Coal miners’ wives, England, circa 1912.
- Play title: The Daughter-in-Law.
- Author: D. H. Lawrence.
- Written: 1913
- Page count: 111.
The Daughter-in-Law is one of D. H. Lawrence’s early plays and one which was never published or performed in his lifetime. The play’s setting is a mining community in the English East Midlands. Lawrence depicts the lives of Mrs. Gascoigne and her two adult sons with the only other major character being Minnie Hetherington who marries into the family. The focus of the play is the relationship between Luther Gascoigne and his domineering mother and how this overshadows his marriage to Minnie. The major events of the play cover both the public and private spheres, like a miners’ strike as well as a pregnancy out of wedlock. All the scenes are played out in kitchens, either Mrs. Gascoigne’s or Minnie’s. Indeed, Lawrence’s play fits the definition of a British kitchen-sink drama, but his work predates the movement by approximately 40 years. The play is written in the style of naturalism and several characters speak in midlands dialect. In a letter to his literary adviser, Lawrence described The Daughter-in-Law as “neither a comedy nor a tragedy – just ordinary.” Lawrence is best known as a novelist and this play bears a strong thematic resemblance to his famous work, Sons and Lovers.
Ways to access the text: reading.
The full text of The Daughter-in-Law is available to read online via Project Gutenberg Australia. A second possibility is the Open Library which holds several copies but most are part of anthologies so one should search under – D. H. Lawrence plays.
There is no audiobook version of the play to my knowledge.
If you would like help in conjuring up the atmosphere of the play then please watch the short theatre promo for the play on YouTube, entitled, “D.H. Lawrence’s The Daughter-In-Law – Library Theatre Company.”
Why read The Daughter-in-Law?
English regional dialect.
Lawrence writes the dialogue of several of the main characters in the Nottinghamshire dialect. This was originally an obstacle to staging the play and also serves to frustrate a reader unfamiliar with English texts written mostly in dialect. While difficult, the language quickly becomes familiar to a persistent reader. But why should a reader initially trudge through a text that many people would consider obscure in any case? The primary answer is that Mrs. Gascoigne’s use of Nottinghamshire dialect is an essential part of her character, it reveals a woman whose rhetoric is richly expressive, full of wonderful turns of phrase and witticisms. Her speech, and also that of her sons, obviously represents their working-class roots and Lawrence refused to simplify or sanitize such speech for the middle-class theatre audiences of his time. The use of dialect versus standard English also serves to differentiate Mrs. Gascoigne from the younger, more educated woman, Minnie. However, standard versus regional speech does not automatically correspond to a hierarchy of power, or intelligence, or success. Lawrence depicts several formidable women whose speech signals their backgrounds and individual characters. Without dialectical speech, this play would seem inauthentic but that is a realization that one makes only after reading it. Though unfamiliar territory, a reader who comes to grips with the written dialect in the play will be rewarded by what he/she discovers in the play.
The title of Lawrence’s play lays focus on the inevitable changes in a closely knit family caused by marriage. A key question in the work is if the young man involved is ready for marriage. Just like in his novel Sons and Lovers, Lawrence takes a close look at the lasting consequences on men’s lives when they have been raised by strong and charismatic yet domineering woman. Mrs. Gascoigne’s husband died in a mining accident leaving her sole parent to six sons, with just Luther and Joe still living at home at the play’s opening. When Luther marries Minnie then the family is forced to adapt to the changes. Lawrence excels in depicting a complex set of family relationships: mother with son/s, newlyweds with one another, mother-in-law with daughter-in-law, and single brother with sister-in-law. The playwright explores how a son may ostensibly rebel against his mother yet remain securely under her thumb, and why a newlywed woman must not become subservient to her husband’s mother especially when that woman is used to exercising her influence. Crucially, Lawrence shows instances where compromise is vital and the consequences when there is no such compromise. The ending of Lawrence’s play is somewhat ambiguous, and one is left wondering if a domineering mother has simply been replaced by a domineering wife, or have the central characters demonstrably evolved and matured? At the core of the play is Lawrence’s contemplation of the theme of power, who gets to wield power and who must alternately resign power in the context of a family dynamic.
Independence from Mother.
The Daughter-in-Law is a naturalistic play which gives a detailed account of the Gascoignes, a mining family in Nottinghamshire, England. Many readers have noticed that the theme of a mother and son relationship in this particular play echoes Lawrence’s novel, Sons and Lovers, which was in fact written just before the play. D. H. Lawrence also wrote Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious and Fantasia of the Unconscious which were originally published in 1921 and 1922, respectively. These non-fiction works tackle such topics as human consciousness, childhood development, and parental love. Lawrence dismisses many of Sigmund Freud’s theories on the unconscious yet largely agrees with the famous psychologist on the significance of sex and parental influence. What is relevant to readers of Lawrence’s novels and plays, is the obvious interest the author had in the human mind and how, as he wrote, “the goal of life is the coming to perfection of each single individual” (55). In The Daughter-in-Law, the crux of the problem is how a son is to gain independence from his mother. As Lawrence tackled the topic of motherly love in both fiction and non-fiction works, these combined perspectives may be used as an obvious access point for any reader to gain a true grasp of authorial intent. The Daughter-in-Law shows how a family dynamic can somehow go wrong and it is the unravelling of the origin of the flaw that is both fascinating and arduous. With the aid of Lawrence’s non-fiction writings along with insights garnered from other writers of the time on psychology such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung, one may pinpoint the cause of the problem. It is interesting that Lawrence’s own ponderings on psychology came ten years after the play. As he states:
“The novels and poems come unwatched out of one’s pen. And then the absolute need which one has for some sort of satisfactory mental attitude towards oneself and things in general makes one try to abstract some definite conclusions from one’s experiences as a writer and as a man” (Lawrence 71).
