Tenebrous Femme Fatale: The Making of the Métisse in Nineteenth-Century Metropolitan French Literature
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Embargo end date00/-2/31-1
This thesis examines representations of the ‘métisse’ in nineteenth-century metropolitan French literature to determine the figure’s function and significance in the texts that display her and the larger society that imagines her. By ‘métisse’, I refer specifically to a woman of ‘black’ and ‘white’ ‘racial’ mixture whose identity, in the context of the texts that figure her, both legitimates and deconstructs distinct and discrete ‘racial’ identity. As such, she is a useful figure through which to investigate and unpack conceptions of ‘race’. I will suggest that her innate performative ability – a product of her deceptively white exterior – demonstrates the discursive nature of identity that can be seen as constructed and parodied rather than as a simple ontological category. I use the term ‘tenebrous’ to describe the ‘métisse’ because it conjoins the two constitutive aspects of her signification – her ambiguity and her colour. Her fundamentally ambiguous identity is crucial to her figuration as an erotic and dangerous femme fatale. Unknowable and protean, she attracts and simultaneously disconcerts or terrifies her prey. Concurrently, the term ‘tenebrous’ highlights the explicit colouring of her body by all of the authors who imagine her so as to mark her as identifiably different, and to explain her essential bestial, primitive, and dangerous sexuality. This thesis locates the ‘métisse’ at the crossroads of discourses of race, class, gender, and sexuality. In an era when fears of personal and social degeneracy and decline were capturing the collective imagination, the ‘métisse’, as a figure of frightening alterity and deceptive similitude, embodies deviancy. Primarily portrayed as a natural courtesan due to her essential yet hidden ‘black’ blood, the ‘métisse’ attracts ‘white’ men with her seductive body, but her malign sexuality corrupts, dilutes, or kills them. Associated with the working-class, the prostitute, the criminal, and the savage, the ‘métisse’ fits into a larger discourse that seeks to postulate the normative identity of ‘white’, bourgeois masculinity. Her ability to dilute the ‘purity’ of her ‘white’ male victim articulates a general contemporary fear of pathological sexuality and, through it, invisible degeneration. Using the comparative framework of ‘case studies’, I will examine Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris, Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, Arthur Gobineau’s Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines, Pierre Loti’s Le Roman d’un spahi, a selection of poems from Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, as well as the critical and biographical studies centring around the figure of Jeanne Duval, Baudelaire’s long-time and muchmaligned ‘métisse’ partner. The wide variety of texts and the diverse list of authors will demonstrate the surprising currency of this literary figure in the collective imagination of nineteenth-century metropolitan France, as well as twentieth-century literary criticism. By focussing upon well-known and significant French authors, I will reexamine the cultural heritage to which these writers contributed with specific attention to the investigation of cultural assumptions, desires, and fears pivoting around the theme of mixed-race.