Wednesday, February 12, 2014

"I wish you would go upstairs, sir." Tragic pragmatism in Sons and Lovers

One day he picked up a copy of Lettres de mon Moulin from her work-bench.

"You read French, do you?" he cried.

Clara glanced round negligently. She was making an elastic stocking of heliotrope silk, turning the Spiral machine with slow, balanced regularity, occasionally bending down to see her work or to adjust the needles; then her magnificent neck, with its down and fine pencils of hair, shone white against the lavender, lustrous silk. She turned a few more rounds, and stopped.

"What did you say?" she asked, smiling sweetly.

Paul's eyes glittered at her insolent indifference to him.

"I did not know you read French," he said, very polite.

"Did you not?" she replied, with a faint, sarcastic smile.

"Rotten swank!" he said, but scarcely loud enough to be heard.

He shut his mouth angrily as he watched her. She seemed to scorn the work she mechanically produced; yet the hose she made were as nearly perfect as possible.

"You don't like Spiral work," he said.

"Oh, well, all work is work," she answered, as if she knew all about it.

He marvelled at her coldness. He had to do everything hotly. She must be something special.

"What would you prefer to do?" he asked.

She laughed at him indulgently, as she said, "There is so little likelihood of my ever being given a choice, that I haven't wasted time considering."

"Pah!" he said, contemptuous on his side now. "You only say that because you're too proud to own up what you want and can't get."

"You know me very well," she replied coldly.

"I know you think you're terrific great shakes, and that you live under the eternal insult of working in a factory."

He was very angry and very rude. She merely turned away from him in disdain. He walked whistling down the room, flirted and laughed with Hilda.

Later on he said to himself, "What was I so impudent to Clara for?" He was rather annoyed with himself, at the same time glad. "Serve her right; she stinks with silent pride," he said to himself angrily.

In the afternoon he came down. There was a certain weight on his heart which he wanted to remove. He thought to do it by offering her chocolates.

"Have one?" he said. "I bought a handful to sweeten me up."

To his great relief, she accepted. He sat on the work-bench beside her machine, twisting a piece of silk round his finger. She loved him for his quick, unexpected movements, like a young animal. His feet swung as he pondered. The sweets lay strewn on the bench. She bent over her machine, grinding rhythmically, then stooping to see the stocking that hung beneath, pulled down by the weight. He watched the handsome crouching of her back, and the apron-strings curling on the floor.

"There is always about you," he said, "a sort of waiting. Whatever I see you doing, you're not really there: you are waiting--like Penelope when she did her weaving." He could not help a spurt of wickedness. "I'll call you Penelope," he said.

"Would it make any difference?" she said, carefully removing one of her needles.

"That doesn't matter, so long as it pleases me. Here, I say, you seem to forget I'm your boss. It just occurs to me."

"And what does that mean?" she asked coolly.

"It means I've got a right to boss you."

"Is there anything you want to complain about?"

"Oh, I say, you needn't be nasty," he said angrily.

"I don't know what you want," she said, continuing her task.

"I want you to treat me nicely and respectfully."

"Call you 'sir', perhaps?" she asked quietly.

"Yes, call me 'sir'. I should love it."

"Then I wish you would go upstairs, sir."
This is a marvelous passage from Lawrence. Paul Morel has gotten Clara a job in a factory, making medical stockings. Before this, Clara was working in her mother's kitchen, carding lace for pennies. Paul is interested in Clara as a woman. Clara is not so interested in Paul as a man; she is older than he, separated from her husband, and Paul is still really just an adolescent in his behavior.

This scene continues several of the novel's important themes: the money-and-power theme, the ignored-suitor theme, the who-is-good-enough-for-whom theme, etc. A lot is happening here.

