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Home >> Picking a Flower ...


by Gert Hans Wengel                                                       German version                                                        

Picking a flower (deflowering) symbolises the notion of taking a woman’s virginity – it is an ancient metaphor which appears so often that it can be classified as an archetype, i.e. as an idea inherent in all people. This is apparent even from the etymology. Defloration is derived from flos, floris, the Latin word for “flower” or “blossom”, because its original meaning was “to steal a flower or blossom from a girl”. The same applies to the verb to deflower.

This symbolism is also evoked in the dream of a young girl, mentioned by Freud in his The Interpretation of Dreams. One of his colleagues, Alfred Robitsek, had a patient whose native language was English. While she was not neurotic, she was “rather prude” and “conservative”, and was facing many obstacles in the lead-up to her imminent marriage. She dreamt she was “arranging the centre of a table with flowers for a birthday“, using “expensive flowers; one has to pay for them”. Robitsek interpreted the birthday she was preparing for in the dream as the birth of a child which was preoccupying her, and the picked or cut flowers as a symbol that she would have to be deflowered in order for this to happen. The fact that the flowers were “expensive” and “had to be paid for” meant she would be giving her virginity, expecting in return “a rich love life”, and presumably also financial support from her husband. When questioned as to the type of flowers, she responded “lilies of the valley, violets and pinks or carnations”. Robitsek then asked her what she immediately associated with these flowers – a method used in psychoanalytical dream interpretation. In doing so, Freud’s colleague “carefully” avoided “suggesting the meaning of this symbolism to her”. She associated the violets with to violate, thus expressing “a masochistic trait” and probably also the subliminal desire for her husband’s forceful approach to help her overcome her insecurity and conservative prudishness, enabling her to fulfil her yearning for motherhood. Her first thought in relation to the carnations was incarnation – she wanted to fall pregnant. She associated the lilies of the valley with “purity”, which also made sense to Robitsek, as the lily is a traditional symbol of the virginity the bride is willing to sacrifice. We dare to take Robitsek’s interpretation one step further by reiterating that incarnation is a religious term denoting the Christ Child’s embodiment in flesh in Mary’s lap, and that the lily particularly symbolises Mary’s virginity,  hence it also being known as the Madonna lily. It figures on almost all paintings by the Old Masters portraying the Annunciation. The Archangel Gabriel is holding a white Madonna lily when he announces to Mary that God will impregnate her through the Holy Ghost; in some paintings, the lily appears in a vase. This flower symbolises Mary’s virginal purity, which remains intact thanks to the Immaculate Conception. Since a plucked flower is an ancient symbol of deflowering, however, it can also be interpreted as meaning that Mary becomes pregnant naturally; the Immaculate Conception is a Christian invention which demonises sexuality as something dirty, animalistic and sinful. This was a foreign concept to pre-Christian religions: Women in ancient mythology, such as Europa and Leda, for example, were no longer virgins after being impregnated by Zeus. Christianity reframed the picked flower as being a symbol of asexual purity. The incarnation which came to the patient’s mind to represent the pregnancy she was hoping for, and which was to be of a biological and animalistic rather than a divine, miraculous nature, fits with the original, uncorrupted meaning of the Madonna lily which continues to live on in the human subconscious to which it has been displaced.
The order in which the patient named the three flowers – “lilies of the valley, violets and … carnations”, can similarly be no coincidence. She is initially a virgin, represented by the lily as a Christian symbol (and also filled with the desire to be deflowered and pregnant, symbolised by the lilies, as picked flowers, she was using to decorate the table), then taken by force on her wedding night, symbolised by the violets, resulting in pregnancy, or incarnation.

The violence aspect also appears in Goethe’s poem Heathrose about a rosebud which is picked by a young boy:

Once a boy a Rosebud spied,
Heathrose fair and tender,
All array'd in youthful pride,–
Quickly to the spot he hied,
Ravished by her splendour.
Rosebud, rosebud, rosebud red,
Heathrose fair and tender!

