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Emotion and the Unconscious: The Mythicization of Women in Sons and Lovers

Nina Haritatou
p. 129-149

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“And oh women, beware the mother’s boy!” (RDP 216)

1Sons and Lovers (1913) is generally considered Lawrence’s autobiographical, indeed, “Oedipal” novel, in which he describes his youth, dwelling on his relationship with his mother and the problematic bond she cultivated between herself and her son, a bond which is presented in the novel as a source of great confusion and pain for the hero of the story, young Paul Morel, especially regarding his sexuality.

2The writing of Sons and Lovers involved enough false starts, interruptions and sweeping revisions to suggest that the writer met with some serious difficulties during its composition and it is reasonable to assume that the latter were not merely technical. Lawrence started work on it in September or early October 1910, the final period of his mother's illness, then abandoned it. In March 1911, with the trauma of his mother’s death still with him, he began a new draft which was also abandoned. Yet another attempt was made in November 1911, and it was almost a year later, in late autumn 1912, when, strengthened by Frieda’s important input and support, and after extensive revisions suggested by Edward Garnett, his editor at Duckworth, he finally finished the novel and changed the title from Paul Morel to the far more significant Sons and Lovers. By then he was well aware that he had written a quasi-autobiographical novel which would have deep and disturbing personal significance for a great many people. “It’s the tragedy of thousands of young men in England,” (Letters i. 476) he wrote to Edward Garnett.

Lawrence and his Anima: The Feminine Element

3H.M. Daleski in The Forked Flame (1965), refers to Lawrence’s later misgivings about the portrayal of his parents in Sons and Lovers, especially that of his father, to whom Lawrence thought he had not done justice, and states that Lawrence the artist “penetrated to the truth which the son subsequently thought he had not seen, for the impression which Mr and Mrs Morel in fact make is not notably different from that which Lawrence had of his father and mother in later life” (FF 43). One’s first impression of Sons and Lovers is that the father is a coarse, rather violent man who bullies his wife and has more time for drinking than he has for his children, while the sensitive, high-minded and long-suffering mother keeps the family together, resorts to her children for emotional sustenance and raises her sons to be the kind of husbands she would like. Problematic as this seems in retrospect, there is no doubt that both Paul Morel and Lawrence are far closer to the mother’s ideal than the model provided by the father. As John Worthen points out, “He [Lawrence] also found himself, in this final version of the novel, maintaining the status of a narrator who frequently shares the attitude of moral superiority in Mrs Morel” (Worthen 438). Yet, at the end, when Paul’s deep-seated problems have become evident, some of the reader’s sympathy has shifted towards the father and away from the mother. The author, looking back in perhaps not altogether conscious anger, reveals the latter to be ruthlessly domineering and subtly manipulative. Lawrence’s sympathy with his father is never explicit, but emerges by default as the son moves away from his mother, and reaches the reader as a silent, almost subconscious communication, a tacit communication that pervades the novel like a magnetic field invisibly influencing perceptions and reactions. This element – which does not seem deliberate enough, perhaps even conscious enough, to be confidently called a technique – is an important and typically Lawrentian trait which allows the reader to glimpse a deeper stratum of emotions, all the more intense for not being explicitly articulated. It is the counterpoint of a distinct, dissenting voice, offering different points of view that enrich the novel but cannot provide the characters, possibly even the author, with any relief. Lawrence’s later misgivings make this abundantly clear.

4My contention is that this sustained and fundamental duality is not confined to Lawrence’s attitude towards the parents, but extends to all major characters in Sons and Lovers. It is a process that satisfies both the author’s wish to move beyond the narrowly personal and develop in his fiction his dualistic metaphysics (centred upon the conflict between the mind and the body, the Apollonian and the Dionysian), as well as Paul Morel’s need to dramatize his internal conflicts. Both Paul and Lawrence try to “repeat” and “present” their emotions in order “to be master of them” (L ii. 90). Though the writing of fiction is a long, deliberate, and highly conscious process, subconscious forces play a major role, especially in a novel as painfully personal as this one.

