Spotty-Handed Villainesses

:
Problems Of Female Bad Behaviour
In The Creation Of iterature
by Margaret Atwood
Canadian Author
From a speech given in various versions, here and there, in 1994.
.....My title is "potty!"anded #illainesses"$ my subtitle is, "%roblems o& Female 'ad
'ehaviour in the Creation o& (iterature." ) should probably have said, "in the creation
o& novels, plays and epic poems." Female bad behaviour occurs in lyric poems, o&
course, but not at su&&icient length.
) began to thin* about this sub+ect at a very early age. ,here was a childrens- rhyme
that went.
,here was a little girl /ho had a little curl 0ight in the middle o& her &orehead$ /hen
she was good, she was very, very good, And when she was bad, she was horrid1
2o doubt this is a remnant o& the Angel3/hore plit so popular among the #ictorians,
but at the age o& &ive ) did not *now that. ) too* this to be a poem o& personal
signi&icance !! ) did a&ter all have curls !! and it brought home to me the deeply
4ungian possibilities o& a 5r. 4e*yll!Mr. "yde double li&e &or women. My older brother
used this verse to tease me, or so he thought. "e did manage to ma*e "very, very
good" sound almost worse than "horrid," which remains an accurate analysis &or the
novelist. Create a &lawless character and you create an insu&&erable one$ which may
be why ) am interested in spots.
ome o& you may wonder whether the spotty!handedness in my title re&ers to age
spots. /as my lecture perhaps going to centre on that once!&orbidden but now red!
hot topic, ,he Menopause, without which any collection o& &emale!obilia would be
incomplete6 ) hasten to point out that my title is not age!related$ it re&ers neither to
age spots nor to youth spots. )nstead it recalls that most &amous o& spots, the
invisible but indelible one on the hand o& wic*ed (ady Macbeth. pot as in guilt, spot
as in blood, spot as in "out, damned." (ady Macbeth was spotted, 7phelia unspotted$
both came to stic*y ends, but there-s a world o& di&&erence.
'ut is it not, today !! well, somehow un&eminist !! to depict a woman behaving badly6
)sn-t bad behaviour supposed to be the monopoly o& men6 )sn-t that what we are
e8pected !! in de&iance o& real li&e !! to somehow believe, now6 /hen bad women get
into literature, what are they doing there, and are they permissible, and what, i&
anything, do we need them &or6
/e do need something li*e them$ by which ) mean, something disruptive to static
order. /hen my daughter was &ive, she and her &riend "eather announced that they
were putting on a play. /e were conscripted as the audience. /e too* our seats,
e8pecting to see something o& note. ,he play opened with two characters having
brea*&ast. ,his was promising !! an )bsonian play perhaps, or something by 9.'.
haw6 ha*espeare is not big on brea*&ast openings, but other playwrights o& talent
have not disdained them.
,he play progressed. ,he two characters had more brea*&ast. ,hen they had more.
,hey passed each other the +am, the corn&la*es, the toast. :ach as*ed i& the other
would li*e a cup o& tea. /hat was going on6 /as this %inter, perhaps, or )onesco, or
maybe Andy /arhol6 ,he audience grew restless. "Are you going to do anything
e8cept have brea*&ast6" we said. "2o," they said. ",hen it isn-t a play," we said.
"omething else has to happen."
And there you have it, the di&&erence between literature !! at least literature as
embodied in plays and novels !! and li&e. omething else has to happen. )n li&e we
may as* &or nothing more than a *ind o& eternal brea*&ast !! it happens to be my
&avourite meal, and certainly it is the most hope&ul one, since we don-t yet *now what
atrocities the day may choose to visit upon us !! but i& we are going to sit still &or two
or three hours in a theatre, or wade through two or three hundred pages o& a boo*,
we certainly e8pect something more than brea*&ast.
/hat *ind o& something6 )t can be an earth;ua*e, a tempest, an attac* by Martians,
the discovery that your spouse is having an a&&air$ or, i& the author is hyperactive, all
o& these at once. 7r it can be the revelation o& the spottiness o& a spotty woman. )-ll
get around to these disreputable &ol*s shortly, but &irst let me go over some essentials
which may be insulting to your intelligence, but which are com&orting to mine,
because they help me to &ocus on what )-m doing as a creator o& &ictions. )& you thin*
)-m &logging a &ew dead horses !! horses which have been put out o& their pain long
ago !! let me assure you that this is because the horses are not in &act dead, but are
out there in the world, galloping around as vigorously as ever.
