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Femme Fatale in Victorian Literature Essay

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INTRODUCTION

Victorian Era was the big step in the overall cultural development of England. Many, presently famous novels and poems came to light during this period. Mainly writers, who (in their style of writing) openly manifested their opposition to the strict moral law which was significant those days. Universal etiquette of behavior, wealth and the family name in the social hierarchy ladder were very important to be perceived as aristocracy. Class division within the society was clearly marked. The pattern of a female character in Victorian novel which gained popularity very fast that time was Femme Fatale pattern which is also known as deadly woman.

I have chosen such topic, because I am of opinion that femme fatale type of character is the most interesting of all female identity types. Furthermore, Victorian period is a time of a changing role of the women in the British society, which gives us very contrastive background, in which behavior of such woman was something immoral, controversial but also brave.

Charles Dickens is widely perceived as the greatest novelist of the Victorian Era. He is the creator of fictional characters, which are known all over the world and are used as universal patterns through centuries till now. Ch. Dickens in his work described in a perfect way English Victorian society as well as its rules. Dickens, through his life experienced many difficulties, which shaped his identity and had immense influence on his own, specific style of writing. His thirteenth novel Great Expectations was one of the greatest among Victorian Era works. The main character Pip, is growing and developing through the whole story which is why the novel belongs to the Bildungsroman genre.

What is more, Great Expectations novel was firstly published in the serial form in weekly magazine All the Year Round so it can be also defined as serialized novel. The plot of this story is quite complicated, bringing the reader much of surprise because of unexpected turns of action and character, like the most significant change in the story is when the main hero suddenly becomes rich person and his life has been rapidly changed. But it is not main hero on whom I am going to focus in the first chapter of my diploma paper. It will be the woman of his dreams. The woman, who was unable to return a feeling back to him, as well as to anybody else. Her name is Estella Havisham and she is the first example which I am going to analyze in my work.

The second writer from Victorian era whose fictional character I am going to analyze is William Thackeray. William Thackeray, the next one of the greatest writers in Victoria Era, was born into British high society in 1811. He experienced mostly comfortable and easy life until he reached 22 years old. Till that time he managed to squander most of his fortune. The main reasons which led to that situation were gambling and the Indian Banking Crisis. We can say that during his life he experienced on his own what is like to be rich and poor.

That is why he could objectively depict the view of British society of his times. This is exactly what he had done in his famous work entitled Vanity Fair. In 1847 He started publishing short stories in Punch Magazine, which means that similarly to Great Expectations, it was also serialized novel. Although first chapters of this novel were written years before, they were not available for the wide audience. The whole story was completed and published as a book in 1848. That time also it received the subtitle A Novel Without a Hero. Very soon it became successful.

CHAPTER ONE: FEMME FATALE AND VICTORIAN SOCIETY

1Victorian Period – Overall information

The period 1837-1901 is named Victorian after Queen Victoria who ruled English country that time. It was a time of a big change when English Victorian Society was divided into three main classes: upper, middle and lower which was also called working class. Each class is characterized by various occupations, ways of life and etiquette.

The upper class consisted of the nobility, such as dukes, earls, and viscounts. They were often related to the royal families of Britain and Europe, and their society was distinct and separate to the other two classes – certain expectations had to be met by everybody. Most of these ‘aristocrats’ did not have a profession, as their families had sufficient funds to live in affluence. However, many were captains of industry, especially mining or ship building.

The middle class consisted of rich families who were respectable, but lacked a “title”, and often had skilled professions, such as a doctor, or a teacher. At the beginning of the Victorian times, they were a small proportion of the population. However, the effects of the Industrial Revolution meant that more people could be defined as ‘middle class’, because of improvements in education and more opportunities of leveling from the lower class to upper one.

The lower class (working class) were made up of the rural and urban poor, who had often low skilled, dangerous, dirty and boring jobs (often all four) that they had to take because of the lack of education. A handful could actually be defined as ‘lower middle class’, but because they often lived in terraced housing areas, they were defined as working class. There was also a class below the working class – paupers. They lived in extreme poverty, often because of old age, unemployment, illness or strained resources. Sally Mitchel in her book clearly points out that

Most working people earned just enough to stay alive, and could be thrown into poverty by illness, layoffs, or a sudden misfortune such as a factory fire that caused even short-term unemployment. People in unskilled and semiskilled jobs generally needed additional income from several members of the family. (Mitchel 19)

Etiquette was one of the most significant thing that time. Education of the woman would not be completed without teaching rules of proper behavior. Not only women but also men had to obey this set of rules during many daily activities even the simplest one. What kind of jewelry as well as when and where one should wear, who to walk with, who to dance with, how and when to speak to a stranger, were all very critical knowledge. For men, there were rules about bowing, where to sit and next to whom, even about the circumstances in which it was appropriate or not to smoke or drink in front of ladies.

