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"The Witch à la Mode": Male Fear and Female Terror

by Dr. Nina Haritatou

(Dr Haritatou is an Athens-based academic, specialising in English Philosophy and Civilisation)

S early as 1911, Lawrence wrote a short story under the title "Intimacy," a story which was actually an early version of "The Witch à la mode." In the story, Bernard, the protagonist, is on his way to Yorkshire where he is to meet Constance (Connie) his "betrothed" fiancée (CSS 52). However, he decides to stop for a night at East Croydon, risking and hoping to meet Winifred Varley, an old flame of his and the fatal woman of the story.

In this article, I intend to focus on the way Lawrence unfolds, in this short story, aspects of male behaviour and way of thinking( in the depiction of his male protagonist, Bernard Coutts, as well as their impact on the feminine psyche. But the story's most interesting aspect, I believe, is the way Lawrence (through Bernard) depicts his heroine as simultaneously exciting and terrible, likening her to classical goddesses such as Aphrodite and Venus but also to evil mythical creatures such as the Maenad. Amazingly, the female protagonist refuses to succumb to stereotypes and she appears to be not only individual and free within her fictional context but also independent from the very man who made her.

The Lawrencian Heroine and her Mythicization

In his depiction of women Lawrence often seems to offer the portrait of a mature existential being in search of an identity, which he labels feminine: "that she bear herself" giving birth to her own identity, he claimed, that is the woman's "supreme and risky fate" (Study 48). In this search, the Lawrentian women can be "read" as positively "mythicized" by their creator: they are Aphrodites, like Kate in The Plumed Serpent, lost among strange people, yet in search for their sexuality and womanhood. They are unhappy Heras, like the Woman in The Woman Who Rode Away bound in conventional and unsuccessful marriages or independent-minded Artemises, like Ursula in The Rainbow, who seek to escape and pursue the impulses of their wild nature.

However, and through the male eyes, women are often negatively "mythicized" that is, seen as mysterious, demons or deities from another world, which must either be obeyed or brought to subjection. This happens because the Lawrentian man is often afraid to give himself totally to the woman he loves and fails to achieve what the writer calls "consummation" that is the union of the two opposites, the male and the female, which "may be also physical between the male body and the female body. But it may be only spiritual, between the male and the female spirit "(Study 68).

Lawrence "invites" the male not only to help the woman find this new self of hers but also to sink in the female psyche: "The clear, full inevitable need in me is that, I, the male, meet the female stream which shall carry mine so that the two run to fullest flood, to furthest motion" (Study 50). But the man, often because of his egoism, is unable to understand the need to render himself to the woman so, in his eyes, she is turned into an awful creature which threatens his manliness. In his 1915 essay "The Crown," Lawrence would describe such an egoistic man as someone who "seeks his own sensational reduction, but he disintegrates the woman even more, in the name of love" (RDP 284).

The protagonist of this short story, that is, the male mind, "disintegrates" the heroine by "mythicizing" her into a threatening figure able to destroy him whereas in fact he projects his own feelings of anxiety and insecurity (her "male fear" of joining her) upon her.

Bernard Coutts seems to fall in the category of these men which Lawrence was afraid of being: "deprived of all context" (Worthen 148).

Winifred and the Male Rage: The Solid Aphrodite
and the Threatening Maenad

"She was of medium height, sturdy in build," "blonde" with blue eyes and arms "heavy and white and beautiful" (CSS 55). Winifred is described in some detail and likened - quite strikingly - to a "solid," "isolated," "white" Aphrodite.

Bernard is attracted to her "like a moth to the candle" even though she clearly makes him tense and uneasy: "his blood beat with hate of her, drawn to her, repelled by her" (57).

Ambivalent, he cannot commit himself to this frightening female. She appears "cold and self-possessed," but also "with eyes heavy with unacknowledged passion" (55). When Bernard sees the statuette of Venus standing on the fireplace, he immediately makes the connection between Winifred and the ancient goddess:

The Venus leaned slightly forward, as if anticipating someone's coming. Her attitude of suspense made the young man stiffen.
He could see the clean suavity of her shoulders and waist reflected
white on the deep mirror. She shone, catching, as she leaned forward,
the glow of the lamp on her lustrous marble loins. (55)

The young man is obsessed by the similarity between the living woman and the glowing Venus statuette. The "solid whiteness" of Winifred parallels the "lustrous marble loins" (55) of the statue, the cold and independent woman, so "isolated" (56) and in many respects, so very like the lifeless Venus. Winifred, "of resolute independent build" (55-6) is undoubtedly powerful, almost aggressive. However, it remains a question where this resoluteness springs from: her description clearly suggests an untamed female spirit, but the statuette on which Bernard "reads" her image, depicts a woman in "suspense": she is not moving in action; she seems to wait for something or for someone. Similarly, the frozen beauty of both the real woman and the statuette suggests a well-set of concealed emotional anxiety, even agony. Behind her apparent resoluteness, Winifred is "petrified." She is a woman, whose feelings of passion and love have been thwarted and deadened, possibly because of an abiding inner grief for a man: "he perceived in her laughter a little keen despair" (58). Bernard senses that Winifred is tormented by his decision to marry another woman. She finds his decision "monstrous" (62), especially after his depressingly weak answers concerning his reasons for getting married. She can see clearly that the choice he has made is based very much on mere calculation and obstinacy: it is as egoistical as it is superficial.

But Bernard cannot see this and consequently he cannot understand the woman's fierce reaction to his decision. Surprised and dismayed, his imagination turns her into an irrational threatening figure, a frightening Maenad:

She raised her arms, stretched them above her head, in a
weary gesture. They were fine, strong arms. They reminded
Coutts of Euripides' 'Bacchae': white, round arms, long arms.
The lifting of her arms lifted her breasts. She dropped suddenly as if inert, lolling her arms against the cushions. (63)

In male eyes, the woman becomes subject to overt, inaccurate stereotyping. His confusion, guilt and ambivalence about feminine nature, which Bernard cannot decide whether he can actually understand and embrace, transforms her image into one that is simultaneously erotic and threatening: a seductive Eve and a fearsome witch; one he hates "for putting him there," a position he finds acutely uncomfortable, while