It is significant that Lawrence looked back at his own works as the raw material from which one could later draw conclusions, much like a psychologist would discuss a patient’s life to discover key experiences and their meanings. Lawrence was clearly preoccupied by the theme of motherly love and gave shape to his ideas in dramatic form. He approached the topic of motherly love with the aim of portraying its effects within a real-life situation. It is relevant to note that Lawrence had a particularly close relationship with his own mother, Lydia, who incidentally was an educated woman who married a miner. In Lawrence’s non-fiction works on the unconscious, he comes to conclusions on why particular familial relationships have specific outcomes. This essay will utilize quotes from the play, The Daughter-in-Law, and additional material from Lawrence and other writers to clearly set out the core points and interpretative conclusions one can credibly make about the Gascoigne family dynamic. It is hoped that the interpretation will not stray from the message Lawrence was aiming to communicate in his depiction of the poor mining family. The structure of the essay is that the main characters of Mrs. Gascoigne, Luther, Minnie, and Joe will be discussed individually at some length, before concluding with a brief general overview of the play’s key points.
D.H. Lawrence depicts Mrs. Gascoigne as a powerful figure at the centre of the play. In his work, Fantasia of the Unconscious, Lawrence goes into some detail about the relationships between mothers and sons. He quotes a line from the poet William Ross Wallace that epitomizes a mother’s power, “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world” (170). Given Lawrence’s obvious interest in psychology, we may approach the play from the aspect of mother and son interactions and influences. An analysis of Mrs. Gascoigne may be supported by Lawrence’s own writings on psychology, as well as references to works by Carl Jung. At the outset, it must be admitted that the analysis will look at Mrs. Gascoigne’s influence solely in her role as a mother, as the one who shapes her sons and ultimately impedes on their adult relationships with women. Yet, this is how Mrs. Gascoigne’s character is highlighted in the play, as the woman who is blamed for Luther’s faults by Minnie and indeed by Joe too for his own problems. A key question is what lies at the root of Mrs. Gascoigne’s personality, why she acts as she does? She is clearly an assertive and domineering woman, but she exhibits these traits most clearly in her primary role as a mother. If one refers to Carl Jung who wrote on the “mother archetype” (82) then one finds a description of women who suffer from “hypertrophy of the maternal instinct” (87). Jung explains this term as follows:
“The exaggeration of the feminine side means an intensification of all female instincts, above all the maternal instinct. The negative aspect is seen in the woman whose only goal is childbirth. To her the husband is obviously of secondary importance; he is first and foremost the instrument of procreation, and she regards him merely as an object to be looked after, along with children, poor relations, cats, dogs, and household furniture. Even her own personality is of secondary importance; she often remains entirely unconscious of it, for her life is lived in and through others, in more or less complete identification with all the objects of her care. First she gives birth to the children, and from then on she clings to them, for without them she has no existence whatsoever” (87).
This description clearly matches one’s impression of Mrs. Gascoigne. She is the mother of six sons and prides herself on how she has provided a stable home for them even after her husband died in a mining accident many years ago. She is apparently selfless, kept busy with household chores and guiding as best she can her two sons who still live at home. When this older woman gives advice to Minnie about men, she makes an observation that corresponds with Jung’s classification of such women as obsessive carers who treat adult men in much the same manner as children. Mrs. Gascoigne advises Minnie that:
“Children they are, these men, but, my word, they’re revengeful children. Children men is a’ the days o’ their lives. But they’re master of us women when their dander’s up, an’ they pay us back double an’ treble — they do — an’ you mun allers expect it.”
This quote from Mrs. Gascoigne proves complex when investigated fully. She presents herself as one in eternal servitude to her menfolk, which crucially means that she is also the eventual target of their tantrums. Indeed, it is as if her life has no purpose outside of caring for her menfolk which requires her to play a supporting role rather than the person at the forefront. However, Mrs. Gascoigne is also clearly infantilizing the men, viewing them as eternal, unruly children. As such, her advice to Minnie rings false because it comes from such an assertive, controlling woman. Jung reveals the emotional price attached to such intense mother and son relationships, explaining that the bond is almost poisonous.
“Women of this type, though continually ‘living for others,’ are, as a matter of fact, unable to make any real sacrifice. Driven by ruthless will to power and a fanatical insistence on their own maternal rights, they often succeed in annihilating not only their own personality but also the personal lives of their children” (Jung 88).
It may seem strange that Lawrence, a man who had an unusually strong bond with his own mother and also came from a working-class coal mining district, should so blatantly critique a character like Mrs. Gascoigne. The playwright’s depiction of Mrs. Gascoigne strongly resembles Jung’s psychological profile of such women who have a “ruthless will to power.” It seems clear that Lawrence wishes to dismantle a seemingly invincible woman through an exposition of her faults and thus reveal to the audience the problems of such women’s influence over their sons. The writer is critiquing mother-love, and he shows that it is not always benign. In Fantasia of the Unconscious, Lawrence looks at the initial causes of distortions in mother and son relationships. He argues that a woman who is unhappy or unsatisfied in her marriage, “throws herself into a last great love for her son, a final and fatal devotion, that which would have been the richness and strength of her husband and is poison to her boy” (201). In this way, Lawrence is confronting the toxic side of motherly devotion which Jung, focusing on the archetypes of the unconscious mind, describes as follows:
“On the negative side the mother archetype may connote anything secret, hidden, dark; the abyss, the world of the dead, anything that devours, seduces, and poisons, that is terrifying and inescapable like fate” (82).
