Sons and Lovers

Summary and Analysis of Chapters 1-3

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Chapter I Summary:

"Hell Row" is a collection of cottages where colliers (coal-miners) live. They work nearby in the small gin-pits, as they have for years, and similar cottages dotting the countryside form the village of Bestwood. Roughly sixty years ago, large, financier-backed mines drove out the gin-pits. The company Carston, Waite and Co. appeared, and Hell Row was burned down. Carston, Waite and Co. expanded their operations and developed six pits. They built housing for the miners; on the site of Hell Row, they established the Bottoms, seventy-two houses on six square blocks at the bottom of a hill. While the houses were fairly substantial and pleasant on the outside, the kitchens, which were the dwelling-rooms, opened on to the ash-pits in back.

Gertrude Morel, thirty-one years old, married for eight years, and expecting her third baby in September, is not pleased to move to the Bottoms in July, even though she has a more expensive and desirable house at the end of the strip. Walter Morel, her husband, is a miner. Three weeks into their stay, the wakes (a fair) begin, and he troops off one Monday morning to attend. Their children are excited: William, seven, goes off after breakfast, leaving behind Annie, five. Mrs. Morel promises to take her after dinner.

William returns for noontime dinner. After, he goes off on his own, and Mrs. Morel later takes Annie to the wakes. William has won two egg-cups from a game; Mrs. Morel knows he won them for her, and he gives them to her. He proudly shows her around the grounds. She leaves later with Annie, much to William's disappointment. William comes home later, unhappy from his mother's absence, and reports seeing his father working at a bar.

At night, Mrs. Morel goes to the side garden and watches families returning from the wakes. She feels dreary, as if nothing will happen to her in life. She cannot afford a third child, especially since her despised husband drinks away his wages. Her children are her only happiness. She later goes back into the house and laments her lost youth and feels powerless--only waiting--in life. Her husband returns late at night, and they get in an argument over whether he's been drinking. Mrs. Morel goes to bed.

Mrs. Morel comes from a good family. She has inherited her temper from her father, George Coppard, an engineer embittered by poverty. She hated her father's overbearing behavior toward her mother, whom she loved and favored. She thinks back on her youth, and remembers one afternoon spent behind her house with John Field, a well-educated young man who gave her a Bible that she still keeps. They discussed his reluctance to go into business; she had mistakenly believed that if one were a man, one could do anything.

She lost touch with Field. At twenty-three, she met twenty-seven-year-old Morel, a hearty, vigorous, humorous man, at a Christmas party. Her sensitive, quiet, intellectual nature was drawn to him, especially since he was completely opposite from her father. Morel, too, was fascinated by her refined qualities. They married the next Christmas, and she was very happy for several months. But it turned out they were not living in his own house, as Mrs. Morel believed, but overpaying rent to Morel's mother.

Morel's lie, his inability to communicate intimately, and his apparent increased drinking soured Mrs. Morel. She gave birth to William around their third Christmas together, and she turned her loneliness and disillusion into passionate love for him, much to Morel's jealousy. They fought constantly over Morel's irresponsibility. One day, he cut off William's beautiful curly hair. This event finalized their rift, and Mrs. Morel would always remember it. Morel's tendency to mock his superiors led to his lower wages, which he squandered on drink.

On the Tuesday morning after the first day of the wakes, Jerry Purdy, Morel's best friend, visits. Mrs. Morel hates his cold, manipulative, and domineering nature. The men leave for a ten-mile walk to Nottingham, where they play cards for money. At the Bottoms, Mrs. Morel takes Annie to a nearby brook for relief from the heat. Morel irritably and drunkenly returns late at night. He and Mrs. Morel fight viciously about his drunkenness. He locks her out of the house, then goes to sleep at the kitchen table. Outside, her rage grows. After she raps for a long time at the window, Morel wakes up, ashamedly opens the door, and runs upstairs before she can be angry with him. She cleans up the kitchen and goes to bed, where he is asleep.

Analysis:

Immediately apparent in the novel, especially to a reader in 1913, is its subject matter of miners. While Lawrence was certainly not the first English writer to depict the lower class, or even miners, he does so out of some personal experience (he maintained that the first part of Sons and Lovers was largely autobiographical) and with a keen ear for the rhythms of their speech‹Morel's especially‹and habits.

