Lawrence's Sons and Lovers (1913) I
Bill Long 10/14/08
Biblical Knowledge and Allusions I
Anyone who reads scholarship on DH Lawrence's brilliant 1913 novel describing the stultifying, stifling and, ultimately, suffocating effect of maternal love on a beloved son, is normally treated to expositions of the following subjects: (1) the effect of industrialism on Midlands Britain in the 19th century; (2) the role of Sons and Lovers in launching the "modernist movement" in 20th century English fiction; (3) a discussion of Freud's "Oedipal Complex" in literature; (4) a discussion on censorship or the saucy quality of Lawrence's works and/or (5) Lawrence's unmatched ability to create a "mood" by careful description of nature. Rarely, if ever, have I read extended discussions showing how skillful Lawrence was at using Biblical imagery to describe his characters, reflect on their actions or criticize their approach to things.
The depth of his acquiantance with the Scriptures, as well as his "feel" for "Nonconformist" (esp., Congregational or Presbyterian) Protestantism in late 19th century England, has not often been subject to scholarly attention. A welcome exception is T. R. Wright's 2000 study DH Lawrence and the Bible (Cambridge UP). While Wright's book is more topical, focusing either on certain portions of the Bible interpreted by Lawrence (such as Genesis or the Gospel of John), or is intererested in locating Lawrence among "readers" of the Bible, such as the higher critics of the early 20th century or modern literary critics, my focus here will be on working through a single work, Sons and Lovers, and showing how he uses the Bible in specific passages of that work.
In these essays I will use the Cambridge ed. of 1992 to illustrate many of his Biblical references. I'll not pay much attention to "churchy" things, though occasionally I will make reference to them.
Meeting Some Characters
The Morel family, a mining family from near Nottingham, has two children as the story opens, and Mrs. Morel (Gertrude) is pregnant with the third, Paul. Before the birth, however, Lawrence gives us a flashback to the time when Morel met and courted Gertrude. She was delighted in him because he was everything she wasn't--he was spontaneous, sensual, attentive, fun-loving. She really had never met anyone like him. She, in contrast, was brought up as a strict Congregationalist, one of the smaller Protestant (Puritan) sects in 19th century Britian which was large on Scripture mastery, as well as the importance of missions, education and total abstinence from intoxicating drink. Actually, I love one of the references to card-playing which Lawrence has. This type of activity was frowned-on by Puritans, referring to "face cards" as "the devil's pictures" (p. 29).
Of course, with her husband working in the mines (one of the better jobs in the Midlands in those days), she had to endure his endless bouts of late-arrival-home after hard and dehydrating days in the mines followed by easy and lubricating evenings in the taverns. She was interested in "self-improvement," and he seemingly was only interested in self-destruction. "Self-improvement" was one of the watchwords of these Congregationalists (p. 15). Gertrude's father, George Coppard, wore his staunch Congregationalism proudly. He
"preferred theology in reading, and who drew near in sympathy only to one man, the Apostle Paul" (p. 18).
The reference to the Apostle Paul is significant because in late 19th century Biblical scholarship the contrast between the "religion of Jesus" (an inviting, heart-centered, ministry of mercy) and the "faith of Paul" (doctrinal, intellectual, emotionally sterile) was stressed. Lawrence not only pointed to this part of Gertrude's inheritance, which accounted for her reserve and intellectualism, but also chose to name her third child, the one whom she would eventually smother with her love, Paul. To make sure that the reader doesn't miss either the name or significance, the nickname of Paul as a youth was "'Postle" (i.e, "Apostle"). Paul will have trouble loving throughout the book and, in the final analysis, will be unable to give himself to a woman.
1. Gertrude's first near boy-friend, before she met Morel, was John Field (p. 18), with whom she walked home from chapel and who gave her a Bible when she was 19. John wanted to go into the ministry and didn't like the business world, to which he was destined by his father. In exasperation Gertrude says to him:
"Then why don't you--why don't you (go into ministry)....If I were a man, nothing would stop me...." ...."But my father's so stiff necked. He means to put me into the business, and I know he'll do it," (p. 18).
The reference to the father's being stiff-necked gives us our first tiny biblical morsel---for it is the word in the King James Version used to describe the obstreperousness of the people of Israel. A few examples: "And the Lord said unto Moses, 'I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people" (Ex. 32:9); and "Unto a land flowing with milk and honey; for I will not go up in the midst of thee; for thou art a stiffnecked people; lest I consume thee in the way" (Ex. 33:3). John's description of his father feeds off the Bible.
2. One of the early themes of Sons and Lovers is how Gertrude and Morel become gradually estranged from each other. Perhaps this was inevitable. He was a sensual sort, doing rather than thinking, spending all his day beneath the earth and all his evening in the pubs, while she was a moralistic sort, driven by the desire to improve self and her children. Why did they marry? Because she was so taken by his carefree attitude, an attitude she had never previously witnessed, that she simply "fell" for him. Their love was genuine and, as Lawrence says, they were perfectly happy for the first six months of marriage, very happy for the next three and then somewhat happy for a while thereafter. But sooner or later (and it was sooner here), their relationship faltered. But they were married, with two children at home (7 and 5) and little Paul on the way, and the reality was that you just stayed married in those days.
The event which made their situation irremediable was her discovery one day that Morel had, without consulting her, clipped the beautiful locks of handsome William, when he was a one year-old. Lawrence often uses flashbacks, and thus we are brought to this reality after we learn that the children are older. In any case, when William was one, and "his mother was proud of him" because "he was so pretty," Morel cropped William "like a sheep" (p. 23). So upset was she at this violation, at this seeming destruction of her child that she yelled, "I could kill you, I could!" (p. 24). "She choked with rage, her two fists uplifted.."
Well, curls could be cleaned up, but the rift caused by this event never healed. "She went about her work with closed mouth and very quiet" (p. 24).
"She spoke to him civilly, and never alluded to what he had done. But he felt something final had happened," (p. 24).
Now we are ready for the biblical quotation--which I will introduce in the next essay.