Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My reactions to this book veered from extremely positive to quite negative, so it is difficult to know how to begin. If you have an ear for prose, then Lawrence will seldom completely disappoint. At his best, Lawrence’s prose is lush, caressing, and aching. He evokes a kind of aesthetic tenderness that I have seldom experienced elsewhere—an intimacy between the reader and himself, a vulnerability that is disarming. In his strongest passages Lawrence is as meditative as Proust and as lyrical as Keats.

But this book is, unfortunately, not exclusively composed of Lawrence’s strongest passages. And as it wore on, I felt that Lawrence had exhausted his limited emotional range, and was overplaying his thematic material.

The premise of the book is quite simple: a woman in an unsatisfying marriage pours her emotions into her sons, who then become so dependent on her that they cannot form satisfying relationships for themselves. For me, there is nothing wrong with this (arrestingly Freudian) idea; but I did think that Lawrence beats the reader over the head with it. In general, I think it is unwise for any book to be too exclusively devoted to a theme. It does not leave enough room for levity, for spontaneity, for fresh air to blow through its pages. Sons and Lovers certainly suffers from this defect.

But the book’s faults become apparent only in the second half. I thought the beginning of the novel was quite astonishingly beautiful. Lawrence wrote of the sufferings of a young wife with amazing sympathy. He manages to bring out all the nobility and strength of Mrs. Morel, while avoiding portraying Mr. Morel in an unnecessarily harsh light. The miner is a flawed man in a crushing situation, and his wife is a resolute woman with few options. Their tragedy is as social as it is personal, which gives this section of the novel its great power.

When the focus shifts from Mrs. Morel to her son Paul, then the quality generally declines. Paul is not as interesting or as compelling as his mother; and his problems seem like sexual hang-ups or psychological limitations, rather than anything diagnostic of society at large. Perhaps our own social climate is just not ripe for this novel. Nowadays we are little disposed to care about the inability of a young man to find complete satisfaction in his relationships.

In fairness, there are charming and insightful sections in this second part of the novel as well. I liked Miriam as a character and I thought the dynamic between her and Paul was compelling, if a touch implausible. (On the other hand, I disliked the reconciliation between Clara and her pathetic husband.) Even so, I thought that the writing became noticeably worse as the book went on, as Lawrence inclined more and more to repetition. The characters speak, desire, recoil, hate each other, relapse, and so on. It is tiresome and it begins to wear on the reader, who longs for someone to do something decisive and bring all this emotional dithering to an end.

I am hopeful that Lawrence’s later novels have more of his strengths (his sympathy, his lyricism, his tenderness) and fewer of his weaknesses (his lack of range, his lack of humor). As for this one, I will end where I begin, with a confused shrug.



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