However, the first chapter is presented mostly from Mrs. Morel's point of view. Lawrence narrates in an omniscient voice that is at times detached‹the opening description of the Bottoms reads almost like the beginning to a fairy tale‹but more frequently zooms in on the interior emotions of each character.

Mrs. Morel's unhappy life is explored thoroughly. She represents intellect that has not been allowed to flourish because she is a woman; her shock that John Field could not do whatever he wanted as a man is a poignant projection of her own repressed ambitions. Her sense of being "buried alive" is a logical complaint for someone whose husband mines underground all day. However, she is just as repressed by their industrial life, a theme Lawrence will explore throughout the novel.

Though the sensual, passionate Morel seems an odd choice for Mrs. Morel, Lawrence demonstrates here, and elsewhere in the novel, how oppositions can attract as often as they repulse. Morel is also in attractive opposition to Mrs. Morel's loathed father. Still, the marriage is clearly a disaster, pitting mind against body, a conflict in which Lawrence was always interested. Morel is also irresponsible in regards to their children; he drinks away his wages, while Mrs. Morel lives only for William and Annie.

Sons and Lovers is informed by, and revises, Sigmund Freud's early psychoanalytic theories of sexuality. Freud's most famous theory, that of the Oedipus complex, in which the son unconsciously desires his mother sexually while murderously hating his father, is given full treatment in the novel (the complex is named after the eponymous character in the Greek play Oedipus Rex). Here, the relationship between Mrs. Morel and William verges on romantic love; William wins her the egg-cups much as a lover proudly wins his girlfriend a prize at a fair, and he cannot enjoy himself once she leaves. Mrs. Morel, too, has projected the disappointment from her marriage into excessive love for her children, especially William. Lawrence uses several psychological symbols to demonstrate the complex relationships. Morel, threatened by his wife's love for their son, cuts off William's curly hair in a symbolic castration. Lawrence describes the act as "the spear through the side of her love for Morel." His metaphor suggests malevolent phallic imagery.

Tellingly, Mrs. Morel's first name, Gertrude, echoes that of the queen in Shakespeare's Hamlet, another work noted for its Oedipal themes.

Chapter II Summary:

Morel's physical presence seems to diminish around the house. He prefers to breakfast alone. Mrs. Morel gives birth to a boy while ill; Morel is indifferent. The Congressional clergyman, Mr. Heaton, visits her every day and becomes the child's godfather. Morel complains about the difficulty of his job in front of Heaton. One night, Mrs. Morel escapes to a meadow with Annie and the baby after Morel has kicked William. She watches the sky and feels peaceful in nature. The baby seems sad to her. Though it was brought into the world in an unloved state, she vows to compensate it with love from "all her soul." She calls him Paul.

On Friday night, Morel returns home late and drunk and, during a quarrel, throws a table drawer at his wife. It strikes her brow and draws blood. She pushes him away when he shows concern. When some of her blood drips on Paul, he helps her clean him up. The next day, Morel drinks to alleviate his guilt. However, he never apologizes and claims to himself that it was her fault. The family withdraws further from him.

With no money to drink more, Morel takes some from his wife's purse. Unable to pay for food the next day, she realizes her husband took her money. She confronts him and he denies doing it, then takes some belongings and leaves. The children are anxious he will not return, but their mother assures them he will be back that night. She is nervous, too, knowing that the family is dependent on him. She sees his bundle of belongings outside and knows he has not gone far. He returns later, and she mocks him for leaving his belongings nearby.

Analysis:

Just as Mrs. Morel previously transferred her dissatisfaction with her life to her love for William, here we see her redouble those efforts with Paul. For every cruel turn Morel makes toward her, she reacts with overflowing love for her newborn child. This continues the Oedipal theme hinted at in Chapter I, and also bolsters the idea of oppositions playing off each other.

