The New Femme Fatale: Agency and Victimhood in Judith
In a dichotomy that continues to plague media representations of female sexuality to this day, biblical women have a strong history of falling into one of two unflattering characterizations: victim or villain. Particularly where sexuality is involved, these women often even manage to fulfill both roles, falling victim to the consequences of their own sexual evils. Both the wielders and the victims of their uncurbed sexuality, these women lure men to their demise, often while also meeting their own. Eve, the archetypal fallen woman, on whose shoulders rests the blame for mankind’s earthly suffering, has successors throughout the Old Testament in numerous biblical seductresses, including Bathsheba, Delilah, and of course, the still colloquially infamous Jezebel.
In many ways, the apocryphal Judith surfaces not only as a departure, but perhaps even as a subversion of this problematic trope. Unlike her seductive counterparts, Judith is neither victim nor villain, but, in fact, hero. Throughout her narrative, Judith maintains complete control over her own sexuality, manipulating it in a calculated—and God-sanctioned—attempt to exploit her enemy. Even with this manipulative edge, however, Judith is not presented as a cautionary tale of the dangers of female sexuality. Thus, Judith resists both the victimhood that plagues Bathsheba’s sexuality, as well as the villainous connotation that haunts Delilah. However, although Judith in many ways subverts the problematic victim-villain dichotomy that plagues many of her biblical counterparts, her narrative ultimately remains hindered by a religious context that refuses to allow Judith full agency. Using the Old English poetic reimagining of Judith as basis for the story, my argument traces the ways in which the narrative attempts to portray Judith as an active hero, but ultimately subverts its own goal, inadvertently stripping Judith of her agency via an over-reliance on traditional religious values, particularly sexual purity.
I. The Heroine
At first glance, the story of Judith manifests as a provocative tale praising female sexuality as a source of power. Using her feminine charm, Judith takes advantage of the villainous Holofernes’ lust and indulgent appetites, murdering him in his bed after he passes out in a drunken stupor. In this way, Judith turns a position of subservience—a woman led to his bed for sexual purposes at his demand—into one of power. Beheading Holofernes in his own bed, Judith appears to subvert a narrative that sees women as victims of sexual objectification, instead establishing one in which women use their sexuality for power.
Caryn Tamber-Rosenau also sees Judith, in her original apocryphal incarnation, as something of a rare biblical feminist icon. Taking note, as I have, of Judith’s ability to maintain both innocence and heroism within a narrative that illustrates her as both sexual and ultimately homicidal, Tamber-Rosenau contrasts Judith with two other notable “biblical bathing beauties,” Bathsheba and Susanna. Both Bathsheba and Susanna succumb to the male gaze, becoming the victims of their own sexuality as well as the villainous culprits whose seductive art, however unwitting, is responsible for a male hero’s demise. By contrast, Judith, argues Tamber-Rosenau, “grabs control of the male gaze and doesn’t let go, using this gaze to further her own ends” (71). In this way, Judith becomes an active subject in a way that neither of her counterparts are able to. Judith is not the unwitting victim of her own attractiveness that both Bathsheba and Susanna become in the hands—or eyes—of the voyeurs who desire them. As Tamber-Rosenau notes, Judith is spared the punishment her counterparts receive for their sexuality. “Here,” she argues, “the gazed-upon does not suffer. Instead, the reader skips right to the retribution visited upon the gazer” (70). Judith’s sexuality is not a source of vulnerability. Rather, it is a form of strength, ultimately a weapon over which she maintains, and actively wields, complete control.
What sets Judith apart from her objectified counterparts, ultimately, is that she is not condemned for her actions. The Bible’s other most notoriously sexual women are often victims, along with the men they seduce, of their own sexuality, and face their demise even when they do not knowingly or actively wield this sexual prowess. Meanwhile, those that do, the deliberate temptresses and seductresses like Delilah and Jezebel, are offered as warnings of the dangers of female sexuality. Interestingly, Judith manages to escape both these roles. She is neither the passive victim whose sexuality is preyed upon, nor does her active and deliberate seduction of Holofernes condemn her to an eternity as a villain. Instead, Judith manages to become a hero, despite her overt sexuality and her deliberate use of it for destructive purposes. Throughout the poem, she maintains a number of honorable titles and epithets, “the holy woman” (l. 97), “the noble one” (l. 256), “the courageous woman” (l. 107), and is rewarded by God with “honor and glory in the kingdom of this earth, and also as her reward in heaven” (l. 342-43). In this way, Judith resists being either victimized or vilified by her sexuality, paving the way for a new tradition of literary heroines using their charm to their advantage that would reemerge centuries later in the form of Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp or Gone With the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara. Like Judith, these women become formidable rather than dangerous. They are powerful and cunning, but remain sympathetic characters, rather than villains presented as a warning.
II. The Faithful Servant
While Judith’s tale initially reads as an unexpected early feminist triumph lurking in the Apocrypha, the story, particularly its reincarnation in Old English poetry, ultimately still reinforces a less-than-groundbreaking view of female power and sexuality. In fact, the poem’s very attempts to “save” Judith, to spare her any blame or villainization for her actions, ultimately strip her of the authority and agency that made her such an impressive feminist hero in the first place. Through the poem’s insistence on maintaining Judith’s innocence and purity, the heroine becomes less a free agent of her own sexuality, and instead a vehicle of God. The story devolves from a provocative tale of a woman warrior to one of a faithful servant of the Lord.
