Sons and Lovers | Study Guide

D.H. Lawrence

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Sons and Lovers | Part 1, Chapter 1 : The Early Married Life of the Morels | Summary

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Summary

Sons and Lovers is set in the town of Bestwood, in Derbyshire County, England, in the late 1800s. This is mining country, and dwellings are built "on the hillside of Bestwood" and in the valley, known as the Bottoms. As its name implies, the miners' homes in the Bottoms are "quite unsavory" and "on the downward path." In one of those homes live Walter and Gertrude Morel, at first with their two children. Mr. Morel is a miner, and Mrs. Morel is pregnant with their third child. Their son William is seven and excited to go to the fair. He runs off, and his mother joins him later with his younger sister, Annie. William buys Gertrude a pair of flowered eggcups, staying close to his mother "with a small boy's pride of her." After the children have gone to bed, Mrs. Morel reflects on her "dreary endurance" and her "struggle with poverty and ugliness and meanness." Mr. Morel is at a public house swilling down beer, returning home at 11:30.

The narrative flashes back to Gertrude Morel's childhood as the daughter of an engineer. She assisted the mistress of a private school and was friends with a well-to-do young man, John Field, who had given her a Bible. John was to go into his father's business, but he longed to be a minister instead. Gertrude encouraged him to follow his heart, declaring that if she "were a man, nothing would stop me."

When she was 23 she met Walter Morel at a Christmas party. He was four years older than she, and she was smitten with his wavy black hair, full beard, and hearty laugh. Gertrude was "small and delicate," religious and. intellectual; she loved ideas and listening to people. Like her father she was Puritan in nature with an interest in religion and philosophy. Walter was quite the opposite: non-intellectual, boisterous, and sensuous, and he loved to dance. She was fascinated knowing that Walter had been a miner since he was 10, finding nobility in the idea that "he risked his life daily, and with gaiety." A year later they were married, but she soon realized that he was incapable of understanding what was truly in her heart. He grew restless and found little jobs to do because "it was not enough for him just to be near her." Seven months after their marriage, she was shocked to discover that her husband had not even paid their furniture bills with his pay and that the house they lived in was actually owned by Walter's mother, to whom they owed quite a bit of money.

A year after they were married, their son William was born. Mrs. Morel's passionate love for her baby contrasted with the bitterness she felt toward her husband, whom she now despised; this was the beginning of their lifelong feud within their marriage. She was unable to "make him fulfill his obligations" and become more moral. Instead, Mr. Morel's temper was often unleashed and he became a bully, drinking heavily and making his wife loathe him. When William was one, his father decided to cut off the boy's beautiful curls, causing his mother to scream, "I could kill you" before she broke down in tears. This event changed everything, the "act of masculine clumsiness was the spear through the side of her love for Morel."

The narration eventually returns to the present and the contentious relationship between husband and wife, who call each other liars. Mrs. Morel accuses her husband of squandering on drink the little money they have. They argue, forgetting everything "save the hatred of each other and the battle between them," until her husband throws her out of the house and locks the door. She spends part of the night outdoors, shivering from the cold and exhaustion, fearing for her unborn child. Finally, her banging on the window wakes her drunken husband, and he lets her back in. Before going to bed, Mrs. Morel nevertheless prepares her husband's work clothes and breakfast for the morning, as she must.

Analysis

The novel begins with a description of Bestwood, establishing the importance of setting to the story. Geography is a recurring motif in the novel as various locations like the country, small towns, London, and the seaside are contrasted throughout. Geographic location is also used to distinguish the social classes, separating the middle class from the working class, and offices from factories. The reader is introduced to Mrs. Morel with the words, she "was not anxious to move into the Bottoms." Her current social position is clear, so living in the Bottoms "was the best she could do."

The main theme of the novel is also suggested immediately. William proudly buys his mother two rose-covered eggcups, and she is happy that he has bought them for her. This is more than an act of a child wanting to please his mother—it is the beginning of a deep bond between son and mother. Such a bond was described by the psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, as an Oedipus complex, a term that was based on the Greek story of Oedipus, who murders his father without realizing who he is and then marries his mother. The love between Mrs. Morel and William is one of two oedipal relationships that shape this story. Mrs. Morel's other son, Paul, will also find himself deeply caught in overwhelming emotions toward his long-suffering mother. It is also a theme that stems from D.H. Lawrence's experiences with his own mother, making this book somewhat autobiographical.

The theme of bondage or enslavement is apparent in the way Mrs. Morel views her life. She feels trapped in a "struggle with poverty" and the dreariness of her life. She is held back chiefly by her economic situation. Similarly, Mr. Morel is also trapped; he is a slave to alcohol and he is frequently drunk. He is also bound to his social class because of his job as a coal miner and the fact that he speaks in dialect. This characterizes him as a member of the lower class.

Lawrence uses the literary technique of a flashback throughout the novel. He does not follow a straight, linear narrative style. Events sometimes appear out of order, and this is something to watch out for as you read. In Chapter 1 he uses a flashback to describe Mrs. Morel's childhood and the events leading up to her marriage. He moves the narrative to the past to illustrate that Gertrude Morel came from an educated and middle-class upbringing. She was also religious and raised with Puritan or conservative values. When she meets Walter Morel, he is described as being the complete opposite. He is neither educated nor religious, and his love of dancing and drinking are definitely not Puritan. This contrast is described throughout the book and explains why their marriage is so volatile and mismatched. The Morels epitomize two extremes of the nature of love: she is spiritual and intellectual, and he is physical and sensual. Their opposing passions affect their marriage and lives. They also mirror relationships that occur later in the book as well as the lives of Lawrence's actual parents. His father was an uneducated coal miner who drank and spoke in dialect, while his mother was educated and religious and had married "beneath" her middle-class upbringing.

Traditional male and female roles are also contrasted in the novel. Mr. Morel is loud and abusive and the bread-winner in the family. He asserts himself and sets the tone in the house, always getting his way. When he cuts off William's curls it is described as an "act of masculine clumsiness." He throws his wife out of the house, and when he finally lets her back in the first thing she does is get his work clothes and breakfast ready. Taking care of the house and her husband is a traditional female role, and despite her exhaustion she must put her husband first.

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