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Part One

The Victim and the Sacrificial Knife”1: Lawrence’s Transatlantic Fantasies in “The Woman Who Rode Away”

Philippe Birgy


Nous nous proposons dans ces pages de procéder à l’étude d’une des nouvelles mexicaines de D. H. Lawrence à partir d’un présupposé que l’on pourra trouver dommageable à l’intégrité de la fiction : celui selon lequel l’auteur se projette et s’incarne dans le texte. L’entrée dans la nouvelle ne peut en effet se faire que maladroitement puisque l’on se trouve singulièrement démuni si l’on ignore le récit autobiographique de Lawrence. Or, la nouvelle requiert précisément de son lecteur non pas une candeur ou une innocence qui serait suspecte aux yeux de l’auteur mais une disponibilité, voire un abandon à l’élan fictionnel – toute chose que l’on pourra trouver nihiliste et morbide. Le texte nous engage à nous départir de tout équipement lectorial qui nous permettrait de conserver une position critique digne.

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Auteurs étudiés :

David Herbert Lawrence
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  • 1 This part of my title is borrowed from T.S. Eliot’s review of Son of Woman by J.M. Murry.
  • 2 This is not a particularly costly admission, for we do not have to consider it as an intrinsic qual (...)
  • 3 “The oriental tale not only paved the way for the Gothic novel, for example Beckford’s Vathek (1786 (...)

1Let us consider, for the sake of our present argument, that the defining characteristic of the short story is to be devoid of any defining characteristic as a genre.2 Such a possibility does not necessarily imply that it is directionless, that it is not driven by some impetus that pushes it onward, but simply that it is not meant to achieve a destination. In this sense, it yearns towards the unknown. Consequently, it will often manifest a certain unrest, a yearning for displacement and disorientation, and more prosaically, for a change of scenery.3 Lawrence more than occasionally used the form because it was conducive to sketches, that is: not perfectly rounded or all-encompassing representations, but figurations of privileged moments, points of intensity.

2Among the things that would negatively define the short story, then, it would lack a definite nationality or locality. It would be a clean slate, which may precisely explain why it lends itself so readily to many authorial designs, to the consignment of a traveler’s impressions and the inscription of local color (and indeed there is ample evidence of varieties of regional short stories). But just as readily, it will accommodate introspective meditations and metaphysical musings.

3If it houses so much, it is less because of any predisposition than because of the manner in which the modernists have reclaimed it as a space for experimentation (Head). Con Coroneos and Trudi Tate (Coroneos and Tate 104) observe that for Lawrence, indeed, the short story was such a laboratory, a place intended for preparatory sketches that would contribute to the elaboration of his novels. Moreover, the format was particularly adapted to circulation through the little magazines whose cosmopolitan vocation made it a vehicle for international (predominantly transatlantic) transit and exchange of artistic propositions.

4In time, definitions of the short story have proliferated. From the early insistence on the integrity of the moment, on concentration and dramatic unity (March-Russell 35), the stress has shifted to the magnification of the form, which problematizes it, to the dislocation of convention by the use of ellipses and other formal “discontinuities,” and the aesthetic and philosophical valorization of the fragment (Head 2). The short story that will be discussed below, “The Woman Who Rode Away,” certainly testifies to that fragmented and piecemeal constitution of the genre. In that text, the Indian village, polished by centuries of footsteps, appears to be the last preserve of a civilization on the verge of extinction. Likewise, the mining facility that encloses the heroine is described as a moorless piece of the industrial world that has outlived its function, the remainder of a failed project of expansion that is totally unrelated to its environment. As for the tale of regeneration to which the woman’s captors/hosts cling in the hope of restoring some old world order, however dignified, it is desultory and the ambivalence they display in their treatment of the heroine seems to betray the absence of any unity of purpose or universal design.

5If Lawrence was first discussed as a prophet and visionary figure and only later as an artist and wordsmith, eventually, in conformity with the author’s own requirements, the idea gradually gained currency that his engagement with the creative endeavor and the toil of writing was inseparable from the formulation of something that existed outside the rationalizations and thematisations of dominant language and its argumentative order, though it did not diminish its demonstrative force—only, all it had to demonstrate was its own vivid and persistent existence.

