Paul Morel loves his mother. Saddled with a violent, unhappy marriage to an uncouth coal-miner, she dotes on her son, with whom she forms a tight friendship. As Paul grows to become handsome and ambitious, he becomes attached to two different girls, which strains his relationship with his mother. The grammatical ambiguity of the title is no accident; at times Paul seems more like a boyfriend to his mother than a son, and more a son to his girlfriends than a lover. It is difficult, Paul shows us, to inhabit these social roles at the same time, which threaten to cleave you into parts and prevent you from devoting all of your being to anyone, even yourself.
Sons and Lovers hits many of the same settings and themes as Lady Chatterley's Lover, but it is also hugely different. The latter book is a paean to the physical act of love, which frees Constance Chatterley into herself, but sex in Sons and Lovers is (accurately, I might add) a messy, confusing affair. Paul resists giving himself physically to his lover, Miriam, until very late in the book, and it is not an unqualified success:
And afterwards he loved her--loved her to the last fibre of her being. He loved her. But he wanted, somehow, to cry. There was something he could not bear for her sake. He stayed with her till quite late at night. As he rode home he felt that he was finally initiated. He was a youth no longer. But why had he the dull pain in his soul? Why did the thought of death, the after-life, seem so sweet and consoling?
I thought that Lady Chatterley's Lover seemed strangely void of the Christian mysticism that Lawrence is known for. Sons and Lovers has it in spades, and though I'm sure others have taken to forming a precise catechism of Lawrence's religious philosophy, I must admit that such an endeavor is beyond me. There is the "sweet and consoling" after-life, and the paradoxical life that comes with being still (unlike Lady Chatterley!), and much to do with images of size and importance:
All the while the peewits were screaming in the field. When he came to, he wondered what was near his eyes, curving and strong with life in the dark, and what voice it was speaking. Then he realised it was the grass, and the peewit was calling. The warmth was Clara's breathing heaving. He lifted his head, and looked into her eyes. They were dark and shining and strange, life wild at the source staring into his life, stranger to him, yet meeting him; and he put his face down on her throat, afraid. What was she? A strong, strange, wild life, that breathed with his in the darkness through this hour. It was all so much bigger than thamselves that hewas hushed. They had met, and included in their meeting the thrust of the manifold grass stems, the cry of the peewit, the wheel of the stars.
But mostly I enjoyed reading Sons and Lovers more than Lady Chatterley because it is a novel more in tune with its protagonist's psychology, more interested in human detail. Lady Chatterley's reputation as pornographic, I feel, may have as much to do with its positivity about sex as its graphicality. Most of us, I think, simply have never felt as unabashedly pure and overjoyed about human intimacy as Connie does--though if you feel otherwise, I am quite happy for you. I feel much more in tune with the confused, needy, insolent Paul, who says things like this:
"You know," he said, with an effort, "if one person loves, the other does."
"Ah!" she answered. "Like mother said to me when I was little, 'Love begets love.'"
"Yes, something like that, I think it must be."
"I hope so, because, if it were not, love might be a very terrible thing," she said.
"Yes, but it is--at least with most people," he answered.
Love is a terrible thing, as Paul will find out, at least terrible in capability. Paul is never able to give himself wholly to either Miriam or Clara because the prospect is too frightening; he uses words like "freedom" but the subtext is of diminishing, of vanishing into the other, which is both appealing and horrifying.