At work Paul plays the role of the man in charge, the provider. Paul at twenty-three still lives at home with his mother and father. The father, a collier, pays for the house and household expenses while Paul and his mother show him no respect, because he is unworthy of much respect within this fictional milieu. Paul has unknowingly inherited a good deal of intolerance, smugness and a prideful sense of entitlement from both of his parents. Clara took the job at the factory because she needs money, but she doesn't want to be obligated to Paul. She feels this obligation, and she resents it.

There is a young woman, Miriam, who is in love with Paul, but Paul and his mother agree that Miriam is unsuitable. They agree that Clara is suitable enough, though Paul's mother would rather her son marry a lady, to fulfill her dreams of raising the family (her side, anyway) back to a proper station in life. Mrs Morel has already argued the superiority of the middle class over "the common folk." Miriam, despite her French lessons, is of the common folk. Paul also knows that Miriam is rather too good and pure for the likes of him. He can't live up to her goodness, which wounds his pride and he hates her for it. Clara is divorced, or at least separated from her husband and therefore a fallen woman, thus below Paul morally. He can stoop down to her level, maybe. He wouldn't call it that, but there it is. There are many scenes before this one quoted, between Paul and Miriam, where Miriam kneels at Paul's feet. Paul is irritated by this even though he wants Clara to kneel at his feet now. There is also the image in the Paul-and-Miriam section of the constellation Orion and his dog (the constellation Canus Major, built around Sirius, the dog star). Paul thinks of these as "his and Miriam's" constellations. We can easily figure that Paul sees himself as Orion. Miriam--lucky Miriam--is the faithful dog. Orion has abandoned Sirius and now shops for a new pet. I am being very hard on Paul Morel, on David Lawrence who wants our sympathy for Paul.

Through all of this is an argument--mostly unspoken but there nonetheless (think of the marriages of Annie and William, for example)--that even if there is an Ideal Love out there for each of us, we will likely never meet this Ideal Love. We must instead give our love to someone we meet in real life, someone who stumbles into our own circle, someone who is less, perhaps, than our ideal and for whom we are also not the stuff of dreams. Love is choice, a difficult choice, a tragic pragmatism.

5 comments:

  1. "Love is choice, a difficult choice, a tragic pragmatism." Your sentence is a brilliant thematic summary of almost everything D. H. Lawrence wrote. There is also something about his writing that almost always makes me uncomfortable. Perhaps I need to make an appointment with a psychiatrist! Lawrence, is, though, soon (if not already) destined to be a writer of the past who will not enjoy much if any popularity in the future.

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  2. I'm not sure why you make that claim. Sons and Lovers is almost 101 years old now, and major publishing houses still bother to put out a new edition of the novel almost every year. I know a number of people who either have read Lawrence recently or are reading him right now. On Thursday afternoon I was in the book store near where I work, and there were something like nine or ten Lawrence titles on the shelf. I guess Maybe I don't know what you mean by "popularity," but Lawrence doesn't seem to be disappearing. I think part of the reason his work endures is because he does make readers uncomfortable, a laudable artistic goal.

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  3. Well, my claim is a myopic claim in that you will travel far and wide before you ever seen D. H. Lawrence's works (except for the occasional short story -- especially "The Rocking Horse Winner") appear on any syllabus in any university literature course. He has been pushed out of the canon almost everywhere in academia. If you see evidence that contradicts my myopia, my mind remains open to corrections.

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  4. Ah . . . forgive the typos and lousy syntax/grammar in my earlier posting. I am worse than a distracted undergraduate today.

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  5. It seems these days that the really serious readers aren't in Eng Lit programs anyway. I have no personal knowledge of Eng Lit programs aside from a couple of classes I took as a freshman many decades ago, but most of my fellow students seemed to be taking the courses because they looked like easy credits, not because they wanted to know anything about fiction.

    Although a guy I know, who's about 22 or 23 now, just got a degree in Eng Lit with an emphasis on poetry. He's a good reader. So's his mother, who also earned an Eng Lit degree. So I don't know. None of this has to do with Lawrence appearing on syllibi.

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