Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1699
Sea and Sardinia, though written quickly, contains several motifs which lend it coherence. The first of these, which appears at its very beginning and which readers of Lawrence’s Fantasia of the Unconscious (1922) will probably recognize, is the antithesis of movement and inertia. Lawrence is determined that the time has come to go somewhere and he questions only what the destination will be. He enumerates various possibilities (Girgenti in southern Sicily, Syracuse on the southeastern coast, Tunis in North Africa) but eliminates them all. The surrounding scenery is exquisite, but Lawrence feels impelled to go—anywhere, but obviously not anywhere, since he eliminates all possibilities save for the comparatively primitive and difficult-to-reach island of Sardinia. Movement, so Lawrence contends in Fantasia of the Unconscious, is identifiable with the male and that which is masculine. Conversely, immutability, permanence, and inertia are feminine. Lawrence believes that since the Renaissance, man has largely entered the female mode; thus, Sea and Sardinia, in its first pages at least, is filled with an almost manic passion for movement.
Paradoxically, on the morning scheduled for their journey to begin, it is Frieda, referred to only as the queen-bee and subsequently as the q-b, who provides all the impetus and enthusiasm the trip requires. It is she who prepares the tea, sandwiches, and apples to pack in the satchel (called the “kitchenino”) which she will carry. All the while, Lawrence laments about his stopped American watch, the darkness, the threatening weather, and almost everything else. It seems a major effort to get beyond his own garden wall, and once outside the single feature of landscape clearly visible in the morning darkness is Mount Etna. Lawrence perceives even the volcano as a symbol of inertia, and he believes that he must escape. Etna, for him, is a “mistress,” a Circe-like witch who drives men mad. These details portray the trip as a masculine assertion, though only in its conception, a spontaneous Homeric adventure with Lawrence as a modern Odysseus.
It is clear by the start of the trip, however, that Lawrence is no Odysseus. Immediately upon arriving at the railroad station, he starts noting, inevitably in unflattering ways, the types of Sicilians with whom he is traveling. Either they are enormously fat or (less often) grotesquely thin; they are loud, and those men who are commuting to office jobs in Messina are vainly proud of the clothes which distinguish them from their fellow travelers who are laborers or factory workers. Repeatedly in Etruscan Places, Lawrence admires the Italian willingness to touch and be touched, seeing it as the naturalness which distinguishes them from northern Europeans, but here he finds it merely a distasteful and typical affectation.
Lawrence is equally repelled by the greasy, narrow sidewalks and filthy streets of Palermo. Again, he finds these, as well as the delays encountered on the relatively brief railroad trip to the steamer, intolerable and typically Italian. Lawrence’s preoccupation with social classes and ethnic characteristics does not, however, allow him to see the inconsistency of his anger at being deprecatingly identified as English. In the midst of it all, he asserts his individuality, declaring that he is himself above all, that he owes nothing of his behavior to any class or group.
Lawrence particularly admires ritual wherever he sees or believes he sees it. In Twilight in Italy he is enamored of church architecture because he believes this preserves a living link with the past. In Etruscan Places, fanciful and often-inaccurate descriptions of tomb paintings at Tarquinia and Cerveteri sketch the Lawrentian positions on love, life, death, and resurrection. Sea and Sardinia contains similar motifs in Lawrence’s enthusiastic descriptions of a religious procession in the Sardinian village of Tonara and of an old man roasting a goat on an open fire in the inn at Sorgono. He most enjoys the antique detail and beauty of the costumes worn by those participating in the procession and compares the roaster’s fire to gold, but he decries the modern statue of Saint Anthony which stands by the altar, finds appalling the simpleminded sermon of the priest, and loathes the wretched inn at Sorgono. For nearly every positive impression, Lawrence discovers some negative element which reduces or cancels out the good he sees.
Ritual provides Lawrence with an element of timelessness and continuity which serves as an antidote to the movement of time, and he understands the word in the broadest possible sense as any action performed the same way over the course of many years and despite external circumstances. Ritual continuities thus become a motif in all Lawrence’s later writings, not only in Sea and Sardinia, and Lawrence sought them out as a means of establishing what he saw as uncorrupted natural primitivism, as a way of living which was free of the taint of modern intellectual civilization. In the years after World War I, he pursued this search with manic urgency. It would drive him to Mexico and result in Mornings in Mexico (1927), to the American Southwest, then to Etruscan Italy. In Sardinia, he hopes literally to discover the end of the earth but is nearly always disappointed in what he finds.
