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Postmodernism was a movement which took place in the Arts from the 1930’s to 1980’s, which sought not just to act as a continuation of modernism, but to attempt to reform its modes, which had themselves become conventional, as well as breaking away from elite high art to forms of mass culture, such as television, advertising, cartoons, and popular music.
Western morale was threatened by the world-wide economic crisis and political division of the 1930’s this was later exacerbated by the experiences of Nazi totalitarianism, mass extermination, and the threat of the atomic bomb. In 1984, Orwell depicted society’s fear of a totalitarian regime, as a mass consumer culture and centralised economy developed in the post-war period. There was a rejection of old ideals such as Marxism, Freudianism, and the Enlightenment Project.
The literature of the period by authors such as Pynchon, Barthes, and Nabokov blended genres so as to avoid traditional classification, and the movement was also seen in Warhol’s pop art, the musical compositions of John Cage, and the films of Jean-Luc Godard.
The value of the term is debated; some welcome it as a liberation from the hierarchy of high and low cultures, while sceptics see it as mindlessly glamorising consumer capitalism and its moral vacuity.
Psychoanalytical and feminist approaches are two relatively recent critical responses towards literary texts. When applied to D. H. Lawrence’s Son’s and Lovers, both can be insightful yet problematic at the same time.
The theories of psychoanalysis, primarily identified with Sigmund Freud, can be applied to imaginative literature and art in general, in order to study their manifest and latent content, in the same way as Freud studied dreams. Literature clearly lends itself to such a study, since, like dreams, the most significant meaning often lies below the conscious surface narrative of a text. Feminist approaches towards literature are concerned with the portrayal of female characters. Lawrence’s representation of women in his work has been admired by many readers for it’s insight, women among them, and has been strongly attacked by others for its prejudiced male perspective.
Classic psychoanalytic criticism applied the theories either to the author, or his or her characters, which were seen as internalised images that have come from the author’s unconscious. The high autobiographical content of Sons and Lovers lends itself to this type of study. Also, if works of art are taken to be disguised expressions of an infantile wish driven into the unconscious, as Freud suggests, then Sons and Lovers is doubly of interest. It is about the fundamental infantile wish that all boys have and repress, according to Freud, the wish of Oedipus to kill their father and marry their mother.
Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex and of its frequent effect of psychical impotence, of which Paul is a classic victim, offers a valuable key to a coherent understanding of the novel and the way in which it is structured. The extent of the bond established between mother and son is most vividly dramatised by the episode where Paul’s mother cries at the thought of losing him to Miriam:
‘I can’t bear it. I could let another woman - but not her. She’d leave me no room, not a bit of room’
And immediately he hated Miriam bitterly.
‘And I’ve never - you know, Paul I’ve never had a husband - not really ’
He stroked his mother’s hair, and his mouth was on her throat.
(Lawrence, 1994, p. 212)
Not only does she invite Paul to occupy the place of her husband, but she accuses Miriam of the same possessive love with which she smothers Paul. At the end of the chapter, Paul echoes Hamlet, another exemplary Oedipal victim, when he tries to persuade his mother not to sleep with his father. At this point in the novel, the presence of an Oedipus complex in Paul is so patent that one can hardly consider it as a submerged theme. Looked at another way, a major theme of the book is the gradual awakening of Paul to the deadly effects of his Oedipal fixation on his mother. The penultimate chapter, tellingly called ‘The Release,’ shows how Paul comes to reverse the Oedipal desire to kill the father by administering an overdose to his mother. One could say that he has finally learnt to direct his anger outwards to its source.
A weakness of the psychoanalytic approach is the tendency to be too selective when choosing evidence from the texts to support the theories. Most interpretations of Sons and Lovers polarise Miriam and Clara as the two sexual objects desired by the psychically impotent Paul. Miriam, in her similarity to Gertrude, represents the woman Paul can only love by repressing desire, so why does Lawrence find it necessary to include the episode in which she and Paul become lovers? And if Clara is the harlot-mother Paul can enjoy sexually, what of the introduction of Baxter Dawes? It has been suggested that he acts as a father figure, so that by adultery, Paul can live out the Oedipal fantasy by proxy. At the same time, his guilt at breaking the incest taboo is strong enough for him to almost desire the punishment he receives during his fight with Dawes. The son-lover later arranges the reconciliation of his proxy parents, living out a fantasy in which the incestuous son undoes the harm he has caused to the marital relationship.
