Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Femme Fatale, Another Conventional, Literary Archetype

Speaking of heroes, as I was last week, we should consider a challenge oft faced by heroes: the femme fatale, another literary archetype. She is, as Margaret Atwood described her in a poem entitled “Siren Song,” a seductress who lures men, even heroic men, to their doom. The Siren herself says:

This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible:
the song that forces men
to leap overboard in squadrons
even though they see the beached skulls

Yes, heroes and ordinary men sense the danger in associating with the femme fatale, but her pheromones or beauty or mystery reels them in anyway.

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, King Arthur’s half-sister, Morgan le Fay, creates a convoluted, prolonged test to prove that Arthur and his men are neither pure nor heroic. Gawain is the knight who accepts the challenge. He must deliver an axe blow to the Green Knight, who picks up his head and rides off to become whole again. In one year and a day, Gawain must follow the Green Knight to bare his own neck for an axe blow.

While searching for the Green Knight to fulfill his quest, Gawain stays at a castle for several days. There, the Lord’s wife tries to seduce him. She teases him, kisses him, bares her breast, and tries to bribe him with a jewel, but Gawain remains devout: honor to God and King first; women, especially married women, last. When the Lady finally realizes that Gawain will not succumb to her physical temptations, she offers him a simple green scarf that, she promises, could save his life. Gawain folds. Now his priorities are: his own life, honor to God, then honor to King.

The problem is that Gawain has agreed to give the Lord of the castle anything Gawain receives during the day, while the Lord is away, hunting. Gawain has been faithful to this contract until he receives the green scarf. He does not want to give up his chance to live so he compounds his sin by lying to the Lord who is, of course, actually the Green Knight, thanks to magic stirred up by Morgan le Fay. So the Lord, a.k.a. Knight, knows that Gawain has lied to him when they meet on the next day, the day that Gawain may die.

[If you have not read the tale, I encourage you to do so. You’ll find plenty of asides about the ways knights dressed for battle, about quests, and about how hunters field dressed deer and birds. You’ll also find a titillating tale of temptation.]

Spoiler Alert: Gawain lives, thanks to the green scarf, but he must endure the Green Knight’s mockery for having flinched and lied. In truth, however, the Green Knight chastises Gawain far less than Gawain chastises himself. All in all, the tale upholds the reputation of Arthur and his knights, proving them to be men of conscience, men who strive for excellence even if they stumble now and then.

This tale from the Middle Ages reveals what the femme fatale does. She is a temptress who tries to de-rail the hero, to distract him from his noble purpose. Such a woman is Brigid O'Shaughnessy, the foil to Sam Spade in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Another such woman is Alex Forrest (played by Glenn Close) in Fatal Attraction, a film whose title aptly describes the femme fatale. Dan Gallagher (played by Michael Douglas) falls for Alex’s come hither wiles, and he believes her when she says that it’s just sex. He learns that she lies, and he almost loses the prize at the end of his quest: a loving wife and happy family.

Some of my favorite femme fatales are found in film noir. Phyllis Dietrichson (played by Barbara Stanwyk in a funky wig) tempts the good, upright Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurray) in about the same time as it takes to say “baby, baby, baby”--which Walter says a lot in the film by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder. Phyllis’ lure seems to be an ankle bracelet that wraps itself around Walter’s conscience, choking to death every one of his principles and ethics. Her kisses convince him to murder her husband after Walter writes an insurance policy that promises Double Indemnity if a fella dies by falling from public transportation. Her kisses do not warn Walter that she will shoot him, but she’s such a lousy shot that Walter has time to drive back to his office, dictate the whole, sorry, sordid tale, and try to die before the coppers arrive. Alas, Walter does time for his fatal crime.

So you might conclude that a femme fatale may draw a man to his doom or merely waylay him on his way to something grand and noble. And. . .you’d be right.

Reading Challenge

Choose a Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, or Walter Mosley novel. You’re quite likely to find a femme fatale and a variety of heroic figures.

Writing Challenge:

Using specific, concrete language and detail, describe a femme fatale you’ve known and possibly loved. For the ladies among the readers, describe the gal who stole your man. Feel free to create a “fabulous reality” by embellishing.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

Several years ago, one of my students shared the following with me: "English doesn't borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over, and goes through their pockets for loose grammar” (James D. Nicoll). We enjoyed laughing about the fact that English vocabulary has grown because we freely borrow words and phrases from other languages, phrases such as femme fatale, a phrase that I have italicized throughout this post. The reason is common courtesy: if at least one of the words is unfamiliar to English speakers, then italicize both words so the reader will not puzzle over them and will quickly recognize them as being from another language, in this case French.

Technically, I did not have to italicize the phrase more than once, the first time I used it. Thereafter, I could have used the normal font. I elected not to do this because the entire blog is about a conventional, literary character that I have chosen to call the femme fatale. Thus, italics helped me emphasize the term as I explained it, and emphasis is one of the chief uses of italics.

Many foreign words are well-known to English readers. Femme fatale and blasé are but two examples of words stolen in French alleys to bring into the bright, light of common English day. Neither one must be italicized today, but again, to emphasize a term being explained, italics are appropriate.

The German word, weltanschauung, on the other hand, is less familiar to English speakers and readers. An italicized font would be useful, but italics are not even required for weltanschauung because it has a place in the dictionary among other English words and phrases.

So if the word is uncommon and foreign, italicize it. If the word, though uncommon and foreign, is in the dictionary, you may omit the italicized font. If you wish to emphasize the word or phrase, foreign or not, italicize it.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach