Throughout his life, D.H.Lawrence returned to his native Midlands for the themes of his novels and stories. But Sons and Lovers is unique, for it is completely founded in his own early experience in his native mining village of Eastwood. It is, therefore, completely rooted in the soul of his youth. The two main aspects that this novel has are the social study of the miners and the beginning of an exploration into the tangled and inexplicable relations between men and women.
The first aspect that it is a social study of the life of the miners is quite obvious. Even quite late in its composition, Lawrence himself refers to Sons and Lovers as the ‘colliery novel’. It seems quite likely that the original idea was a well-made story of the colliery life. The whole of Part I upto the death of William is of this kind – strong, straightforward, deeply felt, the best picture of industrial working-class life in English, probably the only one written completely from inside.
Lawrence describes two stages of English industrial development – the small-scale, manageable, quasi-paternalist system, which still allowed some scope for human feelings and genuine human relations, and its suppression by huge mechanistic organizations that inevitably negate life of men who are engaged in them. It is the beginning of a lifelong preoccupation with the effects of industrialization, though in it the element of protest is not strong. There is simply the direct representation of an intimately known and accepted reality. It may sometimes be said that the very fully developed picture of the colliery life is an intrusion into the novel and that it serves as mere background. But this view seems to be incorrect; for the life of miners is integrally connected with the plot. The life of Eastwood offers nothing to a vital, instinctive, unambitious man like Walter Morel, except the pit and the public house. To Gertrude, his wife, with her intelligence and her longing for refinement, it offers nothing but the chapel and the hope of getting up into the middle class through her children if not through her disappointing husband. Their marriage, therefore, after the first flush of passion has died down, can be nothing but a sterile conflict.
This is Paul’s heritage. His neurotic refusal of the life engendered in him is the direct result of his parents’ failure which, in turn, is partly the result of the pressure of an inhuman industrial system.
Coming now to the psychological and emotive analysis which the novel provides, we find that the principal figures involved in different, intricate relationships that form the basis of this analysis are Mrs Morel, Paul Morel, Miriam, and Clara Dawes. Of the three women who seem to form a triangle, Mrs Morel is at the strongest end, and she exerts the greatest attraction on her second son, Paul Morel. The relation between them presents the Freudian Oedipus imbroglio in almost classic completeness. This makes Sons and Lovers the first Freudian novel just as it is the first colliery novel, in English. That the Oedipus situation there is proved by what Jessie Chambers herself wrote to Helen Corke about a conversation which she had with Lawrence after his mother’s death. Lawrence ends the conversation by telling Jessie: “I have loved her-like a lover–that is why I could not love you”. Again on their trip to Lincoln, Paul treats his mother like ‘a fellow taking his girl on an outing!
Mrs Morel who is a woman of character and refinement goes into the lower class and has no love for her husband. This is apparent in the first chapter itself:
The pity was, she was too much his opposite. She could not be content with the little he might be; she would have him the much that he ought to be. So, in seeking to make him nobler than he could be, she destroyed him. She injured and hurt and scarred herself, but she lost none of her worth. She also had the children.
In order to have an outlet for her pent-up feelings, she selects her sons as lovers-first the eldest, then the second. She is very possessive and as it were ‘holds their soul’. When the second son Paul, like the elder one, William, comes into contact with a woman, he suffers a terrible split and does not know where he belongs. The woman involved is Miriam. She comes in contact with him at a very early age and slowly they are attracted towards each other. Paul feels that he belongs to her. If at any stage he married, hers would be the foremost claim on him. But nothing like this happens, for the greatest obstacle between them is Paul’s mother. Not only does she have a tight grip over her son, who again and again comes back to her, but she also feels very jealous of Miriam and hates her. Poor Miriam wants a completely committed love with all its concomitants of fidelity, tenderness and understanding. This Paul cannot give because he is under the spell of his mother. And Miriam herself is quite negative inasmuch as, being sexually inhibited but possessive, she cannot offer any really fulfilling love. Their relationship is bound to be a dismal failure. In their last meeting after the death of Paul’s mother, when Miriam suggests marriage, he rejects the proposal with a sense of confusion saying: “You love me so much, you want to put me in your pocket. And I should die there smothered,” And ultimately, after a friendship of about eight years, he breaks with her.
The advent of Clara Dawes in Paul’s life is meant to exhibit another aspect of love. Clara represents what Miriam does not. She is independent, emancipated, and physically uninhibited. She is also separated from her husband whom she has written off as an insensitive brute. While Miriam trespasses on the sanctities that had been his mother’s preserve, Clara stands freely on unoccupied ground. Paul easily has of her what he has wanted for years. She has only a physical appeal unlike the soul-love which Miriam has had for him. He does not analyze his physical experience, simply its occurrence is enough for him. Not only is Paul immensely elated but it also has a positive effect on Clara who had been cheapened by her husband; therefore, initially the question of guilt on either side does not arise. Talking of Clara, Lawrence writes:
It healed her pride… Now she radiated with joy and pride again. It was her restoration and recognition.
But the deadly illness of Paul’s mother draws him away from Clara too. In the meanwhile, he has also realised her inadequacy because of her existence purely at the physical level. So he tires of her. She, too, feels Paul’s growing coldness towards her. He arranges a reconciliation between Clara and her husband and clears himself of his only physical relationship. Thus, his bond with his mother, who is now dead, remains unimpaired.
So we see that Sons and Lovers is not only the first social study of the miners in English fiction but also the first Freudian novel depicting the Oedipus complexities. Some people may not consider this novel as a mature work of Lawrence; others may consider its popularity only incidental. But the fact remains that Lawrence succeeded, as Graham Hough remarks, “in breaking new spiritual territory outside the Christian boundaries” in his work in general and in Sons and Lovers in particular.