Rachilde’s Monsieur Vénus is a progressive work for the time period in which it was published—late 19th century. Through its depiction of what was considered to be scandalous behavior (cross dressing, transgender behavior, homosexual acts etc.) however, it played upon gender role stereotypes that when read today act as contradictions to the somewhat forward thinking mindset of the novel as a whole.
In fact, one of the many undercurrents present throughout the story reeks of misogynistic attitudes. There are several example of this mindset present. It is perhaps more appropriate to analyze, first, the ways in which Rachilde uses descriptions to characterize certain genders, and how this characterization relates directly to a negative, generalized attitude towards women.
Rachilde’s main character, Raoule de Vénérande, is a female-bodied individual who prefers male pronouns to represent herself and adapts the characteristics of a man in her mannerisms and day-to-day behaviors—in essence Raoule is a transgender male, thus why Rachilde’s novel was so outrageously shocking at the time of its publishing (it can be argued that it is just as shocking today). The way that Rachilde describes Raoule’s facial features implies the masculine interior that she inhabits, stating that she has a “hard expression,” with “thin lips” that attenuated in a disagreeable way the pure shape of her mouth” (pg. 19). Even Raoule’s aunt classifies her in a different gender category, regarding her niece as a “nephew,” when she “saw her taking fencing or painting lessons” (pg. 28). There are several things to take away from these details, the main one being the association between what is considered to be appropriate for a man (painting and fencing as hobbies). In this way one see what is not considered wholly appropriate for a woman at this time, which will be relevant when describing Jacques.
Jacques Silvert is classified as being Raoule’s mistress. Although he is male, Raoule obviously occupies the male role in the relationship, and molds Jacques to fulfill the subservient obedient female role. Rachilde foreshadows this occurrence in the way that she describes Jacques appearance throughout the novel, especially in the opening chapter:
“Around his body, over his loose smock, ran a spiraling garland of roses, very big roses of fleshy satin with velvety grenadine tracings. They slipped between his legs…came curling around his neck… spray of wallflowers, on his left a tuft of violets.” (Pg. 8)
The precise rhetoric Rachilde chooses carries a significantly feminine sentiment. Most obvious is the choice of flowers that are described as being prominent to the scene, the second is the vocabulary used to describe how they interact with Jacques, slipping between his legs, curling around his neck—it is promiscuous in its wording, and such an adjective is inherently associated with a woman.
It is through Raoule and Jacques’s relationship that the novel conveys a sexist attitude. Their interactions define the notorious male-female dynamic, where the man is supposed to be all powerful and dominant in his portrayal, and the women is compliant, docile, and depicted as being less than intelligent. When Raoule first meets Jacques, he is described as looking at her “the way suffering dogs beg with vaguely glistening eyes” (pg. 11). Merely comparing him to an animal relays a sense of innocence and a childlike demeanor—this in turn relates to the novel’s view of what women are because of Jacque’s association with femininity. His lack of ability to defend himself in situations involving both Raoule and Raittolbe, add onto this stereotype. The underlying theme, through these gender role stereotypes and depictions of women (ie. Marie Silvert) or female acting males (Jacques), consciously oppresses the role of women to that of vial, senseless, dependent individuals.
Although Rachilde upsets the balance of society in her novel with the switching of gender roles in a man and a woman, she resides strictly within those gender roles and thus lends a somewhat dull finish to what could have been an incredibly revolutionary gender ideology.