Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros50Vision and Excessive Love of a Na...

Vision and Excessive Love of a Narcissistic Mother in
D. H. Lawrence’s
Sons and Lovers

Marie-Geraldine Rademacher

Entrées d’index

Haut de page

Texte intégral

1Focusing on the unhealthy mother-son relationship, Sons and Lovers introduces the reader to the character of Gertrude Morel, a somewhat narcissistic mother, who undeniably manifests traces of excessive love for her sons William and Paul, preventing them from leading a healthy relationship, either with their father or with other women. Her disproportionate affection and the consequences it entails on both sons have won her the reputation of a “devouring mother,” to adopt Judith Ruderman’s phrase, and have caused her to be seen as an antagonist to her children’s psychological well-being. Refusing however to adopt the simple black-and-white antitheses, my aim here is to demonstrate that although this mother displays signs of narcissism, she also turns out to be passionately human. Deeply in love with William and later on with Paul, she shows on several occasions that she has her sons’ best interest at heart, envisioning for them an ambitious, successful future. Consequently, I contend here that Lawrence’s depiction of this excessive, anguished mother outgrows the negative image that one might get of her, making room for a somehow more indulgent judgment.

Mrs. Morel’s Narcissistic Injury

2In his case study the “Wolf-Man” (1914), Sigmund Freud provides a first definition of the term “narcissistic injury.” In his attempt to find the source of his own neurosis, Freud came to realize that his gonorrheal infection (venereal disease) was a serious injury to his body, representing a significant blow to his narcissism, to the extent that he came to compare it to a feeling of castration. Later on, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud addresses the question of “the early efflorescence of infantile sexual life” (27) and concludes that “loss of love and failure leave behind them a permanent injury to self-assurance in the form of a narcissistic scar, which […] contributes more than anything to the sense of inferiority that is so common in neurotics” (28). Narcissistic injury is known to operate when the narcissist’s ego is attacked or wounded, leaving the individual with a sense of emotional emptiness. As a result, the individual experiences the narcissistic injury as a humiliation, frequently causing him to experience a strong feeling of shame, with the result that he is therefore constantly looking for reparative measures. Paying close attention to the character of Gertrude Morel, I contend that D. H. Lawrence offers a portrait of a mother who presents traces of narcissistic injury. Significantly, the novel opens with a detailed description of the upbringing of Mrs. Morel, previously Gertrude Coppard, in a “good old burgher family.” Lawrence emphasizes that she inherited her temper, her pride, and her rigidity from her father, George Coppard, spelling out the complicated relationship that had existed between the two of them. It is made clear that Gertrude’s personality has been influenced by the rigid, puritan education she received as a child. Her sense of pride and her beauty are suggested through the following description:

In her person she was rather small and delicate, with a large brow, and dropping bunched of brown silk curls. She had the beautiful hands of the Coppards. Her dress was always subdued She wore dark blue silk, with a peculiar silver chain of silver scallops. This, and a heavy brooch of twisted gold, was her only ornament. She was still perfectly intact, deeply religious, and full of beautiful candour. (Lawrence 44)

3Mrs. Morel’s natural beauty, as well as her remarkable taste for precious materials such as silk, silver and gold, are made obvious, suggesting that pride and beauty constitute two essential features of her character. She remembers having been “petted and flattered by all the men when she had gone on the dockyard, for she was a rather proud child” (Lawrence 14). These personality traits prove to be first an asset but are also, later, the source of her misery. When Walter Morel encounters Gertrude Coppard for the first time at a Christmas party, he is immediately attracted to Gertrude’s sophisticated appearance, while she is seduced by Morel’s exuberance and sensuality. She immediately recognizes that the miner is the antithesis to her austere father and sees in him the possibility to defy George Coppard’s authority. However, the reader quickly comes to realize that Gertrude and Walter do not have much in common. Therefore, straight from the beginning, their union appears to be set up for failure. Barbara Schapiro writes that: “Gertrude was originally attracted by Walter because he represented precisely what she (and her father) lacked - spontaneous, emotional, and sensual expressiveness” (154). However, she explains that

“as Lawrence came to recognize so clearly […] another person can never complete or fill the void in the self. Selves can only balance and complement one another. The empty or fractured self may typically seek to absorb or devour the other in an attempt to compensate for the deficiency” (154).