Fortunately, Lawrence does not make Mrs. Gascoigne into a caricature of the old, domineering crone. Instead, he reveals the hundred and one ways that her influence, manifestations of her core personality type, have injured her two sons who still live with her at the play’s opening. In this way, the play is a valuable insight into a common family dynamic clearly based on the Oedipal complex. The play is at once a realistic portrayal of an individual coal mining family and also a crucial insight into the psychology of the situation. What Lawrence does is reveal a more objective view of mother love, showing that it is not always a wholly positive influence. Jung summarizes the stereotype of mother love which indeed forms an almost god given truth in our minds which must be tackled.
“The positive aspect of the first type of complex, namely the overdevelopment of the maternal instinct, is identical with that well-known image of the mother which has been glorified in all ages and all tongues. This is the mother-love which is one of the most moving and unforgettable memories of our lives, the mysterious root of all growth and change; the love that means homecoming, shelter, and the long silence from which everything begins and in which everything ends” (Jung 92).
In The Daughter-in-Law, the playwright gives free reign to dissenting voices, most obviously Minnie’s but also Joe’s, to slowly challenge the ideal of mother love. While such a challenge may seem outdated to present day readers, Lawrence was tackling this issue in 1913 and also within the context of a working-class family where many would view other issues as more significant. Mrs. Gascoigne lies at the heart of a cause-and-effect dilemma and one which makes readers slightly uncomfortable because the primary carer is also the person excoriated as the source of all problems! It is initially through her oldest son’s perceived faults that we begin to view Mrs. Gascoigne in a different light.
One of Luther Gascoigne’s most prominent traits is his lack of expressiveness. A reader relies heavily on the descriptions, often harsh critiques, that others apply to Luther. It is of interest that Lawrence chooses to portray the miner in such a way, emphasizing his character’s submissive nature. Luther’s lack of assertiveness is one of his core weaknesses and his taciturn and passive character make him difficult to assess because he reveals so little. Like with Mrs. Gascoigne, it is best to investigate what possible reasons lie behind Luther’s character traits. Lawrence, Jung, and Freud all write about the topic of mother and son relationships, and each has a distinctive approach, but all three tend to agree that when a parent forms too close a bond with their child before puberty then it often leads to lifelong problems. We know that Mrs. Gascoigne’s husband died leaving her as sole parent, and we also know how Minnie criticizes Mrs. Gascoigne for all of Luther’s faults, but is it legitimate to lay the blame on the elderly mother? One may take quotes from all three writers, Lawrence, Jung, and Freud, to discern the problems of what Lawrence himself calls “the bond of adult love” (196) that sometimes forms between mother and son.
- “It is a sort of incest. It is a dynamic spiritual incest, more dangerous than sensual incest, because it is more intangible and less instinctively repugnant” (Lawrence 196).
- “For the son, the anima is hidden in the dominating power of the mother, and sometimes she leaves him with a sentimental attachment that lasts throughout life and seriously impairs the fate of the adult” (Jung 29).
- “Of course, too much parental tenderness becomes harmful because it accelerates the sexual maturity, and also because it ‘spoils’ the child and makes it unfit to temporarily renounce love or be satisfied with a smaller amount of love in later life” (Freud 97).
A summation of these views leaves one with the figure of a domineering mother who engages in a form of bonding with her son/s that may be classified as “spiritual incest,” and which potentially leads to relationship problems in adult life. Luther does exhibit the character traits of a boy who has an indulgent mother and as Lawrence writes, “then the child will be all gentle, all tender and tender-radiant, always enfolded with gentleness and forbearance, always shielded from grossness or pain or roughness” (112). It is evident that Luther has not learned to assert himself, to defend himself, or to express himself in an adult fashion. It is obviously difficult to objectively critique the mother love exhibited in a family setting, but we do witness Luther’s problems as an adult. Through a series of observations, we may come to view Luther’s problems as indeed sourced in his childhood and caused by his overbearing mother.
It is possible to classify Luther’s shortcomings under three headings: career, assertiveness, and marriage. Luther is a 31-year-old miner but as his mother tells Joe, “there’s Luther nowt b’r a day man yet” signifying his lack of career progress. Minnie similarly criticizes her husband when he says he is going on strike by adding her sarcastic question, “and will this strike make a butty of you?” Minnie says that other men progress because they have some “go in them” but that he’s satisfied with a low-level job because, “that’s what your mother did for you — mardin’ you up till you were all mard-soft.” This criticism links to Luther’s lack of assertiveness in all areas of his life as assessed by those closest to him. For example, Joe comments derogatorily on Luther’s lack of enthusiasm when courting Minnie, saying “I reckon he niver showed the spunk of a sprat-herring to ‘er [Minnie].” Later, when Minnie sees her husband covered in coal dust, black-face, she says, “you don’t look nearly such a tame rabbit, in your pit-dirt.” Luther’s brother and wife have unflattering perceptions of him as a man with no drive and tame like a pet. It is true that Luther is always the docile party, both in his marriage and with his mother. Not only does Luther take his mother’s advice that he is too young for marriage at 22, but he leaves it to his fiancé, Minnie, to propose to him in the end. When Luther tries to defend himself to Minnie saying that he proposed twice previously, she retorts, “axed me! It was like asking me to pull out a tooth for you.” It is noteworthy that once Luther is married to Minnie, he complains about his marriage to Joe and to Mrs. Purdy, and he even expresses regret at marrying Minnie, but he never admits this to his mother. With his wife, Luther always adopts a passive or passive-aggressive attitude even when she threatens to leave him over the Bertha affair when he just responds, “I non care what ter does. If ter leaves me.” His marriage is not a success, and he cannot confess this to the one person who warned him against marrying Minnie, namely his mother, the most important influence in his life. It is ironic that the woman responsible for many of Luther’s faults and by extension, for his marriage problems, seems to have been right about his misguided choice of partner. However, one must appreciate that for Mrs. Gascoigne, losing her sons to marriage is the equivalent of losing a part of herself and for that reason she devalues such a union, advising that, “marriage is like a mouse-trap, for either man or woman. You’ve soon come to th’ end o’ th’ cheese.” It is difficult not to view Luther’s shortcomings as the result of a mother who never wishes to see her son gain independence, who metaphorically clipped his wings so that he would be unable to ever leave her.
