Tracing Female Agency: From ‘Poor Things’ to the ‘Lulu Cycle’ and ‘Faust’

February 29, 2024 8 mins to read
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Michael Garcia Mujica
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The Narrative of Poor Things

The narrative of Poor Things, both in Alasdair Gray’s novel and its adaptation by Yorgos Lanthimos, presents a compelling exploration of themes related to female agency, identity, and autonomy, engaging in a dialogic intertextuality with seminal works such as Frank Wedekind’s Lulu Cycle and Goethe’s Faust. This interplay not only enriches the text’s thematic depth but also positions Poor Things within a continuum of literary and philosophical discourse on the nature of human desire, manipulation, and the quest for knowledge and freedom.


Lulu Reimagined: Tracing Female Agency

Wedekind’s Lulu Cycle, with its central figure navigating through a labyrinth of societal expectations, personal desires, and the destructive consequences of uninhibited freedom, resonates deeply with the story of Bella Baxter in Poor Things. Both Lulu and Bella serve as avatars of female agency, albeit manifested in vastly different narrative and thematic landscapes. Lulu’s character, often seen as a femme fatale, challenges the patriarchal constraints of her time, wielding her sexuality as both a means of empowerment and a catalyst for downfall. Similarly, Bella, resurrected with the brain of an infant in a woman’s body, experiences the world anew, challenging societal norms and expectations with a blend of innocence and assertiveness. The parallel lies in the women’s navigation of their identities and desires within a male-dominated society, offering a critique of the ways in which female agency is perceived, feared, and often, subdued.


Reflections of Faustian Bargains

The thematic undercurrents of Poor Things also draw a significant parallel to Goethe’s Faust, particularly in the exploration of the Faustian bargain — the pursuit of knowledge, power, and transcendence at a great moral and existential cost. Bella’s creation by Dr. Godwin Baxter mirrors Faust’s pact with Mephistopheles, highlighting the themes of creation, the quest for enlightenment, and the ethical quandaries that accompany such endeavors. Dr. Baxter’s act of resurrecting Bella, thus granting her a second life devoid of past traumas, mirrors Faust’s insatiable desire for knowledge and experience beyond the human condition. However, whereas Faust grapples with the moral implications of his choices, Poor Things shifts the focus towards Bella’s autonomy and her journey of self-discovery and empowerment, challenging the patriarchal structures that seek to define and limit her existence.


The On-the-Nose Relation

The explicit connection of Poor Things to the Lulu Cycle and Faust not only underscores the text’s engagement with the themes of desire, manipulation, and the quest for autonomy but also situates Bella’s character as a modern-day iteration of these timeless narratives. Her journey is emblematic of a postmodern reimagining of the femme fatale and the Faustian protagonist, navigating a world where the lines between innocence and culpability, freedom and entrapment, are blurred. This narrative strategy invites readers and viewers alike to reconsider the implications of female agency and autonomy through a lens that is both critical and empathetic, challenging the traditional narratives that have long defined and constrained women’s roles in literature and society.


In Essence, Poor Things

Poor Things serves as a narrative palimpsest, layering contemporary concerns over the textured canvases of Wedekind and Goethe, to interrogate the complexities of female agency, the ethics of creation and manipulation, and the perennial quest for self-actualization and freedom. It is a testament to the enduring relevance of these themes and their capacity to resonate across different epochs, cultures, and forms of expression.


The Legacy of Louise Brooks and the Traces of Naked on My Goat

Further exploring female agency, the figure of Louise Brooks emerges with compelling resonance, particularly when considering her unpublished memoir, Naked on My Goat. This title, a direct allusion to a defiant passage from Goethe’s Faust, encapsulates Brooks’s audacious spirit and her intrinsic connection to the themes of autonomy and self-expression that pervade the Lulu Cycle and Faust. This subsection delves into the significance of Brooks’s legacy and how it intertwines with the broader narrative of Poor Things and the historical discourse on female agency.

