The Man Who Died Summary
D. H. Lawrence's The Man Who Died is a novella length reimagined telling of the life of Jesus Christ had he survived being crucified.
Lawrence was best known for his novels dealing with romantic and erotic love, especially Lady Chatterley's Lover and Women in Love. In his own lifetime he was often condemned as an outright pornographer. His books even faced legal trials for obscenity. It was only after his death that his reputation grew into a poetic author of great literature. The Man Who Died explores themes very different from his better known works.
Lawrence describes in graphic detail Christ's death on the cross. He continues into Jesus's descent into Hell. Up to this point it is a conventional telling of the Christian narrative.
But then he imagines Jesus coming back to life immediately instead of on the third day. This means that his body would never be discovered, nor would most of his followers know of his resurrection. He does speak with some of his friends, but then rejects the role he had previously in his lifetime. This means a world with no Christian religion.
The reborn Jesus sets out to discover the world anew. He decided he wants no part of being a savior for mankind. He has no need for Heaven, or any mission to lead or teach. He finds joy in the current physical world, not in an afterlife. He even begins a relationship, romantic and physical, with a pagan priestess of the temple of the Egyptian goddess Isis. Isis in Egyptian myths helps the dead make their away to the afterlife.
Lawrence originally wrote this under the title The Escaped Cock. After his death only a year later, publisher Charles Lahr changed it to The Man Who Died. The original title suggests Lawrence comparing a surviving Christ to a barnyard rooster, glorying in his life, vain and lustful. Lawrence is arguing that life itself is enough, without need for redemption, and that meaning can be found here on Earth, without authority or restrictions.
D. H. Lawrence’s novella The Man Who Died was originally a story titled “The Escaped Cock.” Later, Lawrence added a second part, and his publishers changed the title to The Man Who Died. Literary critics often refer to the novella by Lawrence’s preferred title, The Escaped Cock, which focuses more on liberation than on death.
Part 1 opens with a description of peasants and their gamecock. The lively cock has been tied up to prevent its escape. The bird, described in detail, is a metaphor for the man who died. The cock, despite his depression at being tied up, still has life bubbling inside him, and one morning he manages to break the string. He flies to the top of the wall and crows loudly.
At that moment, the man who died walks by and helps the peasant catch the cock. Noticing the man’s deathly pallor and wounds, the peasant is afraid; the man explains that he has not died at all, for his executioners unwittingly placed him in his tomb too early. The man remains unnamed throughout the story, but he is clearly Jesus. By leaving his protagonist nameless, Lawrence gives the character more freedom to deviate both from usual Christian interpretations and from Jesus’ specific historical context.
The man who died has awakened at the exact moment that the escaping cock crowed loudly. He found himself in a tomb wrapped in bandages. Sick, sore, disillusioned, and not really ready to be alive, he emerged from the tomb slowly and reluctantly.
The peasant invites the man to hide in his house. Lying in the courtyard and drawing sustenance from the sun, the man slowly regains life and feeling. Watching the cock interact with the three hens, the man sees more than just a cock; he sees life in its persistence and brilliance.
The man revisits the tomb several times and encounters Madeleine, a friend from his former life. He rebuffs her sisterly embrace, for he wants a new kind of life. He does not wish to continue his former mission. She cannot understand this new attitude and spreads a story that he has arisen as a “pure God.”
(The entire section is 1,345 words.)