D. H. Lawrence: Literary Contribution & Cultural Background

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      Lawrence’s life and work represent a revolt against the values and ideals of the nineteenth century. We can consider this from a social and psychological point of view and from a literary point of view.

      Nineteenth-century England, the England of Queen Victoria (who reigned from 1837 to 1901) was lifeless and artificial. The barriers between classes he found to be obstacles to real, living relationships between people. The industrialization of Britain had produced a breed of men who were too mechanical and uniform for his taste. The Christianity which was very much the public religion of the nineteenth century was a cold religion full of prohibitions and feelings of guilt. Above all the simple passion of man and woman was not allowed to take its natural course in this rather rigid society.

      All this is important to Sons and Lovers. There the class conflict is apparent in the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Morel. The evils of industrialization are apparent in the gloomy rows of miners’ houses: and in Paul himself, we see the struggles of a man emerging from a rather narrow form of Christianity and coming to terms with his own sexuality.

      From a psychological point of view Lawrence’s revolt against the world in which he grew up is an extreme version of the revolt of many young people against the standards of their parents. Paul Morel’s dislike of his father is evident in Sons and Lovers and although he clearly loves his mother and needs her the novel is to a large extent the story of his escaping from her, influence.

      From a literary point of view Lawrence was also a rebel like his contemporaries James Joyce and in poetry, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. This generation of writers, sometimes called Modernist, rebelled against traditional methods of writing novels and poems. In the case of Lawrence this rebellion took various forms; he felt that the novel could become more personal and less objective if he saw the possibility that language could describe in detail the personal Experiences of emotion and passion as it were from the inside. His prose often feels as though it were trying to come out of the page and force the reader to agree with it and to feel as its author felt. Lawrence pours his heart and soul into his writing and is passionate and subjective in a way that was not usual in earlier fiction. Instead of the broad canvas on which Dickens painted, where characters and incidents crowd together in lively confusion, Lawrence concentrates on just a few individuals and explores their souls. At the same time he feels free to express his own ideas directly to the reader, commenting on the action, teaching lessons, even preaching.

      James Joyce experimented with a similar concentration on the individual and during the years when Lawrence was conceiving and writing Sons and Lovers, Joyce was working on his novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man finally published in 1916. The Artist in this title is Joyce himself just as Pual Morel is Lawrence himself. At the same time, in France, Marcel Proust was writing the deeply autobiographical "A la recherche du temps perdu" of which the first volume was published in the same year as Sons and Lovers, 1913. This subjective tendency in the novel did not stop there. Joyce went on to write a novel in what amounted to a private language Finnegans Wake, 1939 while others, such as Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, developed a technique of writing novels so subjective that they consist only of the immediate stream of thoughts passing through a character’s mind. This is called the stream of consciousness method.

      Lawrence was not quite as extreme as Joyce but his work always has a personal tone and often (as in Kangaroo for instance) his novels are very close indeed to being unchanged accounts of his own experiences.

      Another feature of Lawrence’s literary background was the influence on him of the novelist and poet Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). Lawrence wrote a long critical study of Hardy but even without this evidence, we would know that Hardy had influenced him. Hardy is a great novelist of the countryside and he sets his plots against an intense natural background which is not merely scenery but plays an important element in his novels. Lawrence also has a concentration on nature that is immediately obvious in Sons and Lovers. Moments of emotion are often preceded by a detailed description of the scene in which they are set and some of the strongest writing in the novel concerns flowers, trees, hills and the weather.

      The Victorian age really came to an end with the First World War (1914-1918) and Lawrence’s career developed swiftly after this world shaking event. In a sense Lawrence was proved right. His increasing rebelliousness and his increasing outspokenness on the subject of sexual relations were less unusual in the 1920s and 1930s than they would have been before the war. However, his most outspoken novel, Lady Chatter ley's Lover (written between 1926 and 1930) was banned in Britain and in America until 1960. Thus we can see Lawrence as a pioneer of the modern novel, exploring hitherto forbidden territory and opening up a new frank approach to life.

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