MOTHERS AND SONS in LITERATURE

A child needs your love when he deserves it least – Lionel Shriver’s line from We Need to Talk about Kevin which sums things up so succinctly and entirely that it seems any other words written about mothers and their relationships with their children are redundant.

But of course some of our most famous works of literature have at their heart this extraordinary bond and since in the past ten days or so I have both celebrated my own son’s 26th birthday – and yes, there were fewer than 6 of us there! – and taught HAMLET online to some Chinese students, the mother/son relationship has been very much at the front of my mind.

So HAMLET.

I had exactly one hour in a zoom session to teach the entire play to my two very biddable, conscientious students so things had to be taken at a remarkably rapid pace, to say the least! The teenage girls had already read the play and were prepared with some questions for me – the first being I don’t see why Hamlet had to die – couldn’t the play have had a happy ending? – So after a slight 2 minute diversion into the concept of the tragic hero, the nature of tragedy and pointing out that really, given the ingredients of multiple murders, madness, revenge and suicide, a happy outcome was never really on the cards for either the play or Prince Hamlet,  I had to get them back on track.

And I asked them what they thought of Gertrude. Was Gertrude implicit in the death of her first husband? Did she know about his murder? And then we turned to the scene between Gertrude and Hamlet when he confronts his mother with her re-marriage – for me, an extraordinarily poignant scene that shows maternal concerns and anxieties that are forever relevant.

Now, mother, what’s the matter? Hamlet starts their conversation off with a simple phrase that even the most wary of Shakespeare’s linguistic challenges can’t argue with. But it’s as the scene gets going that I so sympathise with poor Gertrude when she is bewildered by the way her son is speaking to her: What have I done? and then a little later: O speak to me no more… No more sweet Hamlet…No more.  And then her heart-rending Oh Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain. 

Fortunately, I doubt that many – if any – of us will ever be in Gertrude’s situation of confronting their son about murdering his uncle behind the arras – and not only because few of us give house room to an arras – but you get my drift. Gertrude is heartbroken by the lack of connection, by her inability to reach out to her son and help him.

D.H.Lawrence’s SONS AND LOVERS features one of the most famous mother/son relationships in literature with Paul and  Mrs Gertrude Morel – yes, same name as Hamlet’s mum which is not just a coincidence!

Believed to be heavily based on Lawrence’s own experience with his mother we are given a picture of a controlling and intense maternal love that inhibits Paul from forming successful sexual relationships with other women. And perhaps Lawrence’s mother really was like this. Or perhaps not. Perhaps this was just the way Lawrence interpreted his mother’s love and used it to defend his own life experiences – but by portraying Gertrude Morel in this way he established our unshifting view of the real Mrs Lawrence – obsessively loving her son to the point of disturbing jealousy of the women in his life.

But the novel is full of such tender scenes and true emotions- of Gertrude’s maternal pride, love, responsibility – and yet again, her love.

She always felt a mixture of anguish in her love for him. 

As every mother!

And when her oldest son, William, dies from pneumonia, it is hard to read the lines that describe her grief:

Oh, my son – my son! she repeats endlessly and the simplicity says it all.

And  Mrs Morel could not be persuaded, after this, to talk and take her old bright interest in life. She remained shut off.

However common it was at the beginning of the 20th century before the advent of antibiotics for otherwise healthy young people to die of pneumonia, the level of maternal loss was not diminished, Lawrence shows us in the portrayal of Mrs Morel.

Lady Montague does not get a great deal to say in ROMEO AND JULIET. It’s Lady Capulet who has far more to say in her attempts to make her young daughter marry the richly suitable Paris.

But she does have some lines that strike an instant chord with mothers of sons. Just after the first violent dispute on the streets of Verona she says to his sensible, loyal friend, Benvolio:

O where is Romeo? Saw you him today? Right glad I am he was not at this fray.

We all know the feeling …and of course the poor woman, so horrified by her son’s exile to remote Mantua, presumably putting him out of reach forever, gives up the ghost entirely so does not live – just as well – to hear of his tragic end:

My wife is dead tonight, Grief of my son’s exile hath stopped her breath Lord Montague informs everyone on stage at the end.

Dickens seems to have a tendency to portray mothers of sons as either dead and therefore conveniently absent or foolish and a little feckless. Motherless Pip in GREAT EXPECTATIONS is lingering in the graveyard close to the tombstone reading: Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above when he has his first encounter with the convict who is to have such an impact on his life. Young Paul Dombey’s mother unfortunately – for her, but not for the plot, of course – dies soon after his birth too. Clara Copperfield, David’s mother, belongs to the alive, (for a short while, at least) but foolish category in being deceived by dastardly Mr Murdstone. But given Dickens’ treatment of his own wife, Catherine Hogarth, mother of his ten children before he decided to divorce her (don’t get me started on the man – a subject suitable surely for a series of blogs …) his representation of mothers and women generally is, arguably, questionable.

So digging through a few of literature’s representations of the mother-son bond shows our emotions to be ageless and perpetual. At least where Shakespeare, Lawrence and far more recently Lionel Shriver are concerned.

Across the centuries mothers have unconditionally loved, worried, agonised, wondered, feared, loved their sons infinitely and endlessly.

And tried to get it right.

Tried to both hold on to them whilst at the same time freeing them to leave.

Nothing says it better than C. Day- Lewis’ line in his poem WALKING  AWAY – even though, strictly speaking, he’s talking about a father/son bond –

Still, it constantly and forever speaks to me:

How selfhood begins with a walking away,

And love is proved in the letting go. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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