Femme Fatale

Smoking woman

I'm pretty sure a modern version of Jean would look just like this.

“I’ll not fail again if there is power in a woman’s wit and will!”

The fateful proclamation of the deceitful governess of Louisa May Alcott’s Behind a Mask foreshadows the determination with which Jean Muir pursues her goals of wealth, rank, and marriage. If one were to seek an example of a femme fatale, it would be hard to find a better.  Jean seems to possess an undefinable sway over men, and she leaves a trail of broken hearts in her wake.  The enchantress even confesses to one of her thralls, “I am a witch, and one day my disguise will drop away and you will see me as I am, old, ugly, bad and lost.  Beware of me in time.  I’ve warned you.  Now love me at your peril.”

Alcott portrays Jean as a paradox.  On one hand she is the perfect woman: demure, caring, selfless.  On the other hand, she coldly calculates the use of her womanly attributes to pursue power and men.  I can’t help but wonder if Alcott was insinuating that all women are behind a mask, that there is both beauty and ambition within all women and it should not be entirely condemned.   Despite her decidedly unwomanly pursuit of a titled gentleman to marry, Alcott is very careful not destroy our affection for Jean at the conclusion of the novel.  Even though Jean has seduced the younger Coventry gentlemen, deceived the entire family, and blinded the elderly John Coventry, we are left with the feeling that she genuinely cares for the older gentleman.  While her behavior was certainly beyond beastly for the 19th century woman, I cannot help but think that a modern woman might be accepted and possibly respected for the same maneuverings.

Ruth Nelson

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Published in: on January 30, 2010 at 10:48 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I like your thought that Alcott could be insinuating that all women are behind a mask of sorts. I think this thought could be extended to include all people though, because in a way we all do hide behind our own masks. It’s different for each person – but most people don’t truly and wholly reveal themselves to the world.

  2. I agree with Natalie: in Alcott’s culture at the very least, women had to be behind a mask. Jean is willing to be nice, as long as she’s safely married to Sir John and not at risk financially.


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