One of the roles of feminist criticism is that of deconstructing texts written by men, by reversing the hierarchies, in order to detect prejudice and distortion beneath the appearance of ‘natural’ behaviour. The first feminist critic to attempt this reversal of Sons and Lovers was Kate Millett in Sexual Politics. Despite obvious flaws such as partiality and selective dealing with the text, her views permanently altered subsequent reader’s responses to the novel. The faults of selectivity and partiality have already been encountered in the failings of a psychoanalytic reading, and it also arises in Millet’s interpretation when she accuses Paul of unrepentant cruelty towards Miriam when he attempts to teach her algebra, for example. Her feminist reading has acutely discovered a streak of sadism in Paul’s sexual relationship with Miriam, which may have gone unnoticed, yet her reading is dependant on an extremely partial reading of the text. The novel expresses how Paul repeatedly vacillates between anger and shame at his loss of temper:
He was often cruelly ashamed. But still again his anger burst like a bubble surcharged; and still, when he saw her eager, silent, as it were, blind face, he felt he wanted to throw the pencil in it; and still when he saw her hand trembling, and her mouth parted with suffering, his heart was scalded with pain for her.
(Lawrence, 1994, p. 157)
This quote shows that Millett’s reading is dependent on too small a portion of the evidence.
Having examined the curious episode where Paul hands Clara back to Baxter in terms of the enaction of a proxy Oedipal fantasy, (according to psychoanalysis,) we can reinterpret it separately via a feminist slant. Paul’s actions, from a woman’s point of view, are offensive and arrogant, but with feminism, as with psychoanalysis, the novel is more complex that the narrowing summary offered by the reading suggests. Prior to this scene, Clara has been terrified by the death within Paul and can hardly wait to get away from him. Also, Clara is faced with a choice between Baxter, who is reliant on her, and Paul, who would demand her unquestioning loyalty and subservience. In choosing Baxter she is choosing personal freedom.
There is certainly plenty of evidence for chauvinism on Lawrence’s part in the novel, and a feminism reading does well to expose this, but the impartial nature of the reading can often omit important information, and be unfair to Lawrence, and characters such as Walter Morel. In places, Walter cuts a rather sympathetic figure, and feminist studies can overlook this side to him. Lawrence often gives a voice in his text to the female Other, giving a narrative voice in places to all the predominant female characters, and the book is full of references to the economic oppression suffered by women. Lawrence itemises at length the amount of money Morel gives his wife, sympathises with Miriam’s degradation at the hands of the male members of her family, and describes the sweated work for pittance that Clara must undertake the price for her sexual freedom.
As a science and medical practice, psychoanalysis has proved to be inherently flawed, but it’s ideas and terminology have had a remarkable impact on our culture. A psychoanalytic reading of Sons and Lovers conveniently overlooks passages which may contradict it’s theories, and Freudianism doesn’t account for individuality, since the characters do not exist in a social void, but essentially it has provided some of the most revealing critical observations since the text’s publication. It does not just uncover the subtext (unconscious) of the novel, but focuses on symptomatic passages that illustrate the presence of the unconscious taking the text in its own direction, usually of repetition, as in the triangle between Paul, Clara and Baxter, mirroring that of Paul and his parents. Feminist readings have discovered overlooked women writers and promoted their study, and have enlightened this text in many places, but they can be selective, narrow, and unfair to male characters and the author. Characters are limited by both readings when they are transformed into stereotypes Paul does not act the way he does because he is simply male, or he is simply the victim of an Oedipus complex. Paul is alienated from his father, not just as a result of his complex, but because the father works as part of the traditional working class set-up, and does not spend as much time with the children as the mother. One single reading of the novel will inevitably prevent the student from seeing the whole picture, since each perspective has its own priorities, and several need to be incorporated in order to fully realise all of the characters and understand the true workings of the novel.
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