Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

"Lady Tiger in a Tea Gown": Decadence, Kitsch, and Faulkner's Femme Fatale

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

"Lady Tiger in a Tea Gown": Decadence, Kitsch, and Faulkner's Femme Fatale

Article excerpt

OF THE DECADENT FIGURES THAT PERMEATE FAULKNER'S EARLY ART, fiction, and poetry few are as conspicuous as the femme fatale. (1) The presence of dangerous, exotic seductresses who are clearly inspired by his reading in decadence is particularly pronounced in four tightly-clustered texts--poem "XXXVII" (1924) of A Green Bough (1933), Soldiers" Pay (1926), Flags in the Dust (completed in 1927), and The Sound and the Fury (1929)--all of which describe female characters through similar images and tropes. The decadent trappings shared by women in these texts, however, belie significant differences in their relationships with men, in the degrees to which they exist as subjects with psychological depth and nuance and in the functions they serve in the narratives in which they appear. Faulkner's basically contemporaneous femmes fatales of the 1920s receive a wide range of treatments, some ironic: in the first of these texts the femme fatale is a looming sexual threat to a patriarchal order; in the last, the figure's qualifies are deliberately misapplied to a vulgar society matron. The differences between these femmes fatales can be contextualized in contemporary debates about the status of decadence as a viable expression of modernism. (2) Faulkner's implicit participation in this cultural conversation is notable because he seems to occupy different positions in it almost simultaneously and finds nuance and possibility in the femme fatale even when his work suggests that the figure's conventions have outlived the emotions and dynamics they concretize into art.

The femme fatale is perhaps the most iconic figure of fin de siecle decadence. In the femme fatale, female agency is hypersexualized and invariably entails the downfall of the men she attracts, either through obsession, sexual depletion, or murder. Fin de siecle artists and writers invest the archetype of the dangerous seductress with a number of specific characteristics, many of which inform Faulkner's work. The power of the femme fatale is such that she takes on apparently male attributes: Gautier's Mademoiselle de Maupin dresses as a swordsman, and women from history who assumed traditionally male positions of authority were frequently represented as femmes fatales. (3) The notable presence of queens like Cleopatra and Semiramis in decadent culture is underwritten by the link between the femme fatale and the pagan or non-Western world, with attendant associations of irrationality, depravity, and the supernatural. In more extreme representations, the femme fatale is not altogether human and is frequently associated with serpents, great cats, or demons. In much fin de siecle art, the harm that the femme fatale brings to those she transfixes extends into a larger cultural crisis; by putting the family in peril through the irresistible allure of non-procreative and often fatal sex and by sapping or stealing the energy men require to be productive in the public sphere, the femme fatale violates tradition and murders the future.

The femme fatale is a politically overdetermined figure, animated by strong and often contradictory cultural forces. Perhaps most obviously, it is energized by misogyny. Beyond the pleasure the femme fatale takes in cruelty toward men is a fundamental dependence on her victims; Rebecca Stott notes that "a femme cannot be fatale without a male being present" (viii). (4) Though the misogynistic implications of the equation of female power and male depletion may never be entirely absent, the femme fatale is too complex and dynamic a figure to be reduced to a projection of male fear and resentment. As a figure of extremity, it can be deployed for radical or oppositional purposes. Adriana Cracuin's work on the presence of the femme fatale in women's writing leads her to reject a reading of the figure as being generated solely by misogyny as an "inadequate ... narrative of male sexual neurosis" (16) and Peter Nicholls argues that the energies that drive the femme fatale constitute a larger sociopolitical critique, claiming that in decadent culture, sexual perversity "spells the ruin of bourgeois rationalism" (19). …

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