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Sons and Lovers | Themes

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Oedipus Complex

Most critics read Sons and Lovers as an oedipal novel, meaning its core theme has been influenced by Sigmund Freud's controversial theory of sexual desire. The Oedipus complex claims that young boys may romantically desire their mothers and feel violently envious of their fathers. Lawrence presents the theme two ways: traditionally, through young William and Paul's love for their mother, and in reverse, through Mrs. Morel's clinging love for her sons. As children William and Paul openly adore their mother. At the fair, for example, young William wins the eggcups for his mother with the same romantic flair that a boyfriend might win a teddy bear for his girlfriend. Mrs. Morel feels a fierce, "hot" love for her boys that, while passionate, seems natural. Once the boys reach puberty, however, and begin offering their affections to other women, their relationships with their mother become more unresolved and questionable. Mrs. Morel cannot abide William showing other girls affection. She feels jealous of his attention, particularly when Lily appears sensuous and youthful in her photographs. To appease his mother William burns a stack of love letters, as if to prove that he loves her best.

When William dies, Mrs. Morel pours all her attention and affection on Paul, who is only too happy to reciprocate. The narrator describes them as being "knitted together in perfect intimacy." Perhaps because his mother's affection suffocates him, Paul remains incapable of loving another woman with the same passion he feels for his mother. As a youngster when he is ill Paul loves to "sleep with his mother" and feel her warmth as he "lay against her." Rather than dreaming of starting a family or building a career, Paul dreams of living in a little cottage with his mother. When he has a job interview in Nottingham, he takes his mother along, traveling with "the excitement of lovers having an adventure together." Despite having romantic relationships with both Miriam and Clara, Paul cannot extricate himself from his overweening relationship with his mother.

Clearly, Mrs. Morel is Paul's first love. He has a habit of kissing his mother on the neck and enjoys sleeping next to her. After a fight Paul jealously begs his mother not to sleep with his father. In turn, Mrs. Morel begs Paul not to leave her because she "never really had a husband," which suggests she wants Paul to fill that gap. One evening, while Paul and his mother discuss his potential suitors, they kiss "fervently" with Paul "trembling" and "stroking her face." Mr. Morel walks in and asks, "At your mischief again?" suggesting that he has seen this type of display before. The comment starts a jealous fight in which the two men—Paul and his father—physically compete for Mrs. Morel's affection. In the end, Mrs. Morel ages and can no longer be Paul's "lover." Paul realizes he cannot find a true love while his mother is alive, yet feels devastated to be the one to end her life. Rather than killing his father and fulfilling his oedipal destiny, Paul breaks expectation and helps end his mother's life.

Passion and Love

Each of the characters in Sons and Lovers feels overcome with passion at some point in the novel. Mrs. Morel passionately loves her sons, William and Paul. Her love for them guides every other action in her life. Both boys, however, struggle to find their own passions under the suffocating shadow of their mother's love for them. No woman ever measures up to their mother, and no job is worthy enough to take them away from home. Creative and social pursuits are only worth their time if their mother approves. Because Paul's definition of passion has been so skewed by his oedipal relationship with his mother, he doesn't understand how to love another person. He lusts after Clara, which could be described as physical love, yet feels emotionally connected to Miriam, which could be described as spiritual love, although neither relationship fulfills him.

Passion sometimes manifests itself negatively, as in Mr. and Mrs. Morel's relationship. The couple swings between hatred and affection in their complicated, abusive relationship. Mr. Morel physically lashes out at his wife, as when he hurls a drawer at her during a fight, but feels remorse when he actually hurts her. Although Mrs. Morel hates her husband, she feels worried when he disappears and even romantic toward him when he brings her tea the morning after their fight. She dutifully cares for him during his injury, just as Clara cares for Dawes—the violence of illness reigniting a romantic passion that forgives past sins. Emotionally, Paul mirrors this inconstant passion by feeling overwhelming love one moment for the women in his life, like Miriam and his mother, but hatred the next.

Characters also exhibit passion for things other than romance. Mrs. Morel is passionate about her religious beliefs. Paul finds a passion for painting, although he arguably uses the art form to process the repressed romantic passion he feels for his mother. Miriam displays passionate spirituality: "She was cut off from ordinary life by her religious intensity," which makes a physically passionate relationship with Paul impossible. Miriam does feel deeply for Paul, just not sexually. She longs for him to belong to her, just as Mrs. Morel does, in contrast to Clara, who wants physical passion with Paul, not a relationship.

Bondage

Despite knowing what they want from their lives, someone or something holds back all the characters in Sons and Lovers. The most obvious form of bondage in the novel is Mrs. Morel's suffocating love for her sons. Rather than giving the boys a sense of security to explore the world, their relationships with their mother hold them back, particularly from finding another love. None of William's girlfriends live up to Mrs. Morel's expectations, and he burns their love letters to assuage her jealousy. Similarly, Paul feels so overwhelmed with love for his mother that he dreams of living in a little cottage with her forever rather than finding a woman and starting a family of his own. At the end of the novel, Paul helps end his mother's life, which frees her from the pain of illness, but also helps him escape the bondage of his mother's affection.

Men in the novel are also held back by other strong forces. Alcoholism acts as bondage in the Morel marriage. As an addict, Mr. Morel lies and steals. Mrs. Morel loathes her husband for the way he drunkenly treats his family, but she cannot leave him, in part because of the bondage of marriage. Meanwhile, characters are held back by the bondage of their social class, which limits their access to education, romantic partnerships, and job prospects. Women are particularly shackled by social expectations, such as with Mrs. Morel's and Miriam's desires to pursue education, needs which are thwarted by domestic duties and gender roles.

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