that was all.” Even if we discard
this momentary hope as rationalization, there is additional evidence—besides the final paragraphs “but no, he
would not give in”—to substantiate Paul’s vision and final confidence. It is misreading Lawrence to see mere
tininess as indicative of weakness and failure; Paul and his mother may, like the stars, be mere grains or
sparks, yet they do not disappear. By relating his mother to the stars, Paul is admitting their special separation
but not their mystical one; like Orion to Paul and Miriam in an earlier scene, Mrs. Morel is a fixed source of
inspiration, the sign to her son of his own divine connection. And certainly, though much has been made of
Mrs. Morel’s destructive hold on her son, it is important to recognize her role in encouraging and fostering
her son’s talents as a painter. Few artists in fiction (and probably in life) have had more effective and more
positive nurturing than Paul gets from Mrs. Morel (compare, for example, Stephen Daedelus’ situation), and
therefore it seems reasonable to see this maternal encouragement as ultimately sustaining rather than ruinous.
Paul’s movement in the final sentences of the novel toward the “city’s gold phosphorescence . . . the faintly
humming, glowing town” fits perfectly the province-to-city pattern of most Bildungsromane. All through the
nineteenth century and into our own time, the city has been the place where the ambitious have sought their
challenge, have striven to define themselves. Jude, Pip, Augie March, Eugene Gant, Julien Sorel, Martha
Quest. Ernest Pontifex—all seek out the city in search of their imagined and idealized selves. The glow that
Lawrence here ascribes to Nottingham symbolizes its hopefulness, for throughout the novel gold and flames
have stood for the vital impulse of life. In the opening pages of Sons and Lovers, to cite an early example, we
learn of Paul’s mother’s attraction to Arthur Morel, epitomized by the “dusky, golden softness of this man’s
sensuous flame of life, that flowed off his flesh like the flame of a candle. . . .”
It is undeniably true that Paul’s life is still in process when Sons and Lovers concludes, yet all the signs of
ultimate success and of a promising independence are there; Lawrence’s next novel, also a novel of selfdevelopment,
ends with its heroine Ursula, having lived through a traumatic love affair, a pregnancy and a
miscarriage, understanding the rainbow to promise, like the sign of the covenant, new life in a recreated
world. Like her, Paul Morel, Whose trauma is his mother’s death, perceives a vision of unity between the
night and the stars, his mother’s spirit and his own, which sends him back into the fight—fist clenched— after
his temporary depression and withdrawal. Even Kate Millett, openly hostile to Lawrence’s art, recognizes
The Literary Aspects of Sons and Lovers 19
Paul’s movement toward the world of men, evidenced by her description of him as wishing “to be rid of the
whole pack of his female supporters so that he may venture forth and inherit the masculine world that awaits
him”; Paul is, she asserts, “in brilliant shape when the novel ends.”
More importantly, when we consider, as I have tried to do here, the four distinct trials which the
Bildungsroman protagonist must traditionally master—vocation, mating, religion and identity— Paul’s future,
though Lawrence’s tone is typically equivocal, seems assured. He knows what he wants to do in life; has
realized the dimensions of sexual relationship, even if he hasn’t found his ideal mate; has forged a new
religious sense; and knows, largely because he’s defined these other questions, who he is, and, equally
important, what “selves” he has left behind.
Source: Richard D. Beards, “Sons and Lovers as Bildungsroman,” in College Literature, Vol. 1, No. 3, Fall
1974, pp. 204–17.
Sons and Lovers: Compare and Contrast
1900–1920: In 1912, Sigmund Freud delivers a speech before the London Society of Psychical Research
detailing for the first time his theories on the unconscious as a repository of thoughts repressed by the
conscious mind. Over the next few decades, psychoanalysis grows in popularity, with thousands of
psychiatrists undergoing and then practicing Freudian psychoanalysis.
Today: Though academic interest in Freud remains strong, very few practicing Freudian psychoanalysts
1900–1920: World War I is fought between 1914 and 1918, resulting in tens of millions of casualties.
Today: In 2001, terrorists kill more than 3,000 people by flying jet airplanes into the twin towers of
Manhattan’s World Trade Center, and President George W. Bush of the United States declares war on
1900–1920: In 1917, the world’s first massproduced tractor, the Fordson, is introduced, and farmers quickly
produce crop surpluses. Today: Governments of the United States and Britain regularly offer subsidies to their
farmers to not grow crops.
Sons and Lovers: Topics for Further Study
Compare Lawrence’s novel to the film adaptation made of it in 1960 which was directed by Jack Cardiff.
How does Cardiff adapt Lawrence’s episodic telling of the story to the screen? What information does
Cardiff leave out of the film, and what effects do these omissions have on the story? Discuss as a class.
Make a chapter by chapter timeline of the novel, detailing major events and shifts in point of view. Hang the
chart in the classroom, and make any necessary changes to it while discussing the novel.
