D. H. Lawrence makes an extensive use of symbols in his Sons and Lovers. Symbolism means investing a remark or a situation or an incident or an object or even a person with a double significance or a two-fold meaning. One meaning lies on the very surface and is easily understood by the reader. The other or symbolic meaning is hidden in the writing and becomes known to the reader only after a good deal of thought. D. H. Lawrence probes deep into the consciousness of his characters with a clever use of symbols. A proper understanding of these symbols leads to a better understanding of the novel and arises appreciation from the reader. Symbolism is an essential feature of Lawrence’s art, because a symbol “is the expression of a thing not to be characterized in any other better way.” Thus, in order to clearly describe the hidden and the concealed, Lawrence makes use of symbols which in their turn also increase the expressiveness of his language.
There is an abundance of symbols in Sons and Lovers; and practically all the symbolism here has consciously been introduced by the author. Now let’s turn to some of the symbols used by D. H. Lawrence.
The symbol of the Ash-Tree
The ash-tree has been effectively used by Lawrence to describe the sinister and dark aspects of life. It is symbolic of the dark, mysterious forces of nature which are the foreboders of tragedy in human-life. It is symbolic of the disharmony that exists between the husband and wife in the Morel family. The persistent bickering of the parents becomes a terror for the children, who lying awake upstairs are unable to coherently apprehend as to what would happen ultimately. The tree becomes a symbol of the inner terror of children who strike and moan inwardly. It also prophesies the future doom which is to beset the Morel family.
The Symbol of the Coal-pits
The entire life of the mining community depicted in the novel depends upon the coal-pits which stand on the horizon. The coat-pits are not indispensable for a better understanding of the novel but they are symbolic of a particular attitude towards life. Walter Morel with his irrational life principle has a close association with them. The descent and ascent of the coal pits is a symbol of the sexual rhythm or a rhythm of sleep and awakening. The naturalness of the coal pits stand in contrast against the artificial way of life of the sophisticated people.
The symbol of the Swing
The Swing at Willey Farm is symbolic of the love-hate relation that is characteristic of Paul-Miriam relationship. Similar to the background and forward movement of the swing, Paul loves Miriam for one thing but suddenly hates her for another. Though, his hatred for her is also transitory and is soon replaced with love. Hence, the movement of the swing symbolizes, the two extremes of their attitude towards each other i.e. love for one moment and hate the other moment. It is also expressive of their inability to hold on to each other for a very long time.
Miriam’s inability to attain a certain height on the swing as Paul does is significant of her sexual frigidity. As on the swing she fails to attain the sexual heights in her physical relationship with Paul and performs it as a religious duty. Thus, she fails to provide Paul with the physical fulfillment that he is desirous of.
The symbol of the Hens
The symbolic pecking of the hens at the hands of Paul and Miriam stands in juxtaposition to the sexuality thwarted relationship that Miriam is going to have with Paul in the later part of the novel. Miriam’s sexual inhibition is emphasized here; in spite of Paul’s persistence that it does not hurt it only nips, Miriam is afraid to let the hen peck at her hand. This scene symbolically forecasts the disastrous failure that Miriam is going to face in attaining sexual fulfillment with Paul.
The Symbol of the blood tie between Paul and Mrs Morel
In the very beginning of the novel when Mrs. Morel has a quarrel with her husband, in an outrage of anger she is hit with a drawer which is flung at her. The wound bleeds profusely and two drops of blood fall on the hair of Paul who is in the hands of Mrs.Morel at the moment. The blood is not cleared away but it gets soaked in to the scalp of Paul. This small incident is symbolic of the disillusioned and tattering relationship of the husband and wife and the subsequent reversal of attitude of Mrs Morel towards her husband and the ultimate substitution of her sons in place of her husband. The scene is also symbolic of the contract of soul between the mother and son which is sealed with a blood tie.
The symbol of the Orange Moon
The emotional lives of the characters of Lawrence are much influenced by the active participation of nature. Walking together one evening Paul and Miriam witness a large orange moon staring at them. The passion in Paul is aroused by the sight of the moon. Though Miriam is also deeply moved but Paul fails to get across to her. Violent sexual passion is aroused in Paul, thus the orange moon becomes a symbol of the aroused passion in Paul.
Lawrence makes nature send its benediction on his characters who wish to live willfully or upon those who wish to attain happiness through their vital instinct. Before the birth of Paul, Mrs Morel is once shut out of the house after a quarrel, by her husband into the garden, here she feels the presence of nature under the “blinding” August moon. She is expecting Paul and she feels herself melting away I the moon light along with the child. Later when she is allowed into the house by Morel, she smiles upon herself seeking her face smeared with the pollen dust of lilies. The yellow dust is symbolic of the kiss of benediction for both the mother and hild and it also confirms their vitality.
Similarly on another occasion when Paul rises after making love to Clara on the bank of the river. There lie on the ground many scarlet, carnation petals like splashed drops of blood, and red small splashes fall from her bosom, streaming down her dress to her feet. This is again symbolic of the benediction of flowers showered upon them for their perfect union. In still another occasion, the rose bush is used as a symbol of the witness to the spiritual communion of Paul and Miriam which they achieve while watching the rose bush together in perfect harmony.
Symbols of Flowers
The most important of the flower symbols are presented in the scene where Clara has just been introduced to Paul by Miriam. All three of them walk in an open field with its many “clusters of strong flowers” they begin to pick flowers. Though, there is natural beauty in flowers that Paul picks, yet he picks them scientifically. He has a spontaneous and direct contact with the flowers. Miriam, though she picks the flowers lovingly and reverentially yet she seems to derive the life out of them. Her bunches lack elegance. But Clara does not pick them at all, defiantly asserting that flowers should not be picked because it kills them.
Thus, on a closer reading of these floral symbols one feels, that it depicts the attitude of various characters towards life. Mrs. Morel has a vital and healthy attitude towards flowers. The scenes where Paul brings her flowers are warm and gay. Since the love of Paul and Miriam develops in the midst of natural surroundings, the flower is symbolic of its freshness and innocence. They also symbolize the beauty ad youth of Miriam.
There are various other symbols of the burned potatoes symbolizing Miriam’s total absorption in Paul. On the other had the charred bread symbolizes Paul’s total absorption in Miriam. Hope and optimism are symbolized at the end of the novel with the help of the gold phosphorescence of the city. Hence, the symbolism uses in Sons and Lovers is quite simple and easy to understand. They are in no way complex but rather help to a better understanding of the novel.