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The Battles of the Kates: Sexual Politics and The Plumed Serpent

Jane Costin

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  • 1 Lawrence among the Women: Wavering Boundaries in Women’s Literary Traditions. Carol Siegel. (Charlo (...)

1Kate Millett’s well-known book Sexual Politics (1970) proved a powerful weapon for women who were battling against domination by men. In it, Millett sought to establish the political aspects of sex and to show how patriarchy is a political institution. Furthermore, in seeking to illuminate the inherent misogyny of the literary tradition, she singled out four authors for particular condemnation. One of these was D.H. Lawrence. But what made Millett’s attack on Lawrence even more damning was that she placed him, as Carol Siegel points out, “at the beginning of a modern anti-female movement” by showing how “some of the most virulently antifeminist writers of our time claim Lawrence as an authority for their male supremacist position.”1 Millett’s book had such strong influence on second wave feminism that it is often considered to be the movement’s manifesto and, with the benefit of hindsight, many of the points that she made are very valid. But not all.

2Thus, nearly half a century later, it is worth revisiting Millett’s work because the vitriol she liberally ladled on Lawrence’s work still reverberates within literary studies. Indeed, such is the shroud of prejudice that Millett instigated around Lawrence’s work that, even today, many feminists regard him as some kind of antichrist and believe that it is impossible to be a feminist and to engage positively with his work. But Millett has glossed over an inconvenient fact: some of Lawrence’s work demonstrates his pro-feminist thinking. Surprisingly, this can even be seen in The Plumed Serpent (1926), which is widely regarded as Lawrence’s most misogynistic novel.

3However, Millett’s caustic remarks about this work have greatly contributed to the critical neglect of the novel’s significant feminine themes. Therefore, with reference to Siegel’s work, this article will focus on close reading of The Plumed Serpent. By concentrating on Lawrence’s heroine, Kate Leslie, it will show how Lawrence depicts her battling against a masculine desire for supremacy, thus foreshadowing, rather than conflicting with, Millett’s crusade in Sexual Politics. It will also reveal instances where Millett’s attacks on Lawrence are unjust because they are based on unsound foundations. This will lead to the suggestion that Lawrence and Millett have far more in common than is generally recognised. Indeed, in some respects, it could even be suggested that they were fighting on the same side.

  • 2 Ibid., 6.

4Needless to say, this is not apparent from reading Sexual Politics. Millett’s antagonistic view of Lawrence and his work became so pervasive in feminist criticism—which as Siegel points out was rarely this kind to Lawrence—that even some twenty years after Sexual Politics Siegel was able to observe that “Like other feminist critics Eve Sedgwick seems to see no reason to consider the standard opinion of Lawrence as other than fact.”2

5Yet Siegel does offer a more balanced feminist perspective on Lawrence and shows how his depictions of women conflicted with established views of the feminine. Comparing Lawrence with other male writers she points out that Lawrence was “obviously unlike his novelistic forefathers” because of his “high valuation of female sexual fulfilment, his sympathy with women’s direct expressions of rage against men, his insistence on the unimportance of procreation and his scorn for Christian meekness and self-sacrifice.”

6Furthermore, Siegel suggests that by depicting his women as “innately active, angry and resistant to masculine control” Lawrence set himself apart from cultural feminists who, according to Linda Alcoff, have “traditionally based their defence of women on their innate peacefulness and ability to nurture.” Siegel contrasts Lawrence who, “consistently depicts the natural female state as furious rebellion,” with Defoe, Richardson and Dickens who dramatize “the world’s deplorable treatment of attractively feminine heroines,” and to Thackery, Trollope and Flaubert who “celebrate the destructive energy of female villains produced by an unnatural society.” She also notes how “Lawrence’s treatment of women differs markedly from that of other moderns like Hardy, James and Shaw, who used the problems of female heroes to represent those of the modern individual (or generic man).” Siegel concludes that in Lawrence’s depiction of women in his work his over-riding concern is to give women a voice and that “For Lawrence the female voice must always undercut rather than affirm the male author’s message. Because of this concept of female nature as essentially oppositional, his female characters deconstruct from within the fictions that (attempt to) contain them” (Siegel 16).

