58 pages 1 hour read

D. H. Lawrence

Sons and Lovers

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1913

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Sons and Lovers is a 1913 novel by English author D. H. Lawrence. The novel explores the relationship between Gertrude Morel and her son Paul, who live in a small mining town in North England at the turn of the 20th century. Though met with a lukewarm response on release, Sons and Lovers has since been critically reappraised as one of Lawrence’s most important works and has been adapted for film and television.

This guide refers to the 2022 Vancouver: Royal Classics edition of the novel.

Content Warning: The source text and this guide refer to alcohol addiction, domestic violence, death, and involuntary euthanasia.

Plot Summary

Sons and Lovers is set in a small mining town in North England and begins in the late 1800s. Gertrude meets and marries a miner named Walter Morel. At first, he is a charming and warm young man. He does not drink, and Gertrude is happy to be around him. Early in their marriage, however, they begin to drift apart. She discovers that he has lied to her about his debts and wages, meaning that her life is more constricted than she ever imagined. They begin to quarrel, and Walter begins to go straight to the bar after each workday while Gertrude is left at home to raise the children. In response, Gertrude turns to her sons, namely William, the eldest, thinking of him as a model that she can enrich to play out her own destroyed ambitions. She comes to loathe her husband, who is often drunk, and considers him uninteresting. Instead, Gertrude devotes herself to her children, especially William.

As a young boy, William is unhealthily attached to Gertrude, unable to enjoy life outside the house without her accompanying him. As he becomes a young man, he protects her from his father’s domestic abuse. When he comes of age, he leaves Nottinghamshire to go to work in London, rising into the middle class through charm and hard work. He becomes engaged but cannot stand the shallowness of his fiancée, which he witnesses firsthand when he brings her home to meet his working-class family. Not long after, William contracts pneumonia and dies. Devastated, Gertrude turns to her second son, Paul, who also suffers from a bout of pneumonia. When Paul recovers while being nursed in his mother’s arms, his recovery also helps her to recover from the terrible grief she has suffered due to William’s premature death.

Paul is different from William in that he has a vacillating relationship with his mother. Where William was only loving and attached, Paul is occasionally repelled by the prospect of living with his mother forever, though he is always drawn back to her. He recognizes that he will probably always be, in some ways, the second choice for his mother as she tries to reconstruct his older brother and live vicariously through Paul. He slowly falls in love with Miriam Leivers, a farmer’s daughter whom he meets at church and who lives nearby. They go on long walks and have educated debates about books. Paul teaches her French, as Miriam feels a desire to pursue an education that she feels is denied to women like her. However, still dependent on his mother, Paul begins to resist the idea of a future with Miriam. Paul and Miriam's relationship is especially profound, and they both feel bound to one another, yet Paul cannot bring himself to think of them as anything other than just friends.

One day, he goes to Miriam’s family farm, where he encounters a young woman, Clara Dawes. Clara has feminist inclinations and has recently chosen to leave her husband, Baxter, who works at the same factory as Paul. As he comes to know Clara, Paul feels like he is caught in an intractable pull between Clara, Miriam, and his mother. Paul goads Miriam into a physical relationship that she is ambivalent about, but they both find it unfulfilling. He breaks up with her and gets closer to Clara, who seems to be more physically passionate even though she presents herself to the world as distant and aloof. Proving to be too much for Clara, he returns again to Gertrude. In spite of the many travails in his romantic life, Paul knows that his mother will always be waiting for him at home. When asked to imagine a future, his dream is to live in a large house with his mother, rather than with Miriam or Clara.

While Paul is distracted, however, Gertrude becomes sick. She reveals that she has developed a tumor on her side and that she has hidden her pain from her family. Paul is told that the tumor is inoperable, due to his mother’s heart issues. Paul returns home to take care of his mother. As he watches her suffer, he feels his immense love for her and wishes that he could do something for her. He crushes up her morphine pills and mixes them into a cup of hot milk. His mother drinks the concoction, and, the following day, she passes away. Even though he is destroyed by grief, Paul handles the funeral arrangements.

In the wake of his mother’s death, Paul becomes despondent. He drinks heavily and cannot paint. Clara returns to her estranged husband, Baxter. Paul seeks out Miriam, but after a self-reflective conversation, they realize that—even though they seem destined to be together—marriage would only make them miserable. They part.