5I do not mean to suggest that a full-scale (and inevitably retrospective) psychoanalytical approach to Lawrence is either desirable in this context or indeed possible, but I would venture to say that C.G. Jung has provided insights and concepts that can be very useful to the reader of Sons and Lovers. The first I would like to invoke is the well-known concept of the artist as a person “driven to develop all sorts of defects – ruthlessness, selfishness (“autoeroticism”), vanity, and other infantile traits [...] inferiorities [that] are the only means by which it [the artist’s creative impulse] can maintain its vitality” (Jung). This – obviously – cannot be blindly applied to all artists, but it rings true when applied to both Paul Morel and Lawrence, at least in the context of this quasi-autobiographical novel. Another concept is that of the unconscious mind and its Jungian division into two parts: the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious, of which the personal is a reservoir of material that was once conscious but has been forgotten or suppressed, and the collective is the deepest level of the psyche containing the accumulation of inherited psychic structures and archetypal experiences. Lawrence was well aware of these forces. There is a striking (and oft-quoted) passage in a letter he wrote to his friend, the barrister Gordon Campell, in which he describes how he experiences his role as a writer:

It really means something – I wish I could express myself – this feeling that one is not only a little individual living a little individual life, but that one is in oneself the whole of mankind, and ones fate is the fate of the whole of mankind. Not me – the little, vain, personal D. H. Lawrence – but that unnameable me which is not vain nor personal, but strong, and glad, and ultimately sure, but so blind, so groping, so tongue-tied, so staggering. (L ii. 302)

6This “unnameable me” can be seen as the unconscious, personal and collective, this deeper domain within the human soul, the realm of emotions and urges, which also transcends the personal psyche, and which every artist must tap into in the act of creation. According to Jung, the collective unconscious in the unconscious of the male finds expression as a feminine inner personality: the anima, the total of all unconscious feminine psychological qualities a male possesses, and which is one of the sources of creative ability.

7As a character, Paul Morel has his own flaws, and tends to see many of these personal defects (vanity, selfishness, etc.) in others, especially the people closest to him – and these are often things he “detests” about them. This is the psychological phenomenon C.G. Jung has called a “projection”: “a process where an unconscious characteristic […] is seen as belonging to another person or object” (Snowden 57-8). For Jung, this projection constitutes also “a process of dissimilation, by which a subjective content becomes alienated from the subject and is, so to speak, embodied in the object. The subject gets rid of painful, incompatible contents by projecting them” (JoM 242). The practice tends to exacerbate rather than alleviate Paul’s troubles, but this is neither surprising nor relevant. Paul did what his creator allowed him to do. Given that Lawrence is only a slightly older Paul, albeit considerably more mature and self-aware, it is hardly surprising that he as author and narrator, does something quite similar with his characters, especially the female ones. But what is not effective for Paul is extremely effective for the novel and the novelist.

8It is my contention, that Lawrence’s handling of the important female characters in the novel is intimately connected with the feminine unconscious, and the phenomenon of projection, which, relatively crude in Paul Morel, in Lawrence, takes the shape of an intricate and consistent mythicization of the female. It is truly remarkable that the projection of a male personality (albeit through his feminine anima) on the female characters endows them with special characteristics representative of, if not unique to, their sex: acute intuition, strong, infallible instincts, and close affinity to nature. These women, however flawed, are by their nature the guardians of real life: life in the body; life in emotion and feeling; the preservers of the deep mysterious human resources that can lead to regeneration.

Mrs Morel’s Mythicization and Paul’s Self-Narration

9Mrs. Morel is central to Sons and Lovers and it is fascinating to observe how Lawrence mingles and presents the different facets of her personality ranging from the bright, young and delicate woman captured by the vibrant animal magnetism of her dark, earthy husband, to the unhappy wife, the woman trapped in an environment hostile to her impulses and wishes, the caring mother who also makes huge emotional demands on her sons, the constant sufferer and the relentless tormentor. The woman trapped in a marriage that fails to be what it should - the sacred union in the flesh - will become a familiar Lawrentian theme, but this trapped woman will never break free, will not even try to, except indirectly through her children, and so will remain deeply unhappy and consequently make all her nearest and dearest unhappy, despite her best intentions.

