The Mysterious Female: Elusiveness as a Means of Increasing and Prolonging Male Desire in American Romanticism
Several years ago, I read an article in a women’s magazine which advised its readers to never let men see them apply their makeup or style their hair. Women were encouraged to retire from men au naturel, and then reappear in their presence with all their beauty ministrations completed. I did not pay much attention to the article at that time, but as I began thinking about ‘the elusive female’ in American Romanticism I realized that denying men access to female beauty rites would most likely create for her an aura of mystery (How does she do it?). And as evidenced in Poe’s “Ligeia,” Fitzgerald’s “Winter Dreams,” Toomer’s “Fern,” and the film Out of the Past, the mysterious and elusive female exerts a powerful force on male consciousness. He may love her, he may hate her, but he can never forget her.
In Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Ligeia,” he explores the psychological effects of female mysteriousness produced upon a man. While the narrator of the story is married to Ligeia and, in one sense, can be said to ‘possess’ her, in another sense she remains aloof and perplexing. Though they remain married for several years until the death of Ligeia, he is never able to discover the “unfathomable meaning” behind the eyes of Ligeia (Norton 706). The narrator is “possessed with a passion to discover” the quality that Ligeia withholds from him (Norton 706). Her elusiveness captures his imagination, exciting a longing to know, and take possession of, the “secret of her expression” (Norton 706). The narrator describes how in his “intense scrutiny” of her eyes, he has felt this knowledge “approaching” but yet “not quite be [his]” and “so at length utterly depart” (Norton 706). Even after Ligeia’s death and the narrator’s subsequent remarriage, he is completely unable to forget his beloved Ligeia. In his “opium dreams,” the narrator would “call aloud upon her name,” as if the “consuming intensity of [his] longing” could “restore the departed Ligeia” back to life (Norton 710). His refusal to let go of the memory of Ligeia succeeds in recalling her back to life.
In Jean Toomer’s story “Fern,” an extract from Cane, a man from the North is visiting Georgia when he becomes enchanted with a young woman named Fern. She doesn’t seem to do anything other than sit on the railing of her porch and watch the landscape. Similar to Ligeia, Fern has “strange eyes,” in that “they sought nothing” and that they “gave the impression that nothing was to be denied” (Norton 2122). Her eyes “desired nothing that [anyone] could give her,” and yet most of the men who see her feel “bound to her” and vow to themselves “that some day they would do some fine thing for her” (Norton 2122). The men of the town dream about being Fern’s secret admirer, sending her anonymous gifts, and being her knight in shining armor, rescuing her “from some unworthy fellow who had tricked her into marrying him” (Norton 2122). Fern also preys upon the mind of the narrator long after he returns North. He, too, longs to be able to ‘do something’ for Fern, but yet he does not know what. Like Ligeia, Fern’s elusiveness is solely psychological; she does not withhold her physical presence from people, but she does withhold her ‘essence.’ In Fitzgerald’s short story, one can see the inverse of female elusiveness, i.e. a woman who does not keep back her ‘essence.’ Her elusiveness derives from disallowing men access to her physical presence.
The protagonist in “Winter Dreams” is well aware of Judy Jones’ flawed personality, e.g. being self-centered and an incurable flirt, but Dexter Green cannot resist her charms. Judy can turn “her dark eyes” upon him, and Dexter feels like “she [is] exerting some force upon him” (Norton 2135). Dexter likens the pursuit of Judy to the “following of a grail,” a romantic and arduous quest (Norton 2135). Dexter is “one of a varying dozen” who revolve around Judy, and whenever one shows signs of “dropping out through long neglect” Judy will shower attention on him to keep him interested “for a year or so longer” (Norton 2136). For over a year, Judy treats Dexter “with interest, with encouragement, with malice, with indifference, with contempt,” until he finally realizes that he “could not have Judy Jones” (Norton 2137). He becomes engaged to another girl, but drops her when Judy saunters back into his life. Even though Judy stays with Dexter for a month afterwards, he never “regret [s] that night” (Norton 2140). Because Judy is unattainable for Dexter, she remains firmly planted in his mind, and he “would love her until the day he was too old for loving” (Norton 2141). The desire of men to obtain the unattainable is also exemplified in the film Out of the Past.
Out of the Past is a classic example of the genre of film noir. The hero Jeff knows that the femme fatale Kathie is a woman he should not become involved with. Kathie had shot her former lover and stolen forty thousand dollars from him, but Jeff doesn’t care. He has become completely enchanted by Kathie:
Jeff: There was still that something about her that got me.
A kind of magic or whatever it was (Tourneur).
He knows he is being a “sucker” by getting involved with Kathie, but he does anyway. Jeff asserts he is unafraid of her gangster ex-boyfriend seeking vengeance; he is only “afraid [she] might not go” away with him (Tourneur). Jeff suppresses knowledge of Kathie’s viciousness because he feels an overwhelming desire to have her for himself. When Kathie shoots another man, Jeff turns away from her, and when he finds out Kathie has reconciled with her gangster boyfriend, he begins to despise her. Even though Jeff refrains from being Kathie’s dupe again, he still feels the powerful seductive, mysterious quality she possesses.
Mysteriousness, then, seems to incite a desire to find out, and elusiveness increases the desire to pursue and possess. Whether the female withholds herself mentally or physically, she seems to exert an extraordinary power upon his imagination, and her elusiveness only intrigues him more.