Textual hijacking: strategies of resistance and reclaiming the objectified woman in Balzac, Baudelaire, and Degas
Webb, Lillie Pearl
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From the courtesan Esther in Honoré de Balzac’s Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (1838-1847) to the femme sterile in Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (1857) to Edgar Degas’s nudes, women’s objectified bodies dominated artistic attention in nineteenth-century France. Appearance defined their roles, and tropes often replaced women in narratives centered on male desire. However, the women in these works resist erasure and challenge feminine passivity and marginalization. This dissertation explores their ambiguous female identities and their strategies of resistance. The tension in Balzac’s, Baudelaire’s, and Degas’s works between objectifying women and their textual importance emerges through the relationships among subject, object, and the abject self (as defined by Judith Butler) and among the narrator, the work, and sometimes the reader or viewer. The male gaze limits women’s identities within the subject-object-abject framework. In turn, these women exercise soft power to alter their status and identities. Joseph Nye defines soft power as attracting others and co-opting their power to achieve one’s goals. Through gender theory, I redefine these women, not only as objects of desire, but also as narrative subjects. In Balzac’s novel, Esther negotiates social dynamics to define her identity. She progresses from passive object to untenable abject self to literary subject. By using her body, creating documents, and crafting ritualized social encounters, Esther claims ownership of herself. In Les Fleurs du mal, Baudelaire often portrays women as a pretext for poetics. Yet, “La Chevelure,” “La Beauté,” “L’Homme et la mer,” and “Le Serpent qui danse,” display signs of feminine power. Baudelaire stages interactions between the poet-narrator and the sexualized woman and counteracts the subject-object binary through the gaze. Both the poet-narrator and representations of the feminine are necessary to advance the text. Degas’s nudes hinge upon voyeurism, objectification, and self-representation. Degas’s women are ambiguous, as shown in selected brothel monotypes, bather pastels, lithographs, and sculptures. Through Caroline Armstrong’s and Kathryn Brown’s readings of the monotypes, I demonstrate how these works challenge the male gaze and grant the female nude at least partial status as narrative subject. Tracing these works across media elucidates a female interiority that resists objectification.