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Liminality: departing from sexual choices

Between Men: Male Rivalry in The Woman Who Rode Away and Other Stories

Susan Reid
p. 115-132


Après avoir abordé les liens matrimoniaux dans ses grands romans The Rainbow (1915) et Women in Love (1920), D. H. Lawrence se tourne vers le thème de la transgression dans le mariage qui confère une certaine cohésion à ses écrits des années 1920, notamment au recueil The Woman Who Rode Away and Other Stories (1928). Malgré la primauté de la nouvelle éponyme, ce recueil de nouvelles boudées par la critique littéraire met en scène des relations triangulaires entre deux hommes et une femme qui brouillent les limites de l’hétérosexualité normative. En effet, certaines nouvelles, telles que “The Border Line” et “Jimmy and the Desperate Woman,” dépeignent une rivalité sexuelle entre hommes qui suggère comment, selon l’ouvrage phare Between Men d’Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “The ultimate fantasy of sharing the same woman allows for the closest possible transference of libidinal energy between the two men short of actual sexual relations” (151).
Noël Polk voit dans les maris trompés “the defining figures of modernist fiction [...] men for whom all things sexual and personal are universally problematic” (154).
Lawrence place également la problématique sur un plan à la fois universel et personnel, puisque, comme le fait remarquer David Ellis, il se trouvait dans la même situation à l’égard de Frieda sa femme que le personnage Clifford Chatterley à l’égard de la sienne (79).

Entrées d’index

Studied authors :

David Herbert Lawrence

Texte intégral

  • 1 The Cambridge Edition of The Woman Who Rode Away and Other Stories (hereafter referenced in the bod (...)
  • 2 For instance, Keith Cushman considers that “The Woman Who Rode Away seems something of a random gat (...)
  • 3 For a reading of male intimacy in The Plumed Serpent see for example Reid.

1D. H. Lawrence’s The Woman Who Rode Away and Other Stories, first published in 1928, was drawn together from heterogeneous sources: some of the thirteen stories presented in the 1995 Cambridge Edition were written specifically for commissions (“Glad Ghosts,” “The Rocking Horse Winner” and “The Lovely Lady”) and others seemingly to keep their author amused (Letters 4: 564), perhaps even maliciously so (“The Border-Line,” “The Last Laugh” and “Jimmy and the Desperate Woman”).1 The impetus for the collection came from the publisher Martin Secker, who “proposed it specifically with a view to bridging over the gulf between ‘The Plumed Serpent,’ now two years old, and the next Lawrence novel, which may be a little way off” (WWRA xlv). Secker’s notion that Lawrence’s short stories of the 1920s bridge a liminal space between novels is one that has become a commonplace of Lawrence criticism. Influenced perhaps by Lawrence’s complaint to Secker that these were “rather hard stories to put together” (Letters 6: 197), critics have proved reluctant to address The Woman Who Rode Away and Other Stories as a collection or to assess its contribution to Lawrence’s oeuvre.2 However, in the spirit of Lawrence’s oft-quoted advice to “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it” (“The Spirit of Place” 8), this essay considers how several of these tales extend beyond the bounds of the conventional “marriage plot” to explore the consequences of marital transgression. While Women in Love (1920) sought to open up marriage to the possibilities of “another kind of love” between men, which is subsequently explored in the so-called leadership novels Aaron’s Rod (1922) and The Plumed Serpent (1926), Lawrence’s short stories of the 1920s focus instead on the rivalry between men in triangular relationships with a woman.3

  • 4 Nonetheless, Patrick R. Query is the most recent of a handful of critics to attempt a reassessment (...)

2If the presentation of relationships between the sexes in Lawrence’s fiction written in the 1920s has presented his critics with difficulties and even embarrassment by putting forward certain notions of masculinity and male mastery, then this is particularly the case with The Woman Who Rode Away and Other Stories. N. H. Reeve acknowledges “None of That!” as a shocking story involving gang rape, suicide and “homoerotic display” that “many of Lawrence’s admirers rather wish had been left unwritten” (205).4 However, it was the title story that drew the full force of Kate Millett’s feminist critique, which reads as its “central vignette a picture of human sacrifice performed upon the woman to the greater glory and potency of the male” (292). The potency – and impotency – of the male is indeed a key concern of this story, and others in this collection, I will argue, but in more complex ways than Millett suggests. In The Woman Who Rode Away and Other Stories, the triangular relationships between the sexes, which are a recurrent feature throughout Lawrence’s fiction, are refocused on marital infidelity and particularly on the relationship between the cuckolded husband and his seeming rival. According to Eve Sedgwick, “‘To cuckold’ is by definition a sexual act, performed on a man, by another man” (49). As the following discussion will show, the sexualisation of bonds between men is strongly suggested in several of The Woman Who Rode Away stories, even in cases where the enactment of cuckoldry is imaginative rather than real, for instance in the title story and in “Sun.”

