Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Bestwood. English coal-mining town in Nottinghamshire in which the novel is primarily set. Dominated by mine buildings, machinery, and towering slag heaps, Bestwood depends for its existence on the local coal company, Carson, Waite and Company, and its residents are virtually owned by the company store.
D. H. Lawrence modeled Bestwood on the real Nottinghamshire mining town of Eastwood, in which he was born and spent his early years. There, he lived in circumstances very similar to those described in his novel. His father worked for Barber, Walker Coal Company, on which he modeled his fictional Carson, Waite and Company.
The Bottoms. Bestwood neighborhood in which the Morel family lives. The neighborhood contains six blocks of miners’ homes, distributed “like dots on a blank-six domino,” with twelve houses to a block. Outwardly, the houses appear substantial and decent. They have pleasant little gardens in front, neat front windows, porches, privet hedges, and dormer windows. However, the insides of the houses tell a different story.
The main rooms of the houses are the kitchen, which is located at the back of each house, overlooking scrubby little back gardens and garbage dumps. Between the rows of houses and long lines of ash-pits are alleys in which children play, women gossip, and men smoke. Thus, the house that appears to be “so well built and that looked so...
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Lawrence’s novel begins in 1885 and ends in 1911, roughly following the outline of Lawrence’s own life. During that time, British miners battled their capitalist bosses for better pay and safer working conditions. However, large swings in demand for coal contributed to industry instability, and it was common for miners’ unions to be rewarded a raise one year and presented with a cut in salary the next. As the rate of industrialization increased, so did the gap between rich and poor. Nowhere was this gap more apparent than in the difference between how the miners lived and how the owners of the mines lived. Lawrence’s father, on whom Walter Morel is based, began working in the mines when he was ten years old. A typical week for him consisted of six twelve-hour days, with only two paid holidays a year. One way out of the danger and poverty of the mining life was through education. The Education Act of 1870, which attempted to provide elementary education for all children, gave hope to the parents of many working-class children. The act allowed local school boards to levy and collect taxes. Elementary schooling, however, was not entirely free until the 1890s, when “board” schools could stop charging fees. Before that, parents were expected to pay between one and four pence per week per child. William, Paul, Clara, and Miriam all went to school, which significantly increased their chances of finding better work.
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Sons and Lovers is structured episodically. This means that the novel consists of a series of episodes tied together thematically and by subject matter. Structuring the novel in this manner allows Lawrence to let meaning accumulate by showing how certain actions and images repeat themselves and become patterns. This repetition of actions and images is part of the iterative mode. By using this mode, Lawrence can blend time periods, making it sometimes difficult to know whether an event happened once or many times. Lawrence is using the iterative mode when he uses words such as “would” and “used to.”
Point of View
Point of view refers to the perspective from which the narrative is told. Sons and Lovers is told mostly from a third-person omniscient point of view, as the narrator has access to the thoughts of the characters and moves back and forth in time while telling the story. The first half of the novel focuses on Gertrude Morel and the second part focuses on Paul. However, although Lawrence strives to create a narrator that is impartial and presents material in an objective manner, the narrator occasionally makes editorial comments on the action, as he does in the first part of the novel after Mrs. Morel has been thinking that her life will be one of continued drudgery. The narrator intrudes, saying, “Sometimes life takes hold of one, carries the body along, accomplishes one’s history, and yet is...
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Sons and Lovers is an excellent example of a realism heightened by poetic intensification, such as a symbolic identification of character with animals and nature. Of Miriam, for example, Lawrence writes that "It could never be mentioned [around her] that the mare was in foal," and he symbolically identifies her with the madonna lily. Flower imagery is frequently used to identify the nature of a character. In addition, Lawrence used organic metaphors to define character; he particularly favored the image of a plant which either grows to full bloom and then naturally decays, or, conversely, a plant which somehow denies its own nature and chokes itself. Such symbolism becomes more mordant in later novels such as Women in Love (1920), and more explicit in later allegorical fables such as The Fox, but here it effectively textures and structures the story.
Such techniques were necessary to Lawrence's purpose, for he proposed to reveal the passional side of character, which did not reflect simply a social class or family background, but instead articulated an impersonal flow of being. The description of natural phenomena, such as a river in flood, was intended to represent human relationships in a context which gave primacy to nonhuman standards. The use of symbolic description was not Lawrence's invention, but in his hands it became not only a tool of characterization but also a structural device. In addition, the repetition of key phrases...
