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The Five Stages of Walter Morel
Sometimes, it is difficult to understand how important a certain problem is unless it is examined on a microscopic level. A broadly stated dilemma is abstract and thus difficult to relate to; on a micro level, it becomes easier to see exactly how the predicament harms people. The phrase “world hunger” is detached; a picture of a starving child is startling. In Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence, Walter Morel is used as a microcosm for the stages of domestic abuse; he is the living embodiment of the cycles of abuse exacerbated by alcoholism.
Although Walter is a terrible father and an even worse husband, he was not always that man; once upon a time, he was charming and good natured. When Gertrude first meets him, he is described as someone with a “sensuous flame of life” (Lawrence 20); he sings, he dances, and although he is the opposite of her, he makes her feel like “a warmth radiated through her as if she had drunk wine” (21). In fact, she is so love with him they make the rash decision to get married. This phase of the Morel’s marriage can be considered the setup for domestic abuse. Often times, a couple becomes blindsided by the “honeymoon effect” and thus ignores anything that puts their significant other in a negative light. The rushed nature of their marriage indicates that both Walter and Gertrude can be impulsive and easily bend to strong emotion, key traits in any unstable relationship. Furthermore, Walter is not yet an alcoholic; in fact, he is someone who “had signed the pledge, and wore the blue ribbon of a tee-totaler” (23), indicating his status as a nondrinker. This is the calm before the storm; Gertrude does not see the flaws of Walter, and he is not yet an alcoholic. However, once both these factors change, the storm begins to whip up.
Six months into their rushed marriage, Walter turns out to be the opposite of who Gertrude thought he was. She finds out that the house is rented, and he flirted with women he helped dance: “ ‘An’ it was thronged every Tuesday, and Thursday, an’ Sat’day—an’ there WAS carryin’s-on, accordin’ to all accounts” (27). Although her opinion of Walter rapidly changes as she learns more about the man he is, she is only bitter about it. Up to that point, she still has love for him. Once the drinking starts, however, it escalates into an even tenser scenario. She begins to “despise” her husband, and the later he comes home, the angrier she becomes. This symbolizes a key aspect of the increasing tension; as he is out of the house longer, their communication decreases and as a result, verbal compromises become harder to make. Meanwhile, the drinking causes Walter to become more irritable. The “honeymoon phase” is no more; both sides see all the negative traits of one another, and the complaints about how one behave increase in size. Thus, without alcoholism as a catalyst, the tensions would not have skyrocketed, and the violence would have never erupted.
As the Morels’ tension reaches a peak, the violence begins, marking the true domestic abuse incident. Due to one side being unable to reconcile with the other, Gertrude’s frustration explodes, and as a result, Walter lashes out at her: “He came up to her, his red face, with its bloodshot eyes, thrust forward, and gripped her arms. She cried in fear of him, struggled to be free” (45). This grip he employs symbolizes his control; abusers want to have control over the victims, and thus employ violence to keep them in check. His grabbing her arms is the literal embodiment of his need for power over her, and as a result, she can only escape by throwing herself into passion for her son. Violence is not beneath Walter, and he uses it in his drunken stupor when he cannot coherently speak. However, as many abusers tend to eventually do, Walter feels the need to make reparations. He feels the consequences of the actions when he is not drunk and conversing with his wife: “He was shy, rather scared, and humble. Yet again he felt his old glow. And then immediately he felt the ruin he had made during these years” (379). The cycle of abuse that is spun in the Morel’s household is driven by liquor, and this is proven. When Walter is not drunk, he knows that physically harming his wife is wrong. However, as much as he wants to, he cannot stop drinking. It becomes ironic; abusers tend to seek power, but in Walter’s case he is powerless against the drink.
Due to this lack of defense against addiction, he slowly becomes irrelevant to the Morel household. This is made clear when “conversation was impossible between the father and any other member of the family. He was an outsider” (123). This expresses the typical solution many people go to: they try their best to decrease the influence of the abuser in their lives. By making Walter like the ghost of the Morel family, his influence is decreased. Nobody cares about him, and so he can no longer do any damage. Although he is not a truly wicked character, his drinking problem becomes his identity, and as a result, he loses any respect that he could have reaped.
Although Walter is mostly irrelevant by the second half of the novel, Lawrence uses him to deliver a powerful message about domestic abuse and alcoholism. Although the audience knows that he is a well-intentioned person at heart, his good traits are concealed by the undesirable ones. People tend to remember more negative experiences than positive; for example, when a couple breaks up, their happy times are forgotten and only the separation is remembered. If one wants to have respect, one must be able to stay good consistently, for if there is an alternation between good and bad, only the bad will be remembered.
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