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Because of his past, the protagonist in D.H. Lawrence’s novel Sons and Lovers is a perfect example of a character crippled with the incapability to hold fast to a relationship. Paul Morel had three significant relationships in the novel that all somehow parallel elements found in nature. The symbolism found beneath the natural settings that Lawrence used are all provocative and sexual, and all provide depth into Paul’s relationships with his mother, his neighbor and a woman who eventually became his muse.
The first of these relationships was with Paul’s mother, Gertrude Morel. Mrs. Morel’s unhappiness and instability was based on her premature marriage. Her only solace came from living vicariously through her sons, especially Paul. When pregnant with Paul, Mrs. Morel experienced a sensual and reeling moment in her garden that not only shaped the novel but her son’s character as well. This scene in the novel used a lot of provocative images. Both Lawrence’s choice of flowers and flower colors seemed to be significant. “The tall white lilies were reeling in the moonlight… she touched the big, pallid flowers on their petals then shivered… She put her hand into one white bin: the gold scarcely showed on her fingers by moonlight… Then she drank a deep draught of the scent. It almost made her dizzy.” The first image given was of a white lily. The color white seems to be used to describe a virginal moment. Although technically Gertrude was not physically a “virgin,” a lot of the pleasure in the garden seemed new to her. Her sensuality was heightened, something that never seemed to happen through the course of her relationship with her husband. A lily is a very spread out flower, with long petals and an erect center with tips coated in pollen. The petals of the flower are very open and seemed to be used to symbolize the vaginal area. It was hard not to notice the center of a lily. The carpel center, which was long, erect, and straight, seemed to be a phallic symbol. The combination of the color white, long petals and fertile center of a lily is extremely suggestive. Something I also considered when reading this passage was the fact that at the root of a lily is a bulb as opposed to a seed. In comparison to seeds, bulbs are much larger and weightier. The analogy between the seed and the bulb can parallel Walter Morel’s relationship with Gertrude as opposed to Paul’s.
In that same scene, images of hills and roses were also mentioned. Lawrence’s use of hills seem to reaffirm her sexual arousal, one that Paul took part of in Gertrude’s womb. Hills are very curvy and feminine as opposed to mountains, which are often described with “peaks,” another phallic symbol. The use of hills instead of peaks reinforces the idea that Gertrude will have some sort of womanly hold over her son, which is what leaves him incapable of evolving romantically with other women.
The author used a second reference to flowers in the same chapter to reinforce the idea of Mrs. Morel’s sexual encounter: “She passed along the path hesitating at the white rose-bush. A few whiffs of the raw strong scent of phlox invigorated her. She touched the white ruffles of the roses. Their fresh scent and cool, soft leaves reminded her of the morning-time and sunshine. She was very fond of them.” In this occurrence, Lawrence refers to roses. Roses in literature often symbolize romance. It is very important to remember that Paul is experiencing this arousal vicariously through Gertrude. The roses’ leaves remind her of morning-time and sunshine. Images of morning and sunshine are often metaphorical for a new beginning. In the context of this passage, the new romance seemed to be very welcome to Gertrude. She accepted it, and from this came the development of an Oedipal, almost-incestuous relationship between her and her son.
After giving her son the name Paul, “a fine shadow was flung over the deep green meadow, darkening all.” Lawrence once again uses nature symbolically. By darkening the meadow, he was closing one chapter in Gertrude Morel’s life, her relationship with Walter Morel. Although the relationship between Gertrude and Walter was already rocky by this point, the use of a dark meadow is significant because of its placement right after the son’s naming. It suggests that the passion once held for Mr. Morel is now nonexistent, leaving room for Paul to make some sort of territorial claim on Gertrude Morel. The meadow was dark, seemingly representing an ending, as opposed to green and fertile. This also strengthened the idea that what Mrs. Morel experienced in the garden was orgasmic and furthermore that Paul experienced her pleasures vicariously through her. When she was pregnant with Paul, she saw the sunshine, which is symbolic for a new beginning, with a new male.