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This novel is worthy of study for several reasons. Not only is it accessible, but it is one of Lawrence's more successful and representative novels. The background of the novel is socially realistic; it reveals the way a novelist uses and transforms autobiographical material. The coming of age of Paul Morel parallels Lawrence's own successful but ambivalent escape from his working-class destiny as a coal miner's son. The book is also an example of psychological realism heightened by poetic language — the novel evokes the inner lives of its main characters, especially Paul. His mother nurtures him but compensates for a disappointing marriage (and the loss of William, her older son) by projecting all of her love and ambition into him. This bond between mother and son is so strong and instinctive that the book can be read as a case study of the Oedipal conflict. Paul futilely attempts to free himself from this mother-son bond by finding a suitable mate, first Miriam Leivers, a childhood friend of whom his mother disapproves, and then Clara Dawes, a sensual woman separated from her husband. He cannot break the Oedipal bond with his mother, and the ensuing conflicts dramatize the archetypal Lawrentian theme of friction between man and woman, making it a good introduction to his work.
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Compare and Contrast
1900–1920: In 1912, Sigmund Freud delivers a speech before the London Society of Psychical Research detailing for the first time his theories on the unconscious as a repository of thoughts repressed by the conscious mind. Over the next few decades, psychoanalysis grows in popularity, with thousands of psychiatrists undergoing and then practicing Freudian psychoanalysis.
Today: Though academic interest in Freud remains strong, very few practicing Freudian psychoanalysts remain.
1900–1920: World War I is fought between 1914 and 1918, resulting in tens of millions of casualties.
Today: In 2001, terrorists kill more than 3,000 people by flying jet airplanes into the twin towers of Manhattan’s World Trade Center, and President George W. Bush of the United States declares war on terrorism.
1900–1920: In 1917, the world’s first massproduced tractor, the Fordson, is introduced, and farmers quickly produce crop surpluses. Today: Governments of the United States and Britain regularly offer subsidies to their farmers to not grow crops.
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Topics for Further Study
Compare Lawrence’s novel to the film adaptation made of it in 1960 which was directed by Jack Cardiff. How does Cardiff adapt Lawrence’s episodic telling of the story to the screen? What information does Cardiff leave out of the film, and what effects do these omissions have on the story? Discuss as a class.
Make a chapter by chapter timeline of the novel, detailing major events and shifts in point of view. Hang the chart in the classroom, and make any necessary changes to it while discussing the novel.
Gather in groups and draw a portrait of Paul’s brain, marking off sections according to the thoughts and people that preoccupy him during the novel. How much space would you give to Miriam? How much to his mother? How much to his father? Present the portrait to the class and explain your labeling choices.
In explaining his theory of the oedipal complex, Freud claimed that between two and five years old, during the phallic stage of their development, boys fantasize about being their mother’s lover. The boy’s sexual interests, however, are soon met with the threat of castration from the father, and the eventual successful resolution involves identification with the father and assuming an active and aggressive social role in a patriarchal society. Discuss how the relationship between Paul and his mother does not illustrate or echo the Oedipus complex.
Write a summary of what might happen in a sixteenth...
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Critics often point to Thomas Carlyle's apocalyptic writings as a strong influence on the didactic strain in Lawrence's work, and to Thomas Hardy's pastoral anti-industrialism as formative of his themes (although Hardy, unlike Lawrence, defeats his heroes). It is important to note that Lawrence read widely and intensely (often, in his early years, with Jessie Chambers, the prototype of Miriam in Sons and Lovers). He admired writers who could be both savagely satirical of modern manners, particularly English manners, and fully alive.
Lawrence stands firmly in a long tradition of iconoclasts and revolutionaries: commentators have mentioned Swift, Thoreau, Voltaire, and Whitman. Swift and Voltaire hated cant and gloried in their hatred. They produced bracing satires — for Lawrence, clearly seen and felt hatred was more valuable than orthodox affection. Thoreau always spoke from his whole being, and gave at least as much respect to nature as to man; like Lawrence, he saw man not as primal but as only one element in a cosmic matrix. Although Whitman was too willing (for Lawrence's tastes) to argue that an overarching love of humankind was a kind of salvation, he didn't separate the life of man into flesh and spirit, but wrote passionately on behalf of a new nondualistic morality.
Lawrence is often categorized as a Modernist along with Yeats, Joyce, Proust, Pound, Mann and Eliot (among others). Like them, he had contempt for modern...
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Lawrence considered all of his work to be "thought adventures"; each title was a further attempt to clarify his vision and to represent the quality of lived experience. There is a constant struggle between light and darkness in his work, although darkness is sometimes necessary to growth and lightness a superficial rationalism. That is, he sometimes turns conventional symbolism on its head, and all of his work is part of a continuing dialectic on "the relation between men and women."