  • 1 In Greek mythology, Medusa was one of the three terrible mermaids who would turn into stone any mor (...)

10A first reading of the novel may suggest that Lawrence’s feelings for his mother, though intense, are not really unconventional. He has pity for her troubles, admires her courage, and feels it is his duty to protect her. She is the angel in the house, the innocent victim of her husband’s uncomprehending coarseness, who needs her son’s love and tenderness, and whom young Paul cannot suffer to disappoint by falling below her high expectations. But beneath these commendable feelings, there lie darker ones: Mrs Morel’s depiction anticipates (and lies beneath) that of the monstrous mother described almost a decade later in Fantasia of the Unconscious (1922), who “makes man discover that cradles should not be rocked, in order that her hands may be left free – she is now a queen of the earth, and inwardly a fearsome tyrant […]. Ultimately she tears him [the man] to bits”(FU 99). Beneath the positive features, Lawrence weaves the frightening portrait of the mother-Medusa,1 who feeds on her sons’ vitality by forcing them to replace their father in her affections. But in Paul’s adolescent mind, Mrs Morel is still the supreme Goddess, the great Mother Goodess, “the door for our in-going and our out-coming” (Foreword 471), and though he does realise the power she has over him, he prefers to see in it the mysterious force of the numinous. Unsurprisingly, Mrs Morel is the embodiment of a mystery far more complex and perilous than all the other women in the novel.

11The stark realism of the novel is relieved and complemented by poetic messages that communicate this mysterious element, and portray the female in mystical connection with the other. Mrs. Morel’s first direct association with this mystery is in a significant encounter with nature, when after a bad quarrel, her husband locks her out of the house and she finds herself alone in the peaceful darkness of the garden. There she loses all sense of consciousness and experiences something akin to a dissolution of the self: “[…] her self melted out like scent into the shiny, pale air. After a time, the child too melted with her in the mixing-pot of moonlight, and she rested with the hills and lilies and houses, all swum together in a kind of swoon” (SL 34). Mrs Morel never articulates her feelings; she just enjoys the great rejuvenating emotion of the moment, which appeases her troubled soul and brings her peace that lasts well after the moment is gone. Before going to sleep that night, “she smiled faintly to see her face all smeared with the yellow dust of lilies. She brushed it off and at last lay down. For some time her mind continued snapping and jetting sparks” (36). Obviously, Mrs Morel is still under the spell of her mystical communion with nature in the garden. Lawrence wants her to undergo a beneficial transfiguration which will finally enable her to put up with the bad conditions at home and her husband’s hostility.

12What could be seen in isolation as a trait of one female character is in fact something attributed to many Lawrentian women. This scene anticipates many similar scenes in later novels suggestive of the mystical ties between the female and nature. This is not to suggest that Mrs Morel is a potential prophetess like Ursula in The Rainbow, (1915) who could articulate the feelings derived from such moments of ecstasy in the mystical otherness of nature, or that she is to undergo an initiation into her “other” self that will fundamentally change her outlook on life, like Lady Daphne in The Ladybird or Kate in The Plumed Serpent. But she does seem to be their immediate predecessor.

