Although Sigmund Freud was the first to provide a systematic analysis of the Oedipal relationship, this instinct has been a part of the human unconscious from the earliest beginnings of humans as social animals. The establishment of the taboo against a son’s murdering his father and having sexual relationships with his mother was, one may argue, an initial step in the creation of civilization, because, according to Freud, this psychic drive lies deep in every man’s subconscious, or id, as a reservoir of anarchistic energy. If a male fails to acknowledge this biological compulsion and to incorporate its prohibition into his own ego, he invites annihilation: specifically, in the form of castration by the father; generally, in the loss of freedom and power.
One of the earliest and best-known dramatizations of this drive is Sophocles’ play, Oedipus Tyrannus (c. 429 b.c.e.; Oedipus Tyrannus, 1715). Without foreknowledge and culpable guilt, Oedipus murders his father and marries his mother. Since he has transgressed, however, he must be punished; he blinds himself, a form of castration. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603) has also been explored and explicated, most notably by Ernest Jones, as a reenactment of the Oedipal myth. Sons and Lovers, based directly on D. H. Lawrence’s own childhood experiences, is the most significant post-Freudian novel dealing with a young man’s murderous feelings toward his father and his erotic attraction to his mother.
Although it would be overly simplistic to explain Sons and Lovers as a mere gloss on a psychological concept, Freud’s complex does offer a convenient way to begin understanding the character and cultural situation of Lawrence’s hero, Paul Morel. He is the youngest and adored son of a mother who married beneath herself. A member of the failed middle class, she is educated to a degree, refined with pretensions toward the higher matters of life. As a girl, she is attracted to Walter Morel, a miner who possesses a passionate exuberance she missed on the frayed edges of the middle class. Their marriage, however, soon disintegrates under the pressures of poverty and unfulfilled expectations. As the father and mother grow apart and the older children leave home, Mrs. Morel turns toward her youngest child, mapping out his life and intending to free him from the ignominy of the working class. Her ambitions for Paul are not untainted by her own frustrations, and it becomes clear that she wishes to live out her life through him.
Sensitive and frail, Paul finds his father’s drunkenness and rough-edged masculinity repellent. Reared by his mother as if he were a fragile hothouse plant, he is further alienated by his father’s vulgar habits and degrading job. Without sympathy or understanding of his father’s suffering or his hard and abrupt love for him, Paul withdraws and joins his mother in the domestic battle. Morel becomes enraged and disappointed by the loss of his son and wife and withdraws into self-pity and alcohol.
Bereft of his father’s influence, Paul finds his life dominated by his mother. Smothered by her warm maternity, cut off from the real world, he returns her ardent affection, and they form a relationship designed to hold off the horrors of reality. As he grows up, however, he discovers that he traded his self for security. His mother’s protectiveness costs him the power and freedom to relate to others. Every relationship he tries to create is inhibited by her jealousy and demands for his entire attention. Indeed, he comes to feel that every relationship he attempts to pursue is in some way a denial of her.
Paul’s attraction to Miriam Leivers, which gradually develops into a love affair, is, ironically, both a rejection and a reaffirmation of his mother. Their immature love, which Mrs. Morel...
(The entire section is 972 words.)