Mother-Loving Sons: This May Be the Last DH Lawrence Novel I Read For a While

DH Lawrence was a really weird dude.

I held my breath in reserve over the last two months as I journeyed through three of his most famous novels: The Rainbow, Women in Love, and Sons and Lovers. Now I can finally exhale and release a few spasmodic gas pains as I reel slightly from a head rush.

It’s not that Lawrence doesn’t have talent or interesting things to say. He has plenty of that. He can look at human relationships within the context of a changing culture and at a personal, nitty-gritty perspective at the same time. He can make you uncomfortable. He can make you realize, “Oh, I’ve had that experience too.” He can make you think about politics, God, art, sex, marriage and wonder if you got it right. But man, he is weird.

I officially concluded this after finishing his quasi-autobiographical novel, Sons and Lovers.

Sons and Lovers starts out as an intimate look into the life of a dysfunctional family: the Morels. Mrs. Morel and Mr. Morel ain’t exactly happy. It seems like they spend more time hurling accusations and pieces of furniture at each other than they do conversing. In spite of this Mrs. Morel finds out she’s pregnant with a third kid and bitterly resigns herself to the fate. The reader wonders, how the hey do people end up in these crappy situations to begin with? Seriously.

This is the brilliant part about Lawrence. He gives his readers the backstory on all his important characters, and over an arc of time we see how their personalities and choices form their eventual lives – for better or for worse.

Just take the Morels as an example. Mrs. Gertrude Morel as a young woman is intrigued by Walter Morel’s affable easy manners and excellent dance moves. Walter Morel is struck by Gertrude’s sophisticated airs.   Unfortunately Gertrude Morel is a serious, intellectual type of woman who expects too much out of her simplistic and even brutish spouse who supports his family as a coal miner while getting tippled on the side as often as he can. Soon Mr. Morel turns abusive. Newly married warm and fuzzies grow cold and brittle.   Poor Mrs. Morel, in early 20th century England, doesn’t have many options at this point.

Enter the chillins’.

Mrs. Morel’s sole joy is life soon becomes her four offspring. She especially has a soft spot for her sons, as she seeks to mold them into the men her husband should have been. Oh the psychological family drama begins in earnest now.

Son #1, William, brings home an uppity city girl who is modern parlance is something of a “poser.” Mom doesn’t approve, but has a fascinatingly diplomatic way of keeping the peace and using her gentle prompting questions to undermine her son’s commitment to his shallow girlfriend. We’re excited to see things play out, but tragedy strikes and Mrs. Morel is forced to shift the bulk of her hopes and affections on Son #2, Paul.   The other two chillins’, Annie and Arthur, get married and begin their own mundane journeys and that leaves Paul to be the center of his mother’s microcosm and the ultimate protagonist of the story.

Now things get angsty.

Paul has a crush on his childhood sweetheart Miriam, but Mrs. Morel doesn’t approve at all. Miriam is what you could call the opposite of down-to-earth: she fancies herself “a princess turned swine girl” and is waiting for the perfect relationship to come along that is all metaphysical and no physical. She and Paul are “lovers” for a number of years, even though they hardly even hold hands.   Paul is sexually frustrated (no kidding) and Mom uses his frustrated outbursts to let her son know she thinks Miriam’s not good enough.

Enter Clara.

It wouldn’t be a DH Lawrence novel without a bit of scandal, and that’s why we have the married suffragist Clara Dawes who is currently exploring life apart from her overbearing husband Baxter. Clara is sexy and beautiful like Miriam, but she’s also sexual and Paul finds this a welcome relief. They enter headlong into a passionate yet sad affair as Mrs. Morel looks on with a reserved sort of knowingness.

So which woman is Paul going to ultimately go for: his eccentric soul mate or the wordly modern woman? Apparently neither one, as long as Mrs. Morel is still alive.

“But no, mother. I even love Clara, and I did Miriam; but to give myself to them in marriage I couldn’t. I couldn’t belong to them. They seem to want me, and I can’t ever give it to them.”

 “You haven’t met the right woman.”

 “And I never shall meet the right woman while you live,” he said.