3Noel Polk has asserted that cuckolds are “the defining figures of modernist fiction [...], men for whom all things sexual and personal are universally problematic” (154) and so, in this respect, Lawrence contributes to a broader current within modernism that includes James Joyce and William Faulkner. Yet, as Lawrence’s biographers have observed, the position of the cuckold was also particularly personal, not least because he shared “the same position with regard to [his wife] Frieda as Clifford Chatterley with regard to Connie” (Ellis, Death and the Author 79). The largely unsympathetic portrait of Connie’s cuckolded husband in Lawrence’s final novel is remarkable if one reads Clifford, as David Ellis does, as a self-portrait of Lawrence himself. But, to some extent, Lawrence has prepared us for his apparent acceptance of the cuckold’s role when his largely autobiographical protagonist Gilbert Noon forgives Johanna’s infidelity in the Alps (in a scene based on a real-life episode involving Frieda and Harold Hobson in 1913): “he liked Stanley—he had liked him all along: so why pretend to hate him now? And he believed people must do what they want to do” (Mr Noon 277).

4By contrast, however, Lawrence’s short stories of the 1920s are much less resigned to marital infidelity and they wrestle with a wider range of possible responses. For instance he seems unforgiving, particularly of the husband’s rival, in four stories informed by Frieda’s affair with his friend John Middleton Murry in 1923. In this cluster of stories – “Smile,” “The Border-Line,” “Jimmy and the Desperate Woman,” and “The Last Laugh” – written soon afterwards in Spring 1924, the writer mounts an aggressive defence of the cuckold by deploying the “manly” types of “the fighting Celt” in “The Border-Line” and the “energetic” miner of “Jimmy and the Desperate Woman” (WWRA 78, 109). These tales are discussed in the first part of the essay as a prelude to understanding the more imaginatively disguised interactions between men in the slightly later stories. My subsequent reading of “The Woman Who Rode Away” explores the male kinship structures underpinning the story and the extent of authorial identification with the unnamed woman. Finally, “Sun” points towards Lawrence’s reconciliation with his role as a cuckolded husband and hints at what he later described as “phallic rather than sexual regeneration” (Lady Chatterley’s Lover 328).

Between Lawrence and Murry

5In 1913, when Lawrence eloped with Frieda, he cast her abandoned first husband, Ernest Weekley, as “an unutterable fool [... who] is altogether acting the maniacal part of the ‘mari trompé’” (Letters 2: 51). But a decade later, when Lawrence found himself in a similar position, he enacted a similar role. The four tales that follow the title story in The Woman Who Rode Away and Other Stories have been interpreted as revenge narratives by the “mari trompé” directed against the cuckold’s rival, a thinly veiled John Middleton Murry. In all four, according to James C. Cowan, “Murry is cruelly punished: he is mercilessly ridiculed in ‘Smile’ and ‘Jimmy and the Desperate Woman’ and killed off in ‘The Border-Line’ and ‘The Last Laugh’” (45). As Keith Cushman explains, “The stories date from a particularly difficult period in the Lawrence-Murry relationship” and so “The biographical context is important” (195). The full circumstances are explained in Ellis’s biography of Lawrence’s last decade (Dying Game), but, in short, Lawrence suspected that Frieda had embarked on an affair with Murry after she returned to Europe alone in August 1923 and while he remained on a separate continent until December 1923. Recently discovered letters from Lawrence to Frieda shed further light on their marital crisis (Worthen and Harrison). “Written to a spouse, they are cold letters,” as Michael Squires and Lynn K. Talbot observe, which also convey Lawrence’s ambivalence and irritation towards his wife: “Contributing to his acerbic mood is a lingering sense of betrayal” (19-20). Squires and Talbot conclude that “The separation became a split; in some ways it became permanent” (17): a statement that applies as much to the Lawrence-Murry relationship as it does to that of Lawrence and his wife.

  • 5 As discussed below, Frieda told Murry that Lawrence based the character of Gerald on him (Murry, Be (...)
  • 6 Although a few critics (see particularly Meyers) have used such passages to argue for Lawrence’s ho (...)

6When writing Women in Love, Lawrence may have contemplated the sort of relationship with Murry that Birkin desires with Gerald, so Murry’s affair with Frieda was a betrayal of Lawrence by both parties.5 But Murry seems to have borne the brunt of Lawrence’s vengeful feelings (in writing at least) and the damage to their relationship was terminal. Despite Lawrence’s subsequent invitation to Murry (among others) to join him in New Mexico in January 1924, which Murry refused, their relationship was effectively over. A border-line had been crossed that is imaginatively explored in the aptly named story “The Border-Line,” which Lawrence began in the spring of 1924. But Lawrence’s feelings for Murry may also have transgressed the borders of normative heterosexuality, in ways that Birkin describes in the suppressed Prologue to Women in Love: “This was the one and only secret he kept to himself, this secret of his passionate and sudden, spasmodic affinity for men he saw. He kept this secret even for himself […] He never accepted the desire, and received it as part of himself. He always tried to keep it as part of himself” (WL 505). We might understand Birkin’s “secret” feelings in relation to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s nuanced paradigm, discussed below, of “a continuum between homosocial and homosexual – a continuum whose visibility, for men, in our society, is radically disrupted” (1-2).6 To what extent, then, does sublimated desire between men feature in Lawrence’s revenge narratives?

