Navigating Love in D. H. Lawrence’s ‘Sons and Lovers’

D. H. Lawrence’s semi auto-biographical novel ‘Sons and Lovers’ is very complex, so much so that part of me thinks I need to read it again. The story revolves around Paul Morel, and his relationships with three women, his mother, Miriam Leivers and Clara Dawes. All three are different, all three impact the others. Paul loves them all in different ways, even though sometimes between them can cross and blur. Lawrence’s writing at times is so subtle that it’s tricky to keep track of what Paul is thinking. Other times it is clear but it chops and changes so much that it’s just as difficult. Each woman acts as a sort of stimuli to a part of Paul’s character, propelling him to discover more about himself, his sexuality and ultimately, love.

It’s funny that, originally, Paul’s mother Gertrude always preferred her older son William. However, when William pops his clogs, she moves on to favour Paul. Paul’s closeness with his mother impacts his relationship with Miriam, his first long term girlfriend. Gertrude’s dislike of Miriam makes Paul dislike her in turn, showing Gertrude’s influence over her child. It’s Gertrude’s jealousy that breaks Miriam and Paul up, which gives us real Oedipus vibes. Freud developed the Oedipus Complex based on the Greek tale of Oedipus, and it basically refers to a child having sexual desire towards the parent. Paul and Gertrude’s relationship does link to this idea, as he sometimes to Miriam as ‘another mother,’ when he does break up with her.[1] Hashtag, weird. His breaking up with Miriam shows that he wants to get away from his mother, as he compares the two, but also doesn’t want to upset his mother further by staying with Miriam. Even Paul is subconsciously conflicted about his relationship with his mother, and the love he bears her.

The title ‘Sons and Lovers,’ is equally strange as it’s not fully clear. Are the words two separate ones, for two separate groups? Or is it saying that the sons are lovers? This may not seem that strange because Paul is lover to both Miriam and Clara… but could we throw his mum into the mix? He is Gertrude’s son; is it implied that he is her lover too? Does Paul operate on both levels? Let’s dial down on the weirdness…

On to Paul’s first love, Miriam Leivers. Miriam is the conservative and spiritual type, believing that everyone should be the same. She’s complicated, but essentially hers and Paul’s relationship is one of intellect and one of the mind. Her aversion to sex and physical contact does drive a wedge between them. Paul even questions that their desire to keep purity between them is ‘fierce,’ and that perhaps this is unnecessary.[2] Paul does convince Miriam to have sex with him, even though she confesses that she is ‘afraid’ of it.[3] She gives her virginity to Paul not for herself but for him. She treats it as a ‘sacrifice’ so that Paul can have pleasure.[4] She redefines sex in her mind, by saying that it’s just the concentration and peak of emotion, which she attaches some divinity to.[5] So even though they are physically intimate with each other, Paul and Miriam treat sex very differently. Although physical contact distresses Miriam, she feels that Paul will always come back to her, as together they form some kind of intellectual super couple. They bring out the best in each other intellectually, so she believes that Paul will always belong to her. Paul says that he feels ‘naked’ before her, as he literally lays his soul bare to her.[6] In a way it’s the purest love out there, unaffected by sexual desire. They love each other for their minds, and personalities. But Paul discovered that this type of love was not enough for him. Even though Paul recognises that his soul will always belong to Miriam, the question of his body is left unanswered… until the entrance of Clara Dawes.

Clara Dawes is a modern woman, and she carries some real feminist ideas. She’s a Suffragette for starters. She’s also married when she starts an affair with Paul, which is quite scandalous. She provides a kind of excitement that Miriam didn’t, and Paul becomes attracted to her very quickly, and very soon after he leaves Miriam. In fact, Miriam introduced them. Harsh, Paul. Clara and Paul have an intense physical relationship, even though intellectually, there’s not much common ground there. See where Lawrence is going with this? Later on in the novel, even when the two have sex, it’s just not that great because Clara doesn’t feel Paul has fully committed to her, but Miriam is still on Paul’s mind.[7] Paul’s indecisiveness rightly bugs Clara, and eventually pushes her to reconcile with her husband Baxter, leaving Paul all on his lonesome. It’s heavily implied that this will happen, as Clara doesn’t feel that her and Paul will last.[8] She also feels that Baxter, belongs to her, and that this tie can’t be severed.[9] She also feels guilty about how she treated him, even though he cheated on her. He does emotionally mature though, with Paul’s help. Paul was just a bit of a distraction for Clara, until she realised that she wanted something more permanent, prompting her U-turn back to Baxter. Perhaps Laurence is implying that Paul needs a woman who has both the intellectual qualities of Miriam, and the sexual appeal of Clara…?

Paul spends half of the time being confused, and only manages to find his definition of love 400 pages in, saying that love basically means ‘freedom.’[10] Maybe Paul gets the freedom fully when his mother dies. I say dies… but Paul and his sister Annie euthanise her… without her consent.[11] The two of them see that their mother is in pain, crush up all her pills and feed them to her in a glass of milk.[12] There’s a weird kind of inversion here, as usually it’s the mother feeding her child milk, to get her child healthy and strong. Here, we see the child feeding his mother milk, but using it poison her. It’s all very strange. Paul contemplates suicide after this, but overcomes it, deciding to return to the town, to begin the next chapter of his life.[13] Maybe without his mother, Miriam and Clara Paul can finally be free? Maybe he’s learnt enough about women to get it right next time.

Thanks for reading!

[1] D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers (Oxford, Oxford World Classics, 2009), p. 335.

[2] Ibid., p. 318.

[3] Ibid., p. 322.

[4] Ibid., p. 321.

[5] Ibid., p. 322.

[6] Ibid., p. 319.

[7] Ibid., p. 400.

[8] Ibid., p. 407.

[9] Ibid., p. 406.

[10] Ibid., p. 407.

[11] Ibid., p. 444.

[12] Ibid., p. 444.

[13] Ibid., p. 474.

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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