"ow do ) *now this6 ) read my mail. Also, ) listen to the ;uestions people as* me,
both in interviews and a&ter public readings. ,he *inds o& ;uestions )-m tal*ing about
have to do with how the characters in novels ought to behave. <n&ortunately, there is
a widespread tendency to +udge such characters as i& they were +ob applicants, or
public servants, or prospective roommates, or somebody you-re considering
marrying. For instance, ) sometimes get a ;uestion !! almost always, these days,
&rom women !! that goes something li*e, "/hy don-t you ma*e the men stronger6" )
&eel that this is a matter which should more properly be ta*en up with 9od. )t was not,
a&ter all, ) who created Adam so sub+ect to temptation that he sacri&iced eternal li&e &or
an apple$ which leads me to believe that 9od !! who is, among other things, an
author !! is +ust as enamoured o& character &laws and dire plots as we human writers
are. ,he characters in the average novel are not usually &ol*s you would want to get
involved with at a personal or business level. "ow then should we go about
responding to such creations6 7r, &rom my side o& the page, which is blan* when )
begin !! how should ) go about creating them6
/hat is a novel, anyway6 7nly a very &oolish person would attempt to give a
de&initive answer to that, beyond stating the more or less obvious &acts that it is a
literary narrative o& some length which purports, on the reverse o& the title page, not
to be true, but see*s nevertheless to convince its readers that it is. )t-s typical o& the
cynicism o& our age that, i& you write a novel, everyone assumes it-s about real
people, thinly disguised$ but i& you write an autobiography everyone assumes you-re
lying your head o&&. %art o& this is right, because every artist is, among other things, a
con!artist.
/e con!artists do tell the truth, in a way$ but, as :mily 5ic*enson said, we tell it slant.
'y indirection we &ind direction out !! so here, &or easy re&erence, is an elimination!
dance list o& what novels are not.
!! 2ovels are not sociological te8tboo*s, although they may contain social comment
and criticism.
!! 2ovels are not political tracts, although "politics" !! in the sense o& human power
structures !! is inevitably one o& their sub+ects. 'ut i& the author-s main design on us is
to convert us to something !! ! whether that something be Christianity, capitalism, a
belie& in marriage as the only answer to a maiden-s prayer, or &eminism, we are li*ely
to sni&& it out, and to rebel. As Andre 9ide once remar*ed, ")t is with noble sentiments
that bad literature gets written."
!! 2ovels are not how!to boo*s$ they will not show you how to conduct a success&ul
li&e, although some o& them may be read this way. )s %ride and %re+udice about how a
sensible middle!class nineteenth!century woman can snare an appropriate man with
a good income, which is the best she can hope &or out o& li&e, given the limitations o&
her situation6 %artly. 'ut not completely.
!! 2ovels are not, primarily, moral tracts. ,heir characters are not all models o& good
behaviour !! or, i& they are, we probably won-t read them. 'ut they are lin*ed with
notions o& morality, because they are about human beings and human beings divide
behaviour into good and bad. ,he characters +udge each other, and the reader
+udges the characters. "owever, the success o& a novel does not depend on a 2ot
9uilty verdict &rom the reader. As =eats said, ha*espeare too* as much delight in
creating )ago !! that arch!villain !! as he did in creating the virtuous )mogen. ) would
say probably more, and the proo& o& it is that )-d bet you-re more li*ely to *now which
play )ago is in.
!! 'ut although a novel is not a political tract, a how!to!boo*, a sociology te8tboo* or
a pattern o& correct morality, it is also not merely a piece o& Art &or Art-s a*e,
divorced &rom real li&e. )t cannot do without a conception o& &orm and a structure, true,
but its roots are in the mud$ its &lowers, i& any, come out o& the rawness o& its raw
materials.
!! )n short, novels are ambiguous and multi!&aceted, not because they-re perverse,
but because they attempt to grapple with what was once re&erred to as the human
condition, and they do so using a medium which is notoriously slippery !! namely,
language itsel&.
2ow, let-s get bac* to the notion that in a novel, something else has to happen !!
other than brea*&ast, that is. /hat will that "something else" be, and how does the
novelist go about choosing it6 <sually it-s bac*wards to what you were taught in
school, where you probably got the idea that the novelist had an overall scheme or
idea and then went about colouring it in with characters and words, sort o& li*e paint!
by!numbers. 'ut in reality the process is much more li*e wrestling a greased pig in
the dar*.
