Paul Morel, the young man in D.H. Lawrence’s novel, Sons and Lovers, caught between his mother’s possessiveness and fear of losing him to Miriam and his own feelings of inadequacy, struggles mightily with his feelings and his decision about whether or not to marry Miriam.
Lawrence writes these words:
With the spring came again the old madness and battle. Now he knew he would have to go to Miriam. But what was his reluctance? He told himself it was only a sort of overstrong virginity in her and him which neither could break through. He might have married her; but his circumstances at home made it difficult, and moreover, he did not want to marry. Marriage was for life, and because they had become close companions, he and she, he did not see that it should inevitably follow they should be man and wife. He did not feel that he wanted marriage with Miriam. He wished he did. He would have given his head to have felt a joyous desire to marry her and to have her. Then why couldn’t he bring it off? There was some obstacle; and what was that obstacle? It lay in the physical bondage. He shrank from the physical contact. But why? With her he felt bound up inside himself. He could not go out to her. Something struggled in him but he could not get to her. Why? She loved him….Why , when she put her arm in his timidly, as they walked, did he feel he would burst forth in brutality and recoil? He owed himself to her; he wanted to belong to her. Perhaps the recoil and the shrinking from her was love in its first fierce modesty. He had no aversion for her. No, it was the opposite; it was a strong desire battling with a still stronger shyness and virginity. It seemed as if virginity were a positive force, which fought and won in both of them. And with her he felt it so hard to overcome; yet he was nearest to her, and with her alone could he deliberately break through. And he owed himself to her. Then, if they could get things right, they could marry; but he would not marry unless he could feel strong in the joy of it---never. He could not have faced his mother. It seemed to him that to sacrifice himself in a marriage he did not want would be degrading, and would undo all his life, make it a nullity. He would try what he could do.
And he had a great tenderness for Miriam. Always, she was sad dreaming her religion; and he was nearly a religion for her. He could not bear to fail her. It would come out alright if they tried.
He looked round. A good many of the nicest men he knew were like himself, bound in by their own virginity, which they could not break out of. They were so sensitive to their women that they would go without them for ever rather than do them a hurt, an injustice. Being the sons of mothers whose husbands had blundered rather brutally through their feminine sanctities, they were themselves too diffident and shy. They could easier deny themselves than incur any reproach from a woman; for a woman was like their mother, and they were full of the sense of their mother. They preferred themselves to suffer the misery of celibacy, rather than risk the other person. ( D.H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers, from three great novels, JG Press, 1933p. 703-4)
The ‘Oedipus Complex’ constitutes a psychological problem and this forms the nucleus of the novels, Sons and Lovers. The possessive character of Mrs. Morel was great stumbling block in the life of Paul, the hero of the piece. She was terribly dissatisfied with her married life and then subsequently. She exerted her influence on the life of Paul who could not liberate himself from the mother-fixation. Mother’s influence was so preponderant and so overweening assertive that Paul could not get a balanced emotional life. He failed to establish a becoming relationship both with Miriam and Clara. The mother-image was deterrent to the emotional life of Paul who himself was also a highly sensitive person and in his attachment with mother we notice the warmth and passion of a lover. This complex psychological problem has been treated or delineated by Lawrence with the consummate art of a poet and an unfailing observation and insight of a true psychologist. (From A.D.’s Literature website)
It is not a physical attraction of Paul to his mother that is at issue in this novel, although that may have been one of the interpretations emerging from the novel. It is the overweening influence of the despondent, dependent and even desperate mother on the son that blocks his achievement of a balanced emotional life. And the resulting dependence on the mother’s tyrannical emotional imprint leaves the young son wallowing, if not actually drowning in the murky waters of his mother’s own imbalance and unfinished emotional work. Wrestling with what seems like a spider’s web of enmeshment with the mother, Paul vacillates between a healthy impulse of “wanting” and moving toward Miriam, and an unhealthy impulse of avoiding and withdrawing from Miriam, in his early twenties. His vacillation signals a kind of impotence, powerlessness, indecision and emotional limbo. Others, caught in a similar web might, and often do, fall into the trap of over-compensating violence and bullying. Excessive deference and/or excessive bullying, two inappropriate emotional and psychological impulses on the part of men, in their relationship with women, play an inordinate role in contemporary culture, to the detriment of both genders, and certainly to the demise of many relationships.
