Throughout the novel, Paul’s attitude towards women is defined by his love for his mother, Mrs. Morel, which leads him to compare his female lovers with her. Since Paul’s love for his mother is rooted in idealism and not in reality, the other women in his life, Clara and Miriam, cannot compare with Paul’s romantic idea of how women should be, and they find themselves cast aside by Paul as they fail to live up to his impossible expectations. The story is set in the early twentieth century, during a period in which rights for women and societal expectations placed on women were gradually changing. Paul’s inability to understand the women in his life mirrors society’s failure to respect women during this period. Through Paul and his relationships with women, the novel suggests that social attitudes need to change so that women can find fulfillment in life and equality in society and relationships.
Paul believes that his mother has lived a fulfilling life and that, because she has dedicated her life to the domestic sphere of childrearing, she has been happy. Paul’s experience of his mother is defined by her devotion to him. Mrs. Morel “casts off” her husband, Mr. Morel, early in their marriage, when he cuts her older son William’s hair without her permission. After this event, Mrs. Morel turns her affections solely onto her children, and almost exclusively onto Paul when William dies in his twenties. Since Mrs. Morel shows such affection towards Paul and such investment in the pursuits of his life, he believes that she lives happily through him. This belief mirrors social attitudes towards women at the time, which insisted that, rather than cultivating interests or passions of their own, women should be happy to live through their male family members—their husbands and sons—to achieve society’s standard of ideal womanhood. While Paul knows that Mrs. Morel does not love her husband, he believes that she has known “passion” with Paul himself and that this has brought her fulfilment. However, although Mrs. Morel does love her children, the consequence of her lack of passion for her husband is a life of hardship with a man who is abusive and whom she does not respect. The harsh reality of Mrs. Morel’s life suggests that Paul’s attitude towards his mother, and by extension all women, reflects society’s idealized, unrealistic belief that women should be completely satisfied by domestic life.
When Paul does encounter women who differ from this ideal, he is unable to understand them and compares them unfavourably with his mother. Miriam and Clara, Paul’s two lovers, are younger than Mrs. Morel and enter society under a different set of social conditions. Although it would be a long time before progress was made in gaining equal rights for women, the early 1900s saw the rise of women’s suffrage (women campaigning for the right to vote) and an increase in women entering the workplace and education. This new trend is demonstrated in Miriam and Clara; Miriam is highly intellectual and interested in books, and Clara is a working woman, a member of the suffragettes, and has separated from her husband, Baxter Dawes, because he has been abusive towards her. Although Clara and Baxter do not officially divorce, separation was unconventional and looked down upon in this period. Paul also looks down on Clara because of her interest in the suffragettes. Although he becomes her lover, he blames her for her husband’s abuse and, despite their mutual passion, he never fully understands Clara because she refuses to conform to feminine stereotypes. Instead, she asserts her own independence and demands respect from her husband, leaving him after he “bullies” her. Paul’s inability to comprehend Clara’s behavior suggests that Paul, and society in general, has a misogynistic outlook on women and views those who rebel against gender conventions as unfeminine and unnatural—even when, like Clara, their behavior is totally rational.
Paul’s longstanding belief that his mother’s life has been happy is challenged by the events at the novel’s end: his mother’s death and the breakdown of both his romantic relationships. Although Mrs. Morel dislikes Miriam because Miriam is intellectual, Mrs. Morel is highly intelligent herself. She “reads a great deal” and helps the minister, Mr. Heaton, compose his sermons. Mrs. Morel might have wished to pursue a career or education, but she has been denied these opportunities because of her gender; societal pressures stated that men must work, and women must take care of the home. The parallel between Miriam and Mrs. Morel suggests that Paul’s rejection of Miriam because of her intellect is a misogynistic convention which his mother has encouraged; this convention is what she has learned and experienced herself, and she feels she has no choice but to perpetuate it.
Mrs. Morel’s death causes a crisis of faith in Paul because he sees, for the first time, that his mother has not been happy. While Paul expects her to die gracefully, as someone who has lived a fulfilling and meaningful life, Mrs. Morel’s death is actually drawn out, bitter, and brooding, and Paul begins to see that she considers her life a waste. As her life has been so closely bound up with his, this realization shatters Paul’s sense of self and his sense of his own importance as reflected through his mother. Lawrence’s sympathetic portrayal of Mrs. Morel, as a woman who is left miserable after sacrificing her life for the sake of convention and domesticity, reveals that the reality of women’s work and women’s rights is far different than social norms suggest. Meanwhile, his depiction of Paul as a confused and disillusioned young man at the novel’s close suggests that old-fashioned and idealized depictions of women are not in the best interests of either women or of men. Paul’s story demonstrates how men who expect women to be fulfilled by living vicariously through them, rather than having ambitions and passions of their own, will be left behind by the social changes beginning in this period.
Women’s Work and Women’s Rights ThemeTracker
Women’s Work and Women’s Rights Quotes in Sons and Lovers
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.
“And now,” he said, “you’ll see me again when you do.”
“It’ll be before I want to,” she replied, and at that, he marched out of the house with his bundle. She sat trembling slightly, but her heart brimming with contempt. What would she do if he went to some other pit, obtained work, and got in with another woman? But she knew him too well—he couldn’t. She was dead sure of him. Nevertheless her heart was gnawed inside her.
It seemed queer to the children to see their mother, who was always busy about the house, sitting writing in her rapid fashion, thinking, referring to books, and writing again. They felt for her on such occasions the deepest respect. But they loved the ‘Guild.’ It was the only thing to which they did not grudge their mother: and that partly because she enjoyed it, partly because of the treats they derived from it. The guild was called by some hostile husbands, who found their wives getting too independent, the “clatfart” shop: that is, the gossip shop. It is true, from off the basis of the guild, the women could look at their homes, at the conditions of their own lives, and find fault.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.