  • 3 Even today, the representation of older women in the arts is still a problem as Kristin Scott Thoma (...)

7Siegel’s remarks about Lawrence’s portrayal of women in his fiction are very pertinent when considering the role of Kate Leslie in The Plumed Serpent. But Lawrence’s depiction of Kate also broke a literary taboo, for Lawrence made Kate middle aged and sexually active. More usually in literature of that date something strange happened to women as they aged—they disappeared. No longer youthful beauties and past the “usefulness” of being of childbearing age, such women seemed to be regarded as neither use nor ornament. Authors avoided writing about them and the problems that older women had in western society were ignored.3

8Thus Lawrence’s depiction of Kate as being middle-aged, sexually active and dissatisfied—to the point of fury—with the role that patriarchal western society allows middle aged women is remarkable. For as Siegel has observed, even Lawrence’s female contemporaries shied away from portraying sexually active middle-aged women:

  • 4 Private correspondence.

9for the most part women writing at the same time as Lawrence and who dealt with female desire, for instance Kate Chopin, Katherine Mansfield, and Virginia Woolf avoided describing middle aged women as sexually active and desirous. We have the famous scene in Mrs Dalloway when Clarissa feels longing for what she experienced when young, intense desire for her friend, but Woolf depicts it as past. I think the same is true of Edith Wharton, who seems to see middle age as a time when women look back and wonder where sexual feeling went and why they wasted their opportunities.4

  • 5 Julie Taddeo, “A Modernist Romance? Lytton Strachey and the Women of Bloomsbury,” Unmanning Moderni (...)
  • 6 Ibid., 139.

10This may seem particularly surprising in relation to Woolf, because in the 1920s, when her best known work was written, she was a middle-aged woman and a leading member of the Bloomsbury group noted for their complicated sexual relationships that flouted convention. She, at least, might be expected to be sympathetic and to explore the sexual desires of older women in her work. But Julie Taddeo has convincingly shown that Lytton Strachey was a dominant force within this group and, for all his unconventional attitudes, was strongly influenced by the Brotherly love, anti-female ethos of the Higher Apostles society at Cambridge University. Taddeo considers that Strachey was primarily responsible for retrogressive attitudes towards women within the Bloomsbury group and concludes: “Despite their bisexual love triangles and candid conversations about sex, the ‘Bloomsberries’ continued to operate within the Victorian ideological framework of gender difference and patriarchy.”5 Indeed, as Taddeo elucidates, Woolf was clearly aware of Strachey’s repressive attitudes towards women as, in retrospect, she remarked that if she had married Strachey following their engagement she “wouldn’t have written anything […].
He checks and inhibits in the most curious way.”6 In this light, Lawrence’s portrayal of Kate in The Plumed Serpent seems even more remarkable.

  • 7 Kate Millett, Sexual Politics. (London:Virago 1991, first published 1970). 283
  • 8 Ibid., 284.

11Yet when discussing this novel, Millett does not appreciate Lawrence’s originality in depicting a sexually active, middle-aged woman. Instead, following on from her more general attacks on Lawrence, quoted previously, Millett accuses him in The Plumed Serpent of inventing “a religion, even a liturgy, of male supremacy” and identifies Kate Leslie as “an exemplary case of submission.”7 Furthermore, viewing Kate as actively complicit in encouraging female submission, Millett quotes from the novel to support her opinion and states that Kate’s role in the novel is “to lead other women ‘back to the twilight of the ancient Pan world, where the soul of woman is dumb, to be forever unspoken.’”8

  • 9 The Plumed Serpent. D.H. Lawrence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).,312. Hereafter ref (...)

