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D. H. Lawrence’s novel Sons and Lovers depicts the unhappy marriage between Walter and Gertrude Morel, and their four children. As Mrs. Morel’s relationship with her husband begins to disintegrate, she turns her attention to her sons in the hopes of filling the emotional void that her husband no longer can. The imprisoning nature of Mrs. Morel’s love towards Paul serves to cripple any romantic relationship he attempts to maintain, eliciting an abnormality in Paul’s character as a result of the relationship with his mother.
Gertrude and Walter Morel’s unhappy marriage as well as an incongruence between their social classes is problematic because it causes Gertrude to displace her, once passionate, love for her husband onto her sons. Gertrude Morel, “a rather small woman, of delicate mould but resolute bearing” , came from a “good old burgher family” where she “loved ideas, and was considered very intellectual” . Conversely, Walter Morel “was opposite” ; “He was well-set-up, erect and very smart. He had that rare thing, a rich, ringing laugh” . While Gertrude initially “thought him rather wonderful, never having met anyone like him” , it is through the occurrence of pivotal events, such as Mr. Morel lying about owning their home and not having paid the furniture bills to cutting young William’s hair , that we see the Morel’s marriage begin a steady, downward spiral. Macdonald Daly, a critic of the novel, lends some insight into the breakdown of the Morel’s marriage when he explains that “what ruins it decisively is Walter Morel’s inability to deliver to Gertrude the bourgeois material standards she has been led to expect their marriage to secure” . Mrs. Morel begins to recognize a shift in their relationship when she notices that “her manner had changed towards him” , thus beginning a “battle between the husband and wife, a fearful, bloody battle that ended only with the death of one. She fought to make him undertake his own responsibilities, to make him fulfil his obligations. But he was too different from her” . Daly further explains that “it is from the failure of this marriage that the enormous conflict and heartache at the centre of Sons and Lovers unspool” , causing Gertrude to fulfil the inadequacies of Walter through another source: her children.
Though William, the Morel’s eldest son, was the focus of Mrs. Morel’s affection initially, in which “William was a lover to her” , it is through Paul that we see the displacement of love from her husband really manifest itself into the relationship between mother and son. As a young boy Mrs. Morel notes how “her treatment of Paul was different from that of the other children” , additionally feeling “as if the navel string that had connected Paul’s frail little body with hers had not been broken”. Robin Ramsay, the course author of the Sons and Lovers unit, explains that “Initially, much of the relationship between Paul and his mother stems from a natural, wholesome, familial intimacy. Only as each depends too much on the other does it become stifling” . Ramsay’s point becomes especially clear when we notice that it is only after William’s death that “Mrs. Morel’s life now rooted itself in Paul” . The gradual movement from son to lovers is particularly evident after taking a trip to Jordan’s together and “feeling the excitement of lovers having an adventure together” , Mrs. Morel was “like a sweetheart” to Paul . Paul’s pet names for Mrs. Morel, such as “pigeon” , “my love” , and “my little” , in addition to his intimate behaviour with his mother, “He stroked his mother’s hair, and his mouth was on her throat” , depict a relationship of lovers rather than one of a maternal nature.
Daly provides an interesting insight into Mrs. Morel and Paul’s relationship when he discusses the idea of transference, explaining that mothers who are “dissatisfied with their own sexual relationships in marriage, have actively transferred their sexual desires onto their sons. These desires cannot be expressed or acted upon because they are incestuous, and incest is a major taboo. The mothers react by sublimating their feelings into other forms of desire: possessiveness towards, or claims to power over the son” . However, it is not until Paul becomes interested in embarking upon a romantic relationship that we actually see the consequences of Mrs. Morel’s love for him. Ramsay brings to attention the implications of the mother and son’s relationship when he explains that “more and more, this closeness has sexual overtones and ramifications that affect Paul’s later relationships” , with Daly further adding that Paul’s role towards Mrs. Morel is dual in that “he is both her son and her ‘lover’. But the price of being a ‘lover’ to his mother is that it adversely influences his relationships with the other women in his life, the more ‘legitimate’ objects of his sexual desires, Miriam and Clara” .
Yet the only “legitimate objects of his sexual desires, Miriam and Clara” cannot ever reach fruition because “the deepest of Paul’s love belonged to his mother” , “hers was the strongest tie in his life” . It would appear that Miriam and Clara represent different polarities on the spectrum of love: Paul “loved Miriam with his soul” , he “belonged to her” , whereas “Clara was indeed passionately in love with him, and he with her, as far as passion went” . Despite her son’s happiness, Mrs. Morel is not shy about her reservations of the women he chooses to pursue. When Miriam visited Paul at the Morel residence, “Mrs. Morel sat jealously in her chair” , feeling Paul “being drawn away by this girl. And she did not care for Miriam” . Ramsay touches on the nature of Paul’s relationship with each woman and its effect on Mrs. Morel when he explains that “Mrs. Morel can more readily tolerate someone like Clara than she can Miriam, since Paul’s relationship with Clara is mainly physical, whereas Miriam encroaches on those areas of Paul’s life that he also shares with Mrs. Morel” . As he ages and his relationships continuously fail to deepen and progress, Paul comes to the realization that “it was as if the pivot and pole of his life, from which he could not escape, was his mother” . Perhaps the most significant conclusion that Paul arrives at however, is the condemnation he feels by his mother as a result of their relationship: “Sometimes he hated her, and pulled at her bondage. His life wanted to free itself of her. It was like a circle where life turned back on itself, and got no further. She bore him, loved him, kept him, and his love turned back into her, so that he could not be free to go forward with his own life, really love another woman” .
The consequences of Mrs. Morel and Paul’s relationship are substantial; Paul’s attempts at relationships with first Miriam and then Clara fail miserably and leave him wondering if he will ever break the hold that his mother has on his soul. Paul’s bond with his mother is so strong that he is incapable of loving another woman as much as he loves his mother; a factor that affects his entire life, and thus, in this way, rendering him an abnormal character.
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