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Defiant Odalisques: Exoticism, Resistance and the Female Body in Nineteenth Century Fiction

Piya Pal-Lapinski, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Most studies of European exoticism tend to emphasize its complicity with the hegemonic or imperialistic gaze. This dissertation takes a different approach--exploring the tensions/connections between exoticism and resistance within European culture, especially with regard to representations of the exoticized female body. Its interdisciplinary range spans the 19th century British novel, the work of French and British orientalist artists (particularly Gerome), discourses on ethnology, medicine and criminology, conduct books for women, and the operas of Puccini and Bizet. I argue that several artistic constructions of the exoticized woman (in both male and female authored texts) enact ambivalences which rupture and destabilize the ideological structures of domesticity and imperialism. Moreover, I theorize the figure of the Eastern odalisque (which has so far been analyzed as the passive, eroticized object of the European male gaze) as an equivocal, racially hybrid female body, aligning it with the European courtesan. I redefine the odalisque broadly, as including (and blurring) the categories of harem woman, public dancer, nomad, vampire, and courtesan. I argue that often, the hybridized odalisque not only returns a compelling gaze of her own, but also articulates a powerful, transgressive female presence, continually negotiating cultural anxieties about female self-display and miscegenation. The Introduction and Chapter One survey Puccini's opera Turandot, paintings of seraglio interiors by orientalist artists, medical and ethnological texts by Acton, Ryan, Knox, Lombroso and Ferrero, and the positioning of the courtesan. I read Merimee's gypsy Carmen, LeFanu's vampire Carmilla, and Wilkie Collins's detective Marian Halcombe as exoticized women who unravel the plots of Victorian ethnology. Chapter Two explores the possibilities and limitations of female visibility, power and appetite through a discussion of the "haunted odalisques" in Charlotte Bronte's fiction. Chapter Three examines the dynamics of female adornment within orchestrations of imperial spectacle and regulated self-display in Collins's The Moonstone and No Name, and Trollope's The Eustace Diamonds. The final chapter investigates the links between the racialization of disease (in Victorian imperial medicine) and female insurgence in the fiction of colonial novelist Flora Steel, focusing particularly on the ethnology of the Indian courtesan.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature|European history|Art history

Recommended Citation

Pal-Lapinski, Piya, "Defiant Odalisques: Exoticism, Resistance and the Female Body in Nineteenth Century Fiction" (1997). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9809379.