Friday, July 30, 2021

Roses in Literature

Is anything else quite like a rose? They are likely to appear somewhere on the top ten of anyone's favourite flower list, if not the very first. No doubt this is because they please our senses. They look gorgeous, their petals are soft and silky, and their distinctive scent is not only heavenly but different for each colour. Yet their thorny stems give them an unpleasant side, as anyone who's ever been pricked can testify. Since I've had my fair share of bleeding fingers from vase accidents, I've decided roses are a lot like people. There is both good and bad, nasty and nice, lurking within the same individual. And this dual character emerges in our favourite stories.  

I'll start off with some romantic rose incidents to make us heave sighs of contentment.  

Wives and Daughters

The sweet heroine Molly Gibson presents a rose to Roger Hamley, the young man she has secretly loved for many years. He's about to depart on a long scientific expedition to Africa and it's a farewell gesture. Tragically, the author Elizabeth Gaskell died suddenly before writing the final chapter. But she'd revealed to her publisher that she intended for Roger to bring the dried rose back to Molly, as proof of his deep and enduring affection for her. (My review is here.)

Romeo and Juliet

 This play's famous line about roses has reached proverb status. It's Juliet's heartfelt declaration to Romeo that his belonging to the despised Montague clan means nothing to her, for wouldn't a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Technically, Juliet is probably correct, which accounts for the fame of her speech. But some people argue that the phonetic sound of words does count for something, hence roses may indeed lose an edge of their charm if they were called skunkweeds or cabbages. I'm never drawn into philosophical disputes of this nature, since neither side tends to back down and both seem to present a fair case. 

Jo's Boys

It's the final novel of Louisa May Alcott's famous series. Meg's son, Demi Brooke, offers his sweetheart Alice Heath three white roses in the form of a tight bud, a half unfurled flower and a full-blown beauty. He writes a note inviting her to pin one or more of them on her dress at a busy function, to silently signal whether or not she might be inclined to accept his marriage proposal. Or if we're really splitting hairs, this actually is his marriage proposal, and the presence of the roses will be her reply. Cop-out or not, it's a lovely chapter in an entertaining book. (Here is my chat/review)

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

This Anne Bronte novel is regarded as one of the earliest and most influential feminist texts. Toward the end, heroine Helen Huntingdon virtually proposes marriage to Gilbert Markham, the man she loves. She plucks a half blown winter rose and offers it to him, declaring that since it has withstood hardships of its own which no summer flower could possibly bear, this rose represents herself. She explains it in such a meaningful way, he'd be a blockhead not to twig. In this way, Helen shows that a woman can make a bold and decisive move in a tasteful and thoughtful manner. (My review is here.)

Okay, now for some other stories which highlight a more sinister or negative side of roses. I guess we may claim that these authors have chosen to emphasize the thorns. 

Alice in Wonderland

Everyone knows the Queen of Hearts will lose her cool big time, because her gardeners have accidentally planted white roses, but she wanted red. Now the poor guys are hurrying to paint them fast, to avoid having their heads snipped off. This incident has become a great analogy for any time somebody attempts to hide the truth or cut corners. (Here's my visual write-up about hanging with Alice)

Moby Dick

Captain Ahab has declared war on the big white whale, but whenever the good ship Pequod encounters another vessel, it's such a rare occurrence the crew record it with great significance. The stinkiest whaling ship they ever come across is named The Rosebud, and it's full of rotten fish carcasses. Surely this is Herman Melville's way of pointing out that names and reputations can be deceptive. (My review is here)

A Tale of Two Cities

The formidable Madame Defarge always adds a rose to her hat to signify the presence of possible spies or supporters of the French monarchy to her cutthroat band of revolutionaries. In this manner, she deceptively uses an object of great beauty for shady or hostile purposes. Madame Defarge trusts that nobody will ever figure her system out, and nobody does, because a lovely rose disarms everybody. So take care folks! (Here is my review)

Beauty and the Beast

This classic fairy tale ends well, but its famous rose causes devastation at the start. A loving merchant plucks a beautiful rose to bring home to his precious daughter, because it's the only treat she requested. Alas, he chooses the wrong person's garden to snip from. That rose tears a family apart. Poor Belle is estranged from her father and forced to live as a prisoner of the beast in whose garden it grew.  

So those are my choice of several books focusing on some of the best of worst moments of this most classic flower, and I love them all. But my favourite rose story of all combines both petals and thorns in a masterly manner.

Imagine a drumroll please ...

The Little Prince

The charming titular character has left behind a dear friend on his tiny planet, who he adores although sometimes she annoys him chronically. It's a beautiful rose, who is believed to represent the real life woman loved by the author, Antoine de Saint-Exupery. In the story, the Little Prince assumes his own rose friend is unique, and he's deeply crestfallen to discover that there are millions of others just like her on planet earth. But after some reflection, he decides that his own friend really is as totally special as he first thought, because she is his rose. It's one of the loveliest reminders to treasure our friends and family because of all we've been through together. (More in my review.)

My take-away from roses is that we must be gracious enough to accept the bad along with the good. Sure, we can enjoy their beauty and fragrance, but we must be prepared to take their thorns in our stride too, for they are part of the rose's nature. And if we extend this understanding to a flower, let's do it with our fellow humans too. Now, over to you.  If you can think of any other memorable story incidents involving roses spring to mind, do leave a comment.      


  1. I think of North and South by Gaskell

    1. Thanks Becky, good one. Along with Wives & Daughters, Gaskell was big on roses 🌹

  2. Oh, Wives and Daughters! How could I forget! Dear Molly and Roger. 💕

  3. Oh, Wives and Daughters, how could I forget! Dear Molly and Roger. 💕 You always amazes me with these creative posts, Paula!

    1. Thank you, Melodee ❤️ I love Molly and Roger! Probably due a re-read of Wives & Daughters soon, but that could be any time.