Monday, February 10, 2014

it was like: simile in D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers

Sons and Lovers is a fairly long book, about 161,000 words. I guess that's not really an immense novel, but it's about twice the average 300-page volume we see these days. Not quite twice as long as the novels I write. A brief memorandum if you're Charles Dickens. But still, a pretty sizable pile of words, sentences, paragraphs. I was looking through the book today with an eye for patterns, repetition, etc, but what caught my eye instead was how often Lawrence uses similes in his writing. The word "like" is frequently used; I'll bet that there are at least 300 similes in this novel.

I have done no systematic checking of this, no statistical analysis of the text, but I think simile is the most common descriptive device used in Sons and Lovers. Lawrence employs it constantly, telling us what the world looks like, what people do, and who (and how) people are within. Lawrence makes great use of it when describing landscape:
the Derbyshire hills ridged across the crimson far away, like the black crest of a newt


seeing a big red moon lift itself up, slowly, between the waste road over the hilltop, steadily, like a great bird


They emerged into a wide yard, like a well, with buildings all round. It was littered with straw and boxes, and cardboard. The sunshine actually caught one crate whose straw was streaming on to the yard like gold. But elsewhere the place was like a pit.
That's almost one simile per sentence in the last example. A lot of other paragraphs are structured just like it. Once in a while you'll get a nice metaphor like this:
Paul was treated to dazzling descriptions of all kinds of flower-like ladies, most of whom lived like cut blooms in William's heart for a brief fortnight.
The images aren't sustained (William's women are not all flowers, for example) and the similes are localized, momentary outbursts:
with the birth of this third baby, her self no longer set towards him, helplessly, but was like a tide that scarcely rose, standing off from him

punishment which ate into his spirit like rust

it went through her like a flash of hot fire

she seemed so like a wet rag that would never dry

the father was like some ugly irritant to their souls

They passed the end of Nethermere, that was tossing its sunshine like petals lightly in its lap.
There is a lot in Sons and Lovers about flowers, and open water, and fire, but Lawrence didn't build large-scale networks of symbolism from his flower, water, and fire imagery. Lawrence's prose is always--no matter what the work (though I have only read two novels and a couple of short stories so what do I know?)--immediate and urgent, impatient even. Things accumulate, they pile up, they increase in intensity, but meaning and form are rarely united over the whole course of the work. The coal pits remain coal pits. Houses are houses, more or less comfortable. Lawrence inhabits the whole world of his novel, but he inhabits it like a man inhabits his wardrobe, putting on and taking off articles of clothing as the mood strikes; you may never see him wear the same hat twice, even when he's going to the same place or even when he's in the same mood. Lawrence has an infinitely varied wardrobe; he has no need for repetition. He invents every moment of his novel as he comes to it. This is an unsuccessful simile, not quite what I mean.

There are of course patterns in Sons and Lovers. There is the man-and-woman pattern, where couples form and are put under stress. There is the mother-and-child pattern. There is the striving-to-become pattern. These actions are repeated, examined, overlapped. Plot is patterned in Lawrence, but symbolism is not. Realizing this sort of makes me irritated with Lawrence. I'm not sure why that is. It seems like a defect to which I was blind until now. It's just another way of working, is all it is.


  1. Something I have wrestled with in some stories (like "Red Man, Blue Man" and Cyberlama) is the tendency of readers to turn ideas into metaphors. For example, I was told a couple of times that the patriotic themes in "Red Man, Blue Man" were too obvious. I didn't intend for those themes to be there in the first place, or at least to be the only interpretations, but I could see how the reader would have seen them.

    Lately, when I write, I am careful about recurring metaphors because I don't necessarily want things in my stories to be symbols. Your discussion of Lawrence brought that to mind.

  2. I always thought "Red Man, Blue Man" was about a sort of blindness to how one is alienated to one's surroundings yet still longs for some sort of home. An investigation into the idea of fitting in that drew no conclusions. That's what I thought. And the dolphins at the end are beautiful; I tear up thinking about that image.

    There are things in my books that are, I think, striking images, that are just there to be striking, to illustrate that one moment. There's a green bird in Go Home, Miss America that I put into a scene just because I wanted a green bird in the scene. It doesn't represent anything else.

    The danger of works that are very highly organized is that the number of possible interpretations is reduced, sometimes down to just one. I think those are minor works; the best writing resists easy interpretation, can absorb many ideas from the reader and remain open to more. So I think, in the back of my mind, about pattern and metaphor when I write, and I look for materials I can reuse across the length of a single narrative, but I don't try to make it all have connected purpose. I like symbols, I like compression and multiple-meanings in passages, but sometimes a hat is just a hat, sometimes a spangle is just an ornament because you want to see something pretty for a moment.

    1. This is something I've thought about more in my own writing. For instance, a lot of my stories in True Colors deliberately rely on repetitive symbolism to carry the meaning through and I often wonder if I've overdone it because the importance of symbolism and repetition and creating obvious themes from them was drilled into my head in college writing courses. Perhaps it only felt that way because all we ever did was pick apart fiction over and over and over. I also wonder when I'm writing these days if my shying more away from obvious symbolism means I'm a better writer or not as aware of what I'm doing (relying more on instinct). When I read reviews of my work and see different interpretations across the board, I feel like I've either done my job well or I completely missed the mark.

    2. I think you're writing more with your instincts now, personally. I don't see anything obvious, or heavy handed, in your writing these days. I confess I can't remember that well the stuff you wrote years ago, though I remember True Colors fondly; some great work in that collection. I do believe that if some people completely misunderstand you while others don't, then you've done your job. None of us read the same book anyway; it's not worth thinking about too much, if you're a writer. I never really think about theme these days. I just try to write honestly about what interests me in the story. I no longer work to form some kind of united whole; I assume I'll just massage it into a pleasing shape in revisions, and that's all I want now: a pleasing shape. Likely I too have just absorbed the lessons of craft and are working toward unity without thinking about it. Which is fine. I don't really know what I think about craft anymore when applied to my own writing. It gives me a headache.

  3. Would you be happier with him if his symbolism (or at any rate, his simile use) was patterned? I dare say you might find him entirely too tidy and persnickety, and that it would play havoc with the impetuous rush that he so desires.

    I like that one about the hills and newt because the tenor and vehicle are stretched so far apart...

    1. I have no idea why I was, briefly, so possessed by the idea of patterning symbolism. You're right, though: Lawrence's narrative would be far less interesting and alive it he's fussily put all of his similes into tidy order.

      There's another image, later in the book, of a lake's surface, the lake tossing white feathers into the air, very nice and coming out of nowhere.

  4. "Lawrence's prose is always--no matter what the work ...--immediate and urgent, impatient even. Things accumulate, they pile up, they increase in intensity, but meaning and form are rarely united over the whole course of the work."

    "Immediate, urgent, impatient even" - even if i had not known whom you were writing about, I would have guessed you were talking of Lawrence. There is an almost torrential force in his prose, so great the sense of urgency that it communicates.

    I think you're right, in that there is rarely if ever are the images sustained: they are things of the moment, imparting urgency to the moment itself, It has been a long time since I read "Sons and Lovers", ad I shall certainly have to read it again.