Sons and Lovers

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Sons and Lovers

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading

D. H. Lawrence


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, working-class 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 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.

Author 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 better-known 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.

Plot 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, 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 mother.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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 together.

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, 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 morphine.

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.


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 Nottingham.

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 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."

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 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.

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.

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.

Compare & 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 remain.
  • 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 terrorism.
  • 1900–1920: In 1917, the world's first mass-produced 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.

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, 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.

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.


Chris Semansky

Semansky is an instructor of English literature and composition. In this essay, Semansky considers 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.

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 non-fiction. 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 passion.

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 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.

David Hayman

In the following essay, Hayman discusses 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 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 well-articulated 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.

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.

Richard D. Beards

In the following essay, Beards examines Sons and Lovers within the context of the Bildungsroman, finding this approach best suited to understand the novel's literary aspects and theme of alienation.

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 self-realization 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 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).

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 self-development 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 crudenessof 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 dead-end 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, 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.

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.

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 over the sand … just a concentrated speck blown along, a tiny white foam-bubble, almost nothing among the morn-ing"—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.

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 ever-present, 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 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 self-realization. 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 self-development, 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 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.


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.

"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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