Christianity was an important aspect of life in Britain in the early 1900s, when Sons and Lovers is set, and Lawrence uses frequent references to Biblical stories to underpin much of the action of the novel. However, when paired with social notions of propriety (which were standard in this period in Britain and which encouraged celibacy outside of marriage), Christian beliefs disrupt the lives of the characters by discouraging them from exploring their physical urges and desires. Lawrence believed that physical sensation was a manifestation of the divine, and that through bodily experiences human beings could achieve spiritual transcendence which united them with God. Accordingly, the novel argues that Christian belief, when it discounts the importance of the physical world in favor of the purely spiritual, is a source of confusion and emotional pain rather than fulfillment.
Although Christianity might seem like a source of insight, in the novel it is symbolic of false revelation and confusion rather than guidance. Paul, Mrs. Morel’s second son and the main protagonist of the novel, is associated with the Biblical figure of St. Paul. This association begins when Paul is a baby and Mrs. Morel lifts him up to show him the sun. This parallels St. Paul’s revelation on the way to Damascus, when he was struck temporarily blind and received a revelation from God. However, while in the biblical episode St. Paul’s blinding leads to religious understanding, Mrs. Morel holds baby Paul up to the sun because she is worried that he understands too much–specifically, that he already understands the pain of life, which she feels he has learned because of her unhappiness while pregnant. As she looks into the baby’s eyes, she feels that he has learned something which “stunned” a part of his soul and she holds him to the light to dazzle this revelation away. This moment reverses the meaning of the biblical episode and signifies the beginning of emotional confusion, or blindness, in Paul’s life. The image of the blinding light is repeated later in the novel, when Paul sees the orange moon when he is at the beach with Miriam, his lover, whom he is striving unsuccessfully for sexual connection with. He knows that Miriam, who is very religious and averse to sex and physical sensation, expects him to feel a moment of spiritual connection with her at the sight of the moon. Paul, again, is “struck” by the image but cannot understand the emotion he feels – his desire is sexual, and therefore Miriam rejects it. Paul cannot connect with Miriam through spirituality alone and yearns for physical connection. Therefore, the restrictions of religion obstruct Paul’s attempt to form a bond with Miriam and takes him further away from emotional and spiritual clarity, rather than towards it.
In contrast to Christian ideals, physical connection is a source of clarity and relief; it often provides spiritual meaning within the novel. While Paul has the capacity to be a deep thinker and has spiritual tendencies which come out in his art, he is acutely aware that “painting is not living,” and he often finds comfort in the material world rather than in the nuances of abstract thought. Paul enjoys his intellectual discussions about books and art with Miriam, but his relationship with her always leaves him unfulfilled because he cannot share a mutual enjoyment of physical life with her. Miriam admires Paul’s physicality – his ability to completely “lose himself” to the motion of the swing in her yard, as well as his physical grace and quickness – but she cannot enjoy physical activity herself because she is naturally cerebral and can never let herself go. In contrast, Paul finds that he is physically satisfied with Clara, although their relationship leaves him intellectually unfulfilled. Clara, unlike Miriam, is robust and strong and enjoys the sensation of sport and vigorous activity. When Clara and Paul have sex on the canal bank, Paul feels that he “almost worships” Clara, as though she extends beyond herself into something abstract and spiritual. He feels that their passion is not separate from, but rather “encompasses” the grass they lie on and the birds they hear overhead. This moment frames sexual contact as something spiritual and physical.
Lawrence is antagonistic to social conventions that reject the possibility of physical connection outside of marriage for the sake of propriety and Christian convention; through the novel’s events, he shows how the repression of physical urges does more harm than good. It was considered improper for people to have sex outside of marriage in this period, as shown when Mrs. Radford determinedly sits up half the night with Paul and Clara to prevent Clara sneaking into Paul’s room. Mrs. Radford tries to prevent this because Clara is married to Baxter Dawes and to have sex with a man who is not her husband would be considered improper and shameful. Similarly, Miriam’s aversion to sex is not driven purely by her religious tendencies, but also by her belief that sex is sinful outside of marriage. At the end of the novel, when Paul refuses to marry her, Miriam firmly tells him that there “can be nothing between them” if they are not married, even though they love each other. Paul, however, in another discussion with Miriam, suggests that to be so pure and averse to physical sensation may be more offensive to God than impurity itself. He suggests that purity is a rejection of the world that God has created—a world which is not entirely composed of the spiritual plane but is also material and tangible. Through scenes like these, Lawrence implies that it is not spirituality, or Christianity, which conflicts with physical pleasure, but rather social convention. As something man-made, this convention is not a true reflection of the divine; rather, it often obstructs genuine religious transcendence.
Christianity, Propriety, and Physicality ThemeTracker
Christianity, Propriety, and Physicality Quotes in Sons and Lovers
Gertrude herself was rather contemptuous of dancing: she had not the slightest inclination towards that accomplishment, and had never learned even a Roger de Coverley. She was a puritan, like her father, high-minded, and really stern. Therefore the dusky, golden softness of this man’s sensuous flame of life, that flowed from off his flesh like the flame from a candle, not baffled and gripped into incandescence by thought and spirit as her life was, seemed to her something wonderful, beyond her.
