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Sons and Lovers

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English Literature

Sons and Lovers (1913) is a novel written by the English Modernist writer D.H. Lawrence and includes the suffocating grip of a mother, a passionate love affair, and a murder. The novel is set against the backdrop of an industrializing England in the late 1800s/ early 1900s and is largely autobiographical. It is broken up into two parts, follows two generations of the Morel family, and explores themes such as the Oedipus Complex, love and passion, and the complexities of human emotions.

Historical Context of Sons and Lovers

The Industrial Revolution

Sons and Lovers was written during England's Edwardian Era (1901-1919). By the late 1800s, industrialization had begun to change the landscape of England rapidly. The Industrial Revolution was a period of rapid industrial growth that began in the late 18th century but boomed between 1820 and 1840.

The invention of new machinery, steam-powered engines, and the factory system meant that hand labor could now be done more efficiently. Agrarian landscapes diminished in favor of capital growth. Coal mining became a very important industry for England's economy.

In the novel, the Morel family lives in Bestwood, a coal-mining town. The livelihood of the people there is tied to the industry and the air is polluted and dirty. Paul often seeks the open landscapes of nature to take refuge from the suffocation he feels from the coal, a parallel to his own life's desire to escape the suffocation of his mother.

Although King Edward's rule only lasted until 1910, Edwardian influences continued to circulate until the outbreak of WWI in 1919.

Sons and Lovers + Industrialization/ Sons and Lovers + StudySmarterAn Industrial Landscape, pixabay

Sexuality and Freud

Beliefs surrounding sexuality in the Edwardian Era were that upper-class women were to be modest and chaste while men had natural sexual desires. Lower-class women were considered to have sexual desires as well. A novel such as Sons and Lovers undermines this notion.

Edwardian beliefs are represented by Gertrude Morel, who views any of the women who pursue her sons as immoral. However, the character of Clara Dawes, who is of the upper class, challenges the notion that upper-class women don't feel sexual desires. She is quite open and liberal with her sexuality. Her freedom in the novel was deemed obscene, granting Lawrence the reputation of being a crude and pornographic author.

In 1900, Sigmund Freud, an Austrian psychoanalyst, published his famous book The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), which explored the human subconscious and the repression of desires and included theories that linked human behavior to sexual desires. His most famous theory was the Oedipus Complex.

Sons and Lovers explores Oedipal relationships, but rather than the son having a sexual desire for the mother, we see Gertrude Morel projecting her attachments to her sons, William and Paul, while also jealously wishing to rid them of their female partners.

Sons and Lovers theme: The Oedipus Complex – Freud believed that everyone is born sexually attracted to the parent of the opposite sex while also wishing to eliminate the parent of the same sex. He believed that by the age of three we no longer feel this way, but it leaves a lifelong impact on a person's behavior. Although very much disliked in the beginning, by 1908 Freud began to gain recognition. While the Oedipus Complex refers to the son's sexual desires for the mother, the Electra Complex refers to the daughter's sexual desires for the father.

Sons and Lovers+ Sigmund Freud/Sons and Lovers+ StudySmarterSigmund Freud, pixabay.

Biography of D.H. Lawrence

D.H. Lawrence was born David Herbert Lawrence in the coal mining town of Nottingham to a blue-collar family. He was encouraged by his mother, Lydia, to study literature and despite chronic illness, Lawrence was able to attend Nottingham High School. Before attending the University College of Nottingham in 1906, Lawrence worked as a clerk for Haywoods.

In 1912, Lawrence began a passionate affair with his former professor's wife, Frieda von Richthofen. They ran off to Germany around the time he began writing Sons and Lovers. Sons and Lovers draws inspiration from Lawrence's own life such as the setting in a coal mining town, an incredibly close relationship to his mother, and a passionate love affair with a married woman.

Lawrence lived in scandal and controversy as he continued to write. Lawrence wrote several novels, short stories, and poems, many of which were banned for their pornographic and obscene nature. D.H. Lawrence died in Venice, Italy, in 1930.

Summary of Sons and Lovers

The novel Sons and Lovers is broken up into two parts. The first part of the novel is six chapters in length and centers around Gertrude Morel, the pregnant unhappy wife of a coal miner in Bestwood, England, a coal-mining town.

The second part of the novel is nine chapters in length and centers around Gertrude's son Paul, who is an aspiring painter. Paul must navigate his close relationship with his mother while at the same time exploring his sexual awakening, grief, and loss.