6As evidence of Lawrence’s early contribution to the transatlantic short story, one could put forward the sheer quantity of tales and sketches that he produced over his writing career as well as his prophetic pose fit to inspire and encourage literary vocations. Admittedly, he recommended with insistence the establishment of an artistic community as geographically removed as possible from England (Cavitch 33-4), and somehow, Mabel Dodge’s proposal to host a colony of artists at her ranch in Taos, to which Lawrence first responded favorably, sprang from the same intention. Yet for all that, Lawrence never approached the status of master that Henry James had enjoyed before him.

7Mark Kinkead-Weekes underscores the prevalence in Lawrence’s Mexican period of a “post-colonial” mode of approach to his subject, anticipating subaltern studies (Kinkead-Weekes 83). These appellations may raise suspicion for they definitely put the stress on the liabilities of past colonial policies, thus contributing to an “apotheosis of the victims” to which Lawrence was obviously too Nietzschean to subscribe. Yet one cannot deny that he incessantly probes the implications of colonization in his Mexican production, from the early sketches to St Mawr. They record his revulsion when first confronted to Indian culture, but also an artist’s determination to face up to it and explore that disturbing feeling. It was not so much a matter of overcoming an initial distaste than one of sounding the depths of the feeling and discovering what it had to say about the writer’s personal fears and shortcomings. In the process, he eventually acknowledged a communal perception which was indistinguishable from a general sense of co-extensivity of the self with its natural environment. Yet as Kinkead-Weekes also observes, in “The Woman Who Rode Away,” the narrative remains suspended between the irreconcilable worldviews of the white woman and the Chilchui Indians.

8More significantly, perhaps, a contemporary appreciation of Lawrence’s Mexican writing requires that we acknowledge that the aesthetic and literary demands of Lawrence’s artistry are completely identified with the topoi of the journey, the meeting, and alterity, this with a definite emphasis on the necessity to experience them in the real world, and even Lawrence’s roundabout approach to America through an Eastern route, via Ceylon, Australia and Tahiti is given precise significance in this artistic experiment in living.

9As an introduction to this case study, we will expose a series of methodological presuppositions that will instantly throw the readers back in a time when certain practices of criticism were still in currency which have come to be judged untenable over the past decades. To begin with, in an attempt to keep as close as possible to the text of Lawrence’s Mexican short story, we will often lapse into a gloss of its content. Moreover, we will proceed from a premise that many will find highly damaging to the exercise of literary inquiry–namely that the author projects himself into his fiction.

10Decency as well as a certain sense of scholarly requisites demand that we offer some justification for such a dubious methodological choice, and we will in time deflect the blame on John Middleton Murry and T. S. Eliot. But before we reach this apologetic section of the present paper, let us at least warn the reader that our foray into the short story shall inevitably be awkward. The reason for this is that if we ignored Lawrence’s biography, the sum of all he has reportedly experienced in his career and in his life—a bulk of information which inscribes the story within a contextual frame—we would find ourselves at a loss about how to engage with “The Woman Who Rode Away.”

11This general sense of disorientation, we will argue, is the distinct manifestation of Lawrence’s authorial fiat. For the short story precisely commands its readers to renounce their sense of textual correctness and literary distinction and discard all critical or documentary body of knowledge about story-telling and writing. One hesitates to call this state of dispossession “candor” or “innocence,” Lawrence being highly suspicious of these, but we may safely describe it as a “willing suspension of disbelief,” since Lawrence certainly expected from his public a readiness to surrender to the flow of a compelling fictional impetus that he meant to drive the reader along. It may be that such a surrender, imperiously thrust upon the reader, is nihilistic and morbid, as the early commentators of Lawrence (Woolf, Eliot and Murry among them) were inclined to suspect. Inviting them to discard all the equipment that could have allowed them to maintain the dignity of a critical position, it demanded nothing less from readers than that they should live through the experience of the principal character, as she passively underwent the stripping off of her humanness—this after having herself actively sought out this fate.

