My name is Slawka Grabowska. I organize Donostia Book Club. We meet every month to discuss previously chosen books or short stories. Check out our FB page! https://www.facebook.com/pages/Donostia-Book-Club/105225566276875?ref=hl
Our last meeting, where we discussed D. H. Lawrence and his short story 'The Woman who Rode Away', just proved that the subject is indeed controversial. Although no one in the group agreed with the feminists and shared Kate Millet's opinion that a story is "an exploitative and sadistic work against willful woman" and "an attempt to revenge on the image of white, Western woman", or that Lawrence "equates sexuality with violence and death" ('Sexual Politics', 1970), we had some problems to agree on one interpretation.
Lawrence himself stated that the story is allegorical and symbolic, so we went in this direction. Unfortunately, looks like he never said anything more on the subject.
Written in New Mexico during summer 1924, in the internal between the first and second draft of 'The Plumed Serpent' and published one year later in Dial magazine, 'The Woman who Rode Away' provoked violent reactions. Mabel Luhan, the hostess of the Larences in Taos, who was married to a pueblo Indian, was the first to be offended - she thought the story was about her.
'The Woman who Rode Away' is a story of a never named woman, who is dissatisfied with her life and longs for something more. She leaves her silver-seeking husband and two children and goes to look for Chilchui Indians to "know their gods". She finds them and they lead her to their village, where she becomes a prisoner and is regularly drugged. Finally they, with her permission, begin the ceremony to sacrifice her, believing it will bring sun and moon back to them (they left them and are know misunderstood by white people). The story ends with the old shaman holding a knife over her, ready to strike. What strucks us most here is her fatalistic passivity throughout all the happenings.
Some of the critics have seen it as a junior partner of the novel, others thought it reflects his parents (his mother was a teacher and father - a miner, she married beneath her status and detested the commonness of her husband).
But we want to believe that a good story can defend itself, that we don't have to analyze it thinking about his childhood nor about his other, later work. So what have we seen?
1. Submission to the knife is seen by some as being representative of a far greater universal human gesture towards redemption. She might be trying to cleanse herself of materialism and shallow concept of 'civilization' that accompanies it. She chooses her own free will. In other words: the woman's act of submission to the sacrificial ritual of the local Native Indian tribe is a way of escaping the claustrophobic banality of her husband's materialistic nature and purpose (and at the same tame not only her husband, but also the whole society).
2. The story could be said to express Lawrence's Bataillean belief in reaching the sacred through sacrifice quite literally. George Bataille (1897-1962), a French philosopher, compared eroticism and death: "in sacrifice, the victim is divested not only of clothes but of life (...) The victim dies and the spectators share in what his death reveals (...) This sacredness is the revelation of continuity through the death of a discontinuous being to those who watch it as a solemn rite. A violent death disrupts the creature's discontinuity."
According to this, the ritual death of the woman can be seen symbolically as passage to 'continuity', to the dissolution of the self within the other. Mystical experience, not the annihilation.
3. It is not simply a psychological study of a woman disappointed with what her life has become: it is about processes of devolution; one individual, the other cultural, that reinforce one another. So, it is as much about the cultural process as the individual one! Lawrence describes the decline of an Indian culture, its loss of faith in the power of its traditional ways, and its coming to blame the white for all that has gone wrong as much as an individual drama of the women dissatisfied with her life. Each of them look to the other for 'salvation' which express desperation and futility of their situation.
Finally, I have to admit, we couldn't decide which of these theories convinces us more. One is sure: Lawrence does not approve of the events he is depicting here. He is NOT against women (just look at his other works!) or primitives. He simply writes about the subject that he finds deeply disturbing.
For those of you who want to read the story themselves (it's just 28 pages) here are thy symbolical parts to look for:
- the age of the woman - 33 (the age Christ died, symbol of sacrifice, big change, being reborn etc.)
- the Indian myth about Sun and Moon (sexual meaning, look also at the sacrifice scene and how the Sun enters the cave where Moon is supposed to be hidden, Moon - menstruation??)
- she escapes from her husband because she feels like a prisoners just to be imprisoned literally by Indians (??)
- the woman in this tale wishes to be annihilated: "She knew she was a victim (...) But she did not mind. She wanted it.". Also before the sacrifice she many times repeats that she is already dead, so she can do it and die again (???).
What are your thought? Share it with us in the comments!
'A Critical Study of Feminist Realism in Modern Fiction' by dr. Said A. Abou Deif;
'The Feminine and the Sacred. The Mythicization of Woman in D.H. Lawrence's Fiction.' by Parthenia Haritatou (a great work!!);
part of a book or essay 'The Short Fiction' by Thornton (I only have a copy of that one chapter, so I can't properly point to the source, it might be from 'D.H. Lawrence: A Study in a Short fiction' by Weldon Thornton)