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Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Sons And Lovers–D.H. Lawrence’s Tale of Too Much Motherly Love

Sons and Lovers has often been characterized as the first expressly Freudian novel.  Many of the well-known psychoanalytic paradigms are present in the book – an obsessive mother-son love, the hatred of the son for his father., and the inability of the son to form mature adult sexual relationships because of his dependence on his mother.  Paul Morel can find sexual and emotional satisfaction neither with Miriam nor Clara.  His intimacy with Miriam always remains intellectual and physically pure; and although he is tempted by her sexually, he represses these feelings, preferring to love only in a chaste, even spiritual way.  His most intimate moments with Miriam have nothing to do with physical presence or desire and are only reflections of the chaste beauty of form, line, color, and texture.  He is most at peace when he is with her by moonlight in a summer garden – romantic Victorian moments which only serve to protect the more powerful and sublimated sexual feelings that have originated with his incestuous feelings for his mother and which he refuses to confer or transfer to any other woman.  Miriam is like Paul’s mother because she is sensitive, appreciative of art and beauty, and open to sensuousness and spiritual awareness.  

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Gertrude Morel is nothing of the sort. She is a woman of airs, exaggerated sense of status, value and self-worth, and is only socially and intellectually refined by comparison with her husband – a miner from the age of ten, with little schooling or education, rough manners, and basic needs.  Yet there is a natural affinity between Paul and his mother, a relationship which has as much to do with genetics as it does with the character, intent, and responsibility.  Paul was a delicate, sensitive child who would always have been needy and dependent on the warmth and affection of his mother even if she had not been so insistent on her love for him.  His on-off relationship with Miriam can easily be seen without a Freudian lens.  An overly sensitive boy who had neither the male confidence, sexual ambitions or physical independence and needs of his brother William or even his father, who was intimidated by women, overly guided by his intellectual bearings, and unable to square natural sexual impulses with an overwhelming sense of duty and responsibility.

If his brothers William and Arthur easily and quickly developed their own distinction and individuality, were able to avoid their mother’s smothering attention and to deal with their abusive but equally dependent and intimidated father, then why couldn’t Paul?  Why must one assume such a Freudian interpretation? Is this not simply a case of an unsure, weak, and indecisive boy who needed guidance, direction, and security rather than a mother to bed?

There is no doubt that there are enough incestuous allusions in the book to expect a Freudian interpretation above all; and the literary critic Blake Morrison concurs:

The sexual bond between mother and son is established early on. "Paul loved to sleep with his mother," we're told. When she accompanies Paul to the interview for his first job, at Jordan's factory, she behaves "like a sweetheart" and both of them feel "the excitement of lovers having an adventure together". "Why can't a man have a young mother?" he exclaims, "I'll never marry while I've got you." The incestuous undercurrents come to the surface in chapter eight, with a "long, fervent kiss".

If we're unsure what to make of the kiss, the drunken Walter Morel, returning home, leaves us in no doubt: "At your mischief again?" he snarls. In the aftermath, father and son nearly come to blows. But Mrs. Morel forestalls them by fainting, and while Paul comforts and revives her Walter stumbles off to bed. "Don't sleep with him, Mother," the son pleads, and in doing so recognizes that "he still loved his mother best". All this is unashamedly autobiographical. As Lawrence told a friend when his mother lay dying: "We have loved each other, almost with a husband and wife love." Jessie Chambers similarly reports him saying: "I've loved her, like a lover. That's why I could never love you."

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Many other critics have compared Sons and Lovers with Hamlet. Hamlet despised his mother for marrying his uncle even more than he hated his uncle for murdering his father.  His sexual feelings are most evidently expressed in Laurence Olivier’s film version of the play.  Olivier cut the long four-hour play for reasons of brevity (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are absent) but also for purpose.  He felt that Hamlet’s actions could be best understood through his relationship with his mother; and the scenes of them together were unmistakably sexual.  As importantly, Hamlet’s love-hate relationship with Ophelia derives from his frustrated feelings for his mother.  In classically Freudian terms, it isn’t Ophelia he hates but himself for his inability to shed his sexual submission to his mother and transfer his feelings to another woman.