4And shortly after being married to Walter, Gertrude discovers with intense disappointment that he may have embellished the truth concerning his social status. Rapidly, Mrs Morel grows more and more into a displeased wife, a feeling worsened by her complete isolation when she moves to the Bottoms. And as the name “Bottoms” ironically suggests, her desire and hope for social ascension are at once shattered, leaving her with an excruciating feeling of disappointment and weariness, for “she was sick of it, the struggle with poverty and ugliness and meanness” (Lawrence 40). Her misjudgment, accountable for her bad choices in life, is definitely responsible for her discontentment. It certainly represents a blow to her pride, and by extension to her ego. Lawrence writes that after she finds out about her husband’s lies, “Gertrude sat white and silent. She was her father now […] She said very little to her husband, but her manner had changed towards him. Something in her proud, honorable soul had crystallized out hard as a rock” (48). The expression “crystallized soul” perfectly renders the idea that she is narcissistically wounded. Displaying signs of narcissistic injury, she attempts to find reparative measures in order to make up for her feeling of humiliation and shame, and it is mostly in her claustrophobic relationship with her sons, first William and then Paul, that she tries to react against the threat to her narcissist’s self-esteem. Gӑmini Salgӑdo says that “it is partly the economic deprivation perpetually confronting her which forces Mrs Morel to seek her fulfillment in the over-possessiveness towards her sons” (10), for as Barbara Schapiro explains “as a woman, her options for self-realization and expression are limited to her role as mother and to a vicarious experience of achievement through the lives of her sons” (152), an assertion which leads me to discuss the constraining bond between Mrs Morel and William, then with Paul.

Repercussion of Mrs Morel’s Wounded Narcissism on her Sons

5In her essay “Depression and Grandiosity as Related Forms of Narcissistic Disturbances,” Alice Miller focuses on the case of mothers who are themselves in need of narcissistic supply. Miller comes to the conclusion that these mothers will try to satisfy their own narcissistic needs through their child. She insists that “this does not rule out strong affection,”

“on the contrary the mother often loves her child as her self-object passionately, but not in the way he needs to be loved […] instead, he develops something the mother needs, and which certainly saves his life (the mother’s love) at the time, but nevertheless may prevent him, throughout his life, from being himself” (Morrison 326).

6This pattern is first illustrated through Mrs. Morel’s relation to her eldest son, William and later on to Paul. Unable to establish a fulfilling relationship with her husband, she chooses to make up for her dissatisfaction through an exclusive bond with William, whose birth, the reader is warned: “came just when her own bitterness of disillusion was hardest to bear; when her faith in life was shaken, and her soul felt dreary and lonely. She made much of the child and the father was jealous” (49). The more her love for William grows, the more she despises her husband and “turned to the child” and “turned from the father” (Lawrence 49). Clearly, Mrs Morel’s relation to William is of a symbiotic nature, as is shown through William’s constant need, even as an adult, to come back to his mother’s home. Declining the opportunity to explore new horizons, William refuses to go on a trip to the Mediterranean but instead “came home for his fortnight’s holiday,” for

“not even the Mediterranean, which pulled at all his young man’s desire to travel , and at his poor man’s wonder at the glamorous south could take him away when he might come home. That compensated his mother for much” (Lawrence 123).

7The nature of the relationship which unites mother and son becomes even more ambiguous when the latter decides to move out of the family house in order to pursue his career in London. Subject to the strain imposed by the distance which separates them, Gertrude Morel decides to opt for an epistolary relationship (Lawrence 97-98), marked with romantic undertones, reminiscent of the Fin'amor or amour courtois tradition, a medieval literary conception of love which emphasizes chivalry and carries the connotation of something illicit and at the same time morally elevating. Consequently, William comes to play the role of a lover, an idea further suggested when Gertrude shows excessive jealousy and possessiveness when she feels her relation to William is under threat from other women. William’s exclusive affection for his mother makes up for her lack of self-esteem. Not only does he bring emotional support to his mother’s wounded narcissism, he also allows her to live up to her dreams of social elevation, “making the world glow again for her” (Lawrence 85). And gradually, with his “white-collar” job, William comes to play the role which Walter failed to fulfill, that of breadwinner. Gӑmini Salgӑdo sees a strong interconnection between emotional and economic ties and explains that “the breaking of the economic ties is symptomatic of the loosening of emotional ones” (21), a statement illustrated through the transference of Mrs Morel’s incestuous love to her second son, Paul, which occurs when William fails to send money to his mother as he had promised to do. We see the weakening of the bond, which until then had united mother and son. Finally, William’s tragic death is announced at the end of part I, marking the “complete transference from William to Paul” (Salgӑdo 25): “Mrs Morel’s life now rooted itself in Paul” (Lawrence 187).

