Tag Archive | Crime

Mad, Criminal, and Ambitious

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In late nineteenth-century, literary representations of the new woman approached her autonomy in political, and sexual matters in terms of madness and criminality. Texts such as Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), a sensation novel based on the real case of Constance Kent, and published in a serialized form in the magazines Robin Goodfellow, and Sixpenny Magazine, illustrate Victorian domestic anxieties in the form of a bigamous woman who desserts her child and domestic duties. Zola’s Nana (1880) was another example of female dangerous sexuality embodied in a courtesan whose customers, strongly seduced, follow their own destruction. Lombroso’s psychiatric text Criminal Woman, the Prostitute, and the Normal Woman (1895) aims at a scientific classification of woman’s nature identifying the ‘normal’ and the ‘perverse’ woman.

Women who wanted to divorce could also be considered as undergoing mental, or physical illness, as The Awakening (1899) illustrates through the relationship between Edna Pontellier and the family doctor who interprets her anxieties of independence from a medical perspective. Popular imagination had it that a woman who did not circumscribed herself to the domestic realm was socially dangerous. For the bourgeoisie and the Victorians, this danger took criminal forms which could involve sexual aggressiveness. The mad woman was another way to represent non-domestic women, and a well-know topic of Victorian literature during the whole of the nineteenth-century.

After sexual mores changed progressively during the twentieth-century, and the emergence of a post-bourgeois, middle-class society took place, the mad and criminal woman disappeared as a source of anxiety. However, popular representations of women today seem to point out to another type of ‘unsettling’ woman: the ambitious female professional. It is striking the number of TV shows – which can be seen as replacing nineteenth-century weekly fouilletons – which present a a young woman between 25-35 years old willing to dangerously do anything for her career. These characters are sexually attractive, and usually facing a choice between her partner and career. As with the mad and criminal woman, the ambitious woman is indeed a woman. These TV shows do not use to put into question men’s ambitions, for whom their profession and family life do not appear as contradictory. Instead, top men use to have a wife who responds to the popular needs of a post-bourgeois society.

The American show Damages (2007-2012) shows the life of a young female attorney, Ellen who, at all risks, decides to work for one of the most terrifying lawyers of New York, Patty Hewes – who also happens to be a woman whose adolescent son has paid for her 30 years of professional dedication. The paternalizing advice Hewes gives to Ellen, “most men don’t handle an ambitious woman. It will take you some trials, but make sure you find one”, aims at showing Hewes’ dark arts in trying to break Ellen’s actual relationship with her boyfriend.

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Damages follows a structure already found in the movie The Devil Wears Prada (2006), where a recent graduated in journalism starts working by Miranda Priestly, the most dreaded chief editor in the fashion world. Like Ellen, the young Andrea destroys her relationship with her boyfriend due to her ambitious career which is also mentored by the old Miranda, whose private life has been a records of defeats.

Andrea’s last move, her final renounce to become Miranda, is nothing but a social negotiation between the values of the post-bourgeois society, and the ways in which this is menaced, mostly, the professional top-woman. If it is true that Andrea changes her life before it is too late, she has already ruined her private life, and achieved what she wanted: a reference from Miranda which put her into a top newspaper. In both cases, however, Patty Hewes and Miranda Priestly embody a dangerous woman everybody is scare of, while their younger doubles represent the social negotiation between the acceptable and the non-acceptable, reminding us that the best choice for a young woman is still family.

These representations of contemporary women are, as they were in the nineteenth-century, structured around a male gaze, which constantly avoids the real solution to the family-work polemic: compatibility. The representation of the ambitious woman as monster in the twenty-first century does not help at all to understand that women do aspire to high positions as well as to build a family. Instead they send the message, ‘a woman who wants to dedicate her life to her career is a bad woman’. The mad, criminal, and ambitious woman is nothing but the a serial of different forms the same old tale takes. Now, indeed, it is ok that a housewife works but not that much.

The Human Beast in Thérèse Raquin

thereseA Zola’s novel hardly leaves anyone indifferent; he is the artist par excellence of the darkest human side. It is not just in his topics and characters, it is in his narrative style as well where Zola depicts brutality in a very brutal way: without judgement. There is no the slightest moral voice in his work to relief the reader of the tragedy, instead, the reader is trapped in a hopeless world completely alone without finding an accomplice in the narrator. That is what makes Zola especially terrible, his objective display of the human beast.

Such a thing as a ‘good character’ is impossible to find in Thérèse Raquinthere are just evil and less-evil characters  in the Parisian novel. No one is free or innocent, all of them are accomplices in some way or another of the murder of Camille, even Camille himself. All the characters present in the novel are especially concern with themselves, their own interests, which lead them to cause unfair situations in an endless chain of guilty. Surviving is the main objective for each one until the only possible way to do so is suicide. Death freed Thérèse and Laurent of their crime remorses after months of mutual hate and misbehaviour. Camille, Madame Raquin, Thérèse and Laurent are all victims and guilty; even secondary characters can be accused of selfishness looking just for self-satisfaction. The characters’ descriptions and the atmosphere of the novel is quite animalistic. The word ‘animal’ to design desires or feelings is used repeatedly for Thérèse and Laurent and it is full of animal similes which refer to their bodies as well. Sexuality between the lovers is mainly aggressive and even masochistic, it is just of an instinctual kind.

The adulterous affair between Thérèse and Laurent corresponds actually to that of Rougemont’s theory in The Love in the Western World. After committing the crime killing Camille, Thérèse’s husband, Laurent and Thérèse cannot feel attract to each other any more. Moreover, they will progressively hate each other after their marriage, which was the goal killing Camille, until ending in death. Indeed, the adulterous affair is exciting because of the obstacle, it is the romantic love which is thrilling and such a thrill is possible due to the obstacle, in this case, the husband. Passion was possible for the lovers because of their consciousness of braking the rule and their passion needed always an obstacle, otherwise, it dies. No passion lasts forever and there is no passion in marriage actually after a certain time. Marriage is not properly the place for sexual passion, this one should be found outside ‘conformity’. The problem then with passion is that neither every obstacle lasts forever, so death is the last solution and, Rougemont would say, the lover’s most secret desire. Death is the only obstacle which remains forever and which feds lover’s ‘love’. Thérèse and Laurent can just kill themselves because they have discovered that marriage’s happiness was a mirage, they needed Camille to find the passion. And actually the only scene of relief in the whole novel is at the very end, when they decide to commit suicide:

‘Suddenly Thérèse and Laurent burst into tears, and in a final breakdown fell into each other’s arms, as weak children. Something gentle and tender seemed to awaken in their breast. They wept and said nothing, thinking of the sink of filth in which they had been living and would go on living if they were cowardly enough to remain alive. And then, as they remembered the past, they felt so weary and sick of themselves that an immense longing for rest an oblivion came over them. They exchanged one last look, a look of gratitude in the presence of the knife and the glass of poison. Thérèse took the glass, drank half of it, and gave it to Laurent, who finished it in one gulp. It was as quick as lightning. They fell on each other, struck down instantly, and at last found consolation in death.’