7Lawrence’s letters to Frieda during their separation in 1923 make both veiled and overt references to Murry which clearly vilify him as a “type” who is overly intellectual and sentimental: “inside workers – Murry etc – give us nothing comparable” to “the courage and physical beautiful skill” of the performers that Lawrence sees at Barnum’s Circus in Los Angeles and he repeatedly warns his wife not to “harp on emotional personalities” (Worthen and Harrison 13, 15; emphasis in original text). These “emotional, sentimental” (WWRA 91) traits are instantly recognisable in the characterisation of Philip, the second husband of Katharine Farquhar in “The Border-Line,” who (like Murry) “had gone through the war as a journalist, always throwing his weight on the side of humanity, and human truth, and peace” (WWRA 81). Philip survives the war, unlike Katharine’s first husband Alan, because, the narrative asserts: “The old male pride and power were doomed. They had fallen in the war. Alan with them. But the emotional, sentimental values still held good” (WWRA 91). Initially, when Alan goes missing in the war never to return, Katharine finds Philip “an inexpressible consolation”; “he caressed her senses, and soothed her, and gave her what she wanted,” but:

Then, gradually, a curious sense of degradation started in her spirit. She felt unsure, uncertain. It was almost like having a disease. Life became null and unreal to her, as it had never been before. She did not even struggle and suffer. In the numbness of her flesh she could feel no reactions. Everything was turning into mud. (WWRA 81)

8This passage echoes a direct reference to mud in Lawrence’s letter to Frieda of 19 September 1923 when he writes: “What I really want to do is to make a change in the human direction, from this Christian-materialistic mud-flux, back to a much bigger, older, also newer, religious direction” (Worthen and Harrison 15). This is another thinly veiled reference to Murry, the real-life model for Philip, who was engaged in writing The Life of Jesus (1926), while his antithesis in “The Border-Line” is aligned with a pagan ancestry: “Alan Anstruther, that red-haired fighting Celt [...] had a weird instinctive conviction that he was beyond ordinary judgment” (WWRA 78).

9Alan is one of a series of representatives of “the old male pride and power,” who “expected the tides of the modern world to recede around him” (WWRA 91, 79) and are thus identified by Lawrence with the ancient peoples of the world: the Celts, the Native American and Mexican Indians, the Etruscans, and the descendants of Pan. Alan is also a partial self-portrait of the red-haired author, who makes another appearance at the beginning of “The Last Laugh,” as Lorenzo “grinning like a satyr” (WWRA 122). Here, as Lee M. Jenkins points out, Lawrence is clearly associated with the figure of Pan: “the pagan God who dies at the birth of Christianity who ‘keeps on being re-born, in all kinds of strange shapes’” (85). In “The Last Laugh,” the Murry character Marchbanks, who although beautiful “like a faun” becomes “A sort of faun on the Cross” (WWRA 123), is tormented and finally killed by Pan / Lawrence:

Marchbanks gave a strange, yelping cry, like a shot animal. His white face was drawn, distorted in a curious grin, that was chiefly agony, but partly wild recognition. He was staring with fixed eyes at something. And in the rolling agony of his eyes was the horrible grin of a man who realises he has made a final, and this time fatal, fool of himself. (WWRA 137)

10In “The Border-Line,” Alan, like Pan, comes back from the dead to wreak his fatal revenge on Philip and, we assume, on his wife, whom he leads into the woods at the end of the story and presses against “a great pine-tree”: “crushing her in the last, final ecstasy of submission, squeezing from her the last drop of her passion, like the cold white berries of the mistletoe on the tree of life” (WWRA 98).

11Alan’s treatment of Philip is couched in similarly erotic terms. Philip’s “uncanny love for Alan” (WWRA 79) prefigures the terrible return of his predecessor as a ghost in his bed. In an early version of the story, Katharine slips into bed to comfort Philip and is pushed out of bed by “two hands cold and strong as iron” (Lawrence, “The Border-Line” 388). But Lawrence later revised this passage so that Katharine leaves Philip alone with Alan’s ghost: “It was for the two men to work out destiny between them” (WWRA 95). As Ellis observes, the revised scene takes a decidedly “peculiar” turn (Dying Game 164) and it is difficult not to read this as homoeroticism, particularly as a ghost would conventionally be portrayed as a disembodied spirit. Indeed the use of a Gothic device seems a convenient mask for the exploration of transgressive desire:

“He lay on top of me!” cried Philip, rolling his eyes inwards in horror. “He lay on top of me, and turned my heart cold, and burst my blood-vessels in my chest.”
Katharine stood petrified. There was blood all over the sheets. She rang the bell violently. Across the bed stood Alan, looking at her with his unmoving blue eyes, just watching her. (
WWRA 95)

  • 7 Murry was shocked by his wife’s withdrawal to the Gurdjieff Institute in Fontainebleau in October 1 (...)

