A literary archetype I’ve grown obsessed with this year is that of the femme fatale. The subversive femme fatale figure uses her feminine wiles to seduce and deceive men for her own gain – whether that be for money, power, or revenge. Since it’s the Killer Women Crime Festival today, I’ve created a short list of some of my favourites femme fatales that I’ve encountered during my time studying the femme fatale.
1. Lady Macbeth – Macbeth by Shakespeare
One the first literary femme fatales I encountered as a pre-teen, Lady Macbeth is viewed as one of the key femme fatale figures. Ambitious and incredibly frustrated with her only role as Macbeth’s wife, she manipulates her husband into assassinating King Duncan, so that they can gain power as King and Queen of Scotland.
My favourite thing about Lady Macbeth is her complete ruthlessness and lack of empathy or morality, especially in contrast to Macbeth’s. I found her demise a little disappointing when I first read Macbeth, but now I recognise just how brilliant of a character she is – both during Shakespearean times and now. If you do a Google search on Lady Macbeth, there are hundreds of differing analyses of her character. They’re so fascinating!
2. Grace Marks – Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
Alias Grace is a fictionalisation based on real-life nineteenth-century figure Grace Marks, a sixteen year old servant girl accused of murdering her employer Thomas Kinnear, and Kinnear’s maid Nancy Montgomery, in 1843. While it is uncertain whether she committed these killings or not (my opinion is that she did do it) Grace was initially found guilty for the murders and was incarcerated for 30 years – avoiding the death penalty due to her age and sex. Atwood’s novel follows Grace’s difficult life from early childhood to her imprisonment, and her feminist novel highlights the marginalisation and the poor treatment of working class women during the Victorian era.
What I love about Atwood’s version of Grace is that she is so clever! I also think she’s one of the more sympathetic femme fatales in this list, due to her difficult and traumatic past. This novel is, in my opinion, a pretty lengthy but worthy read, and while researching for this blog post, I also discovered that this novel is getting a TV adaptation on Netflix. I’m so excited!
3. Lucy Audley – Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Upon its release, nineteenth-century sensation novel Lady Audley’s Secret was met with wide criticism, as its Victorian audience hated Braddon’s female character that deviated from the cultural expectation. In addition, Lucy Audley was a pretty unique villainess at the time, as she is an evil female character wrapped in what was considered the Victorian ideal, which was a very angelic appearance and demeanour. This deception created a panic of sorts amongst its Victorian readers, as female characters such as Lucy brought the gothic to the domestic home.
Lucy is such a fun femme fatale – she’s goes to great (bordering on ridiculous) lengths to keep secrets about her past from her wealthy husband, and she’s actually a pretty funny character. The sensation fiction genre is beyond melodramatic, and this novel is no exception, particularly in regards to Lucy’s character and the variety of crimes she commits. It’s quite a long read but I found it pretty entertaining!
4. Amy Elliot Dunne – Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
For a modern day femme fatale, I just had to include Amy Dunne. Similarly to Lucy Audley, Amy appears to live a perfect life. However, her mysterious disappearance on the morning of her fifth wedding anniversary sparks a chain of effects that shows that she isn’t what she seems. Amy’s a great femme fatale to read about: she’s an incredibly petty character, and meticulous in her lengthy revenge scheme. What I find most interesting is the mass of rave responses Amy has received from women readers for how calculating she is in her pursuit of revenge against her husband Nick.
I remember reading Gone Girl over a year ago – I actually finished it at 4am on Christmas Day because I was so absorbed in this crazy, messed up story! Amy is insane, and I thought her narrative was a mix of captivating and creepy. I love Gillian Flynn’s essay on why she chooses to write about unlikable, evil female characters, which you can read here.
Let me know your thoughts on these women! I’d absolutely love some recommendations for more badass femme fatales – it’s evident that my diversity is lacking. Please leave me some recs in the comments!