 Oh, that sneaky, baffling, twisted, sympathetic Mrs. Morel. She might be my favorite character (or least unfavorite character) in the story, if only because of those qualities. Does she truly want her son to be happy with the right girl, or is she reading from a stock script to throw her son off the scent? Is she even aware of her own twisted motives?

I really hate to use the term Freudian. It sounds so cliché and overused and even outdated. But as far as I can tell, Freudian is exactly what we’ve got going on in Sons and Lovers. We get whiffs of it in early childhood when Paul Morel is sad his mom is going to sleep in her husband’s bed after they have a fight. We get a taste of it when we read how Paul and his mother are on a holiday, “feeling the excitement of lovers having an adventure together.”   And even the staunchest deniers can’t help but raise their eyebrows when a distraught Mrs. Morel utters between sobs as she clings to Paul, “And I’ve never- you know, Paul – I’ve never had a husband – not really –.”

Wow.

So, is this a story about incest or what?

Not exactly. DH Lawrence was scandalous by early 20th century standards, but not so much by early 21st ones.   So no, there’s no epic Oedipal tragedy here where Paul sleeps with his mom and stabs his own eyes out (sorry if that spoils things).   But you could say there’s a more subtle tragedy in the way Paul’s over-attachment to his mother affects his relationship with other women.  Ironic family dynamics affecting future generations are something we can all relate to, for sure.

But in true Lawrence fashion, his characters are a bit off the wall. And by that I mean they are almost as weird as he is.

Let’s take Miriam, the “swine girl princess,” Paul’s platonic lover. Even though Paul treats her like crap at times while they’re growing up together Miriam believes they are destined to be together. She’s not interested in sex or even marriage necessarily, but still somehow thinks Paul will come round to her lofty terms and they two will become one in soul as they talk about books and religion all day long.   Sounds romantic, right? And during the times that Paul becomes so frustrated with her that he has to leave for weeks and months at a time she sits around blithely with no inkling of a concern that he might actually never come back! Miriam could stand to read a few self-help books on male-female relationships.

Then there’s Clara, the suffragist. When you first meet Clara you think, “Oh cool, the modern woman who will put her foot down and reign in some of Paul’s wishy-washiness– this is it!”   But Clara ends up as a sideshow, basically to feed Paul’s physical cravings while his spiritual, emotional and metaphysical cravings continue to be all over the place. Clara is “not deep, not a bit,” and Paul likes it that way.

Now to the main attraction. Paul Morel is probably the most confusing person in the whole book, and since he also gets the most stage time, that makes for some rather confused readers. Does he want to get married? Does he want to live with his mom forever? Does he have any healthy relationships with men at all, and is that part of the problem? Poor Paul doesn’t seem quite able to figure himself out, and that accounts for some of his crankiness towards other people. Some, mind you. He seems to “hate” a lot of people for a lot of different reasons, and in fact…

I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel full of so much hatred

I counted the word “hate” in Sons and Lovers over 110 times.   The swordsman Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride comes to mind: “You keep using that word – I do not think it means what you think it means.”

At some point in Sons and Lovers, almost every character hates someone else. Mrs. Morel hates her husband and her sons’ girlfriends. Paul hates Clara’s husband and he hates Paul. Paul has momentary feelings of hatred for Clara and vice versa. But no one hates anyone as much as Paul hates Miriam – and of course that’s because Miriam knows Paul better than anyone. Paul hates Miriam when she’s gathering flowers, when she makes his mom jealous, when she struggles to learn algebra, when she’s being his “conscience.” There’s basically not a time that Paul is not hating Miriam.

“Frequently he hated Miriam. He hated her as she bent forward and pored over his things. He hated her way of patiently casting him up, as if he were an endless psychological account.

Half the time he grieved for her, half the time he hated her. She was his conscience; and he felt , somehow, he had got a conscience that was too much for him. 

There was a long battle between him and her. He was utterly unfaithful to her even in her own presence; then he was ashamed, then repentant; then he hated her, and went off again. Those were the ever-recurring conditions.

 I could go on but I think you get the point.

Understandably, we can forgive Miriam when she in turn has a few moments of hating Paul.

