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Femme Fatales of English Literature

Essay by   •  November 26, 2010  •  Research Paper  •  3,725 Words (15 Pages)  •  2,786 Views

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The femme fatale, a seductive woman who entices men into perilous and compromising positions by way of charisma and mystery, is a classic, and often enthralling, character who can be found in many sources of literature and mythology of various origins and eras ("Femme Fatale" 1).

"If the goddess of virtue is a lily and the vamp is an overripe red rose, the femme fatale is a Venus flytrap." (Billinghurst 1).

In the simple quote above, Ms. Jane Billinghurst, author of "Temptress", provides explanation of the femme fatale by way of metaphor, likening the way in which the Venus flytrap, or Dionaea muscipula, succeeds in obtaining its next meal by way of temptation to the likeness of the femme fatale, using temptation to secure her victims, thus leading to unescapable doom (Venus's fly-trap 1).

"Temptress", whose pages and cover alike overflow with a lavish visual collection of photographs, paintings and illustrations of the femme fatale, examines the extraordinary and fascinating history of sexual, or sexualised, women and the journey taken in receiving the infamous title of the femme fatale.

This symbolic figure exists in numerous varying forms and can be found in virtually every society or culture throughout history. It is the femme fatale's infamous aura of mystery, temptation and charms that provides the intense magnetism of this deadly female character.

One of the most noted and greatly debated fatale characters of literature can be found in the Bible: Eve.

"And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, this is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. . . . And Adam called his wife's name Eve; because she was the mother of all living." (Genesis 2:21 - 3:20).

Often viewed as the original and ultimate femme fatale, Eve has come to bear such a title because of her involvement in the fall of humankind and, in turn, the introduction of sin, death and destruction into the world. It is Eve herself who succumbs to the influence of temptation with the persuasion of the evil serpent, which represents Satan, in the Garden of Eden and therefore brings about Adam's downfall:

"And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat . . . And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel. Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." (Genesis 3:6 - 3:19).

The use of Eve's great beauty and sexuality, characteristics of the femme fatale, are what ultimately tempts Adam to eat the forbidden fruit, dooming himself to an eternity of pain, suffering, sin and death (Hass 1).

Although numerous scholars view Eve as the principle true fatale, some consider another character of Jewish belief to be the initial femme fatale ever noted in literature and mythology: Lilith.

According to Jewish myth, Lilith was Adam's first wife. She was a strong woman and was reckoned both sexual and in control (Humm 1). One of the first manifestations of Lilith comes from "The Alphabet of Ben Sira", an anthology of eleventh century proverbs. The anecdote of Lilith can also be found in some rhetoric Jewish mythology (Stern and Mirsky 1).

As stated in "The Alphabet of Ben Sira", God created Adam. From the earth he created a companion for Adam: a woman - Lilith. Adam and Lilith immediately began to fight. She said, "I will not lie below," (Stern and Mirsky 1).

He replied, "I will not lie beneath you, but only on top. For you are fit only to be in the bottom position, while I am to be the superior one." (Stern and Mirsky 1).

Lilith responded, "We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth." (Stern and Mirsky 1).

Lilith was created from clay by God, just like her spouse, and was therefore more his equal, unlike Eve who was born of Adam's rib (Humm 1). Lilith exhibits her dominant independence, a key element of the femme fatale character, by leaving Adam as a result of the couple's sexual incompatibility (Graves 65-69).

Lilith has also been related to the evil serpent who brought temptation to Eve in the Garden of Eden, under the "Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil" (Stern and Mirsky 1). Many artworks of the 15th Century contain images of Lilith depicted as the evil serpent. One such piece is Bosch's "Paradise" (1510)((Appendix A).

Lilith's poetic image graces the surfaces of many canvases and can be viewed in works such as John Collier's, "Lilith" (1892) (Appendix C). Mention of Lilith has also been located in poetry, for example, "A Sea-Spell" by Rossetti.

"A Sea-Spell" (Appendix F), contains imagery which can be directly associated to this Siren-like form of Lilith, making Rossetti's work deserving of reflection (Megroz 43).

As present in "A Sea-Spell", both precise Lilith images and Lilith-related topics are notable in the sonnet.

The direct reference to Lilith begins the piece with the line: "Her lute hangs shadowed in the apple-tree"(Rossetti 1) This representation is significant in referral to Lilith's providing of temptation to Eve under the "apple-tree," the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The character of Lilith is represented as a beautiful Siren who weaves her magic, ensnaring and slaying men (Rossetti 1).

Although "A Sea-Spell" certainly does not represent Lilith alone, the siren is nonetheless

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