13In the following chapter, there is another moment of such a union with nature, when Mrs Morel experiences similar ecstatic feelings. This time the whole scene is imbued with a distinctly religious symbolism with Mrs Morel shown as the Virgin Mary and holding baby Paul in her arms: “She held it close to her face and breast.” She goes so far as to imagine her boy as a little Joseph before whom nature would pay a tribute. Soon after this, in a moment of adoration, she offers him to the sun: “She thrust the infant forward to the crimson, throbbing sun, almost with relief. She saw him lift his little fist. Then she put him to her bosom again, ashamed almost of her impulse to give him back again whence he came” (51). Here Mrs Morel conducts what can easily be seen as a short mystical ritual. Lawrence invests her with the role of an ancient priestess offering, in a moment of ecstasy, her own son to the Sun god. The moment is an apocalyptic one as she realizes simultaneously her absence of love for her husband and the strong bond that binds her to her infant son (the umbilical cord had not been cut). Here, she is the Mother who has absolute power over her child, a pagan goddess who can give and take life. In these two scenes, Mrs Morel is shown to possess a metaphysical sensitivity, an instinctual ability to perceive and submit to the sacredness of the moment.

14In the description of the visit to Lincoln Cathedral Lawrence depicts his mother (through young Paul’s eyes) with great, poetic sensibility. While still in the train, Paul already feels that his mother is “slipping away from him” (280) and then in the cathedral she seems to undergo a mystical transformation: “Her blue eyes were watching the cathedral quietly. She seemed again to be beyond him. Something in the eternal repose of the uplifted cathedral, blue and noble against the sky was reflected in her, something of the fatality” (280). Here, once more, she is shown as something otherworldly, a being akin to divinity, remote from this world, strange and wonderful as an angel. It is impossible to avoid the thought that, whatever else it may be, it is also Paul’s own fear of losing her that is being reflected in this striking mythicization of her.

15The process of mythicization of the mother follows a dual route: on the one hand, Lawrence depicts her as a paragon of maternal love, devotion and self-sacrifice, and by interpolating incidents in which she is shown endowed with mysterious, otherworldly qualities suggests that she is something greater and nobler than a mere human being. The narrator does not endorse this view unequivocally – sometimes these qualities are attributed to young Paul’s perceptions – but the reader gets a good idea of them in any case. On the other hand, the son, tacitly, perhaps not fully consciously but nevertheless unmistakably, revolts against her, repelled by the enormous, suffocating emotional burden she has placed upon him. Consequently, he considers her responsible for what he correctly perceives as his emotional castration and his inability to understand and satisfy his essential inner needs.

16On the evidence of Sons and Lovers, neither Lawrence as author nor Paul as a character in the novel appear to master their deepest feelings towards the mother. Paul never utters a single word against her gentle but unyielding rule, trying to contain his violently conflicting emotions, wildly alternating from admiration and compassion to anger and despair. In the end, he simply kills her – not metaphorically, which is clearly an impossibility, as his whole existence has been defined by her and he will never be entirely free of her influence, but literally, albeit with the compassionate aim of putting her out of her misery (the pains of terminal cancer). This act of killing, promptly justified by Paul as euthanasia and never acknowledged by him as a release for both, is the breaking point, the moment when this second, dissenting voice, that runs like a counterpoint through the narrative, takes over the action. Here Paul’s unspoken source of frustration is finally brought forth; her conversion from angel to demon, although dramatic, has been practically unconscious. Both personae constructed for the mother, the idealized Madonna and the mother-Medusa, are suggestive of the need shared by Paul and Lawrence simultaneously to do her justice whilst also revealing his own pain and suffering mirrored in her. His mother’s story of suffering and self-denial becomes the narrative of his own emotional lack of fulfillment, a desperate projection which reveals and partly explains Paul’s tension and frustration at his inability to find a satisfactory outcome. Though the confusion of his feelings regarding his mother will not end, her death – in sharp contrast to the conventional pieties – brings him an immediate and profound sense of release. His emotions are far more explicit than he can be.

Miriam and Clara: The Spirit and the Flesh

  • 2 In the Greek pantheon, Artemis was the independent goddess of forests and hunting.
  • 3 Demeter, Persephone’s mother, was the goddess of agriculture, fertility and the spring.

