Rachilde’s initial description of Raoule and they way in which he describes her femininity, particularly given the ending of the novel, and the ambiguity of the gender with which Raoule identifies, gives us an idea of the concepts of gender which dominate the novel.
Rachilde’s description of Raoule begins, “Neither beautiful nor pretty in the accepted sense of those words…” (19). This statement frames our perception of the description that follows because it declares that she does not conform to the traditional standards of beauty. The description continues to elaborate on these elements: “…her face, with its rather hard expression, did not seduce. Though beautifully drawn, her eyebrows had a marked tendency to meet in the imperious pucker of an uncompromising will” (19). The similarity between the two sentences seems to be a sense of power and strength in the woman that is deemed unfeminine. The use of the word ‘hard’ combined with the disclaimer that it ‘did not seduce’ largely implies that it is a sense of softness in a woman that is attractive, and that once a woman gains too much power, intensity, or resolve, that she becomes unattractive. Furthermore, the syntactical construction of the final sentence I have excerpted demonstrates that uncompromising will is also an undesirable quality. Since the sentence begins, ‘though beautifully drawn…’ it implies that whatever follows is not beautiful because of the word ‘though.’ Therefore, because ‘uncompromising will’ is what follows, it asserts that is not a beautiful quality; this in turn implies that the opposite of an uncompromising will, which is to say, a sense of yielding or softness in the woman, is what is considered as attractive. While society has made a bit of progress since this was written, this is unfortunately not far off from the reality of common gender perception today. In my experience, while women certainly have the ability to have power and be powerful without negative repercussions in today’s society, there are certainly still negative stereotypes that are associated with strong and outspoken women. There was a Forbes article that I read last year that spoke on this exact point — http://www.forbes.com/sites/jennagoudreau/2012/04/03/why-successful-women-terrify-us/ — that strong women are often perceived as threatening and ‘bitchy’ in a way that men would not be if they acted exactly the same.
Furthermore, the comparison of Raoule’s eyes to fire gives even the traditionally beautiful and innocent symbol of eyes a negative connotation of aggression and intensity. Rachilde writes, “Very black with metallic glints under long curled eyelashes, her eyes, two burning coals when lit up by passion, gave at certain moments the impression of two pinpoints of fire…” (20). Though the description may initially seem complimentary due to the inclusion of the words ‘long curled eyelashes’ and ‘passion,’ the overwhelming fire imagery (glints, burning coals, pinpoints of fire) creates an image that is too intense, particularly given the descriptions on the previous page. Here, the images of fire conjure an image of strength, but instead of it being a positive strength, it is one that undesirably burns and singes.