The Plumed Serpent

by D. H. Lawrence

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*Mexico. Country in which the novel is set. Lawrence visited Mexico shortly before writing the novel looking, simultaneously, for a climate to help his failing health, an escape from the censorship he faced in England for his political views and for the overt sexuality of his novels, and, perhaps most important, an alternative to what he saw as the dead, “mechanistic” quality of European life.

The title The Plumed Serpent refers to the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, who functions in the novel as, among other things, a symbol for Mexico itself. Lawrence describes Mexico as embodying the qualities of both the reptile and the bird. On one hand, Mexico and its people appear as primitive and somewhat sinister; Lawrence repeatedly uses the word “reptilian” to describe them. On the other hand, Mexico offers the protagonist, Kate Leslie, a spiritual transformation akin to soaring. Her transformation occurs through her sexual union with the Mexican general Cipriano Viedma, whose pure Indian blood is undiluted by European corruption. “Plumed serpent” describes not only Cipriano’s country but also his penis. The equation of Mexico with powerful male sexuality helps explain the country’s appeal for Lawrence.

Lawrence contrasts Mexico with both Europe and the United States. Europe kills the soul and sometimes even the body. Kate’s former husband, an Irish revolutionary, ruined his health and died fighting for his own country’s freedom. The United States represents pure consumerism and greed.

*Mexico City

*Mexico City. Capital city of Mexico in which the novel opens in the midst of a bullfight. The city, especially as represented by the bullfight, appears as a place of utter degradation with an undercurrent of violence. This particular bullfight, however, is not typical of Mexican culture; even its bulls are imported from Spain because they are believed to be livelier than Mexican bulls.

Kate is both fascinated and repelled by the Aztec artifacts she sees in Mexico city. She claims that Aztec objects “oppress” her and refers to the country’s ancient gods as “Aztec horrors.” However, she stays in Mexico even after her friends leave, wanting to learn more about a movement to revive the Aztec religion.


*Sayula. Sleepy resort town in west-central Mexico’s Jalisco state to which Kate is drawn because it is the center of a movement to revive the ancient Aztec gods. At the town’s plaza, the men of Quetzalcoatl pass out fliers and sing chants praising the ancient gods. Ramón Carrasco, the leader of the Aztec revival, has a hacienda, Jamiltepec, near Sayula. There he hosts ceremonies in honor of the gods and plays the role of the living Quetzalcoatl. Cipriano becomes the living Huitzilopochtli, and Kate becomes Malintzi, the bride of Huitzilopochtli.

*Lake of Sayula

*Lake of Sayula. Kate’s interest in Sayula arises from a newspaper report she reads about women claiming to have seen a great man coming down from Sayula’s lake, telling them that the ancient Aztec gods are about to return. Legend holds that the ancient gods are “bone under the water” while they wait to return. On Kate’s voyage across the “sperm-like water” of the lake to reach Sayula, her boat is stopped by men demanding tribute to Quetzalcoatl. The boatman pulls a little pot from the water shaped like a cat or a coyote; such pots were placed in the lake as offerings to the gods below the water.

The spiritual rebirth of Mexico, then, literally arises from this lake. Its water holds the “sperm” to fertilize the rebirth. In addition, the water’s comparison to sperm hints that Kate’s journey across the water takes her to a place of sexual significance....

(This entire section contains 624 words.)

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At Sayula, she falls in love with her new husband, Cipriano.


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Clark, L. D. Dark Night of the Body: D. H. Lawrence’s “The Plumed Serpent.” Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964. Includes biographical and bibliographic materials. Noteworthy for the strong focus on Kate.

Draper, R. P., ed. D. H. Lawrence: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970. Reflects the mixture of criticism and praise with which Lawrence’s contemporaries reacted to his work. Responses by W. B. Yeats, Virginia Woolf, and T. S. Eliot (on The Plumed Serpent) are included.

Leavis, F. R. D. H. Lawrence: Novelist. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956. Leavis’ appraisal of the artist is a must-read, although the critic does not care for The Plumed Serpent.

Parmenter, Ross. Lawrence in Oaxaca: A Quest for the Novelist in Mexico. Salt Lake City, Utah: Peregrine Smith Books, 1984. Reveals the depth of the novelist’s fascination with Mexico. An extensive chapter on how Lawrence’s time in Oaxaca affected the composition of The Plumed Serpent.

Scheckner, Peter. Class, Politics, and the Individual: A Study of the Major Works of D. H. Lawrence. London: Associated University Presses, 1985. Focuses on the impact of Lawrence’s sensitivity to the English class system.


Critical Essays