Tuesday, 5 March 2013

A Book Review: Sons and Lovers

My reading so far in 2013 has veered off down a lonely road towards challenging and thought provoking.  The last book I completed was "Time Must Have a Stop" by Aldous Huxley.  It was at times difficult to remain interested, but knowing the intellect of the author I felt compelled to continue reading so as not to miss out on something monumental.  In actuality I can't say that the book was anything more then a solid read, but "Sons and Lovers" by D.H. Lawrence provided the next challenge and it was indeed that.  Finding a place at number 9 on the Modern Library list of the 20th century's best novels, I had a pretty good idea that the novel would prove enjoyable.  As I have now read a large handful of novels from the list, I have had success in that all the works on the list have been well-written and thought provoking.  They have been from a variety of genres, written in an array of different styles and it feels like I am truly learning new things about the art of writing whilst consuming the reading material. 

The novel "Sons and Lovers" explores in excruciating depth the dynamics of family relationships, and the idea that your upbringing can shape considerably your personality and your ability to develop relationships outside of the family.  This novel is unique in that it doesn't follow one central character throughout the work.  It opens with a focus on the mother Gertrude Coppard, and examines her marriage to the miner Morel.  She is of the middle class, and marries down into depths of poverty that she didn't realize when she first fell for Morel.  He soon shows himself to be a functioning alcoholic who abuses his young bride which leads to Gertrude turning her love and affection towards her children, specifically the eldest William.  Their father's abusive behaviour towards their mother leads the children to resent him, and to strengthen their bond with their mother. 

The novel moves to focus on William the oldest son as he gets older and begins to move on with his life.  He moves to London and quickly begins moving up in social circles.  He distances himself from the family, only coming home for occasional visits.  He develops a relationship with a young lady, but it seems that the relationship is based solely on status, as his lady friend appears dim witted and superficial.  The author works masterfully in the subtle way that he has the mother Gertrude quietly disapprove of her son's relationship, but she is resigned to having lost control emotionally.  The girlfriend returns with William to visit the family a few times and she proves to be as materialistic as suspected.  The William chapter closes with him returning for a visit not long before the planned wedding.  He is sickly and it seems that his bride-to-be had hardly taken notice.  He returns to London despite his ill health and is dead days later.  This serves as a prelude to the heart of the novel, as the mother turns her focus to her youngest son Paul who shows a more dynamic depth of character then her middle son Arthur or her daughter Annie. 

The main focus of the novel emerges, as Paul struggles through his teen years into adulthood.  He has developed an extreme dependence on his mother that had been nurtured and shaped significantly by Gertrude herself.  This is graphically illustrated in Paul's inability to develop his relationship with Miriam.  He can not fathom loving another woman as deeply as his mother.  His mother for her part disapproves of his relationship with Miriam which provides another wedge that eventually leads Paul and Miriam apart.  He is overwhelmed by the depth of Miriam's feelings for him, as he can not devote himself fully to her when his mother truly has his heart.  Paul moves on to a relationship with Clara, a married but separated woman who was a friend of Miriam.  While he is now adult and his sexual relationship with Clara is more significant then he had with Miriam, it becomes apparent that he once again is incapable of giving his heart to another.  Clara being an already married woman adds to the complications of the situation. 

As the work moves towards a conclusion, Gertrude ages and her children all move on and out, except for Paul.  He feels attached to her in a way that leads him to pledge to her his heart eternally.  Quite dramatically, the bond between the two teeters on the edge of inappropriate before Paul realizes that his mother is aging rapidly.  In one passage he questions the "fairness" of life, not wanting to accept that his mother will at some point be gone.  As his mother falls ill with a tumor, Paul's mediocre relationship with Clara disintegrates.  He develops a friendship with her estranged husband who had at one point engaged him in a fight.  He realizes that because he never did grant his heart to Clara, he had not earned her as a wife.  She tells him plainly that despite her husband Baxter's failings he had opened up to her, granted her access to him wholly, unlike Paul who was so guarded and distant.  His mother's illness rapidly advancing towards death, Paul begins to realize that he should return Clara to her husband.  He distances himself from everyone, Clara, Miriam, his family distant and immediate.  Paul arranges to reunite Clara and Baxter, and as he bids them adieu at the train station on their way to Sheffield, he appears resigned to being alone.  His mother dead, his sister returns to her husband and their life together.  His father, so distant from Paul, goes to live with acquaintances and Paul takes up a living arrangement in Nottingham where he works.  The author paints a desolate portrait, Paul wandering through the city alone with little to no human contact.  Suicide is contemplated at this time, but no action is taken.  One night after a few weeks he attends church where he sees Miriam.  Walking to say hello after the service, they decide to go to dinner together.  Returning to his apartment after, D.H. Lawrence begins to hint at the young lovers reuniting.  At this point Paul extinguishes any possibility of that happen as he appears to resign himself to being alone in his misery.  He seems to be punishing himself for his prior treatment of Miriam, knowing that he is not deserving of a wife so in love with him.  Being unable to reciprocate as he never learned how to love, Paul sees Miriam out of his apartment as the novel closes.

I didn't realize while reading this book how much it made me think.  I struggled at times to keep my interest, but eventually I read a significant portion of the 420 pages in a few days.  The message becomes overwhelmingly vivid, and it really is an important one.  An inability to love can be crippling.

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