Louise Brooks: Between Lulu and Gretchen

Louise Brooks, with her enigmatic presence both on and off the screen, personifies the Lulu archetype—a symbol of unapologetic freedom and the complexities of navigating female identity within a patriarchal society. Her decision to name her memoir Naked on My Goat serves as a poignant emblem of her life’s philosophy, tracing the themes of liberation and the pursuit of authentic existence that define both Lulu and Goethe’s Gretchen. In Brooks, we observe not merely an actress but a figure who embodies the tumultuous dance of desire, autonomy, and the consequences of defying societal norms.

Brooks’s narrative, as it unfolds in Lulu in Hollywood, offers a compelling mirror to the whimsical yet introspective journey of Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Just as Alice navigates a realm of bewildering encounters that challenge her perceptions and assert her burgeoning sense of self, Brooks’s autobiographical sketches reveal a woman in constant negotiation with her identity, wrestling with the constraints of fame and the liberating yet often isolating pursuit of artistic integrity and personal freedom.

Moreover, the invocation of Gretchen alongside Lulu in Brooks’s persona highlights a profound intertextuality. Gretchen, as a character deeply ensnared by societal and moral confines leading to tragedy, juxtaposes with Lulu’s and Brooks’s narrative arcs of resistance and self-discovery. Brooks, in her life and through her memoir, navigates the perilous intersections of visibility and vulnerability, echoing Gretchen’s innocence and Lulu’s daring in the face of societal judgment and personal turmoil.

This interweaving of literary and cinematic histories — from Faust and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to the real-world trials and triumphs of Louise Brooks — paints a nuanced portrait of female agency. It underscores the enduring struggle against and beyond the liminal spaces of identity, where the personal becomes political, and the act of living authentically is both a rebellion and a reclamation.

In exploring these narratives, we uncover the layers of Brooks’s legacy as not just a silver-screen icon but as a modern-day Gretchen and Lulu, navigating the wonderland of early Hollywood with a complexity and depth that continues to resonate. Her stories, both lived and written, serve as a testament to the intricate dance of navigating one’s autonomy in a world that often seeks to confine and define it.

Faustian Traces and Feminine Defiance

The passage from Faust that inspired Brooks’s memoir title, “Powder becomes, like petticoat, A gray and wrinkled noddy; So I sit naked on my goat, And show a strapping body,” resonates as a manifesto of female empowerment. It signifies a rejection of societal constraints and an embrace of the raw, unfiltered essence of selfhood. Through this lens, Brooks’s life and the thematic currents of Poor Things converge, presenting a tapestry of narratives that challenge and redefine the parameters of female agency.

Intersecting Narratives: Poor Things, Brooks, and the Quest for Autonomy

The dialogue between Poor Things, the Lulu Cycle, Faust, and the life of Louise Brooks illuminates the enduring struggle and evolution of female agency across different epochs and mediums. Brooks’s legacy, punctuated by her connection to the title Naked on My Goat, enriches our understanding of Bella’s character in Poor Things and the broader historical discourse on women’s autonomy. It invites us to reconsider the power dynamics of storytelling, the valorization of female desire, and the transformative potential of asserting one’s agency against the backdrop of societal expectations.

Reclaiming the Narrative

Louise Brooks’s intended memoir, though never published, symbolizes a reclamation of narrative power and an affirmation of female agency that transcends the boundaries of time and text. Her story, alongside the intertextual exploration of Poor Things, the Lulu Cycle, and Faust, serves as a beacon for understanding the multifaceted nature of female empowerment. In acknowledging Brooks’s legacy, we pay homage to the unyielding spirit of women who, like Bella and Lulu, navigate the complexities of identity and desire in a ceaseless quest for self-determination and freedom.

As Bella Baxter eloquently puts it, “I’m a changeable feast, as are all of we.” This statement not only encapsulates the fluidity and multifaceted nature of female agency but also invites us to reflect on our own capacities for change and self-determination.

What are your thoughts on the evolution of female agency in literature and life? Do you see traces of Bella’s journey in today’s world? Share your reflections in the comments below or on social media.

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