12But Millett has carefully edited this quote. Crucially, she misses out Lawrence’s introductory sentence to this paragraph which explains Kate’s response to the subsequent image of submission: “Her world could end in many ways, and this was one of them.”9 Thus what Millett presents as an example of Lawrence using Kate to advocate female submission is actually Kate’s forceful rejection of such an idea. For surely, there is no stronger way of resisting the idea of male supremacy than to state it would cause the death of the female? This is also a prime example of what Siegel identifies, Lawrence using a female voice to undercut masculine ideals of supremacy—but Millett appears not to hear that voice.

13Furthermore, Kate does not conform to the passive female/active male Freudian stereotype that Millett firmly associates with Lawrence. Kate is an older woman, full of sexual energy, who is strenuously seeking a better life for herself. She recognises the constraints western society would place on her as an older woman and, rejecting the role men allow her in Europe, she is determined to try and change her life. As Lawrence puts it, she goes to Mexico “Because the flow of her life had broken, and she knew she could not restart it in Europe” (PS 78). Thus, refuting any charges of passivity, she is actively seeking a different way forward, a different way to define femininity and masculinity.

14Kate is also far from compliant in her dealings with Ramon and Cipriano. Initially, it is suggested that there is a mutual attraction between Ramon and Kate because he is more European: “Instantly Kate and he, Europeans in essence, understood one another” (PS 41). A little later, wounded by the hostility from his wife and children towards his Quetzalcoatl movement, Ramon goes to see Kate and they have an intimate conversation that Kate views as a possible precursor to them having a relationship; after ascertaining that she is not planning to marry Cipriano, Ramon confesses the difficulties in his marriage, the sexually charged nature of this encounter being suggested when Kate “flushed deeply at his touch”(PS 274). But Kate is mistaken in her assumptions. Furthermore,—again throwing doubt on Millett’s view of Kate—Ramon appears to recognise that Kate would not be the submissive wife he desires and there is even a suggestion that he would find her too sexually demanding:

If I marry a woman of the Anglo-Saxon or any blonde northern stock, she will want to ravish me […] They are all potential Carlotas or—or—yes, Caterinas. I am sure you ravished your Joachim till he died. No doubt he wanted it: even more than you wanted it. It is not just sex. It lies in the will. (PS 274)

15Moreover, within this conversation is an indication that Ramon finds it difficult to have a relationship with any woman: “Women and I have failed with one another, and it is a bad failure to have in the middle of oneself” (PS 272). Earlier in the text Ramon’s disgust of women and intimacy had been clearly stated together with the suggestion of his homoerotic relationship with Cipriano when they “embraced each other with passion” (PS 252). The idea of Ramon’s aversion to women is reinforced following the attack on Jamiltepec, when Kate helps to save Ramon’s life. Whilst this incident might be thought to help bond their relationship, instead Kate observes that Ramon “was remote, remote from any woman” (PS 316). However, eventually Ramon marries Teresa who, from Kate’s description, would seem to better fit Millett’s description of a submissive woman: “Ramon had not wanted Kate. Ramon had got what he wanted—this black little creature, who was so servile to him” (PS 399).

  • 10 Millett, 240.
  • 11 Ibid., 240.

16However, Cipriano is very different to the “European” Ramon and, as Kate is shown to discover, he is a good lover. But Millett takes issue with Lawrence on this point. In her condemnation of Lawrence, Millett makes much of the scenes of sexual intercourse between Connie and Mellors in Lady Chatterley’s Lover which she maintains “are written according to the ‘female is passive, male is active’ directions laid down by Sigmund Freud.”10 Millett goes on to explain that, “Passive as she is, Connie fares better than the heroine of The Plumed Serpent, from whom Lawrentian man, Don Cipriano, deliberately withdraws as she nears orgasm, in a calculated and sadistic denial of her pleasure.” 11 To support her claim that Cipriano “sadistically” denies Kate her orgasm, Millett then quotes a long passage from the novel that ends: “He [Cipriano] just removed himself, dark and unchangeable, away from her” (PS 422).