Gather in groups and draw a portrait of Paul’s brain, marking off sections according to the thoughts and
people that preoccupy him during the novel. How much space would you give to Miriam? How much to his
mother? How much to his father? Present the portrait to the class and explain your labeling choices.
In explaining his theory of the oedipal complex, Freud claimed that between two and five years old, during the
phallic stage of their development, boys fantasize about being their mother’s lover. The boy’s sexual
interests, however, are soon met with the threat of castration from the father, and the eventual successful
Sons and Lovers: Compare and Contrast 20
resolution involves identification with the father and assuming an active and aggressive social role in a
patriarchal society. Discuss how the relationship between Paul and his mother does not illustrate or echo the
Oedipus complex.
Write a summary of what might happen in a sixteenth chapter. What happens to Paul once he reaches the
“faintly humming, glowing town”? Take turns reading your summaries to the class.
Sons and Lovers: Media Adaptations
The most acclaimed film adaptation of Lawrence’s novel is the 1960 film Sons and Lovers, directed by Jack
Cardiff and starring Trevor Howard, Dean Stockwell, and Wendy Hiller. The film was nominated for seven
Academy Awards. Many libraries and video stores carry the video.
In 1995, Penguin Audiobooks released an audiocassette of Lawrence’s novel with Paul Copley narrating.
Sons and Lovers: What Do I Read Next?
Lawrence’s novel The Rainbow (1915) follows three generations of a Nottingham family, detailing their love
affairs, marriages, and family relationships. This is the first of Lawrence’s novels to describe sexual
situations in an open manner, and its publication stirred controversy.
Lawrence was also a poet. His first collection, Love Poems and Others (1913), contains some of his
best-known poems.
Lawrence’s idiosyncratic study of American literature, Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), has
itself become a classic.
Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex tells the story of the banished king of Greek mythology who killed his father and
married his mother. A number of critics refer to the Oedipus myth when discussing Sons and Lovers.
Daniel Weiss’s Oedipus at Nottingham (1962) explores the oedipal themes in Lawrence’s fiction.
Sons and Lovers: Bibliography and Further Reading
Baron, Helen, “Disseminated Consciousness in Sons and Lovers,” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 48, No. 4,
October 1998, pp. 357–78.
Finney, Brian, D. H. Lawrence: “Sons and Lovers,” Penguin, 1990, p. 14.
Gregory, Alyse, “Artist Turned Prophet,” in the Dial, Vol. LXXVI, No. 1, January 1924, pp. 66–72.
Ingersoll, Earl G., “Gender and Language in Sons and Lovers,” in the Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 4,
Summer 1996, pp. 434–48.
Kuttner, Alfred Booth, “Sons and Lovers: A Freudian Appreciation,” in the Psychoanalytic Review, Vol. III,
No. 3, July 1916, pp. 295–317.
Lawrence, D. H., Sons and Lovers, New American Library, 1960, pp. 14, 61, 92.
Sons and Lovers: Topics for Further Study 21
“Mother Love,” in the New York Times Book Review, September 21, 1913, p. 479.
Review of Sons and Lovers,” in the Saturday Review, Vol. 115, No. 3008, June 21, 1913, pp. 780–81.
Widmer, Kingsley, “D. H. Lawrence,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 36, British Novelists,
1890–1929: Modernists, edited by Thomas F. Staley, Gale Research, 1985, pp. 115–49.
Further Reading
Cowan, James C., D. H. Lawrence’s American Journey: A Study in Literature and Myth, Press of Case
Western Reserve University, 1970. Using Lawrence’s experience in America, Cowan produces a
psychological profile of the writer. Cowan links Lawrence’s deteriorating health with his increasingly dark
literary vision.
Goodheart, Eugene, The Utopian Vision of D. H. Lawrence, Chicago University Press, 1963. Goodheart
describes Lawrence’s social and spiritual development in the context of the times in which he lived.
Goodheart’s study is focused, engaging, and useful for students of Lawrence’s writing and life.
Paglia, Camille, Sexual Personae, Yale University Press, 1990. In this controversial study of sex and
celebrity, Paglia explores the sexual impulses of Lawrence’s characters, showing how they illuminate the
myths surrounding Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and orgies.
Salgado, Gamini, ed., D. H. Lawrence: “Sons and Lovers”: A Casebook, Macmillan Press, 1969. This
casebook on Lawrence’s novel contains early reviews, critical essays, background material, and a select
bibliography of works on Lawrence.
Squires, Michael, and Lynn K. Talbot, Living at the Edge: A Biography of D. H. Lawrence and Frieda von
Richthofen, University of Wisconsin Press, 2002. This fascinating biography of Lawrence and his wife draws
compelling parallels between the couple’s romantic life and Lawrence’s novels.
Wood, Jessie Chambers, D. H. Lawrence: A Personal Record, Jonathan Cape, 1935. Jessie Chambers is the
person on whom the character Miriam Leivers is based. In this book, she presents her view of her relationship
with Lawrence.

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