What is in a Name? A Woman, by any Other Name, Would be as Weak

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Upon reading Monsieur Venus for the first time, I think anyone’s natural inclination would be to think something along the lines of  – “ Rachilde is a feminist, and she places the men in her novel in embarrassing and even submissive positions to question and transgress normal gender biases”. However, if one looks more closely, there is also evidence to the contrary. Indeed, more often than not, because her characters fully take on the opposite sex’s identity, the novel in fact confirms many of the typical gender roles and inequalities she seems to be refuting.

Raoule indeed plays the role of the prototypical “jealous husband” who chastises his wife at the very idea that she may be thinking about, or seeing, another man. Even though Raoule is in fact a woman, and Jacques a man, because Raoule is “the husband” figure, and Jacques “the wife”, the transgression does not lie in the questioning of the respective gender roles, but rather in the questioning of the genders themselves. Raoule indeed throws a series of “Je te défends”, I defend you, such as “je te defends de fumer” or “je te defends d’adresser la parole a un homme ici”. This comforts the idea that women were neither allowed to the same behavior as men (smoking was a sign of near debauchery for women), nor allowed to have the same social liberty, as men most certainly did not stop themselves from entertaining mistresses or being seen in public with other women, as many other French nineteenth century novels, such as Les Liaisons Dangereuses or even Bel-Ami, suggest. What is perhaps even more disturbing, however, is Jacques’ portrayed submission to Raoule’s desires: he promptly answers “Eh bien! Je ne fumerai plus!…” , anxious not to contradict the “husband’s”  will and, in some way, to be the perfect housewife. Raoule fills the role of the jealous husband with perfection, as she is said to “roar” with “panick” when she tells Jacques that “je suis jaloux”, I am jealous. As such, even though it is coming out of the mouth of a woman, the picture being painted to the reader is still the same, and not as transgressive as one might imagine upon first reading this story. It is the picture of a husband correcting his wife for what he sees as “stepping out of line”.

Finally, in this passage, Rachilde comments that “ dans l’inertie qu’on lui imposait, sa beaute feminine ressortait d’avantage”.  She is suggesting, not so subtly, that this “imposed inertia” which Raoule is forcing upon Jacques, makes his feminine traits more apparent, more salient. As such, Rachilde is arguing that this submission is so tied to woman nature, that this position of helplessness is so commonly associated with the image of a woman, that just the very fact that Jacques is in such a position is enough for him to look more like one. It therefore seems that these prejudices are well engrained in Rachilde herself.  A feminist would cringe at the idea of suggesting such an idea association (“submission” and “woman”) , but  in this scene and throughout the novel itself, Rachilde seems to be playing with the accepted visions of women in order to make the reader understand why Jacques can be thought to be a woman. Rachilde is asking the transgressive question “ what constitutes a woman?” and answering in this novel that, although the physical characteristics are important (since these are what ultimately mean that Jacques and Raoule cannot be together), being a woman is a state of mind, a way of acting and being. Particularly, in this passage, she seems to argue, that being a woman is being submitted to the will of one’s husband. She seems to be answering, in her very own way, the centuries-old question: “what is in a name?”  For Rachilde, it would seem, the name is little more than a means to express a concept and that, even something as apparently objective as gender, also follows the rule that “ a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”—except here she is saying that a woman, by any other name, would be as weak. Jacques, the supposed “man” is therefore a woman merely because he lacks the characteristics which society, and Rachilde herself, associate with “a true man”.  This idea of “legitimacy” pervades the novel, as Jacques falls short not only of being a “real man” like Raittolbe, but also of being a “true artist” like Martin. As such, the boundaries between categories run deeper than the nomination they receive. It is not because Jacques proclaims himself to be an artist, that he actually is one. Similarly, it is not because he walks around in society with the label of “man” that he is any bit more of a man than Raoule.

However, Rachilde does not see this inversion to the end as, ultimately, Jacques decides that Raoule cannot and will never be able to satisfy his desires. Yet this is still not a victory for Womanhood. If anything, it points to the idea that, no matter how transgressive, manly, or emotionally bulletproof a woman might flatter herself to be, she will always remain just that—a woman. That no matter what, she will retain the limitations and weaknesses linked to her sex; or as Master Shakespeare would exclaim: “frailty, thy name is Woman.” Interestingly enough, this last quote is delivered by Hamlet, when he comes to the realization that every woman, his mother including, lacks the willpower to remain faithful to the one she loves. In Monsieur Venus, however, Rachilde seems to argue the opposite point of view: perhaps Raoule’s tragic flaw, the one thing that prevents her from truly being a man, is that she cannot bring herself, contrary to the male characters of the story, to be disloyal. She is helplessly faithful to the one she loves, and in that sense, is weak and womanly, where a real man would have been able to detach himself from his emotions. Although the very paintings in her love chamber portray her as the master, at whose feet the ginger-haired dog sits, one may ask if this is not merely Raoule’s wishful thinking; if it is not but her attempt to show things as according to her vision, and create a world in which she, Raoule, is strong and impervious like a man. Ultimately, the only world in which she, the woman, can dominate Jacques and have complete control over him, is a world in which he is no longer alive.

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1 Comment

Filed under Week 3 Reviews: Rachilde

One response to “What is in a Name? A Woman, by any Other Name, Would be as Weak

  1. I think your distinction between subverting gender roles and subverting the genders themselves is a fascinating one, and, what’s more, makes the fact of Rachilde’s later anti-feminism more understandable. With all its transgressive and progressive themes, it can be difficult not to assume the novel has a feminist agenda. While reading your post, I was struck by how the themes of artifice and illusion tie in nicely with your points. Raoule and Jacques’ taking on alternate gender roles is consistently portrayed as an artificial act. In fact, they constantly need certain “props” – say, a man’s waistcoat or a woman’s dress – to sustain the illusion of their alternate selves. On their wedding night, however, precisely because they approach the act too sincerely – as if their alternate genders were REAL – the illusion breaks down, and their relationship begins its downward spiral. Thus, Rachilde’s highlighting of their switched gender roles as inherently artificial denies any possibility of the “real” gender roles ever being changed merely by the efforts of individual desire alone. -A.A.

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