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.

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