Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 5-1-2004


The femme fatale becomes a central figure in the nineteenth century, but her appearance on the scene of art and literature draws on a long tradition of representation of the ‘destructive woman’ in works from classical mythology, Romantic poetry, European decadent novels, and various cinematic traditions. The figure has crucial implications for the representation of women in a variety of discourses—literature, philosophy, psychoanalysis, and the cinema. But what makes the femme fatale deadly and why she is so persistently an object of fascination in artistic production is one of the objectives of my analysis. My project explores the construction of this mythical discourse through an examination of the figure from Merimee’s Carmen to the most notable Italian version of the femme fatale in the decadent novels of Gabriele D’Annunzio, and the figure’s subsequent reincarnation in early twentieth-century silent Italian cinema. A related issue in all of the works I deal with is the way in which the criticism of the texts or of the myth of the femme fatale itself is caught up in its own ‘theory of seduction’, or the same kind of functional paradox that characterizes the ambivalent power of the femme fatale itself. Whether it be in the commentaries on the Carmen story by critics such as Nietzsche and Adorno, or in the criticism of Italian decadence, and of D’Annunzio in particular, all of these critical discourses rely upon a fetishistic mode of interpretation that in turn, relies upon the critical and thematic seduction of one of the Western tradition’s most problematic -and obsessional—literary figures. The result is a dialectical movement of tension, disavowal, denial, and repression that I argue characterizes the authors, the criticism, and the material itself. I also argue that the figure’s fatality is not merely thematic, but extends to include the ineluctability of her representation and the inevitably fixed set of meanings connected to her image, whether it be during the high point of her representation in the late nineteenth century, or in more recent, arguably ‘post-modern’ versions of her appearance.