Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The main character, or protagonist, in D.H. Lawrence’s The Man Who Died, is Jesus Christ, and the plot begins with the religious figure’s resurrection. Also known by the title The Escaped Cock, the novella begins with a short anecdote about a flamboyant rooster who escapes from his peasant owners’ home just as Jesus’ wakes from his death slumber.
As far as his characterization, Jesus is portrayed very differently than in the Christian Bible. Jesus is relieved that his redemptive mission to save all humanity is now complete, but he also expresses an irritation at having been revived from death’s peace. At the beginning of Part I, the narrator says that Jesus has “no want” to be risen, and that he experiences a profound “nausea” at the thought of his body reanimating as it does. In the first moments after waking, Jesus feels loneliness and disillusion, which suggests that he does not feel fulfilled after completing his humanity-saving, divine mission. Despite his followers desperate pleas for him to return as their master, Jesus insists that he is now free to pursue his “single life” while he is “still young.” After buying the rebellious rooster from the peasants with whom Jesus stayed for several days after rising from the tomb, Jesus departs on a journey of self-discovery. In Part II of the novel, Jesus experiences a philosophical and sexual awakening, coming to the conclusion that the earthly realm of existence is exquisitely perfect and divine on its own.
The peasant and his wife in Part I first offer Jesus shelter and hospitality for free after discovering the man who died had risen. However, the peasants’ greed soon turns Jesus away from them. The peasants represent the mundane aspect of human life.
Madeline in Part I is akin to Mary Magdalene in the Bible and is the representative of Jesus’ followers. Madeline begs Jesus to return to the disciples and those who worship him, weeping and despairing when he declines. She tries to tie Jesus to his old life, much like the peasants tie the cock in their garden.
The cock itself is his own character, a symbolic representation of Jesus’ restless spirit. The rooster soon grows tired of his perfect life in the peasants’ garden, continually trying to escape the tether that traps him there. Similarly, Jesus longs to escape his old life as a divine savior in search of another purpose. This explains why Jesus feels so connected to the rooster.
The Priestess of Isis
In Part II, the reader is introduced to another major character, the priestess of Isis. The young priestess has dedicated her life to serving the Egyptian goddess, because she has always been unimpressed with men. Men to her all seemed to be the same, wanting to possess or control her with their masculinity. When the priestess has a chance encounter with Jesus, whose travels have brought him to Egypt, she recognizes something special in him. The priestess admires how much suffering Jesus has endured, believing he is the reincarnated Osiris, and she begins a sexual affair with him in the shrine of Isis after anointing his scars with oil. The priestess conceives a child with Jesus, who then leaves before the conspiring Romans can betray him for the second time.