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Chapter Five: Monstrous Sexualities

Julie Lokis-Adkins Karnac Books ePub

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.

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Chapter Seven: The Birth of a Female Sadomasochist

Julie Lokis-Adkins Karnac Books ePub

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.

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

Julie Lokis-Adkins Karnac Books ePub

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.

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Chapter Six: The Eroticism of Death

Julie Lokis-Adkins Karnac Books ePub

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:

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Chapter One: Widowhood and Nineteenth-Century Culture

Julie Lokis-Adkins Karnac Books ePub

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.

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