8When one compares the mother’s relation to William with that to Paul, one can notice some similarities. First, there is a symbiotic bond which unites mother and child: “the navel string that had connected its frail body to hers had not been broken” (Lawrence 74).The exclusiveness of their relationship is emphasized by Paul’s complete rejection of his father. On many occasions he wishes to see him dead:

“his ambition, as far as this world’s gear went, was quietly to earn his thirty-five shillings a week somewhere near home, and then, when his father died, have a cottage with his mother, paint and go out as he liked, and live happy ever after” (Lawrence 30).

9Clearly, Paul expresses a strong desire to replace his father and take over the role of head of the family, a wish revealed when “raking the fire” (Lawrence 29) he proudly declares to his mother: “I’m the man in the house now” (Lawrence 29). Additionally, further instances in the novel point to Paul’s incestuous love for Mrs Morel.

10Paul loved to sleep with his mother. Sleep is still most perfect in spite of hygienists, when it is shared with a beloved. The warmth, the security and peace of soul, the utter comfort from the touch of the other, knits the sleep, so that it takes the body and soul completely in its healing. Paul lay against her and slept, and got better; whilst she, always a bad sleeper, fell later on into a profound sleep that seemed to give her faith (Lawrence 107).Lawrence evokes the sensual and physical proximity existing between two lovers. Furthermore, their relationship takes the form of a courtship: “he also could not bear to go home to his mother empty” (Lawrence 108) for fear of disappointing her; he would fish out a little spray and bring it to her as a manifestation of his affection, which she will accept as a love-token. And he is not spare on compliments to his mother. Dazzled by Mrs Morel’s seduction, he makes sure to let her know how wonderful she looks “in her new cotton blouse” (Lawrence 166). Their love for one another appears to be an exclusive one, Mrs Morel clung now to Paul. He was quiet and not brilliant. But still he stuck to his painting, and still he stuck to his mother. Everything he did was for her. She waited for his coming home in the evening, and then she unburdened herself of all she had pondered, or of all that had occurred to her during the day. He sat and listened with his earnestness. The two shared lives” (Lawrence 158). And when Mrs. Morel feels that her relationship with Paul is jeopardized by other ladies, she reacts by showing intense jealousy and does not hesitate to undermine her rival, for as she firmly states “she would fight to keep Paul” (Lawrence 278).

Mrs. Morel: A Woman of Vision

11However, even if Mrs. Morel attempts to assuage her emotional emptiness through her excessive affection for her sons, she still proves to be a woman of vision. First, as mentioned earlier, she recognizes the opportunity for social ascension through her children, but, at the same time as a loving mother, she of course also wishes her children to have a better life than the one she had. Aware of William’s intelligence, she encourages him to pursue his education in order to later find a decent job. Contrary to what her husband claims, she is convinced of the negative aspects of the pit and makes sure that her children will not end up in the mine like their father. She therefore takes initiatives so that when William is thirteen, “she got him a job in the ‘Co-op’ office” (Lawrence 90) as a way to facilitate his début in the job market. Not even the confrontation she has with Walter can lessen her determination and hope to see her children succeed professionally:

“It doesn’t matter what he is starting with,” said Mrs Morel.
“It wouldna! Put ‘im i’ th’ pit wi’ me, an’ e’ll earn a easy ten shillin’ a wik from th’ start. But six shillin’ wearin’ his truck-end out on a stool’s better than ten shillin’ I’ th’ pit wi’ me, I know.”
“He is not going in the pit,’ said Mrs Morel, ‘and there’s an end of it”
“It wor good for me, but it’s non good enough for ‘im”
“If your mother put you in the pit at twelve, it’s no reason why I should do the same to my lad.” (Lawrence 90)