17Miriam, Paul’s first love and muse, though abandoned, is to some extent both spiritual kin and a mysterious benevolent force in his life. Miriam’s real kingdom is nature, where she reigns, a lonely Artemis2 with a genuine intimacy with all natural things, away from, and largely indifferent to, the brutal realities of the human world: “To her flowers appealed with such strength she felt she must make them part of herself. When she bent and breathed a flower, it was as if she and the flower were loving each other. Paul hated her for this” (210). Like her mother, Mrs Leivers, a Demeter3 under whose spell Paul immediately fell, Miriam is “her mother’s daughter,” a Persephone who sustains the beauty and the fertility of spring. Miriam likes withdrawing into nature, but this solitude is actually a speechless way to express what is hidden in her soul. She wants Paul to accompany her and complete her natural kingdom: “Almost passionately she wanted to be with him when he stood before the flowers. They were going to have a communion together, something that thrilled her, something holy” (195).

18But Paul, although a lover of nature himself, soon feels uncomfortable. At the beginning, his need to be romantic, as well as admired and adored, is reflected by the attraction he feels for the “Botticelli angel” (215) he sees in Miriam. Since this cannot sustain him for long, he starts to see her in a very different light: a girl “cut off from ordinary life by her religious intensity which made the world for her either a nunnery garden, or a Paradise, where sin and knowledge were not, or else an ugly, cruel thing” (179). He is repelled by her love of flowers and wants to escape when he smells the “white, virgin scent” of the ivory roses. Nature has a feminine chastity which Paul finds exciting but ultimately unsettling: “a delicious delirium in his veins,” (196) an experience the young man can recognize as important but cannot explain. Miriam belongs to the “enormous orange moon” which makes his blood “burst into flames,” she is a mysterious figure “deeply moved and religious,” (215-6) watching him from the darkness, a figure to which Paul is attracted but which he somehow fears. He cannot stand her chastity; he is irritated by the very archetypes he himself assigns to her; he is “disgusted” by her “purity,” a purity he finds forbidding. It is surely significant that later, in the Study of Thomas Hardy (1914), Lawrence would write the following about Botticelli’s religious paintings: “It is as if the female, instead of being the great, unknown Positive, towards which all must flow, became the great Negative, the centre which denied all motion” (65). It is this negativity that Lawrence discerns and denies in Miriam’s chaste sacredness; for him she is the negative female who denies her femininity. Paul is afraid of this eternally adolescent fairy maiden, of her female power and energy – interestingly enough, in much the same way that he will later come to fear the very different Clara.

19Still, it is acknowledged that “in contact with Miriam he gained insight”; she “urged” the “warmth” he derived from his mother “into intensity like a white light” (190). Miriam’s spirituality is not without a positive dimension; indeed, it is life-giving. She can intuitively direct Paul, and offer him crucial insights into his artistic work, pointing out with words that are both warm and true what he had inarticulately, unconsciously produced. Miriam provides support that is important for his development as an artist, in his quest to acquire the knowledge and the discipline to turn everyday experiences and emotions into works of art. She successfully responds to one of Paul’s needs, that for a spiritual woman – and Paul values her for this.

20Still, Paul grows tired of Miriam. Her spirituality and benign influence on his progress as an artist are not enough. She cannot satisfy his need to be erotically consumed as a male. Miriam is too “sane” and controlled, too “hypersensitive” (198) to find joy in the harsher realities of the blood, to offer Paul what he desperately believes he needs at this point in his life. Lawrence agrees: his verdict is that Miriam, like Dollie Urquhart in “The Princess,” has committed the most serious crime a woman can commit; she has neglected her womanhood. In his later fiction, Lawrence would create heroines filled with a yearning to discover and celebrate this lost womanhood, women who suffer from the loss of the instinct, the loss that has deprived them of their true femaleness; women who feel that their life is meaningless until they can restore their injured sexuality with the help of a man-initiator. But Miriam is not as privileged as these later Lawrentian heroines. Paul functions as her ruthless critic rather than the initiator who will help her discover her true female core. Thus she is finally left behind, as Paul heeds the call of the blood and seeks real passion.

