The Introduction of the Femme Fatale in Gothic Literature
The femme fatale, French for “fatal women,” is a character whose importance in Romantic literature and whose journey through modern-day adaptations is almost unparalleled. Existing historically in both biblical figures as early as Eve’s representation of the fall of man, and mythical creatures such as the Sirens, the femme fatale’s appearance in romantic and gothic literature can be clearly seen in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Christabel” as well as John Keats’ “Lamia” and “La Belle Dame sans Merci.”
The femme fatale is a being of sexuality and femininity, enchantment and mystery. The femme fatale is often seen as destructive and transforming, and one is unable to get away from her without some sort of drastic change occurring. She is tied up in seduction and power, and a disruptive emotion that can be tied to addiction, which lends itself well to the addiction narrative of “Christabel.”
Part I of “Christabel,” written by Coleridge in 1797- but never completed- tells the story of the title character and a stranger named Geraldine whom she finds in the woods while praying:
There she sees a damsel bright,
Drest in a silken robe of white,
That shadowy in the moonlight shone:
The neck that made that white robe wan,
Her stately neck, and arms were bare;
Her blue-veined feet unsandl’d were,
And wildly glittered here and there
The gems entangled in her hair.
I guess, ’twas frightful there to see
A lady so richly clad as she—
Beautiful exceedingly! (Coleridge)
Geraldine claims to have been abducted by five warriors, describing and embodying sexuality from the beginning of her presence in the poem, and begs Christabel to protect her from the warriors and help her escape. Christabel takes pity, finding Geraldine enchanting, and agrees to help Geraldine and take her home to her father who will help Geraldine return home, warning her, though, that Sir Leoline is sick. Christabel asks Geraldine to sleep in her room with her as to not disturb the sleeping household.
As an early iteration of the characters later found in vampire stories, as Christabel and Geraldine are about to enter the gate to Christabel’s home, Geraldine collapses, unable to cross over the threshold, though as soon as she is helped over, she is able to walk again:
The gate that was ironed within and without,
Where an army in battle array had marched out.
The lady sank, belike through pain,
And Christabel with might and main
Lifted her up, a weary weight,
Over the threshold of the gate:
Then the lady rose again,
And moved, as she were not in pain. (Coleridge)
The inability to cross the threshold becomes imagery that is later used that these supernatural characters like Geraldine are susceptible to, and the image likens to a groom carrying a bride. In addition to Geraldine collapsing at the entrance to Christabel’s home, other supernatural occurrences take place, such as the dog moaning in her sleep (though Christabel has never known her to do so before) and the fire in the hallway coming back to life: striking signs of the presence of the femme fatale. In addition to those events, Christabel thanks the Virgin Mary that they have made it to safety, but Geraldine claims to be too weary to join in Christabel’s devout cries. When the two women reach Christabel’s chambers, Christabel lights the lantern which causes Geraldine to writhe in pain, to which Christabel offers her wine made by Christabel’s mother. Geraldine asks if her mother would pity her, and Christabel tells the story of her mother’s death during childbirth, and that she wishes she were there now, which Geraldine agrees with. She soon, however, shows another sign of the supernatural, crying for Christabel’s mother to leave:
But soon with altered voice, said she—
‘Off, wandering mother! Peak and pine!
I have power to bid thee flee.’
Alas! what ails poor Geraldine?
Why stares she with unsettled eye?
Can she the bodiless dead espy?
And why with hollow voice cries she,
‘Off, woman, off! this hour is mine—
Though thou her guardian spirit be,
Off, woman, off! ’tis given to me.’ (Coleridge)
Christabel credits this outburst to the fear she experience from having been kidnapped. As the women are preparing for bed, in what is the most important scene in the poem, we see the true nature of Geraldine, and witness the curse that makes her a femme fatale. Geraldine instructs Christabel to undress as she prays, and after Christabel disrobes, unable to sleep, she reclines on her bed, propped on her elbow to watch as Geraldine undresses:
Beneath the lamp the lady bowed,
And slowly rolled her eyes around;
Then drawing in her breath aloud,
Like one that shuddered, she unbound
The cincture from beneath her breast:
Her silken robe, and inner vest,
Dropt to her feet, and full in view,
Behold! her bosom and half her side—
A sight to dream of, not to tell!
O shield her! shield sweet Christabel!
And with low voice and doleful look
These words did say:
‘In the touch of this bosom there worketh a spell,
Which is lord of thy utterance, Christabel!
Thou knowest to-night, and wilt know to-morrow,
This mark of my shame, this seal of my sorrow… (Coleridge)
Christabel’s rescuing of Geraldine can be seen as a duality between the pure woman versus the fallen woman, and Geraldine’s resemblance to a snake can be harkened to the temptation of Eve, the original fallen woman, in the Garden of Eden. Geraldine is a prime example of the femme fatale in gothic literature, invoking mysticism and enchantment, and the typical characteristics of an evil and sexual woman. Coleridge’s inclusion of Geraldine in “Christabel” is a perfect display of the powers of the supernatural world.