Until the past two centuries, literature was a man’s world. Classical literature was monopolized by the male perspective as men were the only gender afforded the opportunity to have their works published, in accordance to historical gender norms of employment. Consequently, classical literature shares a common thread concerning its characterization of gender archetypes. Whether Greek plays or Shakespearian masterpieces, male protagonists are described as multi-dimensional characters with strengths, flaws, as well as developing better rapport with the audience. This stands in stark counterpoint to their female counterparts. In classical literature narrated from the male perspective, female characters are portrayed as comparatively vapid and one-dimensional.
This one-dimensional characterization takes two forms: On one hand, literature is replete with the damsel in distress. In this context, women symbolize an innocence and purity under threat which requires the rescue of the proverbial “Knight in shining armor.” On the other hand, classical literature is also replete with a darker representation of women: the femme fatale; the conniving women; the dame whose blood seeps with evil. Evil women in literature are historically a product of the lack of voice afforded to female storytellers making it easier for male writers to portray the fairer sex as femme fatales.
This concept of evil women in literature is ingrained in our imagination from an early age, even if may not be as overt as this article implies. Take the evil women characters in airy tales, for example. The archetype of conniving stepmothers is among the most timeless and universal themes in fairy tales. Stepmothers are often characterized as being wicked, seductive, and eager to compromise the innocence of the story’s protagonist (usually the stepchild) while their husband remains aloof or conflicted. The classic Brother Grimm’s fairy tale Hansel and Gretel portrayed a devious stepmother who manipulates her husband into abandoning the children in the forest because they had become economic burdens for the family. In the classic folk tale, Cinderella, the wretched stepmother and her daughters punish the unswerving goodness of Cinderella by ridiculing her constantly and forcing her to do harsh manual labor. That is until Prince Charming rescues Cinderella from her predicament. Fairy tales are the most obvious example of female characters being reduced to one-dimensional archetypes as femme fatales.
The imagery of conniving women and their unambiguous evil is a cornerstone of basic storytelling in classical literature. But, this concept of unambiguous evil versus unambiguous purity is not limited to fairy tales. It extends to all forms of storytelling. What is consistent and important is that conniving women are portrayed very overtly for the audiences to grasp. Sometimes, this moral ugliness can manifest itself in a bodily form. L. Frank Baum’s memorable children’s novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, for example, uses Wicked Witches as the major antagonists to the unambiguous goodness of orphan, Dorothy Gale. What is interesting to observe is that literature targeted towards child often use family lineage as a means of defining the boundaries of unambiguous good and evil in female characters. Like stepmothers who usurp new powers when they marry into a family, stepchildren or orphans are victimized because they are forced into forging new relationship with an artificial parent.
In classical literature targeted towards older audiences, the function of conniving women varies. Similar to folk tales of wicked witches, classical literature often describes these evil women characters as using their seductive and desirable charms to ensnare others to do their evil bidding, particularly men. The plays of William Shakespeare perfectly reflect this concept. In MacBeth, Lady MacBeth is a powerful influence in the horrifying events of his MacBeth’s rise to power. Initially encouraging MacBeth of insurrection and the pursuit of power, her ambition for rule forms a web of murder, deception, and political power both found and lost. Ultimately, her greed and resulting pang of guilt result in her moral, spiritual, and physical death. In another play King Lear, King Lear’s eldest daughters Goneril and Regan are portrayed as amorally vicious and treacherous defined by a single-minded pursuit for power through malevolent means. Ultimately, as is typical in storytelling, the femme fatale’s unfettered greed and cunning is their own undoing.