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Deadly Desires: A Psychoanalytic Study of Female Sexual Perversion and Widowhood in Fin-de-Siecle Women's Writing

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During the fin-de-siecle, stories about hysterical women filled the air of Paris and the novels emerging during this era conveyed this hysteria and openly portrayed the symptoms of the women being treated at the Salpetiere. This book examines the emergence of hysterical discourse and its influence on women's writing, specifically focusing on the presentation of female sexuality in three different narratives.

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Chapter One: Widowhood and Nineteenth-Century Culture

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CHAPTER ONE

Widowhood and nineteenth-century culture

Although the field of women's history has flourished in recent decades, the subject of widowhood is one area where the research is still relatively sparse. When exploring the current studies pertaining to single women in nineteenth-century France, it becomes apparent that researchers have largely examined these women only through their reproductive capacities and their sexuality; therefore, the widowed woman is often neglected. During the nineteenth century, French society held strong to the idea that a woman's social identity was defined in terms of her reproductive behaviour and marital status; this was especially true during the Ancien Régime and, in spite of the maelstrom of 1789, reinforced by the Code Civil of 1804. Waelti-Walters (1990) shows that in the latter part of the nineteenth century, politicians in France became increasingly concerned about the low birth rate and worked very hard to valorise maternity to such an extent that the terms “wife” and “mother” were inseparable in the public mind. This created a problematic situation for the fin-de-siècle widow, since these women were marginalised by a society that socialised women primarily to be wives and mothers. In considering these societal stipulations placed on a woman's social importance, it is necessary to determine where the widow fitted into this societal norm. Accordingly, the importance of establishing the extent of social, economic, and legal freedom, or lack thereof, as the case may be, that the widow possessed also becomes vital to understanding her social placement during the fin-de-siècle.

 

Chapter Two: Rachilde, Widowhood, and the Fin-de-siècle

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CHAPTER TWO

Rachilde, widowhood, and the fin-de-siècle

When examining texts written during the nineteenth century, it becomes clear that the widow figure is rarely cast as a main protagonist; instead, she most often plays the part of a suspicious aunt or dubious neighbour and almost never assumes the role of the leading female protagonist. This being said, however, widows are present in some of the most prominent literary works emerging from this era. In fact, some of France's greatest novelists—Balzac, Flaubert, Maupassant, and Zola—all chose to include widows in their literature. When examining these different texts emerging from the nineteenth century, it becomes evident that the representation of the widow figure underwent some transformations that almost certainly shaped the way in which people viewed (and read) this type of woman. What one often finds in literature written during the fin-de-siècle is that the language used to describe the widow is dependent on how the woman comes to be widowed; this is directly related to the level of narrative sympathy shown in the text towards the widow. For instance, in some cases the widow is shown as a victim of circumstance, whereby widowhood is depicted as an unfortunate state of being. In other cases, the widow is shown as a conniving, manipulative female figure, often insinuating that widowhood is in some way her fault. The literature I examine in this book is different, not only because of the way that widowhood is used in the narrative, but because the female protagonists purposely cast aside their traditional “feminine” sexual identity in order to achieve an enormous, and for the nineteenth-century reader, worrying amount of power over their male lovers.

 

Chapter Three: Sex, Gender, and Perversion in the Decadent Text

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CHAPTER THREE

Sex, gender, and perversion in the Decadent text

It has become something of a commonplace to say, following Judith Butler, that “sex” is a biological construct whereas “gender” is sociologically or culturally constructed. De Beauvoir's infamous statement in Le Deuxième Sexe (1949) that “one is not born a woman, but becomes one” suggests that gender is constructed, something that is determined by our cultural environment. Conversely, if sex is indeed a biological factor it becomes a natural quality, and therefore, one that cannot be altered (at least naturally). In this sense, gender becomes a mask, and, as Riviere (1986) argues in the case of women, femininity becomes a representation of the woman, not an essential, but a constructed identity. In the case of Rachilde's literature, especially considering the novels examined in this book, gender identity is called into question. Traditional gender stereotypes relating to domination and submission are systematically reversed and reworked in her novels. As a result, gender can be read as a masquerade and, considering the subversive titles of Monsieur Vénus or La Marquise de Sade for instance, Rachilde seems to enjoy subverting its ideology.

