HALLOWEEN 2017: BY CHARITY BISHOP
The women of Beguiled live in a world of illusions, separate from the external world, where their perceptions form the basis of their reality, but over the course of the film, their darker motives come to light. The film shows the deeper, bitter nature of women, and forces them to abandon their self-perception of “angels of mercy.” The story reverses the usual traditional gender roles, with the man adopting feminine attitudes and behaviors (beguiling the women) and the women being not helpless damsels in distress, but ruthless and cunning.
The story begins with a child from a ladies’ finishing school during the Civil War stumbling across a wounded Yankee soldier, Corporal McBurney, in the woods. She feels sorry for him, so she escorts him home, where their teacher, Miss Martha, has reservations about allowing an enemy into the house, but cannot let him bleed out on the porch, either. She cleans and stitches his wound and allows him to stay until he is “strong enough” for the Union army to take him prisoner. Miss Martha has several chances to turn him over to the army before it pulls out, but finds excuses each time, because she enjoys his male company. The girls agree with her. To the eldest, Edwina, he offers freedom from the constraints of her life, and his tender words touch her soul; she soon falls in love with him. And for Alicia, he promises a sexual awakening, as she longs for experiences outside books and sewing lessons. Even the smaller girls become fond of him as he flatters and thanks them for their kindnesses.
To McBurney, however, it is a game to stay out of Union hands, so he becomes more and more useful, while desperate to find a place among them. And then, he makes a terrible misjudgment which has devastating consequences for all of them, when he reacts to a decision with violence. He becomes a problem… and the women band together to save themselves.
The rest of this article contains spoilers, although since it is a remake of another film, and the book has been out many years, you may know the end: McBurney becomes violent and abusive toward the girls, whom have taken his leg after a near-fatal fall that broke open his wound. He intends to punish them, and to protect themselves, the girls murder him through a plate of poisoned mushrooms.
It is an interesting story that can both subvert a mythological trope and fulfill it; women as predatory goes back throughout history, from the sirens of sea lore who lured sailors to their deaths to Eve in the book of Genesis, the embodiment of feminine traits as seen through an ancient culture’s eyes, as she bites of the forbidden fruit, and leads Adam into temptation. Here, is much the same; the sirens of the school lure McBurney into their midst, assume a veil of Christian kindness and compassion to conceal their darker, more selfish intentions (they keep him from the Union officers to ‘prey upon him’ and fulfill their sexual fantasies and needs for flattery and male companionship), and turn against and consume /kill him. McBurney takes part in his own downfall, through his desire to live — and his anger when they ‘turn on him’ after his fall. He perceives them taking his leg as ‘revenge’ because he went neither to Miss Martha nor to Edwina’s rooms that night, but chose the younger, more nubile and forward Alicia instead. (And she, to cover her indiscretion, lies to protect her virtue: “He forced his way into my room!”)
There is some truth in every personification even if it comes from a biased mind; the Genesis poem embodies the nature of man and woman in their overall behaviors and what the authors gathered from human observation (the woman’s “sin” is to desire knowledge, which reflects the female tendency to be contemplative or attain security through deeper awareness; her curse is to bring children to this world in terrible pain, and to ‘desire the man, and to be dominated by the man,’ which shows the struggle between the sexes and women’s hatred of being ‘controlled’).
The Beguiled’s disturbing truth lies in the lies its characters tell themselves at each turn, as they pave a path of destruction and death through an illusion of compassion. McBurney did not need to lose his leg or die, but he suffers and dies because of female pride (and his choices, too). The girls lie to themselves and each other; they insist he should stay because he will die if he leaves, the Union officers might treat him poorly, etc., but their entire motive is selfish… they want a man around, and the three eldest seek romantic gratification from his flattery.
Self-delusion comes in many forms, but it can be as simple as a denial of our motives. If we are not honest with ourselves and others over what we want, our intentions and what we hope to gain from others, we risk a trap of self-delusion. Sometimes, we are knowingly lying to ourselves, other times we refuse to see the truth of our own selfish motives. To admit them makes us seem a bad person, because it admits a selfish intention… but it is in the darkness where shame lies, and it feeds on pride. For some women, such as Miss Martha and Edwina, it is a loss of pride to admit you do not want to be alone, that you need and want a romantic other in your life. For Alicia, she never excused her sexual fascination, only acted upon it, but her rashness led to his downfall.
If we are not careful, our delusions can destroy the reality we want most, just as the women brought McBurney into the house to protect him… and ended up destroying him.