D.H. Lawrence’s symbolic use of nature in the novel continued with the introduction of Miriam Leivers in “Death in the Family.” Paul’s first encounter with Miriam was during a visit with his mother to the Leivers’ farm. Miriam first appeared in a garden with a “rosy” complexion in. Appearing in a garden foreshadows the possibility of a new relationship between Paul and Miriam, and having a “rosy” face gives her character the idea of fertility. Upon meeting Miriam, Paul was obviously fascinated, because he starts a conversation with her about cabbage roses, even furthering the foreshadowing of a romance.
“‘I suppose they are cabbage roses, when they come out?’ he said. ‘I don’t know,’ she faltered. ‘They’re white, with pink middles.’ ‘Then they’re maiden-blush.’ Miriam flushed. She had a beautiful, warm coloring.’ ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘You don’t have much in your garden,’ he said…” This passage from Paul and Miriam’s first meeting is significant, because of its extreme sexual connotations. Once again, D.H. Lawrence introduced the romantic, fertile image of the rose. However, this time he described the roses as “white, with pink middles.” By doing this, he has put Miriam’s character on the table. The image given off is very sensual. A rose that is white with a pink middle could be seen metaphorically for the vaginal area. The color gets deeper toward the center. She was a girl, in her prime. The color “white” can be seen in the passage, once again indicating virginity or purity. This is also supported by the fact that Paul skeptically said, “You don’t have much in your garden.” While red is often associated with love and passion, she was described as pink and rosy, which means she was at the brink of her sexuality. She was a virgin; she was almost ready.
Toward the beginning of “Lad-and-Girl Love,” Paul decided to pay a visit to the Leivers farm “as soon as the sky brightened” and the “plum blossoms [were] out.” Like the chapter title, the brightened sky foreshadowed the beginning of a relationship between Paul and Miriam. It was interesting to me how it specifically said that Paul waited until the plum blossoms are out. Like D.H. Lawrence’s previous choices of lilies and roses, the choice of plum blossoms didn’t seem to be a coincidence. Plum blossoms are often white, pink and a deep red. Two of those colors had already been used to describe Miriam, and the remaining color is the color of romance and sexuality. Like lilies, plum blossoms also have a carpel center, with stigmas tipped with pollen. Their petals are also spread out and are very curvy and circular, much like the female shape.
After Paul approached Miriam, the first thing he said to her was, “’I say… your daffodils are nearly out. Isn’t it early? But don’t they look cold? The green on their buds…‘” The author’s use of nature in this passage is to draw a relationship between a woman’s breasts and a daffodil. Like nipples on a breast, the daffodil’s center protrudes. This passage is meant to draw the reader in and focus on the Miriam’s femininity and development. During the visit, Paul made several comments about celandine bushes coming out and being glad about the “sunny” weather. There is increased imagery on plants and nature, which is used to set the “earthy” relationship between Paul and Miriam. The fact that Paul noted that it was now “sunny” rather than a “brightened sky” like before suggests that they have moved past the initial flirtation into something that may have substance. Celandines are small, delicate yellow flowers that were chosen by Lawrence to reinforce Miriam’s delicate, warm nature. “I like [celandines]… when their petals go flat back with the sunshine. They seem to be pressing themselves against the sun.” It was easy for me to infer that Paul happily approved of celandines as a subliminal invitation toward Miriam. He liked when the celandines’ petals were pressed against the sun. I interpreted the use “sun” as a metaphor for Paul, both because since his birth, he had been closely associated with morning. Also because “sun” seemed to be a play-on word for the homonym “son.” If the “sun” was Paul and the celandines were Miriam, he was openly proclaiming his interest and swelling desire for her. “So it was in this atmosphere of subtle intimacy, this meeting in their common feeling or something in nature, that their love started.”