21Clara appears just in time to fill this need. Lawrence’s description of her as the very opposite of Miriam is immediately suggestive of her significance: “a rather striking woman, blonde, with a sullen expression, and a defiant carriage” (222). Full of sensuous female energy, Clara, with her large breasts, heavy, dun-coloured hair and imposing stature, has the magnificence of an ancient pagan goddess:

[…] wherever she was seemed to make things look paltry and insignificant. When she was in the room, the kitchen seemed too small and mean altogether […]. All the Leivers were eclipsed like candles. Yet she was perfectly amiable, but indifferent, and rather hard. (269)

22Although the split between the Flesh and the Spirit is a relatively new notion for Lawrence at this stage, Clara here is the Flesh, the passionate woman of the unconscious, in opposition to Miriam who represents the Spirit. Both Lawrence and Paul see in her the forgotten knowledge of the Flesh, the knowledge in the blood, the opposite of the Mind and the Word, not the mortal knowledge, but the knowledge that gives life. Clara is strikingly similar to the capitalized figure of the Woman in the “Foreword to Sons and Lovers.” In his reworking of the Christian Trinity, the Father (who, for Lawrence, should be more properly called the Mother) is the creator, the eternal agent of creation, the feminine element with the power to give birth (Foreword 470). Paul needs her “warmth and nourishment”; he “must consume his own flesh” and “destroy himself” (472), but this is a challenge he is not yet ready to take up.

23Clara combines a number of significant characteristics: she is intensely attractive, though not always aware of her power; she is fiercely independent, considering herself as a woman apart from her class, and a woman of passion. Yet, she is also “a sleeping beauty,” a “dormant woman,” the “femme incomprise,” (361) who never had the real thing which would fertilize her soul and help her accomplish the sacred mission to serve the instinct. She has become another victim of mechanization and has forgotten her intuitive power. Paul sees her through mystified eyes, as another lost goddess who needs to awaken to her sacred female self and experience “the real, real flame of feeling through another person” (361-2). Clara is a portrait of the modern early 20th century woman, who, though possessing female intuition and wisdom, has her womanhood destroyed by the rage of mechanization. Thus she needs to be awakened to her “dark” but real self. She feels horror for this darkness, this unknown and unfamiliar feminine part of her. She is reluctant to accept her real nature, which Paul thinks he sees so clearly. Her wild instinct, her female consciousness, is bound by civilization: “She seemed denied and deprived of so much. And her arm moved mechanically, that should never have been subdued to a mechanism, and her head was bowed to the lace, that never should have been bowed” (304). Unlike Miriam, who is remote from the modern world and its evils, Clara’s wild, female psyche is held and tortured by industrialization and the new norms it has imposed on human life. But what prevails is the mysterious, incalculable force her femininity: “she yielded herself to her fate because it was too strong for her […] she was in the grip of something bigger than herself […].” At the theatre, Paul feels her beauty intensely: “Her beauty was a torture to him,” and he hates Clara for “submitting him to this torture of nearness” (375). He cannot wholly explain his attraction to her and though he “perceives” her through the instinct and not through the mind, he still seeks to “understand” her. At this initial stage in the elaboration of his dualism, Lawrence, like Paul, feels that his mind and consciousness are in danger, and will soon be defeated by the Flesh, the unconscious, emotion, the unknown area of the human soul which is dominated by passion and the sensual force of instinct. Paul fears what Lawrence would subsequently call in his Study of Thomas Hardy (1914) “the leap into the unknown, as from a cliff’s edge” (48). It is the leap into the “other,” the leap onto the opposite bank required of the man in order to meet the female. For Lawrence this union between man and woman, the two “opposites,” is indispensable for the process of self-discovery. This is especially difficult for the man. It takes great courage to break age-old conventions and for the man to abandon himself to the female, and at one point, Paul feels truly awed before the tremendous presence of the woman, the irresistible, powerful, mysterious female source of life: “He was Clara’s white heavy arms, her throat, her moving bosom. That seemed to be himself. Then away somewhere the play went on, and he was identified with that also. There was no himself” (SL 375).

