Sons and Lovers was my first taste of D.H. Lawrence. I’d heard good things and wanted to try, but ultimately it was one of those books I picked up because of the cover, got hooked on by the summary, decided to give it a go. My old coworker had a copy, was moving and giving it away, so I picked it up. I was pleasantly surprised. It was better than I’d expected.
Sons and Lovers, in brief (and grossly surface-level) summary (the book is over 600 pages), is a story about a family in early twentieth century England — a miner, his wife, their dysfunctional marriage, and the youth and adolescence of their four children — a carefree youth, a well-behaved daughter, an artist, and a reckless youngest child.
The common analysis of Sons and Lovers is that it’s Oedipal — that was part of the billing on the back cover that drew me in. It was less explicitly so than I’d expected. It’s a subtle comparison, the novel to Oedipus; in practice it is more an exploration of nuanced emotional relationships and dependence than it is an explicit love affair between mother and son. The Oedipal echoes are in the undertones, something you could easily miss when just reading across the surface — and it’s never made clear if that’s really the dynamic at all. It could just as easily be a familial love (and no indication was ever given otherwise) — and billing it explicitly as Oedipal felt to me like an oversell. Either way, the psychology of the relationship is deeply developed, and the intertwining of characters is complex.
Overall the book had a good depth — the characters were well developed, the relationships sophisticated in detail, the arcs of development and evolution accurate. In the realm of ideas, plot and context, D.H. Lawrence is a sophisticated writer — perhaps not top-level, but certainly talented.
In the realm of rhetoric, he’s much simpler — clear, and easy to engage with. His writing style is pretty, but straightforward — you can read 100 pages and not feel fatigued.
In his style he also has a deep sense of exultation. Those moments when you stand on the edge of the ocean with your arms outstretched in the wind and breathe salt air deep into your lungs until you’re drunk on it? Lawrence captures it perfectly. Sons and Lovers has a deep sense of glory and a wonder of life. It’s deeply affecting — you feel the trembling passion of experience.
This comes in contrast to the overall darkness of the character’s arcs — not enough to make it a depressing novel, by any means, but certainly an overall sense of darkness in each character’s fate. You’re slogging through the grimness and suddenly you’re rising on this grand wave of exultation — the deep passion of being alive. I suspect this is a reflection of Lawrence — a psyche fluctuating between gloom and depression and grimness and then rising up in these moments of powerful glory. Lawrence feels everything like an artist — deeply, and with great attention, and with an overall helplessness to it — although it’s a collected helplessness, and a calm.
Overall, would recommend. It’s a pleasurable and interesting read.