Invisibility in D.H. Lawrence's Short Novel "The Man Who Died". The Will to Be

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2007

16 Pages


(By courtesy of the English Studies Series)

Starting from the apocalyptic modernist assumption that "[h]umanity is a dead letter”[1] (Women in Love 60) Lawrence launches, especially after the Great War, his bitterest attacks on bourgeois society. He accuses Western civilisation of causing the impoverishment of what he calls the sensuous vitality of the “lower self” (Fantasia of the Unconscious and Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious[2] 178), of turning human beings into spineless abstractions, and of transforming man into a consuming machine. Lawrence cannot expect from modern society anything other than post-mortem effects. He however believes that the novel, “the one bright book of life[3],” as he calls it, may eventually reinvigorate this moribund society.

In order to address the notion of invisibility in relation to Lawrence’s apocalyptic / vitalistic vision, I have chosen one of his most eloquent and perplexing works, i.e. The Man Who Died which deals with the representation of the world’s invisibility and mindlessness. This short novel is one of his lesser works , the title of which refers to the main character who has risen from the dead as a parodic, Christ-like figure.

In this paper, I will analyse the various ways in which Lawrence endeavours to make the invisible vitality of the living world – what he calls “the phenomenal world” (143) – visible and palpable, and even more real than reality itself.

The narrative brings to life a host of marginal characters and events. As for the characters, one may mention, for example, the eponymous figure, the girl and boy slaves on the beach, the priestess of Isis, the peasant and his wife, and the “escaped cock” (129) which – symbolically – functions as a contrapuntal representation of life paralleling the main character’s escape from death. As for the events, suffice it to refer to the Man’s rising from the grave, his hiding away from people, his re-encounter with Madeleine, his acquaintance with the priestess of Isis, her anointment of his wounds, her making love to him towards the end of the story, and finally his journeying into a new-born world.

In The Man Who Died Lawrence subverts the Christian dogma and archetype; submitting the Christian valorisation of love, of idealism, and of humanism to severe criticism. He deconstructs, as it were, the discourse about the Resurrection, through a prosaic, deliberate misreading of it: The man who died came back to life, because he had been taken down off the cross too soon: “I am not dead,” he explains, “[t]hey took me down too soon. So I have risen up” (130). Lawrence subverts also the Christian liturgy by making the man and the priestess come together at the temple of Isis and celebrate what looks and sounds like some pagan rites de passage. Similarly, Lawrence plays off the lesser, self-interested “narrow belief” (145) in personal life, embodied by Madeleine and the two men the Master meets on the road, against the older pantheistic faith in the greater inhuman life, epitomised by the elemental forces, the phallus, the cockerel, etc. For example, in Etruscan Places, a book about the pre-Christian dark people of Etruria who had lived in central Italy , Lawrence asserts that the moderns have lost touch with “the phallic reality” (Selected Letters 167), which partially explains why “we don’t like anything proud and sparky”[4] (8), he writes, and we rather prefer “sex in the head” (Fantasia 126) as a perversity and fantasy.

The story line in The Man Who Died is uncomplicated; it consists of the rising from the grave of the crucified man who renounces his former teachings and goes into hiding at a poor peasant’s house until he recovers from his wounds. A few days later, feeling better, he decides to take leave of the peasant and his wife, carrying with him an ‘escaped cock’ purchased from his hosts. Later on, he meets a priestess of Isis in Lebanon. This encounter is depicted as a crucial moment for both characters: she treats him as if he was the long-awaited, dismembered Osiris, and he lets her anoint his wounds and make love to him. Now that he is healed and whole, he can resume his interrupted journey… Where to? The story does not tell. He promises the priestess of Isis, at any rate, to return to her when spring comes. The narrated story ends with an iconic image of the man sitting in a small boat getting away from the shore and from his persecutors.

So far, the story line seems to be rather inconsequential. What actually matters is the consistent representation of the invisible presence of a reality other than, yet contiguous to, the visible one; a reality which bestows on the world a special life and significance. In very broad terms, the story winds up to one central paradoxical chiasm: the more the risen character eschews contact with humanity the more he is at one with inhumanity.

The man who died had taught ideal love (an abstraction) to his fellowmen, so they crucified him. That much was he aware of at some stage of the story, which radically changed his vision of world. Now he has decided to revel in the visible physicality of the phenomenal world that he had denied in his former teachings. At this stage, Lawrence inaugurates a radical rethinking of religious idealism, in general, and of Christian dogma, in particular: the Invisible, i.e., the spiritual world, which represents the ideal source of life, is at best relegated to a subaltern position, and at worst altogether written off. What the story foregrounds instead is the visible, palpable boisterousness of age-old Pan-like nature, which otherwise signifies, in Christian idiom, illusion, decay and death. But for Lawrence, the invisible within the visible is the “phallic presence,” the fount of life – par excellence. For The man who died, too, the physical reality becomes synonymous with life and rejoicing; and the invisible or spiritual realm has now come to mean death on the cross and suffering. Lawrence’s narrative challenge, in The Man Who Died, is to bring to light not the Invisibility of an idealised, transcendental heaven, but rather the visible incarnation of the immediate present, which signifies the lived experience in a living world.

In The Man Who Died, Lawrence seems to do away with the conventional categories of identity and social etiquette. The fact that the male character is continuously referred to as the man who died in the story is indication enough of his anonymity and social invisibility. His evasive condition allows him to elude his persecutors and carry on living unharmed and whole as an invisible outcast, revelling in the sensuous physicality of a world liberated from the bullying idealism of humanity.