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Paul Morel is no different.  Not only does he have strong incestuous feelings for his mother, but has destructively ambivalent feelings about Miriam.  The text is filled with references to his hatred of Miriam because she interferes with his relationship with his mother; and yet the girl is as innocent, simple, devoted, and honest as Ophelia.  Paul is the problem just as Hamlet was.

It is less easy to understand Hamlet’s attachment to his mother in Freudian terms.  There is nothing in the play that suggests overly affectionate or demanding maternal attention.  The play opens too late in Hamlet’s life for any intimating looks into his childhood.  So looking at his relationship through a Freudian lens may be the worst kind of ex post facto analysis.  In fact pre-Freudian literary critics found plenty in Hamlet’s own, distinct character to criticize.  He like Paul Morel was indecisive, confused, tentative, crossed in his responsibilities, jealous certainly of the confident male presence of his uncle and angry enough at his mother dishonoring and disrespecting the legacy of his father, but no castrated male, neutered by his mother.

From birth, Paul is over-mothered; but again, if Freudian lenses are left aside, there are many other good reasons for her affections.  She was living with an abusive, intolerant, ignorant husband in an age where patriarchy and male dominance was the rule.  Few women could escape marriage in Victorian Europe and found their own ways to deal with their husbands and to make their own arrangements.  Ibsen’s strong, defiant women – Hedda Gabler, Hilde Wangel, and  Rebekka West – used intelligence, craft, and will to extract what they needed from powerful men.  Shakespeare’s heroines three hundred years earlier bested men at every turn despite an even more constricting and patriarchal age.

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Gertrude Morel saw personal fulfillment and satisfaction through her children, especially William and Paul.  When William died and her hopes for reflected tribute gone with his death, she turned her attentions exclusively to Paul.  He was more like her than any of her other children – sensitive, naturally refined, and intelligent – and saw in his future a vindication of her motherhood and a defiant success despite her ignorant husband.  The transference of ambition from mother to son was neither uncommon nor surprising.

When Paul comes of sexual age and begins to become interested in Miriam, Gertrude’s most deformed, selfish, and abusive desires are expressed.  It is not enough for her to promote, counsel, and encourage her son, but to ensure that he will never leave her; and through whining self-pity and and crass manipulation of her son’s feelings, she is determined to keep him all to herself.  He will never be shared, nor share his love for her with another.

This again is not necessarily Freudian but an expression of an unappealing, destructive, and dangerous woman.  Although Paul must take responsibility for who he is and not confer all blame on his mother, she did indeed encouraged his timidity, overweening sense of responsibility and duty, and unique devotion to her.  She played him, manipulated him, and destroyed any hope of his sexual or emotional maturity.

Although Lawrence wrote and published a few works before Sons and Lovers, it is really the first book in a series which progressively and more deeply discuss sexual dynamics.  The Rainbow, Women in Love, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover all deal with sexual will, sexual identity, and sexual purpose.  Sons and Lovers only begins to explore these themes but provides the foundation for understand his later work. 

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There are no women like Gertrude Morel in his succeeding books.  His women are all strong and determined but also mature; and their relationships, while often fragile and unsatisfying, are never overly demanding or punitive.

Sons and Lovers is far more than a Freudian tale because it exposes the damaging nature of too much love.  Love according to Lawrence was incidental and even irrelevant to the resolution of sexual dynamics.  Women and men both use love to dominate, manipulate, secure advantage, and control; and it should be suspect.  Romantic love was invented by Petrarch in the 14th century and the legacy of romantic ascription to sexual needs persists.  Playwrights from Shakespeare to Albee have repeated this theme and have dismissed the idea of idealistic love.  The best Albee was able to suggest was accommodation.  George and Martha (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) flay each other to the marrow working out their own sexual dynamics and at the end of the play, both beaten, helpless, and tired can only hope that with this complete annihilation of selves, there might be a chance of rebuilding their marriage.   Shakespeare ends all his Comedies with a happy marriage, but no one is fooled.  The women all married badly did so for security, status, and position.  If there were divorce, they would have been the first in court.  Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov were no optimists when it came to love; and their women were realistic and resolute about how to secure a reasonable future.

There is indeed such a thing as too much love, and Lawrence’s story of the Morels is a good example.

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