The Plumed Serpent provides a stage for the talents of the modernist period’s least understood novelist. In this tale of revolution and romance, D. H. Lawrence combines many of the striking aspects of his better-known works of fiction. The novel is set in Mexico, a country that represents a frightening and intriguing exoticism to Lawrence’s English-speaking characters. Lawrence chose Mexico not only because of his personal fascination for the country but also the turbulent political climate he describes with hope and fear. The Plumed Serpent is an attempt by Lawrence to work out the conflict within himself concerning issues of social class and political power. Bound up in the interweaving of fear and hope, Lawrence’s political philosophies found a topical context in a fictional Mexico. For contemporary readers, the novel may be read as a discussion on the relationship between the individual and society.
In the consciousness of an individual, Kate Leslie, The Plumed Serpent’s heroine, the novel does its finest work. The narrative displays Lawrence’s unique ability to construct characters whose physical, spiritual, and psychological characteristics impress readers as the kind of truth about the human condition that only good fiction can tell. The relationship between Irish Kate and the Mexico and Mexicans she encounters engenders the thematic and artistic accomplishments that should give readers of Lawrence good reason to reappraise The Plumed Serpent.
Mexico’s role in the novel serves many artistic purposes for Lawrence, and must be understood by The Plumed Serpent’s readers as a complex entity that is setting and symbol. Lawrence was drawn to and made a study of Mexico and New Mexico. The Plumed Serpent can be compared to E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924); the non-English settings of both works are wrought with painstaking authenticity. The literary critic F. R. Leavis thought that the long passages of the novel describing indigenous rituals and costume must have entertained Lawrence but were likely to bore readers. This sentiment was not shared by the novelist Katherine Anne Porter, who praised Lawrence’s evocation of the spirit and detail of Lawrence’s portrayal of Mexico in an early review of The Plumed Serpent. Of course, Lawrence’s Mexico represents more than the country itself.
As a politically unstable nation, and as a society that is characterized by a profound gulf between its classes, Mexico functions as an analogy for any climate in which revolution might be fomented. This logic is most clear in Kate’s initial attempts to understand Mexico in terms of her own national identity. The Irish, like the Mexicans, bear the psychic scars of oppression and grapple with the impulse to revolt. Mexico, Kate is warned early in the novel, is another Ireland. Mexico in the novel represents any modern nation in which political institutions, be they fascist, democratic, or socialist, fail those who subscribe to them. Furthermore, both Mexico and Ireland are nations in which the Catholic Church exerts great influence. Lawrence’s disillusionment with both politics and Christianity as modes of social order yields another role for Mexico to fulfill in The Plumed Serpent. It is Mexico’s ancient rhythms, its gone but not forgotten pantheon of pagan deities that become, for Lawrence, metaphors for the kind of reinvention that one might submit to in pursuit of new power and perspective.
Although the cult of Quetzalcoatl is a part of Mexico’s history and therefore a return to old ways for its practitioners, for Kate, the central figure of the novel, the mystical religion represents a new language, new customs, and new beliefs. Lawrence seems to hope that the resurgent religion might serve...
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the expansion of human consciousness. Kate, after all, has come to Mexico with an expatriate’s desire to escape the problems of her native land. Although contemporary Mexico, much to Kate’s dismay, shares Ireland’s sense of turmoil, it also proposes, at least in Lawrence’s fiction, solutions.
The shock of Quetzalcoatl, with its visceral imagery and violent rituals, jars Kate into a self-examination that makes the novel as much of a psychic examination as it is a physical adventure. Don Ramón and Cipriano exploit the frustrations of downtrodden peasants, and Kate is forced to question her own assumption that she is born to a ruling class, that she is separate from the rabble that initially frightens her. She must question, too, the importance of the individual in relation to the masses and the structure that governs them. Lawrence refuses to offer his reader the kind of simple solution to the problem of social inequity that he has, in the form of contemporary politics and religion, already derided.
Critics have complained that Kate’s submission to Cipriano and the new order represent a subjugation of the individual will to the elite few who are strong enough to hold culture’s reigns. Kate’s submission, one may argue, underscores the importance of the individual as the receiver of political as well as artistic information. Kate is not brainwashed into marrying Cipriano and staying in Mexico; she searches her own soul for clues to the proper course of action. By making Kate responsible for authorizing the ascension of Quetzalcoatl, Lawrence reminds his readers of their ultimate responsibility for the meaning of the novel he offers them. This is a role new readers of Lawrence may relish.