17From this it would seem that the evidence is incontestable. Lawrence does depict Cipriano withdrawing before Kate achieves her orgasm. But was it, as Millett charges, a “sadistic denial of her pleasure”? Again, Millett has carefully edited her quote to make her point. For when the episode she refers to is read in full, the meaning is contrary to the interpretation Millett gives. Whilst it is true that Lawrence shows Kate’s momentary disappointment when Cipriano withdraws, in subsequent passages on the same page Lawrence shows how Cipriano goes on to give Kate a much greater sense of sexual pleasure. Lawrence provides—perhaps too much—information to make clear that following Cipriano’s withdrawal he “would bring her back” to give Kate a deeper sense of sexual satisfaction and a more fulfilling orgasm than she had enjoyed with either of her previous husbands. Cipriano’s actions take Kate beyond what is inferred to be the shallow wilfulness of her previous sexual experiences and into a deeper, more instinctive, unconscious sexual enjoyment. As Lawrence puts it, “What she had with Cipriano was curiously beyond her knowing: so deep and hot and flowing, as it were subterranean. She had to yield before it” (PS 422). It is also worth pointing out—as Lawrence does—that Kate had to yield to “it, the overwhelming power of sexual experience, not “him,” Cipriano. Furthermore, the value that Kate puts on Cipriano’s love making is reiterated just before the end of the novel when Kate reflects on whether sex still matters to her and concludes: “ It might have mattered more, if she had not had it. But she had had it—and very finally and consummately, with Cipriano. So she knew all about it. It was as if she had conquered another territory, another field of life. The conqueress!” (PS 437-8).

18Thus close reading of all the text refutes Millett’s suggestion that Kate is sadistically denied her sexual pleasure. On the contrary, Lawrence emphasises the sexual satisfaction that Kate derived from Cipriano. Furthermore, Kate’s view of herself as some kind of conquering heroine in her lovemaking with Cipriano offers a clear rebuttal of Millett’s charges of her passivity. Therefore in these two cases, which comprise the bulk of Millett’s criticism of The Plumed Serpent, Millett’s allegations can be seen to be based on unsound foundations and are consequently unjust.

19However, Lawrence’s feminist ambitions in The Plumed Serpent go further still. For in emphasising Kate’s age, he not only raises the topic of sexual desire in older women—something that, as we have seen, his contemporaries avoided discussing—but also makes a strong argument to illuminate the sad plight of older women in western society:

She was forty: the first half of her life was over. The bright page, with its flowers and its love and its stations of the cross ended with a grave. Now she must turn over, and the page was black, black and empty.
The first half of her life had been written on the bright smooth vellum of hope, with initial letters all gorgeous upon a field of gold. But the glamour had gone from station to station of the cross, and the last illumination was the tomb.
Now the bright page was turned, and the dark page lay before her. How could one write on a page so profoundly black? (PS 50-51)

20This indicates that this crisis in Kate’s life has been prompted by the ethos of a masculinist society that doesn’t value older women. From the start of the book, Lawrence has emphasised the superiority of Kate’s Irish logic and instincts over that of her male companions. But here Lawrence’s reference to the stations of the cross remind us of the patriarchal Catholic religious sensibilities that would have dominated her childhood. The “bright, smooth vellum of hope” suggests youthful optimism and, in contrast to mature wrinkles, the texture of young skin. But the reference to vellum also points to male domination, hinting that this image of beauty is man wrought in a similar manner to the way vellum is worked to make it smooth. The allusions to illuminated manuscripts again emphasise the dominant masculinity in her life until then. For these gorgeous religious scripts were written by men and focussed on the life of a man.

21The first half of Kate’s life has been dominated by men in other ways. There are her two marriages, first to a man she didn’t love but to whom she bore two children and then to a man she really loved, an Irish patriot rebel whose love for his cause was so all consuming that it killed him. She has already fulfilled the roles that men allow her in the western world of wife, mother and loyal supporter. Now, her youthful optimism has dissipated, she is questioning, what next? Is death the only thing the future holds?