Lawrence’s search for uncorrupted primitivism on Sardinia inevitably leads him to seek close contact with its peasantry, but his English reserve, coupled with his marginal Italian and the peasant inclination to distrust outsiders, never allows any meaningful encounter. He observes the costume of a handsome, elderly peasant in Cagliari; the man’s leather vest becomes a cuirass, his hat an ancient Phrygian warrior’s cap. Though he admires the man’s appearance, modern etiquette allows no personal contact. Ironically, circumstances often force conversation when Lawrence does not wish it; in such cases, Lawrence’s descriptions become a parody of his own ideas. An obese couple on the train to Palermo become a fat Jupiter and Juno, and Lawrence mocks their middle-class superiority and fastidious attention to clothing.
In fact, Lawrence is all too aware of his own middle-class Edwardian background, and he vacillates between flaunting it (as, for example, when he finds himself in a restaurant which does not serve coffee because there is no sugar) and asserting his preference for traveling in third class because there is space, air, good spirits, and lively conversation. When he finds himself in a third-class railway coach, however, he is appalled by the boorishness of his traveling companions and, on one occasion, is nauseated by a young woman with motion sickness.
Such inconsistencies will perplex the reader who looks for coherent philosophy in Sea and Sardinia, but their candor reveals Lawrence as he was: earnest, often naive, all too aware of his inner conflicts, and given to relentless self-deprecation and parody. At Mandas, Lawrence tries to be affable; in the manner of many travelers having a less than perfect trip but not entirely willing to admit it, he proclaims to the innkeeper how much he likes the Sardinians. When the innkeeper presses him to say why, Lawrence responds that it is because they are more open and honest than the Sicilians. At this, the innkeeper frowns suddenly and turns away. Only then does one of the diners tell Lawrence that the innkeeper himself is Sicilian.
Despite such encounters, one after the next, the Lawrences bravely follow their itinerary, moving from one village to the next northward through Sardinia. Increasingly, Frieda becomes angry with Lawrence’s impatience and tendency to romanticize. At Sorgono, she rejects his search for nonexistent moral ideals, and her anger makes Lawrence all the more sullen. He curses all of his thoughts about a noble peasantry and the q-b as well for interfering with his anger. This scene marks the low point of the Lawrences’ odyssey and emphasizes the masculine character of the trip Lawrence had planned against its unsatisfactory reality. When the Lawrences leave Sorgono, without having had breakfast or even dinner the night before, it is in the first-class section of the bus, though Lawrence rationalizes that this will allow them to see better.
Perhaps it is the accumulated effect of these experiences which causes Lawrence to begin his sketch on the village of Nuoro with a panegyric to the glories of the modern automobile. His seat on the bus from Sorgono has, at least for a time, altered his black mood, even if at the expense of his social theories. The food is better at Nuoro, and the end of the journey is in sight. Lawrence is extravagant in his praise of both the meal and his host at Nuoro, and by way of contrast with his reception at Sorgono he notes its moderate cost. Another peasant girl experiences motion sickness, but the good meal and decent manners of the Nuoroesi allow Lawrence to cope with the situation with considerably more grace than he had displayed on the train to Palermo.
On the road to Terranova, their final stop before boarding the steamer, the Lawrences are again weary, and Lawrence is predictably irritable. There is the usual disappointing search for food and complaints about a much less satisfactory bus than the one which took them from Nuoro. This time, in a curious analogy which could describe Lawrence himself, he christens his new driver “Hamlet”; this epithet is presumably based on the driver’s searching, abstracted expression and lean appearance, but it becomes humorous when a peasant boards with two little pigs, one in each arm, and is required to pay full fare for each.
The Lawrences’ journey is circular, beginning and ending on Sicily and connected by an often-difficult ride up the Sardinian coast. Since it is a hero’s odyssey, at least in the Lawrentian sense, it is fitting that Lawrence introduces one final motif: death and resurrection. As they pass through Orosei, throbbing with the reflected light of the sea, and look on its gray houses and olive groves, Lawrence’s thoughts suddenly turn to death. The difficulties somehow make possible the triumphant unity he feels with the Italian audience with whom he attends a play in Civitavecchia. When the play is over, he vigorously shakes the hand of the man sitting beside him, glad to have come through it all.
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