Said the boy, "I'll now pick thee,
Heathrose fair and tender!"
Said the rosebud, "I'll prick thee,
So that thou'lt remember me,
Ne'er will I surrender!"
Rosebud, rosebud, rosebud red,
Heathrose fair and tender!

Now the cruel boy must pick
Heathrose fair and tender;
Rosebud did her best to prick,–
Vain 'twas 'gainst her fate to kick–
She must needs surrender.
Rosebud, rosebud, rosebudred,
Heathrose fair and tender!

The rose, with its blossom and thorns, symbolises a young girl described by Goethe as “morgenschön”, meaning “as beautiful as the morning”, in the original German. The blossom plucked by the boy represents her virginity and beauty, which is akin to a morning, because her youthful charm and grace will fade when she becomes a woman and mother. She resists being deflowered by scratching and pricking the violator with her thorns, but cannot escape her fate.

Even in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the flower symbolises what Goethe calls “morgenschön”, the graceful maiden’s charm, which fades after she loses her virginity and falls pregnant. In Shakespeare’s work, a virgin refuses to marry the man chosen for her by her father. She is faces the threat of being sent to a nunnery as punishment, and is warned:

But earthlier happy is the rose distill'd
Than that which withering on the virgin thorn
Grows, lives, and dies in single blessedness.

This comparison is not romantic; nothing is euphemised. The nun, the asexual and therefore barren bride of Christ, whose girlish beauty is not picked, but rather remains on the bush and withers away without bearing fruit, is contrasted against the “earthly”, i.e. natural, fate of the married girl, whose flower is harvested and processed, distilled, to extract rose water, which is used to flavour desserts. While the flower itself is consumed here, its fragrance, its charm, its beauty is preserved and passed onto her child, who is symbolised by the rose water.

Jorinde, in Grimm’s fairytale Jorinde and Joringel, is also threatened with the fate of withering away unpicked. When the virginal maiden goes into a dark forest with her lover and fiancé Joringel “so that they can talk in private”, meaning get intimate, her mood changes to one of despondent depression, which also rubs off on Joringel. What is Jorinde afraid of? This is revealed to us by the song she sings. She saw a turtle dove in the forest, i.e. a bird which symbolises the lovers, but sings “miserably”, and she compares herself to this creature, calling it “my little bird with ring so red”. In this situation, she obviously appears as a turtle dove which feels uncomfortable in its own skin. What does the red ring mean? Jorinde is referring to the typical red rings around turtle doves’ pupils, but it also has another, subliminal meaning: A ring can have things stuck through it; for Freudians, it is a symbol of the vagina. And the red colour represents the blood which will flow when Jorinde is deflowered. In other words, she is afraid of losing her virginity and becoming a woman and mother, and is shying away from this step which will end her carefree childhood. As such, the pair’s first act of sexual intercourse does not eventuate, and they realise too late that they have come dangerously close to the castle of the wicked witch, embodied by Jorinde’s mother. She transforms Jorinde into a nightingale, which she keeps in captivity and feeds every day like a mother does her child. In other words, Jorinde has fled back to her childhood, back to her mother, with whom she is protected against deflowering, but also has no freedom.
Joringel, however, picks a blood-red flower containing magic powers, and uses it to free Jorinde from her witch-mother’s spell. The picking of the flower of course means loss of virginity, and its red colour symbolises the blood that will flow in the process: It makes Jorinde a woman, his woman, tearing her away from her mother and out of her childhood.