 

Chapter Four: The Construction of Decorative Fantasy: Premarital Desire

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CHAPTER FOUR

The construction of decorative fantasy: premarital desire

First published in Belgium in 1884, Monsieur Vénus engendered fierce controversy because of its candid portrayal of sexual disorder and the blatant destruction of traditional gender roles. Rachilde's perverse depiction of masculinity and femininity openly challenged the gender ideology of the time. The notion of placing a woman in control, leaving the man subject to her desires, particularly her sexual desires, was anathema at the time of the publication of Monsieur Vénus. Waelti-Walters (1990) asserts that women were not educated in the nineteenth century for fear that they would inevitably fall into temptation; it was important for women to remain ignorant and dependent on men for the good of society. She recalls the nineteenth-century belief that “men must harness women's desire” (Waelti-Walters, 1990, p. 11). In the case of Monsieur Vénus, this is clearly not the case, especially when looking at the social position of the widowed woman at the fin-de-siècle. In the case of widows, their destructive potential was believed to result from their previous sexual knowledge, something that was highly unusual for a nineteenth-century single woman. It is specifically the heroine's ambiguous sexuality and perverse desires that drive the plot forward.

 

Chapter Five: Monstrous Sexualities

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CHAPTER FIVE

Monstrous sexualities

Pierrot (1977) reminds us that Rachilde's literary career was built, to a large extent, on descriptions of monstrous and deviant sexual behaviour, primarily meant to shock her literary audience. In the specific case of Monsieur Vénus, Kelly (1989), among others, has referred to this text as a clear example of “monstrous” writing due to its representation of the “deformation of the natural” and, more specifically, the perverse actions of the text's heroine. With this in mind, it is no surprise to learn that monstre is a preferred term in Monsieur Vénus and it reappears many times throughout the novel. This word, which is sometimes used in the adjectival form of monstreux/se, refers to Raoule, to the passion that joins her to Jacques and, not surprisingly, to Jacques himself. What is unusual, however, is that the final scene of the novel, which could legitimately be argued to be the most monstrous occurrence of all, the creation of Jacque's wax corpse, is not described as monstrous in any way. Instead, all of the descriptions referred to as “monstrous” appear before the body even materialises in the last few pages of the text.

 

Chapter Six: The Eroticism of Death

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CHAPTER SIX

The eroticism of death

The social and sexual constrictions placed on women in the nineteenth century suggest that the ending of Monsieur Vénus can be read not as a ghastly perversion, but as Rachilde's view of the likely outcome of an already unusual marital relationship. The final scene suggests that widowhood offers Raoule a way to continue her fantasy of complete control over Jacques. As a result, it is implied that widowhood is the only possible solution in a relationship where the male need to dominate could not be successfully effaced.

In Monsieur Vénus, the woman's desire has become so destructive, so all-consuming, that it propels the heroine to murder her husband in order to regain lost control. Raoule's position of control, which is to some extent undermined once she marries Jacques, can only be reinstated in widowhood. Widowhood, in this sense, is used as a path towards freedom for the heroine; yet, it becomes clear that this is a freedom that, in actuality, leads to a type of imprisonment. Psychoanalysis strongly suggests that certain sorts of desires—sadistic and masochistic ones, the desire to destroy and be destroyed—are fundamental to the human condition. In the case of Monsieur Vénus, Raoule takes the role of sadistic destroyer too far, which results in Jacques's death and his subsequent recreation in the form of a mechanical corpse. Cameron and Frazer's (1987) assertion that women are almost exclusively seen as sexual objects is reversed in Monsieur Vénus, as it is Jacques who is objectified and left devoid of life. In the final pages of the novel, Rachilde describes a bizarre image of a small, blue room in which a wax figure is the main attraction. This mannequin that Rachilde describes is, in fact, Raoule's artistic recreation of Jacques's body, complete with his own hair and fingernails. It is clear that Raoule has (again) “given birth” to a more pliable Jacques, this time in the form of a wax doll. Harris (1991) speculates that death is simply a means of “resolving” impossible situations. In the case of Monsieur Vénus, in death, Jacques loses all access to “human” rights such as honour and power; he is reduced to a mere representation of a “man”, unable to either reject or chastise female desire. The precision with which Raoule removes specific pieces of Jacques's cadaver is made evident in the narrative:

 