12Indeed, the short story tracks the progress of a woman along a path that leads her to loss and extenuation. Bored with her domestic and conjugal life, the protagonist has decided to leave her husband and children behind to seek and establish contact with an Indian tribe which fascinates her because of their ancient way of living and uncouth primitive customs. Rumor even has it that they practice human sacrifice. Taking to the road, the young woman already knows what fate awaits her out there, in the wilderness. And this promptly invites the question of what she can be looking for, if not her own death. This question has been spontaneously treated by early Lawrentian critics as a biographical one, leading them back to the author: what was Lawrence looking for that he failed to come up against, whether traveling across the Tyrol, Italy, Australia or Ceylon?

13For, apparently, all that time, he had been in search of this thing. And commentators soon started to provide answers to the query: his quest was not focused on any tangible, hence graspable, object. Rather, he must have been trying to put a distance between himself and the “dirty little secret” of the oedipal family drama. He was certainly looking for something that would be an alternative to the double bind incessantly throwing Man back and forth between, on the one hand, the adoration of Woman as mother, her elevation to the status of a divinity at the cost of self-loathing and, on the other hand, the contempt for Woman, once the distance that guaranteed her aesthetic or spiritual worship was suppressed in physical embrace and profaned by promiscuousness (Lawrence, Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious).

14Deleuze and Guattari, as the prophets of anti-oedipianism, could hardly fail to welcome Lawrence’s enterprise. Understandably, they praised his attempts at escaping the bounds of the family triangle. Evading such determinations, he drew convoluted lines of flight across the deserts and towards the horizon, without a map or a master plan, making do with whatever was at hand, celebrating a wedding between two heterogeneous realms without any prospect for a binding contract of marriage (Deleuze 1980: 9-36). Admittedly, Lawrence risked himself in adventures without being able or feeling the need to establish what adventure consisted in. Yet what mattered was not any expectation he might have had about it, but what it produced.

15Today, as can be readily observed, the horizon of expectation that the term “adventure” unfolds is both very strictly codified and extremely varied. Everyone knows what they mean by it, according to the language game where the term is used. Now, precisely, “adventure” should not designate anything but the unexpected: that about which it is not yet possible to say or write a word. As early as the incipit of his story, Lawrence forces us to face the problems set by this notion, with this suggestion that the accomplishment of adventure is its self-annihilation.

She had thought that this marriage, of all marriages, would be an adventure. Not that the man himself was exactly magical to her. A little, wiry, twisted fellow, twenty years older than herself, with brown eyes and greying hair, who had come to America a scrap of a wastrel, from Holland, years ago, as a tiny boy, and from the gold-mines of the west had been kicked south into Mexico, and now was more or less rich, owning silver-mines in the wilds of the Sierra Madre: it was obvious that the adventure lay in his circumstances, rather than his person. But he was still a little dynamo of energy, in spite of accidents survived, and what he had accomplished he had accomplished alone. One of those human oddments there is no accounting for. (“The Woman Who Rode Away” 39)

16The vista was promising in that it featured the confrontation of Man and Woman spelling, in Lawrence’s view, the possibility of a discovery or unconcealment. David Cavitch, in his study of Lawrence and the New World, explains:

The marital relation was essential not only to sustain Lawrence’s ability to work, but also because woman was his major contact with unforeknown experience, his “communication with the unknown.” He implies in his letter that he can discern the unconscious and mysterious operations of life more clearly in woman’s sensibility than in man’s, and this affinity for the private feminine response is characteristic of many of Lawrence’s best works. (Cavitch 18-19)

17The dazzling impact of the female other, of her radical alterity, seemed to operate on a man, the woman’s husband, who had been, in Lawrence’s own terms, thrown—and even kicked—into the world.

He was a man of principles, and a good husband. In a way, he doted on her. He never quite got over his dazzled admiration of her. But essentially, he was still a bachelor. He had been thrown out on the world, a little bachelor, at the age of ten. When he married he was over forty, and had enough money to marry on. But his capital was all a bachelor’s. He was boss of his own works, and marriage was the last and most intimate bit of his own works.
He admired his wife to extinction, he admired her body, all her points. And she was to him always the rather dazzling Californian girl from Berkeley, whom he had first known. Like any Sheik, he kept her guarded among those mountains of Chihuahua. He was jealous of her as he was of his silver mine: and that is saying a lot. (“The Woman Who Rode Away,” 40)

