The Compulsive Mother in D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers

A mother’s love for her children is special. The maternal bond between mother and son is very powerful. As Ann Oakley quotes, “Women as the guardians of children possess a great power. They are the molders of their children's personalities and the arbiters of their development.” It is a mother’s instinct that causes her to love and nurture her son. It is the first form of love that a son can receive. As Hamilton Wright Mabie writes, “The mother loves her child most divinely, not when she surrounds him with comfort and anticipates his wants, but when she resolutely holds him to the highest standards and is content with nothing less than his best.” This is how a mother loves her son.

It is also important for the mother to know when to let go of her son and allow him into the world. The bond between mother and son will last a lifetime. That does not mean that control is the only way for that bond. In D.H. Lawrences’s Sons and Lovers, the bond between mother and son is exemplified in a profound way. However, Mrs. Morel’s relationship with her sons, especially Paul, proves to be harmful to the growth of her sons. As Eleanor Sullo agrees, “Paul Morel’s imprisoning relationship with his mother cripples all his other relationships,” (1). Mrs. Morel’s compulsive controls over her sons eventually leads to Paul’s dependence and need for her, but becomes harmful when she dies leaving him alone and not ready to face the world alone.

In order to understand the compulsive relationship between Mrs. Morel and her sons, it is important to understand what kind of women Gertrude Morel is. Gertrude Morel is a strong character. Throughout the novel, she deals with many problems and goes through a lot of hard times. She has had to deal with her husband Walter who is an alcoholic, abusive and does not help her in the raising of her children. She attempted to make her home a better place by continually trying to revive her relationship with her irresponsible husband. Besides only financial aid from Walter, Gertrude continued to raise four children practically by herself. She gives her children the love, self-confidence, and ambition that they need in order to grow and be happy (Berc 13).

Gertrude is also very protective of her children. Twice she protects them from Walter. The first time she stops William from getting into a right with Walter even though William knows he can beat him. The second time is when a neighbor accused William of ripping her son’s clothes. Gertrude takes William’s side and Walter takes the neighbors’ side and eventually Walter backs down. From this it is evident that Gertrude is a strong figure that holds the family together. Gertrude is extremely happy when her sons do well which compels her to think that she is doing a good job in raising them. As Ross Murfin agrees, Mrs. Morel “gives more [to her sons] than she receives,” (23). Another aspect of Gertrude is her love of life. Even through all the pain and hardships, she never complains and continues to be positive. Even at the time of death she smiles and tries to still be there for Paul. As Berc puts it, “In many ways. Mrs. Morel embodies the Victorian concept of the ideal mother,” (23).

Although she seems to be a very good mother, there was also a bad side to Gertrude Morel. For example, there are times when Walter realizes that he is wrong and tries to make it better, but Gertrude will not let him. Gertrude could also be rather strict and hot-tempered. There is a part where Paul and Mrs. Morel are shopping and he makes a comment on something that she was going to buy. Mrs. Morel responds with, “I’ll jowl your head for impudence,” (Lawrence 88). This does not seem like the loving mother that she was previously described as. In the part where William almost beat up Walter, Walter leaves the reader with his opinion of his wife’s relationship with her children. He says, “But they’re like yourself; you’ve put `em up to your own tricks and nasty ways” (71). Although uneducated, Morel does see some truth in the dark side of Mrs. Morel.
The largest negative light that is seen of Mrs. Morel is her control over the lives of her sons.