Chapter Seven: The Birth of a Female Sadomasochist

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CHAPTER SEVEN

The birth of a female sadomasochist

Rachilde's novel La Marquise de Sade (1994) is another contribution to the fin-de-siècle fear that single women were crazy and devious. Unlike the “New Woman”, which will be explored through the character of Eliante Donalger in La Jongleuse, the female protagonist in La Marquise de Sade presents another female archetype, the femme fatale. Whereas the New Woman was a result of the changing social and economic conditions experienced in late nineteenth-century France, the fatal woman had a somewhat different origin. This is not to say that the femme fatale is not a product of the considerable upheaval, both social and conceptual, seen in France at the fin-de-siècle; rather, her emergence is distinctive because she openly challenged the traditional placement of power assigned to both men and women. In the present study, the imagery surrounding the femme fatale is brought to life in the figure of Mary Barbe, the female protagonist of La Marquise de Sade. The heroine is presented as a powerful and threatening figure with a sexuality that is aggressive, even fatal. The death-driven effects that Rachilde's heroine imposes on the men in her life present the enigmatic and destructive potential of the fatal woman.

 

Chapter Eight: The Foundations of Masochism

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CHAPTER EIGHT

The foundations of masochism

La Marquise de Sade opens with a powerful and significant scene that metaphorically establishes Mary's sexual development and prefigures the gendered power relations that are to be challenged throughout the text. The very first sentence in the novel presents readers with a situation that encompasses ideas of both masochistic submission and sadistic rebellion. The opening scene shows Mary being forced along by her cousin Tulotte, between the military parade grounds and the cemetery, on a quest for ox blood, which her sick mother requires. The first sentence of the novel reads: “The little girl let herself be pulled along by the arm” (Rachilde, 1994, p. 13), to which the young heroine violently responds by sinking her nails into her cousin's skin. At this early stage in the novel, Rachilde makes it clear that violence will be the driving force in her heroine's life and this notion is further reinforced by the narrator's prediction that her action: “it meant perhaps that the child already knew the value of a little scratch” (Rachilde, 1994, p. 14).

 

Chapter Nine: The Dawn of Sadism

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CHAPTER NINE

The dawn of sadism

Because sadism is an underlying theme in this novel, it is important to understand its definition before exploring Mary's sadomasochistic roots, in both childhood and later life. Sadism is frequently misunderstood as the practice of administering punishment, or causing physical pain, as a substitute for “normal” sexual activity. True sadism, however, is far more concerned with the infliction of psychological cruelty, and this is what is most crucial when examining Rachilde's heroine and her relationships with men. By inflicting profound emotional manipulation and distress, the sadist receives pleasure by watching the absolute terror of her victim before, during, and after the execution of the violent acts. The link between physical pain and psychological cruelty is a key attribute in Mary's existence, and the pleasure she receives from the execution of such violence is the driving force behind her survival. Defining Mary as a traditional sadist, however, does have its difficulties. It is clear, through the examples in the text, that Mary uses psychological cruelty in addition to violence to cause anguish among both the men and women in her life, but I would hesitate to brand Mary as a pure sadist, considering the definitions given by leading psychologists on the subject. It becomes evident from the clinical classifications of sadists that, in order to be one, the victim must be a masochist, someone who derives sexual pleasure from being dominated. Although this is arguably true of the relationships Mary has with both the Baron and his son, Paul, Mary's sadistic tendencies grow even more sinister and she does not always require a masochistic counterpart in order to receive pleasure: this aspect of her behaviour becomes most apparent in widowhood.

 

Chapter Ten: Marriage: Autonomy or Imprisonment?

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CHAPTER TEN

Marriage: autonomy or imprisonment?

While remaining consistent with nineteenth-century norms, it is made clear in the majority of Rachilde's novels that women have little or no choice but to marry or enter a convent. Often, despite their wealth or class position, her heroines live extremely restricted lives in which marriage is the only available path to an, albeit limited, independence. All of the heroines examined in this book are highly educated, intelligent women, yet, because of their sex, they are confined to a life of imprisonment, with the only escape from a stifling marriage being widowhood or a complete betrayal of their roles of wife and mother. With the example of Raoule de Vénérande, Rachilde employed nineteenth-century social norms to show that marriage was often an inevitable state for women in nineteenth-century France. Rachilde, by drawing on fin-de-siècle beliefs about single women, confirms in La Marquise de Sade that women choosing to remain celibate outside of convent life were frequently branded as spinsters or, worse, hysterics. The character Tulotte exemplifies this theory in the narrative. It is clear that Mary has a disposition that rejects traditional matrimony and motherhood. This section of the chapter will analyse the significance that Rachilde accords the state of marriage as it is largely portrayed as a means to an end for the novel's heroine. All events seem to lead to the heroine's premeditated widowing.

 

Chapter Eleven: Widowhood: Self-Imposed or Inescapable Fate?