12Further, as Ellis also observes, Lawrence transfers to Murry / Philip the effects of his own fatal tuberculosis (Dying Game 163), although we might also note the similarities to the actual death from TB of Murry’s wife, Katherine Mansfield, which Murry witnessed in January 1923. Indeed, in the preceding story “Smile,” Lawrence satirises Murry’s inadequacy during Mansfield’s final illness7 – “He ought, of course, to be sitting by Ophelia’s bedside. But Ophelia didn’t want him” (WWRA 72) – and the hypocrisy of his mourning for her: “Mea culpa! he howled at himself. And even as he howled it, he felt something nudging him in the ribs saying to him: Smile!” (WWRA 75).

  • 8 Murry claims he did not recognise himself in Gerald Crich until Frieda pointed this out to him much (...)

13But we might also interpret the blood that accompanies Alan’s visitations to Philip as a symbolic form of “Blutbrüderschaft” that unites the two men in death. After all, Gerald’s inability to respond to Birkin’s offer of “Blutbrüderschaft” in Women in Love was based partly on Lawrence’s direct experience of Murry (Women in Love 206).8 Additionally, the Gerald-Birkin relationship may also draw on Murry’s unrequited love for Gordon Campbell in 1914-5. Much of what we know about the intensity of Murry’s feelings for Campbell comes from a letter which he did not send for thirty-seven years. Before finally sending it to Campbell, Murry copied it into his journal noting underneath: “A strange, pathetic letter. It would (I fear) be called ‘homosexual.’ But I never had one atom of physical feeling for Gordon; nor he (I am sure) for me” (qtd. Kaplan 24). “Towards the end of this long letter,” Sydney Janet Kaplan notes, “Lawrence’s influence intrudes” (24):

We might have pulled off some great things together, but you were divided – perhaps I was divided too. Perhaps we came together, too late [...] I can hear Lawrence say that it would only have been possible between a man and a woman. I don’t think so. It would have been possible for us, had you been other than you are. (qtd. Kaplan 24)

14Indeed, this sounds a lot like Birkin remonstrating with Gerald’s corpse and with Ursula about his unrequited desire for “another kind of love” (Women in Love 481), a triangular relationship with a man as well as with a woman. And although Lawrence may never have seen Murry’s letter, he certainly shared his friend’s confidences when Lawrence nursed Murry in February 1915 – an episode which in its turn is described in homoerotic terms in the “Low-water Mark” chapter of Aaron’s Rod (1922).

15As Kaplan points out, largely concurring with Mark Kinkead-Weekes (377, 488), there is no evidence of any transgression of the (notional) line between heterosexuality and homosexuality in Lawrence’s relationship with Murry, or between Murry and Campbell, but she rightly points to Sedgwick’s concept of a continuum of “homosocial desire” that has been radically disrupted by patriarchal power structures (Kaplan 25). Sedgwick draws on the work of Gayle Rubin to conclude that the “obligatory heterosexuality” built into male-dominated kinship systems such as heterosexual marriage also restricts the possibilities for male bonding through homophobia (3). As Rubin states, “The suppression of the homosexual component of human sexuality, and by corollary, the oppression of homosexuals, is [...] a product of the same system whose rules and relations oppress women” (180; qtd. Sedgwick 3). Kaplan notes that the operation of homophobic taboos “in Murry’s case is particularly relevant,” since “his journals reveal considerable defensiveness whenever the subject of homosexuality arises such as his comment in 1953 [...] that ‘homosexuality is a closed and alien world to me, who am in every fibre of my being heterosexual’” (25). Such remarks occur much later in Murry’s life, of course, and betray an earlier “innocence” that, as Beatrice Campbell observes, “might at the present time be difficult to understand” (qtd. Kaplan 24; Campbell was writing in 1963). The deterioration in the relationship between Lawrence and Murry in the 1920s may be in part a consequence of their growing awareness of homosexuality and resulting protestations against it – witness, for example, Lawrence’s famous letter about “people like” Francis Birrell, Duncan Grant and Maynard Keynes (Letters 2: 319) – although at the same time their famous disputes about “betrayal” retain something of the rhetoric of jilted lovers.