24But Paul cannot yet allow this dissolution of his self into the other. He cannot let go of his identity, not least because he is still searching for it. He feels attracted by her femaleness – what Lawrence acknowledges in his Study as a cosmic, universal concept in polar opposition and balance with maleness – but he is not yet ready to surrender himself to the Woman; he is not ready to cross the boundary which separates them in order to reach and unite with the other. Thus, he is not able to articulate to himself the awe and the fear which Clara raises in his soul.

25In his relationships with his mother, Miriam and Clara, Paul is forced to explore the nature of the construction of a self-identity. This is intimately related to the realization of his manhood, a goal that has him oscillate between the demands of intellect and the challenge of the liberating surrender to the life of the body and the emotions. The mythicization of the women close to him serves as a device to help make things manageable, but also as a metaphor for his own complicated efforts to find a satisfactory means of self-expression, to make his voice heard – first and primarily by himself. The split between the Word and the Flesh, the intellect and the unconscious, attraction and repulsion, is a split which not only underlines the nature of his own internal conflict, but also determines the dualism of Lawrence’s metaphysics. Miriam’s spirituality and Clara’s sensuality illustrate young Paul’s dilemma oscillating between the two different modes of living. Living in the mind is his first condition, impressed on him by his mother, but this, he feels, brings about pain, the withering of the Flesh, and consequently of the feminine, which Paul tries to understand and embrace, without success. His ardent need and desire is to save his anima, the Woman inside him, and the only one who can help him achieve this is the real woman. Thus, Miriam had to be discarded, and even Clara, who represents the Flesh, has to be left behind. Paul eventually dismisses her and denies any bond with her. But he retains her female warmth, which he worshipped as a dark inexplicable substance. Clara belongs to the dark - as the Flesh and the body is the dark, passionate other of human existence - and her dark side is actually an important part of the attraction Paul feels for her. Through her, Paul is baptized in the Flesh and encounters the elemental feminine nature. Clara represents an inert form of deep instinctual life; she is endowed with an untamed female power; she is great and mysterious; she is dazzlingly numinous: “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?”(398).

26Clara stands as an incarnation of the eternal Woman, and to consider her conventionally would be to diminish her symbolic status. Had Lawrence narrowed this significance of hers, and turned her into an ordinary woman who would finally live with Paul within the conventions of the community, the meaning of the novel would have been restricted. Paul needs to leave Clara to pursue his own emotional progress into maturity and self knowledge. He surrenders himself temporarily to this unknowable female force, but does not need to retain control of it, nor will he allow it any permanent control over himself.

Lawrence’s “Essentialism”

27This complex and original delineation of the female has earned Lawrence accusations from critics that he is “showing a perverse kind of sexual feeling […] One which rejoices in failure, unhappiness and physical suffering in woman; all states that allow the male to dominate” (Pullin 65). However, it seems fairly clear that the depiction of his female characters is hardly stereotypically misogynistic. On the contrary, as Carol Siegel has put it, it stands in direct opposition to the Aristotelian tenet that “only man has an essence.”Lawrence seeks to discover the particular feminine essence, the female core in human existence. This might be seen as an essentialist view, but if it is, it resembles Irigaray’s in its affirmation of a female essence accessible to women as individuals. Lawrence believes in femaleness as a universal principle and insists that it lies within the woman’s instinctive wisdom to discover and preserve it as the most valuable gift of nature. This essentialism (unfashionable though it now is) has a wholly positive meaning, as it “informs his female characters’ parodies of the male characters’ ideological statements” (Siegel 14). The woman stands on her own with an awareness of people and things different from that of the dominant male, with a unique attitude towards life and the world. It is woman’s “hensureness,” “the real bliss for every female,” (Phoenix II 554) her “terrible logic of emotion,” which eventually “will work out the smashing of the pattern” men try to impose upon her (Phoenix II 537).

