Sons and Lovers is as much a study of the human psyche and how it shapes up in different circumstances as it is Lawrence’s semi-autobiography which he says was a means for him to achieve a measure of catharsis. And it is no secret that Lawrence was an ardent observer and celebrator of Nature, so it only stands to reason that Nature plays a major role in this novel.
In this paper, I will try to analyze the role Nature took in shaping the lives of the characters, as well as the characters themselves.
The novel Sons and Lovers revolves around the Morel family and deals with their way of life, and the people who frequently interact with them, placing special emphasis on the lives of Mrs. Morel, William Morel (till he ends up dying), Paul Morel, Miriam Leivers and Clara Dawson.
While the marriage between the jovial Walter Morel and the reserved Gertrude Coppard sounded like something out of a fairytale, it quickly became a ruinous marriage that destroyed both of them. The only thing that seemed to hold them together by the seams was their children, but soon even that became a point of contention between the two of them. The children naturally sought out their mother more often because they were more familiar with her presence than that of their father, who spent most of his time in the mines. They didn’t feel very comfortable around Walter because of his abusive behavior with them and their mother, and his low-class crassness that went against their mother’s air of sophistication. This escalates while William and Paul grow up, and they end up being severely attached to Mrs. Morel (Paul more than William) and their inability to form any romantic ties with anyone because of the overreaching affection they have for their mother. In the end, William dies, as does Mrs. Morel; and Paul is left aimless and alone in the world, to fend for himself.
In this novel, nature comes into play in many different ways, as a mirror of the characters’ emotional states (through the technique of pathetic fallacy), the nature-images also conveying the erotic tension between characters and so forth, and symbolizing their relationships with other characters, and sometimes ends up being the means by which characters form a bond with each other. Nature also serves as a way for the readers to observe a character when they experience nature by themselves, thus unlocking another side of the characters. And of course, Lawrence’s depictions stand as a testimony to his artistic genius, as his Keatsian descriptions of nature in the novel imbues this literary work with vitality and charm.
Walter Morel is a man whose life is heavily structured by Nature, in the physical sense. Being a collier from a line of colliers, he takes pride in his job, which is essentially exploring the cavernous mines in the belly of the Earth. It is worth noting that his lifestyle as a collier is also as restrictive as his job itself. Apart from the bit of time he gets at the end of the day that he must divide between his home and the bar, the man is either sleeping or working or getting ready to work. And it is also interesting to see that Walter is man who is more in tune with the natural way of life i.e., he does what he enjoys, his work and drinking booze and dancing and singing and the other simple pleasures of life rather than the strictly ordered and restrictive and man-made ways of people of the higher classes (especially those of the Puritans). This is more evident when he tries to fit the tastes of his wife and tries to conform to the high society’s way of life and fails miserably and botches the whole dynamic up.
The alienation of Walter from the rest of the family is symbolized by the great ash tree in the house they move into after their residence in the Bottoms, which caught the wind from Derbyshire and made rather ominous noises. While Walter likes the tree’s presence in their backyard, the rest of the family think it is ghastly and fills them with terror (especially the children).
Gertrude Morel is a woman that we don’t really see physically around nature much. Her sphere of influence is the domestic sphere and that is where we see her most of the time. Her relationship with nature mirrors her current state: she is a woman is restricted (by her pride and by her Puritanical way of life), as is her worldviews as we progress further into the novel. However, this definitely wasn’t the case before her marriage. Back then, when she was a maiden who “had run so lightly up the breakwater at Sheerness ten years before” she moved to Hell Row, she was a woman who “loved ideas and was considered very intellectual” who was well-versed in the art of debating religion or philosophy or politics with some educated man. Of course, she hadn’t lived in the wilderness and lived in communion with nature, but her interactions with nature back then were significantly higher than merely being confined to her backyard. Nonetheless, the backyard is a major source of comfort and a place where she can meditate and escape from her dreary reality of being a mere collier’s wife, and being in an unhappy marriage with him to boot. When Walter locks her out of the house when she was pregnant with William, we’re told that Gertrude and the baby in her somehow meld with the nature around them and that Gertrude goes into a trance-like state and achieves a sort of tranquillity that she could never find around her husband. In this scene Lawrence uses pathetic fallacy to indicate her emotional state.
After this scene, when William is born, She takes the infant with her to one of the hilltops in Derbyshire and there, when she witnesses the vast nature all around her and her son, she is hit by a feeling that her son would be like Joseph, and was sent to save the world, and felt a hot rush of affection for the infant in her arms, thus cementing her relationship with William (who was the apple of her eye till he died) and also serves as a way for her to gain communion with God.
Gertrude’s later (unconventional) relationship with Paul is foreshadowed in the earlier chapters by her reaction to him bringing flowers to her even as a young boy. Gertrude’s reaction is almost like that of a lover being presented with flowers by their partner. Later, when Paul and Gertrude go on a countryside visit to the Leivers’ place, they exult in the beautiful scenery around and it serves as a space where they could be with each other, and perhaps strengthen their emotional bond with each other. Rather sensual descriptions of the nature around them serve as a way of symbolizing their more-than-filial affections for each other, and also simply showcasing the natural beauty of the countryside.
