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  • "His Father's Dirty Digging":Recuperating the Masculine in D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers

Of D. H. Lawrence's twelve novels, his third, Sons and Lovers, has been subjected to by far the most extensive psychoanalytic scrutiny, and understandably so.1 Carol Sklenicka goes so far as to call it "the novel that brought English literature into the psychoanalytic age" (5). Indeed, Lawrence's future wife Frieda's influence on the final draft of the novel is thought to have infused it with then little-known Freudian concepts, the fruit of her recent intimacy with Otto Gross (Worthen 442–43).2 Furthermore, Lawrence himself unwittingly encouraged a psychoanalytic reading by statements, stretching back to when the novel was first conceived, that alternately seem to justify and to reject such an interpretation, an ambivalence that is, inevitably, additional grist to the psychoanalytic mill where denial is often a form of admission. To Rachel Annand Taylor, for example, he wrote a letter in December 1910, shortly before his mother's death, that describes his parents' marriage and his own relationship to them in distinctly oedipal terms: hatred of his father "has been a kind of bond between me and my mother. We have loved each other, almost with a husband and wife love" ("To Rachel" 190). However, in a letter to Barbara Low in September 1916, Lawrence objects to Alfred Kuttner's newly published Freudian review of his novel: "My poor book: it was, [End Page 242] as art, a fairly complete truth: so they carve a half lie out of it, and say 'Voilà'. Swine!" ("To Barbara" 655).

Actually, Kuttner's essay was perceptive for its time and retains, even today, some persuasive power, although it and other early Freudian readings of the novel have been somewhat superseded by more nuanced psychoanalytic interpretations in keeping with the general developments in psychoanalysis and in Lawrence criticism.3 The oedipal readings of Sons and Lovers may be said to have culminated with Daniel Weiss's Oedipus in Nottingham: D. H. Lawrence (1962) and have since given way to a gradually formed consensus among psychologically oriented critics that the oedipal configuration, undoubtedly present, is but an interesting veneer that tends at times to obscure a much deeper and more significant pattern of pre-oedipal issues. For Margaret Storch, for example, the surface oedipal pattern "conceals a fundamental antagonism towards the mother" (98). Much as Lawrence claimed, then, the oedipal reading gets us only so far. Although, according to the Freudian paradigm, the oedipal phase is part of normal (male) childhood development, in a sense there is really little reason for oedipal hostility between father and son in Sons and Lovers. As James Cowan writes: "since the mother no longer loves her husband, the infant son [Paul], early in the oral incorporative stage, has already effectively won the oedipal rivalry with his father" (Self and Sexuality 21). In fact, the battle for the affection of the mother was won even before Paul's birth by his older brother, William, whose mantle of lover-son Paul inherits after William's untimely death.

Critics such as Cowan, Storch, Judith Ruderman, and Barbara Ann Schapiro have delved into the pre-oedipal issues involved in Lawrence's writing in great detail, and I agree with many of their claims. My formulation of the argument is that what we have, not only in Sons and Lovers but also in virtually all of Lawrence's fiction, is a persistent exploration of the complexities of attachment, particularly the tug-of-war between two approach-avoidance options that are mutually exclusive at the extremes. The first option, symbiosis or merger, is attended by the threat of the loss of self integrity; the second, separation or individuation, is accompanied by the fear of isolation or abandonment. Both options have their powerful attractions in different life situations, but as an exclusive relational position each is also frightening; the ideal is to have what Lawrence termed a "trembling balance" between them ("Morality and the Novel" 528, 529).4 In Margaret S. Mahler's coinage, the normal progression in attachment development is a multi-stage process of "separation-individuation" that takes the...


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