Venomous Woman: Fear of the Female in Literature

Venomous Woman: Fear of the Female in Literature

Venomous Woman: Fear of the Female in Literature

Venomous Woman: Fear of the Female in Literature


Preface: Secret Weapon Introduction: Archetypes and Stereotypes Mother Eve and Other Death-Dealers Venefica: Healer and Witch Woman and the Serpent Conclusion: Beatrice Rappaccini


Trust none of the dishes at dinner:
Those pies are steaming-black with the poison Mummy put there.
Whatever she offers you, make sure another person
Tries it out first. . . .
What I can't stand is the calculating woman
Who plans her crimes in cold blood.


If all philosophy is a footnote to Plato, then all misogyny is a footnote to Juvenal. When connected with women, the image of poison in literature is an image of fear: fear of female power to deceive and destroy men.

In Agatha Christie early Hercule Poirot novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles, several characters discuss the problem of undiscovered crimes. Miss Howard observes that "'murder's a violent crime. Associate it more with a man.'" Swiftly Mrs. Cavendish disagrees: "' Not in a case of poisoning.'" Poison is also a secret weapon; as Mrs. Cavendish continues, "'owing to the general ignorance of the more uncommon poisons among the medical profession, there were probably countless cases of poisoning quite unsuspected'" (7-8). Agatha Christie follows a common pattern here: in detective fiction, "traditionally poison is a woman's weapon."

In criminal justice studies as well, the elements of the murder by poison mentioned in the Christie dialogue are considered seriously. The idea of secrecy seems to provide a natural connection between women and poison. The prestigious criminologist Otto Pollak, tackling the problem of women's underrepresentation in the ranks of murderers, postulates that women's crimes are more likely to be hidden. Because women usually function in private, domestic, nurturing roles (like Juvenal's "Mummy" baking her black pies), Pollak sees them as in "'circumstances favorable to committing crimes which are difficult to detect [and] which are often not reported.'" Pollak thinks women are particularly prone to such hidden crimes because . . .

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