Jenna Tamisiea Elser
Sex and Rep
March 30, 2014
Final Paper- 1/3 DRAFT
Marguerite Gautier was chaste of heart. She was also a courtesan. She was diseased yet desirable. As Alexandre Dumas, fils’ consumptive heroine in his 1852 play, La Dame aux caméllias, Marguerite Gautier comes to represent “Everywoman, required to be both virtuous and alluring, and compelled to find identity in worldly suffering and the promise of otherworldly redemption”. Romanticized visions of ideal femininity like those found in Dumas, fils’ female protagonist swept through the literature and performing arts of the nineteenth century. Identification of this ideal femininity rested on the double myth of the sinner/saint, as well as feminine disease being inexorably linked to desire. From Marguerite’s diseased and dichotomal womb springs forth other notable nineteenth century tubercular women, including Mimi the seamstress, from Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème. Puccini’s famous 1896 Italian opera serves as source material for Jonathan Larson’s 1996 Broadway musical Rent, which also features a diseased heroine, Mimi Marquez, but her illness is AIDS. A closer look at the female leads in La Bohème and Rent shows that Dumas, fils’ Marguerite served as an ancestral ideal of femininity for her descendants in these works. Examining the texts of both La Bohème and Rent reveal separate but similar gazes backwards to Camille. Although removed from Camille by forty-six and two hundred and forty-six years respectively, La Bohème and Rent anxiously repeat the conventions of Dumas, fils in the construction of the ideal heroine and the treatment of disease in the feminine.
First, research on “the ideal heroine” of the nineteenth century reveals how Camille’s Marguerit...
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...ickness: the femme fragile. The femme fragile of the nineteenth century is characterized by youth, fragility, and “budding sexuality” . The femme fragile is not a woman of superiority, but a woman in need of patriarchal care. Whether she receives this care or not, her fate as a diseased woman is sealed . Marguerite’s death can at least purge her of her regressions. With nothing to purge, Mimi simply embodies a femme fragile: a woman to be desired for her disease and adored for her death. In Mimi’s pre-Koch consumptive predecessors, including Marguerite, “the essentialist perspective on disease assumes a literary, nonmedical form” , focusing on aesthetic representations rather than medical. Even in the post-Koch reign of tuberculosis, Puccini does not let up on his persistence of Mimi as “conventionally consumptive” despite the new medical knowledge of his time.