Their love for one another evolved as “Lad-and-Girl Love” moved forward. However, how Miriam viewed their relationship and how Paul viewed their relationship was completely different. Miriam wanted a “communion together” while Paul wanted Miriam physically. The sexual tension continued to build and many images of trees began to be offered by D.H. Lawrence, especially in the scene where Miriam wanted to show Paul a wild, rose bush that had fascinated her. “By the time they came to the pine-trees Miriam was getting very eager, and very tense. 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.” This passage showed the eagerness Miriam had to be with Paul: body and soul. Whereas Paul’s focus, despite being somewhat intrigued on Miriam’s mind, was on how physically restless he was becoming. His impatience was metaphorically described through the author’s imagery of trees. “The tree was tall and straggling. It had thrown its briars over a hawthorn bush, and its long streamers trailed thick right down to the grass… Point after point, the steady roses shone out to them, seeming to kindle something in their souls.” The straggling tree proved to be a very provocative, phallic image of Paul’s sexual appetite. The images offered by Lawrence in these passages are very suggestive and very sensual. The “straggling” tree seemed to refer back to an erection while Miriam’s “white” and “incurved” roses were very suggestive of a pure, untouched, vaginal area. The adjective “wild” used to describe the rose bush was used to convey something less proper than how Miriam is used to acting since normally she could be described as pious, innocent and conservative. The word “wild” suggested the extreme opposite.
“Round the broken top of the tower, the ivy bushed out, old and handsome… The tower seemed to rock in the wind.” The sexuality presented by Lawrence remains constant through the rest of the section. In this particular passage, he used the imagery of a tower metaphorically to describe Paul’s sexual frustration with Miriam’s continuous hesitation. He was swollen, ready for Miriam to consent to his invitation, yet she held back, leaving him unsatisfied and sexually repressed. “It was blowing so hard, high up there in the exposed place, that the only way to be safe was to stand nailed by the wind to the wall of the tower…. Miriam was somewhat scared by the wind… Paul was now pale with weariness.”
D.H. Lawrence also used various images in nature to represent the descent of Paul and Miriam’s relationship, which also led to the next, major relationship in Paul’s life. When Paul realized that Miriam could not console his sexual agitation, he started taking steps back in attempt to claim his sensibilities back. “He wanted to give her passion and tenderness, and he could not. He felt that she wanted the soul out of his body and not him.” While taking one of their habitual walks, Paul noticed Miriam smothering the flowers and responded negatively. “’Can you ever like things without clutching them as if you wanted top pull the heart out of them?’… ’You’re always begging things to love you as if you were a beggar for love. Even the flowers, you have to fawn over them.’” How Paul interpreted Miriam’s reaction toward nature paralleled how he interpreted Miriam’s treatment of him. He was sick of being smothered, leading to the eventual “Defeat of Miriam.”
Clara Dawes’ impression of flowers was the complete opposite of Miriam’s. Rather than picking them and metaphorically repressing her sexuality by “fawning” over them, she chose to leave them planted in the ground stating, “’I don’t want the corpses of flowers about me.’” Not only could she be labeled as “challenging” because she constantly went against societal norms, but she also had the capability to offer something completely different to Paul, something less temporary and unknown to him. She allowed the flowers to stay planted in the earth, giving them room to grow rather than die abruptly. This ends up being metaphorical of their relationship, since Clara Dawes ended up becoming his muse, his inspiration for a lot of his artwork. With Miriam, Paul felt very suppressed and Clara offered something completely different. Clara inspired passion within him, which can be seen when he chose to purchase “scarlet, brick red carnations” for her. The color scarlet is a very deep, erotic color that suggested a deep desire.
The various appearances of nature when Clara was present versus when Miriam was present have a sharp contrast. Often the flowers and plants associated with Miriam were very virginal, very pure as opposed when Clara was presented. “The cliff of red earth sloped swiftly down, through trees and bushes, to the river that glimmered and was very dark between the foliage. The far below water-meadows were very green. He and she stood leaning against one another, silent, afraid, their bodies touching all along. There came a quick gurgle from the river below.” The colors used were described as “red”, “dark”, and “very green.” These colors suggested an engrossment on Paul’s side. Because of a previous marriage, Clara can already be assumed to be anything but pure. However, it was this deeper sense of knowledge attracted Paul. He wanted to thrive off of her experience and be stimulated by Clara’s maturity. The foliage present with Clara included trees, bushes and a river that was dark and gleaming. The trees once again appear as a phallic symbol for Paul’s lust. The bushes also refer to the male pubic area and the river symbolized a yearning. His proposition of “Will you go down to the river?” was an invitation towards Clara. He is asking her to be his lover, despite the fact that it had the complications of being both “risky” and “messy.” Their encounter with nature in “Passion” is very representative of sexual intercourse, and at times D.H. Lawrence even used words closely associated with the activity such as “erect.”