Apart from visibility and invisibility, Lawrence undoubtedly addresses other issues such as the self and the un-self, religion and dogma, masculinity and femininity, all of which may be explored in relation to the concept of (in)visibility.

Lawrence’s art stems from one nodal, mystic vision, branching out into various expressions and forms. Lawrence endlessly assembles and disassembles the events and situations in the story through the gaze and senses of his character. The different sensations, actions, and events are revealed through the character’s consciousness, in a desperate attempt to create a deep sense of spontaneous immediacy between the experiencing subject and the experience itself. All of Lawrence’s art seems to grapple with this sensuous, lived experience and the subject who is living it. The character’s consciousness becomes the very subject matter and locus that Lawrence tries to invest and map out. The narrator here dramatises this consciousness as it streams, as it feels, as it loves, as it hates and as it wonders at the world. This consciousness slowly turns into a palpable reality as the character’s physical being. Lawrence’s text derives its force and fluidity from the versatile nature of such consciousness, which metaphorically stands for the inner arena upon which the unmediated dramatisation of the spontaneous psychological and emotional states of the character are played out. The character is revealed from within, as it were; and his inner life seems to occupy a large part of the representational space in the economy of the narrative.

The artist’s forceful vision precludes the conscious and ratiocinating intrusion of the author, and imparts the narrative fluidity and compulsion. However, Lawrence’s mystique of “self-consummation” and loss of self is sometimes contradicted by the character’s standoffish, self-conscious attitude. On the other hand, the man who died cannot be reduced to a pair of eyes or a sensitive skin, although much of his experience is revealed through his gaze and feeling. A large portion of his experience is, however, grounded in his conscious ratiocination of himself and of the world about him, which somewhat contradicts the author’s very aesthetics of the spontaneous unconscious that he sets out to dramatise in his fiction. According to Christopher Caudwell, in his book The Concept of Freedom, Lawrence does not look for a cause in social relations themselves, but in man’s consciousness of them. The solution of the individual’s needs is then plainly to be found in a return to instinctive living (…) By casting off consciousness (…) It is our consciousness that Lawrence attempts to extend and heighten even at the moment he urges us to abandon it. (21)

Two competing worlds, one is visible and the other invisible, inter-fuse and stand apart. This polarity seems to endlessly inform Lawrence’s poetics of fiction. The narrator’s voice and the protagonist’s free indirect speech sometimes interconnect, overlap and diverge, in their attempt to simultaneously bring to life the interplay of the two opposing realities, the visible and the invisible. The story seems to unfold inside the chiaroscuro interface between selfhood and otherness, the spirit and the soul, the invisible and the visible. In other words, The Man Who Died dramatises the Invisible within the Visible through the character’s borderline experience of death and rebirth.

Once the man who died has felt that he is much fitter at the peasants’ ministration, he says farewell to his hosts and starts his journeying, trying to live a solitary life, wholly in tune with the “phenomenal world”:

I will wander the earth, and say nothing. For nothing is so marvellous as to be alone in the phenomenal world, which is raging and yet apart. And I have not seen it, I was too much blinded by my confusion within it. Now I will wander among the stirring of the phenomenal world, for it is the stirring of all things among themselves which leaves me purely alone. (142/3, italics mine)

The character realises his former blindness. He was blind to the elemental world. The resoluteness of the phenomenal world is so intimately enmeshed with the life of single beings and separate phenomena that it eludes the human consciousness. This physical, living resoluteness is invisible. The character’s consciousness seems to become alive to this reality only through an instinctive sense of life. Indeed, the man who died explains why he could not see it before. He was, as he says, blinded by his “confusion within it.” It has always been there but he could not see it. However, elsewhere in the story, he admits that he was completely engrossed in his will to teach spiritual love, and that he was too much of an idealist to see the incarnated marvels of the visible, phenomenal world. Having been a preacher, he must even have despised the physical world and resisted it as an evil temptation. His bodily pain seems to have opened up his sensitive consciousness to the mysteries of the phenomenal reality, an utterly physical and mindless world. A fresh reality in harmony with the character’s new state of awareness is spontaneously generated within and without the sensuous consciousness of the man who died. The phenomenal world and the new-born self of the character are, at the same time, at oneness “and yet apart,” which reflects a subjective experience more physically felt than mentally conceived. The character’s new vision stems from a dark compulsion, which can only be expressed in such radical terms as these: “I tried to compel them to live, so they compelled me to die” (142). Now it is all different; the character seems to rejoice in having discovered such warm, living presence. This discovery leads him to a new knowledge, an insight acquired through the senses and deriving its mystery from the deep sensual desire pertaining to what Lawrence calls the phallic reality coiled in the human innermost unconscious. The character who has known death is now in touch with the physical, phenomenal life brought into visibility.


[1] "Birkin […] was thinking: […] Humanity is a dead letter. There will be a new embodiment, in a new way. Let humanity disappear as quick as possible" (60).

[2] Hereafter will be referred to as Fantasia.

[3] Cf. His essay “Why the Novel matters” published in Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence (535).

[4] In the following quotation Lawrence satirises one of his countrymen who has disparagingly spoken of the asphodel that should be regarded as a phallic symbol: “However, trust an Englishman and a modern for wanting to turn the tall, proud, sparky, dare-devil asphodel into the modest daffodil! I believe we don’t like the asphodel because we don’t like anything proud and sparky.” (Italics mine)

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Invisibility in D.H. Lawrence's Short Novel "The Man Who Died". The Will to Be
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Mansour Khelifa (Author), 2007, Invisibility in D.H. Lawrence's Short Novel "The Man Who Died". The Will to Be, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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