Sons and Lovers has been a challenge for me. I love Lawrence’s style and find the book quite powerful, but every one of the characters disgust me so much that at times I don’t look forward to reading it. Part One (Chapters 1 through 6) covers up through the eldest son William’s death and Paul’s pneumonia.
Nature permeates the writing, springing forth all around even when not explicitly described. The vitality of the surroundings infuses the work. Small joys are magnified in the family’s daily life. Chapter 1 starts off magnificently, with descriptions that you can feel. Mr. and Mrs. Morel are sympathetic characters at first, but all of that is dashed before the end of the chapter. The scene where Walter locks his pregnant wife out in the cold, then falls into a drunken stupor, is moving. And yet…
Mrs. Morel’s despair at her situation (“What have I to do with all this? Even the child I am going to have! It doesn’t seem as if I were taken into account” and “I wait, and what I wait for can never come”) ends up in revolting thoughts about her pregnancy with Paul (“She did not want it.” “She despised him, and was tied to him. This coming child was too much for her”). All that changes with Paul’s birth but the self-centeredness of her thoughts is contradicted by her dutiful, if most times grudging, behavior toward her husband.
Mr. Morel, despite Lawrence painting him as a monster, ends up being the one sympathetic character for me. His wife’s behavior toward him signals a foreshadowing for her children: “She could not be content with the little he might be; she would have him the much that he ought to be. So, in seeking to make him nobler than he could be, she destroyed him.” And what is meant to be a sympathetic note for her (“She saw him listen deferentially, but without understanding. This killed her efforts at a finer intimacy, and she had flashes of fear”) rebounds to highlight her own lack of interest in his pastimes. The scene where he wakes from his drunken stupor after locking his wife outside, showing no fear of supposed burglars, ends in his comical scampering upstairs ahead of her. His fear of her is well placed and is laughably demonstrated several times.
It is painful to watch his “sensuous flame of life” slowly go out, extinguished by work, physical ailments, and his family’s palpable hate. His wife has poisoned the household against him, yet she hates his desire to stay away as well. Walter embodies the impotence of fatherhood, reacting badly to his displacement from within the family. Seeing the poison spread to the children is bitter. Paul looks at his mother and “it hurt the boy keenly, this feeling about her that she had never had her life’s fulfillment.” Notably absent is any feeling like that for his father. Any tenderness shown by the father is rebuffed.
Paul’s sensitivity and discomfort growing up is captured well by Lawrence. He feels out of place in the community and is hypersensitive to everything around him. His shyness and embarrassment with girls is overcome in his contact with the older women at work. Yet there is little to endear him to the reader. The relationship with his mother is uncomfortable to watch. The discord between husband and wife manifests in an unhealthy relationship between mother and sons, which further leads to internal strains within the boys.
The scenes with William’s fiancé highlight the divide the mother has created within the boys: on one side is their sexual desire, on the other is the ideal that the mother has instilled within them. Not that Louisa Lily Denys Western was a good choice for William, but his wild swings of mood in talking with her reflect the conflict of reconciling the two competing desires. The split that had been within the family now appears within the boys. The strain on William is apparently what makes him susceptible to death.
Maybe it’s a little ironic that my feeling toward the book has a similar split feeling.