Running a house without servants was almost impossible. The number of servants one could afford was a sign of one’s wealth. The bigger house, the more servants were hired. They were usually divided into two groups: indoor (butler, housekeeper, maids) and outdoor: (coachman, groom, a gardener). Being a servant wasn’t well-paid job but thanks to tips, a servant could earn extra money.

Next, very significant thing which was obligatory mainly in upper class society was dance. It was the essence of every ball which was one of the greatest entertainment that time in English society. Balls were organized on many occasions and created opportunity to know noble men and women from upper class.

In Victorian Britain the ideology of separate private sphere to the woman and sphere of business and politics to the man was clearly marked. The home was regarded as a haven from the busy and chaotic public world of politics and business, and from the harsh life of the factory.

In Victorian times, you could travel one of three ways: by train, by horse, or by foot. The most common means of transportation was by far the horse. It was used by rich and poor. The rich owned fancy coaches that had every accessory one could ever need for living on the road, and the poor would go about town on the cheap omnibuses that carried twenty people at a time.

2Femme Fatale

The term femme fatale comes from French and it states mainly in the opposition to another popular image of a Victorian woman called Angel in the House. ‘Femme Fatale is a woman who is sexually attractive but cruel and dangerous to men who have a relationship with her’ (Macmillan Dictionary, Femme Fatale definition). There were many famous female characters in the history who suit very well to this image even before the term Femme Fatale has been created. To the most famous examples belong:

The femme fatale has always been a well-known archetype in literature, art and movies. The tradition of the femme fatale is long and versatile and can be traced back as far as ancient Egypt, with its iconic Cleopatra. Especially in the fine arts, the femme fatale has been portrayed in many metaphorical ways: as a vampire, nymph, fallen angel or sorceress.

She flourished in the 1940’s century film noir, where the combination of aggressiveness and sensuality in women was a central topic (Place, 1998: 57). We can find many examples not only in written form but also in movies, where tempting and lethal women can be found as well: Sharon Stone in BASIC INSTINCT (1992), the Bond Girls or Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones in CHICAGO (2002) were all very seductive, but dangerous.

Hence, based on van Dijkstra’s extensive historiography, the femme fatale can be defined as a woman who is mysteriously seductive and uses this quality to outsmart men. Her resistance against male domination exists of beauty, charm and sexual allure: she tempts the male target and drives him crazy by denying him her affection. (1986, 237) To summarize: key aspects of the femme fatale are mystery, beauty, seduction and, most importantly, danger.

The most conventional image of the perfect Victorian woman who states in opposition to Femme Fatale woman can be found in the title of a long poem written by Coventry Patmore: The Angel in the House. The pure woman’s life was supposed to be entirely centered on the home. She preserved the higher moral values, guarded her husband’s conscience, guided her children’s training, and helped regenerate society through her daily display of Christianity in action. If she successfully made the home a place of perfect peace, her husband and sons would not want to leave it for an evening’s (morally suspect) entertainment elsewhere. (Mitchell 266)

3 William Makepeace Thackeray – Vanity Fair

William Makepeace Thackeray was born in Calcutta, India, in 1811. He was son of Richmond Thackeray, an Indian Civil Servant, and his wife Anne. Just a few years later his father died, his mother remarried, and the shy and young William was sent to England where he would deal with the harsh realities of isolation at Charterhouse, a private school in London. He then went on to attend Trinity College, Cambridge.

Thackeray abandoned his studies without taking a degree, having lost some of his inheritance of twenty thousand pounds through gambling. During 1831-33 Thackeray studied law at the Middle Temple, London, but had little enthusiasm to continue his studies. Soon after He went to Paris to unsuccessfully try his hand at painting. It was in Paris that he met and married Isabella Shawe (1816–1893) in 1836, with whom he would have two surviving daughters, Anne Isabella and Harriet Marian.

Back in England he suffered massive financial losses, which is why he had to start writing articles, reviews, essays and sketches as a journalist. Travel articles about France such as his Paris Sketch Book (1840) and The Yellowplush Correspondence (1841) were among his first efforts appearing in various magazines and journals including Fraser’s, Punch, and The Times. He also illustrated many of his own works. After the birth of Harriet, Isabella started on what was to be, until her death, numerous bouts of depression, an extensive search for a cure, and ultimately a slow spiral to insanity.

