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THE FEMME MATADOR AND THE BUTTERFLY: GENDERED STRENGTH IN MARYSE CONDÉ’S LES DERNIERS ROIS MAGES

Bonnie Thomas

On a reading of a selection of French Caribbean literature, one striking emergent theme is that of the strong woman and the weak man. In this interpretation, strength can be defined as the ability to be true to yourself, to rise above your life circumstances and to exhibit a degree of moral courage. Frequently these traits are linked to women in the French Caribbean, encapsulated above all in the image of the femme matador. The term weakness, by contrast, can be ascribed to the character who lacks a sense of self and who resorts to different forms of destruction, whether it be violence towards oneself or others, as a reaction against one’s inability to cope with life. The fragile butterfly, which flits from blossom to blossom with no sense of enduring responsibility, effectively symbolizes the attitude of many Caribbean men who display these less savoury qualities associated with weakness. The evocative images of the femme matador and the butterfly thus become powerful symbols of a recurrent theme in Martinican and Guadeloupean literature.

There are many studies which attest to the prominence of women in the Caribbean family, both in bringing up the children and in providing a regular income. Francesca Velayoudom Faithful writes that women are traditionally the stronghold of the family and that the mother passes on the flame of responsibility to her daughter. Typical recollections of a daughter towards her mother include those by Agathe, a 20-year-old woman, who says “Our family was my mother” and Gerty, a 28-year-old teacher, “She is really a woman who sacrificed everything for her family, her children and I think she succeeded.” In contrast to the strength and stability of the mother, many children remember the absence of their father and the irregularity of his involvement in the family. A 62-year-old agricultural worker, Georgette, speaks of her father: “My father? Well, my father didn’t acknowledge me…He never acknowledged any of his children and he had a lot of children: 6 to different mothers.” Patrick Chamoiseau has also remarked on this phenomenon, noting that “the culture of the family remains matrifocal. That is to say, the big, fundamental decisions are always made, initiated, carried out and organized by women in a more or less direct manner.” Sociologists such as Raymond Smith have demonstrated that a range of households do exist in the Caribbean, including some with male heads, even though the majority may be matrifocal. In a historical and literary acknowledgement of this situation, the novel Texaco , by Chamoiseau, features a woman as the founder of the real-life Martinican suburb, Texaco. In his words, “it’s almost impossible that it would be a man...it’s completely plausible, normal and historical that women founded Texaco.” As all of these testaments illustrate, the Caribbean woman is at the centre of the family and the one who provides both the material and emotional needs of her children, partner and society.

There is an abundance of Creole proverbs that highlight the strength of Caribbean women as opposed to Caribbean men. Faithful includes a powerful example made famous in Simone Schwarz-Bart’s Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle to demonstrate the fortitude of Caribbean women: “One’s breasts are never too heavy for one’s chest.” Drawing on a striking maternal image, this proverb highlights the idea that no matter what difficulties there are in life, women always have the strength to cope with them. Maryse Condé introduces another proverb which makes a memorable distinction between women and men by likening them to different kinds of fruit. “’Fem-n ce chataign, n’hom-ce fouyapin’ [Women is a chestnut and man is a bread fruit].” For Condé, although these two trees closely resemble each other in physical appearance, there is an important difference in the way that they drop their fruit. When the chestnut tree arrives at maturity, it releases a large number of small fruits with a hard skin, similar to European chestnuts, designed to withstand different weather conditions. The breadfruit, by contrast, spreads itself out into a whitish purée that the sun quickly turns rotten. In Condé’s eyes, this proverb pays tribute to woman’s capacity for survival and to her superior ability for adapting to changing circumstances. Indeed, such women embody the qualities of the femme matador, this resonant and recurring character in French Caribbean literature. {{(...)}}

{{Bonnie Thomas}}
_ {University of Western Australia}

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