Part 1

The first part of Sons and Lovers focuses on Gertrude Morel. It is set in the late 1800s in the coal mining town of Bestwood, England. Disappointed with her inability to obtain an education due to her sex and an overbearing father, Gertrude runs off with Walter Morel, a coal miner. Walter is an abusive and jealous alcoholic who pays little attention to Gertrude, who is pregnant with their third child Paul.

Gertrude, emotionally neglected by Walter, pours all of her affection and attention onto William, her eldest son, and gets jealous of any woman who tries to enter his life. This includes his fiancee Lily, who she despises. When William moves to London and eventually dies, Gertrude becomes severely depressed.

The only way Gertrude can climb out of her depression is to pour all of her attention into nursing Paul back to health after he falls ill. They become incredibly close and at certain points act like lovers. Paul even wishes he could make money from his job at a surgical appliance manufacturer in Nottingham to buy a cottage for his mother and him to live in.

The mother and son walked down Station Street, feeling the excitement of lovers having an adventure together." (Chapter 5)

Part 2

The second half of the novel focuses on Paul Morel. It begins as he is recovering at home from an illness. He frequently visits the nearby farm for fresh air and befriends the farmer's daughter, Miriam Leivers. They spend many hours talking about literature and art and quickly fall in love.

With an established emotional connection, Paul frequently tries to convince Mariam to turn the relationship into a physical one; however, she remains timid and pious. Paul finally convinces Miriam to have intercourse with him, but he isn't satisfied. He decides he will never love a woman more than his mother and tells Miriam they are better off as just friends, devastating her.

I don't think I love you as a man ought to love his wife." (Chapter 9)

Paul then launches into a passionate affair with Clara Dawes, a friend of Miriam's, who is married to Baxter Dawes. Baxter, Clara, and Paul all work at the same factory. Clara is characterized as sexually free and a believer in women's rights such as the right to vote. She is separated from her husband.

Paul and Clara mainly have a physical relationship, and Paul once again feels dissatisfied. Baxter attacks Paul twice in a fit of jealousy. While vacationing with his mother, Paul begins to notice she is quickly aging and grows angry that she is no longer the young and beautiful woman she once was. It is revealed she has a tumor and is slowly dying. At the same time, Baxter falls ill and Clara decides she must return to her husband and nurse him back to health.

Paul quickly turns his attention to caring for his ailing mother. He is filled with conflicting emotions. Sometimes he feels love for his mother, and sometimes he feels disgusted by her. When he realizes his mother is the reason he has never been able to fully pursue his passions, he wishes for her death to accelerate.

Aided by his sister Annie, Paul gives his mother an overdose of morphine and she dies. Now that his mother is dead, Paul attempts to reunite with Miriam, even vowing to marry her. He quickly changes his mind and in a state of confused emotion thinks about committing suicide. Ultimately, he decides not to and decides to start a new life without his mother, Miriam, or Clara.

Analysis of Sons and Lovers with Quotes

Genre and Writing Style

Sons and Lovers is a bildungsroman. A bildungsroman is a literary genre that follows the psychological and spiritual growth of a character from childhood to adulthood. More specifically, Sons and Lovers is considered a Künstlerroman, which is a subgenre of a bildungsroman, in which the main character is an artist. Paul Morel, the protagonist, is an aspiring artist. The novel follows Paul from childhood to early adulthood as he navigates his desires, ambitions, and relationships.

Sons and Lovers is written in an omniscient third-person point of view.

Omniscient third-person POV: a method of storytelling in which the narrator is conscious and all-knowing regarding the thoughts and actions of the characters in a story.

Lawrence wrote Sons and Lovers episodically, which means as a series of episodes that accumulate to create running themes and repeated symbols. In this way, Lawrence can play with time, causing the reader to question how many times an event occurred.

Sons and Lovers is also an example of literary prose written with lyrical and sensuous language. Prose is a writing style in which sentences and paragraphs are grammatically structured together. Oftentimes, prose follows the natural patterns of speech.

He had a life apart from her—his sexual life. The rest she still kept. But he felt he had to conceal something from her, and it irked him. There was a certain silence between them, and he felt he had, in that silence, to defend himself against her. He felt condemned by her. Then sometimes he hated her, and pulled at her bondage. (Chapter 13)

This passage encapsulates a moment of growth for Paul Morel, an important element in a bildungsroman. Paul realizes that along with the love he has for his mother, he also has natural desires he wishes to freely explore outside of his mother's influence with other women.

Paul feels frustrated and trapped by his mother, creating the tension needed for character development. Here we can also see the omniscient third-person point of view at work as the narrator knows everything Paul feels and experiences as well as how it motivates his actions.