18But there are so many inflections that bend the course of this romantic line or vector, among which individualism and the acquisitive intent figure most prominently, that the whole romantic impetus is eventually brought to stasis and immurement:

At thirty-three she really was still the girl from Berkeley, in all but physique. Her conscious development had stopped mysteriously with her marriage, completely arrested. Her husband had never become real to her, neither mentally nor physically. In spite of his late sort of passion for her, he never meant anything to her, physically. Only morally he swayed her, downed her, kept her in an invincible slavery. (40)

19When the female protagonist scans her surroundings, all she can see is the enclosed site of the mining ground and the adobe house where she resides:

When she actually saw what he had accomplished, her heart quailed. Great green-covered, unbroken mountain-hills, and in the midst of the lifeless isolation, the sharp pinkish mounds of the dried mud from the silver-works. Under the nakedness of the works, the walled-in, one-storey adobe house, with its garden inside, and its deep inner verandah with tropical climbers on the sides. And when you looked up from this shut-in flowered patio, you saw the huge pink cone of the silver-mud refuse, and the machinery of the extracting plant against heaven above. No more. (39)

20One easily recognizes here the characteristic Lawrentian topos of the mine—a site that has also been closed down. Such an environment is not even deadly, it is simply dead. Certainly, that death might be imputed to the spirit of industry, to commercialism, financial greed and materialism. But allowing ourselves such interpretations, we would be more doctrinaire than the author, for we are told that the market in general, as well as the silver market in particular, are dead as well: the ore resources have fatally dwindled out:

And in his battered Ford car her husband would take her into the dead, thrice-dead little Spanish town forgotten among the mountains. The great, sundried dead church, the dead portales, the hopeless covered market-place, where, the first time she went, she saw a dead dog lying between the meat stalls and the vegetable array, stretched out as if for ever, nobody troubling to throw it away. Deadness within deadness.
Everybody feebly talking silver, and showing bits of ore. But silver was at a standstill. The great war came and went. Silver was a dead market. Her husband’s mines were closed down. But she and he lived on in the adobe house under the works, among the flowers that were never very flowery to her.
She had two children, a boy and a girl. And her eldest, the boy, was nearly ten years old before she aroused from her stupor of subjected amazement. She was now thirty-three, a large, blue-eyed, dazed woman, beginning to grow stout. Her little, wiry, tough, twisted, brown-eyed husband was fifty-three, a man as tough as wire, tenacious as wire, still full of energy, but dimmed by the lapse of silver from the market, and by some curious inaccessibility on his wife’s part. (39, 40)

21This silver market refers us to another one still: that of the town where the carcass of a dead dog lies in the dust and nobody takes the trouble to get it out of the way. These morbid impressions are not specifically attached to social and industrial activities—or lack thereof. Likewise, the personal sphere is impoverished. The husband never fully recovers from the cold exultation he experiences in the company of his wife, and his contemplative possessiveness extenuates the latter, foreshadowing the insufficiencies of the couple as an alternative. It, too, has become a dead end. At that same period when Lawrence was writing the short story, he confessed in a letter his own general perplexity and sense of loss:

I don’t know myself what it is: except that the older world is done for, toppling on top of us: and that it’s no use the men looking to the women for salvation, nor the women looking to sensuous satisfaction for their fulfillment. There must be a new world. (Collected Letters, Vol. II, 422)

22The outside, the opening of the perspective is something that can be registered, yet it is frozen. The environment that has not been adventurously explored remains forever the same because it is devoid of all “personal investment.” (We will only use such entrepreneurial and psychoanalytic metaphors with circumspection for they are already very consciously exploited by the author).

