Incorporeal Punishment : Writing Masochism and the Cruel Woman in English Decadence, 1860-1900

Condé, Alice. 2015. Incorporeal Punishment : Writing Masochism and the Cruel Woman in English Decadence, 1860-1900. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

The cruel woman is a recurring trope in Decadent literature and visual art. She is symbolic of the primary Decadent anxieties about nature and male authorship, and, as this thesis aims to show, is distinct from the generic femme fatale, the subject of numerous studies of nineteenth-century literature, most notably by Rebecca Stott and Bram Dijkstra. This thesis is the first full consideration of the cruel woman in English Decadent literature, and comprises an investigation of her appearance in the work of Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909), Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), Arthur Symons (1865-1945) and Ernest Dowson (1867-1900), the principal proponents of English Decadence from 1860-1900. I use the theoretical writings of Gilles Deleuze on masochism to illuminate the control of the masochistic writer over the figure of the written tormentor. Comparing the creation of the Decadent cruel woman to Ovid’s Pygmalion and his sculpture of his ideal female image, I analyse the power of the male masochist over the woman he creates and interrogate her supposed autonomy. In Poems and Ballads (1866), Swinburne’s poems address a series of cruel women as masochistic fantasies formed according to the speaker’s projected desires, whereas Wilde’s Salome (1894) deviates from this masochistic model. Salome is rendered fragile and delicate through the use of symbolic language. The dancing girls of Symons’s Silhouettes (1892, revised 1896) and London Nights (1895, revised 1897), have been miscast as femmes fatales. The dancer’s body is anatomized, never fully realised for the reader. The same is true of Dowson’s Verses (1896) and Decorations (1899), in which the cruel woman is diminished to a girl. Dowson’s poetry represents both the attenuation and refinement of English Decadence. He is a ‘reverse Pygmalion’ whose female figures are either dead or frozen into a perfect yet unreachable state.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

Identification Number (DOI):


English Decadence, nineteenth century, fin de siècle, masochism, femme fatale, cruel woman, Pygmalion, A. C. Swinburne, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Symons, Ernest Dowson, 1860-1900

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

English and Comparative Literature


30 June 2015

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

22 Jul 2015 16:01

Last Modified:

08 Sep 2022 09:12


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