Sons and Lovers is rich in character portrayals, but its focus is Paul Morel. All other characters are portrayed in their relationship to him: his mother, his lovers — Miriam Leivers and Clara Dawes — and Clara's husband Baxter. In the early chapters Paul's older brother William is the central focus. William dies, in part because he cannot break the Oedipal bond with his mother; his death foreshadows the relationship between his mother and Paul. The other two children, Annie and Arthur, are foils, incidental to the plot. Paul's father serves to introduce the male-female struggle through an account of the deterioration of his marriage with Gertrude Morel; he is also a study in well-meaning but clumsy brute vitality, a victim of society but also a type that Lawrence came into sympathy with in later years.
Paul cannot mature into manhood until he has freed himself from his mother. He loves her almost incestuously, however, and can barely face the fact that she is an older woman. In the climax of the book she gets cancer and Paul (with his sister Annie's collusion) finally administers an overdose of morphine because he can no longer stand her suffering. In the book's last chapter he is overcome by a yearning to join her in death — the darkness which until now his father the coal miner has represented — but chooses the life principle, almost by a sheer act of will.
Paul is vitally in touch with the life force throughout the book, at times almost to the point of narcissism. His mother's love encourages such preoccupation with self, for she lives through her son. Once he becomes established in the world, however, her possessiveness becomes a barrier to his further maturation. A similar pattern becomes apparent in Paul's relationship with Miriam. She admires him and promotes him. In return he instructs her; in her presence his intellectual and spiritual idealism flourishes. But she is virtuous and physically untouchable, unable to enjoy a sensual apprehension of the world and unwilling to consummate their relationship. When she finally offers herself to Paul, it is as a sacrifice. For Lawrence she represents the attempt of modern Christian civilization to possess a man in his soul but to deny him the fullness of his being.
About halfway through the book Paul deserts Miriam for Clara Dawes. Clara is full of life. She satisfies Paul's desire for sensual fulfillment; their lovemaking is impersonal, almost spiritual, because it awakens Paul to deep vitalistic forces beyond the intellect. However, she is still married and will not fully give herself to Paul, and he is still bound to his mother. In addition, in Paul's mind their sexual experimentation leads to debasement; Clara becomes the harlot to Miriam's nun. Paul finally befriends the pathetic Baxter Dawes, Clara's estranged husband, and arranges for a reconciliation. The reconciliation is a sign that a marriage relationship is not impossible, but Paul cannot achieve a lasting union with another woman until his mother dies. Her death brings Paul face-to-face with the yearning for obliteration implicit in their relationship. Unlike his older brother, he chooses to live in the world of men rather than to join her in death.