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Sons and Lovers | Context

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Sexuality in the Edwardian Era

When Sons and Lovers was published in 1913, the novel was immediately branded as obscene, even pornographic, for its frank treatment of sexuality. Modern readers might scoff at this assessment, particularly given that Lawrence's descriptions of sex can be so vague some readers puzzle over what exactly has happened, but even these mild descriptions were sensational in Edwardian England, the era of King Edward VII's rule (1901–10). At the turn of the 20th century, sex was viewed as primarily a man's pursuit. Women weren't thought to have sexual desires unless they were from the lower, uneducated classes or were prostitutes. A woman acknowledging her sexual desires would have been shocking and offensive. Proper women were modest and chaste, and abided by their husbands' sexual urges as a marital duty, an opinion clearly seen in Mrs. Morel's critique of her son's girlfriends and in his girlfriend Miriam's puritanical view of sex.

While society expected unmarried young people to remain virgins, philandering young men were generally forgiven as playboys, and young women were considered ruined if they had any sexual relations before marriage. When Margaret Sanger introduced birth control in 1914 women began embracing their sexuality without fear of unwanted pregnancy, the undeniable physical proof of their "ruin." By the 1920s women experienced a liberation: feminist women embraced their sexuality, and divorce became more commonplace. Sons and Lovers was published in an era between this extreme repression and the sexual liberation soon to arise. The struggle between sexual denial and liberation can clearly be seen in the characters of Paul, Miriam, and Clara, who each seek sexual passion but remain held back by moral, religious, and social expectations that surround and bind them.

The Pastoral Novel

Most characters in Sons and Lovers are happiest when communing with nature. They pass time gazing at the moon, picking flowers, or sitting by the seaside. Such pastoral literature in the past presented a romantic view of shepherds in the pasture, but the term soon came to include romantic illustrations of the natural world that leave readers longing to abandon the hustle and bustle of city and industrial life to sleep under the stars. While the characters in Sons and Lovers aren't living off the land—a key characteristic of traditional pastoral literature—their spiritual wellbeing often connects to nature. The characters live in an industrial civilization, meaning their livelihoods are tied to technology, machines, and the exploitation of natural resources. Mr. Morel, for example, works as a coal miner, while Paul works in a factory. He lives in a dirty coal-mining town with his suffocatingly close mother and violent, alcoholic father. Descriptions of the mining town where they live depict a beautiful natural landscape destroyed by coal mines and ash pits. Clara's family home, Willey Farm, on the other hand, offers fresh air to breathe, space to roam, and beautiful landscapes to paint. On the farm Paul experiences both spiritual and sexual awakenings, honoring the pastoral tradition. Similarly, communing with nature allows Mrs. Morel to forget the miseries of her harried home life, misspent intelligence, and abusive marriage.

The Bildungsroman

Lawrence also borrows elements from the tradition of the European bildungsroman, or education-based coming-of-age novel that developed in many cultures in the last century. Traditionally, bildungsroman novels depict a character's coming-of-age, or transition from childhood to adulthood, particularly in reference to their understanding of the world. In Sons and Lovers the readers not only witnesses Paul physically mature from child to adult, but they also witness his change of awareness. For most of the novel Paul remains steadfastly enamored with his mother as his deepest, most abiding love. As he takes different girls as lovers, however, Paul realizes he will never find true passion while his mother is still alive. He transitions from wanting to spend the rest of his life at his mother's side to helping end her life after a long illness. Paul experiences strong moments of personal conflict that offer the reader insight into his psychological change, seen most clearly in his back-and-forth relationships with Miriam and Clara.

Another key element of a bildungsroman novel is the main character's transition from social outsider to functioning member of society. In Sons and Lovers Paul feels isolated as a sensitive painter and later as an unfulfilled lover, until he realizes he can never be truly fulfilled while his mother is alive. At the end of the novel Paul hasn't achieved happiness or peace, but he feels optimistic about his future. Some critics, however, hesitate to classify Sons and Lovers as a bildungsroman because Paul doesn't fully transition into peace and because Paul doesn't rise up as the main character until the second half of the novel.

D.H. Lawrence and Sigmund Freud

Sons and Lovers is frequently discussed as an oedipal novel. This term comes from the Greek myth of Oedipus, King of Thebes, who killed his father and married his mother. Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud used the story to name one of his most famous theories, the Oedipus complex, which describes a young boy's romantic love for his mother and murderous envy of his father. Freud explored the human subconscious, repressed desires, and dreams to form his often sexually based theories of human behavior. His most famous book, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), was not well received. Most people refused to read it, and those who did were scandalized by the frank analysis of sexuality.

However, Freud's popularity began to rise in 1908 when the world's first international psychoanalyst conference in Salzburg, Austria, acknowledged his contributions, and Freud began giving lectures of his theories in the United States. Sons and Lovers flips the traditional oedipal complex somewhat by presenting a mother whose abusive marriage prevents her from loving her husband, causing her to turn all of her affection to her sons. Second-born Paul starts out returning his mother's affection—a classic oedipal character—but he realizes he cannot find true happiness while his mother lives. In an inverse of the original story in which Oedipus kills his father, Paul helps end his mother's life. Doing so ends her long suffering during illness, but it also frees Paul of her suffocating affection.

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