Sons and Lovers, Lawrence’s third book, is an apprenticeship novel that, in many respects, defies the conventions of its genre. Among early twentieth century English apprenticeship novels that preceded Lawrence’s work, the main character usually undergoes an “education” or “apprenticeship” toward a meaningful life experience. As part of his (or, rarely, her) apprenticeship, the protagonist begins with innocent, often mistaken notions about the nature of reality; only after some painful experiences does he grow to mastery in the game of life. Specifically, he learns valuable lessons about himself, especially his limitations and illusions, but by the completion of his youth he often can answer three questions: What is the nature of love? What vocation is appropriate for me? What is the meaning of life?
In contrast with the main characters in earlier apprenticeship novels or in subsequent ones, Paul Morel, Lawrence’s protagonist, fails to find answers to any of these questions. By the end of his life apprenticeship, he has learned only that he is incapable of intense sexual feelings to sustain a relationship with a young woman, that he lacks a true vocation for his considerable talents, and that he cannot fathom the “meaning of life,” except narrowly in terms of his own sensibility.
Grappling with a modern version of the classic Oedipal problem, Paul loathes his father, the hard-drinking but convivial miner, Walter, and he attaches himself emotionally to his mother, Gertrude. As a result of this psychological conditioning, in Freudian theory, Paul has been crippled emotionally. Following his mother’s death from cancer, Paul is a “derelict,” isolated from all meaningful emotional contact with women. His proposal of marriage to Miriam Leivers, whom he had earlier seduced, is merely formalistic, and she rejects him. He turns back Clara Dawes, his paramour, to her husband, Baxter, for he knows that he cannot give her the fullness of love that she deserves.
Yet the clinical phrase “Oedipal complex” does not quite get to the heart of Paul’s dilemma. As Lawrence understands his protagonist, Paul has indeed been crippled in his vitality through his mother’s excessive love for him, for her identification of soul with his soul. In Lawrence’s variation on the Freudian paradigm, Paul has invested his vital force, his anima, so deeply into identification with his mother that they are truly one. He has no more vital energy to surrender to any other woman. Gentle, passive Miriam threatens him because, in his imagination, she wishes to absorb his soul, to destroy what is left of his independence. Although he loves her on a spiritual level, he subconsciously fears her physical sexual presence. His “test” on her sexuality has really been a test of his own capacity to feel erotic emotion through her stimulus—and he fails. His love affair with Clara, sexual enough to satisfy him physically, lacks a dimension of the spirit. In either case, he shrinks from being absorbed—from losing his independence through love with either a passive or an assertive woman.
Even as he fails in his quest for love, Paul also fails to discover a life’s vocation. Although he has dabbled in painting, has worked as a spiral clerk at a surgical supply factory, and has taught school briefly, he concludes his youth without ever selecting a foundation for his future labors. His vocation, by the end of the novel, is not to work at all, at least not to work at mechanical, dehumanizing tasks. In a sense, his work at Jordan’s—which symbolically manufactures artificial limbs and prostheses—prepares him for the larger world beyond Nottingham. He learns that every person is crippled to some degree, some obviously, like the hunchback, Fanny, others emotionally, like Paul.
Finally, he fails to solve the great mystery of the meaning of life. By the end of the novel, he has made only one crucial decision: to go on living. He has decided not to...
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