Monday, September 11, 2017

Daunted Beginnings

Sons and Lovers 

Sons and Lovers

“Night, in which everything was lost, went reaching out, beyond stars and sun. Stars and sun, a few bright grains, went spiraling round for terror, and holding each other in embrace, there in a darkness that outpassed them all, and left them tiny and daunted. So much, and himself, infinitesimal, at the core of nothingness, and yet not nothing.”  ― D.H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers

On this day in 1885 D. H. Lawrence was born in Eastwood, outside Nottingham, the fourth of five children. Lawrence's autobiographical novel, Sons and Lovers, made famous the tortured conditions of his upbringing: his uneducated father's pit-and-pub life, his mother's contempt for this and her self-sacrifice to escape it, Lawrence's own conflicted feelings about both of them. It initially incited a lukewarm critical reception, along with allegations of obscenity, it is today regarded as a masterpiece of modernism. It certainly established some of the themes that Lawrence would explore in his subsequent novels.

Lawrence began working on the novel in the period of his mother's illness, and the autobiographical aspects of the novel can be found in his letters written around the time of its development. Torn between his passion for two women and his abiding attachment to his mother, young Paul Morel struggles with his desire to please everyone--particularly himself. The story develops against the backdrop of the author's native Nottinghamshire coal fields. The sensitivity of Paul is highlighted by the rough edges of the town and the other men in the family. When economic forces go against the family and their mining community his mother experiences even greater need to see young Paul break free. Lawrence's own personal family conflict provided him with the impetus for the first half of his novel — in which both William, the older brother, and Paul Morel become increasingly contemptuous of their father — and the subsequent exploration of Paul Morel's antagonizing relationships with both his lovers, which are both incessantly affected by his allegiance to his mother. Other women intrude on his life and in Lawrentian fashion the passions rise. This is his first successful novel and key in the development of modern fiction.

The issue of free will is important for Lawrence. He asks to what extent his characters’ environment influences their characters’ choices. We can see this made explicit in his descriptions. For example, when Paul begins to look in the newspapers for work, the narrator writes, “Already he was a prisoner of industrialism . . . He was being taken into bondage. His freedom in the beloved home valley was going now.” The modern industrial world, specifically as it manifests itself in the effect mining culture has on the Morel family, shapes the characters’ desires. This theme and his approach to it reminded me of the naturalism of Zola and Dreiser.

Even in this early novel Lawrence was explicitly depicting human sexuality. He flouted the moral conventions of the genre and of society, and his notoriety grew. At least one publisher refused Sons and Lovers because of its sexual content. Lawrence’s theories about human behavior revolved around what he called “blood consciousness,” which he opposed to “mental and nerve consciousness.” Lawrence also explores the class conflicts as they pertain to life in the coal community. Morel's mother, a school teacher, is sensitive to this and tries to protect her sons from becoming bound to the coal fields.

This is one of the best early modernist novels. The growth of young Paul Morel, both mentally and emotionally, combined with the depiction of the mining community and his family relationships makes this an enjoyable and entertaining read.


Brian Joseph said...

I really like Lawrence. He expresses his worldview in his fiction in sublime ways. As you note, his basic themes are present in this book.

As much as I liked this book I thought That The Rainbow and Women in Love were stronger novels.

James said...

Lawrence shows signs of what he would become as a novelist in this early work. His primary themes are honed more finely in works like The Rainbow and continued as he wrote profusely and eloquently.