Study Guide

Sons and Lovers Women and Femininity

By David Herbert (D.H.) Lawrence

Women and Femininity

He waited grimly, and watched. At last Miriam let the bird peck from her hand. She gave a little cry of fear, and pain because of fear—rather pathetic. But she had done it, and she did it again. (6.251)

Paul finds it pathetic that Miriam is so scared of feeding a chicken. But he still experiences a small sense of triumph when he helps her overcome this fear. No doubt, Miriam's scaredy-cat nature stems partially from her natural shyness and partially from her cultural training as a young girl.

"Yes," wrote Mrs. Morel to her son, "the photograph of Louie is very striking, and I can see she must be attractive. But do you think, my boy, it was very good taste of a girl to give her young man that photo to send to his mother—the first?" (5.216)

After her son William sends her a photo of his new girlfriend, Mrs. Morel expresses her distaste at the fact that the girl has bare shoulders. Mrs. Morel suggests that the pic is inappropriate, and that William has been inappropriate in giving it to her. We can't be certain at this point, but it definitely feels like Mrs. Morel would've found any excuse she could to not like the photo—she'll never think any woman is good enough for her son(s).

Miriam also refused to be approached. She was afraid of being set at nought, as by her own brothers. The girl was romantic in her soul. Everywhere was a Walter Scott heroine being loved by men with helmets or with plumes in their caps. She herself was something of a princess turned into a swine-girl in her own imagination. (7.1)

Miriam's greatly influenced by the novels she's read, especially by the models of ideal womanliness that these works demonstrate in their heroines. So, Miriam wants to be a passive object for men to admire. And this passivity proves to be Big Trouble in her relationship with Paul.

Then he was so ill, and she felt he would be weak. Then she would be stronger than he. Then she could love him. If she could be mistress of him in his weakness, take care of him, if he could depend on her, if she could, as it were, have him in her arms, how she would love him! (7.5)

In this moment, Miriam seems to reverse her earlier desire to be a passive object for a man to manipulate. She now wants Paul to be weak so she can take care of him and be like a (dare we say it?) mother to him. There's consistency with Miriam's earlier views here, though, because whether she's a caregiver or a passive object, Miriam wants to sacrifice herself to a man.

"Let me take the rug," said Miriam over-gently.

"I can carry it," he answered, rather injured. But he yielded it to her. (7.13-7.14)

When Paul is still recovering his health, Miriam offers to carry a heavy rug for him into the Leivers' house. Paul feels shame at letting a delicate girl take over a physical task for him; but in this case, good sense trumps wounded pride, and he gives Miriam the rug. Way to go, buddy.

"You go," she pleaded.

Almost for the first time in her life she had the pleasure of giving up to a man, of spoiling him. (7.99)

When Paul and Miriam go inside the Leivers' barn and find a swing, Paul does the "manly" thing and offers to let Miriam go first. Miriam, however, has spent her entire young life dreaming of sacrificing herself to a man. So she takes more pleasure in forgetting her own desires than in fulfilling them. Here, you can see the extent to which Miriam's training as a girl has warped her relationship to her own desires. It's pretty icky, really.

"Paul's come!" she exclaimed.

"Aren't you glad?" said Agatha cuttingly.

Miriam stood still in amazement and bewilderment.

"Well aren't you?" she asked.

"Yes, but I'm not going to let him see it, and think I wanted him." (7.386-7.372)

Miriam doesn't think much of it when she shows her sister how excited she is about Paul's arrival. But Agatha never misses an opportunity to knock Miriam down a peg. And in her view, women are never supposed to take an active role in their relationship with a man… It's this exact view that will later keep Miriam from a "happily ever after" with Paul.

"I think she's a lovable old woman," said Paul.

"Margaret Bonford!" exclaimed Clara. "She's a great deal cleverer than most men."

"Well, I didn't say she wasn't," he said, deprecating. "She's lovable for all that."

"And, of course, that is all that matters," said Clara witheringly. (9.188-9.191)

When Paul refers to a local woman as loveable, Clara Dawes takes exception and informs Paul that the woman in question is cleverer than most men. She's trying to make a point about women being just as good as men. But this wasn't the discussion Paul planned on having, so he tries to diffuse things by saying he never implied anything bad about Margaret Bonford. Clara doesn't relent. She expresses frustration over the types of adjectives that get applied to women (i.e., "lovely"), who deserve to be thought of as just as strong and intelligent as men. You go, girl.

"You think she's a man-hater?"

"She thinks she is," replied Paul.

"But you don't think so?"

"No," replied Paul. (9.215-9.218)

In this conversation with Edgar, Paul claims that he doesn't buy into Clara Dawes' whole down-with-men façade. He thinks Clara is all talk; deep down, she must want a man (like every other woman does). This is an extremely sexist perspective, but Lawrence seems to suggest it's correct, because Clara eventually does give in to Paul's advances.

If she could rise, take him, put her arms round him, and say, "You are mine," then he would leave himself to her. But dare she? She could easily sacrifice herself. But dare she assert herself? She was aware of his dark-clothed, slender body, that seemed one stroke of life, sprawled in the chair close to her. But no; she dared not put her arms round it. (15.126)

When Paul is utterly defeated, all Miriam needs to do is step up and tell him that he belongs to her. But she doesn't have it in her to do this. A combination of personal pride, fear, and feminine training has paralyzed the poor girl. This inability to take any initiative in the relationship (in combination with Paul's own commitment issues) is ultimately what keeps the two of them apart.