The crux of Luther’s difficulties falls under the heading of manhood. Ideas of manhood and masculinity have changed significantly since Lawrence wrote the play in 1913. However, in terms of Lawrence’s own writings, Luther is an unusually passive character and seems to have adopted the passive role in his marriage formerly seen as the female role. Lawrence had clear views that men should be masculine, and women feminine, and he stated that, “a child is born with one sex only, and remains always single in his sex. There is no intermingling, only a great change of roles is possible. But man in the female role is still male” (174). Therefore, in Lawrence’s portrayal of Luther, he is signalling a fault as he would have understood it. The clearest indications that Luther is not acting in an assertive, manly fashion are his passive acceptance of Minnie’s marriage proposal and later, his equally passive acceptance that she may leave the marriage if she wishes. Marriage signifies a new stage in a person’s adult life so entering or leaving such a union as a disempowered figure, almost a bystander, is clearly a sign of a problem. Minnie also constantly chastises and belittles Luther in the marriage, telling him that he “talk[s] like a fool,” is “lazy” and is a “coward.” However, the main insult is when Minnie tells Luther that, “no, you’re not a man” and this derogatory remark is explained by the comment, “it’s your mother’s doing. She mollycoddled and marded you till you weren’t a man — and now — I have to pay for it.” When Minnie learns that Luther has impregnated Bertha Purdy, she dismisses the girl as a mere simpleton and asserts that it is probably not even his child, that Bertha just chose him to accept the responsibility because he is “so soft” and that he would be flattered by the idea of his male prowess. Yet, Luther never retaliates in word or action even though he does clearly get angry at times. When Luther complains to Joe about Minnie, we glimpse how another man would deal with the situation because Joe says, “by the Lord, she’d cop it if I had ‘er.” The marriage is lopsided in regard to who has power and control. Lawrence warns that, “with wife or husband, you should never swallow your bile. It makes you go all wrong inside” (280). Overall, Lawrence depicts a man who has not matured sufficiently to cope with the challenges of adult life. In traditional terms, he has not become a man. Yet, if Luther is indeed such a weak, unambitious character, then why does someone like Minnie choose to marry him?
Minnie is the daughter-in-law referred to in the play’s title. Her importance may be gauged by the level of imposition felt by her new family, the Gascoignes. Minnie has obvious advantages like education and a career, but she also has a strong personality. She comes from the same town as the Gascoignes, but she is considered supercilious by locals. Mrs. Purdy describes Minnie as “haughty” and in somewhat more colourful language adds that she’s “a stuck-up piece o’ goods as ever trod.” A more objective assessment might be that Minnie is a proud young woman. She has worked as a nursery governess for several years in Manchester prior to marrying Luther and she noticeably speaks standard English rather than local dialect. More importantly, Minnie is an independent woman not only due to her career but also due to a small inheritance of one hundred pounds from her late uncle and some other savings of her own. When she is first introduced in the play, the description of her is, “a tall, good-looking young woman.” While Minnie’s poise and refined speech may seem arrogant to those in the mining town, she is clearly an intelligent and attractive young woman. This contrasts sharply with the assertion first made by Mrs. Gascoigne that Minnie settled for Luther because she could not find a better man, saying, “an’ when she fun as nob’dy was for sale but our Luther, she says, “Well, I’ll take it.” The key question of why Minnie married the unambitious and taciturn Luther becomes almost a refrain in the play.
The young couple’s courting history is long and complicated. Mrs. Gascoigne reveals that Luther proposed to Minnie when he was twenty-two years old, but Minnie declined his offer, pursuing her career instead. Mrs. Gascoigne has been consistently against the match, initially because Luther was too young, and later paradoxically because Minnie had waited too long and apparently just could not get herself “a town johnny, a Bertie-Willie an’ a yard o’ cuffs.” When Luther reveals the news of Bertha’s pregnancy to Minnie, she angrily responds, “so — this was what I waited for you for!” The statement indicates that Minnie was always the pursuer in the relationship and the proof is that her final marriage proposal made via letter to Luther was the successful one. The doubts about Minnie’s true motivation for getting married are not only based on Mrs. Gascoigne’s scurrilous assertions that Minnie settled for Luther. Indeed, during a previous argument with Luther, Minnie criticizes Luther’s work ethic along with his half-hearted marriage proposals until an exasperated Luther legitimately asks why she did marry him, and her sharp response is – “because I could get nobody better.” However, one must ask if such a statement is credible? Admittedly, one suspects that Minnie must in fact have subdued her pride, not only to marry a man who showed little enthusiasm for the match, but because she also had to propose to him to finalize the match. Then when Luther reveals he got Bertha Purdy pregnant, Minnie does not automatically threaten to leave him as one might expect, but only broaches the topic of separation due to Luther’s total apathy. Minnie wanted the marriage and intends to stay in the marriage, but Luther’s passivity is a constant problem. Minnie’s assertions that she could do no better than him seem little more than antagonistic remarks to hurl against her docile husband. Yet, one must question the marriage further to reveal its allure for Minnie or if indeed she had not better option.