Tone

Tone in literature is a literary device used to reflect an author's attitude or feelings towards the main subject of a written work. Sons and Lovers adopts a sympathetic tone. Even when a character has negative qualities, Lawrence uses particular language that allows us to feel pity for that character. In this way, we are reminded of the humanity in every one of us. Lawrence wants us as readers to understand the psychological motivation behind people's emotions and actions.

She no longer loved her husband; she had not wanted this child to come, and there it lay in her arms and pulled at her heart. She felt as if the navel string that had connected its frail little body with hers had not been broken. A wave of hot love went over her to the infant." (Chapter 2)

In this passage, Gertrude Morel deals with a moral dilemma. Her husband Walter is an alcoholic and is abusive towards her and her eldest son. By revealing that Gertrude did not want this child, we get a glimpse into the effects of the lack of love from her husband.

As readers we feel sorry for her. However, then we see that Gertrude can redirect that love that she is unable to give to her husband or get from him to her newly born son. It is a psychologically complex passage, but it reveals the underlying emotion felt by Gertrude at that moment.

Themes

A theme is the underlying meaning of a written text that is explored by the author and conveyed through settings, plot, characters, and dialogue. Sons and Lovers has many themes such as suffocation, passions and desire, industrialization, and the effect all three have on human psychology and emotion.

Suffocation

Throughout the novel, different characters feel suffocated by a circumstance or person that renders them unable to pursue their desires. Gertrude Morel is trapped by society's expectation that a woman does not pursue education. She then becomes "trapped" by Walter Morel, her husband, who abuses her and causes her great unhappiness.

The bondage felt between Gertrude and her sons, William and Paul, is seen the most. Gertrude holds back both men from exploring freely, and becomes suffocatingly controlling and jealous when either one is interested in a woman.

When William gets married to Lily, Gertrude becomes even more suffocating towards Paul. Paul also passionately loves his mother, sometimes wishing he could live with her forever rather than find a wife and start a family of his own. However, by the end of the novel, Paul notices how his mother's love has held him back his entire life, and when he ends her life, he feels free to explore his desires and passions.

His life wanted to free itself of her. It was like a circle where life turned back on itself, and go no further. She bore him, loved him, kept him, and his love turned back into her, so that he could not be free to go forward with his own life, really love another woman. (Chapter 13)

Passion and Love

The characters in Sons and Lovers each have something or someone they love or have a passion for. The place we see this most often is Gertrude's wildly passionate love for her sons, William and Paul, as well as Paul's very passionate love for his mother. Paul is also passionate about painting, just as Gertrude is passionate about religion.

Paul loves Miriam on an emotional level, but he has a passionate physical affair with Clara which he thinks is also love. Passion is also seen as swinging from hatred to love. Walter and Gertrude constantly fight, yet come back to one another even when Gertrude expresses how she does not love her husband anymore. She even feels the flames of love return when the morning after the fight he brings her a cup of tea.

Similarly, Paul's passion for his mother swings between love and hatred. He loves her passionately, expressing his desire to be with her always. However, as his mother ages and he realizes how her love has held him back, he begins to despise her. When he kills his mother, he becomes so depressed he even thinks about committing suicide.

She lay to be sacrificed for him, because she loved him so much. And he had to sacrifice her. For a second, he wished he were sex-less, or dead. Then he shut his eyes again to her, and his blood beat back again. (Chapter 11)

Industrialization, Modernization, and Nature

According to Lawrence, human beings are an extension of nature. In nature, the characters are exposed to beauty, inspiration, and connections to other people. While in nature, Gertrude finds solace in the garden and the moon after Walter locks her out of the house.

Paul connects with Miriam while walking in the woods and also physically connects with Clara by a stream. Paul finds inspiration for his paintings in nature as well. Without natural resources such as coal – albeit using industrial practices – the Morel family would not have a way of making money.

The farther away the characters get from nature, the worse their conditions become. When William moves to London, an industrial and polluted city, he becomes ill, eventually dying from pneumonia; as he rejects the natural way of living in favor of modernity, he becomes sicker. When Paul moves to Nottingham and works long hours in a factory-like setting, he also falls ill. However, he keeps his connection to nature, which allows him to recover unlike his brother William.

Therefore, nature is a representation of the soul in a state of calm and peace, while industrialism and modernity represent the corruption and rotting of the soul. Industrialism causes alienation to ourselves and once we lose ourselves completely, there is no turning back.

Motifs

A motif is a repeating image or idea that appears in a literary work to further develop the plot and meaning. Lawrence, a great user of imagery, implements many motifs throughout Sons and Lovers. The two major motifs are nature and landscape.