Little Maria, in the 1931 horror film Frankenstein, is still much too young to be torn out of her childhood. She finds herself unsupervised on the shores of a lake when the monster appears in front of her. She does not get frightened, but instead innocently invites it to play the “flower game” – probably the most fatal children’s game in film history. She has a bunch of flowers and gives the monster half. The two of them throw their flowers into the water to see how they float. The monster is overjoyed to adopt the role of playmate, and when he no longer has any flowers left, he comes up with the idea of continuing the game by throwing Maria into the water, because in his childlike naivety, he believes it will be fun for her to float like the flowers. But she sinks and drowns, and he flees in horror. In treating the young girl like one of the plucked flowers, he is not being driven by evil, but instead most likely the film’s producer, because the “little Maria scene” has, like the human mind itself, a subconscious, a subtext: It is the suppressed desire of adult men to sexually abuse a young girl, to take her virginity, which is projected onto the monster. When the desperate father appears in the village carrying his dead child in his arms, a lynch mob forms to hunt down the presumed rapist and murder. This hunting scene plays out in Bavaria, but is fatally reminiscent of hunting scenes in the country in which the film was shot: A black man is accused of sexually assaulting a white girl, a lynching party results, they hunt down the alleged “black rapist” with dogs and torches and eventually burn him alive.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the monster victim bears the name of the Christian Mother of God, Maria (Mary). After all, the Madonna embodies purity unsoiled by base animalistic sexuality, and this ideal also applies to children, whom we imagine to be asexual, innocent, pure beings. This childlike purity is defiled by the Frankenstein monster, which treats the little girl like the other plucked flowers, i.e. deflowers her – as such, the monster embodies suppressed dirty desires which adults have for children.
And it is not just evil intentions towards young girls, but also towards women in general, which are projected on him, resulting in him being hunted and lynched: His victim, Maria, simultaneously symbolises a dishonoured white woman whose purity was considered a social ideal at the time of the film’s production. This is reflected in his next victim, whom he approaches in the role of “black rapist”. She is Elizabeth, the fiancée of his creator, Henry Frankenstein. The pair want to marry, and the Frankenstein home is decorated for the wedding reception; every room contains vases of flowers, including white flowers which are most likely Madonna lilies (1). Elizabeth is wearing a wedding dress whose white colour, like the white flowers which are or are reminiscent of Madonna lilies, represents the purity of the bride who is bringing her virginity to the marriage (2). She is anxious and nervous, because she senses an evil threat, and even Henry has trouble calming her down. When the monster enters her chamber through a window without her realising it, she takes a bunch of flowers out of a vase (it may be her bridal bouquet, ready for the wedding ceremony) as a way of having something to hold onto in her nervous state. Like in the little Maria scene, the monster thus encounters a female holding flowers, though Elizabeth does not give him any: She doesn’t want to play any flower game with him, instead screaming for help when she sees him and running away; she doesn’t want him to snatch the flowers she is holding onto for grim death. In this scene, too, they symbolise the act of deflowering, which the monster is threatening to do to her (3). After all, Henry Frankenstein is the one who should be deflowering her on their wedding night – but the monster wants to get in before his creator, and reaches for this forbidden fruit. It is a case of oedipal rebellion, because Frankenstein is the father of the monster; he is its maker, and his creation is now turning against him and wants to take his place. Once again, we see the white man’s fear of rebellion by the black man, for whom he claims the paternalistic position of father, whose underage children are and remain the blacks.

Maria and Elizabeth are both victims of the monster, which, in its role of “black rapist”, zeroed in on their virginal purity, symbolised by flowers. At the time the film was made, any girl who lost her virginity before marriage had much less chance of finding a husband, and particularly so if she had been “dishonoured” by a black man. Her only option then is to take her own life, like Flora did in the 1915 racist silent film The Birth of a Nation. Chased by a black man, the young white girl prefers to jump to her death off a cliff than be raped, because she has internalised the notion of what constituted an “ideal woman” at the time: A dishonoured woman is worthless and should be dead. This still applies today in patriarchal Islamic societies, and girls are constantly the victims of honour killings. Flora (4) jumping to her death could be seen as an honour suicide; an American Lucretia is pitched to white women as a role model. And Maria, who had been deflowered by a black man, may perhaps have been killed by her father if the monster, which serves as the scapegoat for the evil desires of white men, had not got in before him (5). Maria, the deflowered girl whose life ends in the water just like the flowers she has picked, is reminiscent of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet. She and Prince Hamlet love each other. But as the Reason of State forbids him from marrying her, she is warned by her father and brother not to allow him to get so close to her, so as to prevent her from being seduced by him and “opening” her “chaste treasure”, i.e. her virginity, “to his unmastered importunity” (I,3,31f.). But there is much to suggest that this has already happened, for when Hamlet pretends to be insane, rejects her and kills her father, she really does go insane, sings ambiguous folksongs about a deflowered girl who is left abandoned (IV,5), and distributes flowers she has picked to her brother, the king and the queen. The deflowered abandoned girl is her referring to herself, and the picked flowers she gives out symbolise the fact that she has frivolously given away “her treasure”, i.e. her virginity. She thus uses innuendo and gestures to confess that which has been weighing heavily on her heart, but which she is not allowed to admit openly in the patriarchal society. She eventually dies while collecting flowers for wreaths on the shores of a stream. When the willow branch she is holding onto breaks off, she falls into the water, taking the flowers with her:

There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook.          (IV,7,171-174)

The flowers she has picked are referred to as “trophies”, which fits, because Ophelia is just like them. She has become the prize, the victim, of Hamlet, the man who robbed her of her “treasure” or virginity, forcing her to wither away as a nun in a convent because no one else will marry her.
The flowers Ophelia picks and gives away symbolise the fact that she surrendered herself to Hamlet, that she gave herself to him, in other words, that she had sex with him – and this is also demonstrated by a salacious allusion relating to the long purples (
Orchis mascula) found among Ophelia’s flowers:

Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our could maids do dead men’s finger call them.     (IV, 7,167-170)  

This common, lewd name could be fool’s stones or dog stones, whereby stones mean “testicles”. Or priest pintell, a.k.a. “priest’s penis” – the orchis mascula was called this because its two tubers are reminiscent of testicles, making the entire plant look like a penis, and because it has been attributed with aphrodisiac properties (6). This sees us faced with a contradiction, because the name alluded to gives the long purples a phallic character and makes them male symbols. But plucked flowers – the topic of our text – stand for deflowered girls, and are thus female symbols. So do Ophelia’s long purples represent a man or a woman? The answer is both. They are an androgynous symbol of the union between man and woman, Hamlet and Ophelia, in a sexual act.

1) I’m not totally sure, however, whether these flowers, which are difficult to see, are Madonna lilies. If so, they would fit well with the lilies featuring in the dream of Robitsek’s patient.

2) As the lilies are in a vase, i.e. picked, they not only symbolise her virginity, but also her deflowering, which is planned for her wedding night.

3) In Black Frankenstein. The Making of an American Metaphor (p. 183), Elizabeth Young also demonstrates that the attacks on Maria and Elizabeth are thematically linked:
“In one sequence in Frankenstein, the monster enters Elizabeth’s room on her wedding night and corners her behind the locked door; the camera cuts to others hearing her screams, and when they break into her room, her white dress is disheveled, and she lies across one corner of the rumpled bed moaning desperately “Don’t let it come here.” Although the monster’s crime is officially the penetration of the room, his actions are framed precisely according to the imagery of interracial rape. The next scene metaphorically realizes the disastrous consequences of such a rape, when an angry young father displays to the crowd the body of his little girl, whom the monster has accidentally drowned.” 

4) Her name is symbolic: “Flora” comes from the Latin flos, floris for “flower, blossom”. The young girl has become sexually mature; metaphorically, we can also say she has blossomed, and her blooms attract men wanting to deflower her, meaning the white men have to watch out for her. Her name is also reminiscent of the Roman goddess Flora, who was the symbol of flowers and general springtime blossoming in nature.

5) Elizabeth Young, loc. cit., makes the following apt comments about Maria and Elizabeth: “By the end of this sequence, the black man has become the archetypical rapist, and the white woman, if not actually dead, has assumed the role, as Jaqueline Dowd Hall puts it, of ‘the quintessential Woman as Victim, polluted, >ruined for life<., the object of fantasy and secret contempt.”

6) Charlotte F. Otten: Ophelia’s “Long Purples” or “Dead Men’s Fingers”. In: Shakespeare Quarterly Vol. 30, No. 3 (1979).