22Kate’s flight to Mexico is her attempt to break away from male dominated European society and find something different. She is dissatisfied—to the point of fury—with the role that patriarchal western society allows middle aged women and recognises that she badly needs something to put the magic back in her life, or as Lawrence has her pray: “Give me the mystery and let the world live again for me! […] And deliver me from man’s automatism”(PS 105). Furthermore, as Lawrence makes clear, Kate’s decision to believe in Ramon and Cipriano does not reflect her dedication to them, but rather the desperateness of her situation: “Anything, anything rather than this sterility of nothingness which was the world, and into which her life was drifting” (PS 103).

23As the novel progresses, Kate becomes increasingly involved in the new religious society Ramon and Cipriano are trying to establish. But Lawrence also repeatedly depicts circumstances that show her lack of commitment to their cause and allows her feminine voice to undercut their masculinist ambitions, For example, when first asked by Ramon to become a living goddess, Kate forcefully refuses; “‘I!’ said Kate. ‘Never! I should die of shame.” (PS 316). At another point in the text, when asked by Cipriano to become a living goddess in their pantheon, Kate again refuses stating: “I don’t feel like a goddess in a Mexican pantheon” (PS 235).

24When Kate does “marry” Cipriano in a ritualistic ceremony presided over by Ramon, Millett points to how Kate kisses Cipriano’s feet to support her view of Kate’s submission. But, within the text, Lawrence indicates that Kate regards this “ceremony” as nothing more than erotic play acting and she is shown to enjoy some of the rituals, but it is clear that she recognises it as just a sham. For example, when Kate is required to put on some ceremonial clothes that leave part of her right breast bare, her comments undercut Lawrence’s description of the “mystery” of the ritual, “And she sighed. For it was but a shirt with flowers upturned at the bottom.” (PS 328). Furthermore, Kate’s evident disenchantment with the new society that Ramon and Cipriano are trying to establish is clearly described just after the ritualistic executions of Ramon’s would be assassins:

Kate went home gloomy and uneasy. […] She knew that Ramon and Cipriano did deliberately what they did: they believed in their deeds, they acted with all their conscience. And as men, they were probably right.
But they seemed nothing but men […]. It all seemed to her […] the exertion of pure awful will. And deep in her soul came a revulsion against this manifestation of pure will […]. Ramon and Ciriano no doubt were right for themselves, for their people and country. But for herself, ultimately, ultimately, she belonged elsewhere. (PS 387)

25Kate finally realises that the new world that Ramon and Cipriano are trying to create is not the world she wants to live in. Kate never really believed in their deity and now their actions have shown that they are nothing but men with a desire for power. That is why she belongs elsewhere. Kate is confronted with the awful realisation that she has exchanged one male supremacist society in Europe for another in Mexico.

26Indeed, from the start of the novel, Lawrence has Kate voice her concern about male supremacy and careful reading of the text reveals many instances where Kate challenges attempts, by all nationalities, to dominate her. For example, in the bull-fight episode in the first chapter, Kate does not want to go to the event, but eventually, reluctantly, agrees to go. But by highlighting Kate’s reservations, and the fact that she “allows” herself to be persuaded by the Americans, Lawrence draws attention to her resistance to male domination. In this instance, Lawrence’s depiction of her lack of success also draws attention to the forcefulness women need to employ to combat male supremacy. However, although Kate does go to the bull-fight, this does not stop her leaving before the end—something that she is aware would be regarded as a national insult—when she discovers the senseless brutality of the spectacle. She recognises that she was wrong to think that the bull-fight would be a display of Mexican manliness: “Dirty little boys maiming flies—that’s what they are […] call that manliness […] Then thank god a million times that I’m a woman, and know poltroonery and dirty-mindedness when I see it”(PS 26). Kate further highlights the American men’s attempts to dominate her when she points out that they are only content “whilst she agreed with them” (PS 28).

