Consent and domination in Monsieur Venus

In Melanie Hawthorne and Liz Constable’s introduction to Monsieur Venus, they note that Rachilde’s female protagonists, such as Raoule, often act through “modes of empowerment over others [which are] aggressive, sadistically seductive, cruel, and violent;” they use their sexual wiles to lead men to a “literal or symbolic death” (xxi). This is presumably because of traditional understandings of men winning women by conquest, and may be interpreted to be a critique of these gender roles. However, second-wave feminists did not reclaim Rachilde as one of their own, in part, because she does not give “voice and form to a feminine difference” in the way that, for instance, Cixous proposes, as Raoule is a quite “masculine” and power-hungry character. Literary critic Janet Beizer has argued that Rachilde “defamiliarizes the conventional power relationship and thus puts it into question,” but it is not immediately obvious that Rachilde has presented her work to achieve those ends (xxvi). While Rachilde may challenge certain ideas ,can it be said that she truly subverts homo-heterosexual and male-female binaries if themes of domination in the main character’s sexual relationship persist? As an unequal power dynamic remains, even if it is inverted, is it truly positively empowering to women if it is premised upon domination of a “feminine” male?

I was particularly concerned with the violence in Raoule and Jacques’ relationship, and Rachilde’s choice to include themes of domination in a relationship between people of different genders. For instance, after Raoule understands that Jacques has been harmed in Chapter 10, she proceeds to abuse him herself, biting his “marbled flesh” and enacting a “complete defloration,” recalling language of virginity, or concepts of sex between two unequals in which a submissive partner loses something in the exchange (129). This particular scene seems like a sexual assault as consent is not given: she “forced him to go to bed,” and Raoule continues her assault even as Jacques states that she is hurting him, that she is being unreasonable, etc. (129). To what ends has Raoule included this scene (and others like it) in her narrative? The introduction notes that while she consistently championed sexual freedom, her views became increasingly conservative as she grew older and adopted explicitly anti-feminist positions. If she means to highlight power imbalances, as Beizer suggests, why does she do so in such a violent manner? Does she mean to suggest that domination and submission are inherent to sexual relations and gendered relationships, regardless of the gender of the aggressor? Can this be interpreted as a representation of “feminine” power? If so, why is it done at the expense of “masculine” power? Does Rachilde insinuate that female empowerment is not an appropriate aim as she portrays it as harmful to a male character? Does she assume that people of all genders cannot live together free of power imbalances?

The first publication of this text included an inscription which stated, “To be almost a woman is a good way to conquer woman” (xxvi-xxvii). As Raittolbe attacks Jacques at the end of Chapter 9, he claims that he does so to make Jacques know “what a real man is like” (120). In the next chapter, Marie listens to Raoule’s assault of Jacques, and then presumably comes to his aid “since she was a real woman” (130). The parallels between these chapter endings suggest that the characters understand “real” men to be predatory and violent and “real” women to be nurturing, even as Raoule and Jacques’ relationship challenges these conceptions. To what extent do these scenes disrupt these power binaries, and to what extent do they perpetuate them?


6 thoughts on “Consent and domination in Monsieur Venus

  1. This is such an interesting post! It reminded me a lot of (I believe it was) MacKinnon, who wrote that heterosexual power structures translate and find grounds in all kinds of sexual relationships, like top/bottom. It seems like many of the posts from this last weekend are tying into works from our first cluster, but it’s interesting to see the way in which MacKinnon’s theory is played out in a novel like this.
    At any rate, I’d argue that the scenes you point out perpetuate these power binaries. Although the roles are assigned to different genders, the same notions of masculinity and femininity are enforced and the relationship between the two recreates itself as the traditional power structure that we are so used to seeing.

    • Thanks for your comments! I agree that they reproduce those power binaries, and I’m glad you mentioned MacKinnon; I was thinking back on her too.

  2. Hi Veronica, I’m slightly confused by how Raoule’s behavior is underpinned by traditional understandings of men winning women by conquest. What’s the difference between Raoule and sirens who lure sailors to their death?

    Also, I’m glad you brought in quotes from the text about real women and men. Like someone else posted, Raittolbe and Marie appear to act as foils to Raoule and Jacques, both as people and in their relationship to each other. Because Raoule and Jacques are the “mirror people” in a sense to Raittolbe and Marie, maybe they have the ability to be corrupted. That is, they have an abnormal power dynamic, thus explaining the extreme dominance and submission between them. Not only was the power dynamic inverted between Raoule and Jacques, but it was also exaggerated to a breaking point (Jacques as the realized object in the end). Could you say then that this exaggeration to violence (only possible when gender identity is challenged) displays a disruption of the accepted roles of women and men at that time?

    • Thanks for your comments! I didn’t articulate this well in my post, but I guess I meant to express that there is not enough difference between Raoule and the sirens who lure sailors to their death for me to understand this as a subversion of gender roles/binaries. Raoule seems like an abusive masculine figure, which I interpret negatively. That Raoule is female-bodied is (I guess) what makes this different, but I do think it’s odd that Raoule is this predatory character, which seems stereotypically “masculine”.

    • Following from this comment, besides a disruption of the accepted roles of men/women at the time, perhaps Raoule and Jacques’s relationship can be seen as a sort of exposé of imbalanced power dynamics in relationships. Since men at the time were assumed to hold the power in relationships, by giving Raoule all the power in her relationship, Rachilde might be attempting to show readers just how abusive and detrimental these imbalanced relationships actually are. It might be interesting, then, to think about the novel, not as about female empowerment, but as a foil to the traditional view of man/woman relationships.

      • That makes sense to me, Sarah! I agree that it’s probably more fruitful to think about it in those terms (rather than female empowerment).

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