The Rainbow and Women in Love, the two novels which immediately followed Sons and Lovers, continue to develop the themes, if not the characters, first formulated in the earlier book. "One sheds one's sicknesses in books," Lawrence wrote of Sons and Lovers; The Rainbow, like the earlier book, is a family chronicle, but it covers three generations instead of one, and it dissects the disintegration of modern life. Women in Love continues such a dissection with its savage satire; it also continues to suggest, especially through Birkin, the Lawrentian spokesman, that man must be moved by a power greater than himself and must never sacrifice his sensual being to his spiritual being or vice versa. It also expands the dialectic, however; Birkin marries Ursula by the novel's end, but he is not satisfied. He tells his wife that he needs two kinds of love: an inviolable and sacred marriage to a woman, and a deathless love with a man. Later novels —...
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The most acclaimed film adaptation of Lawrence’s novel is the 1960 film Sons and Lovers, directed by Jack Cardiff and starring Trevor Howard, Dean Stockwell, and Wendy Hiller. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards. Many libraries and video stores carry the video.
In 1995, Penguin Audiobooks released an audiocassette of Lawrence’s novel with Paul Copley narrating.
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What Do I Read Next?
Lawrence’s novel The Rainbow (1915) follows three generations of a Nottingham family, detailing their love affairs, marriages, and family relationships. This is the first of Lawrence’s novels to describe sexual situations in an open manner, and its publication stirred controversy.
Lawrence was also a poet. His first collection, Love Poems and Others (1913), contains some of his best-known poems.
Lawrence’s idiosyncratic study of American literature, Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), has itself become a classic.
Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex tells the story of the banished king of Greek mythology who killed his father and married his mother. A number of critics refer to the Oedipus myth when discussing Sons and Lovers.
Daniel Weiss’s Oedipus at Nottingham (1962) explores the oedipal themes in Lawrence’s fiction.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Baron, Helen, “Disseminated Consciousness in Sons and Lovers,” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 48, No. 4, October 1998, pp. 357–78.
Finney, Brian, D. H. Lawrence: “Sons and Lovers,” Penguin, 1990, p. 14.
Gregory, Alyse, “Artist Turned Prophet,” in the Dial, Vol. LXXVI, No. 1, January 1924, pp. 66–72.
Ingersoll, Earl G., “Gender and Language in Sons and Lovers,” in the Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 4, Summer 1996, pp. 434–48.
Kuttner, Alfred Booth, “Sons and Lovers: A Freudian Appreciation,” in the Psychoanalytic Review, Vol. III, No. 3, July 1916, pp. 295–317.
Lawrence, D. H., Sons and Lovers, New American Library, 1960, pp. 14, 61, 92.
“Mother Love,” in the New York Times Book Review, September 21, 1913, p. 479.
Review of Sons and Lovers,” in the Saturday Review, Vol. 115, No. 3008, June 21, 1913, pp. 780–81.
Widmer, Kingsley, “D. H. Lawrence,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 36, British Novelists, 1890–1929: Modernists, edited by Thomas F. Staley, Gale Research, 1985, pp. 115–49.
Cowan, James C., D. H. Lawrence’s American Journey: A Study in Literature and Myth, Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1970. Using Lawrence’s experience in America, Cowan...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Balbert, Peter, and Phillip L. Marcus, eds. D. H. Lawrence: A Centenary Consideration. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985. Eleven essays on D. H. Lawrence and his novels. Two are effective for research on Sons and Lovers: Mark Spilka’s “For Mark Schorer with Combative Love: The Sons and Lovers Manuscript,” and feminist critic Sandra M. Gilbert’s masterful “Potent Griselda: ‘The Ladybird’ and the Great Mother.”
Gilbert, Sandra. D. H. Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers” and Other Works: “The Rainbow,” “Women in Love,” “The Plumed Serpent.” New York: Simon & Schuster, 1965. Provides introductory biography and information on people behind the fictional characters in this autobiographical novel. Includes Lawrence’s plan for the novel, Freudian influences, chapter-by-chapter summary with explication, character descriptions, and critical commentary. A gold mine for researchers.
Kazin, Alfred. Introduction to Sons and Lovers, by D. H. Lawrence. New York: Modern Library, 1962. Provides pertinent background information on Sons and Lovers as autobiographical fiction; discusses crucial concerns of the content; analyzes style and the Freudian elements in the novel.
Lawrence, D. H. Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence. Edited by Edward...
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