Monday, March 28, 2016

Mommy martyr

I really like reading books that were considered obscene when they were written and comparing them to the standards of today. Usually it's a huge letdown and a frustrating reminder that huge swaths of English Lit were composed by people being stifled under a code of morals that is utterly foreign to me. DH Lawrence doesn't quite fall into that category, but it's a near thing.

Of course, everyone always seems to want to talk about Lady Chatterly's Lover, which I've not read so I figured I might as well tell you that up front. Haven't read it, probably won't. But I did read Sons and Lovers because I picked up a copy at a used bookstore, and I find myself fairly impressed.

Lawrence did a beautiful job of crafting a complicated, messy, ugly little family in this novel. The characters are round and almost uniformly loathsome in one way or another. Gertrude is vindictive, Walter is abusive, Paul is aloof, and I want to criticize Miriam and Clara but to be totally honest I think Lawrence was unkind enough to his creations. The Morel family is of interest to me, but Paul's lovers seem like straw women more than they seem like fair targets. Paul has an inner life and inner workings, Miriam and Clara are portrayed only as reflected huger for Paul.

And besides that, they aren't the focus of the story. Paul is the son and lover (in some ways) of Gertrude, and that's the relationship that I come closest to interpreting as obscene in the story. People like to tease the idea of mama's boys but the character of Paul lives only for his mother - he creates for her, he returns to her, he spurns his lovers and abandons his friends for her. Of course, Gertrude too has essentially abandoned her husband and the care of her other children to focus her love, care, and disappointed hopes on her middle son. The toxicity of the mother-son relationship in the story is fascinating, it fairly hums with control and unexpressed longing and threats. It comes uncomfortably close to being the story of a son who is a lover, but doesn't quite cross that boundary.

So of course you have to ask why not - if Paul and Gertrude are devoted to one another and eschew basically all other relationships what is Lawrence trying to say with that? I think, like Hardy (who was also criticized for obscenity in his time) Lawrence is discussing the problems inherent in the falsely modest morality of the day - if Paul and Gertrude didn't feel compelled to participate in relationships they would prefer not to then they wouldn't have to survive on scraps of adoration from one another. I think that Paul is given liberty from the choices his mother made because of his mother's sacrifices.

And Miriam's. And Clara's.

Paul is saved from the fate of his parents, but only at the expense of three women's lives. Gertrude (and are we making a callback to Hamlet here, Mr. Lawrence?) suffers her relationship with her husband for decades but the suffering doesn't really start until Paul's birth, when she chooses to stay for the sake of the boy. Miriam doesn't understand Paul but is strung along by him for years as Paul struggles to understand himself. Clara, who is married to another man, is frankly and physically used by the man-child up until his mother's death saps him of the strength to pretend he cares for her.

Clara is interesting, and I think she's the key to the whole thing. Clara is married but living apart from her husband; she's a suffragette; she's relatively self-sufficient. She doesn't need Paul - even when she believes herself to be in love with him - and she doesn't need to be passed back to Mr. Dawes either, but allows both of those men to have a foothold in her soul. And she only returns to Dawes when Paul proves himself deficient - Dawes, for all that he's a fool, will hold her as an equal. He wants her, she wants him, he can forgive her her leaving if she can forgive his jealousy. Paul held himself apart from other mortals, struggling to live up to his mother's ideal of him and to replace his father as a man and doesn't do particularly well with either attempt.

I do find myself frustrated with the focus on the success and needs of men at the expense of the success and needs of women in this novel - men are allowed to work toward goals while women are allowed only meager gains, which usually consist of the attention or approval of men. I suppose I could write that off as an artifact of the era, if I didn't keep running into the same thing in novels written now. So I feel somewhat petty holding a novel written 103 years ago to standards that still aren't being met now, but on the other hand Austen started getting published 100 years ahead of Lawrence and seemed to speak to greater choices and hopes and dreams for women than the disappointments offered to Gertrude, Miriam, and Clara.

     - Alli

Lawrence, DH. Sons and Lovers. Viking Compass. New York: New York. 1975. (1913).

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