Sons & Lovers is the story of the Morel family set in early 20th century England, during a time when seemingly every child was born “frail.” The father is a coal miner and alcoholic who mistreats his wife. The kids, in response, come to hate him and develop a strong attachment to their mother. The beginning of the story shows how a marriage that began with love can devolve into tension and hatred. There is almost no action. Instead we get slices of family life and the individual problems that the characters faced. The writing is floral:
Paul hurried off to the station jubilant. Down Derby Road was a cherry tree that glistened. The old brick wall by the Statues ground burned scarlet, spring was a very flame of green. And the steep swoop of highroad lay, in its cool morning dust, splendid with patterns of sunshine and shadow, perfectly still. The trees sloped their great green shoulders proudly; and inside the warehouse all the morning, the boy had a vision of spring outside.[…]
She searched earnestly in herself to see if she wanted Paul Morel. She felt there would be some disgrace in it. Full of twisted feeling, she was afraid she did want him. She stood self-convicted. Then came an agony of new shame. She shrank within herself in a coil of torture. Did she want Paul Morel, and did he know she wanted him? What a subtle infamy upon her! She felt as if her whole soul coiled into knots of shame.[…]
He courted her now like a lover. Often, when he grew hot, she put his face from her, held it between her hands, and looked in his eyes. He could not meet her gaze. Her dark eyes, full of love, earnest and searching, made him turn away. Not for an instant would she let him forget. Back again he had to torture himself into a sense of his responsibility and hers. Never any relaxing, never any leaving himself to the great hunger and impersonality of passion; he must be brought back to a deliberate, reflective creature. As if from a swoon of passion she called him back to the littleness, the personal relationship. He could not bear it.
There was no lead-up to big events. One character was having dinner, then suddenly realized he loved a girl with all his soul. Another character had an itchy rash. And then he was dead (lol). It gave the book emotionally distant timbres, where you could understand the characters, but didn’t care if they died. In fact, you hoped for death because it would give the mossy plot some excitement. After a while, I began to get the feeling that the book was written for suffragists and unsatisfied housewives of the time. Men are portrayed as mule-like and erratic while women are always suffering at the whims of men. The only favorable character, Paul Morel, is portrayed as a sensitive artist who deeply loves his mum.
Paul develops an Oedipus Complex, thanks to a mother who makes him feel guilty for giving more attention to other women than her. She never approves of the girls he courts, applying subtle but disturbing manipulation. It causes Paul to develop like a woman with emotions that rapidly vacillate for no reason that the reader can discern. This book could easily be renamed “I Got Mommy Issues” or “Build-A-Beta.”
“I do like her,” he said, “but—”
“Like her!” said Mrs Morel, in the same biting tones. “it seems to me you like nothing and nobody else. There’s neither Annie, nor me, nor anyone now for you.”
“What nonsense, mother—you know I don’t love her—I—I tell you I don’t love her—she doesn’t even walk with my arm, because I don’t want her to.”
“Then why do you fly to her so often!”
“I do like to talk to her–I never said I didn’t. But I don’t love her.”
“Is there nobody else to talk to?”
“Not about the things we talk of. There’s lots of things that you’re not interested in, that—”
Mrs Morel was so intense that Paul began to pant.
Though Paul constantly sought the approval of his mother, he somehow found himself in a love triangle of sorts with two beautiful women. Ironically, it’s his female-like emotions that made him more attractive in their eyes. He’s constantly hating something or another. He “hated” her because she looked at him weird. He “hated” the selfish part of her. In fact, the word “hate” comes up 125 times, while love shows up 364 times. No one has emotions that extreme. It was silly.
Recklessness is almost a man’s revenge on his woman. He feels he is not valued, so he will risk destroying himself to deprive her altogether.
Back in the day before no-fault divorce, a woman paid the price if she chose the wrong man. It’s obvious why a movement of female emancipation had much appeal, but over-treating the illness, as we have done, will cause side-effects from the medicine to be worse than the disease. While the Morel family wasn’t entirely happy, the children were instilled with traditional values that went on to aid them in adulthood. None of them took on a life of crime, homosexuality, or procreation out of wedlock. I fail to see the problem of not having a perfectly utopian family life over single mom households and bastardization.
This book has reinforced my suspicion that classic literature is often nothing more than code for “heavy description, heavy character development, little action.” It’s not too often that I’m in the mood for a story that doesn’t move. The book was competently written, but nothing would be lost by skipping it.
Read More: “Sons & Lovers” on Amazon