D. H. Lawrence and the Plumed Serpent

D. H. Lawrence and the Plumed Serpent

By Melissa Tawn
A transsexual student undergoing transition tries to understand a novel by D. H. Lawrence.



“There is no liberty for a man, apart from the God of his manhood.” D. H. Lawrence put that in the mouth of one of the characters of his novel “The Plumed Serpent”. I nearly gagged when I read it. I was reading the novel for an honors seminar in early 20th-century literature. Lawrence wrote the book in 1924, when he was staying at a ranch near Taos, New Mexico. It must have been warm then. It was warm now. I was wearing only a bra and a mini skirt, sprawled on the big bed in the small room I rented three blocks from the campus. The room was somewhat of a mess. So too - in my opinion - was Lawrence’s novel, or at least his view of gender.

Lawrence’s character goes on to explain: “God gives me my manhood, then leaves me to it. I have nothing but my manhood. Then God gives it me, and leaves me to do further.” Yeah sure, this guy is all about his holy manhood. I put down the book in disgust. Lawrence was a sexual fascist as well as a political one. Anyway, it was time for me to go to my weekly meeting with my gender counselor. This was just what I needed. I could see it would be an interesting session.

“Look Jenny,” my counselor said when I told her, “Lawrence wrote that over 80 years ago. He thought like a male, he couldn’t help it. Moreover, Lawrence really believed in the philosophy of Nietzsche and in male dominance. At the time, the distinction between gender and sex was not understood, so you should not be surprised that he messes things up. Notice, however, that he is talking about 'manhood' rather than about 'maleness'. I think he is just referring to a person’s gender identity, in his crude way. Let us try to rephrase those two quotes, replacing the word 'manhood' by 'gender identity' and see what we get:

There is no liberty for a man, apart from the God of his gender identity.


God gives me my gender identity, then leaves me to it. I have nothing but my gender identity.
Then God gives it me, and leaves me to do further.

Does that sound closer to home?"

It did, sort of. I should explain a bit here. My name is Jenny Howe, and I am a junior at a large state university, majoring in English literature. Jenny is the name I chose, not the name I was born with. My birth certificate still says Jeremy Howe. Yes, I was born a boy, and legally I am still one, though you could never tell by the way I look, dress, or act. I am a transsexual and am in the final few months of my Real Life Experience before I undergo sexual reassignment surgery this summer. It is all very open. The university knows, of course, and is paying for my counseling and hormones as part of my student insurance. (The hormones are really powerful, apparently - the B-cup bra which I have been wearing for the past year is beginning to feel too tight; C-cup here I come.) That insurance will also cover a part of the cost of my surgery. The rest will be covered by my parents who - very reluctantly - came to the conclusion that they might as well accept what they cannot control. I had made it clear to them that I would be transitioning with or without their blessing, but that I would much prefer to have them on and at my side. I do love them very dearly. They love me too, and seem to be willing to make what is for them - and I understand it entirely - a major readjustment. At least my mom is. My dad is less able to deal with this, but they too have begun going to a counselor who is helping him understand what is happening, or so I hope.

Most of my classmates have accepted what I am doing. Those who could not or would not accept it are not the sort of people I would want as my friends anyway. A few girls even went out of their way to make friends with me and helped me the first few times I went shopping for clothes at the mall. Now that was a wonderful experience. One guy in my Shakespeare class even tried to date me, but I told him that the time was not ripe yet. I needed time before I would begin dating boys seriously. In the mean time, I just hung out with groups. Literature students are a rather inbred crowd anyway - something like math students I suppose - nobody else understands how we can be so crazy as to spend enthusiastic hours analyzing some obscure poem or novel which nobody else can make heads or tails of.

My mom just phoned to say that my dad has been really depressed. I asked how the counseling sessions were going and she said that it is so-so. Sometimes he seems to be getting it and sometimes he just can’t. But she thinks things will turn out all right.