But why, why all this anguish?! Is what I was subconsciously asking over and over as I neared the end of the novel but the characters hadn’t neared the end of their own struggles. I seriously want to whip these people in the face with their own soiled handkerchiefs. I know, I’m not being sympathetic enough. If I came from a dysfunctional family I would understand, and I don’t.

I do understand illuminating passages like this, where Lawrence shines the spotlight on human nature at its core:

The pity was, she (Mrs. Morel) was too much his (Mr. Morel’s) opposite. She could not be content with the little he might be; she would have him the much he ought to be. So, in seeking to make him nobler than he could be, she destroyed him.

Oh snap, remember the famous adage that women think they can change men? Perhaps this is where it all began to go wrong, and the battered Mrs. Morel is in some ways the perpetrator.

Sons and Lovers is a great novel if you’re looking for “Freud Lite” and want a closer glimpse at – and understanding of – tortured human relationships. This is one of those books, in fact, where the conversation (or even memory) afterwards might be more memorable than the reading itself.   If tortured human relationships and the gratuitous use of the word “hate” are not your thing, then consider Elizabeth Gaskell or anyone else pre-1890’s and definitely stay away from DH Lawrence.

For me, reading DH Lawrence is like cooking with cayenne pepper powder: it gives some great startling sensations and wakens my faculties, but if I eat (read) too much at once I’ll burn out. I know because I learned that the hard way.

High Court of Chicanery: A Review of Bleak House, by Charles Dickens

Is it a true classic or literary wiglomeration? The jury is still out.

After surviving Bleak House I am a Charles Dickens hold out.

You can’t say I didn’t try. Every day for two weeks, between 12:30 and 2 pm I watched over a room of sleeping 3-year-olds and with nothing else to pass the time I slogged my way through this 900-paged behemoth.

I tried to comprehend what was happening in the first chapter. I tried to understand what the Jarndyce and Jarndyce suit was all about. But once it became apparent that such an understanding was beyond hope – and besides the point – I gave myself up to the numbing chaos of the evil, swirling London fog and the rest of the novel passed before my eyes like disjointed scenes in a phantasmagoria in which I drifted in and out of consciousness and sometimes what even felt like a coma.

And no, believe it or not, the book isn’t all that “bleak.” It’s just mind numbingly oblique.

Part of the obliquity is intentional, for sure. The main premise (if there is one) is an ongoing lawsuit called Jarndyce and Jarndyce that no one quite understands. No, scratch that: no one remotely understands, and that is to include the reader.   We figure it involves an inheritance of money of some sort, because some of the characters are hopeful in benefitting from it, but for the most part, it’s a miserable mess. Dickens, true to his brutally repetitive fashion, slams us over the head in his opening chapter with the hopelessness and the futility of the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case and runs the London fog metaphor ragged.

Many fans of Bleak House point to the fact that in this novel Dickens’ outlook is darker and more cynical and mature, and he gives a scathing critique of the High Court of Chancery, the court of law at that time, and its hopelessly bureaucratic shortcomings.   He describes the members of the High Court of Chancery as, “mistily engaged in one of the ten thousand stages of an endless cause, tripping one another up on slippery precedents, groping knee-deep in technicalities, running their goat-hair and horsehair warded heads against walls of words and making a pretence of equity with serious faces, as players might.”

Anyone who’s been through a divorce, a serious health problem or other unfortunate life event might well relate to the despair that comes with too much red tape. The message is important. But unfortunately, the most piercing and profound passages in Bleak House are tiny nuggets lodged in a mountain heap of descriptive rambling.

The narration is divided between a generic 3rd person observer and the 1st person observations of our heroine, Esther Summerson. The contrast between the darker 3rd person and Esther’s hopeful and guileless voice is no doubt intentional, and it makes for some admittedly interesting perspective. I found myself preferring Esther’s warmer and more personable voice – even though it is not as objective and omniscient – to the 3rd person vignettes concerned more with side plots.

Esther enters the story when her cruel godmother dies and she becomes the ward of Mr. Jarndyce and close friends to a pair of cousins, Richard Carstone and Ada Clare. Richard and Ada are also connected to Mr. Jarndyce and they hope to benefit from the lawsuit’s outcome. In the meantime, Esther lives a blissfully contented life as housekeeper to kindly Mr. Jarndyce and never utters a peep of complaint or negativity- even after her face is ravaged by smallpox.

