Individuality and Wholeness in Sons and Lovers
Cari Gilkison, Fall 2000
The theme for the search for wholeness permeates the text of D.H. Lawrence’s novel Sons and Lovers. Lawrence views the world as a set of dichotomies such as male and female and he attempts to reconcile them through relationships. Parents come together in harmony to create a child and the drift apart, causing a split within the family. Wholeness and harmony can only be restored when the child grows up and creates a family of his or her own. As John Swift points out, Lawrence sees the world as, “A pulsing interplay of opposites that work toward orgasmic consummation and transformation, a lapsing out and new birth.” (Squires 121). It is through relationships—sex and love—that the path to fulfillment can be found, but first there must be a sense of individualism that must come before wholeness can be realized.
The pattern in relationships is most striking in Sons and Lovers. Lawrence begins by describing the initial struggle between Paul’s parents. Gertrude and Walter come together in harmony to create William, Paul, Annie and Arthur. When Gertrude and Walter drift apart and their marriage fails, a schism occurs and Paul falls into chaos. Gertrude clings to her children in the absence of her husband and tried to find fulfillment in them, but this does not work. Gertrude still feels empty and is searching for some sense of wholeness. Lawrence recognizes that though love is the path to fulfillment, some relationships do not lead to wholeness. Gertrude’s relationship with her sons is one such type of relationship. Still unhappy, she searches for this sense of completion in nature. Though she is never completely happy, she does get a glimpse of the harmony of nature. When she steps outside her troubled household into the front yard, she sees then possibilities that lie out there, but she can never quite grasp those possibilities.
William grows up and goes away. Soon it is time for Paul to follow, but Paul can’t become the individual that he needs to become. He needs to mature, but the entanglement he’s caught in at home with his parent’s relationship prevents him from doing so. He seeks the other half of himself first in his childhood friend Miriam, but, still unhealthily attached to his mother, he finds himself more torn than ever. He goes between loving Miriam to hating Miriam during the span of the relationship. As Fredrick McDowell points out, “Lawrence stressed the need to obtain balance between love—in his view, primarily sexual attraction—and power, the conscious cultivation of the sources within that would lead to the most responsible expression of individuality” (Squires 159). Paul can’t complete himself with Miriam because he is not yet an individual.
This becomes clear for him in the scene where he is picking cherries. He is high up in a tree and finally able to not only look at the world from a new perspective, but able to see his relationship with Miriam in a new perspective as well. His future does not include Miriam, who is below him. Paul notices how small, soft and tender she looks down the ground and realizes that he has to end his relationship with her. She is not the one who will tear him away from his mother and pull him into a new life—a new feeling of wholeness. Paul tells Miriam, “To be rid of our individuality, which is will, or our effort—to live effortless, is a kind of conscious sleep—that is very beautiful, I think—that is our afterlife—our immortality.” (332). He finally realizes at the end of the relationship that he must reenact the cosmic dance of separation and togetherness. He knows that he can’t do this dance with Miriam, so he must move on.
Paul then finds himself recreating the Oedipus love triangle he originally had with his parents with Clara and her husband Dawes. Dawes is lower class and uneducated like his father, and Clara has social aspirations like his mother. Clara, though older and motherly toward him, inanities him into the adult world of sensuality and physical intimacy. The relationship with Clara is not the one that will complete him either, but it is the one that will launch him into the world of mature, healthy relationships. Instead of getting rid of Dawes and winning Clara for his own, Paul ends up helping them get back together. This allows him to symbolically reunite his parents as he absolves himself of the guilt he felt for their ultimate split.
Though Paul has moved closer toward that elusive wholeness, one thing still remains unsolved. As long as his mother is still alive, he can’t be free of her incestuous love. Though upset that his mother is dying, Paul also seems relieved as he helps his mother end her misery. He can justifiably kill his mother, not just symbolically, but physically, and break free of her suffocating love. Only at the end of the novel Sons and Lovers, when she dies does he finally feel free enough to go out into the world as an individual. Paul is able to experience the loneliness and emptiness of being an individual at last. “The real agony was that he had nowhere to go, nothing to say and was nothing himself.” (456). Only this nothingness will give him the freedom to find himself and the other half that he seeks.
Paul begins his life torn apart by his parents’ relationship, and through the course of the novel he is able to break away, become an individual and search for the right relationship to make him whole. Lawrence explained this process in his essay on love. “The motion of love, like the tide, is fulfillment in this instance; then there must be an ebb. So that coming together depends on the going apart” (Phoenix 151). The ebb and flow of finding love in Sons and Lovers is, in D.H. Lawrence’s eyes, a microcosm for the entire universe.