16In “Jimmy and the Desperate Woman,” even as Lawrence parodies Murry’s habit of finding wives through his journalism (as was the case with Mansfield and his second wife, Violet Le Maistre, whom he married in 1924), he seems unable to resist insinuating himself as part of an erotic triangle. The desperate woman’s husband is a miner, with whom Lawrence is vicariously associated through his father, and who is equally implicated in Jimmy’s reckless commitment to the woman he barely knows. And so the story ends:

The other man! In some subtle, inexplicable way, he was actually bodily present, the husband. The woman moved in his aura. She was helplessly married to him.
And this went to Jimmy’s head like neat whisky. Which of the two would fall before him with a greater fall?—the woman, or that man, her husband? (
WWRA 121)

17That Jimmy equally desires the “fall” of both wife and husband has a certain symmetry with Alan’s revenge on both his wife and her second husband in “The Border-Line.” We might extrapolate from this that Lawrence felt equally betrayed by Murry as by Frieda by the events of 1923. These stories seem to harbour lingering regrets that Murry did not follow through on his “love” for Lawrence – as in the fictional case of Gerald Crich and Rupert Birkin – and that he lacked the courage to explore his own impulses. Indeed the recurrence of these themes from Women in Love in the later story “The Woman Who Rode Away” suggests that the relationship between Lawrence and Murry was far from resolved.

Lawrence, Murry and “The Woman Who Rode Away”

18Murry seems not to have recognised himself in any of the stories in The Woman Who Rode Away or at least he refrains from acknowledgement. However, Son of Woman: The Story of D. H. Lawrence (1931), which Murry published in short order after Lawrence’s death, is in many senses another act of revenge framed as a “story,” as well as a remonstrance over the corpse of his sometime friend that has some resonance with the closing scene of Women in Love. Here Murry does comment on “The Border-Line,” largely by redirecting attention through a comparison with “The Captain’s Doll,” but concludes that “Lawrence’s hatred is diverted to the unfortunate Philip who has dared to supplant him” (345; emphasis added), where the undesignated “him” seems to conflate Lawrence the author with the fictional Alan. Murry’s critique of “The Woman Who Rode Away” is predicated on a similar assumption that Lawrence “identifies himself with the sacrificers”:

This imaginative self-persuasion that human sacrifice is lawful in a man who is so tender that only by an immense effort he can bring himself to shoot the vermin on his ranch, is a sickening perversity. We do not blame Lawrence for his tenderness – God forbid! – we condemn him for allowing his imagination to violate it. This is horrible. This seeming courage is a supreme cowardice; it proceeds from a refusal to accept one’s own nature, and to take the consequences. This licence to the imagination to commit the extremity of horror is given only by a soul that is sick unto death, and seeks release by self-laceration. (Son of Woman 339)

19This internally contradictory reading implies, through its language of “death” and “self-laceration,” rather more complicated identifications of Lawrence with the woman of his story, while Murry (albeit unconsciously) also highlights the story’s dialogue with a Christian discourse of bodily sacrifice that Lawrence associated with Murry, as the preceding discussion of “The Border-Line” has shown. If Murry inadvertently points to an alternative reading of Lawrence’s imaginative licence in “The Woman Who Rode Away,” to what extent does the unnamed woman represent aspects of Lawrence and/or Murry? And to what extent, then, might the woman’s “sacrifice” represent sublimated homoerotic desire and its suppression within the male-dominated kinship systems outlined by Rubin and Sedgwick?

20As Neil Roberts observes, Lawrence’s heroines “are at once other to the author and his representatives” (101). Roberts stresses that he “use[s] the word ‘heroine’ deliberately,” because the pursuit of what he calls a “journey of dangerous desire” entails “the determination to travel beyond the boundaries of the known, and to face the risks such a journey entails” (100). The journey in “The Woman Who Rode Away” is itself the destination, a liminal state perpetuated by the story’s unresolved ending that evokes a suspension rather than a cessation of being – since, as Judith Ruderman among others has pointed out, the reader is left to assume that the woman is sacrificed “for the dénouement is not shown” (111). Lawrence manifestly shared something of this state of suspended being during the period of his estrangement from Frieda in 1923. As Squires and Talbot observe, “Wrestling with his uncertainty, Lawrence addresses the contested space that surrounds and confounds him” (26), as his letter of 14 September 1923 to Frieda attests:

Sometimes I feel one might as well go on drifting about and wondering over it all. Then again I feel one ought to put a peg in the middle of it, and hitch on to a new life. I don’t know. I feel I don’t much care whether I go to Mexico to look for a ranch, or to sea in a ship to look for nothing. Life’s queer anyhow. And one is very reluctant to nail down a purpose [...] Is there much point, after all, in having a “home” anywhere? (Worthen and Harrison 14)

21Like the heroine of “The Woman Who Rode Away,” Lawrence has reached a crisis-point of purposelessness and nothingness and homelessness, at least in part because of the dual betrayal by Frieda and Murry. More surprisingly, perhaps, a similar feeling of limbo inspired the title of Murry’s autobiography Between Two Worlds (1936), which frames his life story with a quote from Matthew Arnold – “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born.” And yet a similar perception of division in Murry’s personality is precisely what Lawrence captures in his characterisation of Gerald as a captain of industry trapped as a cog within his own machine.

