Sons and Lovers
Are You Ready for This?
This novel pulls a real bait-and-switch on us, folks. First, it's all, "Welcome to the life story of William Morel." Then, bam: "Oh wait, make that the life of Paul Morel, the sensitive artist boy who has to take over the role of lead character when William dies unexpectedly." Okay, now that that's been established…
Published in 1913, Sons and Lovers made it all the way to 9th on the Modern Library's 100 Best Books of the Twentieth Century list, narrowly beating out The Grapes of Wrath (take that, Steinbeck). Many people believe that Sons is D.H. Lawrence's best book. That's saying a lot, because this is the same guy who wrote Women in Love, Lady Chatterley's Lover, and other masterworks.
So, we bet you're guessing that Sons and Lovers incited a lot of immediate standing ovations when it was published. Right? Wrong. The initial reception of the book was actually a bit ho-hum.
The only real talk the book created at the time of its publication arose from critics who called Lawrence obscene for talking openly about sex—gasp. But hey, a lot of people still read Sons and Lovers today. The moral is: don't worry so much about naysayers, especially if you write a book whose themes may be a bit "before their time."
Let's Talk About Sex, Baby
Despite being fictionalized, this book is semi-autobiographical. The story centers on the admiration and love that Paul Morel has for his mother, Gertrude—a great woman who ruins her life by marrying a coal miner named Walter Morel, who turns out to be an abusive boozehound.
Lawrence's mother was also the wife of a pretty lousy coal miner. And Lawrence always felt bad about his mother's wasted potential. So we're guessing this book was kind of cathartic for him.
But wait a second. Sons and Lovers tells the tale of a young man who hates his father and wants to possess his mother all for himself… Doesn't that sound familiar? You got it; this novel is heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud's concept of the Oedipus Complex.
We know, we know, Freud put a lot of ideas out there. But the Oedipus Complex is the one about how little boys want to kill their fathers and sleep with their mothers, because their relationships with their moms are, like, their framework for understanding everything else in the world.
That all might sound crazy at first. But if you accept the Oedipus Complex as a thing, and then you pay attention to the amount of times Sons and Lovers compares Paul and Mrs. Morel to lovers, you'll see that Lawrence was definitely drawing on Freud.
See, when Lawrence published Sons and Lovers in 1913, Freud's ideas were becoming a really big deal in Europe. So we think that Freud provided Lawrence with the buzzwords and the concepts he needed to explore the then-very taboo subject of sexuality in his creative works.
Freud also wrote about how sexual desire can get expressed in things that aren't obviously sexual, so Lawrence was able to follow his lead—to broach issues of sexuality in his writing indirectly, back when people were pretty hostile to anything sex-related. Just take a look at some of Lawrence's descriptions of flowers and you'll see what we mean…
Guess that D.H. Lawrence character was a pretty clever guy after all, don't you think?
Why Should I Care?
How much do you love your mother? Okay, awkward question, we know. "A lot, obviously," you say. But this is a relevant question, really, because Sons and Lovers pushes us to wonder if it's possible to love your mother too much.
In this book, Lawrence never really puts a limit on how much we can love our mothers. He does suggest, however, that loving a parent too much might make it tough to form relationships with people outside the family. If you've got such a solid foundation at home, why would you ever truly take the risk of loving someone else?
In other words, our protagonist, Paul, has some serious commitment issues when it comes to relationships. And we think this theme is probably even more important in today's world than it was in Lawrence's. Just take a look at Ted from How I Met Your Mother.
With Paul's romantic relationships, Lawrence hits on a fundamental aspect of human life, which is the tension between wanting to connect with others and wanting to establish yourself as an individual. Think about it.
You try your best to get good grades in school and distinguish yourself from the people around you, but then shake your head and wonder why you sometimes feel lonely. See the contradiction there? Well, Lawrence sure does.
So, if you've ever been worried about how much you've achieved in your life, or if you've ever felt lonely, Sons and Lovers has something meaningful to tell you. And hey, if there's some steamy kissing scenes along the way, who are we to turn up our noses?