Nature and Landscape

Nature represents human emotion and sexuality in Sons and Lovers. Landscape further represents the impact of one's surroundings on these human emotions. When Paul is born, Gertrude wishes he hadn't been, but when she sees the beauty of the setting sun, suddenly she feels a fiery love for him.

She thrust the infant forward to the crimson, throbbing sun, almost with relief. She saw him lift his little fist. Then she put him to her bosom again, ashamed almost of her impulse to give him back again whence he came. (Chapter 2)

In another example, we see how nature represents sexuality and passion. For Paul, nature is a representation of his sexual desire for Miriam and Clara. When Clara brings Paul a burning rose bush, it is symbolic of their passionate desire for each other physically.

In scenes where Paul picks up flowers at random, it is representative of how he wishes to express his desires freely and without caution. However, sometimes the passion represented in nature is not overtly sexual. Sometimes it merely is a sign of one's emotional connection to another:

By the time they came to the pine-trees Miriam was getting very eager, and very tense. Her bush might be gone. She might not be able to find it. And she wanted it so much. Almost passionately, she wanted to be with him when she stood before the flowers. They were going to have a communion together, something that thrilled her, something holy. (Chapter 7)

In this passage, Miriam's emotional love for Paul and her desire to have him by her side is represented by a bush she wants to show him. She fears that her passion will be fleeting, just as she was afraid she would not find the bush. However, once they find the bush, they will both have shared something and this connection will bring them together.

Sons and Lovers + nature/ Sons and Lovers + StudySmarterA town similar to Bestwood, Pixabay.

Landscape in the novel is either a representation of freedom or suffocation. In natural settings, the characters feel at peace, and their emotional states are in line with their desires. Paul meets Miriam and falls in love with her at Wiley Farms; Paul and Clara are physically connected by a stream; and Paul and his mother take many peaceful walks together in nature. However, in industrial settings, suffocation is ever-present. The air from the coal mines stifles their lungs and causes illnesses. Unfortunately, without proper education, many men in Nottinghamshire must become coal miners, thus rejecting their passions.

Symbols

A symbol is a literary tool in which an image, object, or even a sound is used to represent something. Many symbols appear in Sons and Lovers, but the most important ones are flowers and fire.

Flowers

Sons and Lovers+ Flowers/Sons and Lovers symbols+ StudySmarterFlowers, pixabay.

In Sons and Lovers, flowers are representative of feminity and female sexuality. When a flower appears in the novel it usually reveals to us the attitudes a woman feels towards her sexuality. Miriam finds daffodils and she "fondles them" with her eyes. She treats them delicately and with reverence. This treatment parallels her own feelings about having a physical relationship with Paul.

For Miriam, a physical relationship is holy and must be treated as such through marriage. However, Paul does not have the same views of piety. He picks flowers whenever he pleases, revealing his wishes to indulge his sexual desires, caring little for the consequences it may have for the women.

Similarly, William describes women as "cut blooms" in his heart, seen more as objects and decorations (Chapter 3). Clara views flowers as dead things during her period of celibacy, yet and when she lays with Paul, crimson carnation petals are all over her bosom, revealing that her physical passion is strong. She feels free to express her passions.

While reading the Sons and Lovers, take note every time a flower is present in a scene and try to see how it relates to feminity and female sexuality. How many examples can you find?

Fire

Fire represents passion and in some cases the dangers of passion. In scenes where passion grows in a character, there is some sort of vivid description that includes fire. We first see this between Walter and Gertrude:

Therefore the dusky, golden softness of this man’s sensuous flame of life, that flowed from off his flesh like the flame from a candle, not baffled and gripped into incandescence by thought and spirit as her life was, seemed to her something wonderful, beyond her. (Chapter 1)

The intense passion and love Gertrude feels towards Walter is represented by fire, specifically flames. Another scene in which fire appears as a symbol is when Paul begins to feel a passionate desire for Miriam and describes his blood bursting into flame under an orange moon (Chapter 7). When Paul and Clara sleep together, it is described as if they are taken over by a flame, and later in the novel the passion Clara feels for Paul is described as a drop of fire within her chest.

Sometimes, fire is representative of the negative effects of passion. A striking example is when William feels the need to burn his love letters to prevent his mother from seeing them. Her passion for him and her jealousy of any woman that enters his life is so strong that he feels the need to burn away his passions and desires.

Every time fire is mentioned in the novel, take note of whether it represents a positive or a negative view of passion. What do you think it says about the effects of passions on humans as a whole?

