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Sons and Lovers | Symbols

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Swing

The swing symbolizes the back-and-forth nature of Paul and Miriam's relationship. At times Paul feels overwhelmed with love for Miriam, and a moment later, hatred. He wants to have sex with Miriam, but as soon as he does, realizes he's not really interested in her. Although it seems the couple are destined to end up together, every time their relationship moves forward, it quickly swings back to where they started. The act of swinging symbolizes sex, with the constant reference to "back and forth" and "thrusting"—just as in their sexual relationship, Paul begs Miriam on the swing, "Won't you really go any farther?" The way Paul and Miriam approach the swing symbolizes the way they view their sexuality. Paul swings "negligently," using his entire body and thoroughly enjoying the ride, but "suddenly he [puts] on the brake and [jumps] out." This symbolizes the way Paul is willing to throw himself into a relationship with Miriam but suddenly decides the "ride" is over. In contrast, Miriam approaches the swing timidly, filled with fear each time she feels herself in Paul's arms: "She could never lose herself" on the swing, just as she could never lose herself in the relationship.

Fire

Fire often symbolizes passion. The burning passion Paul feels for Miriam in Part 2, Chapter 7 is described this way: "the whole of his blood seemed to burst into flame" and "an enormous orange moon" fills the sky. After sleeping with Clara for the first time, Paul feels as if he and Clara "were licked up in an immense tongue of flame," and after, that he "had known the baptism of fire in passion." For Clara the desire to be with Paul feels like "a drop of fire" in her chest that burns brighter when he ignores her at the factory.

Fire can also take on a negative connotation, perhaps warning of the dangers of passion. When Paul and Miriam are absorbed with each other, food regularly burns, including bread at Paul's house and potatoes at Miriam's. When William burns his love letters to appease his mother's jealousy, fire symbolizes the destructive force of Mrs. Morel's passionate love for her sons. As long as she loves him, no one else can. Finally, when Paul burns Annie's waxen doll, the fire foreshadows the way he will treat Miriam and his mother later in the novel. After breaking the doll Paul feels repulsed and must dispose of what he has broken. He burns the doll, just as he symbolically "burns" his relationship with Miriam and "snuffs out" his mother's life after breaking their hearts.

Stockings

Stockings in a sense symbolize women's confinement. In Sons and Lovers women are confined by many expectations. Mrs. Morel and Miriam long to get an education and pursue literary dreams but aren't considered priorities in households where boys also need an education. Although the women have some minor outlets for their curiosities—Mrs. Morel joins the women's league and Miriam studies alongside Paul—they are relegated to domestic duties like caring for the children, running the house, and tending the farm. Their roles are as traditional as the confining stockings they wear.

Although Clara appears to be more liberated than her counterparts—she is a childless, sexually liberated suffragette who leaves her husband. Clara works a menial factory job making, quite fittingly, spiral stockings. Even Paul feels the constraint when spending the night at Clara's house. He longs to sleep with Clara but cannot because it would be unseemly. He sees a pair of stockings on the chair and "puts them on himself." The act highlights his desire to feel close to Clara but also symbolizes the constraint of not being able to have her.

Questions for Symbols

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