(iterary critics start with a nice, clean, already!written te8t. ,hey then address
;uestions to this te8t, which they attempt to answer$ "what does it mean" being both
the most basic and the most di&&icult. 2ovelists, on the other hand, start with the blan*
page, to which they similarly address ;uestions. 'ut the ;uestions are di&&erent.
)nstead o& as*ing, &irst o& all, "what does it mean," they wor* at the widget level$ they
as*, ")s this the right word6" "/hat does it mean" can only come when there is an "it"
to mean something. 2ovelists have to get some actual words down be&ore they can
&iddle with the theology. 7r, to put it another way. 9od started with chaos !! dar*,
without &orm and void !! and so does the novelist. ,hen 9od made one detail at a
time. o does the novelist. 7n the seventh day, 9od too* a brea* to consider what
he-d done. o does the novelist. 'ut the critic starts on 5ay >.
,he critic, loo*ing at plot, as*s, "/hat-s happening here6" ,he novelist, creating plot,
as*s,"/hat happens ne8t6" ,he critic as*s, ")s this believable6" ,he novelist, ""ow
can ) get them to believe this6" ,he novelist, echoing Marshall Mc(uhan-s &amous
dictum that art is what you can get away with, says, ""ow can ) pull this o&&6" !! as i&
the novel itsel& were a *ind o& ban* robbery. /hereas the critic is liable to e8claim, in
the mode o& the policeman ma*ing the arrest, "Aha1 ?ou can-t get away with that1"
)n short, the novelist-s concerns are more practical than those o& the critic$ more
concerned with "how to," less concerned with metaphysics. Any novelist !! whatever
his or her theoretical interests !! has to contend with the &ollowing how!to ;uestions.
!! /hat *ind o& story shall ) choose to tell6 )s it, &or instance, comic or tragic or
melodramatic, or all6 "ow shall ) tell it6 /ho will be at the centre o& it, and will this
person be a@ admirable or b@ not6 And !! more important than it may sound !! will it
have a happy ending, or not6 2o matter what you are writing !! what genre and in
what style, whether cheap &ormula or high!minded e8periment !! you will still have to
answer !! in the course o& your writing !! these essential ;uestions. Any story you tell
must have a con&lict o& some sort, and it must have suspense. )n other words.
something other than brea*&ast.
(et-s put a woman at the centre o& the something!other!than!brea*&ast, and see what
happens. 2ow there is a whole new set o& ;uestions. /ill the con&lict be supplied by
the natural world6 )s our &emale protagonist lost in the +ungle, caught in a hurricane,
pursued by shar*s6 )& so, the story will be an adventure story and her +ob is to run
away, or else to combat the shar*s, displaying courage and &ortitude, or else
cowardice and stupidity. )& there is a man in the story as well, the plot will alter in
other directions. he will be a rescuer, an enemy, a companion in struggle, a se8
bomb, or someone rescued by the woman. 7nce upon a time, the &irst would have
been more probable, that is, more believable to the reader$ but times have changed
and art is what you can get away with, and the other possibilities have now entered
the picture.
tories about space invasions are similar, in that the threat comes &rom outside and
the goal &or the character, whether achieved or not, is survival. /ar stories per se !!
ditto, in that the main threat is e8ternal. #ampire and werewol& stories are more
complicated, as are ghost stories$ in these, the threat is &rom outside, true, but the
threatening thing may also conceal a split!o&& part o& the character-s own psyche.
"enry 4ames- ,he ,urn o& the crew and 'ram to*er-s 5racula are in large part
animated by such hidden agendas$ and both revolve around notions o& &emale
se8uality. 7nce all werewolves were male, and &emale vampires were usually mere
side*ic*s$ but there are now &emale werewolves, and women are moving in on the
star bloodsuc*ing roles as well. /hether this is good or bad news ) hesitate to say.
5etective and espionage stories may combine many elements, but would not be
what they are without a crime, a criminal, a trac*ing!down, and a revelation at the
end$ again, all sleuths were once male, but sleuthesses are now prominent, &or which
) hope they lay a votive ball o& wool &rom time to time upon the tomb o& the sainted
Miss Marple. /e live in an age not only o& gender cross!over but o& genre crossover,
so you can throw all o& the above into the cauldron and stir.
