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Written by Victoria Joss
The female body
The moment that Fantomina decides to impersonate a prostitute is also the moment that her body becomes symbolic of merely physical features; posing as a prostitute reduces her to just a body, without status, without class. Her body therefore acts as a symbol of the injustices surrounding the female gender, and their sexuality. First of all, the few men within the novel –temporarily disregarding Beauplaisir –are not judged by their appearances. They attempt to woo Fantomina with their words, and this is deemed enough. However, a woman’s value is judged wholly on her looks, and she can only demand a freedom with men when she is a prostitute, and allows them free reign with her body. Secondly, the female body is symbolic of Beauplaisir’s, and perhaps Haywood suggests the whole gender’s, attitude to female sexuality. Despite treasuring the female body before intercourse, it is merely a vessel to fulfill male desire during, and there is no need to have a personality attached to the limbs. Therefore, the female body cannot merely exist as that in Haywood’s novella. It is attached with the stigma of expectation, that the woman must be ready to please a man, but is restricted in the enjoyment of it herself.
Haywood’s erotica is a story of disguise and deception, opening in the theater. Haywood perhaps chose this setting as particularly poignant in suggesting a ‘show’ that not only occurs on the stage. In fact, Fantomina neither names nor even hints that she is watching the play, and instead studies the people down below in the ‘Pit’. First of all, the structure of the theater is symbolic of social class, as the prostitutes are at the bottom of the hierarchy, socially and physically. Fantomina is clearly a woman of noble birth, as she is separate and higher, in a Box, where she can observe but does not have to engage in the lower classes. Additionally, the theater setting suggests a continuation of the show beyond the stage to the people watching it; in eighteenth century society, there is always an audience, watching and judging every action. This symbol of acting is perhaps taken to an extent in Fantomina, as she continues to act as different characters until her body finally forces her to accept responsibility by going in to labor, and to resume her role as her own self.
The plot of Haywood’s erotica is only possible through disguise, a theme that materializes in the symbolic mask that the protagonist wears as part of Incognita’s disguise. This is an especially important symbol for two reasons: it completely resonates and represents the major theme of how aesthetics and identity are linked, and bears connotations that a eighteenth century audience would have recognized. Firstly, the mask is almost ironic in it’s representation of of Fantomina’s ‘Frolick’. She has previously adorned disguises to fool Beauplaisir, yet this is the first time she has actually worn a mask. This is ironic, as up to this point, she has needed no mask to fool Beauplaisir, so it becomes also a symbol of her talents, and a mockery of his intuition. Secondly, in the eighteenth century, the mask worn by a woman was the sign of a prostitute. This connotation mocks both Fantomina, for acting as a prostitute and tragically being raped, and Beauplaisir, who assumes she is a prostitute from appearance alone. Whilst this symbol could appear to be merely a device to cement the already obvious theme of disguise, Haywood seems to use it with a different awareness: it suggests there is a difference between what the audience would assume the mask means, what it means to Beauplaisir, and finally how Fantomina uses it to provoke meaning.
Within the eighteenth century, when Haywood was writing Fantomina: Or, Love in a Maze, writing in the epistolary format was popular. Novels such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Frances Burney’s Evelina both include, or use as the entire structure, letters in the novel. Haywood’s use of the epistolary is minimal, yet important. It allows the reader to see the culmination of all Fantomina’s lies, and the hand that she writes each in is a symbol of the character itself that she has constructed each time. It is also a further symbol of Fantomina’s mockery of Beauplaisir, as she sends the letters at the same time, demonstrating her capabilities and the extend to which she will maintain this ‘frolick’. The letters therefore demonstrate how intricately Fantomina has woven a web of lies, and acts as the first outward symbol of her beginning to lose control.
The male gaze
The male gaze as a symbol is especially recognizable in the opening scenes, at the theater. The original motive behind Fantomina’s frolic is a curiosity based on how men react to prostitutes, and how the women can partially control the male gaze. Within Fantomina, the male gaze can be read as a motif as it is a constant that is sought by the protagonist, and occurs over and over. It is especially important, as Beauplaisir’s male gaze not only has complete control over Fantomina, but is controlled by her. She seems to understand the psychology behind what pleases this particular man, and assumes different disguises that all attract his eyes. Therefore, whilst the motif of the ‘male gaze’ in other novels presents a patriarchal dominance where women are objects, Haywood inverts this. Instead, Fantomina encourages the gaze, yet simultaneously is able to manipulate it to see what she wants it to see.
Fantomina Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Fantomina is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.