Through both Esther’s eyes and the narrator’s we inspect a parade of various characters ranging from sweet to pathetic to absolutely grotesque. True again to Dickens fashion the parade is a long one, and the names are cartoonish and full of hard consonants – from Mrs. Pardiggle to Mr. and Mrs. Snagsby. You could almost measure the “caricature” factor from the names themselves: note that “Esther Summerson” and “Allan Woodcourt” are much nicer and more believable names, as they are nicer and more normal people.

Then there are the ambiguous in-between types, like the dogged detective Mr. Bucket and the mysterious Lady Dedlock and the sad and shocking mystery that surrounds her. Long as Bleak House is, it does have a beginning, middle and end, and I must admit, a fair and fitting conclusion that will not have the reader in stitches.

The novel, overall though, was a fail for me personally. I will try to highlight the main reasons I hold this opinion.

 

  1. The characters in Bleak House are mainly caricatures. Caricatures work fine for bad people, but not for good people.

 

It is debatable whether it’s good or bad (or neutral) for characters to be caricatures. Obviously there is a case to be made, otherwise Dickens, who is the caricaturist of them all, wouldn’t still be so bloody popular.

In some cases, the over-the-top-ness of his characters manage to induce a giggle or two while still revealing a truth about human nature. This is in the best cases. A good example would be Harold Skimpole, the bafflingly irresponsible and good-naturedly selfish “eternal child.” Harold is so out of touch with reality and all things normal and adult that he doesn’t pay his bills because he thinks money is silly. However, he has no objection to other people giving him money, either as a bribe or bail, and uses such absurd logic to do so that he actually surpasses hypocrisy to the point of being straight-up loony. The crusty detective Bucket calls him like he sees them:

“Whenever a person proclaims to you, ‘In world matters I’m a child,’ you consider that that person is only a-crying off from being held accountable and that you have got that person’s number, and it’s Number One.”

Unsurprisingly, Skimpole reveals his true colors in the end by lashing out at Mr. Jarndyce and calling him “selfish,” when in fact Mr. Jarndyce is quite the opposite and simply doesn’t cater to Skimpole’s bizarre sense of entitlement. Pretty sure we’ve all met a Skimpole or two in our lives who drove us almost as crazy.

Two other good examples of extreme negative caricatures are the pathetic parental figures, Mr. Turveydrop and Mrs. Jellyby. Mr. Turveydrop affects generosity to his son Prince for “allowing” him to marry Caddy Jellyby when in reality he is a shameless sponge who lives off his poor son’s hard work and really doesn’t have a right to stake a claim. It’s a shameful scenario in which the parent-child relationship is reverted, and one we have probably all seen but hope not to see again.

Mrs. Jellyby is even more wicked. The perfect picture of hypocrisy, she is absorbed in lofty charitable work in overseas Africa while ignoring the needs of her own children. She is cold, even emotionally negligent to her daughter Caddy, and Caddy’s friend Esther observes in Mrs. Jellyby “a serene contempt for our limited sphere of action.”

These are successful examples of extreme, even cartoonish and darkly humorous characters who exemplify the worst of human nature. Dickens has a bone to pick with such people and in Bleak House makes it abundantly clear that there is a special place in hell for anyone who oppresses children – especially their own.

The problem of caricature comes when we get to the good guys. You can laugh at someone who’s horrible, but a saint? They’re neither funny, believable or unique. Not unlike the famous sentence from Anna Karenina, “all happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” you could say that while bad people can be bad in different ways, a perfect person is going to be boring because he or she will have every imaginable virtue with no exception.

Take Mr. Jarndyce. For the first half of Bleak House I kept waiting, almost with dread, for something unfortunate to rear itself in the man. He is just too nice and too kind, generous, patient and benign, almost like Santa Claus or God himself. And then I finally realized that was the point and that that Mr. Jarndyce is a God-like archetype. When he makes an incredibly generous gesture near the end of the novel that surpasses all his prior generous gestures you sort of do a double take. “Really? Who is this guy?” Clearly something who belongs in a snuggly fairy tale world of black and white.

