Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 972
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 rightfully sees as a threat, is in some ways an acting out of the sexual implications of the mother-son relationship. In her passive dominance, Miriam unconsciously assumes for Paul the figure of his mother. If their love manages to remove him temporarily from his mother’s sway, it also reinforces it. Both relationships are symbiotic; Paul draws sustenance from the women but loses the power of self-propulsion. That Paul does not completely acquiesce in the symbiosis is evident both in his brutal sexual treatment of Miriam and in his sexual ambivalence toward his mother.
Paul’s connection with Clara and Baxter Dawes is much more interesting and complex. Clara provides him with an adult sexual experience unlike that which he has with Miriam. She is neither dominating nor submissive, but she demands that he meet her as an equal. He therefore must remain emotionally on his own; he is expected to give affection as well as to receive it. Unfortunately, Paul cannot maintain such independence, and this fact undermines their love. He cannot exist as a self-sufficient entity, and Clara will not tolerate an invasion of her self. Paul, however, does not understand this about their relationship until after Mrs. Morel’s death. His subsequently successful attempt to reunite her with Baxter thus becomes his first sign of health; it is not only an admission that their romance is impossible but also a reparation for having alienated her from Baxter.
Paul’s act of reparation is also symbolic. Released from his mother’s dominance by her death, he must continue his growth toward freedom and power by making peace with his father. Unable to confront his father directly, Paul’s bringing together Clara and Baxter is an admission of the higher moral demands of marital love, a love he helped to destroy—although in the innocence of childhood—between his father and mother. In this act, moreover, he negates the child in himself and salutes the reality of the father and husband.
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