,hen there are stories classed as "serious" literature, which centre not on e8ternal
threats !! although some o& these may e8ist !! but on relationships among the
characters. ,o avoid the eternal brea*&ast, some o& the characters must cause
problems &or some o& the others.,his is where the ;uestions really get di&&icult. As )-ve
said, the novel has its roots in the mud, and part o& the mud is history$ and part o& the
history we-ve had recently is the history o& the women-s movement, and the women-s
movement has in&luenced how people read, and there&ore what you can get away
with, in art.
ome o& this in&luence has been bene&icial. /hole areas o& human li&e that were once
considered non!literary or sub!literary !! such as the problematical nature o&
homema*ing, the hidden depths o& motherhood, and o& daughterhood as well, the
once!&orbidden realms o& incest and child abuse !! have been brought inside the
circle that demarcates the writeable &rom the non!writeable. 7ther things, such as the
Cinderella happy ending !! the %rince Charming one !! have been called into
;uestion. AAs one lesbian writer remar*ed to me, the only happy ending she &ound
believable any more was the one in which girl meets girl and ends up with girl$ but
that was &i&teen years ago, and the bloom is o&& even that romantic rose.@
,o *eep you &rom being too depressed, let me emphasiBe that none o& this means
that you, personally, cannot &ind happiness with a good man, a good woman or a
good pet canary$ +ust as the creation o& a bad &emale character doesn-t mean that
women should lose the vote. )& bad male characters meant that, &or men, all men
would be disen&ranchised immediately. /e are tal*ing about what you can get away
with in art$ that is, what you can ma*e believable. /hen ha*espeare wrote his
sonnets to his dar*!haired mistress, he wasn-t saying that blondes were ugly, he was
merely pushing against the notion that only blondes were beauti&ul. ,he tendency o&
innovative literature is to include the hitherto e8cluded, which o&ten has the e&&ect o&
rendering ludicrous the conventions that have +ust preceded the innovation. o the
&orm o& the ending, whether happy or not, does not have to do with how people live
their lives !! there is a great deal o& variety in that department Aand, a&ter all, in li&e
every story ends with death, which is not true o& novels@. )nstead it-s connected with
what literary conventions the writer is &ollowing or pulling apart at the moment. "appy
endings o& the Cinderella *ind do e8ist in stories, o& course, but they have been
relegated largely to genre &iction, such as "arle;uin romances.
,o summariBe some o& the bene&its to literature o& the /omens- Movement !! the
e8pansion o& the territory available to writers, both in character and in language$ a
sharp!eyed e8amination o& the way power wor*s in gender relations, and the
e8posure o& much o& this as socially constructed$ a vigorous e8ploration o& many
hitherto!concealed areas o& e8perience. 'ut as with any political movement which
comes out o& real oppression !! and ) do emphasiBe the real !! there was also, in the
&irst decade at least o& the present movement, a tendency to coo*ie!cut. that is, to
write to a pattern and to oversugar on one side. ome writers tended to polariBe
morality by gender !! that is, women were intrinsically good and men bad$ to divide
along allegiance lines !! that is, women who slept with men were sleeping with the
enemy$ to +udge by tribal mar*ings !! that is, women who wore high heels and
ma*eup were instantly suspect, those in overalls were acceptable$ and to ma*e
hope&ul e8cuses. that is, de&ects in women were ascribable to the patriarchal system
and would cure themselves once that system was abolished. uch
oversimpli&ications may be necessary to some phases o& political movements. 'ut
they are usually problematical &or novelists, unless the novelist has a secret desire to
be in billboard advertising.
)& a novelist writing at that time was also a &eminist, she &elt her choices restricted.
/ere all heroines to be essentially spotless o& soul !! struggling against, &leeing &rom
or done in by male oppression6 /as the only plot to be ,he %erils o& %auline, with a
lot o& moustache!twirling villains but minus the rescuing hero6 5id su&&ering prove you
were good6 A)& so !! thin* hard about this !! wasn-t it all &or the best that women did so
much o& it6@ 5id we &ace a situation in which women could do no wrong, but could
only have wrong done to them6 /ere women being con&ined yet again to that
alabaster pedestal so beloved o& the #ictorian age, when /oman as better!than!man
gave men a license to be glee&ully and en+oyably worse than women, while all the
while proclaiming that they couldn-t help it because it was their nature6 /ere women
to be condemned to virtue &or li&e, slaves in the salt!mines o& goodness6 "ow
intolerable.
