Venomous Woman: Fear of the Female in Literature

By Margaret Hallissy | Go to book overview

1
Introduction: Archetypes and Stereotypes

One sometimes wonders that so few women, with the thing so facile and so safe, poison their husbands.

H. L. MENCKEN1

Every poison lady in literature owes her full significance to archetypes and stereotypes--characters from the literature of the past summoned like shades from Hades to add greater dimension to her characterization and notions about women in general upon which men base judgments of individual women. These archetypes and stereotypes influence the reader's responses to the venomous-woman character, including whether we take her seriously. Consider, for example, Joseph Kesselring well-known comedy Arsenic and Old Lace, in which two old ladies poison eleven men and bury their bodies in the basement of their Brooklyn home. 2 Why are these murderers funny? The answer clarifies the definition of the true poison ladies, which the sisters are not. Abby and Martha Brewster are two sweet little old ladies, helping and serving everyone. Their comfortable home serves as an occasional boarding house for homeless old men and also for their mad nephew Teddy, who fancies himself President Roosevelt. Another nephew is a conventional murderer, and yet a third, the protagonist Mortimer, is the one who discovers the aunties' crimes.

The old men who board at the Brewster house are alone in the world, without family or friends. When one of these unfortunates collapses and dies in the Brewsters' living room, the ladies are favorably impressed: "When his heart attack came, and he sat dead in that chair, so peaceful . . . we decided then and there that if we could help other lonely old men to find that same peace, we would" (46-47). Once inside the womblike Brewster home, these men spend eternity there in the ultimate place of refuge, buried by the Brewster sisters with religious ritual appropriate to their beliefs (the Brewsters are, after all, good church women). In death, these gentlemen find

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Venomous Woman: Fear of the Female in Literature
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Copyright Acknowledgments v
  • Contents ix
  • Preface: Secret Weapon xi
  • 1 - Introduction: Archetypes and Stereotypes 1
  • 2 - Mother Eve and Other Death-Dealers 15
  • 3 - Venefica: Healer and Witch 59
  • 4 - Woman and the Serpent 89
  • 5 - Conclusion: Beatrice Rappaccini 133
  • Notes 143
  • Selected Bibliography 157
  • Index 161
  • About the Author 169
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