Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 496

Unlike most of D. H. Lawrence’s fiction, “The Woman Who Rode Away” does not focus on the theme of mating—of erotic selection. Instead, the long story concerns a psychological and spiritual initiation into the mysteries of primitive religion. As a moral parable that explores religious values distinct from those common to Western cultures, the story resembles other late fiction by Lawrence, notably “Sun” and “St. Mawr” (1925). In these tales, the writer elaborates a moral argument that runs against the grain of his society’s moral conventions. In general, the argument holds that spiritual enlightenment—a mystic attainment of pure vital spirit or anima—is superior to any attainment of emotional fulfillment through erotic bonding.

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In “The Woman Who Rode Away,” the reader is asked to approve the Woman’s acquiescence to the act of her own sacrificial slaughter in order to appease primitive gods. More audaciously, the reader is asked to approve the notion that the primitive gods should be restored to their spiritual supremacy, so that the white man’s moral order may be overturned.

To understand fully the extent to which Lawrence dares to impose on his readers a different (and, for most, unsettling) consciousness of moral reality, one should compare “The Woman Who Rode Away” with “The Princess,” a story begun in 1924 and first published in 1925. Both stories originate from a core idea. Mabel Dodge Luhan records that Lawrence showed her the manuscript of “The Woman Who Rode Away” on or about July 1, 1924; it was also at about that time that the writer made a trip to a cove near the Arroyo Seco in Taos country, a setting that is represented in the story.

Both narratives concern women who escape the spiritual ennui of a Western ranch to ride off, in the company of a Native American guide, in search of adventure. In “The Princess,” the guide is Domingo Romero, a Mexican of mostly Indian racial traits, who attempts to rouse Dollie Urquhart to passion (or erotic vitality) through his embraces. His lovemaking, however, is crude, Dollie is indifferent to his sexuality, and she returns to civilization after her love-initiation no longer a physical virgin yet still a spiritual one. The experience has failed to function as a rite of passage to erotic fulfillment. As for Domingo—he is shot down by rangers.

The Woman from Berkeley, on the other hand, completes her initiation, going beyond Eros to the point of self-sacrifice, to Thanatos. Unlike Dollie, whose experience is shallow, the Woman profoundly changes her consciousness. Her Indian guide, unlike Dollie’s, demonstrates spiritual strength by initiating her into the mysteries of the primitive gods, not sex; for the Woman, the end result is extinction of ego, rather than a neurotic retention of the old ego, as in Dollie’s case. Whereas Dollie remains a civilized woman-child, the Woman from Berkeley “rides” away from the Western world altogether, rides away from life itself, to become moon goddess of the Chilchui cult.

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