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A Feminist Perspective on The Flea

Looking at John Donne's The Flea through a feminist lens.

Mads Ash

on 9 March 2014

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Transcript of A Feminist Perspective on The Flea

Donne's poem also illustrates how a woman's worth was equated to her virginity and marriage potential. If she was to lose her virginity before marriage she would be seen as "damaged goods." In this time period if she was found to not be virtuous she would be disowned. However for the persona to have slept with a woman only enhances his masculine reputation. The persona also references marriage as the woman moves to squash the flea; "where we almost, yea, more married than are." Likening this insect that has a parasitic symbiotic relationship with humans, to a "marriage bed." He manipulates the Elizabethan concepts of marriage to suit his present purpose. Because they are "married" he insists she give to her all the patriarchy has deemed her worth. For the woman to crush the flea would be to desecrate the noble institution of marriage and disrespect the church that the flea has become symbolic of. He uses marriage to argue that this is his right as a male and her duty as a female is to surrender her "maiden-head" her only precious possession.
A Feminist Perspective on The Flea
To summarize, the poem excellently illustrates the power imbalance which feminism critiques and aims to dismantle. The persona's ability to joke about the woman's virginity displays his male privilege, and the equation of the woman's virginity with her worth demonstrates how the institution of marriage reinforces gender inequality. However the Woman's voice, while silent has an impact on the poem. Through her strong refusal to engage in intercourse shows she plays into the "good girl" gender roles, she defies the stereotype of being "docile" by crushing the flea.
The poem portrays the persona attempting to persuade his (female) lover to engage in amorous relations through the analogy of a "The Flea". He argues facetiously that if sexual intercourse is but "bloods mingling" then given they were both bitten by the flea they have already had sex. Suddenly his lover moves to kill the flea, possibly in an attempt to squash his argument; he begs her not to emphasising that they are joined in the flea. When she finally kills the flea, he notes how easy it was for her to do so, as it is a "little thing" much like what she "deniest him".
The Persona.
The persona is male, which affords him privileges denied to the woman in this poem. Due to his male privilege he is able to joke about an issue which, for the time, was highly sensitive. As such he doesn't have to worry about honour because he is male, thus losing his "purity" presents no issue. In fact, this demonstrates the stud/slut paradox created by patriarchal gender roles. He seems cruel for not recognising the ramifications his lover might have to face, but he is simply blinded by his entrenchment in gender roles, he doesn't see how her future could be affected. As such he has the liberty of joking about sex because he holds the power in the relationship (there's no consequences for him).
The Woman.
The woman of the poem is voiceless however her actions speak loudly as the persona narrates her movement to crush the flea and her killing blow to the insect. Her choice to squash this symbol of "marriage" and intercourse between them paints her as society's ideal good girl who resists temptations. We like her because of this as she seems intelligent enough to recognise that he is being completely facetious about an act that could have severe consequences for her in the future. Her less than ladylike vanquishing of the flea, and the persona's advancements with it, can be seen as uncommon and ahead of her time, endearing her more so to contemporary readers. Her destruction of his flea symbolism brings the two back to reality and denounces his argument reminding him that it was a small insect and nothing more. Though her lower status as a female in this period is once again realised as the persona compares the insignificance of the flea to her fear and reluctance to have the sex with him.
The Flea by John Donne
Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It suck'd me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.
Thou know'st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead;
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pamper'd swells with one blood made of two;
And this, alas ! is more than we would do.

O stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.
Though parents grudge, and you, we're met,
And cloister'd in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it suck'd from thee?
Yet thou triumph'st, and say'st that thou
Find'st not thyself nor me the weaker now.
'Tis true ; then learn how false fears be;
Just so much honour, when thou yield'st to me,
Will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee.
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