To be sure, the great wooden doors were often open. And then she could stand outside, in the vast open world. And see great, void, tree-clad hills piling behind one another, from nowhere into nowhere. They were green in autumn time. For the rest, pinkish, stark dry, and abstract. (39)

23And further on, after a stay in the capital contrived by the husband to boost his wife’s low morale : “back she was, just the same, in her adobe house among those eternal green or pinky-brown hills, void as only the undiscovered is void” (40). It is one of the young gentlemen occasionally visiting the ranch who puts into the protagonist’s head the idea that there might be something beyond the hills, something alive. On being told that, indeed, certainly, there are Indians over there, the young man responds enthusiastically and hammers the point: there must be something wonderful about them (the term “wonderful” is repeated six times in the dialogue that follows):

“I wonder,” said the young man, “what there is behind those great blank hills.”
“More hills,” said Lederman. “If you go that way, Sonora and the coast. This way is the desert--you came from there--And the other way, hills and mountains.”
“Yes, but what
lives in the hills and mountains? surely there is something wonderful? It looks so like nowhere on earth: like being on the moon.”
“There’s plenty of game, if you want to shoot. And Indians, if you call
them wonderful.” […]
“But don’t you suppose it’s wonderful, up there in their secret villages?” “No. What would there be wonderful about it? Savages are savages, and all savages behave more or less alike: rather low-down and dirty, unsanitary, with a few cunning tricks, and struggling to get enough to eat.”
“But surely they have old, old religions and mysteries--it
must be wonderful, surely it must.”
“I don’t know about mysteries--howling and heathen practices, more or less indecent. No, I see nothing wonderful in that kind of stuff. And I wonder that you should, when you have lived in London or Paris or New York---”
everybody lives in London or Paris or New York”---said the young man, as if this were an argument. (41, 42)

24Such insistence has palpable results: his enthusiasm, which is described as “a foolish romanticism” by the narrator, wins over the female heroine and that derogatory formula already casts a shadow over the journey that she is about to undertake:

And his peculiar vague enthusiasm for unknown Indians found a full echo in the woman’s heart. She was overcome by a foolish romanticism more unreal than a girl’s. She felt it was her destiny to wander into the secret haunts of these timeless, mysterious, marvelous Indians of the mountains. (42)

25“Wonderful,” “mysterious”: these hyperbolic adjectives are deeply and palpably ironical, as Cavitch remarks:

Lawrence’s most important failure, The Plumed Serpent, illustrates his theory of how art fails, for the novel is impelled largely by his own futile effort to falsify sexual fears that he could no longer bear to acknowledge. The bad art that issues from facile and desperate self-deception is usually described by Lawrence as sensationalism, egotism or ecstasy, his key terms of critical disapproval. ‘For God’s sake,’ he answered one correspondent, ‘mistrust and beware of these states of exaltation and ecstasy [...] There is no real truth in ecstasy. All vital truth contains the memory of that for which it is not true [...]’ (11-12)

26The observation is particularly interesting insofar as it is part of a commentary on Lawrence’s Mexican fiction, which Cavitch understands as the failure of a certain conception of literature. As such, and set in a postcolonial perspective largely inspired by Deleuze and Guattari, it inevitably calls for more generic reflections about power relationships.

27Love has certainly its part to play in the plot—though it is itself gut-wrenching and violent—but the prominence of another drive has to be acknowledged in the story as well. An imperious subjugating power radiates from some of the characters while the others betray a deep desire to be held in thrall by a superior will. No one familiar with the author’s fiction will be surprised by the irruption of that discourse in the short story. It is ubiquitous in Lawrence’s prose, and its clearest expression is probably to be found in the dialogue (in fact a near monologue) that concludes Aaron’s Rod:

“[…] I told you there were two urges—two great life-urges, didn’t I?—There may be more. But it comes on me so strongly, now, that there are two: love, and power. And we’ve been trying to work ourselves, at least as individuals, from the love-urge exclusively, hating the power-urge, and repressing it. And now I find we’ve got to accept the very thing we’ve hated.
“We’ve exhausted our love-urge, for the moment. And yet we try to force it to continue working. So we get inevitably anarchy and murder.—It’s no good. We’ve got to accept the power motive, accept it in deep responsibility, do you understand me? It is a great life motive. It was that great dark power-urge which kept Egypt so intensely living for so many centuries. It is a vast dark source of life and strength in us now, waiting either to issue into true action, or to burst into cataclysm. Power—the power-urge. The will-to-power—but not in Nietzsche’s sense. Not intellectual power. Not mental power. Not conscious will-power. Not even wisdom. But dark, living, fructifying power. Do you know what I mean?”
“I don’t know,” said Aaron.
“Take what you call love, for example. In the real way of love, the positive aim is to make the other person—or persons—happy. It devotes itself to the other or to others.—But change the mode. Let the urge be the urge of power. Then the great desire is not happiness, neither of the beloved nor of oneself. Happiness is only one of many states, and it is horrible to think of fixing us down to one state. The urge of power does not seek for happiness any more than for any other state. It urges from within, darkly, for the displacing of the old leaves, the inception of the new. It is powerful and self-central, not seeking its centre outside, in some God or some beloved, but acting indomitably from within itself”. (
Aaron’s Rod 297-8)