7& course, the &eminist analysis made some *inds o& behaviour available to &emale
characters which, under the old dispensation !! the pre!&eminist one !! would have
been considered bad, but under the new one were praiseworthy. A &emale character
could rebel against social strictures without then having to throw hersel& in &ront o& a
train li*e Anna =arenina$ she could thin* the unthin*able and say the unsayable$ she
could &lout authority. he could do new bad!good things, such as leaving her
husband and even deserting her children. uch activities and emotions, however,
were !! according to the new moral thermometer o& the times !! not really bad at all$
they were good, and the women who did them were praiseworthy. )-m not against
such plots. ) +ust don-t thin* they are the only ones.
And there were certain new no!no-s. For instance. was it at all permissible, any more,
to tal* about women-s will to power, because weren-t women supposed by nature to
be communal egalitarians6 Could one depict the scurvy behaviour o&ten practised by
women against one another, or by little girls against other little girls6 Could one
e8amine the even 5eadly ins in their &emale versions !! to remind you, %ride,
Anger, (ust, :nvy, Avarice, 9reed and loth !! without being considered anti!
&eminist6 7r was a mere mention o& such things tantamount to aiding and abetting
the enemy, namely the male power!structure6 /ere we to have a warning hand
clapped over our mouths, yet once again, to prevent us &rom saying the unsayable !!
though the unsayable had changed6 /ere we to listen to our mothers, yet once
again, as they intoned !! )& ?ou Can-t ay Anything 2ice, 5on-t ay Anything At All6
"adn-t men been giving women a bad reputation &or centuries6 houldn-t we &orm a
wall o& silence around the badness o& women, or at best e8plain it away by saying it
was the &ault o& 'ig 5addy, or !! permissible too, it seems !! o& 'ig Mom6 'ig Mom,
that agent o& the patriarchy, that pronatalist, got it in the nec* &rom certain seventies
&eminists$ though mothers were admitted into the &old again once some o& these
women turned into them. )n a word. were women to be homogeniBed !! one woman
is the same as another !! and deprived o& &ree will !! as in, ,he patriarchy made her
do it6
7r, in another word !! were men to get all the +uicy parts6 (iterature cannot do
without bad behaviour, but was all the bad behaviour to be reserved &or men6 /as it
to be all )ago and Mephistopheles, and were 4eBebel and Medea and Medusa and
5elilah and 0egan and 9oneril and spotty!handed (ady Macbeth and 0ider
"aggard-s power&ul super&emme &atale in he, and ,ony Morrison-s mean ula, to be
banished &rom view6 ) hope not. /omen characters, arise1 ,a*e bac* the night1 )n
particular, ta*e bac* ,he Cueen o& the 2ight, &rom MoBart-s Magic Flute. )t-s a great
part, and due &or revision.
) have always *nown that there were spellbinding evil parts &or women. For one thing,
) was ta*en at an early age to see now /hite and the even 5war&s. 2ever mind
the %rotestant wor* ethic o& the dwar&s. 2ever mind the tedious housewor*!is!
virtuous moti&. 2ever mind the &act that now /hite is a vampire !! anyone who lies
in a glass co&&in without decaying and then comes to li&e again must be. ,he truth is
that ) was paralysed by the scene in which the evil ;ueen drin*s the magic potion and
changes her shape. /hat power, what untold possibilities1
Also, ) was e8posed to the complete, une8purgated 9rimm-s Fairy ,ales at an
impressionable age. Fairy tales had a bad reputation among &eminists &or a while !!
partly because they-d been cleaned up, on the erroneous supposition that little
children don-t li*e gruesome gore, and partly because they-d been selected to &it the
-&i&ties %rince Charming )s ?our 9oal ethos. o Cinderella and the leeping 'eauty
were o*ay, though ,he ?outh /ho et 7ut to (earn /hat Fear /as, which &eatured
a good many rotting corpses, plus a woman who was smarter than her husband,
were not. 'ut many o& these tales were originally told and retold by women, and
these un*nown women le&t their mar*. ,here is a wide range o& heroines in these
tales$ passive good girls, yes, but adventurous, resource&ul women as well, and
proud ones, and sloth&ul ones, and &oolish ones, and envious and greedy ones, and
also many wise women and a variety o& evil witches, both in disguise and not, and
bad stepmothers and wic*ed ugly sisters and &alse brides as well. ,he stories, and
the &igures themselves, have immense vitality, partly because no punches are pulled
!! in the versions ) read, the barrels o& nails and the red!hot shoes were le&t intact !!
and also because no emotion is unrepresented. ingly, the &emale characters are
limited and two!dimensional. 'ut put all together, they &orm a rich &ive!dimensional
picture.
