"What do you want to be?" his mother asked.There is a lot about work, and labor, and money, in Sons and Lovers. Gertrude Morel is from a higher social station than her husband, Walter. She fell in love with him at a Christmas party, almost inexplicably, because he had a rich and beautiful laugh and because he danced well even though she never learned a step in her life. Walter is a simple and direct man; he works in a coal pit, hacking away at rock faces underground all the day long, he drinks in the evenings, he comes home to his wife, who is an alien to him, who bears him four children. While she is pregnant with her third child, Gertrude quarrels with Walter and he, drunk, pushes her our of the house and locks the door:
"That is no answer," said Mrs. Morel.
But it was quite truthfully the only answer he could give. His ambition, as far as this world's gear went, was quietly to earn his thirty or 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. That was his programme as far as doing things went. But he was proud within himself, measuring people against himself, and placing them, inexorably. And he thought that perhaps he might also make a painter, the real thing. But that he left alone.
"Then," said his mother, "you must look in the paper for the advertisements."
He looked at her. It seemed to him a bitter humiliation and an anguish to go through. But he said nothing. When he got up in the morning, his whole being was knotted up over this one thought:
"I've got to go and look for advertisements for a job."
It stood in front of the morning, that thought, killing all joy and even life, for him. His heart felt like a tight knot.
The moon was high and magnificent in the August night. Mrs. Morel, seared with passion, shivered to find herself out there in a great white light, that fell cold on her, and gave a shock to her inflamed soul. She stood for a few moments helplessly staring at the glistening great rhubarb leaves near the door. Then she got the air into her breast. She walked down the garden path, trembling in every limb, while the child boiled within her.The language in the whole book is like that, a living thing almost, writhing on the page, precise and pointed. Forster said of Lawrence that, as a writer, he walks into your living room and breaks all the furniture. This is what Forster meant. "the child boiled within her," that's great stuff.
After a decade of marriage, Gertrude Morel begins to despise her husband, as do the children, and Walter withdraws from the family into a lonely life of coal mining, drinking, eating and sleeping. He makes his own breakfast, early in the mornings:
He went downstairs in his shirt and then struggled into his pit-trousers, which were left on the hearth to warm all night. There was always a fire, because Mrs. Morel raked. And the first sound in the house was the bang, bang of the poker against the raker, as Morel smashed the remainder of the coal to make the kettle, which was filled and left on the hob, finally boil. His cup and knife and fork, all he wanted except just the food, was laid ready on the table on a newspaper. Then he got his breakfast, made the tea, packed the bottom of the doors with rugs to shut out the draught, piled a big fire, and sat down to an hour of joy. He toasted his bacon on a fork and caught the drops of fat on his bread; then he put the rasher on his thick slice of bread, and cut off chunks with a clasp-knife, poured his tea into his saucer, and was happy. With his family about, meals were never so pleasant.The family views him as the villain of the piece, but Lawrence can't quite bring himself as author to paint Walter as entirely evil. He is merely low, common, uneducated. He is, more or less, Lawrence's own father, as Lawrence grew up in a collier's rented house on the edge of the coal fields by Sherwood Forest.
Most of the novel, so far (I'm about a third, maybe, of the way through), is centered around Gertrude Morel's point of view. It's a great novel, a beautiful novel, and justly Lawrence's most famous. Lawrence paints a detailed portrait of life, his scenes full of household objects and the minutia of nature, the scents of flowers and the buzzing of insects all vivid but not sentimental, not "Nature" as a person, a force separate from humanity. The forces of nature run through everything, through every character, their forces pushing them along into collision with one another, and Lawrence makes much of tiny moments of solitude in his characters' lives. In the chapter I quote at the start of this post, Paul (the Morels' third child) is looking for a job. He goes off to look at advertisements in the newspaper but before he can force himself to read the employment pages, he sits in a corner of the public reading room and stares out the window, at sunflowers nodding over the top of a wall, at a brewer's wagon driven by a middle-aged man who looks, to Paul, less intelligent than the horse who pulls the wagon. Paul wishes he was stupid, wishes he could know nothing more of life than the desire to drive a brewer's wagon, wishes he was the horse, and so spared the task of finding a place he doesn't want in the world. And then Paul reads the advertisements, and writes his letters of application, and so takes a job working for a manufacturer of artificial limbs. "It seemed monstrous that a business could be run on wooden legs," he thinks. Lawrence's whole world here runs on wooden legs.