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CHAPTER ELEVEN

Widowhood: self-imposed or inescapable fate?

Freed from her conjugal enslavement, Mary's madness ensues after both of her male partners have left her. As a result, widowhood is portrayed as having a negative effect on the heroine's life, rather than offering the freedom it was originally thought to possess. The sense of ending becomes crucial in this study when taking into account the beginning of La Marquise de Sade and what experiences lead Rachilde to end her story by placing her heroine in precisely the same masochistic setting that originally led Mary down her sadistic path. In La Marquise de Sade, it is clear that the traditional role of male executioner and female victim has been inverted. This idea is clearest in the final chapter of the novel, where Mary's pursuit of immoral and heinous scenes becomes a way of escaping an otherwise dull existence as a widow. Unable to fulfil her fantasies of sadistically controlling the men in her life, she seeks out the forbidden. For things are taboo precisely because they are exciting; otherwise, they need not be prohibited. Witnessing forbidden acts is what excites Mary and drives her sadistic impulses forward. It is in this detached mode of watching from afar that Mary is able to feel in control, seeking out violent scenes of sexual abuse in the foul corners of fin-de-siècle Paris, while preserving her “untouchable” status as widow. Gardiner (1982) writes that “in a male-dominated society, being a man means not being like a woman. As a result, the behaviour considered appropriate to each gender becomes severely restricted and polarised” (p. 189). In the narrative, Mary seeks parity with the men in her life by dominating them either emotionally, financially, or physically. By the end of the novel, she adopts the same tactics, but not in the same sadomasochistic way that defined her previous relationships with men. Widowhood, for Mary, affords her access to violent places otherwise off-limits to a single female, while offering her protection. Mary's “liberation” consists in denying herself any distinct female identity; this is portrayed through her rejection of maternity and, in the final pages of the novel, her sexual ambiguity as a widow.

 

Chapter Twelve: Black and White: Vulnerability or a Sign of Power?

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CHAPTER TWELVE

Black and white: vulnerability or a sign of power?

Unlike the heroines of Monsieur Vénus and La Marquise de Sade, Eliante Donalger, the heroine of La Jongleuse (1990), is a widow at the beginning of the text. Eliante Donalger is a symbol of the sexual anarchy that was associated with a woman living outside the traditional patriarchal household. With theories on female hysteria emerging towards the end of the nineteenth century, single women in particular (widows being included in this category) were believed to be particularly at risk of developing hysterical tendencies. By portraying her heroine as a widow from the beginning of the text, Rachilde again raises questions pertaining to the fin-de-siècle male fear that single women were dangerous and potentially destructive creatures; in the case of La Jongleuse, this female potential is shown from the start of the novel.

Showalter (1991) asserts that sexual anarchy in the nineteenth century began with the “odd woman”; the woman who would not marry and who refused her reproductive duties. Rachilde's novel portrays the type of “odd woman” defined by Showalter, although, in the case of La Jongleuse, the heroine uses her widowed status as a justification for her rejection of these female duties. The central protagonist of La Jongleuse, a young widow of thirty-five, rejects the idea of remarriage and is completely opposed to the feminine duty of maternity. This femme nouvelle emerged as the feminist wave swept through France from 1889 to 1900. This movement gave rise to a generation of self-consciously styled “new women”; young women whose declarations of independence and advocacy of free union spurred what was popularly known as the “marriage crisis” in the press and topical literature of the 1880s and 1890s. La Jongleuse presents a literary heroine who embodies the spirit of the fin-de-siècle both by her non-conformity and her adaptation. The New Woman was concerned with a search for selfhood and a desire to realise her own potential as a human being; to be, in other words, on an equal footing with men. This sought-after female freedom was not received positively by all and, as Bjørhovde explains, many believed that “the New Woman was a selfish and self-centred creature, rejecting her traditional womanly nature and duties in order to realise her own ambitions” (Bjørhovde, 1987, p. 3). This desire to realise female potential and independence is explored by Rachilde in La Jongleuse; however, these aspirations are not achieved without some external resistance.

