Imagery is where the writer uses words to paint picture to help the reader visualise the subject being described. Imagery involves a comparison such as simile, metaphor or personification.
Most of the imagery in Sunset Song is drawn from nature. The theme of Chris' development, for example, is conveyed through parallels with the cycle of nature.
Towards the end of 'Ploughing' where Chris is conscious she is maturing physically, we are told that
she is no more than ploughed land still. The contrasting desires of the two Chrisses are compared to a furrowed field:
the furrows went criss and cross, you wanted this and you wanted that.
Her love for Ewan and her marriage is explicitly compared to a natural cycle: they decide to marry in winter
For was not the Spring to come and the seed-time springing of their love, and the bonny days of the summer, flowering it, and autumn with the harvest of their days? Seed-Time.
Metaphorically, the spell of good weather in 'Harvest' represents the early idyllic phase of their marriage: the weather had been
so good folk didn't believe it could last, there must soon be a break of the fine interplay of the last two months.
When Chris is pregnant and Ewan is
coaxing the straw to grow and grow, the connection between the two processes of natural growth is again pointed out:
she watched Ewan still – a mother with his child he was, the corn his as this seed of his hers, burgeoning and ripening, growing to harvest.
After the change in Ewan when he joins up, Chris is comforted by her closeness to nature: working at the night-stooking
a ghost of gladness would come to her then... night-birds whistling over the fields, so quiet, so quiet, stilling away the pain in her body, the pain in her heart that this reaping and harvesting had brought.
Another aspect of natural imagery is the frequent comparison of characters to animals:
Both Ewan and John Guthrie are often compared to a cat, particularly in connection with their strong sexual desires and their quick tempers.
Rev Gibbon is identified with a bull, signifying his lustful and brutish nature.
The pregnant Chris is compared to a cow which has connotations of fertility: the doctor tells her she has
a body as fine and natural and comely as a cow or a rose. The cow analogy also speaks to her dependability, resilience and productivity.
Mrs Munro is often compared to a weasel ('futret');
Mistress Munro, her that came to wash down the corpse, poked out her futret face. The image is appropriate as her appearance reflects her interfering manner.
Another unsympathetic minor character, Mrs Gordon, is described as a
meikle sow of a woman.
Beasts are referred to both literally and metaphorically. At the start of the book there is reference to an ancient legend of Cospatric killing a
When Ewan and Chris visit Edzell Castle, Ewan looks at pictures of such beasts and says he is
glad they'd all been killed.
The more educated Chris
knew right well such beasts had never been. However, later in the book, the beast image is used to describe things that are to be feared, such as the storm in 'Seed-Time'
in the sky outside a great beast moved and purred and scrabbled or the pain of childbirth
the beast moved away from her breasts, scrabbled and tore and returned again.
Images of childbirth are horrifying in the novel. In ‘Ploughing’ Chris's brother harshly informs her of the facts of life as their mother suffers painfully while giving birth to the twins –
it was as though mother was being torn and torn in the mouth of beasts.
Chris is afterwards terrorised by the smell of the doctor's hands:
... it was a horror that haunted Chris for a day and a night. Later in the novel, the moment she realises she is pregnant, she feels as if she
had struck against a stone, and tries to disguise the
stigmata of this thing that had come to her.
Stigmata is a religious 'sign' of the marks of the crucifixion appearing on a person. It is said that Catholic saints sometimes experienced spontaneous outpourings of blood from their hands and feet as a mark of their closeness to Christ and his suffereing.
Chris' thoughts of 'stigmata' may refer to her empathy for her mother's sense of terror as her pregnancies progressed. The stone metaphor could be interpreted as a troubling sign of the permanence of the change that is happening to her – after pregnancy, her life and body will never be the same.
The death of her mother leaves a permanent image of quiet loss on Chris' mind. This life-changing event causes the English Chris to perish:
... and the dreams died with it, and you folded them up in a paper of tissue and laid them away by the dark, quiet corpse that was your childhood.
The death of the English Chris is equated with the death of childhood and innocence. However, the life that Chris chooses – a life on the land – should not be equated with straightforwardly harsh reality.
She loves the land and chooses to be married to it as much as she chooses marriage to Ewan.