Innocence and Christabel
In part one of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Christabel,” Coleridge explores the relationship between two very different characters. One character is very innocent and the other is the complete opposite. Coleridge uses a naive character and a femme fatale to illustrate the relationship between innocence and desire in a character.
From the beginning of the poem Christabel is described as a sexually pure character. Even her name, ‘Christ’abel, implies a certain purity or innocence. Christabel is sexually innocent, but still she is curious. For example, at the beginning of the poem Christabel has dreams about “her own betrothed knight;/Dreams that made her moan and leap,/As on her bed she lay in sleep” (Coleridge, lines 28-30). The dreams that she is having are likely sexual, but she does not acknowledge her desire. Her reaction is to go outside in the woods to pray. Her curiosity and excitement about the dreams are overpowered by her feelings of guilt and her desire to stay sexually pure.
Geraldine represents libido, possibly even Christabel’s libido. Christabel is described as a chaste, sometimes naive character, and at the beginning Geraldine is too. She wears a “silken robe of white” and her voice is “faint and sweet” (Coleridge, lines 61 and 75). The color white is often used to represent purity, and this could be an attempt to make Geraldine seem like a trustworthy, innocent character. Geraldine says that she was “seiz’d” by five warriors, possibly alluding to some past sexual violence (Coleridge, line 79). In response Christabel comforts Geraldine (Coleridge, line 103). Geraldine does not force her to; she does it willingly.
Geraldine is not an inherently evil character. She never forces herself on Christabel. Christabel seems more than willing to go along with Geraldine. Christabel sneaks Geraldine into her room. At one point she even carries Geraldine over a threshold (Coleridge, line 127). She notices and ignores all of the creepy foreshadowing that is happening around her—a dog barking, even though “she never till now utter’d yell,” and the strange flame in the fireplace, despite the logs being flat and ashy (Coleridge, lines 145 and 151). Christabel notices these things and she still “bares her feet” so that she can sneak Geraldine more quietly into her room (Coleridge, line 161). It seems like Christabel really wants to get Geraldine into her room.
Once Christabel gets Geraldine into her room she undresses and gets ready for bed as usual. But when Geraldine begins to undress, Christabel “on her elbow did recline/To look at the lady Geraldine” (Coleridge, lines 137-138). Christabel could turn away. She does not have to watch Geraldine undress, but she chooses to. Geraldine actually seems more hesitant than Christabel in this scene. She “slowly roll’d her eyes around” and takes a deep breath before taking off her robe (Coleridge, lines 241-245). Geraldine’s side is described as a “sight to dream of, not to tell” (Coleridge, line 247). It does not say what exactly it is, but it is implied that it is something grotesque. The mark could represent the shame that Geraldine feels for being sexually open.
At the beginning of the poem, Christabel feels guilty about her dreams and sexual urges. By the end, she no longer seems to feel that way. Geraldine is not an evil character, even though some of the descriptions of her are strange. Geraldine only provides Christabel with an opportunity to explore her curiosities. Christabel wants to watch Geraldine undress, and she allows Geraldine to “lay down” by her side and take her “in her arms” without resistance (Coleridge, lines 251-252). Christabel sees the mark on Geraldine’s side, but she does not seem to be afraid or disgusted by it. Geraldine says “Thou knowest to-night, and wilt know to-morrow/This mark of my shame, this seal of my sorrow” (Coleridge, lines 257-258). She is talking about the mark on her side, the mark of her shame. She is telling Christabel that she will know the same shame in the morning, after they have slept together. Christabel still allows Geraldine to sleep in her bed.
In personality, at least, Geraldine and Christabel are opposites. Christabel is chaste and naive, and Geraldine is a very sensual character. They could both represent two parts of the same person. Christabel is the part that wants to do what society expects of her. Geraldine represents her sexual desire. Perhaps Geraldine is creepy because, even though she seems to be enjoying it, Christabel knows that what she is doing is taboo, in more ways than one. In the end, Christabel accepts Geraldine into her bed, and, perhaps in doing so, finally accepts her sexuality.
Coleridge, Samuel T. “Christabel.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Ed. David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. Boston: Pearson, 2012. 652-68. Print.
Ford, H. J., and Lancelot Speed. 1891. The Blue Fairy Book. Ed. Andrew Lang. London: Longmans, Green and, 1891. Print.