Although Mrs. Morel had control over her entire family, this paper focuses on William and more importantly Paul. The relationship between William and Gertrude was quite unique. Gertrude, sick and tired of trying to change the ways of Walter, was looking forward to the birth of William. The effort that she tried to put towards loving Walter would now be passed on to her first born son. She invests more and more hope in William in making her life a better place (Black 48). At one point Gertrude even said, “The world seemed such a dreary place…at least until William grew up,” (Lawrence 15). Before William was born, Gertrude did not want him. She did not want to bring someone into a home like hers. Gertrude and William’s strong relationship was built upon her need to give love to someone. Another reason for their relationship is their share in hatred for Walter. Early on in William’s life, he begins to hate his father. There are two main scenes where William shows this: when he wants to beat him up and when he ripped the neighbor’s shirt. This hatred draws Gertrude to William and keeps their relationship together. There are also examples when they have both suffered because of Walter. In one scene, William and Gertrude are hugging and crying to one another because of the actions of Walter. They help one another through the pain that his father has caused him. Another reason why Gertrude begins to like William is because he presents a chance for her to be effective in making a difference to someone else. She tried to make Walter a better person, but he was too stubborn. However, with William, she has a fresh start to mold him into her ideal image (Berc 36). However, the lengths that Gertrude goes to in order to achieve goal this hurts William and eventually leads to his death.

As William grew older, he became more and more successful. Like his mother, he was persistent in all that he did. He became very successful in his work. William was also well liked by everyone. He brought the family together more than any one else could. However, he could not stand his father so much that he couldn’t take it living with him. When a job opportunity came for him in London, he readily accepted. This made Gertrude feel abandoned and she let William know that she felt this way. Gertrude made William feel guilty for this. Actually, Mrs. Morel was good at using guilt to get what she wanted. When William was younger, he and his sister Annie went to a local fair. He was having so much fun and was very excited that his mother was coming too. William was also extremely happy because he has won two eggcups in a carnival game. However, when he proudly shows his mother his prize, she gets angry with him and leaves the fair with Annie. William’s happy mood has ended and now feels guilty for hurting his mother’s feelings. The way that Mrs. Morel put down the happiness of William is seen throughout the novel, especially with Paul. As Berc points out, this is one of the first examples where we see the great power that Gertrude has over her children (34). Trying to please himself and his mother at the same time becomes more and more difficult as William grows older.

As William becomes more and more successful, he stays in London longer. He continues to write to Gertrude, which pleases her greatly. He also has a lot of money that he uses to help his mother. He still would visit home when he could, which was a treat to the family. Whenever he would do this, he would bring presents for the family that he bought with all the money that he was earning. They would all be so happy to see him. Even Walter was happy when he came home. When he came home, the Morel family was at its best. However, along with money and popularity came girls. William was good looking and successful in London. Wherever he went he always seemed to have girls following him. He would spend his money on fine dining, parties and dances, much to the demise of his mother. She was happy that he was successful yet at the same time afraid that she would lose him (Berc 46). She could not stand that something was coming in the way between her and her son. She especially hates the women that he enjoys the company of. They represent other woman figures that he could give his love to rather than give it to his mother. Gertrude knows how much influence she has on her son and uses that against him. When he brings home his fiancé, Gyp, she greatly disapproves. The rest of the family enjoys Gyp, but because she wants control of her son, she despises her. Her despise of Gyp eventually leads William to share in her hatred, much like they both hated Walter. She wouldn’t even go to bed until both William and Gyp went to be separately. To this, William asks his mother “Can’t you trust us mother? (Lawrence 148). She could trust him, but she would rather them not be together at all. Once again there is another example of how Mrs. Morel does not allow her sons to do what makes them happy.

As time went on, William found it harder and harder to stay with Gyp back in London. This was all because he was trying so hard to please his mother and change her. This effort tired him out so much that he got pneumonia and died. He tried so hard making Gyp a person his mother would approve of, but he could not. William knew that his inability to transfer his love from his mother to a mate would kill him (Berc 63). Therefore there is some truth in saying that it was ultimately Mrs. Morel that killed William. Had Mrs. Morel supported William in his attempt to live his own successful life, it is safe to say that he may have lived longer. But, since Mrs. Morel is too controlling and compulsive, she cannot allow her son to be independent. Berc even states that Gertrude has trouble letting go of her children and that it is a parent’s responsibility to know when to “cut the apron strings” and let go (46). William attempted to cut the strings himself and failed. However, it will be Paul that will have a harder time cutting his strings from his mother. Paul’s strings are stronger and contain many more knots.