12This passage emphasizes the social gap that exists between Gertrude and Walter. While Gertrude’s arguments point to her ability to see further than the tip of her nose, her husband on the contrary clearly demonstrates a complete lack of vision. When it comes to Paul, Mrs. Morel is confident that “Paul was going to distinguish himself. She had a great belief in him, the more because he was unaware of his own powers. There was so much to come out of him. Life for her was rich with promise. She was to see herself fulfilled. Not for nothing has been her struggle” (Lawrence 236). Here, Mrs. Morel’s success can either be understood as the achievement of her selfish aspiration to social ascension through her children, or as the sign of her motherly pride and happiness to see that her sons are finally getting ahead in life. Gertrude’s ability to see into the future is not limited to the professional side, she also proves to be capable of reading into human relationships. While she does not disagree with the affair between Clara and Paul, she strongly disapproves of Paul’s relationship to Miriam, for she is well aware that Miriam is “not like an ordinary woman […] she wants to draw [Paul] out and absorb him till there is nothing left of him, even for himself. He will never be a man on his own feet- she will suck him up” (my emphasis; Lawrence 246). Later on, her observation is confirmed by Paul himself, when in losing his temper he blames Miriam for her tendency to dominate and possess others:

“Can you never like things without clutching them as if you wanted to pull the heart out of them? Why don’t you have a bit more restraint, or reserve, or something? […] “You wheedle the soul of things,” he said. ‘‘You’re always begging things to love you,” he said, “as if you were a beggar for love. Even the flowers, you have to fawn on them-“[ …] “You don’t want to love-your eternal and abnormal craving is to be loved. You aren’t positive, you’re negative. You absorb, absorb, as if you must fill yourself up with love, because you’ve got a shortage somewhere.” (Lawrence 274).

13Paul’s cruel words are reminiscent of his mother’s strong disapproval of the young lady; on the one hand, they clearly indicate that his judgment is very much influenced by his mother’s opinion and, on the other hand, they confirm Mrs Morel’s ability to read into others. Finally, whether Gertrude’s hostility to Miriam stems from her jealousy or from her clarity of thoughts, the assessment of her rival is proven to be accurate. When following his mother’s advice, Paul finally puts an end to his love affair with Miriam, he saves himself from another consuming, confining relationship and perhaps from the imminent destruction of his soul.

14All in all, the character of Gertrude Morel has aroused endless controversies among readers of Sons and Lovers. While some critics held the mother accountable for the failure of her own marriage and her sons’ inability to establish a solid, satisfying relationship with their father and other women, others have chosen to pay tribute to this dedicated, passionate mother, victim of an abusive husband. Obviously, D. H. Lawrence demonstrates that it is impossible to completely condemn or entirely praise this mother for the excessive love she shows to her children, for “the mother is presented as neither absolutely right nor absolutely wrong” (Introduction, qtd. in Lawrence 24). Even if she is found guilty of seeking reparative measures to make up for her narcissistic injury, doing so through her suffocating relationship with her sons, she still proves to have their best interests at heart, envisioning for them a promising future and, at times, warning them against possible dangers which could lead to their destruction. Accordingly, one can conclude that the notions of excess and vision are indeed appropriate qualifications for the character of Gertrude Morel, who turns out to be a devoted mother, a passionate lover and a woman of great insight.

Haut de page


Berman, Jeffrey. Narcissism and the Novel. New York and London: New York University Press, 1990.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. United States: Pacific Publishing Studio, 2010.

Lawrence, D. H. Sons and Lovers. Harmondsworth: Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics, 1987.

Miller, Alice. “Depression and Grandiosity as Related Forms of Narcissistic Disturbances.” Essential Papers on Narcissism. Ed. Andrew P. Morrison. New York: New York University Press, 1986: 323-347.

Ruderman, Judith. D. H. Lawrence and the Devouring Mother. Durham, N.C: Duke University Press, 1984.

Salgӑdo, Gӑmini. D. H. Lawrence: Sons and Lovers. London: Edward Arnold Publishers Ltd, 1996.

Schapiro, Barbara. “The Dread and repulsiveness of the Wild: D. H. Lawrence and Shame,” Scenes of Shame: Psychoanalysis, Shame, and Writing. Ed. Joseph Adamson and Hilary Clark. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Marie-Geraldine Rademacher, « Vision and Excessive Love of a Narcissistic Mother in
D. H. Lawrence’s
Sons and Lovers »
Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 50 | 2019, mis en ligne le 02 octobre 2019, consulté le 19 août 2022. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Marie-Geraldine Rademacher


Marie-Geraldine RADEMACHER is a PhD student at the Freie-Universität Berlin, Germany. Her project, entitled Pathological Women: Narcissistic Mothers in English Modernist Literature seeks to examine under a new light the representation of narcissistic mothers in both English and French literature and is based on a triadic collaboration between Gender studies, psychoanalysis and literature.


Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

CC BY-ND 4.0

Creative Commons - Attribution - Pas de Modification 4.0 International - CC BY-ND 4.0

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search