27Lawrence again illuminates this expected submission to male opinion when he depicts what might seem to be a minor scene at Mrs Norris’ home when Kate and Judge Burlap discuss the colour of jade. The Judge maintains that jade can only be bright green and that Kate is wrong to believe otherwise, whereas Kate is equally insistent that jade comes in many colours, pointing out that she has a piece of black jade. The resolution comes when the American man, Owen, supports Kate’s view. But Lawrence’s portrayal of this skirmish highlights the battles that women face to make their voices heard.

28Lawrence’s choice of a judge for this conflict is significant. Burlap is not just a man, but one whose profession requires him to hear all sides of an argument and make a reasoned judgement. But he does not listen to Kate, he is intransigent and when challenged resorts to bully boy tactics. He has no evidence to support his ideas, dismisses Kate’s opinions out of hand and is aggressive to Kate in an attempt to get her to submit to his—clearly wrong—opinions. Only Owen’s intervention in support of Kate ends the confrontation. However Lawrence’s comment that Owen “laughed a rather stage laugh” indicates that Owen is clearly uncomfortable to be put in the position of supporting Kate against the Judge, who does not accept that he is wrong or apologise to Kate for his belligerent behaviour. Nevertheless, Lawrence’s observation that, “Mrs Norris heard without comment. She only tilted her pince-nez on her sharp nose” indicates that Mrs Norris is only too aware of such attempts at male supremacy (PS 45).

29Lawrence also shows Kate resisting attempts at male domination when she clashes with a young Mexican university professor who tries to discredit her opinions about the country by insisting that you have to be Mexican to understand Mexican politics. Kate is not submissive to his view and retaliates, accusing him of ignoring the twelve million poor Indians who are the indigenous population of Mexico and pointing out that he isn’t Mexican either: “You aren’t Mexico. You aren’t even Mexicans, really. You are just half- Spaniards full of European ideas, and you care for asserting your own ideas and nothing else” (PS 54).

30Furthermore, when Kate first meets Cipriano she is attracted to him, but still “wants to get away from him” because she is concerned he would “put a burden on her” (PS 24). Even Cipriano’s proposal seems to Kate to be simply a way for him to make her submit to his will: “Surely, surely he was only putting his will over her!” (PS 236). This suspicion is strengthened a little later when Kate observes that, fundamentally, Cipriano was: “the inevitable Mexican general, fascinated by the opportunity for furthering his own personal ambition and imposing his own personal will” (PS 253).

31Indeed, Kate’s attraction to Cipriano would seem to say more about her fears of the sort of life she might be forced to lead without him, than it does about her regard for him. Kate worries about becoming solely dependent on sex for a sense of power—of turning into a “grimalkin,” like so many of her female friends, “prowling around looking for prey that became scarcer and scarcer” (PS 438). But what other options does she have?

32A relationship with Cipriano would eliminate that need and, as she has learnt, he is a very satisfying lover. Yet Kate comes to realise that Cipriano’s sexual prowess, although enticing, is not enough. She wants more from a relationship than just good sex. Kate went to Mexico in the hope that, in a different culture, the relationship between men and women might be different. But she appreciates her mistake. Kate’s battles against male domination by both western and Mexican men leads her to recognise that what she wants is not female supremacy, but a relationship of equal partners with a man who “will meet her half-way” (PS 271). But there is much within the text to suggest that Cipriano cannot be that man. Kate learns that Cipriano is a man who “would never meet me” only “come to take something from me” and thinks that he fits Ramon’s description of “a creature of prey,” “a man who just wants to take without giving” (PS 271). Later in the text, still resisting masculine domination, Kate angrily tells Ramon and Cipriano: You treat me as if I had no life of my own,[…] But I have[…] I can’t just be swallowed up”(PS 370). Later still she insists that “Her life was her own. It was not her metier to be fanning the blood in a man to make him almighty and blood-glamorous. Her life was her own!” (PS 399). The problem being, Kate does not know what that life can be.

