In Serena, how does the image of cutting and scarring manifest throughout the novel? In order to answer this question, examine the physical, the metaphorical, the environmental, and the...

In Serena, how does the image of cutting and scarring manifest throughout the novel? In order to answer this question, examine the physical, the metaphorical, the environmental, and the psychological imagery of them, differentiating between each, using specific examples.

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The New York Times review of Ron Rash's novel Serena observes,

With bone-chilling aplomb, linguistic grace and the piercing fatalism of an Appalachian ballad, Mr. Rash lets the Pembertons’ new union generate ripple after ripple of astonishment. Pemberton controls a vast lumber empire, and Serena quickly makes herself its regal overseer.

This control exerted by Pemberton and his deceptively-named wife Serena is one wielded with violence to both humans and the environment, and images of cutting and scarring abound.


1. A bowie knife is on the person of Abe Harmon who meets George Pemberton and his bride Serena from Colorado when they arrive on the train from Boston. He confronts Pemberton about his daughter's baby whom he fathered, but Serena calmly tells him he will receive no assistance from her husband. Harmon pulls out his knife and 

The blade caught the late afternoon sun and for that brief moment it appeared Harmon held a glistening flame in his hand....

When he lunges at Pemberton,it is too late as Pemberton stabs him in the heart. Calmly Serena hands Rachel Harmon the knife that has killed her father, metaphorically severing all ties between Rachel and the father of her unborn child. Psychologically, Rachel feels bereft, now completely on her own without a father because the mother left years ago.

2. In Chapters 10 and 11, several men die from accidents and men are bitten frequently by rattlesnakes. After Campbell kills one, Serena orders the snakes brought to her. Later, she brings her trained eagle that swoops down upon the snakes and kills them.  When one falls from its talons onto the self-appointed preacher McIntyre, who has already prophesied doom, he lies in a stupor from the shock. 

Of course, the metaphorical significance of the biting snakes cannot be missed as the serpent represents evil and even the Devil himself. Psychologically, McIntyre is destroyed as he is committed to a "nervous hospital" and later is given electric shock therapy.

3.In Chapter 18 as the men cutting timber lose their footing easily in the mud, Galloway, who has done five years in prison for murdering two men, shows a young lead chopper where to make the uncut on a thick white oak when the seventeen-year-old slips and the saw cuts off Galloway's hand. Quickly, Serena dismounts from her horse, cuts the reins and makes a tourniquet that works to stem the flow of blood and save his life. After he heals, Galloway follows Serena "in the manner of a dog taught to heel"; owing her his life, he becomes her henchman because he can no longer work cutting timber. Galloway is certainly emasculated now and he is psychologically reduced to a servant for Serena.

4. In Chapter 19 two more accidents occur. A cable line breaks, killing a man, and a "skidder's boom swung a fifty-pound tong into a man's skull." By now, the men are so psychologically shattered that they carrying crosses and talismen with them to ward off the evil.

5. In Chapter 22 Dr. Cheney, who has become suspicious of the alarming number of deaths among the workers, is killed in Ashville, supposedly by a hobo, but Henryson wonders aloud why he was not, then, robbed of his train ticket and money. This killing certainly unnerves the men. For instance, when Ross asks Henryson if he knows anyone who "does any doctoring," Henryson replies that he does not.

"...but even if he did, I'd as lief have him stick to the logging. At least you got a chance to dodge a tree or axe blade. I ain't of a mind to say the same of Galloway" [whom they suspect of Cheney's murder]

6. In Chapter 26 Sheriff McDowell informs Pemberton that the Widow Jenkins's throat was slit and intimates that his wife and "that henchman of hers" are involved. Before this incident, Harris dies, so Henryson worries that Webb might be next. McDowell tries to get Rachel and Jacob to a safe place as it seems that that the perpetrators are seeking her and her child.


In the latter chapters of the novel, with the shooting of Buchanan, Pemberton's partner and the death of Harris, who was seeking under the ground for wealth [environmental scarring] and working outside the circle of Serena and her husband, Ross comments that men "are falling dead as fast as trees." And, preacher McIntyre still has not spoken; in addition, Campbell and Joel Vaughn have disappeared.

  • Physical scarring

1. In Chapter 32, Pemberton wakes to the smell of smoke and fire, while the sheriff calmly sits on a lawn chair, watching as he holds a can of kerosene. This burning alludes to Serena's having set fire to her home in Colorado before leaving it.

2. Galloway loses a hand, his mother is blind, but her prophesy about his comes true as her vision of two crowns leads him Kingsport and Kingston, Tennessee, and following Rachel and her son.

3. In Chapter 35, McIntyre finally speaks, saying "the scorched earth is like the end of the world" after he sees the devastation of logging as the forests have been stripped of trees. [environmental scarring]

4. Serena is physically scarred in a sense, for because of physical injury to her reproductive parts, she can no longer have any children 

  • Psychological scarring

1. Preacher McIntyre suffers from psychological scarring as he becomes mute and must undergo institutionalization and shock therapy.

2. So, too, is Rachel scarred by Pemberton's rejection of her and the tragedy of Widow Jenkins and her frightening flight from death.

In their conversations about how the weather and atmosphere affect people, one of the lumber men remarks about evil, 

“You can’t see it no more than you can see air, but when it’s all around you sure enough know it.”

As one critic notes, the Pemberton-ravaged land begins to look like the battlefields of World War II. And, it seems, the people, too, feel as the war-weary soldiers must have felt after witnessing death after death.

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