Jezebel's Last Laugh: The Rhetoric of Wicked Women

Article excerpt

A most wicked woman is Jezebel, so much so that even feminist readers of the Old Testament, who have quite eagerly and insightfully reexamined the stories of other Old Testament women, seem reluctant to deal with her. She is, according to tradition, the ultimate figure of feminine evil, one considered so evil by patriarchal standards that her name in most dictionaries is synonymous with "wicked woman." Judeo-Christian tradition judges only Satan more harshly as a symbol of evil. Jezebel's association with patriarchal definitions of "bad women" presents an opportunity for feminists, for if we recover the figure of Jezebel, we not only undermine patriarchal assumptions about the story, we undermine the very basic patriarchal assumptions about what characteristics and actions constitute bad women. This paper, therefore, will reread the story of Jezebel, first, by considering rereading as a process of recovery; second, by examining the traditional readings of Jezebel; and finally, by exploring what Jezebel might mean as a feminist metaphor.

The Process of Feminist Recovery

Feminist recovery activities take many forms, but they all share a common assumption and goal, which may be summarized as the attempt to force reconsideration of so-called cultural "norms" substantiated by traditional understandings of texts. In the introduction to his 1989 book Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Culture Memory, 1910--1945, Cary Nelson defines recovery as rewriting the text according to new ideological assumptions:

what we 'recover' we necessarily rewrite, giving it

meanings that are inescapably contemporary, giving

it a new discursive life in the present, a life it cannot

have had before. A text can gain that new life in part

through an effort to understand what cultural work it

may have been able to do in an earlier time. (11) Crucial to a recovery project is an understanding of how a text by or about women worked in its historical setting and in its reception through subsequent ages of interpretation to uphold patriarchal assumptions about the feminine. Recovery, or "rewriting," of the text by feminism wrenches from patriarchy the power to interpret what feminine is and should be. From the diachronic tension between the historical understanding and a contemporary feminist reading emerges a new "text" which has the potential to redefine the cultural values which had been traditionally derived from the text.

Significant for many attempts at feminist reading and recovery is the problem of naming, of re-interpreting the names given to females and to the feminine in patriarchal literature. Recovery may mean usurping from ancient legend a male-given name or a male-created image of the feminine, appropriating it to name or describe our own existence. Traditional readings of these legends have created a rhetoric of oppression, using the names and their traditional connotations to mold the image of ideal femininity along lines which will not threaten, or which will neutralize any potential threat to, patriarchal power. Certain female figures are labelled "villainess" because they embody certain characteristics or perform certain actions which potentially threaten the patriarchal construction of the feminine, and thus the construction of the masculine. Tradition, therefore, must portray these women and what they represent as evil in order to undermine any power they might exert over patriarchy. Feminists reading these ancient stories rewrite, or recover, the legend to open a space for a different, potentially powerful image of the feminine in order to subvert the traditional constructions which name these figures as evil women and make their characteristics undesirable. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in No Man's Land, describe one such example of recovery: American author Pauline Tarn transformed herself into the French poet Rene Vivien by taking on the name, and thus the power, of the woman who wrests from Merlin his magical authority, his ability to speak the words of power. …