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Friday, January 5, 2018

Sons And Lovers And Hamlet–Oedipal Tales Or Freudian Fantasy?

Much has been made of the Oedipal/Freudian dynamics of ‘Sons and Lovers’, not Lawrence’s first work but certainly his first accomplished novel and the first of a series – Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, Women in Love, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover- to explore sexuality.  Lawrence, while not the most distinguished writer of English prose (Joyce was a contemporary and Conrad a literary rival by a decade) and whose language and style are cribbed and bare by comparison, nevertheless was on the crest of the new 20th century zeitgeist of confessional prose, Freudian interpretation, and interior dialogue.

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Sons and Lovers has been characterized by many as the first Freudian novel, one which tells the story of the intimate relationship between a young man and his mother and how her desperate love and his dependence on it frustrates his emotional maturity and disables any normal sexual relationship with women.  Intimacy with anyone but his mother is betrayal and abandonment, and even the most Platonic relationship signifies a breach of faith, responsibility, and love for her.

The novel has all the hallmarks of the Oedipus myth.  Paul Morel does indeed love his mother and hate his father and wishes to kill the former and bed the latter.  He not only is incapable of forming natural relationships with women, he hates them for their seduction.  Comparisons with Hamlet are obvious.  Hamlet’s hatred of his uncle for having murdered his father, the king, comes only second after his hatred for his mother for having bedded the new king so quickly after the murder of her husband.  She is is too quick to want sexual satisfaction, deliberately blind to her murdering brother-in-law, and too quick to want to restore her position and authority.  She, like all women, cannot be trusted. 

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Hamlet cannot turn his anger towards the woman he loves – his mother – and so displaces it to another woman, Ophelia, a young, innocent, trusting, and loving girl.  Hamlet hates her because he is drawn to her.  She is the woman who would fulfill his sexual desires but in so doing would displace his mother.  Cruelty is Hamlet’s way of driving Ophelia away.

Laurence Olivier’s production of Hamlet is all about Hamlet’s incestuous desires. and how his overweening love for his mother distorts his reason, encourages delay and prevarication, and deforms his feelings for Ophelia.   As directed by Olivier the scene between Hamlet and his mother in her bedchamber is unmistakably that of a desperate lover.  Unlike Gertrude Morel who returns Paul’s affections, Hamlet’s mother has no such attachments.  She is a strong, confident woman who has married to survive and prosper, and in her sexual certainty never suspects the real reason for her son’s anger. Here Hamlet makes his reasons clear.
Such an act
That blurs the grace and blush of modesty,
Calls virtue hypocrite, takes off the rose
From the fair forehead of an innocent love
And sets a blister there, makes marriage-vows
As false as dicers' oaths: O, such a deed
As from the body of contraction plucks
The very soul, and sweet religion makes
A rhapsody of words: heaven's face doth glow:
Yea, this solidity and compound mass,
With tristful visage, as against the doom,
Is thought-sick at the act.
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What act? wonders Gertrude who still has no suspicion of Hamlet’s real intentions and cannot believe that she is responsible for his hatred.  Hamlet replies:
You cannot call it love; for at your age
The hey-day in the blood is tame, it's humble,
And waits upon the judgment: and what judgment
Would step from this to this? Sense, sure, you have,
Else could you not have motion; but sure, that sense
Is apoplex'd; for madness would not err,
Nor sense to ecstasy was ne'er so thrall'd
But it reserved some quantity of choice,
To serve in such a difference. What devil was't
That thus hath cozen'd you at hoodman-blind?
Eyes without feeling, feeling without sight,
Ears without hands or eyes, smelling sans all,
Or but a sickly part of one true sense
Could not so mope.

O shame! where is thy blush? Rebellious hell,
If thou canst mutine in a matron's bones,
To flaming youth let virtue be as wax,
And melt in her own fire: proclaim no shame
When the compulsive ardour gives the charge,
Since frost itself as actively doth burn
And reason panders will.
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For both Hamlet and Paul Morel, where did this incestuous love come from?  In Hamlet’s case there is no suggestion of an overprotective, demanding mother; no smothering, debilitating love; no sexual exclusivity.  How was it that he became so attached to an indifferent, independent mother? Why were his sexual feelings and ambitions so distorted.  How was it that Paul had an immoderate love for and attachment to his mother when his brothers who were under the same mother’s influence did not?  In both cases it must have from the men’s own particular, peculiar, and very individual makeup.  

