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Sons and Lovers

Sons and Lovers is a novel by the English writer D. H. Lawrence.

Plot introduction and history

The third published novel of D. H. Lawrence, taken by many to be his earliest masterpiece, tells the story of Paul Morel, a young man and a budding artist. Richard Aldington explains the semi-autobiographical nature of his masterpiece:

When you have experienced Sons and Lovers you have lived through the agonies of the young Lawrence striving to win free from his old life'. Generally, it is not only considered as an evocative portrayal of working-class life in a mining community, but also an intense study of family, class and early sexual relationships.


The original 1913 edition was heavily edited by Edward Garnett who removed eighty passages, roughly a tenth of the text. The novel is dedicated to Garnett. Garnett, as the literary advisor to the publishing firm Duckworth, was an important figure in leading Lawrence further into the London literary world during the years 1911 and 1912. It was not until the 1992 Cambridge University Press edition was released that the missing text was restored.

Lawrence began working on the novel in the period of his mother's illness, and often expresses this sense of his mother's wasted life through his female protagonist Gertrude Morel. Letters written around the time of its development clearly demonstrate the admiration he felt for his mother - viewing her as a 'clever, ironical, delicately moulded woman' - and her apparently unfortunate marriage to his coal mining father, a man of 'sanguine temperament' and instability. He believed that his mother had married below her class status. Rather interestingly, Lydia Lawrence wasn't born into the middle-class. This personal family conflict experienced by Lawrence 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 invariably affected by his allegiance to his mother.

The first draft of Lawrence's novel is now lost and was never completed, which seems to be directly due to his mother's illness. He did not return to the novel for three months, at which point it was titled 'Paul Morel'. The penultimate draft of the novel coincided with a remarkable change in Lawrence's life, as his health was thrown into tumult and he resigned his teaching job in order to spend time in Germany. This plan was never followed, however, as he met and married the German minor aristocrat, Frieda Weekley. According to Frieda's account of their first meeting, she and Lawrence talked about Oedipus and the effects of early childhood on later life within twenty minutes of meeting.

The third draft of 'Paul Morel' was sent to the publishing house Heinemann, which was repulsively responded to by William Heinemann himself. His reaction captures the shock and newness of Lawrence's novel, 'the degradation of the mother [as explored in this novel], supposed to be of gentler birth, is almost inconceivable', and encouraged Lawrence to redraft the novel one more time. In addition to altering the title to a more thematic 'Sons and Lovers', Heninemann's response had reinvigorated Lawrence into vehemently defending his novel and its themes as a coherent work of art. In order to justify its form Lawrence explains, in letters to Garnett, that it is a 'great tragedy' and a 'great book', one that mirrors the 'tragedy of thousands of young men in England'.

Explanation of the novel's title

Lawrence rewrote the work four times until he was happy with it. Although before publication the work was usually called Paul Morel, Lawrence finally settled on Sons and Lovers. Just as the new title makes the work less focused on a central character, many of the later additions broadened the scope of the work, thereby making the work less autobiographical. While some of the edits by Garnett were on the grounds of propriety or style, others would once more narrow the emphasis back upon Paul. Sons and Lovers appears to really mean sons as lovers, and it is more apt for the book, because the sons are more lovers than sons.

Plot summary

Part I:

The refined daughter of a "good old burgher family," Gertrude Coppard meets a rough-hewn miner at a Christmas dance and falls into a whirlwind romance. But soon after her marriage to Walter Morel, she realizes the difficulties of living off his meager salary in a rented house. The couple fight and drift apart and Walter retreats to the pub after work each day. Gradually, Mrs. Morel's affections shift to her sons, beginning with the oldest, William.

As a boy, William is so attached to his mother that he doesn't enjoy the fair without her. As he grows older, he defends her against his father's occasional violence. Eventually, he leaves their Nottinghamshire home for a job in London, where he begins to rise up into the middle class. He is engaged, but he detests the girl's superficiality. He dies, and Mrs. Morel is heartbroken, but when Paul catches pneumonia, she rediscovers her love for her second son.

Part II:

Both repulsed by and drawn to his mother, Paul is afraid to leave her but wants to go out on his own, and needs to experience love. Gradually, he falls into a relationship with Miriam, a farm girl who attends his church. The two take long walks and have intellectual conversations about books, but Paul resists, in part because his mother looks down on her. At work, Paul meets Clara Dawes, who has separated from her husband, Baxter.

Paul leaves Miriam behind as he grows more intimate with Clara, but even she cannot hold him, and he returns to his mother. When his mother dies soon after, he is alone.

Lawrence summarised the plot in a letter to Edward Garnett on 12 November 1912:

It follows this idea: a woman of character and refinement goes into the lower class, and has no satisfaction in her own life. She has had a passion for her husband, so her children are born of passion, and have heaps of vitality. But as her sons grow up she selects them as lovers — first the eldest, then the second. These sons are urged into life by their reciprocal love of their mother — urged on and on. But when they come to manhood, they can't love, because their mother is the strongest power in their lives, and holds them. It's rather like Goethe and his mother and Frau von Stein and Christiana — As soon as the young men come into contact with women, there's a split. William gives his sex to a fribble, and his mother holds his soul. But the split kills him, because he doesn't know where he is. The next son gets a woman who fights for his soul — fights his mother. The son loves his mother — all the sons hate and are jealous of the father. The battle goes on between the mother and the girl, with the son as object. The mother gradually proves stronger, because of the ties of blood. The son decides to leave his soul in his mother's hands, and, like his elder brother go for passion. He gets passion. Then the split begins to tell again. But, almost unconsciously, the mother realises what is the matter, and begins to die. The son casts off his mistress, attends to his mother dying. He is left in the end naked of everything, with the drift towards death.

This is the most autobiographical of all Lawrence's works as the author himself had a similar relationship with his own mother. The use of this oedipal theme is one of a number of Freudian concepts he used throughout his books. Like many of his works, Sons and Lovers was criticized when first published for obscenity and one publisher called it "the dirtiest book he had ever read" but compared to his later works it is quite constrained.

Literary significance & criticism

In 1999, the Modern Library ranked Sons and Lovers ninth on a list of the 100 best novels in English of the 20th century.

It contains a frequently quoted use of the English dialect word nesh. The speech of several protagonists is represented in Lawrences written interpretation of the Nottinghamshire Dialect , which also features in several of his poems

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

Sons and Lovers has been adapted for the screen several times, including the Academy Award wining 1960 film, a 1981 BBC TV serial and another on ITV1 in 2003.

Standard editions

  • Sons and Lovers (1913), edited by Helen Baron and Carl Baron, Cambridge University Press, 1992, ISBN 0-521-24276-2
  • Paul Morel (1911-12), edited by Helen Baron, Cambridge University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-521-56009-8, an early manuscript version of Sons and Lovers

Sources, references, external links, quotations

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