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Palin and Fefu: a male-associated strategy of domination

September 7th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

One of the more intriguing elements of Fefu is the relationship of certain actions against animals and Julia.

Taking up the Rifle

Taking up the Rifle

In Part 1 there is a conversation between Christina and Cindy in which Cindy relates the tale of Julia’s paralysis.  A hunter aimed at a deer and then shot it. Julia and the deer fell.  The deer was dead, but Julia had convulsions.  Julia was bleeding from her forehead, but it was not a bullet wound, and there was no other visible evidence of injury.  Julia rants in delirium. The paralysis is blamed on scar tissue on the brain from the fall: a petit mal.


Cindy relates what Julia said in her delirium:

“…she was persecuted.–That they tortured her…That they had tried her and that the shot was her execution. That she recanted because she wanted to live….That if she talked about it….to anyone…she would be tortured further and killed.” p18

The delirious statement by Julia above corresponds to her hallucinations later in The Bedroom, which serves as a fuller explanation of what Cindy relates.

At the end of the play, Fefu shoots and kills a rabbit.  This action again results in a wound on Julia’s forehead, but this time it seems as though Julia is finished, as her head “falls back.”  Just prior to the gun shot, Julia says, “I didn’t tell [Fefu] anything.  Did I?  I didn’t.”  Implying, per the quote above, that Julia was bound to silence about what she knew, punishable by death.

The question of interest for me here, though is that of the animals being shot and Julia being injured.

For the first part of my response to it, I’m going to point to Sir James G. Frazer1 and his work The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion.  In that work there are several stories that are recounted which have events that are similar, under a section entitled “The External Soul.”

Once, a warlock called Koshchei the Deathless carried off a princess and kept her prisoner in his golden castle. However, a prince made up to her one day as she was walking alone and disconsolate in the castle garden, and cheered by the prospect of escaping with him she went to the warlock and coaxed him with false and flattering words, saying:

“My dearest friend, tell me, I pray you, will you never die?”

“Certainly not,” says he.

“Well,” says she, “and where is your death? Is it in your dwelling?”

“To be sure it is,” says he, “it is in the broom under the threshold.”

Thereupon the princess seized the broom and threw it on the fire, but although the broom burned, the deathless warlock Koshchei remained alive; indeed not so much as a hair of him was singed.

Balked in her first attempt, the artful hussy pouted and said, “You do not love me true, for you have not told me where your death is; yet I am not angry, but love you with all my heart.”

With these fawning words she besought the warlock to tell her truly where his death was.

So he laughed and said, “Why do you wish to know? Well then, out of love I will tell you where it lies. In a certain field there stand three green oaks, and under the roots of the largest oak is a worm, and if ever this worm is found and crushed, that instant I shall die.”

When the princess heard these words, she went straight to her lover and told him all; and he searched till he found the oaks and dug up the worm and crushed it. Then he hurried to the warlock’s castle, but only to learn from the princess that the warlock was still alive. Then she fell to wheedling and coaxing Koshchei once more, and this time, overcome by her wiles, he opened his heart to her and told her the truth.

“My death,” said he, “is far from here and hard to find, on the wide ocean.  In that sea is an island, and on the island there grows a green oak, and beneath the oak is an iron chest, and in the chest is a small basket, and in the basket is a hare, and in the hare is a duck, and in the duck is an egg; and he who finds the egg and breaks it, kills me at the same time.”

The prince naturally procured the fateful egg and with it in his hands he confronted the deathless warlock. The monster would have killed him, but the prince began to squeeze the egg. At that the warlock shrieked with pain, and turning to the false princess, who stood by smirking and smiling,

“Was it not out of love for you,” said he, “that I told you where my death was? And is this the return you make to me?”

With that he grabbed at his sword, which hung from a peg on the wall; but before he could reach it, the prince had crushed the egg, and sure enough the deathless warlock found his death at the same moment.

There are many other stories of a similar sort which I will not repeat here, but the similarity is the nature of the soul being external to the person and that person’s existence being tied to the animal or object containing the soul.  Similar relationships are drawn between a witch/warlock and her/his familiar; and it should be noted that references to witchcraft are peppered amongst Fefu, the most obvious of which is Fefu’s story of the black cat that she feeds.  As a play with very strong feminist overtones, it is certain that the references to witches are there to point to men’s latent fears regarding the mystery and power of the female body.

With the above in mind, it is clear that the animals and Julia are connected.  We also know that there are two types of animals killed (a deer and rabbit) so there is no one type of animal with which Julia is associated–it would seem to be animals in general.  Although, there is no monopoly one the relationship between animals and people, the scene “In the Study” has Cindy reading from a magazine: “A lady in Africa divorced her husband because he was a cheetah.” p30. However, I will note that the animal in question here is a hunting animal, not a grazing animal.  So, the main question is, how is Julia related to animals or what does this connection mean?

For the second part of my response, a key comes from an article by Penny Faran2, who writes of Fornes:

By her own account, she began writing the play with two “fantasy” images in mind.  The first was of a “woman…who was talking to some friends [and then] took her rifle and shot her husband”; the second was a joke involving “two Mexicans speaking at a bullfight. One says to the other, ‘She is pretty, that one over there.’ The other says, ‘Which one?’ So the first one takes his rifle and shoots her.  He says, ‘That one, the one that falls.’” In the completed play, Fornes has brought these two startling premises together so that, however indirectly, Fefu shoots Julia rather than her husband Phillip and, in doing so, takes the place of the men in the “joke” who objectify women to the point of annihilation. p446

Faran goes on to point out that “taking up the gun is a male-associated strategy of domination” and that Julia’s observation that Fefu is hurting herself by firing the gun (in Part 1 of Fefu) is correct.

But the notion of the “objectification of women” and the notion that women have traditionally been viewed as passive creatures to men’s more active principle suggests that women, as are the deer and rabbit, subject to being acted upon and are defenseless against the male urge toward domination.  Julia is thus representative of this feminine principle and receives the action of the masculine principle against her.

This again highlights what may be a fundamental assertion that both Fefu and Julia are not only threatened by the male principle, but have harmed themselves, albeit in different ways: Fefu, by constantly acting the part of a man; Julia but allowing herself to become passive.  Again, this raises the notion of to what extent in the play that Emma offers an alternative vision of how women can succeed by redefining the terms of the conversation.

  1. Frazer, Sir James G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion
  2. Farfan, Penelope. Feminism, Metatheatricality, and Mise en Scène in Maria Irene Fornes’s Fefu and Her Friends. Modern Drama 40 (1997): 442-453
  3. Previous Fefu post
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