22The “foolish romanticism” that overcomes the woman at the beginning of her story (WWRA 42) echoes something of Birkin’s suggestion to Ursula that “‘One needn’t see. One goes one’s way. In my world it is sunny and spacious [...] And we will wander about on the face of the earth [...] and we’ll look at the world beyond just this’” (Women in Love 362). But the woman’s decision to ride away to the Chilchui country has a darker tinge: she has heard rumours of “human sacrifice” and yet “she was not afraid, although it was a frightening country” (WWRA 42, 44). She seems intent, too, on travelling beyond this world: “‘Surely there is something wonderful! It looks so like nowhere on earth: like being on the moon’” (WWRA 41, emphasis in original text). And, sure enough, once the woman is riding away with the Indians towards their secret haunt, “It seemed to her they were climbing to the roof of the world. Beyond against heaven were slashes of snow” (WWRA 49). This description chimes strongly with Gerald’s fatal ascent in the Alps: “Always higher, always higher [...] He only wanted to go on, to go on whilst he could, to move, to keep going, until it was finished. He had lost all his sense of place” (Women in Love 473). Imaginatively, the woman takes the place of both Lawrence/Birkin and Murry/Gerald, but what then is the reader to make of her (assumed) death?

  • 9 See Laird for an analysis of Gerald’s death as suicide. For illuminating discussions of Gerald Cric (...)

23While Gerald’s suicide is sometimes interpreted as an enactment of the death wish underlying western culture, as exemplified by the mass slaughter of the First World War, the woman feels that she is dead even before she rides away.9 Even before the woman rides away she apprehends the “Deadness within deadness” of her environment and even before she meets the Indians we are told that: “She lay wrapped in her blanket looking at the stars, listening to her horse shivering, and feeling like a woman who has died and passed beyond” (WWRA 39, 44). When questioned, the young Indian identifies the woman symbolically in an echo of her own feelings of having “died and passed beyond”:

“Why am I the only one that wears blue?”
“It is the colour of the wind. It is the colour of what goes away and is never coming back, but which is always there, waiting like death among us. It is the colour of the dead. And it is the colour that stands away off, looking at us from the distance, that cannot be near to us. When we go near, it goes further. It can’t come near. We are all brown and yellow and black hair, and white teeth and red blood. We are the ones that are here. You with the blue eyes, you are the messengers from the far-away, you cannot stay, and now it is time for you to go back.”
WWRA 64-5)

24Blue clothing, and blue eyes, recur as a thematic link between seemingly disparate stories throughout this collection, which begins with the blue dresses of the rivals in “Two Blue Birds” and culminates with the “lovely blue silk wrap” of the eponymous “The Lovely Lady” (WWRA 265). But more importantly in this particular tale, the woman is the only person who wears blue, which is “the colour of the dead.” In a clash between cultures, the “‘Indian got weak, and lost his power with the sun,’” the young Indian tells the woman, but the implication is that white culture is already dead because of a bankruptcy of values: “‘White men don’t know what the sun is. They never know’” (WWRA 61-2).

25The woman has traded imprisonment under the jealous eye of her husband for imprisonment by the Indians and so, as Judith Ruderman acutely observes, “she leaves one slave condition for another” (112).

She was a prisoner in her house and in the stockade garden, but she scarcely minded. And it was days before she realised that she never saw another woman. Only the men, the elderly men of the big house, that she imagined must be some sort of temple, and the men priests of some sort. For they always had the same colours, red, orange, yellow, and black, and the same grave, abstracted demeanour. (WWRA 57)

  • 10 For an overview of captivity narratives see Ruderman 111.

26Having exchanged one form of male captivity for another, then, the unnamed woman seems to exemplify what the anthropologist Gayle Rubin describes in her landmark article of 1975 as “The Traffic in Women.” Although Rubin addresses the oppression of women through the rites of heterosexual marriage within patriarchal capitalist society, where the woman is exchanged as “a gift” between men that cements social bonds, we might also read this as a ritual that sacrifices women’s autonomy and that in Lawrence’s story is transmuted into a blood sacrifice which is all about the rivalry between Indian men and white men. As the young Indian explains to his captive: “‘The Indian says, he will give the white woman to the sun, so the sun will leap over the white men and come to the Indian again’” (WWRA 65). As is often noted, despite the phallicism of the story’s final scene – set within the “orifice of the cave” with its “great, dripping, fang-like spoke of ice,” where the naked woman is confronted by “powerful men in the prime of life” who “were almost as naked as she was” and who wield “flint knives” (WWRA 69-70) – this is not a sexual consummation, but rather, I would argue, a transfer of power between men. Significantly, most of her captors’ few questions concern her marital status – “‘Usted es Señora? You are a married lady? [...] With a family? [...] Where is your husband?’” (WWRA 46, italics in original text) – and in contrast to captivity narratives like Edith Maude Hull’s The Sheik (1919), “there was nothing sensual or sexual” but instead “ a terrible glittering purity that was beyond her” (WWRA 52).10