Who was more responsible for Paul’s dysfunctional attachment to his mother? She or he? Paul’s brother, William, the first born never felt the same obligation to or irreplaceable love for his mother despite her laments.  Arthur, the youngest, was independent, sexually mature at an early age, and indifferent to his mother’s ambitions.  Only Paul felt a complementary need.  If his feelings were indeed Oedipal, they originated within himself and only encouraged by his mother.  Only Paul hated his father so viscerally, and only Paul had trouble with women. 

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Hamlet had developed an exclusive, abnormal love for his mother; but the reasons for such attachment are not suggested by Shakespeare.  It is only clear that his mother did not initiate the intimacy. His like Paul Morel’s problem came from within.

While according to classic Freudian theory the Oedipal attachment need not have a mother’s complicity or initiation but it helps.  The incestuous complicity – the natural desire of a mother to sleep with her son and vice-versa – makes an Oedipal relationship particularly powerful, but a son may have incestuous feelings with no encouragement from his mother as in the case of Hamlet. The son’s disorder is Oedipal nonetheless. 

What exonerates Gertrude Morel even more is her selfishness, her idealistic ambitions, her class-conscious dismissal of her husband, and her frustrations as a woman living in a severely patriarchal society.  Her attachment had far more to do with her own personal disappointments and dissatisfactions than any real latent sexual feelings for her son.  It is Paul who is the protagonist in the sexual drama.  He is the one with unhealthy and damaging attachments to his mother.

But is this really Freudian? A complex struggle among id, ego, and superego and one which begins at birth and a boy’s first physical intimacy.  Is Paul really such a classic Freudian case?

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Perhaps, but another scenario is equally likely.  Paul and Hamlet were born timid, uncertain, and dependent.  They both had the disadvantage of too little intelligence to understand the difference between intellect and emotion; and too much to be unaware of the nature of ideas and of sexual dynamics.

Paul’s confused, frustrated, cruel, and often hateful relationship with Miriam was ostensibly about his obligations to his mother, but his inability to square a normal sexual relationship with the respect, duty, and responsibility due to a parent was because of his character.  He had no moral compass to guide him - to know that he was using Miriam as an audience for his immature intellectuality and that his cruelty derived from his own frustrations and emotional confusion.  

His sexualization of Clara was as immature and naïve as his intellectualizing of Miriam.  Women were either-or never simply women.  Both Clara and Miriam appreciated Paul for the man he was.  They never loved him for what he intended but for what they saw was a characterizing essence – the way he walked, gestured, talked, and moved.  It was Paul who was locked within an impossibly resistant character flaw.  His problems were less Freudian than they were psycho-social.

Worse, they were predictable and ordinary.  Many young men have difficulty sorting out what they want in a woman – sexual object, caring female, or wit and intelligence.  As they mature they understand that they must settle, make a choice, and live with it.  Paul had an ignorant and arrogant sense of himself as something special for whom love was especially made and who should be immediately and unquestionably satisfied.

Paul was a product of nature more than or as much as nurture. Hamlet’s mother never encouraged such affection; and Paul’s brothers, although under the same demanding maternal compulsion, easily resisted.  Both men were born timid, uncertain, and with not enough intelligence or will to sort intellect from emotion.  Paul’s aesthetics – shallow, predictable, and uninteresting – were his way of compensating for his sexual indecisiveness.  His inability to take either Miriam or Clara as individual women and not expressions of himself was part of his naïveté. 

If one is categorically Freudian, it is not hard to sympathize with Paul.  He came under the influence of a smothering, emotionally demanding mother and so his inabilities to form mature relationships with women were understandable and forgivable.  If one keeps Freud on the shelf and simply looks at Paul’s relationships with his mother, Miriam, and Clara, it is hard to be sympathetic.  He is ignorant of women, blind to sexual nuance and diversity, and imprisoned by severe, irrational sense of responsibility and duty.  His dysfunction has little to do with Oedipus or id, ego, and superego but immaturity, slowness, selfishness and cruelty.

Nor can Hamlet be excused by his irrational love of his mother and his immoral cruelty to Ophelia or given leeway for his indecision and parabolic reasoning.  Freud is no excuse for timid, if not cowardly doubt and hesitation.

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