While Minnie and Luther’s marriage is strained, there is certainly mutual sexual attraction. This partially explains Minnie’s bond with Luther. Let us not forget that Minnie has worked in Manchester and is friends with educated men like her former employer, Mr. Westlake, the man who assists her in choosing the three art prints she later buys. She has her own occupation as a governess and may return to her work if she chooses. She is noticeably different because she speaks in standard English rather than the dialect of her hometown and region. One would suspect that such a woman would gravitate towards a more refined man than a manual labourer. Luther is certainly not an obvious match for her because he is an uneducated coal miner with little or no ambition. Minnie obviously chooses Luther, and their sexual chemistry is key to this choice. In Act One, scene two, we witness how the couple exchange compliments at home and how Minnie is fascinated by Luther in all his dirt and coal dust when he returns from the mine. She notes how red his lips are in his blackened face, and then Luther adds a description of himself as though he inhabits Minnie’s thoughts – “it ma’es you look like a nigger, i’ your pit-dirt — th’ whites o’ your eyes!” Luther’s description conjures up the old stereotype of black men and sexual prowess, clearly prompted by Minnie’s focus on the redness of Luther’s lips and whiteness of his teeth, “it’s your mouth — it looks so red and bright, in your black face.” Minnie is seemingly aroused by her husband’s appearance as she adds the piquant remark that “it’s almost like having a stranger.” Luther’s identity as a hard-working coal miner is read by Minnie as a sign of true masculinity, and for a moment, he is not the “tame rabbit” she has begun to label him. Many writers of the era, Lawrence included, noted the physical beauty of miner’s bodies which was a result of their hard physical work. It is important to note that sexual attraction plays a key role in the bond between the newlyweds especially since they are not an obvious match in other respects. One could view Minnie’s constant haranguing of Luther as an attempt to ignite a more obvious masculine response in him, to arouse a more formidable character with whom she can spar.
Minnie knows Luther for at least nine years before marrying him. One presumes that she could have married a middle-class gentleman, or even a different coal miner, given that she is young, intelligent, and good looking. Mrs. Gascoigne’s speculation that Minnie settled for Luther does not withstand much scrutiny. However, sexual attraction alone does not seem a sufficient reason for waiting so long for Luther, especially given his lacklustre responses during courtship. Then, once the couple are married, Minnie’s expectations of Luther contrast sharply with her knowledge of him over the many years. This begs the question – what does Minnie want of Luther? When Minnie argues with Mrs. Gascoigne over Luther’s shortcomings, Minnie states, “I’ll have a man, or nothing, I will.” Minnie holds Mrs. Gascoigne responsible for Luther’s faults, saying:
“It was your fault. You held him, and persuaded him that what he wanted was you. You kept him, like a child, you even gave him what money he wanted, like a child. He never roughed it — he never faced out anything. You did all that for him.”
To understand such a charge, we may return to what Lawrence wrote about parents who establish too close a bond with their children, “you have got your child as sure as if you had woven its flesh again with your own. You have done what it is vicious for any parent to do: you have established between your child and yourself the bond of adult love” (196). Lawrence goes on to explain the detrimental consequences for such children’s later adult relationships, writing that, “you will not easily get a man to believe that his carnal love for the woman he has made his wife is as high a love as that he felt for his mother or sister. The cream is licked off from life before the boy or the girl is twenty” (205). Minnie recognizes the ill effects of Luther’s over intoxication with mother love. Minnie tells of how Mrs. Gascoigne bossed Luther, made decisions for him, and made him overly dependent on her. Of course, Mrs. Gascoigne defends her son out of love but also because by defending him she also defends herself. Mrs. Gascoigne tells Minnie that, “I canna see as you’re so badly off. You’ve got a husband as doesn’t drink, as waits on you hand and foot, as gives you a free hand in everything. It’s you as doesn’t know when you’re well off, madam.” In fact, both women know Luther’s character quite well and what Mrs. Gascoigne says is not contradicted by Minnie. The issue here is fundamentally about control because Minnie complains, “how is a woman ever to have a husband, when the men all belong to their mothers? It’s wrong.” At the conclusion of the play, Minnie is in conversation again with Mrs. Gascoigne, and she says “don’t keep him [Luther] from me. It leaves me so — with nothing — not even trouble.” Minnie seeks to break the incredibly strong bond between Mrs. Gascoigne and her son, but she makes the request of the person she understands holds the power, the power over Luther that Minnie herself desires. Lawrence writes very insightfully on the crucial difference between the submissive love a mother may give within a family versus the love a married woman expects in her marriage.
“No woman will give to a stranger that which she gives to her son, her father, or her brother: that beautiful and glamorous submission which is truly the wife- submission. To a stranger, a husband, a woman insists on being queen, goddess, mistress, the positive, the adored, the first and foremost and the one and only. This she will not ask from her near blood-kin. Of her blood-kin, there is always one she will love devotedly” (Lawrence 205).