28In this elementary dispensation that rules human intercourse, men and women are essentially antagonistic. Lawrence writes in one of his essays on American literature:

Then the deep, subconscious, primary self in woman recoils in antagonism. But it is a recoil of long, secret destructiveness, nihilism, subtle, serpent-like, out- wardly submissive. Man must either lead or be destroyed. Woman cannot lead. She can only be at one with man in the creative union, whilst he leads; or, failing this, she can destroy by undermining, by striking the heel of the male. The woman isolate or in advance of man is always mystically destructive. When man falls before woman, and she must become alone and self-responsible, she goes on and on in destruction, till all is death or till man can rise anew and take his place. When the woman takes the responsible place in the conjunction between man and woman, then the mystic creative union is reversed; it becomes a union of negation and undoing. Whatever the outward profession and action may be, when woman is the leader or dominant in the sex relationship, and in the human progress, then the activity of mankind is an activity of disintegration and undoing. And it is woman who gives the first suggestion, starts the first impulse of the undoing. (Studies in Classic American Literature 241)

29Although Lawrence vehemently denied any literal influence of the philosopher upon his fiction, it would be difficult to ignore the analogy with the Nietzschean categories of the Dionysian and the Apollonian. Whatever the case might be, one answer to the question that served as an introduction to our study of “The Woman Who Rode Away”—namely: what are the possibilities offered to the protagonist, what is it that comes up ahead?—can readily be offered now. She is given a choice between two deaths, one of which is more revitalizing than the other, since her sacrifice will contribute to the preservation of a vitalistic world-view or world-spirit among the Indians who plan to offer her life up to their divinities.

30Of course, this does not settle the question of Lawrence’s failure, and to engage with it more resolutely, it is necessary to recapitulate the author’s contradictory statements about these vital forces and how they make up life. Lawrence developed through the years a strong belief in some pre-intellectual sensual condition of Man, as opposed to rational thought, which kills and freezes down everything it takes hold of.

I loathe the idea of England, with its enervation and misty miserable modernness. I don’t want to go back to town and civilization. I want to rough it and scramble through free, free. (Collected Letters, vol I, 135)

31If we are to believe the author’s thunderous declarations, the superficial character of Western modernity made him positively recoil in disgust, and it is that aversion that pushed him onward and precipitated his adventurous foray into non-Western, pre-modern imaginative territories. In the short story, this exploration takes the form of an uncovering, of an immersion into what has always been at the root of our constitution. Yet for our misfortune, we have collectively repressed it. Lawrence was fully conscious of the potentially reactionary, romantic and sentimental character of such a statement. It seemed to lead him back unavoidably to the myth of the good savage, the cult of the ancients, and prelapsarian fantasies about our origin and our immanent wisdom. It is in order to frustrate these expectations that Lawrence brutalizes his readers by exposing before their eyes a mode of existence which is not tempered by any infusion of wisdom or sympathy, but which is on the contrary profoundly disturbing and violent, and whose value and desirability, in Lawrence’s eyes, can only be expressed in terms of intensity. This is where he joins up with Artaud and Bataille.

32Such views are coherent with Lawrence’s hostility towards the oedipal complex and with his rejection of the overpowering mother and the eternal virgin. But his analysis loses its edge when, in the same collection of essays devoted to American literature, he advances the notion of a great civilizational movement of leveling and annihilation of all differences in the name of reason and democracy. He eventually manages to get by thanks to a piece of dialectical acrobatics, concluding that it is precisely the disintegration of the mystical principles of Eros and domination that will bring America to such a point of inhumanness that there will be no other option left for it but a radical re-foundation of humanity.

