Sons and Lovers, Lawrence’s third book, is an apprenticeship novel that, in many respects, defies the conventions of its genre. Among early twentieth century English apprenticeship novels that preceded Lawrence’s work, the main character usually undergoes an “education” or “apprenticeship” toward a meaningful life experience. As part of his (or, rarely, her) apprenticeship, the protagonist begins with innocent, often mistaken notions about the nature of reality; only after some painful experiences does he grow to mastery in the game of life. Specifically, he learns valuable lessons about himself, especially his limitations and illusions, but by the completion of his youth he often can answer three questions: What is the nature of love? What vocation is appropriate for me? What is the meaning of life?
In contrast with the main characters in earlier apprenticeship novels or in subsequent ones, Paul Morel, Lawrence’s protagonist, fails to find answers to any of these questions. By the end of his life apprenticeship, he has learned only that he is incapable of intense sexual feelings to sustain a relationship with a young woman, that he lacks a true vocation for his considerable talents, and that he cannot fathom the “meaning of life,” except narrowly in terms of his own sensibility.
Grappling with a modern version of the classic Oedipal problem, Paul loathes his father, the hard-drinking but convivial miner, Walter, and he attaches himself emotionally to his mother, Gertrude. As a result of this psychological conditioning, in Freudian theory, Paul has been crippled emotionally. Following his mother’s death from cancer, Paul is a “derelict,” isolated from all meaningful emotional contact with women. His...
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