This interpretation of the potency of mother love as understood in the context of Lawrence’s play leads one to a grave conclusion. It appears that Minnie enters verbal combat with Mrs. Gascoigne with the chief aim of gaining full control of Luther. This does not discount the sexual chemistry between Minnie and Luther, and one must indeed acknowledge their long courtship. However, it is implausible that Minnie does not know what kind of man Luther is, and therefore she has indeed chosen him precisely for the good points that his mother makes about his character. The thorn in Minnie’s side is Luther’s attachment to his mother and therefore the resulting split in his loyalties, namely between family and marriage. It is evident that Luther’s character will not change now regardless of his adult relationship with his mother so one suspects that many of Minnie’s major criticisms of her husband will be repeated to infinity. Through Minnie’s negotiations with Mrs. Gascoigne, she is signalling that she is indeed replacing the older woman in Luther’s affections and thus one domineering woman is replaced by her younger rival. What Minnie sees in Luther is someone who will abdicate his power to her, just as he did with his mother, and so the cycle continues. This is a somewhat unromantic reading of the situation but seems to follow the message of Lawrence’s play which is a caution against close family relationships of the mother and son variety. Why Luther chooses a woman with Minnie’s personality is not a puzzle – she is an image of his own mother to which he is unconsciously drawn.
Joe Gascoigne is one of the most compelling figures in Lawrence’s play. Joe is Mrs. Gascoigne’s youngest son, aged approximately 26 years old and of handsome appearance. In comparison to the passive, even apathetic Luther, the younger brother Joe is assertive, ambitious, and seems unaffected by the negative aspects of motherly love. This young miner has plans to emigrate to Australia and is considered somewhat of a ladies’ man. However, Lawrence shows that even though families may contain individuals of contrasting character, an overbearing mother will still unavoidably shape her children. Carl Jung writes that, “the effects of the mother-complex differ according to whether it appears in a son or a daughter” (85) and he notes that one of the effects on sons is the emergence of what he labels “Don Juanism” (85) where the son “unconsciously seeks his mother in every woman he meets” (85). Freud asserts a similar theory that sons seek replacements for their mothers in romantic relationships, writing that, “it is not without good reason that the suckling of the child at its mother’s breast has become a model for every amour. The object-finding is really a re-finding” (95). Luther confirms that Joe is promiscuous when he recalls his own lack of sexual activity but says, “our Joe wor more that way than me.” Even though Joe may be quite sexually active, he is also apparently discerning in his choice of women. The evidence of this comes when Minnie berates Luther about Bertha Purdy, the so called “sawney” or simpleton. Minnie observes that Joe would never settle for such a woman. This statement of Minnie’s confirms that Joe prefers intelligent and articulate women, women like his own mother who are redoubtable. However, “Don Juanism” is not the only indication of Joe’s bond with his mother. In the opening scene of the play, we witness Mrs. Gascoigne cutting Joe’s dinner meat and spoon feeding her adult son. One could feebly excuse this act given that Joe’s right arm is in a sling, but it is noteworthy that Mrs. Gascoigne initiates the role play and it is not the result of a request from Joe. Lawrence is depicting a case of infantilization and the playwright underscores the relevance of the scene with Mrs. Gascoigne’s joke that, “it’s a rum un as I should start ha’in’ babies again, an’ feedin’ ’em wi’ spoon-meat.” The scene perfectly encapsulates the relationship between mother and son, especially when Mrs. Gascoigne proceeds to quiz Joe on his attempts to secure accident pay and then critiques, albeit jokingly, his actions and negotiating skills. There is clearly an unusually close bond between Joe and his mother.
Lawrence makes Joe a distinctive character in several respects, but one key point is that Joe is painfully aware of his unhealthy link with his own mother. This is not revealed until Minnie is arguing with Mrs. Gascoigne, and remarks that, “your elder sons you let go, and they are husbands. But your young sons you’ve kept.” As the topic is Mrs. Gascoigne’s control over her sons then Joe is naturally brought into the discussion with Minnie commenting that he is not fit to get married. Surprisingly, Joe agrees with Minnie’s criticism of him. Joe exhibits true insight into his predicament as he understands it, addressing his mother as follows:
“Tha knows I couldna leave thee, Mother — tha knows I couldna. An’ me, a young man, belongs to thy owd age. An’ there’s nowheer for me to go, Mother. For tha’rt gettin’ nearer to death an’ yet I canna leave thee to go my own road. An’ I wish, yi, often, as I wor dead.”
It is a striking confession from a man who seems a well-rounded adult. One may comfortably presume for much of the play that Joe is a quite capable and soon to be independent young man. However, by finally stripping away Joe’s façade of confidence, Lawrence is drawing attention to the ill effects of what is most easily classified as the Oedipal complex. Additionally, Lawrence makes Joe the truth-teller of the play and the fact that the young man has a good insight into his own flaws means that he may be treated by the reader as an objective voice in the play.
Joe is instrumental in bringing the plot of The Daughter-in-Law to its resolution. One may view this young man’s influence under three key headings, namely, information, argumentation, and confrontation. Information becomes a weapon in the play as proven by Mrs. Gascoigne’s desire to use the news of Bertha’s pregnancy to punish Minnie. Mrs. Gascoigne commands that, “Mrs. Purdy, give it her [Minnie]. It’ll take her down a peg or two, and, my sirs, she wants it, my sirs, she needs it!” Yet, Mrs. Gascoigne is regularly deprived of information by her secretive sons signalling their fear of her. Only Joe has an overview of all that is truly happening in the family. He holds three crucial pieces of information which he shares with his mother but only at a strategic moment when revelations are necessary for his own aims. These revelations are, firstly, that Luther and Minnie already have marital problems prior to Bertha’s news, secondly, the contents of Luther’s letter in reply to Minnie’s marriage proposal, and thirdly, the confirmation by Joe of Mrs. Purdy’s story about Luther and Bertha’s affair. The information is not provided to win favour with his mother but instead to create a solid and convincing counterargument to Mrs. Gascoigne’s. It is Mrs. Gascoigne’s intent to orchestrate a scene where Minnie is confronted with the news of Luther’s unfaithfulness based on her sole argument that Minnie deserves this fate because she made Luther wait too long before marrying him. Mrs. Gascoigne’s attempts to use Mrs. Purdy’s daughter’s misfortune to punish Minnie is clearly unjust in Joe’s view.