Miriam is a young woman who is discontent with her lot in life, fancying herself to be a high-class lady who was stuck with having to tend to sheep and her family’s farm. This, however, means that she was surrounded by nature from her birth. Interestingly, she is also presented the same way Gertrude was in the beginning of the novel. She is a woman who is interested in listening to people discuss lofty ideas and is desirous to learn things and overall has rather lofty ideals for a farm girl (which explains Mrs. Morel’s hatred towards Miriam; perhaps she saw too much of herself in Miriam and felt threatened in her relationship with Paul). Paul and Miriam form a romantic bond over how similarly they regarded nature. The relationship between Paul and Miriam is heavily juxtaposed by nature imagery, most of which have a very erotic undertone to them. This romantic relationship is heavily nuanced, because both of these characters are just maturing and blossoming into their adult selves. In the part where Miriam wants to show Paul a wild rose-bush, the description of the bush emphasises on her emotional attachment to Paul and also her virginal state. In the scene where she picks up the daffodil and Paul watches her “sipping the flowers with fervid kisses”, Miriam is presented as a pantheistic devotee of the nature around her, and shows us her spiritual connection with nature, yet it becomes apparent to the readers that there is a lot of suppressed passion in her that Paul was trying to get at but could never fully grasp. Their sexual relationship and the tension between each other is related to the readers by the nature imagery as well (mainly as a means to escape the censorship of the Victorian times); especially when Clara is added to this dynamic. Basically, nature acts not only as the matchmaker in this case, but also as the medium through which this relationship can be explained with all its intricacies to the readers.
The relationship between Clara and Paul first starts when they are amidst nature, and this is when Clara warms up to Paul. Before this, she didn’t deign to react to the interest Paul shows in her. In this scene, when they pick flowers, we also see the way Paul’s (and Miriam’s) approach to nature is different from Clara’s. She’d much rather just see the plants growing than pick them and shower them with affection like in the case of Paul and Miriam, which indicates her inclination to be left alone. Later, after they bond over their ideologies and so forth, when it’s Paul’s birthday and Clara doesn’t get the memo and is left out of the celebrations, Paul and Clara go and visit the parapet of a castle and have an intimate moment of understanding there. We also see their different approaches to nature in this scene. While Clara looks at the town below and comments that it was good that the town didn’t encroach upon the surrounding nature, Paul states that whatever the people end up doing to nature, nature would always emerge victorious in the end. It is also in the midst of nature that they engage in physical intimacy for the first time; and the fact that it was lightly raining when this happens symbolizes the fertility of the atmosphere around them, which was conducive for a romantic attachment to form between the two of them. Clara doesn’t have a huge connection to nature, but most of her relationship with Paul occurs with some aid from nature.
Paul was an intellectual, a sensitive soul, from his birth. He is very in sync with nature and most of his art revolved around nature. It is obvious that nature has a huge significance in his life. He shows his love for his mother by bringing her flowers from early on in his childhood. He spent a lot of time playing out, frolicking in nature and gathering fruits for his mother (with his siblings) and so forth. When he grows up and gets a job at Jordan’s, we are told that the entrance to the building looks like the mouth of a dragon, which symbolizes the way industrialism devours nature with no mercy. Paul sees the life in things, like when he was sketching a leaf, and captures the shimmering protoplasm, the essence of the life in it, and didn’t want to be hung up on the shape of the leaf. His consciousness is cyclical, much like nature, and this is also shown in the way his emotions sometimes synch with nature (in the springtime, Paul gets intense and cruel, for example).
When he goes to the countryside with Mrs. Morel, he again presents her with flowers and the general atmosphere around them is very romantic and un-filial. However, his relationship with Miriam isn’t as secure as his relationship with his mother and this is reflected by all the nature imagery that is depicted during his interactions with Miriam. In the part where Miriam fondles the daffodils, we see his irritation over the fact that he is unable to gain access to her passionate side, and in the scene with the rosebushes we see that Miriam doesn’t seem too desperate to lose her virginity and was contented with being spiritually engaged with nature (and Paul). However, while Miriam’s love for nature (which bleeds into her love for him) is mostly spiritual, his is more sensual; and Paul starts to feel smothered by her love that was all encompassing, leaving him restrained and lacking freedom which he desperately needed. This also reflects the clash of ideals between them, which becomes the pivot for him to start seeking for affection that is more suited for his tastes in Clara. His relationship with Clara isn’t rooted in an emotional connection, and he just uses her as an outlet to gratify his sexual desires.
It is interesting to note that he bonded with the two love interests in his life over nature. This man is highly attuned to nature and this shows in the way he is somehow always around nature and genuinely enjoys the nature around him.
This novel is replete with nature imagery and symbolisms that manage to give a shape to the intricate emotions and thought processes behind these layered individuals. Nature ends up increasing the human experience for the readers as well the characters themselves, while also contributing to the structure of their human experiences.