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Critical materials: On a Passage from Lawrence's 'Odour of Chrysanthemums'

From Walter Nash, Language and Literature: An Introductory Reader in Stylistics, ed., Ron Carter (George Allen and Unwin, 1982), pp. 100-120. We would like to thank Walter Nash and Ron Carter for permission to republish this article.


III The Development of the Scene: Phases and Modes of Narrative

The scene develops through passages of description and direct speech which intermesh, gradually constructing the pattern of relationships between the human figures and their environment. Though they are not typographically signposted, it is possible to discern the phases of development with some degree of certainty. The text appears to be constructed on the following frame:


Ifrom:The engine whistled as it came into the wide bay of railway lines beside the colliery, where rows of trucks stood in harbour. (1-3)
to:Beside the path hung disheveled pink chrysanthemums, like pink cloths hung on bushes. (12-14)
IIfrom:A woman came stooping out of the felt-covered fowl-house… (14-15)
to:Her face was calm and set, her mouth was closed with disillusionment. (22-3)
IIIfrom:After a moment she called: (23)
to:They were evidently cut down from a man's clothes. (45-6)
IVfrom:As they went towards the house he tore at the ragged wisps of Chrysanthemums… (47-8)
to:Suddenly the engine loomed past the house and came to a stop opposite the gate. (59-60)

Of these phases, I and II present a clear descriptive unity; in I an environment is described, while II shifts to a description of the woman. Phase IV begins as Phase I ends, with an allusion to the chrysanthemums, and returns to 'environmental' description; thus, in formal marking and in content it, too, is fairly well defined. Only Phase III is irregular, not so obviously devoted to a single purpose (e.g. describing a background or a personality), shifting back and forth between speech and description, leaving unanswered certain questions of character and behaviour. In this very lack of closure it is the vital centre of the text, a seed of narration rather than a descriptive ground.

In the shifts from phase to phase, the mode of narration alters in relationship to the content. A rough account of these changes is presented in the following table:

I1-14DescriptionAn environment
II14-16, 17-23DescriptionA woman placed in the environment: her relationship to it by implication discordant
III24-6Direct speech, with some descriptive intrusionsThe woman and a child in confrontation
IV47-60Descriptions, with one brief intrusion of direct speechWoman and child together confronting the environment

This requires some amplificatory comment. Phase II consists in effect of two separate passages of description (11-14, 15-21), in the first of which the woman makes a 'dynamic' entry into the scene, while second she holds something of a 'static' pose. This shift is reflected in stylistic details to be discussed presently. Another feature which is necessarily overlooked in the tabular account is the role, in Phase III, of what are called 'descriptive intrusions' (31-4, 38, 42-6). It is in fact through these, and not through speech, that the boy is presented. He speaks only one word; otherwise it is the woman whose is heard in this bleak setting, and whose character is reflected in reporting tags or style adjuncts - said distinctly (25), asked sternly (30), said more gently (39).

The salient point of this development is the involvement of the human figures with each other and with their shiftily animated surroundings. (By 'human figures' I mean of course the woman and the boy; the miners are neutralised figures, mere shadows in the dusk of industry.) The environment has a suppressive power which is hinted at in the figurative language of Phase I (e.g. clutched at the house, as if to claw down the tiled roof, 7-8), and which is quite strongly established for the reader by the time he reaches Phase IV. In the responses of the woman towards her surroundings we sense both antagonism and a helpless resignation; while the boy appears as the victim of an anxious parental concern that expresses itself in fruitlessly punitive gestures (cf. raspberry canes that rose like whips (32), where the environmental detail indirectly suggests the threat of punishment for disobedience). Woman and boy alike are engaged in a struggle to exert an individual will, against each other and against the conditions that overwhelm them.

© Walter Nash
February 2010

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