Is Raoule a Hysterical Woman or Lovelorn Man?

I wonder what kind of shot Raoule has fired into the canon when she enters readers’ minds as a female character unforgivably sexual and also willing to play with being both feminine and masculine. What are the repercussions of this shot? And why was it forgotten from the era of decadence?

To get at these questions, we could look at how Raoule adopts masculine gender roles and see if there’s anything in how she plays with masculinity that challenges or fails to challenge the canon. In the story, there are multiple places where Raoule openly rejects feminine convention, her treatment toward Jacques Silvert (peeking while he bathes), her demand to be called “Monsieur” and referring to herself as a man, and particularly the scene in which she berates herself for thinking like a girl in love (41). However, at the same time, these very scenes also seem to reveal how hysterical Raoule can be and how her behavior could be viewed by outsiders as a rich woman’s flight of fancy, not as behavior that could elevate unheard women’s voices.

In addition to her masculine behavior, Raoule still very much operates within the ‘sign’ of woman. She half-heartedly strings Raittolbe along, and easily dismisses his anger with her when she shows up nine hours late by saying, “Nothing ought to astonish you, since I’m a woman,” Raoule answered, laughing nervously. “I do the complete opposite of what I’ve promised. What could be more natural!” (64) But when her femininity and masculinity meet, during the vertiginous conversation between her and Raittolbe, Raoule is driven to delirium when she attempts to explain her situation to him. When she says that “I’m a man in love with a man, not with a woman!”, Raittolbe responds by saying his brain is collapsing (73). He can’t comprehend Raoule, as much as he tries to.

Maybe Raoule is operating within the role of the hysterical woman who can adopt masculine roles without seriousness, and her class and unique situation allow her the freedom to do so. She becomes someone not to be envied because of her diversity, but to horrified by because of her split personality. Because of her inability to pick a gender role, along with the implication that there are gender roles to pick in the first place, is she still stuck in the hegemony of canon? Moreover, Pollock says that this hegemony entices us to construct self-identities in relation to them (11). Does Raoule’s gender hysteria stem from attempting to construct opposing self-identities within the canon?


8 thoughts on “Is Raoule a Hysterical Woman or Lovelorn Man?

  1. In every era, there are books published that so deeply shock the mainstream sensibility that they might be construed as constituting an alternative canon. Books like Monsiur Venus, 120 Days of Sodom, Catcher in the Rye (at least in High School libraries!), and Naked Lunch have created a lineage of licentious and rebellious literature. I don’t think that they necessarily attempt to be included in the capital c Canon, although they are probably influenced by it. Is their consistent subversion of moral/social expectations of literature enough to make them a separate, cohesive canon? I’m not sure, but it seems possible.

    • I don’t know enough of the historical background, but I suppose I thought since Rachilde was so influential during her lifetime (wikipedia says that she was dubbed “Mademoiselle Baudelaire”), she would be mentioned in “French Decadence Movement canon,” but not necessarily of the capital c Canon.

  2. So I did a little Wikipedia research on Rachilde – she lived during the second French empire and wrote prominently between 1884 and 1934. I don’t really know what Canon her writing would speak to; I am not particularly well-versed in French literature, but perhaps someone in class or after me can give a little context about the perceptions of gender and sexuality and/or literature at the time. I do think your last question was really insightful. I think part of Raoule’s confusion (and mine as well!) is that she is trying to define the “contradictory” characteristics of herself and Jacques that don’t fit into those stereotypically associated with their biological sex with the other sex and they are trying to deal with the ambiguous in binaries. Because Jacques is not satisfactorily masculine, he is automatically feminine; because Raoule’s authoritative personality resembles masculine authority, she is a man. Instead of constructing self-identities, I think Raoule still tries to ascribe to existing binary gender identities.

