Referring to British literature, Rebecca Stott describes the femme fatale as “a figure who crosses discourse boundaries, who is to be found at the intersection of Western racial, sexual and imperial anxieties” (30). This nexus where male anxieties concerning femininity meet, co-mingle and intensify each other became, from late nineteenth century on, a pan-European obsession. She is seen, alternately, as the cause and the effect of modernity’s failures. As a vulture she preys on the male’s weakness, drains his social, financial and sexual resources, or even steals his life with a vampire’s kiss. In this paper, I will deal with ways in which Karel Čapek employs the femme fatale myth in his novel Krakatit (1924).
Stott’s above cited opinion implicitly suggests that even if embodying insecurities stirred up by a common problem (modernity in crisis), the femme fatale myth will greatly differ from culture to culture: the above mentioned racial and imperial concerns were more or less non-existent in Central/Eastern Europe in the 1920s. The femme fatale concept even here contains a strong dose of gender and sexual anxiety. In contrast to Western Europe, however, it acquires overtones linked to national identity. In the interest of nation building, the femme fatale topos can be used to re-enforce the contrast between our (Czech) healthy culture and their (German) degenerate one. I will argue that this, among other reasons, makes Čapek cast his femme fatale as a German Princess.
Apart from the particular recycling of the dangerous woman myth and its link to national identity, I am also interested in the severity (or lack thereof) with which the author treats his femme fatale. Freud’s concept of projection throws light on the emergence of the “classical” femme fatale, the “man-eater [. . .], consuming men one after another, cannibalistically devouring the very men who desire her” (Felski 76). Émile Zola’s Nana, for instance, figures as a public enemy who attacks males from the outside in the war of sexes. An alternative approach depicts the femme fatale as a complex human being, who does not (financially and/or psychologically) thrive on the male’s destruction. Instead, she herself possesses overwhelming self-destructive tendencies and merely drags men with her towards the pit. The interaction between the seductress and the seduced is portrayed in its full complexity, which includes the reasons for the hero’s vulnerability predicated on previous encounters and traumas. Karel Čapek, as will become clear, chooses the second option and thus shift the femme fatale myth away from the war of the sexes pure and simple.
Felski, Rita. The Gender of Modernity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Stott, Rebecca. The Fabrication of the Late Victorian Femme Fatale: The Kiss of Death.
Houndmills: MacMillan, 1992.