Female characters who behave badly can o& course be used as stic*s to beat other
women !! though so can &emale characters who behave well, witness the cult o& the
#irgin Mary, better than you-ll ever be, and the legends o& the &emale saints and
martyrs !! +ust cut on the dotted line, and, minus one body part, there-s your saint,
and the only really good woman is a dead woman, so i& you-re so good why aren-t
you dead6
'ut &emale bad characters can also act as *eys to doors we need to open, and as
mirrors in which we can see more than +ust a pretty &ace. ,hey can be e8plorations o&
moral &reedom !! because everyone-s choices are limited, and women-s choices have
been more limited than men-s, but that doesn-t mean women can-t ma*e choices .
uch characters can pose the ;uestion o& responsibility, because i& you want power
you have to accept responsibility, and actions produce conse;uences. )-m not
suggesting an agenda here, +ust some possibilities$ nor am ) prescribing, +ust
wondering. )& there-s a closed!o&& road, the curious speculate about why it-s closed
o&&, and where it might lead i& &ollowed$ and evil women have been, &or a while
recently, a somewhat closed!o&& road, at least &or &iction!writers.
/hile pondering these matters, ) thought bac* over the numerous bad &emale literary
characters ) have *nown, and tried to sort them into categories. )& you were doing this
on a blac*board, you might set up a *ind o& grid. bad women who do bad things &or
bad reasons, good women who do good things &or good reasons, good women who
do bad things &or good reasons, bad women who do bad things &or good reasons,
and so &orth. 'ut a grid would +ust be a beginning, because there are so many &actors
involved. &or instance, what the character thin*s is bad, what the reader thin*s is bad,
and what the author thin*s is bad, may all be di&&erent. 'ut let me de&ine a thoroughly
evil person as one who intends to do evil, and &or purely sel&ish reasons. ,he Cueen
in now /hite would &it that.
o would 0egan and 9oneril, (ear-s evil daughters$ very little can be said in their
de&ence, e8cept that they seem to have been against the patriarchy. (ady Mac'eth,
however, did her wic*ed murder &or a conventionally acceptable reason, one that
would win approval &or her in corporate business circles !! she was &urthering her
husband-s career. he pays the corporate!wi&e price, too !! she subdues her own
nature, and has a nervous brea*down as a result. imilarly, 4eBebel was merely
trying please a sul*y husband$ he re&used to eat his dinner until he got hold o&
2aboth-s vineyard , so 4eBebel had its owner bumped o&&. /i&ely devotion, as ) say.
,he amount o& se8ual baggage that has accumulated around this &igure is
astounding, since she doesn-t do anything remotely se8ual in the original story,
e8cept put on ma*eup.
,he story o& Medea, whose husband 4ason married a new princess, and who then
poisoned the bride and murdered her own two children, has been interpreted in
various ways. )n some versions Medea is a witch and commits in&anticide out o&
revenge$ but the play by :uripides is surprisingly neo!&eminist. ,here-s ;uite a lot
about how tough it is to be a woman, and Medea-s motivation is commendable !! she
doesn-t want her children to &all into hostile hands and be cruelly abused !! which is
also the situation o& the child!*illing mother in ,oni Morrison-s 'eloved. A good
woman, then, who does a bad thing &or a good reason. "ardy-s ,ess o& the
5-<rbervilles *ills her nasty lover due to se8ual complications$ here too we are in the
realm o& &emale!as!victim, doing a bad thing &or a good reason. A/hich, ) suppose,
places such stories right beside the &ront page, along with women who *ill their
abusive husbands. According to a recent ,ime story, the average +ail sentence in the
<.. &or men who *ill their wives is &our years, but &or women who *ill their husbands
!! no matter what the provocation !! it-s twenty. For those who thin* e;uality is already
with us, ) leave the statistics to spea* &or themselves.@
,hese women characters are all murderers. ,hen there are the seducers$ here again,
the motive varies. ) have to say too that with the change in se8ual mores, the mere
seduction o& a man no longer rates very high on the sin scale. 'ut try as*ing a
number o& women what the worst thing is that a woman &riend could possibly do to
them. Chances are the answer will involve the the&t o& a se8ual partner.
