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Art, Androgyny, and the Femme Fatale in Decadent Fictions of the Nineteenth Century

Murphy, Ian Robert (2020) Art, Androgyny, and the Femme Fatale in Decadent Fictions of the Nineteenth Century. Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University.


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This thesis offers a reappraisal of the recurring figure of the femme fatale within Decadent art and literature of the nineteenth century. Despite the ubiquity of studies concerning the femme fatale, most notably within genres such as Film Noir and Romanticism, the Decadent femme fatale has often been relegated to a single chapter or footnote within these studies. It is here the purpose of this thesis to rectify this critical disregard. Combining multiple disciplines (literature, aesthetics, history, mythology and psychology) each of the four chapters of this thesis will locate the femme fatale within nineteenth-century European Decadent texts as represented as a specific objet d’art: the haunted portrait, the corpse-doll, the fragmented sculpture, and the mutilated and/or sculpted body of the androgyne. Invoking Harold Bloom’s theory of the anxiety of influence, the influence and trajectory of each chapter’s respective femme fatale will be traced from the midnineteenth century through to the fin de siècle. By tracing the lineage of the aesthetic impression made by French Decadent writers of the mid-nineteenth century (such as Théophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire) upon subsequent French and British writers and artists of the latenineteenth century (such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Walter Pater, Rachilde, and Vernon Lee), this thesis interrogates how the re/construction and usage of the Decadent femme fatale was utilized as a means of exploring ulterior philosophies of classical beauty and a fluid range of forbidden sexualities, including androgyny and homoeroticism. Offering interdisciplinary readings of the nineteenth-century Decadent femme fatale, this thesis shows the different ways in which nineteenth-century Decadent writers and artists move beyond the femme fatale’s malevolence, though without losing sight of it, to explore the mysterious relationships between life and death, art and artifice, pleasure and pain, and the seen and unseen.

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