33Kate knows that Cipriano is unable to be the equal partner that she craves. But a question that Lawrence poses is whether Kate should be prepared to settle for what becomes an increasingly fragmentary association, dependent for its success on Cipriano’s frequent absences when he is enjoying the camaraderie of being with his army. This does leave her largely free from male domination to lead her own life, but it is far from her dream of a union based on an equal partnership.

  • 12 For a fuller explanation of this see also Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature an (...)

34Thus in his portrayal of the relationships between Ramon, Cipriano and Kate, Lawrence not only foreshadows Millett’s uncovering of sexual politics in literature but also highlights the complexity of the problems. Furthermore, he also anticipates the commonplace that Rene Girard described in his 1961 book, Deceit, Desire and the Novel of an erotic triangle between two men and a female beloved.12 Following Girard’s logic would indicate that Ramon and Cipriano need Kate, not for herself, but to complete their erotic triangle and so maintain the strength of their homosocial bonds to each other.

35Indeed, Lawrence points to this in the text. At the start, Kate is shown to be strongly attracted to Ramon, something that is reinforced by the attack on Jamiltepec when Kate realises that “she didn’t mind dying so long as she died with that man [Ramon]” (PS 292). However, as we have seen, Ramon is not attracted to Kate, but there is a strong bond between him and Cipriano which Lawrence illuminates in several homoerotic episodes. Furthermore, these feelings are reciprocated by Cipriano who tells Kate that “To me Ramon is more than life,” which leads to Kate’s recognition that “She could understand marrying him [Cipriano], now” (PS 310).

36Identifying this erotic triangle, as Kate does at the end of the novel, then helps to explain her final statement. Kate comes to the men to tell them she has reconsidered her decision to leave but, seeing them engrossed in each other and their Quetzalcoatl exploits, feels excluded. Tearfully, she tries to elicit their affections by challenging them: “You don’t really want me” (PS 443). However, Ramon will not be manipulated into a declaration of tenderness, and whilst Cipriano swiftly assures her of his yearning for her, Kate is aware this is nothing more than sexual desire. This leads to Kate’s epiphany. She recognises the deceit in the men’s love for her and in her attachment to them. Whilst, as might be conventionally expected of a woman in her situation, she expresses a longing for a relationship with them, she realises that, in truth, this is a sham and she doesn’t truly want or need them. Thus it is Kate’s discovery of her role in the men’s erotic triangle that leads to her final remark: “You won’t let me go!” (PS 444).

37So understanding Girard’s ideas helps to illuminate this, perhaps puzzling, statement. For this is not Kate’s acceptance of male domination, but her recognition that Ramon and Cipriano need her to provide the glue in their homosocial relationship. She is the third member of the triangle that holds the other two in place. This is why they won’t let her go, not because of their affection for her, but because without her the structure of their relationship to each other would collapse. Thus, Lawrence gives the final words in this novel to a woman and allows her voice to undercut the ideas of strong male leadership that he has built up throughout this text. For in Kate’s final statement Lawrence makes a startling revelation: the inherent weakness of the masculinist society he has portrayed in this book is that it is dependent on women for its strength.

