“We Want That Girl”: C. L. Moore’s “Shambleau” as a Sexual Struggle
Written by a 22-year-old woman at the tail end of the first sexual revolution, C.L. Moore’s “Shambleau” (1933) offers a complicated and ultimately positive depiction of female sexuality. Having cast off the oppressive dresses and mores of the Victorian era and gained the right to vote, women cut loose in the 1920s; corsets were exchanged for flapper dresses and women began to openly flaunt their sexuality, asserting their independence by acting in characteristically masculine ways. With the depression came the return of the subdued, affectedly feminine woman in the 1930s. Some might suggest that “Shambleau” is merely Moore’s self-loathing, anti-feminist regurgitation of a cultural rhetoric which paints powerful or sexual women as monstrous, and a deadly threat to white men everywhere. However, its complicated portrayal of an alien woman as seen through a space cowboy’s eyes paints a complex picture of the cultural expectations placed upon women and what happens when they are defied.
Northwest Smith, a figure of patriarchy and colonization of virgin territory, is drawn to care for Shambleau because she appears to be “a girl, and sweetly made and in danger” (112). His phallic heat-gun never far from his side, Smith protects despairing, moaning Shambleau from an enraged mob, who allow him to “keep her” with the warning, “don’t let her out again in this town” (114). Her treatment recalls to Smith’s mind the persecution of witches (114), another time when women were punished for acting atypically. Shambleau’s masquerade of “sweet and submissive and demure” (124) femininity is shattered as she envelops Smith inside herself with a promise whispered “very softly, very passionately, ‘I shall—speak to you now—in my own tongue—oh, beloved!’” (126). Finally able to be and speak as herself, free of her imposed persona, Shambleau is quick to act on her carnal desires with Smith.
Smith’s willingness to be dominated and taken into Shambleau’s strikingly sexual method of feeding on his “life-force” (134) suggests that he approves, and even enjoys, her behavior. Having previously declared, “God knows I’m no angel, but there’s got to be a limit somewhere” (119), Smith finds himself crossing the line defined by society by allowing a woman overtake him and envelope him in her “slimy, ecstatic embrace” and its “obscene tremors of … infinite pleasure” (127). In the “sliding caresses of those warm, wet worms upon his flesh,” he feels a “deeper ecstasy that strikes beyond the body and beyond the mind and tickles the very roots of soul with unnatural delight” (127). Smith is overcome with “conflict and knowledge, this mingling of rapture and revulsion”; this repulsion and conflict are in his mind as he grapples with what he has been taught is natural or right and “some grinning traitor” in the “innermost depths of [his] soul” that “[shivers] with delight” (127). Mixed with every expression of pleasure is a negative: “terrible,” “dreadful,” “perilous,” or “repulsive,” in this “devouring rapture” (127), as one side expresses his affected belief about the event and the other, what he actually feels.
Although traditional wisdom, as presented by his Venusian friend Yarol, considers the Shambleau a monster, Northwest Smith is yet unconvinced. Intrigued by this newly discovered source of “root-deep ecstasy” (127), he cannot promise not to return for more. Feeling “fouled and filthy to the very deepest part of [him] by that—pleasure,” “a pleasure so sweet,” Smith longs to remember and recapture what he experienced with Shambleau, damn the consequences (134). When Yarol asks Smith to promise that if he “ever should meet a Shambleau again—ever, anywhere—[he’ll] draw [his] gun and burn it to hell,” Smith can only weakly say with a waver in his voice, “I’ll—try” (127). Repeating the action of drawing a line and dividing himself and Shambleau from the judgmental mob (112), Smith aligns himself with Shambleau against Yarol by failing to adopt his murderous regard for the alien woman. Although Smith never emphatically recognizes Shambleau as a self-actualized woman, his unwillingness to completely reject her ultimately makes this a positive endorsement of empowered female sexuality.
The lack of clear-cut resolution in “Shambleau” stops it short of endorsing the empowered, sexually free woman. However, the conflict between boundless pleasure and Smith’s culturally-imposed mores makes it more than a vilification of dominating and dangerous women. Reiterating the theme that women are only something in relation to men, Shambleau’s character is inevitably colored by Smith’s perception of her. Beneath the persona which fulfills all of Smith’s expectations of a helpless, harmless, wholly-dependent girl, Shambleau is an unnatural, soul-sucking being which could take his life and essence for her own gratification. What happens to Shambleau is considered less important than her effect on Smith, who is himself changed to reflect the essence of her character, as his eyes appear as a “pale sea with unspeakable pleasures sunk beneath it” (135). Smith’s desire to return to the passion he experienced and lost with Shambleau finally echoes a mourning of the vivacious and salacious flapper lost during the depression.
Moore, C. L. “Shambleau.” The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction. Ed. Arthur B. Evans, et
- Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan UP, 2010. 110-135. Print.
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