D. H. Lawrence’s novel Sons and Lovers examines the emotional dynamics of the Morel family and charts the gradual decline of the middle son, Paul Morel, as he navigates tensions between his romantic life and his family life. Many of the conflicts in Sons and Lovers are driven by underlying psychological forces, which even the characters themselves do not understand. This makes it difficult for them to respond in ways that help, rather than worsen, their situations. Lawrence was interested in psychology and loosely incorporates aspects of Freud’s Oedipus complex into the plot of the novel. The Oedipus complex is the theory that infant children are attracted to their parent of the opposite gender and that they become jealous of the parent of the same sex. Lawrence’s blend of family drama and psychology suggests that people’s unresolved childhood pain and confusion can, unfortunately, lead to lives in which many of their emotional needs remain misunderstood and unfulfilled.
The Morel family is defined by conflict and division, which begin with the unhappy marriage of Mr. Morel and Mrs. Morel. Mrs. Morel, a young English woman from a “good family,” marries Mr. Morel after she meets him at a country dance. She soon finds, however, that she and her husband have little in common and that the life of a miner’s wife is one of hardship and poverty. Their relationship quickly becomes volatile and Mr. and Mrs. Morel never emotionally reconcile. Their children side with their mother against their father, and the rift within the family foreshadows the conflicts that the children, especially William and Paul, will psychologically inherit. This legacy of conflict and division is continued by William and Paul in their relationships with women. Both William and Paul rely on their mother well into adulthood for emotional guidance, psychological support, and personal validation. When they try to build relationships with women their own age, they are divided within themselves because they feel disloyal to their mother, who often resents these women. This split is most clearly represented in Paul’s relationships with Miriam and Clara, which are depicted as a “battle;” Miriam, on one side, feels she owns “Paul’s soul,” while with Clara he experiences physical passion. This divide between body and soul, which Paul can never reconcile, stands in for the most significant psychological tension in his life: his strong attachment to his mother. The force of their bond means that Paul constantly feels that he must choose between her and his lovers and, because of their deep familial connection, Paul ultimately sides with his mother and eventually casts off Miriam and Clara, which leaves him rootless and alone after Mrs. Morel’s death. The repetition of such toxic psychological patterns throughout the novel suggests the power of early familial bonds and implies that these forces often direct decisions made in later life. If these early familial experiences are divisive or volatile, Paul’s experience indicates, this can lead to the continuation of disruptive or unfulfilling relationships in adulthood.
What’s more, many of the psychological conflicts in Sons and Lovers take place unconsciously and are not obvious to the characters. Paul and Mrs. Morel are driven by underlying needs and desires rather than explicit knowledge of themselves. For example, throughout his relationship with Miriam, Paul is often confused as to why he cannot fully “give himself” to her. Paul is even hurt when Miriam displays insight into his psychology during one of his many attempts to break up with her. Miriam says bitterly that their whole relationship has been Paul “fighting her off”; Paul feels that Miriam has “always known” and understood his emotional condition, while he himself has not, and that she has spitefully concealed the truth from him. This suggests that it is sometimes easier to gain insight into others than it is to examine oneself, especially when one has inherited psychological confusion from a tumultuous family life. Similarly, Mrs. Morel does not consciously know that she prevents her sons from being successful in love because her love for them is so possessive. Indeed, Mrs. Morel believes that she wishes Paul would marry “a nice girl” and is never aware that she is the aspect of his life that stops him from doing so. Her lack of awareness implies that, while it is often easy to speculate on psychological problems in others, it is harder to address conflicts in one’s own emotional life.
The novel’s overall theme of twisted family psychologies is most prominent in the somewhat ambiguous relationship between Paul and his mother. Although there is no explicitly sexual relationship between Paul and Mrs. Morel, their relationship nonetheless reflects Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex. Paul and Mrs. Morel do not consider their relationship incestuous, but there are several incidents which suggest that their relationship makes other suspicious. For example, it is noted that they often “sleep together” in the same bed and when Mr. Morel walks in on them kissing, he complains that they are “up to their mischief.” Incidents like these imply that their relationship is Oedipal in a Freudian sense and contains elements of inappropriate desire. This parallel is further implied by Paul’s relationship with Clara and her estranged husband, Baxter Dawes. Paul is drawn to Baxter and, even though he dislikes him, he craves his respect. Baxter is very like Paul’s father and Clara is similar to Paul’s mother. After the death of his mother, Paul loses interest in Clara and encourages her and Baxter to reunite. This sequences of events suggests that Paul acts out his parents’ reunion, which never actually occurred, through Clara and Baxter. The ending, in which Paul leaves Clara and Baxter together and goes off by himself into the night, symbolizes Paul being forced at last to progress beyond the Oedipal phase of his childhood in which he was trapped while his mother was alive. Just as Mrs. Morel transferred her love from her husband onto her sons, Paul transfers his desire to sexually fulfill his mother onto Clara and Baxter. However, just like his mother, this does not help Paul; it only leads him to confusion and desolation at the novel’s end. Through Paul’s fate, the novel suggests that one must gain psychological insight into oneself, rather than making one’s problems external and seeking resolution through others.
Family, Psychology, and the Oedipus Complex ThemeTracker
Family, Psychology, and the Oedipus Complex Quotes in Sons and Lovers
He was tipful of excitement now she had come, led her about the ground, showed her everything. Then, at the peep-show, she explained the pictures, in a sort of story, to which he listened as if spell-bound. He would not leave her. All the time, he stuck close to her, bristling with a small boy’s pride of her. For no other woman looked such a lady as she did, in her little black bonnet and her cloak.
Afterwards, she said she had been silly, that the boy’s hair would have had to be cut, sooner or later. In the end, she even brought herself to say to her husband, it was just as well he had played barber when he did. But she knew, and Morel knew, that that act had caused something momentous to take place in her soul. She remembered the scene all her life, as one in which she had suffered the most intensely.
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 no longer loved her husband; she had not wanted this child to come, and there it lay in her arms and pulled at her heart. She felt as if the navel string that had connected its frail little body with hers had not been broken. A wave of hot love went over her to the infant. She held it close to her face and breast. With all her force, with all her soul she would make up to it for having brought it into the world unloved. She would love it all the more now it was here, carry it in her love.
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.
Paul was treated to dazzling descriptions of all kinds of flower-like ladies, most of whom lived like cut blooms in William’s heart, for a brief fortnight.
Then Paul fished out a little spray. He always brought her one spray, the best he could find. “Pretty!” she said, in a curious tone, of a woman accepting a love-token. The boy walked all day, went miles and miles, rather than own himself beaten, and come home to her empty-handed. She never realized this, whilst he was young. She was a woman who waited for her children to grow up. And William occupied her chiefly. But when William went to Nottingham, and was not so much at home, the mother made a companion of Paul. The latter was unconsciously jealous of his brother, and William was jealous of him. At the same time, they were good friends.
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.
Mrs. Morel was one of those naturally exquisite people who can walk in mud without dirtying their shoes. But Paul had to clean them for her. They were kid boots at eight shillings a pair. He however, thought them the most dainty boots in the world, and he cleaned them with as much reverence as if they had been flowers.
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.
“If you want to say these things, you must find another place than this. I am ashamed of you, William. Why don’t you be more manly. To do nothing but find fault with a girl—and then pretend you’re engaged to her—!” Mrs Morel subsided in wrath and indignation.
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.
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.
His mother looked at him. He had turned to her. She thought what a man he seemed, in his dark, well-made clothes. He was pale and detached-looking, it would be hard for any woman to keep him. Her heart glowed. Then she was sorry for Clara.
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.
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.