A Review of The Bad Mother by Lynn Hunt

“The bad mother” by Lynn Hunt is both a historical and historiographical analysis of Marie-Antoinette and the meanings behind her death during the French Revolution. By analyzing other historians and interjecting her own viewpoint, Hunt explores the visible meaning of what it meant to the people of France to kill the queen. She also explores the not so visible or almost unconscious meaning behind the act. The death of Marie-Antoinette was seen as a continuation of the ideals of the Revolution and how her death was meant to be end to the aristocratic rule in France. Hunt shows why the death of the queen held so much attention to the people of France.

The paper begins by explaining that the king of France was usually thought of as the father of the country. He was the father of the people. He possessed two bodies. One body was his mortal body and the other body was known as the “body politic” or the invisible ideal that never died. Now that the father had been killed by his “children” where did that leave the mother? The queen never held any power in France, and she was only allowed to act as an agent in the interest of her son until he was old enough to rule. Hunt explains that the execution of the queen held a great interest for the people of France, despite the queen’s traditional role of never officially having power. The main question posed in the paper, asks why the people of France held such interest in the death of the queen? Since the queen never embodied the same things as the king, what did the death of the queen embody?

Hunt tries to prove that the death of the queen’s body represented many things. She quotes that the queen’s body was like a hydra, and that each body represented in the hydra was systematically attacked and destroyed because of the perceived threat it posed to the Republic. She goes on to say that Marie-Antoinette “represented not only the ultimate in counterrevolutionary conspiracy but also the menace that the feminine and feminizing presented to the republican notions of manhood and virility.”

The position of the queen as both a model in the private and public sphere was seen as a threat to many in France. The feminizing influence that the queen and women in general had over the king and men in general was viewed with suspicion. Many people saw that men and women were naturally different from one another and when you accept and embrace those differences that can lead the the feminization of the the king and of men. This feminization was manifested in the power the queen, and she was accused of using her body to influence the king and others with her sexual ways and that her sexual body was used to corrupt the body politic.

Hunt mentions that the queen’s body was a “possible profanation of everything that the nation held sacred” and that her body was not something that was looked at as sacred or divine. On the way to her death the queen was criticized by some for showing her usual character of dissimulation and pride up until her last moment. Her dissimulative nature was found especially threatening by the people. People viewed dissimulation with suspicion, because they believed that keeping one’s thoughts and beliefs to themselves was a characteristic of the aristocracy. To the people and according to Hunt, “Transparency was the perfect fit between public and private; transparency was a body that told no lies and kept no secrets.” The dissimulative body of Marie-Antoinette was the perceived opposite of what the people saw as transparent, and if the queen’s body was not transparent, then she was hiding something and thus acting against the Revolution. To hide ones feelings in the public sphere was seen as a feminizing trait exhibited by women, and that women in public who exhibited the dissimulative manners were going against revolutionary ideals. The queen, as a member of the public sphere elicited negative responses to her dissimulative demeanor in the public sphere.

Incest was another theme used by Hunt in trying to express a part of the queen’s body that came under attack. The charge of incest was shown during the queen’s trial as a way to damage her motherly credentials as well as charge that the aristocracy was criminal in nature because of their incestuous actions. In the case of Marie-Antoinette’s son, it was insinuated that the accused incestuous actions were not done because of a need for pleasure by the queen, but because she was trying to use her corrupt femininity to influence the future king. People believed that Marie-Antoinette was trying to control the future king by ruling his morals. The charge of incest was viewed as pertinent to the queen, because she was constantly being accused of sexual promiscuity.

Sexual promiscuity is another theme that Hunt used in the article to show how the queen’s body came under attack. Hunt gives the reader many examples of the pamphlets and newspapers published about Marie-Antoinette that painted her in a promiscuous light. The constant attention paid the the queen’s sexual behavior shows an example of how her promiscuity relates to how the aristocracy lacks in morality. Hunt tries to explain that people believed that sexual degeneration went hand in hand with political corruption. Any woman in the public sphere who practices these kinds of acts had to have been seen as a negative influence on the nation.

It was because of the queen’s perceived faults that so many feared the disintegration of the gender boundaries that came with the Revolution. If the queen was the ultimate of women in the public sphere, opponents of women’s rights looked to her perceived behavior as a serious threat to the establishment of gender roles. If the queen was doing these things, what would stop their wives from doing them as well? Since the queen embodied ideals that were counterrevolutionary, she could further those counterrevolutionary ideals in other women and threaten the established boundaries of family and society.

It seems a major point that Hunt is trying to make in this paper is that the death of Marie-Antoinette was so important to the people of France, because it helped define the place of women during and after the Revolution. Women wanted to know how their roles were going to change in the context of the Revolution. It was asked, that after the death of the king/father, where did that leave mother? After the death of Marie-Antoinette the women’s question was answered for the time being. Although the queen probably did not have any interest in the feminism of the time, she was an unwitting figure head of women during the Revolution. By killing the queen, the French essentially killed off everything that was viewed as anti-revolutionary about women and killed off questions about where women would fit in the new France. Women’s roles became somewhat defined once again.

The themes presented by Hunt do a good job in showing those ideals that were either reviled or revered in the queen by the people of France and why the death of the queen was so important in defining the place of women during that time. She shows quite effectively the traits of the “bad mother” and how those traits were embodied in the image of Marie-Antoinette. After her death, women had a template with which to be proper “good” mothers of the republic.

The theme of dissimulation showed that by the very nature of women, it was counterrevolutionary to hide ones feelings and beliefs in the public sphere. And since dissimulation was a feminist trait (according to some), women had no place in the public sphere. The dissimulative nature of the queen was wrong in the context of how women should behave in the public sphere. The theme of sexual promiscuity and incest were effectively used by Hunt to show that these practices were not looked upon favorably by the people. And it was again wrong in the context of how women should behave in the public sphere. The very nature of feminism is threatening to the public sphere (according to some of the people) and to the masculinity of men. So a “good” woman or a “good” mother is supposed to be the opposite of what was embodied in Marie-Antoinette.

I believe that Lynn Hunt was effective in answering her question on why the people of France were so interesting in the death of the queen. Her argument that Marie-Antoinette was the embodiment of counterrevolution and the ideal of a “bad” mother was very apparent in the themes she presented to the reader. The death of the queen was important to the people of France, and it showed woman what it was to be a “bad” mother. While at the same time showing women how to be a “good” mother.

About Matthew Schroder

There is no shortage of science fiction reading here. No lack of appreciation for beards, love of coffee or obsession over blueberries.