The poem’s inadvertent subversion of its heroine may owe, in part, to the cultural climate into which the story’s Old English reincarnation was born, one increasingly dominated by Christianity and its rigid sexual mores. The poem is essentially a Christian translation of the Jewish text, featuring anachronistic references to Christ throughout. Judith, in her Christian reincarnation, is referred to as “the Saviour’s handmaiden” and appeals to the “glorious Trinity” (l. 74, 86). This Christian influence also manifests in the poem’s ultimately pejorative treatment of sexuality.
While at first glance, the story of Judith appears to be a rare instance in which a biblical woman is free to use her sexuality as a source of power, it is important to note that, at least in the Old English poem, Judith’s narrative does not actually praise sexuality, either male or female. The poem consistently reinforces Judith’s sexual purity. Though not a virgin, Judith is a chaste widow, a status which grants her such repeated epithets as “the blessed maiden,” “the Lord’s Maiden,” and “the daring maiden” (l. 35, 166, 334.) In fact, Judith’s sexual purity seems to be her main source of praise throughout the poem.
Meanwhile, the poem’s villain, the evil Holofernes, is characterized as such primarily by his sexual appetites. Holofernes is condemned throughout the text as “the licentious one,” whose desire for Judith appears to be the direct result of his corrupt state (l. 256). While the poem traces Judith’s heroism primarily through her sexual chastity, it likewise establishes Holoferenes’ evil through his sexual deviance. Meanwhile, another important feature of the story is that the sexuality Judith wields remains unconsummated. With the help of God, “the holy maiden” escapes her fate of sexual “defilement” at the hands of Holofernes: “He intended to violate the bright woman with defilement and with sin” (l. 59). The repeated praise of Judith’s maidenhood throughout the poem indicates that she would not have been as heartily rewarded by God had her sexual purity been compromised. Ultimately, although Judith’s sexuality grants her a position of power, her heroic status comes with the implicit demand that her sexuality remain unconsummated. Thus, the story ultimately continues the tradition of separating sexuality and heroism. While Judith can toy with the idea of sex and sexuality and tease to her advantage, she must ultimately remain chaste in order to maintain hero status.
Meanwhile, the poem’s almost didactic condemnation of sexuality alongside its obvious promotion of chastity ultimately only serves to strip Judith of her agency and authority. In her analysis, Tamber-Rosenau goes on to argue that Judith not only escapes the fate of her victimized and vilified biblical counterparts, but ultimately manages to “subvert and even reverse it,” by rendering Holofernes, in his highly aroused state, both an object and victim of his own sexuality (Tamber-Rosenau 71). I argue, however, that this intense focus on Holofernes’ sexuality ultimately strips, or at least weakens, Judith’s role in his demise. By painting Holofernes as a victim of his sexual desires, Judith becomes not so much a victor over evil as Holofernes is simply a victim of his own lust. Symbolically, as well, Holofernes seems to be more the victim and perpetrator of his own demise than Judith is an active victor over his evil. As Tamber-Rosenau notes, Holofernes is killed by his own sword (65). Understanding the sword as a phallic symbol, this image reinforces the notion that Holofernes’ death is ultimately the result of his licentious appetites. In emphasizing Judith’s purity alongside Holofernes’ sexual depravity, the narrative weakens Judith’s role in the execution while painting Holofernes as the primary executor of his own demise, ultimately reducing the initially provocative tale of a female warrior into something of a parable of prudence and chastity.
Similarly, Judith’s agency in the story is again reduced by her reliance on God. Throughout the poem, Judith’s actions are relentlessly God-sanctioned. Before beheading Holofernes, Judith first appeals to God in prayer. In answer, God “inspired her immediately with great zeal,” without which, it is implied, Judith would not have had the strength to complete the execution. Once again, Judith’s own actions pale and she becomes an agent not of her own will, but of God’s.
The story of Judith, particularly the version told in the Old English poem, goes to great lengths to protect its heroine, firmly establishing her as a chaste and devoted servant of God. As Tamber-Rosenau admits, Judith’s sexuality is ultimately tempered by its pious aims. Likewise, “She prays so fervently before beginning her mission in part because her actions will be transgressive; she must cloak them in piety and divine approval” (70-71). Ultimately, these attempts within the text to “save” Judith’s character through assertions of her chastity and faithfulness only serve to strip her of her agency, sexual and otherwise, and diminish her budding role as an early feminist icon. While Judith remains in some ways a departure from the traditional villain-victim dichotomy framing female sexuality in biblical texts, her story is ultimately a testament to the constraints on female sexuality within a cultural climate dominated by rigid sexual mores that still reverberate throughout literature and media today.
“Judith.” Old and Middle English: An Anthology, edited by Elaine Treharne, Blackwell, 2000, pp. 197-211.
Tamber-Rosenau, Caryn. “Biblical Bathing Beauties and the Manipulation of the Male Gaze: What Judith Can Tell Us about Bathsheba and Susanna.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, vol. 33, no. 2, 2017, pp. 55-72. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Oct. 2017.
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