David Herbert Lawrence was born in 1885 in Nottinghamshire, England where his father was a miner. His experience growing up in a coal-mining family provided much of the inspiration for Sons and Lovers. Lawrence had many affairs with women in his life, including a longstanding relationship with Jessie Chambers (on whom the character of Miriam is based), an engagement to Louie Burrows, and an eventual elopement to Germany with Frieda Weekley. Sons and Lovers was written in 1913, and contains many autobiographical details. His childhood coal-mining town of Eastwood was changed, with a sardonic twist, to Bestwood.
Walter Morel was modeled on Lawrence’s hard-drinking, irresponsible collier father, Arthur. Lydia became Gertrude Morel, the intellectually stifled, unhappy mother who lives through her sons. The death of one of Lawrence’s elder brothers, Ernest, and Lydia’s grief and eventual obsession with Lawrence, seem hardly changed in the novel. (Both Ernest and his fictional correspondent, William, were engaged to London stenographers). Filling out the cast of important characters was Jessie Chambers, a neighbor with whom Lawrence developed an intense friendship, and who would become Miriam Leiver in the novel.
His mother and family disapproved of their relationship, which always seemed on the brink of romance. Nevertheless, Chambers was Lawrence’s greatest literary supporter in his early years, and he frequently showed her drafts of what he was working on, including Sons and Lovers (she disliked her depiction, and it led to the dissolution of their relationship). Lawrence’s future wife, Frieda von Richtofen Weekly, partially inspired the portrait of Clara Dawes, the older, sensual woman with whom Paul has an affair.
Considered Lawrence’s first masterpiece, most critics of the day praised Sons and Lovers for its authentic treatment of industrial life and sexuality. There is evidence that Lawrence was aware of Sigmund Freud’s early theories on sexuality, and Sons and Lovers deeply explores and revises of one of Freud’s major theories, the Oedipus complex. Still, the book received some criticism from those who felt the author had gone too far in his description of Paul’s confused sexuality. Sons and Lovers was the first modern portrayal of a phenomenon that later, thanks to Freud, became easily recognizable as the Oedipus complex.
Never was a son more tied to his mother’s love and full of hatred for his father than Paul Morel, D. H. Lawrence’s young protagonist. Never, that is, except perhaps Lawrence himself. In his 1913 novel he came to grips with the discordant loves that haunted him all his life–for his spiritual childhood sweetheart, here called Miriam, and for his mother, whom he transformed into Mrs. Morel. It is, by Lawrence’s own account, a book aimed at depicting this woman’s grasp: “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. ” Of course, Mrs. Morel takes neither of her two elder sons as a literal lover, but nonetheless her psychological snare is immense. She loathes Paul’s Miriam from the start, understanding that the girl’s deep love of her son will oust her: “She’s not like an ordinary woman, who can leave me my share in him. She wants to absorb him. ” Meanwhile, Paul plays his part with equal fervor, incapable of committing himself in either direction: “Why did his mother sit at home and suffer?…
And why did he hate Miriam, and feel so cruel towards her, at the thought of his mother. If Miriam caused his mother suffering, then he hated her–and he easily hated her. ” Soon thereafter he even confesses to his mother: “I really don’t love her. I talk to her, but I want to come home to you. ” The result of all this is that Paul throws Miriam over for a married suffragette, Clara Dawes, who fulfills the sexual component of his ascent to manhood but leaves him without a complete relationship to challenge his love for his mother.
When Paul, physically aroused, finds no natural response in the girl who seems to love him-Miriam, he is confused, helpless, and becomes even cruel. Unable to assert himself, or even to accept as natural his longings he is unable to continue in the spiritual relationship with the girl—because his mother alone already owns his soul. The relationship is ended, Paul’s personality suffers a kind of tearing or splitting and in his next relationship Paul realizes at some unconscious level he must leave his soul somewhat free for his mother and participate on a kind of detached physical level.
Thus, in his relationship with Clara, it is the primarily bodily maleness of Paul bonding with the primarily bodily femaleness. Obviously the danger is to oversimplify the Paul/Miriam and Paul/Clara relationships. It is true that the contact with Clara puts Paul at least temporarily into richer contact with his own body, his phallic consciousness, as Lawrence would say, whereas in his sterile relationships with his mother and Miriam Paul has had to forego this fuller consciousness. Now he experiences what he believes is a kind of paradisiacal kind of love and fulfillment.
In any case, all the relationships in Sons and Lovers seem to involve power struggles: Mrs. Morel extracts power from her husband by turning from his sexual presence and then dominating, even emasculating her sons; she controls Paul’s devotion through the imposition of her values and aspirations and thus weights down their relationship. The balance of power in relationships seems to be an essential concern of D. h. Lawrence, since it is appears over and over again to be responsible for the death of love. Lawrence’s men and women will not be controlled, possessed or lost in another individual’s reality.
D. H. Lawrence’s perpetual search for the archetypal human relationship affects all his fiction and particularly Sons and Lovers, his coming of age novel. It is here that his preoccupation with the love ethic and the profound split caused by the imbalance or “power cast,” of most relationships are so nakedly revealed. The incomplete and imperfect relationships of Sons and Lovers are among the most discussed and analyzed in English Literature. Paul Morel’s imprisoning relationship with his mother cripples all his other relationships.