Paul Morel and his relationship with his mother are one of the most visible themes in the novel. The seemingly loving relationship between a mother and a son is conveyed through this relationship. However, because Mrs. Morel was too controlling of Paul, their relationship proved to be damaging to his life. When Paul was born, William was in the spotlight. Like William, he hated his father. When William wanted to hit Walter, Paul was secretly wishing that he did so. The main difference between Paul and William was that William made an attempt to get his own control of his life, and succeeded in doing so for a little while. Paul was different. He was very artistic and creative, which greatly angered his father. He was very easy to get along and fun to be with. When he worked at the factory, the girls loved to talk to him and be with him. He was energetic and made the day more fun. He was also more spiritual than William was. Unlike William, who loved dancing and physical gifts and pleasures, Paul enjoyed the simple things. He liked nature and cooking. He found something beautiful in everything. He also helped his mother do many things. He helped pay the rent. He went shopping with his mother. He helped his mother cook and clean the house. He even picked up his father’s check with his weekly earning and helped him count it. He was the one that snapped Gertrude out of her trance that she was in after William’s death. Paul was over all a real good person.

Paul also loved a girl. Her name is Miriam. Paul first met Miriam at her family’s farm. Paul’s mother thought that fresh air in the country help his lungs heal quicker from the pneumonia and she had not seen her friends, the Leivers, in a while. Miriam is also a complex character. She is overpowering, like Paul’s mother, which is a plausible reason why Paul is attracted to her. As Berc points out, Miriam is a very abstract character (61). It is this aspect of her that causes her to have such an effect on Paul. Miriam becomes Paul’s inspiration to his artwork. She causes him to make beautiful paintings that eventually get bought and marveled at. Miriam and Paul eventually became lovers. They wrote each other love letters. They went on romantic walks where they both shared nature at its best, inspiring to Paul. They had serious talks about love and marriage and life. Paul also taught Miriam French. One thing that neither could do was having sexual relations with the other. Paul simply could not force himself to love her that way. Miriam gave herself up to him, but Paul did not want her unless she wanted it too. Secretly they both wanted to have a physical relationship, but they couldn’t. Both of them asked the other to marry them, but they were both denied. Miriam also makes many sacrifices to Paul. She stays loyal to him even when he ignores her or gets angry with her because his mother makes him that way. She also has perseverance to try to get Paul to look past his mother’s blinding hatred toward her.

As with Mrs. Morel’s treatment of William’s love, she also does not approve of Miriam. Because of this disapproval, she treats Miriam horribly. There are two main times when the hatred of Miriam is shown. The first is when Miriam was over for dinner and she was rejected when she asked to help do the dishes. This act represents acceptance and by not allowing Miriam to help, it is Gertrude’s way of telling her that she doesn’t like her (Berc 68). The second example is when Clara and Mrs. Morel are making fun of Miriam when she stopped in to say hi. Paul actually becomes angry and annoyed. He actually feels sorry for her. Another example is when the bread burned that Paul was supposed to look after. Even though Paul let it burn because he was talking to some other girl who had left by the time Gertrude came home, Miriam gets blamed for Paul’s blunder. When Paul confronts his mother about her hatred of Miriam, the truth comes out. Paul was late one night from going out with Miriam. After asking if he came right home after dropping her off and receiving no answer, Mrs. Morel says, “She most be wonderfully fascinating, that you can’t get away from her, but must go trailing eight miles at this time of night,” (Lawrence 185). She seems very annoyed with the fact that Paul was with Miriam. Later in the conversation Gertrude says that it is not that she doesn’t like Miriam, but that she doesn’t like her children “keeping company”. Paul answers back by asking why she doesn’t mind Annie and her boyfriend. Gertrude replies with the main reason why she hates Miriam so much. She says, “They’ve [Annie and her boyfriend] more sense than you …[because] our Annie’s not one of the deep sort,” (Lawrence 186).