28Both Miriam and Clara make very perceptive and creative parodies of Paul’s ideological grossness, smashing all the stereotypical models he attempts to impose upon them. Their commentary on his behavior and his meticulously constructed self-image is accurate and astute. The dialogues he has with both of them at the time when they are drifting apart are telling. Paul is constantly the one surprised. Their success in resisting the male efforts to impose identities on them highlights Lawrence’s capacity to weave this subtle counterpoint of voices dissenting from the dominant. In this case the women’s rejection comprises not only the conventional models and patterns of behavior but also Paul’s ingenious constructions as he tries to find his path to self-discovery through them. Although Lawrence does not explore the theme of a powerful woman who manages to reclaim her true womanhood in this novel – neither Miriam nor Clara are made to scale such heights – he allows the reader to see clearly that both these women have refused to succumb to bald stereotyping and trite categorization – either Paul’s or the narrator’s. Clara has her self-image which she will not renounce even in the face of Paul’s virulent criticism. She reacts energetically to his sarcastic comments about her involvement in feminist activities and rebukes him with intelligence and even sophistication when he tries to “correct” her.

29Miriam had known all along about Paul’s effort to fight her off – in fact, before he was fully aware of it himself. When Paul portrays her as a frustrated and bitter woman, ready to manipulate the man she desires in order to keep him, her retort is almost magisterial: “Very well, he would have to go. But he would come back, when he had tired of his new sensation” (SL 342-3). It is possible that Lawrence’s analysis of Miriam’s thoughts and feelings may reflect his tendency to develop characters “according to his own fictional logic – not according to the patterns of real life” (Worthen 449). However, there is nothing to disallow the realistic reading which shows a Miriam able to interpret Paul’s outbursts against her accurately, discern his tendency to underestimate and bully her, and understand all his unuttered innermost feelings about her. At the end she has managed to see “his littleness” and “his meanness”; “she had summed him up” (SL 342). Something similar occurs at the end of his relationship with Clara. “Clara thought she had never seen him look so small and mean. He was as if trying to get himself into the smallest possible compass […] there seemed something false about him, and out of tune” (450). These are surprising and unpleasant discoveries for Paul, whose continuing assumptions about their feelings towards him founder on the women’s independent judgment and perceptivity, which allow them to see through his surface consciousness, decipher correctly the hidden language of the unconscious and react with the true wisdom of emotion.

30There are several occasions in the novel when the male’s understanding of the female character, encumbered by his own troubles and limitations, amounts to a mythicization that falls short of an accurate and coherent female identity, therefore providing him with a less than thoroughly realistic perspective. There are even times when the reader feels the narrator identifies a little too closely with Paul to be entirely reliable. Yet, in almost every case, all doubt is shattered as a woman emerges, guided by pure emotion and infallible instinct, as much the author’s as her own, to sweep away false impressions and wrong calculations and restore reason and truth. This time, mythicization, as an expression of human archetypes, acts as a clarifying, restorative agent. The tale, as Lawrence famously stated, rises above the teller.

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1 In Greek mythology, Medusa was one of the three terrible mermaids who would turn into stone any mortal who would dare to look at their faces. She was killed by Perseus with the help of the goddess Athena. According to Erich Newmann and other Jungian and Freudian analysts, the Medusa stands for the archetype of theTerrible Mother signifying "the young man's struggle with the devouring and possessive image of the feminine" (See Woolger, 83).

2 In the Greek pantheon, Artemis was the independent goddess of forests and hunting.

3 Demeter, Persephone’s mother, was the goddess of agriculture, fertility and the spring.

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Nina Haritatou, « Emotion and the Unconscious: The Mythicization of Women in Sons and Lovers »Études Lawrenciennes, 43 | 2012, 129-149.

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Nina Haritatou, « Emotion and the Unconscious: The Mythicization of Women in Sons and Lovers »Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 43 | 2012, mis en ligne le 20 décembre 2013, consulté le 19 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Nina Haritatou

Nina Haritatou is a PhD student in Literature at Newcastle University.

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