Mrs. Morel leaned on the garden gate, looking out, and she lost herself awhile. She did not know what she thought. Except for a slight feeling of sickness, and her consciousness in the child, herself melted out like scent into the shiny, pale air. After a time, the child too melted with her in the mixing-pot of moonlight, and she rested with the hills and lilies and houses, all swum together in a kind of swoon.
His ideas were quaint and fantastic, she brought him judiciously to earth. It was a discussion of the Wedding at Cana.
“When He changed the water into wine at Cana,” he said, “that is a symbol, that the ordinary life, even the blood, of the married husband and wife, which had before been uninspired, like water, became filled with the spirit, and was as wine, because, when love enters, the whole spiritual constitution of a man changes, is filled with the Holy Ghost, and almost his form is altered.”
Mrs. Morel thought to herself: “Yes, poor fellow, his young wife is dead; that is why he makes his love into the Holy Ghost.”
She thrust the infant forward to the crimson, throbbing sun, almost with relief. She saw him lift his little fist. Then she put him to her bosom again, ashamed almost of her impulse to give him back again whence he came.
“I will call him ‘Paul’,” she said, suddenly, she knew not why. After a while, she went home. A fine shadow was flung over the deep green meadow, darkening all.
He watched with wicked satisfaction the drops of wax melt off the broken forehead of Arabella, and drop like sweat into the flame. So long as the stupid big doll burned, he rejoiced in silence. At the end, he poked among the embers with a stick, fished out the arms and legs, all blackened, and smashed them under stones.
“That’s the sacrifice of Missis Arabella,” he said. “An’ I’m glad there’s nothing left of her.”
Which disturbed Annie inwardly, although she could say nothing. He seemed to hate the doll so intensely, because he had broken it.
He waited grimly, and watched. At last Miriam let the bird peck from her hand. She gave a little cry, fear, and pain because of fear, rather pathetic. But she had done it, and she did it again.
William opened his eyes and looked at her. In his gaze was a certain baffled look of misery and fierce appreciation. “Has he made a sight of me?” she asked, laughing down on her lover. “That he has!” said William, smiling. And as he lay he continued to look at her. His eyes never sought hers. He did not want to meet her eyes. He only wanted to look at her, not to come together with her in her gaze. And the fact that he wanted to avoid her was in his eyes like misery.
They were both brown-eyed and inclined to be mystical, such women as treasure religion inside them, breathe it in their nostrils, and see the whole of life in a mist thereof. So, to Miriam Christ and God made one great figure, which she loved tremblingly and passionately when a tremendous sunset burned out the western sky; and Ediths and Lucys and Rowenas, Brian de Bois Guilberts, Rob Roys and Guy Mannerings rustled the sunny leaves in the morning, or sat in her bedroom, aloft, alone, when it snowed. That was life to her.
She wanted to show him a certain wild-rose bush she had discovered. She knew it was wonderful. And yet, till he had seen it, she felt it had not come into her soul. Only he could make it her own, immortal … By the time they came to the pine-trees Miriam was getting very eager, and very tense. Her bush might be gone. She might not be able to find it. And she wanted it so much. Almost passionately, she wanted to be with him when she stood before the flowers. They were going to have a communion together, something that thrilled her, something holy.
Spring was the worst time. He was changeable and intense and cruel. So he decided to stay away from her. Then came the hours when he knew Miriam was expecting him. His mother watched him growing restless. He could not go on with his work. He could do nothing. It was as if something were drawing his soul out, towards Willey Farm. Then he put on his hat and went, saying nothing. And his mother knew he was gone. And as soon as he was on the way, he sighed with relief. And when he was with her, he was cruel again.
Her big brown eyes were watching him, still and resigned and loving; she lay as if she had given herself up to sacrifice: there was her body for him; but the look at the back of her eyes, like a creature awaiting immolation, arrested him, and all his blood fell back … She was very quiet, very calm. She only realized that she was doing something for him. He could hardly bear it. She lay to be sacrificed for him, because she loved him so much. And he had to sacrifice her. For a second, he wished he were sex-less, or dead. Then he shut his eyes again to her, and his blood beat back again.
He had a life apart from her—his sexual life. The rest she still kept. But he felt he had to conceal something from her, and it irked him. There was a certain silence between them, and he felt he had, in that silence, to defend himself against her. He felt condemned by her. Then sometimes he hated her, and pulled at her bondage. His life wanted to free itself of her. It was like a circle where life turned back on itself, and got no further. She bore him, loved him, kept him, and his love turned back into her, so that he could not be free to go forward with his own life, really love another woman.
The realest thing was the thick darkness at night. That seemed to him whole and comprehensible and restful. He could leave himself to it. Suddenly a piece of paper started near his feet and blew along down the pavement. He stood still, rigid, with clenched fists, a flame of agony going over him. And he saw again the sick room, his mother, her eyes. Unconsciously he had been with her, in her company. The swift hop of the paper reminded him she was gone. But he had been with her. He wanted everything to stand still, so he could be with her again.