Derick K. Ariyam
21 October 2008
Paul’s Epistle to Miriam
relationship between Paul Morel and Miriam Leivers in D.H. Lawrence’s novel Sons
and Lovers is—to say it mildly—complicated. However, in a letter positioned
near the end of a chapter entitled “Defeat of Miriam,” Paul Morel finally puts
into words his complex relationship with Miriam. The words reach the reader in
the form of letter sent to Miriam on her 21st birthday. It is an
ambitious letter. It articulates that which seems to escape articulation. It is
plaintively poetic: “May I speak of our old, worn love, this last time.” It
recognizes the competing forces stirring their attraction. And it ultimately
shows a desire by Paul for all to be understood: “Ought I to send this
letter?—I doubt it. But there—it is best to understand” (
In this short analysis, I will take a close look at this specific letter, pointing out some of the insights it provides of the relationship between Paul and Miriam, and why their intimacy is inevitably littered with complication. In addition, apart from the message this short missive conveys within the narrative, it is also a powerful piece of writing. It is a demonstration of the poetical and rhetorical skill of the author D.H. Lawrence, and a testament to the quality of his novel Sons and Lovers—an important and complex work well-situated within the English canon.
To begin, it is first important to consider how this letter is set contextually within the narrative as a whole. The letter appears at the center of the novel, like a ruled divider, separating Paul Morel’s two very significant love affairs: the first with Miriam here and the second with Clara Dawes. Miriam has been a significant person in the life of Paul for several years up until this point. Their relationship has all the outward coquetry and intimate closeness of lovers, though what is glaringly lacking are any of its physical manifestations. It is not that their relationship is cold or lacking in fervor, but that the natural physicality of their relationship is awkward and superficial and has largely been relegated as almost superfluous. Instead, their intimate bond has till this point been predominantly spiritual, ethereal, and in all respects complex. This has been a point of immense frustration to Paul Morel, and now his physical wants and desires are being enflamed by a new interest: Mrs Clara Dawes. Paul has penned this specific letter to Miriam as a form of closure to their past relationship, offering an explanation of what their connection was, and why it can never be between them.
The letter opens up with a series of questions, all laced-in with a sort of poetical rhythm: "May I speak of our old love, this last time. It, too, is changing, is it not? Say, has not the body of that love died, and left you its invulnerable soul?" (292) These rhetorical questions have a certain poetic quality: a technique used by many other writers for similar effect. Consider Shakespeare’s famous “Sonnet 18” for instance: "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" (line 1) Or, John Donne's “The Sun Rises,” which opens: "Busy old fool, unruly Sun/Why dost thou thus/through windows, and through curtains, call on us?"(lines 1-3) Similarly, that same rhythmic poetical chime can be felt in Paul’s first line.
Furthermore, here in these same opening questions, "love” is personified into something beyond an emotion. It is almost organic. It is evolving and “changing” as Paul suggests in the second sentence. And in the last rhetorical question, love seems to have attained similar qualities to what has predominantly been considered human essence: a tangible physical (body) form as well as an insubstantial spirit form. The body of this “being” known as “love,” has died, and the ghost remains haunting in Miriam alone, as Paul suggests, leaving her host to love’s "invulnerable soul." Why has the body died? Why do all bodies die? The answer can obviously be responded to in a number of ways, as there are almost inordinate causes that contribute to the death of a body. Was it a natural death, old age? Theirs has truly been a love that has lasted several years, and could have simply withered away as all organisms do. But, reading on, we discover that Paul cites various other factors to this "death" of the love between then, and this response forms the frame of the argument for why their love can never go any further.
Paul, their peculiar love has never been quite whole, but rather, an inimical
fragmentation. Love, as a sentient being, has been severed into two parts at
the onset of their intimacy: body and spirit. The historical context of this
novel and the dominant religious milieus that pervade most of
The letter then slowly shifts into an indictment. Paul blames Miriam for the bodily death of their love. He accuses her of being a nun: repressing her physical nature in favor of an exclusive spirituality. The label of “nun” is especially hurtful to Miriam; we read this in her reaction a little later on as she rereads the letter: "'You are a nun—you are a nun.' The words went into her heart again and again. Nothing he ever had said had gone into her so deeply, fixedly, like a mortal wound" (293). The nun is an emblem of spirituality, and a symbol of one who cannot be fully intimate with another in the common sense—one who has taken oaths of chastity, and separation from the world. An intimate sexual relationship of a man and a nun can not exist normatively.
Finally, in the relationship between Paul and Miriam, the "body" as an essential element of love is discarded. Paul writes that, "in all our relations no body enters. I do not talk to you through the senses—rather through the spirit" (292). This arrangement cannot long exist, as Paul writes, for "to be always beyond [the] mortal state would be to lose it" (292). This implies that a suppression continually denying the needs of the body results in death—the body being the only part of the essentialness of being that can die. This has long been a worry of Paul's mother Mrs Morel of Miriam throughout the novel: "[Miriam is] not like an ordinary woman, who can leave me my share in him. She wants to absorb him. She wants to draw him out and absorb him till there is nothing left of him, even for himself" (230). Here, Mrs Morel expresses in different words this same sentiment found in Paul’s letter. Her fear is not that Paul will be removed from existence, but that the Paul she loves, her son, will no longer exist as a unified whole, of body and spirit, but instead as something purely spiritual and insubstantial. And while they could go on with this intimacy (as Miriam would like to do), Paul refuses to subject himself to it, calling the thought of such a prolonged engagement, in the letter, "dreadful."
The letter closes with a farewell, "Au revoir." This is an inside remark making reference to Paul and Miriam’s past closeness with each other during their frequent tutoring sessions—French being one of the main subjects. Their intimacy began under the context of tutelage, and her interest in learning, and thereby the letter ends with that same reference (292).
Overall, the letter places an important role in relation to the novel as a whole. It offers in summary to the reader, the compiled moods and suggestions made by many characters, and no doubt even felt by the reader at times during the course of the story. Paul and Miriam's relationship is complicated, clearly, but how this letter captures that essence, and finds the words to describe it, reveals the sheer weight and density of this novel as a masterful work of fiction. The letter's placement divides Paul's two major relationships with women (aside from his mother) from the spiritual with Miriam, to the physical with Clara. In fact, right after this letter is received, and before the chapter closes, the narrative reads: "This was the end of the first phase of Paul's love affair. He was now about twenty-three years old, and, though still virgin, the sex instinct that Miriam had over-refined for so long now grew particularly strong" (294). Paul’s body and physicality is beginning to assert itself from years of repression.
To describe something as ineffable as Paul and Miriam’s relationship requires a carefully constructed and consummately wielded aesthetic approach. The writing in this letter is poetic. It extends a metaphor of “love” as a sentient being alive in two parts: body and spirit. It employs poetical technique used frequently by artists: like the rhetorical opening, as well as an eloquence that succinctly captures the moods and passionate feelings long endured by Paul and Miriam. And it draws on connotative suggestions, like the use of "Au revoir" as an ending or the “nun” as stand-in metaphor for Miriam.
In all, the love between Paul Morel and Miriam Leivers has been complicated, aesthetic, and an abstraction. Therefore, so must any explanation. “Ought I to send this letter?—I doubt it. But there—it is best to understand” (Lawrence 292).
Lawrence, D.H. Sons and Lovers. Ed. Carl Baron and Helen Baron. New York: Penguin