ome &amous seductresses have really been patriotic espionage agents. 5elilah, &or
instance, was an early Mata "ari, wor*ing &or the %hilistines, trading se8 &or military
in&ormation. 4udith, who all but seduced the enemy general "olo&ernes and then cut
o&& his head and brought it home in a sac*, was treated as a heroine, although she
has troubled men-s imaginations through the centuries !! witness the number o& male
painters who have depicted her !! because she combines se8 with violence in a way
they aren-t accustomed to and don-t much li*e. ,hen there are &igures li*e
"awthorne-s adulterous "ester %rynne, she o& ,he carlet (etter, who becomes a
*ind o& se8!saint through su&&ering !! we assume she did what she did through (ove,
and thus she becomes a good woman who did a bad thing &or a good reason !! and
Madame 'ovary, who not only indulged her romantic temperament and voluptuous
sensual appetites, but spent too much o& her husband-s money doing it, which was
her down&all. A good course in double!entry boo**eeping would have saved the day. )
suppose she is a &oolish women who did a stupid thing &or an insu&&icient reason,
since the men in ;uestion were dolts. 2either the modern reader nor the author
consider her very evil, though many contemporaries did, as you can see i& you read
the transcript o& the court case in which the &orces o& moral rectitude tried to get the
boo* censored.
7ne o& my &avourite bad women is 'ec*y harpe, o& ,hac*eray-s #anity Fair. he
ma*es no pretensions to goodness. he is wic*ed, she en+oys being wic*ed, and she
does it out o& vanity and &or her own pro&it, tric*ing and deluding :nglish society in the
process !! which, the author implies, deserves to be tric*ed and deluded, since it is
hypocritical and sel&ish to the core. 'ec*y, li*e <ndine pragg in :dith /harton-s ,he
Custom o& the Country, is an adventuress$ she lives by her wits and uses men as
ambulatory ban*!accounts. Many literary adventurers are male !! consider ,homas
Mann-s Feli8 =rull, Con&idence Man !! but it does ma*e a di&&erence i& you change the
gender. For one thing, the nature o& the loot changes. For a male adventurer, the loot
is money and women$ but &or a &emale one, the loot is money and men.
'ec*y harpe is a bad mother too, and that-s a whole other sub+ect !! bad mothers
and wic*ed stepmothers and oppressive aunts, li*e the one in 4ane :yre, and nasty
&emale teachers, and depraved governesses, and evil grannies. ,he possibilities are
many.
'ut ) thin* that-s enough reprehensible &emale behaviour &or you today. (i&e is short,
art is long, motives are comple8, and human nature is endlessly &ascinating. Many
doors stand a+ar$ others beg to be unloc*ed. /hat is in the &orbidden room6
omething di&&erent &or everyone, but something you need to *now and will never &ind
out unless you step across the threshold. )& you are a man, the bad &emale character
in a novel may be !! in 4ungian terms !! your anima$ but i& you-re a woman, the bad
&emale character is your shadow$ and as we *now &rom the 7&&enbach opera ,ales o&
"o&&man, she who loses her shadow also loses her soul.
:vil women are necessary in story traditions &or two much more obvious reasons, o&
course. First, they e8ist in li&e, so why shouldn-t they e8ist in literature6 econd !!
which may be another way o& saying the same thing !! women have more to them
than virtue. ,hey are &ully dimensional human beings$ they too have subterranean
depths$ why shouldn-t their many!dimensionality be given literary e8pression6 And
when it is, &emale readers do not automatically recoil in horror. )n Aldous "u8ley-s
novel %oint Counter %oint, (ucy ,antamount, the man!destroying vamp, is pre&erred
by the other &emale characters to the earnest, snivelling woman whose man she has
reduced to a wet bath sponge. As one o& them says, "(ucy-s obviously a &orce. ?ou
may not li*e that *ind o& &orce. 'ut you can-t help admiring the &orce in itsel&. )t-s li*e
2iagara." )n other words, awesome. 7r, as one :nglishwoman said to me recently,
"/omen are tired o& being good all the time."
) will leave you with a &inal ;uotation. )t-s &rom 5ame 0ebecca /est, spea*ing in
191D !! "(adies o& 9reat 'ritain... we have not enough evil in us."
2ote where she locates the desired evil. )n us.
ources. peech can also be &ound at Ehttp.33www.owtoad.com3
villainesses
.htmlF.
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