D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913) is a sort of bridge between two centuries of literature. Its length, breadth, and the length of time it narrates make it a close relative of the Victorian novel. However its concern with themes of sexual frustration, alienation, and meaninglessness place it thoroughly in the twentieth century.
If it’s not clear from that introduction, this is not a particularly uplifting book. Not a single character in its two generations can be considered to be happy, fulfilled, or satisfied on anything but a very short-lived basis. The moments of joy are far outnumbered by those of disappointment, disillusionment, and despair.
Isolation and alienation are core themes of the novel, plaguing all its relationships but especially its romantic ones. Gertrude and Walter Morel have about three months of happiness after their wedding, followed by a lifetime of mutual incomprehension, resulting in resentment and misery. Their eldest son, William, initially a rare source of hope in the novel, ends up squandering his promising start in a painful affair with a beautiful but expensive and vacuous London society girl (Louisa). Paul’s relationships are the worst of all, and Arthur’s and Annie’s are hardly treated. Deep negativity about sex pervades the novel, so the basis of relationships between men and women is that of the Fall; rather than building a positive relationship on the basis of amorous feelings, the characters resist each other until finally succumbing to lust or persuasion. This makes them loathe both themselves and their partners, in every case resulting in guilt, resentment, and ever-deeper alienation, even as they persist in their physical relationships:
Clara did not know what was the matter with him. She realised that he seemed unaware of her. Even when he came to her he seemed unaware of her; always he was somewhere else. She felt she was clutching for him, and he was somewhere else. It tortured her, and so she tortured him. For a month at a time she kept him at arm’s length. He almost hated her, and was driven to her in spite of himself. He went mostly into the company of men, was always at the George or the White Horse. His mother was ill, distant, quiet, shadowy. He was terrified of something; he dared not look at her. Her eyes seemed to grow darker, her face more waxen; still she dragged about at her work.
Maternal relationships overshadow romantic ones in the novel, and while all the sons have moments of aggressive indignation in defending their mother against their father’s stupid callousness, it is the close relationship between Gertrude and her middle son Paul that is at the heart of the novel. While her love and pride foster his artistic endeavours, which his father would have entirely discouraged, their relationship nonetheless becomes incredibly painful as well. In Paul’s interactions with both the intellectual Miriam and the more worldly Clara Dawes, he is perpetually haunted by an explicit and crippling Oedipus complex. Early in the novel he goes so far as to claim that he will never marry in order to stay with his mother, but by the agonizing conclusion he is literally waiting for his mother to die so that he can get on with his life.
In the way it deals with the failure of ambition and adapting to the realities of life, Sons and Lovers is a relative of Middlemarch. But the differences show how modern it is by comparison. In Middlemarch, the characters are filled with ambition on a grand scale, but everyday life encroaches until the characters are finally forced to accept their mundane reality. “His skill was relied on by many paying patients, but he always regarded himself as a failure: he had not done what he once meant to do.” In Sons and Lovers, neither the ambition nor the failure have quite the same gravity or clarity. While the sons hope to help their mother, this ambition is far more modest and more achievable than the lofty goals of Middlemarch‘s characters. The characters in Sons and Lovers fail not by gradually acquiescing to life’s realities, but by their own inability to form loving relationships. Though they all make sacrifices and compromise, they never choose the right sacrifices, and are never truly selfless out of love. William, for example, makes enough money to greatly help his mother, but instead chooses to live beyond his means attempting to support Louisa. Even Paul’s initial dedication to his mother becomes unbearable to him and eventually impedes his artistic progress.
Middlemarch, then, comments on the process of maturation into adulthood, and its treatment of this theme is universal, insofar as it is concerned with the way that the demands of adult life erode the idealism and optimism of youth. Marriage may not be the salvation it was in previous Victorian novels, but it is a Pyrrhic victory, a real compensation for characters whose ideals are incompatible with their realities. They never reach their goals, but they find solace in what they do achieve and in their partners. Sons and Lovers, by contrast, comments on the meaninglessness of modern life itself. It is impossible to succeed, not because circumstance prevents success, but because success itself is meaningless. Marriage is neither the ultimate goal nor a half-salvation, but only a further source of conflict and problems in an already difficult life. Rosamond and Lydgate in Middlemarch, while hardly a happy couple, do eventually resolve their conflicts enough to live outwardly successful lives; they grow past the torment in which nearly all characters in Sons and Lovers are forever mired.
I realise that not much of what I’ve written sounds like a recommendation. Beyond its bleak outlook on life and relationships, it is rather unbalanced in its treatment of the characters, and Paul (who receives a disproportionate amount of pages) is not a very likeable protagonist. And yet Sons and Lovers does offer rare insight into gender relations; mostly the negative side it’s true, but it is often painfully accurate. Lawrence, like Eliot, is a consummate master of interiority, almost unparalleled in his empathy. Since the novel is so clearly autobiographical, the result is a strange mixture of pity for his tortured state, and admiration for his powerful prose. It may not be enjoyed but it certainly should be read, and, one hundred years after its publication, remains a masterful and deeply incisive novel. ★★★★☆