Mrs. Gascoigne’s chief argument relies on timelines, primarily the inordinate waiting period before the young couple’s marriage. Luther’s mother cleverly absolves herself of responsibility for her son’s errors, saying, “my son’s my son till he takes him a wife,” an’ no longer.” But the timeline tells a different truth because the couple are married just six weeks, Minnie’s proposal was three months ago, but Bertha is four months pregnant. Luther was still a single man and living with his mother when he had a tryst with Bertha Purdy. Since Joe disagrees with his mother’s argument, he uses information, including some comments derogatory to Luther, as a means of convincing Mrs. Purdy not to follow his mother’s advice. He criticizes Luther instead of Minnie for the slow marriage because his brother “slormed” meaning that his courtship lacked vigour. Joe goes on to name the gang of friends who frequented “Th’ Ram” bar and says, “Jim Horrocks is ter blame fer couplin’ ‘er [Bertha] onter our Luther, an’ him an’ her’s ter blame for the rest. I dunno how you can lay it on Minnie.” Joe also quite reasonably asserts that Luther had no way of knowing that Bertha would actually fall pregnant. In short, Joe tries to avert disaster by convincing Mrs. Purdy that the whole sorry affair is the result of Luther’s lackadaisical character, a bad crowd, and bad luck. Minnie is the innocent party in Joe’s presentation. It is a robust argument which tackles each aspect of his mother’s rhetoric. Additionally, Joe actively seeks a solution to the problem by suggesting a payment to Mrs. Purdy’s daughter, negotiating the appropriate sum, offering to pay it himself, and always emphasizing the importance of secrecy to Mrs. Purdy. In fact, Joe solves the problem except for one major obstacle – Mrs. Gascoigne controls both her sons’ savings and refuses to release the money to Joe, even though it is his own money.
Even though Joe appears beholden to his mother, he is not afraid to contradict and even confront her at times. Mrs. Gascoigne becomes increasingly exasperated with Joe’s contradictory stance to hers in regard to Minnie’s responsibility and she attempts to silence her son using her power as matriarch, saying – “what has thee ter say, I should like to know? Fed an’ clothed an’ coddled, tha art, an’ not a thing tha lacks.” It is manipulative for a mother to use her son’s dependency as a coercive tool especially when the last thing she wishes is for him to become independent. Despite Joe’s best efforts, Mrs. Purdy does finally agree to Mrs. Gascoigne’s plan, but Joe never gives up arguing his point that Minnie should not be told of Bertha’s pregnancy. Mrs. Gascoigne’s annoyance is obvious, and she chides Joe, saying, “I could fetch thee a wipe ower th’ face, I could!” As Joe’s initial plan has failed, he cleverly goes to Luther’s house the following day with the intention of making Minnie so angry, by breaking her crockery, that she exits the house before Mrs. Purdy arrives. In this scene, Joe is shown to outmanoeuvre Minnie for her own good, then he breaks the news of Bertha to Luther as well as school his brother on the agreement to make with Mrs. Purdy. In short, Joe succeeds in dismantling his mother’s plan. It is only because of Luther’s drunken revelation that Minnie finds out about Bertha’s pregnancy, not because of any flaw in Joe’s meticulous planning. The key turning point of the play involves a final confrontation that eventually secures a lasting peace in the family. The scene is set when Joe acts upon Luther’s suggestion that a woman may be hired to do the housework instead of Minnie who has apparently abandoned her husband. Joe’s departure from the house to arrange the services of “Lizzie Charley” infuriates not only his mother but Minnie too. In a clever comparison, Joe says Luther may hire someone to do his housework just as the mine bosses hire “blacklegs” to do the miners’ work. The metaphor of a strike breaker works well in the domestic debacle. Mrs. Gascoigne is advised by Joe not to play the role of blackleg i.e. not interfere in the young couple’s marriage, and also, Minnie’s home labour is covertly given a monetary value. In regard to Mrs. Gascoigne, Joe is effectively telling her that she needs to stop interfering in Luther’s married life which is a long overdue rebuke. For Minnie, the effect of the insult is quite different because by placing a monetary value on the household duties of a wife, Joe cleverly deflates Minnie’s exaggerated sense of her own importance by coldly showing her that she can be replaced easily and at a meagre cost. As soon as Lizzie Charley has been advised that her services are not needed, Minnie instantly re-assumes her domestic role, suggesting, “we’ll have some tea, should we?” and unusually refers to Mrs. Gascoigne as “mother” while engaging her in polite conversation. Joe, who is just an ordinary miner, is shown to be exceptionally cunning because he manipulates the situation to force a result that finally sets everything in its proper place.
