“The Woman Who Rode Away”:
Dialogism vs. Solipsism
(By courtesy of the English Studies Series).
Mansour Khelifa, University of Sousse
Departing from the belief that humanity has been perverted by idealism, Lawrence engages in a lifelong struggle in order to save modern society from decay and madness. Throughout his work, he tries to draw our attention to empirical experience as opposed to abstract theorising, and awaken our sensuous mode of being in distinct polarisation with our mental consciousness. He likes to point out the many marvels of the living world.
For Lawrence, humanity’s salvation depends on, among other things, the healthy, physical relationship between man and woman. In “The Woman Who Rode Away” Lawrence dramatises the relation between two diametrically opposed cultures: the Western and the Amerindian. The story of the woman who escaped from her ranch at once highlights and subverts the preconceived ideas about the Red Indians’ “savage” (48) culture and cult. Yet, in filigree, the narrator of the story subtly arouses the reader’s “willing suspension of disbelief” and awe by conferring respectability on the white woman’s self-sacrifice for the sake of the Red Indians’ sun. In a masterly “tour de force,” Lawrence uses this highly dramatised narrative to serve his own overarching assertion that Western civilisation, as a universal ideal, has no future. The White Man’s Burden as an imperialist predicament has turned the world into a nightmarish place prone to global warfare and strife. The only escape from this deadly situation seems to lie in the dialectical interchange with other different cultures, different but not inferior, which might vitally contaminate and even rejuvenate decadent Western civilisation.
The story of “The WWRA” unfolds under the paradoxical signs of desperation and expectation, repulsion and attraction, Thanatos and Eros. Pricked by the impregnable loftiness of the nearby mountains where the no less impenetrable Indian tribes of Chihuahua live, the white woman’s wilful determination to probe the unknown otherness becomes overpowering.
The short story relates the tragic adventure of an American woman in her mid-thirties who relinquishes the comfortable monotony of her married life (her two children, her husband, her religion, her wealth) and sets out to experiment and seek something new, verging on the uncanny, little knowing that she is on her way to meet her own fate at the hands of the Chilchui Indian priests– a fateful, sacrificial death offered the Amerindians’ Sun. The tale points to the morality that the spiritual ennui, caused by an unfulfilled idealism from which the white woman seems to suffer, must be atoned for by its polarised opposite, i.e. the physical death and annihilation of the ambitious American woman through a ritual of immolation.
In an illuminating text about the genesis of novelistic discourse, Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) focuses on the “struggle between tribes, peoples, cultures and languages” that has informed the burgeoning fictional “word” and representation:
During its germination and early development, the novelistic word reflected a primordial struggle between tribes, peoples, cultures and languages–it is still full of echoes of this ancient struggle. In essence this discourse always developed on the boundary line between cultures and languages. The prehistory of novelistic discourse is of great interest and not without its own special drama. (132)
Though my main subject is cross-cultural exchanges and not Lawrence’s fiction per se, I think it is still relevant to point out right away the seminal positioning of his fictional discourse within the ongoing dialogical interchange, in the Bakhtinian understanding, between cultures, epochs, generations, tastes and genres. By extrapolation, one may suggest that the whole of the Lawrentian oeuvre is in dialogical relationship with itself–in a solipsistic fashion, as it were, and with other literatures, cultures and canons. Significantly enough, it is David Herbert who sometimes seems to be in dialogic/parodic relationship with Lawrence, quoting himself. Take for example some repeated phrases in “The WWRA” such as “streaming black hair” (70), and “the rivers of black hair” (70, 80) which tend to typify certain physical features of the Red Indians; these selfsame expressions are almost word for word employed by Lawrence in an essay about the Mexicans who are depicted with “long, streaming, glistening black hair” (Selected Essays 185).
The main theme of the story of “The WWRA,” which is the encounter between a White, spiritually-minded woman and an alien ‘Other’ whether it be an abstracted culture or a full-blooded human being with a lower status, is a recurrent subject in many of Lawrence’s fictional texts: “The Ladybird,” “Sun,” The Plumed Serpent, The Girl and the Gypsy, Women in Love, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, etc.
Among many relevant dialogues, two representative dramatic passages in “The WWRA” tend to highlight the narrative tension and subject matter of the novelette. The first dialogue occurs in the opening pages and the second in the latter parts of the story. The first one involves two white, cultured gentlemen, the representatives of modern Western civilisation (overrated culture), talking more or less disparagingly about the “wild” Indians (48) of Chihuahua in the presence of the woman who will ride away:
“Yes, but what lives in the hills and the mountains? Surely there is something wonderful? It looks so like nowhere on earth: like being on the moon.”
“There’s plenty of game, if you want to shoot. And Indians, if you call them wonderful.”
“It depends […]
“But don’t you suppose it’s wonderful, up there in their secret villages?”
“No. What would there be wonderful about it? Savages are savages, and all savages behave more or less alike: rather low-down and dirty insanitary, with a few cunning tricks, and struggling to get enough to eat.”
“But surely they have old, old religions and mysteries – it must be wonderful, surely it must.” (48)
The second dialogue occurs later on between this American female character and a young male Chilchui, the representative of Amerindian culture (underrated sub-culture):
She was aware, too, of the sort of shadow that was on the Indians of the valley, a deep, stoical disconsolation, almost religious in its depth.
“We have lost our power over the sun, and we are trying to get him back. But he is wild with us, and shy like a horse that has got away. We have to go through a lot.” So the young Indian said to her, looking into her eyes with a strained meaning. And she, as if bewitched, replied:
“I hope you will get him back.”
The smile of triumph flew over his face.
“Do you hope it?” he said.
“I do,” she answered fatally.
“Then all right,” he said. “We shall get him.”
And he went away in exultance.
She felt she was drifting on some consummation, which she had no will to avoid, yet which seemed heavy and finally terrible to her. (74)
In keeping with a typically Lawrentian metaphysic, the first dialogue dramatises the woman’s own mental/spiritual representation of the idealised other–a misrepresentation founded on will-to-power and on wish-fulfilment, which turn out in the end to be an unconscious death-wish. The narrator’s comment: “It was one of these young gentlemen who put the idea into her mind” (47), comes as an incrimination of this young gentleman and as anticipation of the woman’s sacrificial death. This fantasised proxy encounter between the woman who rode away and her future murderers amounts to a dramatic/intellectual misconception of self and other.
The second dialogue, conversely, focuses on the main female character’s physical/mystical representation of the unknowable otherness of the Indian–involving an actual encounter, a tense interchange characterised by fascination, repulsion and ultimate surrender:
She could never quite understand the way he looked at her. He was always so curiously gentle, and his smile was so soft. Yet there was such a glitter in his eyes, and an unrelenting sort of hate came out of his words, a strange, profound, impersonal hate. Personally he liked her, she was sure… (77)
Both dialogically dramatised passages pinpoint the unknown other: first as an idealised/debased abstraction (by the woman who will ride away/by the white gentlemen: an awakening/a savage sub-culture); second as an idolised/incarnated mystery (by the woman who rode away/by the Lawrence–narrator–character–focalised consciousness).
 Hereafter referred to as “The WWRA.”
- Quote paper
- Mansour Khelifa (Author), 2015, Self and Otherness in D.H. Lawrence's "The Woman Who Rode Away". Dialogism vs Solipsism, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/314257