Life and death are closely interlinked throughout Sons and Lovers, and grief has a palpable and lasting impact on the lives of the characters. Sons and Lovers was concluded in the aftermath of the death of Lawrence’s own mother, and his experiences with grief shape the events of the novel. Death is portrayed as an ever-present force in the novel, something which is both terrifying and, at times, terribly seductive. Throughout the novel, Lawrence demonstrates the ways that people often walk the tenuous line between life and death, and the novel argues that fixating on the past (particularly through grief) can turn this constant threat of death into full-fledged self-destruction.
Danger of death was a perpetual threat in mining communities where the book is set, and Lawrence’s own experiences inform his portrayal of day-to-day life in this setting. Mining was an extremely dangerous profession in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although conditions did gradually improve, the risk of death or serious injury meant that mines suffered many fatalities and that early death or widowhood was a common concern in mining communities like “The Bottoms.” Mrs. Morel often worries about her husband’s safety when he is at work or does not return at the usual time. Although she generally assumes that he is out drinking, she worries about what will happen to herself and the children if her husband is killed, since he supports the family financially. This was a typical worry for wives in mining communities. Since industrial mining towns were built for the explicit purpose of housing miners and their families, there was little alternative work nearby, and Paul and William, who do not grow up to be miners, must travel to the nearby cities to find paid work. The dangerous working conditions in the mines therefore caused many potential problems for miners and their families and meant that, even when the coal industry was thriving, death was an ever-present factor in these communities.
Due to the constant proximity of death within the novel, grief also has a large impact on the progression of the characters’ lives. William’s death nearly kills Mrs. Morel, because her grief destroys her will to live. It is also insinuated that her health problems begin after William’s death, because of the physical toll that grief takes on her. In turn, Mrs. Morel’s grief impacts the direction Paul’s life takes. Shortly after William’s death, Paul is struck down by pneumonia and is close to death himself. During his illness, Mrs. Morel regrets that her grief for William has caused her to neglect Paul; she feels she should have “watched the living rather than the dead.” Although this is, of course, a harsh judgement she makes about herself (her extreme grief over her child’s death is completely understandable), the guilt she feels causes her to transfer her love for William, whom she loved excessively to compensate for the fact that she does not love her husband, over to Paul. In turn, this transference leads to the development of her close relationship with Paul which, despite Mrs. Morel’s good intentions, contributes to his inability to love other women and to find fulfilling relationships. William’s death sets off a chain of grief that reverberates for years. Then, just as Mrs. Morel was almost destroyed by William’s death, the end of the novel finds Paul reeling from Mrs. Morel’s own demise and he ends the novel in darkness, walking across a field at night. This image potently conveys the emotional experience of grief and underscores the ways in which grief has altered the course of Paul’s life and made it difficult for him to leave the past behind.
Despite—or perhaps because of—the devastating effects of loss and grief, many of the characters are drawn towards death and self-destructive behavior throughout the novel. For example, when William moves to London, he sacrifices his health to pursue a shallow, hedonistic lifestyle which he does not even really enjoy. This suggests that William is compelled to ruin his life by self-destructive, almost suicidal tendencies. William’s carelessness with his own life, which leads him to squander his money and ruin his health, also impacts the course of Mrs. Morel’s life and contributes to her own untimely death. This chain reaction demonstrates that self-destructive tendencies often have destructive consequences for others, as well as for oneself.
Paul also demonstrates self-destructive tendencies and, at several points throughout the novel, feels that he wishes to die. When he leaves Miriam one evening after they have fought, he hopes that he will fall off his bike and be killed. Although in this case, Paul wishes to die to spite Miriam, he frequently feels drawn towards the idea of death and self-obliteration; he feels that such experiences may mirror the loss of self he feels during sex. He also becomes suicidal after Mrs. Morel’s death and feels that he wants to join his mother. What’s more, Paul’s and William’s unconscious attraction to death is also reflective of their relationship with their mother. By focusing on their love for their mother, rather than moving on emotionally to new relationships, the young men reject the possibility for new life (through reproduction and child rearing). That is, their futures contains the inevitable loss of their mother, and Paul and William are so fixated on the past and their mother that they reject this future—creating a kind of symbolic death for themselves by refusing to move on. An unhealthy fixation on the past, the novel suggests, leads to a lack of hope for the future, which can cause individuals to be self-destructive and careless with their own lives.
Death, Grief, and Self-Destruction ThemeTracker
Death, Grief, and Self-Destruction Quotes in Sons and Lovers
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.
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.
Mrs. Morel wondered, in her heart, if her son did not go walking down Piccadilly with an elegant figure and fine clothes, rather than with a woman who was near to him. But she congratulated him, in her doubtful fashion. And, as she stood over the washing tub, the mother brooded over her son. She saw him saddled with an elegant and expensive wife, earning little money, dragging along and getting draggled in some small ugly house in a suburb.
Paul was in bed for seven weeks. He got up white and fragile. His father had bought him a pot of scarlet and gold tulips. They used to flame in the window, in the March sunshine, as he sat on the sofa chattering to his mother. The two knitted together in perfect intimacy. Mrs. Morel’s life now rooted itself in Paul.
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 worked away again mechanically, producing good stuff without knowing what he was doing. Sometimes he came in, very pale and still, with watchful, sudden eyes, like a man who is drunk almost to death. They were both afraid of the veils that were ripping between them. Then she pretended to be better, chattered to him gaily, made a great fuss over some scraps of news. For they had both come to the condition when they had to make much of the trifles, lest they should give in to the big thing, and their human independence would go smash.
Sometimes, when it was lighter, she talked about her husband. Now she hated him. She did not forgive him. She could not bear him to be in the room. And a few things, the things that had been most bitter to her, came up again so strongly, that they broke from her, and she told her son. He felt as if his life were being destroyed, piece by piece, within him.
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.