33These are the two presuppositions which we find combined in the evocation of the heroine’s progress along her initiatory path. Her guards remain impervious to all her attempts at establishing some authority over them. To the Indians, such lordly poses are entirely extraneous: they belong with the white woman’s individual story, with her proud insistence on personal emancipation and they do not relate to it:

“Good!” he said. “Let us go. But we cannot arrive until to-morrow. We shall have to make a camp to-night.”
“Good!” she said. “I can make a camp.”
Without more ado, they set off at a good speed up the stony trail. The young Indian ran alongside her horse’s head, the other two ran behind. One of them had taken a thick stick, and occasionally he struck her horse a resounding blow on the haunch, to urge him forward. This made the horse jump, and threw her back in the saddle, which, tired as she was, made her angry.
“Don't do that!” she cried, looking round angrily at the fellow. She met his black, large, bright eyes, and for the first time her spirit really quailed. The man’s eyes were not human to her, and they did not see her as a beautiful white woman. He looked at her with a black, bright inhuman look, and saw no woman in her at all. As if she were some strange, unaccountable
thing, incomprehensible to him, but inimical. She sat in her saddle in wonder, feeling once more as if she had died. And again he struck her horse, and jerked her badly in the saddle.
All the passionate anger of the spoilt white woman rose in her. She pulled her horse to a standstill, and turned with blazing eyes to the man at her bridle.
“Tell that fellow not to touch my horse again,” she cried.
She met the eyes of the young man, and in their bright black inscrutability she saw a fine spark, as in a snake’s eye, of derision. He spoke to his companion in the rear, in the low tones of the Indian. The man with the stick listened without looking. Then, giving a strange low cry to the horse, he struck it again on the rear, so that it leaped forward spasmodically up the stony trail, scattering the stones, pitching the weary woman in her seat.
The anger flew like a madness into her eyes, she went white at the gills. Fiercely she reined in her horse. But before she could turn, the young Indian had caught the reins under the horse’s throat, jerked them forward, and was trotting ahead rapidly, leading the horse. The woman was powerless. And along with her supreme anger there came a slight thrill of exultation. She knew she was dead. (47-8)

34Whoever is familiar with Lawrence’s fiction will instantly recognize here a situation which is programmatic in his novels, if not obsessive-compulsive: one that presents woman as seized and ravished by the prospect of the annihilation of her subjective will.

35The particular circumstances in which the Mexican short stories were composed shed another light on Lawrence’s disposition, and on this exotic projection of a supposedly innate fantasy of domination. In the months that had preceded the voyage to Taos, Lawrence had been prey to a persistent sense of disorientation. He had been invited by the Brewsters to sojourn in Ceylon where his hosts had planned to devote their time to the study of Buddhism. The author, although he was absolutely ignorant of the subject, expressed in his letters his aversion for such a contemplative frame of mind. It appeared to him to be poles apart from that primal or primary consciousness that he was himself trying to get in touch with:

More and more I feel that meditation and the inner life are not my aim. […]
I have decided to go to Taos in New Mexico. There are Indians there, and an old sun-magic—And I believe that the clamorous future is in the States. I do not want peace nor beauty nor even freedom from pain. I want to fight and to feel new gods in the flesh. (
Collected Letters, Vol. IV, 154)

36But at the very last moment, he hesitated, striving to understand the functions that West and East fulfilled in his personal journey.

I believe you are right. Probably there, east, is the source: and America is the extreme periphery. Oh God, must one go to the extreme limit, then to come back?
[...] We have made all arrangements to go to Taos, New Mexico. But we have booked no passage.
Shall I come to Ceylon? Dio mio, I am so ridiculous, wavering between east and west.
I believe I shall not go to America. (
Collected Letters, Vol. IV, 170)

37Against all odds, he joined the Brewsters in Ceylon in April 1922, but rapidly set off for Australia where he remained from April to August 1922.