38But perhaps Kate should have said “You won’t let me go – yet!” For a little earlier in the same chapter there is a scene that indicates that Ramon’s submissive wife, Teresa, will replace Kate as the living goddess Malintzi and therefore take Kate’s place in the erotic triangle. Lawrence first signifies the remarkable change that the Quetzalcoatl movement has brought about in Mexico in the contrast he makes between the bullfight in the first chapter and the careful loading of a bull into a boat in this last chapter. This is then juxtaposed by the revelation of another change that will come about. In an unguarded moment Teresa, possibly unwittingly, states that she will “put on the green dress,”, which signifies the goddess Malintzi, “and be for the time the God woman” (PS 433). This comment elicits a sharp response from Kate who retaliates, “But I thought the green dress was for the bride of Huitzilopochtli!” Teresa, realising the gravity of her error, tries to cover it up by describing a different colour dress that she claims is hers, but Kate is not misled. Kate realises that plans must have been discussed for Teresa to become the goddess Malintzi in the Mexican pantheon. Kate’s reaction is to tell Teresa that she can have the green dress because she is going away—with the suggestion that she is welcome to Cipriano as well. However, the inference is clear, the changes in Mexico will lead to changes in the pantheon and Kate will become surplus to requirements.

39Therefore Kate’s recognition of the erotic triangle and the temporary nature of her status must place a huge question mark over whether she will stay in Mexico. Many readers are convinced that, unlike the ending of Quetzalcoatl, Kate will stay in Mexico. But it is difficult to envision that a woman, especially one with the strength of character that Kate has displayed throughout the novel, would be prepared to stay where she was no longer wanted and had no role to play apart from that of a dependent woman supporting a homosocial masculinist ideal.

40Thus in The Plumed Serpent Lawrence’s depiction of the complex relationships between Kate, Ramon and Cipriano, and Kate’s battles, throughout the text, against male domination can be seen, in important ways, to foreshadow the sexual politics that Millett’s book fought to establish. Therefore, perhaps it may be suggested that deep down, though maybe only at times, Lawrence and Millett were on the same side after all.

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Lawrence, D.H. The Plumed Serpent. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Millett, Kate. Sexual Politics. London: Virago Press, 1977.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Siegel, Carol. Lawrence among the Women: Wavering Boundaries in Women’s Literary Traditions. Charlottesville and London: University Press of London, 1991.

Taddeo, Julie. ‘A Modernist Romance? Lytton Strachey and the Women of Bloomsbury’ Unmanning Modernism: Gendered Rereadings. Eds. Elizabeth Jane Harrison and Shirley Peterson. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997.

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1 Lawrence among the Women: Wavering Boundaries in Women’s Literary Traditions. Carol Siegel. (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1991). 129, 5.

2 Ibid., 6.

3 Even today, the representation of older women in the arts is still a problem as Kristin Scott Thomas highlighted in an interview with the B.B.C. in March 2015.

4 Private correspondence.

5 Julie Taddeo, “A Modernist Romance? Lytton Strachey and the Women of Bloomsbury,” Unmanning Modernism: Gendered Rereadings. Eds Elizabeth Jane Harrison and Shirley Peterson. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997), 134. Taddeo notes that Strachey was elected to a lifetime membership of the secret, fraternal society of Apostles at Cambridge University—other members included J.M. Keynes, G.E. Moore and Leonard Woolf—whose philosophy extolled male beauty, love and friendship and the exclusion of women who were viewed as something to be “used as a ‘safety valve’ whenever passion threatened to bring Brotherly love to a lower level.”137.

6 Ibid., 139.

7 Kate Millett, Sexual Politics. (London:Virago 1991, first published 1970). 283

8 Ibid., 284.

9 The Plumed Serpent. D.H. Lawrence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).,312. Hereafter referred to in parenthesis as PS.

10 Millett, 240.

11 Ibid., 240.

12 For a fuller explanation of this see also Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 21-27

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Jane Costin, « The Battles of the Kates: Sexual Politics and The Plumed Serpent »Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 49 | 2019, mis en ligne le 02 avril 2019, consulté le 19 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Jane Costin

Jane Costin is an independent scholar who has been a regular contributor to this journal for the past seven years. She has published work on Lawrence, most recently an article concerning Lawrence’s influence on Henry Moore and an article on Lawrence’s translation of the work of Giovanni Verga. She has also organised an international academic conference in September 2016 in St Ives Cornwall to mark the centenary of Lawrence moving to Zennor.

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Études lawrenciennes est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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