This is the key to the control that Mrs. Morel has on Paul. Paul’s relationship with Miriam is deep love. They do not share a physical relationship, but an emotional one that ties the two of the, together. As Sullo states, “With Miriam, Paul’s primary contact is spiritual and cerebral (1). To Gertrude, this would not do. She wanted to be the only one in her son’s life that could love him and be loved by him in such a matter. This relates back to her own relationship with Walter who did not love her that way. She needed that and she was willing to ruin her son’s life based on that. This reasoning also explains why Mrs. Morel liked Clara so much. This was shown once again using the “washing the dishes” analogy. Mrs. Morel allowed Clara to wash the dishes, thus representing her approval. The relationship between Clara and Paul was strictly physical. Paul got into the relationship because he was frustrated with how he and Miriam’s relationship lacked this physical aspect. However, unlike Miriam, Clara did not inspire Paul. She causes his artistic side, the side that made him unique, to falter. When he realized this, he stopped the relationship with Clara. Mrs. Morel saw that if Miriam could only win her son’s sex-sympathy there would be nothing left for her (Black 21). But, sense Miriam only won her son’s emotional and spiritual sympathy, Mrs. Morel was scared that she would lose the love from her son. She knew that Miriam was “Mrs. Morel’s rival for the possession of Paul’s soul” (Berc 65).

This bitter struggle for Paul caused a lot of jealousy to arise in Mrs. Morel. “Mrs. Morel grows increasingly nervous and jealous about Miriam’s hold on Paul,” (Berc 67). When Paul wanted to read a poem to Miriam, Gertrude got really jealous. It says, “Mrs. Morel sat jealously in her own chair. She was going to listen too,” (Lawrence 201). She was jealous for a reason that seems rather trivial. Like she did with William, Gertrude makes Paul feel guilty about many things. First, Paul is extremely guilty about the broken umbrella, the one that William gave his mother, which he thinks he has broken. It is a simple umbrella, but he makes a big deal out of it. Mrs. Morel also makes Paul feeling really guilty about burning the bread. It was one loaf out of many, but she gets so angry with him that it makes him feel guilty about loving Miriam. This guilt leads him to break up with her, in which he tells his mother about it first to which she replies, “I think it will be best…I don’t think she is suited for you,” (Lawrence 333). It is clear that Gertrude is happy to have her son back. Mrs. Morel also makes Paul feel guilty when he goes out with his friends and comes back to find out that she is sick. It is not his fault that she is sick and he should not feel guilty about it.

In the end, Gertrude’s health fails until she is in a lot of pain and suffering. She knows that she is dying and Paul is miserable because of it. He is also miserable because he does not have Miriam, so his creative mind is at rest. He can’t stand to see his mother, who was so strong and was always there for him in so much pain. He and Annie agree to put her out of her misery by giving her morphine pills crushed in her milk. After this, Paul was in agony. He could not function without his mother because he was so reliable on her. The following lines show the agony that Paul was in:

“She was the only thing that held him up, himself, amid all this. And she was gone, intermingled herself. He wanted her to touch him, have him alongside with her,” (Lawrence 473).

Mrs. Morel’s compulsiveness over her son hurt him in all aspects. He was not able to marry because no girl could live up to his and his mother’s ideals. He could not practice his love of art because his mother hated the one person that inspired him. He always felt guilty that he wasn’t giving her enough love. He was too attached to his mother to truly get to see things in his own eyes and make himself his own person. As D.H. Lawrence writes, “Meanwhile William grew bigger and stronger and more active, while Paul, always rather delicate and quiet, got slimmer, and trotted after his mother like her shadow,” (58). That is precisely how the novel went. Both William and Paul died in a sense. William died because he was so strong and though he could live without any help from his mother. Paul died because he let his mother dictate his life much like a shadow is controlled by the owner of itself. Neither way is the best way to live life.

Oliver Wendell Holmes sums up what a true mother is: “Youth fades; love droops, the leaves of friendship fall; A mother's secret hope outlives them all." Mrs. Morel did have hope for both her successful sons, but because she tried to be too protective and controlling, she killed them both. The balance needs to be there. A mother needs to know when to be protective and when to let go. Either way, a child knows that the mother wants the best for him or her.