Lawrence’s play provides an engaging critique of mother love in the context of a poor, mining family. The playwright portrays two quite different men who have one thing in common, an unhealthy attachment to their mother. The story that Lawrence presents to his readers is a variation on an old theme of mother and son relationships. Carl Jung writes of the potency of the mother and son relationship as follows:
It is very telling that Mrs. Gascoigne compares her role as carer of her sons with that of a new wife who will replace her. She says of Minnie’s relationship with Luther, “let her make him as good a wife as I made him a mother! The comment seems innocuous until later when Luther is drunkenly arguing with Minnie and he says, “‘er wor nice wi’ me, which is a thing tha’s niver bin” which Minnie misinterprets as a reference to his mother and responds, “you only want your mother to rock you to sleep.” However, the woman Luther is referring to is the woman he got pregnant, Bertha Purdy. In the context of the play, Minnie’s presumption that Luther is speaking of his mother when he is actually speaking of his lover helps emphasize the incestuous nature of the too close mother and son bond. As already discussed, it is common for sons of domineering women to seek a partner who reflects their mother. As Lawrence himself states, one is not referring to sexual relations between mother and son but an unusually close sympathetic bond which is gravely harmful. Also, Mrs. Gascoigne’s view that she is being replaced leads to a heightened defensiveness of the bond she has with her adult sons, a bond that is even more insidious since it has existed since their births. When Minnie argues with Mrs. Gascoigne over her control of Luther, the older woman retorts to Minnie, “you talk like a jealous woman” which also signals that both women are vying for Luther’s love.
While Luther turns out to be a taciturn, introverted character who leaves his mother only to live with a woman who is equally assertive and domineering, Joe is quite different. In Joe, Lawrence presents us with a handsome, intelligent, resourceful, masculine figure but one whose life ambitions are spanceled by his bond with his mother. While one may more easily dismiss Luther as a failure, Joe’s example demands that a reader look more closely at the influence of the often-unquestioned love of the mother figure. If the play has a single message, then it is how a man’s whole life may be overshadowed by a type of motherly love that acts as a poison rather than nourishment.
The ending of the play is sometimes read as a depiction of a family at peace, bought at the price of compromise. Mrs. Gascoigne and Minnie certainly appear to have reached a truce but both women have accepted certain realities as opposed to any show of generous compromise. In fact, there is little true evidence of characters compromising or transforming. One possible exception is the men’s action against the mine bosses in the closing scenes. Joe is the instigator of the attack, saying, “but we non goin’ ter ha’e it, are we, Luther, these ‘ere blacklegs goin’ down interferin’.” Then, both men go out at night to thwart the blacklegs in the mining district and as Luther says when he returns home, all bloodied, “we stopped them blacklegs — leastways.” As such, Joe, and more surprisingly, Luther, give an eventual show of traditional masculine bravery. This may indeed be interpreted as a transformation of Luther given that he has been repeatedly accused by his wife of not being a real man. Lawrence had very traditional views on male and female roles in marriage and he believed a good marriage was only possible if the man has a clear goal in life outside of the home. As Luther and Joe go out to stop strike breakers with the ultimate goal of improving miners’ wages and conditions then they are enacting their political beliefs as normal working men. Lawrence believed that a man should not look to his wife as the major interest in life, writing that:
“No man ever had a wife unless he served a great predominant purpose. Otherwise, he has a lover, a mistress. No matter how much she may be married to him, unless his days have a living purpose, constructive or destructive, but a purpose beyond her and all she stands for; unless his days have this purpose, and his soul is really committed to his purpose, she will not be a wife, she will be only a mistress and he will be her lover” (283).
As Mrs. Gascoigne is the one who originally unmanned her sons then she is not the one to rectify the problem. Luther’s “predominant purpose” as Lawrence calls it becomes the welfare of the mining workers for whom he fights. Yet, this awakening of masculinity is clearly prompted by his younger brother Joe who suggests the action. We also witness Minnie’s actions where she seeks to force a change in Luther’s character. Minnie deliberately transforms her cash savings into material objects, an engagement ring and three art prints, on the pretence that it puts her in “the same boat as other men’s wives now.” Her goal is to make a man of Luther, to force him to provide for her and her ultimatum is professed in front of all the family – “if he can provide, he must, and if he can’t, he must tell me so, and I’ll go back into service, and not be a burden to him.” Mrs. Gascoigne astutely reads Minnie’s act as being “high and mighty” and chastises Minnie regarding Luther’s feelings, “tha doesna care how he takes it.” There is clearly a demand being made of Luther to change.
The play closes with an image of Luther, wounded after the attack on the blacklegs, and in tears due to the emotional strain of the previous days. He is held in his wife’s arms and she has just said, “trust yourself to me. Let me have you now for my own.” In the other household, Joe goes home and his mother follows him to take care of him, knowing that he will never leave her. In both houses, a man’s life is ruled by a more assertive, domineering individual, be it wife or mother. In regard to characters transforming or compromising, the only character who is really asked to change is Luther, the most docile and accommodating of all the characters in the play. As such, Lawrence’s depiction of mother love is of something quite malign and oppressive but also practically invisible until one looks at the long-term repercussions as evidenced by Luther’s marriage. The price to be paid by both sons, as evidenced in The Daughter-in-Law, is freedom.
Freud, Sigmund. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, David De Angelis, 2018.
Jung, C. J. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. The Collected Works of C. J. Jung Volume 9, Part 1, edited by Sir Herbert Read, Princeton University Press, 1980.
Lawrence, D. H. Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious and Fantasia of the Unconscious, Dover Publications, 2005.
Lawrence, D. H. The Daughter-in-Law. Complete Works of D. H. Lawrence, Delphi Classics, 2015, pp. 8653-8764.