Warning: This analysis is going to contain massive amounts of spoilers for the book “The Black Swan” by Mercedes Lackey. If you haven’t read it and you want to avoid spoilers, I’d advise skimming through the whole book at least before reading this analysis. Trigger warning for mentions of rape that occurs in the novel.
I was reading “The Black Swan” by Mercedes Lackey recently, and I realized that there were certain themes that I observed while reading the book, right from the beginning. I don’t know if it was intentional of the author to incorporate these themes, or if it is simply how I interpret it given that this is the first book I have ever read by this author, but I found it to be an interesting exploration of themes, at least for the first half of the book.
First off, there is the issue of traditional gender roles and the sexism that came with them appearing in the book. Prince Siegfried’s mother Clothilde, the Queen Regent of the kingdom since Siegfried’s father is dead, is unhappy with the fact that her son is turning eighteen and therefore will soon take over the kingdom to rule instead of her. Clothilde believes strongly that Siegfried is unfit to rule, as Siegfried is described to know “how to flatter a woman, but not his knights and ministers; how to bend a horse to his will, but not a man” (23). Siegfried’s mother uses her slyness and wit to manipulate the men around her such as her minstrel Uwe by having an affair with him, and plots to find Siegfried potential brides with “wills of butter” (26) that can be easily manipulated by her in the future. Clothilde will not “tamely hand what was hers by right” (29) to Siegfried, and she does everything and anything she can to avoid that fate, even if it means she’d risk killing her son. She even goes as far as to agree to let Rothbart bring Odette as a potential bride for Siegfried because Rothbart’s position would give Clothilde more power in return if Siegfried married her.
Disatisfaction and satisfaction in life is also another theme that appears in the book, albeit much briefer. Siegfried in Chapter Three can’t help but ponder, “What is wrong with me? Why does nothing satisfy me anymore?” (35) Despite all the fun he can have with being able to spend time with his friends and the fact that he is very well-off (he’s the prince, after all), he can’t help but feel like he’s missing something in life. Simiarly, Odile in Chapter Three laments being unable to feel pleased with her magical abilities unless her father approves of her use of her skills.
Vanity is another theme shown in this book. Odile in the first chapter envies Odette and the rest of the swan maidens for their “supernaturally lovely” (16) appearance. In comparison to them, Odile criticizes herself for looking “not unattractive, but too thin and too odd” (15). Even her father complains to Odile about working on her appearance, going as so far to tell her that “Peasants look more pleasing” (15) and that the other swan maidens “look like queens” (15) with Odile being a “drudge” (15) compared to them. Odile uses Odette’s beauty as an excuse for her being captured by Rothbart in the first place, stating in her thoughts that “if you (Odette) had paid half as much attention to the state of your soul as you did to your mirror, you would still sit at your father’s side” (15).
Similarly, Clothilde’s first appearance in Chapter Two of The Black Swan begins with an incredible amount of detail on her worrying about her appearance, using a generous amount of cosmetics to cover her wrinkles and even picking out a specific headdress and coronet to hide her silvering hair. The vast amount of attention she has on her appearance displays just how vain she is in her nature. After hiring the dowerless Adelaide for her skill at embroidery, Clothhilde even goes to the trouble of making sure Adelaide has good clothes to wear, stating that “If my ladies appear less than well-gowned, it reflects poorly on us all.” (146) To Clothihilde, appearance is highly important—not just for her own personal benefit, but also for her social standing.
Rothbart’s justification for his kidnapping of young women and turning them into swans is because they have been unfaithful in some way. Rothbart even describes Clothhilde as “corrupt as Jezebel and as evil as Lilith” (164) as he is aware of her plans to betray her own son Siegfried. Essentially, Rothbart’s entire character is based on pure sexism towards women, and it reflects greatly on the treatment of his own daughter as well as the rest of the female characters in the book. While Rothbart allows himself to not just have mastery in magic but also trains himself physically against other male warriors, he discourages Odile from doing the same, claiming that she has “other weapons than strength against such a lusty young man” (9) and can simply “lure him into complacency” (9), in other words she can just seduce or manipulate him, simply because she is a female. Rothbart seems to strongly believe that skills such as seduction and manipulation are “second nature” (9) for all women. This strongly irks Odile, but she knows she cannot just protest against her father, at least not initially.
