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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 339

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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.

Summary

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1569

First published: 1929 in France as The Escaped Cock, 1931 in England as The Man Who Died

Edition(s) used: “St. Mawr” and “The Man Who Died.” New York: Vintage, 1953

Genre(s): Novella

Subgenre(s): Literary fiction

Core issue(s): Awakening; healing; Jesus Christ; myths; regeneration

Principal characters

The man who died, the unnamed protagonist who is actually Jesus

An unnamed priestess of Isis

Madeleine, a former friend of the man who died and who is presumably the Mary Magdelene of the Bible

A peasant and his wife

Overview

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.”

When the man’s wounds heal, he decides to become a physician. He asks the peasant for the cock (a symbol of the Greek god of healing, Asclepius) and leaves with the bird. The man is still in awe of the lively, bubbling world, and he is amazed that he ever desired to conform to his former mission. The man remembers how crowds tried to influence him and nearly caused his death. He continues on, feeling sick at the thought of the world.

In part 2, the man continues his healing process at a temple of Isis. The temple is near the Mediterranean sea, surrounded by pines, oaks, and rocks. The scene is filled with sensuous imagery, from the splendid sunlight to the splashing water to slaves copulating. Inside the temple is a statue of the goddess in her incarnation as Iris Bereaved, the sad Isis who searches for the body parts of the god Osiris, who has been murdered and scattered by his brother Seth.

The temple is tended by a twenty-seven-year-old priestess. She asks the man to look at Isis, and he praises the goddess. The priestess wonders whether he might be Osiris and asks him to stay. He agrees, worrying about giving himself over to her touch. He remembers how men have tortured him, but he also knows that touch can be healing.

The priestess asks if he is Osiris, and he says yes, if she will heal him. The identification with Osiris links the man and his story with the death and revival of the fertility gods found in many cultures.

The man and the priestess experience a sexual consummation that takes place in the temple. The encounter is not simple lust, but a sacramental healing for both. He has feared touch; the priestess has been waiting, like Isis in search. She asks several times if he is Osiris and anoints the scar on his torso. Sexually aroused, he also feels renewed. This, he feels, is his real rising: warmth, life, and tenderness. Both are happy with their union: she, to have communed with Osiris; he, to feel whole. He is healed in both body and spirit. For days and nights they meet, neither knowing the other’s name, but each filling a need for the other.

When the priestess becomes pregnant, both rejoice. Because they fear betrayal to the authorities, he leaves. However, he says he will return. The man rows out to sea, feeling good about his relationship with the priestess and looking forward to the next day.

Christian Themes

Many of D. H. Lawrence’s works reflect his belief that contemporary Christianity was abstract and sterile—an altruistic ideal that ignored human feeling. The Man Who Died was written near the end of Lawrence’s life (he died at the relatively young age of forty-four), after he had experienced an illness that nearly killed him.

Lawrence’s unnamed protagonist is clearly and deliberately Jesus Christ, who in Lawrence’s tale rejects his mission and accepts both his sexuality and the existence of other gods. Although this may be unsettling to some readers, in fact the story does not reject Christ or Christianity. Instead, it addresses themes important to Christian thinkers—such as the Resurrection, the humanity of Jesus, and the message of Jesus—from a nontraditional perspective that provokes fresh thought about the significance of Christ and Christianity.

Lawrence believed that contemporary Christianity ignored a basic tenet of faith, that Christ’s body rose. Therefore, Lawrence presents a very human Jesus after the crucifixion. Focusing on physical sensations—the bandages, the feel of the wheat beneath the man’s wounded feet, and the sexual union with the priestess—Lawrence suggests that it is natural for humans to be of the world; that is how they are truly alive. In this story, Jesus rejects his messianic mission, a mission he now feels was misdirected because it had allowed him to share only part of himself, his spirit and his thought.

Rather than depict Saint Paul’s emphasis on Jesus’ suffering and sacrifice (a teaching stressed by Lawrence’s Congregationalist upbringing), Lawrence wanted to portray Jesus’ love and affirmation of life. The man who died is initially afraid of life, but as he reawakens, he reveals himself to be gentle, caring, thoughtful, and perceptive. He chooses to engage positively with the world, first by his admiration of the cock, then by becoming a physician, and later by his relationship with the priestess. The reciprocal relationship with the priestess affirms the totality of life and connects him with a major aspect of the natural world, the female. Her consequent pregnancy is a positive symbol of the life force.

Lawrence’s use of biblical imagery adds resonance to the story. One of many possible examples is the image of the cock: Lawrence’s literary use of the cock is given more depth not only by the term’s phallic meaning in English slang but also by its reference to the biblical cock that crowed three times when Simon Peter betrayed Christ (John 18:15-27). Although Peter is not mentioned in Lawrence’s story, there are multiple allusions to him: in several instances of betrayal; when the priestess asks the man three times if he is Osiris; and when the man describes the priestess as “the rock” of his new life (“Peter” derives from the Latin word for “rock”).

Sources for Further Study

  • Cowan, James C. “Allusions and Symbols in D. H. Lawrence’s The Escaped Cock.” In Critical Essays on D. H. Lawrence, edited by Dennis Jackson and Fleda Brown Jackson. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. Compares and contrasts dialogue and imagery in the story with specific biblical passages; also discusses Osirian myth.
  • Hough, Graham. “Lawrence’s Quarrel with Christianity: The Man Who Died.” In D. H. Lawrence: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Mark Spilka. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963. Discusses Lawrence’s concern that modern Christianity is estranged from the deep sources of life. The collection includes a chronology and a bibliography.
  • Viinikka, Anja. “The Man Who Died: D. H. Lawrence’s Phallic Vision of the Restored Body.” Journal of the D. H. Lawrence Society (1994-1995): 39-46. Relates the story to Lawrence’s life, late essays, and poetry. Footnotes suggest further useful bibliographic sources.
  • Walterscheid, Kathryn A. The Resurrection of the Body: Touch in D. H. Lawrence. New York: Peter Lang, 1993. Analyzes Lawrence’s fiction using psychoanalytical, medical, and Lawrence’s own theories. Includes bibliographic essay on touch and a bibliography.
  • Wright, T. R. D. H. Lawrence and the Bible. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Chapter 12 suggests sources for the original title and for various images, including Nietzschean philosophy and Osirian myths. Also discusses variants in the manuscript.
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