38Just after the writer’s death, John Middleton Murry published a biographical study of his works entitled Son of Woman: The Story of D. H. Lawrence, in which he screens the author’s fiction and his life against a single psychoanalytical hypothesis: it appeared to him that Lawrence, throughout his life, had tirelessly projected his affective disorders onto distant lands, and that, in keeping with the reality principle, every time he set foot on that distant country, it systematically failed to meet his expectations. In his review of Son of Woman entitled “The Victim and the Sacrificial Knife,” Eliot also issued a similar diagnosis:

As Mr. Murry spares no pains to show, the whole history of Lawrence’s life and of Lawrence’s writings (Mr. Murry tells us that it is the same history) is the history of his craving for greater intimacy than is possible between human beings, a craving irritated to the point of frenzy by his unusual incapacity for being intimate at all. His struggle against over-intellectualized life is the history of his own over-intellectualized nature. Even in his travels to more primitive lands, he could never take the crude peoples simply for what they are; he must needs always be expecting something of them that they could not give, something peculiarly medicinal for himself. (Eliot 772)

39Eliot accepts Murry’s idea according to which the literary career of Lawrence after Sons and Lovers went adrift in the most deplorable manner. Lawrence had thought himself capable of escaping the trappings of Oedipus, but the loophole or passage he was looking for did not exist. Consequently, his quest inevitably led him to his own extinction. The Mexican writings were the private confession of that yearning towards an inaccessible place or state of being. (Let us note in passing that this inaccessibility should not have disturbed Eliot so much, since he was himself a deeply religious person who believed in spiritual existence after death and out of this world). It is safe to say that in Eliot’s mind, the woman who rides away to her death is none other than Lawrence himself, and that Mexico, or any other new world, for that matter, has nothing to do with it.

What Mr. Murry shows, and demonstrates with a terrible pertinacity throughout Lawrence’s work, is the emotional dislocation of a ‘mother-complex’. (It should show also how inappropriate is the common designation of ‘Œdipus complex’.) And he makes clear that Lawrence was pretty well aware of what was wrong; and that Lawrence, throughout the rest of his life, was a strange mixture of sincerity or clairvoyance with self-deception—or rather with the effort towards self-deception. Lawrence’s subsequent history, and the history of his novels, is accordingly a record of his various attempts to kid himself into believing that he was right to be as he was, and that the rest of the world was wrong. It is an appalling narrative of spiritual pride, nourished by ignorance, and possibly also by the consciousness of great powers and humble birth. (Eliot 773)

40Yet in his assessment of Lawrence, Eliot brings our attention to bear on the equally dubious character of Middleton Murry’s own writing. Murry’s book is nothing less than a ritual killing of his friend or ex-friend. In it, Murry merely implements the sacrificial logic assigned to the ancient Indians of America. And that logic is far more deeply rooted than any hypothetical Oedipus complex.

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1 This part of my title is borrowed from T.S. Eliot’s review of Son of Woman by J.M. Murry.

2 This is not a particularly costly admission, for we do not have to consider it as an intrinsic quality of the form under discussion. We are not arguing, for instance, that the essence of the short story is not to have any essence—a metaphysical proposition that could evidently be applied to other genres or forms. After all, Mayer’s suggestion of a Wittgensteinian family resemblance between the members of the “short story” set is not far from our proposition.

3 “The oriental tale not only paved the way for the Gothic novel, for example Beckford’s Vathek (1786), but also the use of the short story as a means of evading the constraints of literary realism and its basis in the agreed social norms of everyday society.” (March-Russell 45).

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Philippe Birgy, ““The Victim and the Sacrificial Knife”: Lawrence’s Transatlantic Fantasies in “The Woman Who Rode Away””, Journal of the Short Story in English, 61, Spring 2013, 33-48.

Référence électronique

Philippe Birgy, « The Victim and the Sacrificial Knife”: Lawrence’s Transatlantic Fantasies in “The Woman Who Rode Away” »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 61 | Autumn 2013, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2015, consulté le 30 juin 2022. URL :

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Philippe Birgy

Philippe Birgy is Professor of English literature at the University of Toulouse 2 Le Mirail (UTM, CAS). His field of research is Anglo-American Modernism and its political, social, cultural, and scientific context. His publications include: “Une terrible beauté”: les modernistes anglais à l’épreuve de la critique girardienne (PUM, 2005). He is currently Head of the English Department Research team: CAS (Cultures Anglo-Saxonnes).

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