“When they were going away the old lad came timidly with three dahlias in full bow… speckled scarlet and white.” Dahlias are very full flowers, even when budding. The significance of this bold, full flower is a parallel with the character, Clara. Like dahlias, she is full figured and the image given of something “full” is also something “more mature.” Clara possessed a maturity that Miriam had never claimed. The colors presented in this passage were particularly interesting. White and red seemed to be such a sharp contrast. However, because there were three dahlias, it seemed to be very symbolic of the women presented in Paul’s life and foreshadowed his incapability of truly having a relationship outside of his mother, Miriam Leivers and Clara Dawes. The white flower seemed to be representative of Miriam while the scarlet seemed to be associated with Clara and her more experienced perspective of the world. The color of the third flower was not distinguished as either scarlet or red, and I cannot help but wonder what the color would be. While it could be scarlet to represent the passion and true love Paul had for his mother, it could easily be white as well because of the purity and unconditional deep affection he had toward her.
“The Release” signified an important change, and once again, although not as abundant, D.H. Lawrence referenced nature in order to foreshadow his plot and it’s need for the symbolic release and death of Mrs. Morel. “And he watched the tangled sunflowers dying, the chrysanthemums coming out, and the dahlias.” The change of seasons, which can be assumed by the change of the different blossoms, signified a change in Paul’s life. Furthermore, this quote placed meaning within each range of flower. Once again the dahlias could be paralleled to Clara Dawes. The fact that there was no “action” word used after the flower breed foreshadowed no further “action” in Paul’s relationship with Clara. The sunflowers represented Gertrude Morel in the sense that these particular flowers need sun in order to keep living. By going back to the idea that the word “sun” seemed to be a play on word for Paul Morel (the “son”), this translation is easily justified. It was essential for Gertrude Morel’s character to die for the protagonist to have some sort of shot of a future romance, which is supported by the fact that Paul himself says, “…I never shall meet the right woman while you live.” The word “tangled” was suggestive of suffocation, and although it was apparent that Paul loved his mother to the point of questionable incestuous desires, his character had begun to go around in circles, unsure of the next path in his life. The chrysanthemums physically resemble the celandines that Miriam was so fond of and a further assumption can be made that these flowers were symbolic for her, because she returned to Paul’s life later in the novel, after his mother’s death.
D.H. Lawrence made his final use of nature, specifically flowers, in “Derelict.” In a final meeting between Paul and Miriam, the author chose to zoom his focus onto a bowl of freesias. “[Miriam] bowed her face over the flowers, the freesias so sweet and spring-like… It was like [Paul] to have those flowers… ‘Have them!’ he said, and he took them out of the jar as they were… She waited for him, took the flowers, and they went out together, he talking, she feeling dead.” By taking the flowers upon her departure from Paul’s apartment, Miriam was also claiming back her sexuality, leaving Paul dry and alone.
From the time of Paul’s conception in his mother’s womb to a final heartbreak in “Derelict,” nature played a prominent role in essentially becoming a “story teller” of Paul’s relationships with Mrs. Morel, Miriam and Clara. As a reader, I felt as if the relationship between the different breeds of flowers and the women in Paul’s life was very interesting, risqu? and provided for a sensual, interesting read. Without the use of suggestive language through nature, Sons and Lovers would have been flatter, and a lot of the depth you could only retain from the parallelism would be lost. D.H. Lawrence’s use of nature in a metaphorical sense was necessary for both the novel, the women in the novel and Paul Morel to be multi-dimensional and emotional, sexual human beings.
Flower Anatomy. (n.d.). EnchantedLearning.com. Retrieved May 27, 2007, from
Lawrence, D. H. (1994). Sons and Lovers. London, England: Penguin Books.
(Original work published 1913)
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