The sexism continues in conversation between Siegfried and his friends in Chapter Three. Siegfried’s friend Benno’s response to Dorian’s complaint about being “chained down” (33) to a “homely sack” (33) is to “get her with child and then take your pleasure elsewhere” (33). Siegfried himself says nothing in protest, but is internally disgusted with how his friends talk about their brides-to-be. Interestingly enough, however, Siegfried thinks of his mother’s court to be “that of a woman—slow, sleepy and dull” (34). Siegfried and his friends have in Chapter Four that turns from a discussion of courtly love to a demeaning discussion about women in general. Siegfried is also just as disgusted this to the point that he actually shuts down the conversation. Benno and Wolfgang, Siegfried’s tutor, take this opportunity to discuss Siegfried’s own promiscuity. Siegfried himself admits that he has no intention to marry anytime soon and would rather just bed the next beautiful woman he finds. By the day after the conversation, he already is hunting for “quarry” (64) that has “two legs, not four” (64). To Siegfried initially, women are seemingly nothing more than sex objects that are easily replaced, but even he has some standards regarding how to talk about women, at least in public, so that he looks somewhat respectable.
Going away from themes for a moment, there is a horrible and notable situation where Siegfried rapes a young gypsy woman in Chapter Four of the book. Siegfried is angered by her seeming disengagement in the event, thinking “If she didn’t want me, why did she play with me?” (74) because he believed that her running away from him initially had been because she was being coy, not because she was frightened of him. He doesn’t realize until after she dies by suicide that he has done wrong to her, and visions of her come back to haunt him nightly. When he later goes to confess to the priest about the crime, even the priest seems more amused by the fact that Siegfried committed the crime rather than more concerned that it was Siegfried’s rape of the young woman that led to her death by suicide. When Siegfried later mentions in the conversation with the priest that he “threw her a few coins” (126) before leaving her, the priest concludes that Siegfried “better off than she had been before” (126). The priest then concludes that Siegfried’s hallucinations of the woman are not because of his guilt, but because she “cursed” (127) him instead, and gives Siegfried a penance of fasting all day and then spend the night in the chapel at a vigil on his knees, praying the rosary until dawn. It is only after this penance and a vision Siegfried experiences involving the woman he raped and an angel alongside her that Siegfried decides to change his philandering ways and become a better person.
The problem I have with this entire situation regarding the rape is that even if Siegfried did indeed realize that what he did was absolutely wrong, that he was the one in the fault regarding the situation and tries to better himself after it, this situation never gets brought up again. Odette gets her own scene where she is forced to admit the truth that she herself is not exactly all that good (she manipulated others to run away from home to get out of what would have otherwise been an unhappy marriage), and yet Siegfried never has to confront the rape situation ever again. Granted, when Siegfried and Odette are in love with each other it would be bad for Odette to ever hear that the man she loved actually went and raped someone, but I honestly think that the lack of confronting this truth in the book made this whole situation feel unconcluded and lacking. Though both characters have developed to try to become better people by the end of the book, Siegfried especially so, a case as serious as rape can’t be overlooked like that in real life. It can’t just be looked at one time and then never looked at again as easily as it was in the book. Just like how the situation literally haunted Siegfried through hallucinations, it could have haunted him in the real world as well, and I dislike how those real world consequences never truly played out in the book.
Regarding all of the themes of the book as a whole, I feel like they all just stopped occurring by halfway through the book and the rest of the story continued as if it were the normal “Swan Lake” story without any of those themes happening at all. None of the themes persisted through the whole book, which I found annoying given how strongly prevalent they were for the first half of the book. Granted, said themes would have truly twisted the actual Swan Lake story within the book because in the original Swan Lake the prince never rapes anyone, Rothbart is not as sexist and Odile only appears once in the whole story rather than being the main protagonist. I think if the themes I found actually persisted through the whole book, it might have made it a completely different interpretation of “Swan Lake,” but at least it would grant the reader the opportunity to think on the themes even more and truly explore them. Cutting it off by halfway through the book for the sake of following the original “Swan Lake” plot to an extent felt like I was being cheated out of seeing something interesting, only seeing the tip of the iceberg of themes when there could have easily been more to see.
For anyone who has read the book, was there anything you noticed regarding any of the themes I mentioned? Or perhaps there were other themes you noticed? Feel free to discuss in the comments.
Lackey, Mercedes. The Black Swan. New York: DAW, 1999. Print.