    • I think it’s really interesting that you say “because Jacques is not satisfactorily masculine, he is automatically feminine.” It reminds me of the stereotype that if you’re a gay man, then you’re effeminate. There’s no alternative options of being; you’re masculine or feminine. What’s interesting is that it seems that although Jacques may be categorized as feminine, that’s not enough for him to become a woman. Later on in the book, on page 94, Raoule explains how she plans to smother whatever masculinity that remains inside Jacques to feminize him into a woman. The final result is seen at the Grand Prix party in which Jacques inadvertently arouses the watching sportsmen with his girlish charm (157-158).
      On another note, we talked about in class on whether or not Rachilde was inverting or subverting gender binaries, and we seemed to lean toward saying that Raoule and Jacques were an inversion of gender binaries more so than a subversion or challenge of them, but I wonder if in the very act of ascribing sexes to the opposite gender identities, the inversion is also a subversion? That is, by inverting identities that rely on biological features (sex organs being the most important), identities are challenged since a woman without a penis cannot be a man. I can’t recall if this popped up in class…

  3. It’s interesting that you use the word hysterical, because I think that’s exactly the condition Rachilde wants to mock. Raoule plays a constant power game, and while there are definitely moments when she’s overwhelmed by her emotions, I think for the most part she’s toying with these men very purposefully. (Which really just makes me dislike her more.) The fact that men like Raittolbe write off her behavior, along with anything a woman does that “does not follow the ordinary rules” (49), as hysteria is sort of the attitude that I thought Rachilde was challenging. I definitely agree it’s difficult to like or even approve of Raoule’s sexual actions, but it’s significant that any woman stepping outside the sexual norm could be branded that way.

    (And, if I’m not muddling up my history too much, a woman suffering from “hysteria” in those times could be forcibly committed to an asylum for the rest of her life at the word of any of her male kin. That was at least the case with Camille Claudel a couple decades after this book was published, according to the Guerrilla Girls.)

    • I’m not sure if Rachilde is aware that she’s challenging hysteria since what happens to Raoule at the end seems like her having succumbed to her hysterics. She’s a madwoman for arranging Jacque’s death by Raittolbe just so that she could keep Jacque’s physical features for herself. After having read Gilbert and Gubar’s thoughts on how women during that era were conflicted between being a maiden or a monster (the hysterical woman), I think there was something about Raoule’s position that granted her an ability to expose her inner desires without care; she was allowed to be an uncontrolled monster. Her guardian Mme Ermengarde didn’t seem to have any control over her, and she had no male kin more powerful than her to commit her to an asylum. Even if she had a male guardian, I don’t know if she’d be sent to an asylum. She was so careful with her duplicity and for the most part highly aware of her desire to be a man as well as a dominatrix. Moreover, it wasn’t society that was her direct downfall (although how much of a downfall is it if she still owns her estate?). It was Jacques whose disfigured sense of masculinity led to her to arrange his murder. Now I wonder how much was Jacques a madwoman too?

  4. From what I read on the introduction it seemed to me that her book was very in tune with the era of decadence and she was deeply embedded in her time’s literary network. So I don’t understand why her work would fall under the radar.

    • Yeah definitely — after finishing up the book and the Gilbert and Gubar readings, I’m beginning to think that one major reason why she fell out of the “decadence canon/network” was that she was not only writing in “decadent-style” but also writing within a certain female literary subculture (Nochlin was wrong?) characterized by its duplicity and anxiety of authorship. Like what Gilbert and Gubar suggest, Rachilde and her character Raoule (who is a projection of a piece of herself) operate within “a society where women are warned that if they do not behave like angels they must be monsters (53).” Maybe because of Rachilde writing within this subculture and also because Rachilde made it very explicit the dual states that women are forced into, it didn’t appeal to readers who were predominantly male and in control of picking and choosing the canon? In support of this, I’d say that the success of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein could be attributed to the fact that while she dealt with the same clash of angel and monster, she snuck this clash happening around, within, and about women into two men, the doctor and the creature.

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