Another feature of oppositions explored here is how contradictory human nature is. Morel is usually heartless and detached, but he sometimes shows flashes of concern and love for his family. A greater contradiction emerges when he leaves, when Mrs. Morel realizes that "her heart was bitter, because she had loved him." In her anxiety over her husband's presumed departure, she has understood that she has some fund of love for him (they even share a somewhat romantic moment when he brings her tea in the morning). However, it is possible if she is confusing dependence with love, a mixture she seems to inflict upon her children as well.

Mrs. Morel gains insight into her life while in the meadow. In Chapter I, she was at peace among the flowers in her garden (the flowers will become an important symbol). The Modernist literary movement borrowed the Romantic tradition of transcendence in nature and frequently transplanted it to a number of other settings, including urban ones. James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, especially, were fascinated with how the single moment‹Joyce preferred the term "epiphany"; Woolf, "moments of being"‹could elevate a human beyond his normal mental and spiritual state into a transcendent vision of himself and the world. Lawrence continues to use nature as the setting for these epiphanies, and it seems a logical choice for Mrs. Morel, constrained by her house and the nearby dirty mines.

Lawrence is adept at planting small scenes within larger narrative sweeps to highlight general behavior. For instance, the scene in which Morel interrupts his wife and Heaton explains, without abstract commentary, Morel's jealousy over Heaton's relationship with his wife and even his child, his bitterness over his job in comparison with the clergyman's, and his growing irritation with his wife.

Chapter III Summary:

Morel is sick with inflammation of the brain, and Mrs. Morel nurses him in his ill mood. The neighbors help out with housework and money. Morel gets better and the relations between him and his wife are improved; he is dependent on her, and she can tolerate him now that she has a new baby. Mrs. Morel devotes her attention to William, who is growing into a smart, lively young man, while Morel feels left out. When Paul is seventeen months old, another boy is born, Arthur. Mrs. Morel is pleased that Arthur immediately loves his father, who often returns his affection.

Paul is small and reserved, follows his mother around, and sometimes cries without knowing why. William gets in trouble with a neighbor one day for ripping her son's collar. Morel wants to whip him for punishment, but Mrs. Morel threatens that he will regret it if he touches their son.

Mrs. Morel joins the Women's Guild, a club attached to the Bestwood Co-Operative Wholesale Society, where women meet weekly and discuss the social benefits of co-operation and other developments. Her children admire her membership in the intellectual community. When William is thirteen, his mother gets him a job at the Co-op office, though Morel wants him working in the mines. William attends night school and becomes an excellent clerk and book-keeper, and goes on to teach night school. He is an excellent athlete and dancer. He gives his money to his mother and befriends the middle-class young men of Bestwood. He also enjoys the company of many girls in town, none of whom his mother approves of.

William leaves the Co-op when he is nineteen and gets a job, with a raise, in Nottingham. Annie is studying to be a teacher, Paul is doing well in school, and Arthur is trying to get a scholarship for school in Nottingham. After a year, William receives an offer for an even higher-paying job in London. His mother despairs, knowing she will miss him. He reads aloud and burns his love-letters from girls in front of Paul and his mother.

Analysis:

The third chapter details the effects of the Oedipus complex that has been developing in the first two chapters, but with a twist‹it appears that, with William, there is a reverse Oedipus complex at play. Mrs. Morel seems to be in love with her son, who desires her approval but is not nearly as dependent on her as she is on him. Her jealousy over the girls who visit him and have sent him love-letters is thinly veiled.

The effect William's departure will have on Paul, her more effeminate son, is unclear, but we have seen ample evidence so far that Mrs. Morel has a tendency to transfer dissatisfied feelings from one area of her life (such as her marriage) to another area (her children). We may assume that she will project her longing for William onto Paul, though how that love may mutate is unclear.

Complicating this Oedipal relationship is Morel, who acts in an infantile, dependent manner and becomes, in effect, an ignored middle child. While this temporarily enhances his relationship with his wife, whatever love they had (which she admitted to having in the last chapter) is gone, and he no longer has the power of being an imposing father figure.

Alongside Morel's growing dependence is Mrs. Morel's burgeoning independence (aside from her dependence on her children). She easily defeats and bullies Morel in a fight and, more importantly, joins the Women's Guild and recalls her former intellectual skills that have been out of service for so long.