Mr. Jarndyce has got nothing on our flawless heroine, Esther Summerson, however. Dickens has a reputation for unrealistically perfect young female characters that grates even on his fans, and Esther is no exception.

Here is an example in which Esther is singing the praises of her eternally gracious guardian, Mr. Jarndyce:

My thought was how could I ever be busy enough, how could I ever be good enough, how in my little way could I ever hope to be forgetful enough of myself, devoted enough to him, and useful enough to others, to show him how I blessed and honored him.

 When she comes to live in her new home provided by Mr. Jarndyce after her wicked godmother dies, she declares, “If a good fairy had built the house for me with a wave of her wand, and I had been a princess and her favored god-child, I could not have been more considered in it.” How…sweet.

Esther rejoices in the kindness shown to her by others, and in return passes along such kindness down to the poorest and most unfortunate souls with unflagging zeal. She has no care or consideration for herself in even the most important matters.   She is so self-effacing as a narrator that she focuses all her attention onto other people and events that she almost becomes invisible at times.   Her humility is refreshing to a point, but believable or relatable it is not.

I would argue that good, exemplary characters do not need to be without flaw in order to be such. It is insulting to a reader’s intelligence to think that they should be perfect if we are to emulate them in any way, but here it could be a difference in taste. And if Esther Summerson and Mr. Jarndyce had a taste, it would be that of bubblegum bonbons.

 

  1. Melodramatic vignettes with side characters get old fast

 

I have a serious confession to make. I actually scrolled through the Cliff Notes summary after finishing Bleak House because I just spaced too many of the scenes with the minor characters.

Normally I can focus. Normally I can at least attach a name to a person. But Bleak House has what feels like 137 characters and most of them are so outrageously weird and off-beat and so haphazardly slipped into the scene that if you blank out for just a moment or two, you might not even realize what’s going on. That London fog really must be potent.

When I try to recall the full cast of Bleak House, all I can recall mainly are snatches of lurid scenes and images: a dejected mother sitting at the fireside with a dead child in her arms, a drawn-out argument between two minor characters with goofy names ending in –iggle or – aggle or –uggle, a street urchin named Jo who is probably more important than I realize, a crazy old lady, a kid named Peepy who never seems to talk, and of course, Mr. Krook who spontaneously combusts and leaves gore all over his room. Some of this stuff is more central to the plot, but a lot of it is filler.

Cliff Notes was sage enough to point out that Bleak House was written before the age of TV and Internet, when such rambling side plot action would have been more entertaining than annoying. It sadly appears that I am too much a product of my time, although I do see how some readers might actually find the eccentricity enjoyable.

  

  1. The plot is flawed and the book is just too long. Sorry.

 

Sometimes it seems like Dickens had two ideas in his mind: one was a murder mystery, and the other a political rant. Ideally he should have tied them together, such that the murder and secret identity mystery were directly related to the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. With the build up of the sinister feeling around the lawsuit in the beginning of the novel you are really getting ready for something tangled and twisted, but in the end, it sort of fizzles out. There are some characters who are hurt by its outcome, but that’s directly due to the foolish decisions they made and it hardly seems tragic.

The murder mystery and secret identity plot also fizzle out and reach rather abrupt conclusions, and the emotions of the characters affected are surprisingly subdued. Perhaps such mystery plots were still new at the time and Dickens was fiddling and experimenting.   I can understand that.

But at the end of the day, the book is just too long. There probably are some books in this world that deserve to be 900 pages, but Bleak House isn’t one of them. The scope of action could be much tighter, more centered and impacting, and directly related to that, the characters would be fewer. But then it wouldn’t be a Charles Dickens novel and so we go back to differences in tastes.   One thing Dickens did have a talent for was the whimsical use of words, and I’ll part with this funny little rant of Mr Jarndyce:

The whole thing will be vastly ceremonious, wordy, unsatisfactory, and expensive, and I call it, in general, wiglomeration. How mankind ever came to be afflicted with wiglomeration, or for whose sins these young people ever fell into a pit of it, I don’t know; so it is.

 Whether or not Bleak House is an example of literary wiglomeration is up to you, but I will say, it’s a fun word I might start using from now on.