She would live apart from William, rarely seeing him or her daughters. Thackeray remained close to his daughters all his life. Anne was his secretary for a while and they both lived with him at his house in London before marrying. The disintegration of his marriage however would have a profound effect on his life and was reflected in the characters of his novels, including the loveless marriage between Rachel and Frank Castlewood in The History of Henry Esmond, Esq. (1852) and its sequel The Virginians (1857).

Haunting the Literary Clubs of London including the Garrick Club, Thackeray also travelled the Mediterranean, A Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo (1846) the result. Book of Snobs (1848) and Vanity Fair (1848) followed soon after, but it was not until The History of Pendennis (1850), his semi-autobiographical novel that Thackeray’s success as a humorist was confirmed. He then embarked on a series of lectures published as English Humorists of the Eighteenth Century (1851) and Four Georges (1860), based on the Hanoverian Kings, from his tours of the United States in 1852-53 and 1855-56.

In 1860 Thackeray became editor of the monthly literary journal Cornhill Magazine, but died suddenly three years later, in 1863, at the age of fifty two. He lies buried beside his mother in the Victorian Garden cemetery Kensal Green in London, England. Charles Dickens wrote a glowing tribute to him in Cornhill Magazine.

William Thackeray is mostly known for his great novel “Vanity Fair”. The novel was written in 1848. The book brought Thackeray prosperity and made him an established author and popular lecturer in Europe and in the United States.

Vanity Fair with its second title A Novel without a Hero is a novel published in 1847–48, satirizing society in early 19th-century Britain. The book’s title comes from John Bunyan’s allegorical story The Pilgrim’s Progress, first published in 1678 and still widely read at the time of Thackeray’s novel. “Vanity Fair” refers to a stop along the pilgrim’s progress: a never-ending fair held in a town called Vanity, which is meant to represent man’s sinful attachment to worldly things. The novel is now considered a classic, and has inspired several film adaptations, the most recent being the 2004 film starring Reese Witherspoon. In 2003, Vanity Fair was listed on the BBC’s The Big Read poll of the UK’s “best-loved novel”.[1]

4 Charles Dickens – Great Expectations

Charles Dickens is widely perceived as the greatest novelist of the Victorian Era. He is the creator of fictional characters, which are known all over the world and are used as universal patterns through centuries till now. Ch. Dickens in his work describes in a perfect way English Victorian society as well as its rules. Dickens, through his life experienced many difficulties, which shaped his identity and had immense influence on his own, specific style of writing.

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born on 7 February 1812 in Portsmouth. He was son of John and Elizabeth Dickens. Until he finished 11 years he and his family moved two times. He was very clever boy. When he was young, he read many novels, especially the picaresque novels of Tobias Smollett and Henry Fielding. From the early stages he took private lessons, first in dame school, and then at a school run by William Giles, a dissenter, in Chatham.

In 1822, the Dickens family moved to Camden Town, a poor neighborhood in London. By then the family’s financial situation had grown dire, as John Dickens had a dangerous habit of living beyond the family’s means. Eventually, John was sent to prison for debt in 1824, when Charles was just 12 years old.

In 1860 Dickens started to publish short stories for the weekly magazine “All The Year Round”. Although intended for weekly publication, Great Expectations was divided into nine monthly sections, with new pagination for each. At the beginning, his serialized story was not so famous as A Day’s Ride by Charles Lever, which was published in the same magazine but soon lose favor with the public. Dickens, during one year of publication (1860-1861), wrote thirty six episodes. The novel gained title Great Expectation and became very successful among works of Victorian era, showing simultaneously Dickens’ peak and maturity as an author. Nowadays, novel is regarded as very important and is taught in many English classes.

The main character Pip, is growing and developing through the whole story which is why the novel belongs to the Bildungsroman genre. In many respects, it contains themes and emotions directly related to the author’s experience. For instance, the description of Pip’s childhood has some affinity with Dickens own life. Also, Estella seems directly inspired from Maria Beadwell, a lady whom Dickens loved; Beadwell snubbed him coldly because of his low social status.

The plot of story is complicated, bringing the reader much of surprise because of unexpected turns of action as the most significant change in the story when the main hero suddenly becomes rich person and his life has been rapidly changed. But it is not main hero on whom I am going to focus in the first chapter of my diploma paper. It will be the woman of his dreams. The woman, who was unable to return a feeling back to him, as well as to anybody else. Her name is Estella Havisham and she is the first example which I am going to analyze in my work.

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Femme Fatale in Victorian Literature. (2017, Feb 22). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/femme-fatale-in-victorian-literature-essay

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