 

Chapter Thirteen: Performing Autonomy: The Widowed Woman as Fantasy

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CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Performing autonomy: the widowed woman as fantasy

In addition to costuming and colour choice, performance is an essential component in La Jongleuse. Through a variety of dance routines and juggling acts, Eliante is able to mesmerise her audience in a further attempt to gain control over her male observers. Dauphiné notes in her preface to La Jongleuse that “Eliante is the juggler, not only because of her skill, but because she plays with others, with society, and also with herself” (Dauphiné, 1982, p. 19). Juggling takes on both literal and metaphorical meaning and it is through this action of throwing knives while in disguise that Eliante successfully creates an erotic scene which draws the attention of both her male and female audience. It is at this point that Rachilde presents an interpretative twist in the narrative. In the previous chapter, we saw how Rachilde uses colour and specific attire to “weaponise” her heroine and hint at her destructive potential. By using the mode of performance, Rachilde no longer disguises her heroine as a dagger safely hidden behind its sheath of mourning. Instead, she “weaponises” her heroine by arming her with these deadly weapons, which she takes pleasure in relentlessly catching and releasing, a technique learned from her deceased husband. Through the act of juggling, Eliante hypnotises her male spectators and lures them into her “web”, where she holds the power. These performances are much more than mere parlour room amusements, however. It is through these juggling acts that Eliante is allowed to define herself before an audience composed of both men and women.

 

Chapter Fourteen: The Whore's Dress: Blatant Display of Female Sexuality

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CHAPTER FOURTEEN

The whore's dress: blatant display of female sexuality

In addition to marking Eliante's final public performance, the third change of costume signifies a clear loss of innocence through its blatant display of female sexuality. Contrary to the previous example, where there was an element of secrecy and modesty, the whore's dress represents a sort of deliberate exploitation; Eliante's sexuality is intensified when the human body is hidden rather than exposed. Eliante's first appearance on stage signalled that she was the incarnation of sexuality, a sexuality as threatening as it was desirable, yet, as indicated by the veil and tight fitting leotard, a sexuality hidden from view. The costume being examined here is different as it unabashedly displays Eliante's naked body, leaving nothing to the imagination: “The belt did not come up to the breasts, perfectly unrestrained upright breasts in their normal place, holding out their hard little tips with the fierce aspect of two reliefs in a breastplate” (Rachilde, 1990, p. 194). Birkett (1986) suggests that men are fascinated by the display of sexuality that concedes nothing, which forces them into the spectator's role. In this scene, Rachilde's heroine is exposed, which, again, forces men to watch as outsiders while the Other performs. Eliante, by pretending vulnerability and putting her female body on open display, makes a last attempt to achieve the fantasy of female power. This time is different, however, as she uses her biological sex as a way to make her Otherness absolutely explicit, with the hope of provoking curiosity and desire among her male onlookers.

 

Chapter Fifteen: Final Masquerade: Birth of Sexual Freedom in Death

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CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Final masquerade: birth of sexual freedom in death

In his preface to Monsieur Vénus, Barrès suggests that: “Rachilde's imagination smells of death” (Barrès, 1977, p. 19). Eliante's various juggling performances reveal that death is a predominant theme in La Jongleuse and is commonly linked with sexuality. We have seen how black is the colour most often associated with death linked to sexuality. By choosing to dress her heroine in white at the end of the novel, Rachilde presents a complete contrast to her heroine's previous costumes, since the colour of this gown returns to the illusion of (re)birth and virginal purity. By using the white dress to signal innocence, simplicity, and purity of soul, it is in this final scene that Rachilde uses colour as a mere prop in Eliante's performance, designed this time to trick her male suitor.

When Léon encounters Eliante, she is described as: “all white and fantastically bathed in moon” (Rachilde, 1990, p. 202). This surreal description creates a dream-like vision and a temporary escape from reality. By mimicking marital availability and sexual innocence, Rachilde's heroine is able to mislead her male suitor into believing that she has finally come to accept her inescapable fate of male dominance. By faking female obedience, Eliante leads Léon to believe that he has won the gender game that they have been playing from the start. Rachilde makes it clear in this final scene that Léon believes his male dominance has been returned and, therefore, feels fulfilled, while Eliante feels vacant, as if she has failed her attempt at female independence. Léon makes his role as “maître” absolutely clear to Eliante: “I want you, and if you want me, you can have no other wishes but mine. I'm the master, you won't leave, I fully take it upon myself to prevent you. Go ahead of me to show me where your bed is…and be quiet” (Rachilde, 1990, p. 203). Although Léon believes himself the “master” of Eliante, he is mistaken, and this control is only temporary. Rachilde, by deceptively dressing her heroine as a premarital virgin and momentarily casting aside her position as a widow, equips Eliante with the weapons necessary to manipulate her young male suitor. By promising sexual submission, Eliante is able successfully to lead Léon to her bedroom where she deceives him into thinking it is her body that he is taking control of when it is actually that of her young niece, Missie.

 

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