27Millett, writing five years before Rubin, however, famously saw only the repellent sexual and racial politics of the story, and above all a repellent “masculinism” that assumes Lawrence’s complicity in the power structures he depicts. However, within this story we might also perceive a subversive narrative of authorial self-identification with the woman – and/or of the woman with Murry – which suggests instead a sublimated homoeroticism that is also suppressed by the male-dominated kinship structures that Rubin describes. Indeed, the stories within the collection repeatedly question concepts of male “mastery.” For instance, the opening story, “Two Blue Birds,” depicts another variant of a slave narrative of “the young master and his secretary. He dictated to her, she slaved for him and adored him” (WWRA 5). Again this is not a sexual relationship – at least there is “Nothing you could call adultery” (WWRA 5) – for which the wife, who has her own “gallant affairs,” implicitly takes her husband to task: “for taking so much from her [his secretary] and giving her nothing” (WWRA 17). Similarly, the eponymous protagonist in “The Man Who Loved Islands,” like the “young master” of the first story, is ruined by fawning staff, who ultimately disappoint and disturb him:

The Master himself began to be a little afraid of his island. He felt here strange violent feelings he had never felt before, and lustful desires that he had been quite free from. He knew quite well now that his people didn’t love him at all. He knew that their spirits were secretly against him, malicious, jeering, envious, and lurking to down him. He became just as wary and secretive with regard to them. (WWRA 159)

28In the context of the story collection, then, the repeated interrogations of male mastery render the ambiguous final sentence / paragraph of the title story even more unsettled and unsettling – “The mastery that man must hold, and that passes from race to race” (WWRA 71). Indeed the assertion of “must,” at the end of a text whose meanings have been uncertain throughout, has the effect of undercutting the concept of “mastery” and of questioning the necessity for white male supremacy to be perpetuated. Importantly, too, other stories in the collection, including the opening tale “Two Blue Birds” and “The Man Who Loves Islands” (that Lawrence insisted to Secker should not be omitted), comment on the sublimation of male sexual desire to socially constructed concepts of power.

29While the “young master” of “Two Blue Birds” refrains from sex with his secretary, in “The Man Who Loved Islands” the “Master” succumbs to the daughter of his housekeeper on his second island, but only out of “a kind of pity”:

It was the automatism of sex that had caught him again. Not that he hated sex. He deemed it, as the Chinese do, one of the great life-mysteries. But it had become mechanical, automatic, and he wanted to escape that. Automatic sex shattered him, and filled him with a sort of death. He thought that he had come through, to a new stillness of desirelessness. Perhaps beyond that, there was a new fresh delicacy of desire, an unentered frail communion of two people meeting on untrodden ground. (WWRA 164)

30The subsequent trajectory of the story becomes an overt critique of the island-owner’s goal of “desirelessness,” which drives him to flee from his lover and their child to a third, much smaller, island, where he dies (or so the reader is left to assume) amidst its untrodden / virgin “whiteness” (WWRA 173). Both “Two Blue Birds” and “The Man Who Loved Islands,” based on another of Lawrence’s male friends, the writer Compton Mackenzie, deal with a waning of male sexual desire. By contrast the visual phallicism of the closing scene of “The Woman Who Rode Away” and of “Sun,” discussed briefly below, suggests a lingering male desire which is fulfilled vicariously through a female heroine.

Conclusion: Male desire in “Sun” and Lady Chatterley’s Lover

31“Sun,” the second story in the collection, is an uncanny double both of “The Man Who Loved Islands” and also of “The Woman Who Rode Away.” It begins with another image of a mechanical relationship, between Juliet and her husband Maurice (based on the collection’s publisher Martin Secker and his wife Rina): “in their two lives, the stroke of power was hostile, his and hers. Like two engines running at variance, they shattered each other” (WWRA 19). And like the woman who rode away, Juliet “permitted herself to be carried away,” in her case to Italy, where she gives herself to the sun, “exulting that at last it was no human lover” (WWRA 21). But her desire for a human lover is awakened when she sees how a peasant responds to her naked body: “the fierce stirring of the phallus under his thin trousers: for her. And with his red face, and with his broad body, he was like the sun to her, the sun in its broad heat” (WWRA 30). By contrast, when Maurice arrives unexpectedly from New York to find his wife taking a sunbath he is abashed: “Maurice, poor fellow, hesitated and glanced away from her, turning his face aside” (WWRA 32). But neither Juliet nor the peasant has the courage to act on their mutual desire and so her rekindled sexual desire finally transfers to her husband, although her final thoughts remain with the peasant:

She had seen the flushed blood in the peasant’s burnt face, and felt the jetting, sudden blue heat pouring over her from his kindled eyes, and the rousing of his big penis against his body—for her, surging for her. Yet she would never come to him—she daren’t, she daren’t, so much was against her. And the little etiolated body of her husband, city-branded, would possess her, and his little, frantic penis would beget another child in her. She could not help it. She was bound to the vast, fixed wheel of circumstance, and there was no Perseus in the universe, to cut the bonds. (WWRA 38)

32Lawrence’s paean of praise to the penis in “Sun” anticipates his final novel, which in its second version was titled John Thomas and Lady Jane in reference to the male and female genitals it lovingly describes (particularly the “phallos,” see for example Lady Chatterley’s Lover 209-10). But more specifically, Lawrence’s identification with the thwarted desires of his heroines in “Sun” and in “The Woman Who Rode Away” prefigures his championing of Lady Chatterley and her lover in his final novel. Although Juliet is largely based on Rina Secker – who probably did act on her desires for other men – there are also elements of Frieda, and it is likely that both women influenced the characterisation of Connie Chatterley. Aptly, too, it was Rina who introduced Frieda to Angelo Ravagli, who soon became her lover and then her husband following Lawrence’s death. As Lawrence confronted his own impotence during the writing of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, his belief in male friendship seems also to have waned, even as his appreciation of the male body seems to have intensified. Lawrence’s desire for “another kind of love” between men may have been sparked by Murry and then kindled by Fenimore Cooper as a dream of “immortal friendship [...] A stark, stripped human relationship of two men, deeper than the deeps of sex,” but his short stories of the 1920s suggest that it may also have been his complex relationship with Murry that finally killed this dream of “a new relationship” (Studies in Classic American Literature 59-60).


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1 The Cambridge Edition of The Woman Who Rode Away and Other Stories (hereafter referenced in the body of the essay as WWRA) includes two stories, “The Rocking Horse Winner” and “The Lovely Lady” that were previously collected in the posthumous volume The Lovely Lady, published by Secker and Viking in 1933 (WWRA xx1-xxii). “The Rocking Horse Winner” had previously been published in Harper’s Bazaar and in The Ghost-Book, edited by Lady Cynthia Asquith (both 1926) and an abridged version of “The Lovely Lady” appeared in The Black Cap, also edited by Lady Cynthia Asquith (1927).

2 For instance, Keith Cushman considers that “The Woman Who Rode Away seems something of a random gathering, lacking the focused intensity” of the two earlier collections, The Prussian Officer and Other Stories (1914) and England, My England and Other Stories (1922) (193).

3 For a reading of male intimacy in The Plumed Serpent see for example Reid.

4 Nonetheless, Patrick R. Query is the most recent of a handful of critics to attempt a reassessment of this story in his book reviewed by N. H. Reeve, who suggests instead that “A more straightforward reading might focus on Lawrence’s fascination with homoerotic display” (205).

5 As discussed below, Frieda told Murry that Lawrence based the character of Gerald on him (Murry, Between Two Worlds 411).

6 Although a few critics (see particularly Meyers) have used such passages to argue for Lawrence’s homosexuality, there is no firm basis for this assumption. See further discussion below.

7 Murry was shocked by his wife’s withdrawal to the Gurdjieff Institute in Fontainebleau in October 1922, but at this late stage in her life, the dying Mansfield wanted more than her husband had to offer. Writing to invite him to “come over here to work for Gurdjieff,” she asked, in terms which resonate with Lawrence’s portrait of Murry as Gerald, “Do you like that old mechanical life at the mercy of everything? And just living with one little tiny corner of yourself?” (O’Sullivan and Scott 311).

8 Murry claims he did not recognise himself in Gerald Crich until Frieda pointed this out to him much later (Murry, Between Two Worlds 411).

9 See Laird for an analysis of Gerald’s death as suicide. For illuminating discussions of Gerald Crich’s death in the context of the war, see Worthen and Cole.

10 For an overview of captivity narratives see Ruderman 111.

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Susan Reid, « Between Men: Male Rivalry in The Woman Who Rode Away and Other Stories », Journal of the Short Story in English, 68 | 2017, 115-132.

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Susan Reid, « Between Men: Male Rivalry in The Woman Who Rode Away and Other Stories », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 68 | Spring 2017, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2019, consulté le 21 août 2019. URL :


Susan Reid

Susan Reid is the Editor of the Journal of D. H. Lawrence Studies (since 2013), Reviews Editor for the Journal of Postcolonial Writing (since 2008), and Co-editor of three volumes of Katherine Mansfield Studies (2010–12) and the essay collection Katherine Mansfield and Literary Modernism (Bloomsbury, 2011). Since completing her PhD thesis on “D. H. Lawrence and Masculinities” (University of Northampton, 2008), she has published several articles and book chapters on D. H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf.

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