For twenty-first century readers, this whole story may seem as if it belongs in the ash-heap of ancient history. After all, there is no mother of sons today whose dependence on her son, given her desperation in her own unfulfilled, and unfulfilling marriage, distorts the son’s capacity to understand his own complex emotions, and to penetrate them into an enlightened and confident sense of his self!
There is, today, a mountain of narrative evidence of women who complain, justifiably, about the abuse they experience at the hands of inappropriate men. And there is a concomitantly inordinate number of men whose imbalance in their emotional development, especially as it regards the complexities of choosing a female life partner, impedes their healthy emotional development.
Are these the men who are and have been perpetrating injustices on women? Is Paul a clairvoyant, if fictional, canary in the coal mine of gender issues? Is his mother, while never mentioned in the front-page stories that saturate the current debate over relationships between men and women, casting a dark shadow over these fractured and fractious, debilitating and demeaning encounters of powerlessness/overpowering among men and their women colleagues and former friends, especially of those men in the public telescope?
While the #MeToo and the #Time’sUp initiatives are diagnosing and exposing the experiences of demeaned women, much of it outside the bounds of a legal framework, men continue to refuse (not merely refrain!) to seek help in the conundrum of their emotional and professional and domestic vortex. Who, after all, would contest that emotional eunuchs, especially those who do not, or cannot, comprehend their emotional DNA, would be the most likely perpetrators of sexual abuse?
And while it seems paradoxical, and to the women complainants irrelevant, to attempt to parse the male’s emotional DNA, especially as it can deliver only inappropriate attitudes and behaviour (see pornography, strip clubs, locker room talk, and the current U.S. president) we can most likely also agree that powerlessness, and the feeling of impotence, no matter how it is incarnated or seeded, will very likely generate inappropriate behaviour, both for the agent and the victim. Mothers of young boys clearly have a responsibility for their own emotional health, including the management of their marriages, and the culture of the family in which they are attempting to raise, educate and launch a healthy son.
Any notion of beginning from the point of view that it is “pointless” for a wife/mother to begin a conversation with a male spouse who is not living up to the expectations of his wife, on any matter, be it fiscal, physical, sexual, intellectual, social, parental or even spiritual, is a non-starter, sabotaging itself from the get-go! “He won’t (doesn’t) get it!” is a phrase uttered at this moment in thousands of rooms across this continent. And the voices in that choir are exclusively female!
Misandry, a dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against men or boys, unfortunately takes many shapes and forms. And while the contemporary culture is fixated on the empirical, the physical evidence in any matter, there are other signs and “substantial” pieces of evidence of misandry in the debate. Emotional withdrawal, that “passive aggressive” charge for which men are infamous, can and is also a potential attitude from disaffected women. Even an emotional “stance” that positions the woman as “knowing” and “discerning” and having “superior, emotional intelligence” as compared with men is a mean-spirited face, voice, arms and heart of misandry. Even hugs engaged in such a mental state are meaningless, for both the man and the woman. And anything beyond hugs, under an umbrella of female “emotional superiority,” is merely another play-acting, with ultimately dire consequences.
And men, whether they come from emotionally domineering mothers, or cheer-leading mothers, or insecure mothers of any sort, and also whether they come from dominating fathers, emotionally frozen and/or absent fathers, or ‘driven’ fathers, or other forms of male insecurity, will in too many cases be unable (that is very different from unwilling!) to discern their complex emotions, and how they impact their female partners, especially when those relationships get “serious” and “intimate”.
Is it not past time for this century’s enlightened and sophisticated, educated and informed, sensitive and sensible men and women to remove the mask of fear and insecurity, in whatever form it manifests itself, and to acknowledge our vulnerability as individual human beings, to open to the possibility that we are deeper, more worthy, more open to see new insights even if they might be at first threatening and frightening (to both genders)?
Perhaps a re-reading of Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers might help even those who hate reading, in a century in which (reading) literacy is another of those species threatened into extinction (along with emotional literacy), like the 60% of the animal world that has disappeared, according to the World Wildlife Fund.