Lawrence's novel as a Bildungsroman
Sons and Lovers is an example of a Bildungsroman, an autobiographical novel about the early years of a character’s life, and that character’s emotional and spiritual development. The term derives from German novels of education, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, which details the experiences of an innocent young man who discovers his purpose and passion in life through a series of adventures and misadventures. Lawrence offers up a rendering of his own first twenty-five years of life in more or less chronological order, showing how Paul Morel must negotiate the pull of family and culture to cultivate his individuality.
By writing a novel that is predominantly based on people and times from his own life, Lawrence implicitly invites readers to treat the work as nonfiction. This has often led to confusion, however, as some of the events in Sons and Lovers have no factual basis in Lawrence’s life but rather are symbolic dramatizations of his key emotional struggles. The character in the book that has occasioned the most controversy is Miriam Leivers, whom Lawrence based on Jessie Chambers, a friend from his youth. Chambers encouraged Lawrence to rewrite the novel after he had sent her a draft. She was disappointed in the revision as well, because she felt it did not accurately portray their relationship. Chambers attempted to tell the “real” story of her relationship with Lawrence in her own memoir, D. H. Lawrence: A Personal Record.
The relationship between Paul and Miriam that Lawrence describes fulfills the conventional criteria of the Bildungsroman, which often includes a detailing of the protagonist’s love affairs. Critic Brian Finney is even more specific in his description of the genre’s criteria in his examination of the novel D. H. Lawrence: Sons and Lovers when he writes, “Normally, there are at least two love affairs, one demeaning, and one exalting.” In this scheme, Miriam, of course, represents the “demeaning” relationship. Although she gives herself to Paul sexually, she does so reluctantly, sacrificially, and without passion.
Finney describes other criteria of the Bildungsroman:
The child protagonist is usually sensitive and is constrained by parents (the father in particular) and the provincial society in which he or she grows up. Made aware of wider intellectual and social horizons by schooling, the child breaks with the constraints of parents and home environment and moves to the city where his or her personal education begins—both in terms of discovering a true vocation and through first experiencing sexual passion.
Paul certainly fulfills the criterion of being sensitive. Lawrence describes him as “a pale, quiet child” who “was so conscious of what other people felt.” However, the primary constraint on his development is his mother, rather than his father. It is Mrs. Morel that Paul resembles and loves and who forms the psychological barrier that Paul repeatedly comes up against in his drive to know himself. Mrs. Morel, though, is also a facilitator in Paul’s development, as she attempts to shield him from her husband’s vulgar habits and rescues him from a life in the mines.
Mrs. Morel also attempts to mitigate the effects that the society in which they live have on her children. Bestwood, a thinly-veiled version of Eastwood, where Lawrence was born, is the setting of the novel, and in the opening chapter Lawrence recounts the history of the Midlands countryside, Mrs. Morel’s childhood, and the time when she met and married Walter Morel. This narrative strategy of describing the factors that contributed to Paul’s conception allows Lawrence to foreground the influence of Paul’s environment and family life on the development of his character. Paul was born in “The Bottoms,” a six-block area of housing for miners. Life in “The Bottoms” is largely one of ongoing despair. After a day in the mines, the men drink and cavort, while their wives...
(The entire section is 8,030 words.)