Anyway, back to Lawrence. There is no liberty for a man, apart from the God of his gender identity. Hmmm. Is my gender identity my god? Well I have certainly sacrificed enough of myself to it. My whole existence, at least since I was old enough to become conscious of gender and sex, revolved around the fact that I realized that my gender identity and my sexual identity did not seem to mesh properly, as it did in other kids. That sounds so very cold and analytic. Actually, it took years before I could even put it in those terms. But once I had figured things out, yes, I suppose, my gender identity also became my liberty. Protecting it and nurturing it from the pressures of conformity and even that of my parents' sometimes-misguided love, helped define my own emotional and intellectual independence. I am free to the extent I am free to be me. So by serving it I preserve my liberty. Ok, that makes sense … sort of. No transsexual is a good card-carrying member of the herd. (What a mixed metaphor! Sometimes, however, deliberately mixed metaphors, like oxymorons, have their use.) The fact that I was able to impose my decision on my parents is a sign that I have earned my freedom.

God gives me my gender identity, then leaves me to it. I have nothing but my gender identity. Then God gives it me, and leaves me to do further. That is harder. I was given my gender identity. That is the hardest thing for most people to understand. I had no choice in the matter. When people ask me “at what age did you decide you were a transsexual?” I reply that that question is like asking “at what age did you decide you were left-handed?” (I am, by the way.) My transsexuality is like my left-handedness: it was always there, though it took a while for me to recognize what it was.

My dad phoned and asked for Jeremy. I told him that Jeremy doesn’t live here, Jenny does. He hung up without saying another word. I hope everything is all right.

I am a girl because I have the soul of a girl. To quote Lawrence again, “if there is one thing men need to learn … it is to collect each man his own soul together deep inside him, and to abide by it.” Damn Lawrence for always thinking and writing only in male terms, but he does have a point. If you do not abide by your soul, you certainly have no mandate to abide by your body. Or abide by the laws; or abide by customs; or abide by anything else.


The plumed serpent who gives the book its name is the ancient Mesoamerican god Quetzalcoatl, whose worship is first documented from around the year 400 BC. He was sacred to the Maya, the Tolmecs, and later to the Aztecs. Among his various attributes, he was a god of both warfare and of the planet Venus, as well as being a god of fertility. When Cortés appeared in Mexico, the Aztec emperor Moctezuma is said to have believed he was the embodiment of Quetzalcoatl, thus facilitating the Spanish conquest. (At least so claimed the Spaniards after the fact; there are no Aztec sources which have survived to confirm this.)

In Lawrence’s novel the cult of the god Quetzalcoatl is revived by a group of Mexican nationalists as a way of countering the gringo domination of the Mexican spirit, as represented by Jesus and his mother Maria. The manhood of Quetzalcoatl is very basic to the story, and he is, in their lights, indeed the god of the manhood of the Mexican. In the society which is proposed here women are subordinate to men (representatives of Quetzalcoatl address the people in crowds as “men, and women of men”) and all are subordinate to Quetzalcoatl or his human embodiment.

The image of a plumed serpent is strangely transgendered. The serpent, of course, is a male symbol, representing the ultimate extension of the male sexual organ and, like the serpent in the Garden of Eden, standing for both the sin and the hope in sexual intercourse. But the plume, on the other hand, is a female symbol - the symbol of finery and extravagant dress for the sake of temptation of the male. A plumed serpent is almost a cross dresser, if not an outright transsexual. Encasing a male sexual organ in the fine panties of a woman is surely the pluming of the serpent.

Does this mean anything? To the Aztecs, it probably represented the fusion between the physical, and especially sexual (“coatl” = serpent) and the intellectual or imaginative flight of fancy (as represented by the quetzal, which is a type of bird).

But that is how I see myself too. As a transsexual I am the fusion between a physical body into which I was born and a soul which is disjoint from that body and which has the ability and the right to define itself independently of what the physical body says it should be. These two are fused into what at first seems to be a most dysfunctional creature: a plumed serpent can neither crawl nor fly particularly well, if at all. But yet it transcends function and becomes a god, at least unto itself. As I am unto myself.

And I know that I am on the right track, I must be. I must not let anything deter me.

My mom just phoned and told me about my dad’s suicide attempt. He is in the hospital and the doctors say he is out of danger. Tomorrow I will go visit him. I will wear the new dress I bought last week. I hope he likes it.

AFTERWORD: This work is fiction, not an essay in literary criticism. It is not about D. H. Lawrence or about his fine novel but rather about Jenny Howe and her attempts to cope with her transsexuality by reading her own feelings and emotions into Lawrence’s novel. She could easily have read them into any other book she was assigned to study. (What would she have done with, say, “The Scarlet Letter” or even “Moby Dick”? Perhaps that is the topic of another story.)

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