Overall Meaning and Significance of Sons and Lovers

Sons and Lovers is an exploration of human relationships: sons and mothers, husbands and wives, and lovers. Within these relationships, Lawrence speaks to how, as individuals, we have our own desires for advancement – whether it be in love or career – but there is always something that holds us back from pursuing our desires.

In the novel, this is manifested in Paul's relationship with his mother. He loves her more than anyone, yet her love begins to suffocate him when he wishes to explore his sexuality. At the end of the novel, Paul ends her life with an overdose of morphine. Without her, he is able to pursue the life he desires. Here lies the overall message. We must identify and overcome the obstacles that hold us back from pursuing our dreams.

Sons and Lovers is considered one of the most important novels in English Modernist history, as it spoke about controversial topics and themes such as female sexuality while also experimenting with the use of literary devices to create a world in which to explore such themes.

He stood still, rigid, with clenched fists, a flame of agony going over him. And he saw again the sick room, his mother, her eyes. Unconsciously he had been with her, in her company. The swift hop of the paper reminded him she was gone. But he had been with her. He wanted everything to stand still, so he could be with her again. (Chapter 15)

This quote from Sons and Lovers encapsulates the literary style of D.H. Lawrence with its use of vivid imagery and symbolism in "flame of agony", and the psychological and emotional exploration of characters that made D.H. Lawrence's writing so revolutionary and important to modernism.

Sons and Lovers (1913) - Key takeaways

  • Sons and Lovers was written by D.H. Lawrence, published in 1913, and is largely autobiographical.
  • Sons and Lovers is split into two parts. The first part focuses on Gertrude Morel and the second part focuses on Paul Morel.
  • A majority of the novel explores the close and passionate love Paul has for his mother, Gertrude, but how this love can at times suffocate him. This bondage prevents him from freely exploring his desires, especially those of a sexual nature.
  • The novel explores themes such as suffocation, passion and love, industrialization, and nature.
  • The novel has two main motifs: landscape and nature.
  • Fire and flowers are symbols found throughout the novel. Fire represents passion while flowers represent femininity and female sexuality.

Sons and Lovers

Sons and Lovers refers to the central struggle the protagonist, Paul, faces while exploring his own desires under the suffocating grasp of his mother. 

The main themes in Sons and Lovers are suffocation, passion and love, and industrialization, modernization, and nature. 

Sons and Lovers is a bildungsroman and more specifically falls under the subgenre of Kunstlerroman.

Lawrence's writing style and choice of theme are what make the novel a modern one. This includes his episodic timeline and use of literary prose. Lawrence's discussions on female sexuality and sex also make it a modern novel. 

A majority of the novel explores the close and passionate love Paul has for his mother, Gertrude, but how this love can at times suffocate him. This bondage prevents him from freely exploring his desires especially those of a sexual nature.

Final Sons and Lovers Quiz

Question

When was Sons and Lovers published?

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Answer

1913

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Question

Who wrote Sons and Lovers?

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Answer

D.H. Lawrence

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Question

What was the Industrial Revolution?

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Answer

a period of rapid industrial growth that began in the late 18th century but boomed between 1820 and 1840. The invention of new machinery, steam-powered engines, and the factory system meant that hand labor could now be done more efficiently. 

Show question

Question

What is the Oedipus Complex?

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Answer

A theory developed by Sigmund Freud in which he believed that everyone is born sexually attracted to the parent of the opposite sex while also wishing to eliminate the parent of the same sex.  

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Question

What genre is Sons and Lovers?

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Answer

A bildungsroman/ Künstlerroman

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Question

What is a bildungsroman?

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Answer

a literary genre that follows the psychological and spiritual growth of a character from childhood to adulthood 

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Question

What point of view is used in Sons and Lovers?

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Answer

Omniscient third-person point of view

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Question

What is an omniscient third-person point of view?

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Answer

a method of storytelling in which the narrator is conscious and all-knowing of all the thoughts and actions of all the characters in a story

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Question

What are the main themes of Sons and Lovers?

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Answer

Suffocation, Passion and Love, Industrialization, modernity, and nature

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Question

What is a motif?

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Answer

a repeating image or idea that appears in a literary work to further develop the plot and meaning

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Question

What is a symbol?

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Answer

a literary tool in which an image, object, or even a sound is used to represent something 

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Question

What symbols appear in Sons and Lovers?

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Answer

Fire and Flowers

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Question

What is a theme?

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Answer

the underlying meaning of a written text that is explored by the author and conveyed through settings, plot, characters, and dialogue 

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Question

Who is the protagonist in the first part of the novel?

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Answer

Gertrude Morel 


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Question

Who is the protagonist in the second half of the novel?

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Answer

Paul Morel

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