"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, January 8, 2018

When Apron Strings Strangle–D.H.Lawrence, Mother Love, And About Time To Grow Up

Sons and Lovers is a roughly autobiographical novel, the tale of a sensitive young man unusually attached to his mother; a mother who takes advantage of such dependence to control his life; and women who love him but to whom he can give little because of his supposedly Oedipal attachment to his mother.

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Paul Morel from birth has love/hate relationships with his father and with women, but his problems are far more complex than simply Oedipal.  While many critics conclude that the unhealthy attachment between him and his mother is because of her initiative – her smothering, dependent, affirming control of her sensitive, insecure son – others dismiss Freud out of hand.  Paul Morel is simply a baby who has never grown up – a child overly dependent on his mother for support, encouragement, and a sheltering love in a complex often chaotic world.

Paul says the hates his father, but he is jealous of his simple, direct, uncomplicated maleness.  He cannot excuse his father’s abusive, domineering behavior towards him, his brothers and sisters and his mother; but his father is the man he can never be.  While seeking the protection of his mother’s ‘apron strings’ and wishing to be the intellectual, sensitive, artistic person he imagines her to be, he cannot ignore his father’s vitality, energy, and earthiness. 

Is Sons and Lovers simply a Freudian tale of mother-love and father-jealousy? A story of an inescapable destructive family triad, one destined by genes, human nature, and tradition? Or is it the story of an immature, impossibly adolescent man who for lack of intelligence, wit, insight, and character, cannot forge his own way?

Lawrence is never clear; and because the story of Paul Morel so closely mirrors his own, he prevaricates.  Walter Morel is an abusive, domineering father, but with essential male qualities of directness and virility.  His son sides with his more willful mother against him, but he can never lose the sense of maleness which he feels he should have but, given his female sensitivity, and profound sense of responsibility and the shame and guilt that accompanies it, can never have.

Much is made of the Oedipal myth – a boy who wants to sleep with his mother and kill his father – but Sophocles was writing tragic myth and Freud was transposing his own very personal 19th century on otherwise predictable men and women.  Paul Morel is not so much a victim of a predacious, demanding, and needy mother as he is of his own sexual timidity and doubt.  He is the culprit in this sexual drama, not his mother or his father.

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Because of a stunted sexual maturity, aided and abetted by his mother but not the cause of it, Paul cannot form normal, mature, adult relationships with women.  He is cruel, dismissive, and abusive of Miriam, an Ophelia/Desdemona-like innocent who happens to be in the way of his sexually frustrated aggression.  He has sexual relations with Miriam in hopes that they will resolve his emotional conflicts.  Coming together both emotionally and sexually is for Lawrence a Tantric epiphany.  Sex can be and should be transforming and transfiguring; and Paul senses this resolution but cannot achieve it.  He assumes that sexual harmony and resonance aut0matically comes with sexual relations and that his relationship with Miriam will be forever changed.  Of course it is not.  She complains that he cannot give of himself and he hates her for her unwarranted demands that he do so.   

He feels that he has found a sexual-existential partner in Clara; but he thinks of her only in sexual terms.  He misunderstands the sexual imperative.  The epiphany can only happen if there is a mutuality of spirit, soul, and body.  Clara knows that Paul is weak, troubled by morality rather than guided by it, and forever on the outside of any relationship.

Clara and Miriam both appreciate him for his maleness and his uniqueness.  They notice his gestures, his comportment, his attitude; and they love him for it.  They love him for the man that he is and the soul that inspires him.  Paul is ignorant of individual women.  While he is caught in a self-serving categorization of women in general – whore/saint – he cannot distinguish among individuals.  Both Miriam and Clara have to suit his needs.

The book ends with his mother dead – his euthanasia – and the two women in his life separated from him, leaving him alone to deal finally with the consequences of his relationship with his mother and father and his own immature if not ignorant and selfish relationships with women.

Of all the characters in the book, Paul’s father is the most sympathetic.  He is unapologetically who he is – a rough, uneducated, uncultured, hardworking miner who enjoys the company of his mates, who is a responsible if not loving father to his children, and man who makes no excuses for who he is.  Unlike his wife, Paul’s mother, he has no airs, pretentions, or social ambitions; so it is not surprising that Paul, even though he has been infected by the aspirations of his mother, is not drawn to the directness and forthrightness of his father.

Both women – Miriam and Clara – are far more sympathetic than Paul or his mother.  They are much more like his father – unapologetic about their feelings and desires and hoping to conclude an emotional/sexual relationship which will satisfy them.  Miriam is drawn to the poetic, the natural, and the beautiful, and is willing to be schooled by Paul in the artistic context of her feelings.  She is disappointed by his pedantry, his assumptions, and his immaturity; but hopes that she can transform and reform him.  Clara is a sexual, physical, confident woman who is attracted to Paul for the same reasons as Miriam, but she is confident enough in her own perception of beauty, emotion, and purpose that she needs no tutelage.  She is disappointed in Paul because he cannot see beyond artificial perimeters.  He sees her a Sexual Woman but cannot appreciate her directness, her lack of pretention, and her emotional realism.  Baxter Dawes, her estranged husband is more of a man despite his dereliction and dysfunction.  He is no different from Paul’s father, and Paul’s disappointment at losing her to Baxter recalls his love/hate feeling for his father.

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Paul is a baby who never grows up.  He is not emasculated by his mother since neither of his two brothers were.  He is not so stunted by his incapable envy of his father that he cannot become his own man.  He is responsible for his desire for the warmth and security of his unquestioning mother. He is afraid of relationships outside of her protective perimeter.  He is an emotional eunuch not because of his mother or his father but because of his own moral and emotional weakness.

Lawrence is equivocal when it comes to Paul, and well he should be since he is modelled after himself.  Lawrence the man cannot admit such personal, individual weakness and blame Paul for his troubles.  Nor can he blame his mother who was an important if not dominant figure in his life.  Nor can he dismiss his father who, like Paul’s was an important virile figure.

When all is said and done Paul Morel is not an Oedipally crippled character, emasculated by this mother and intimidated by his father.  He alone is to blame for the immaturity and selfishness that came with the genetic package.  Lawrence may have fashioned Paul after himself, but one hopes that the writer – as young as he was when he wrote the book – was not as immature and ignorant as Paul Morel.  Paul was selfish and immoral in his treatment of Miriam.  He had sex with her in an attempt to validate his assumptions, but then discarded her as ineffective and useless.  He met his match with Clara, but missed the very opportunity he was looking for. He never overcame his emotional immaturity.  Only the final lines of the book suggest that perhaps he might have a chance for personal redemption.  He looks toward the lights of the city and leaves his women behind him.

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