The femme fatale of Zuleika Dobson lends very literal credence to the idea that "the Female of the Species is more deadly than the Male.” So it is appropriate that “The Female of the Species,” the Rudyard Kipling poem from which the quote comes, was published in the same year as Zuleika Dobson.
Yet Max Beerbohm’s only novel is not intended as an indictment of the entire female sex. It simply caricatures a certain sort of female, and equally it caricatures the sort of foolish male that falls prey to such dangerous women. In this regard, Beerbohm’s satire belongs on the same shelf as many other works of British literature, written with a more comic or more serious tone, that share the theme of the impact strong-willed, cunning, or domineering women have on dapper men. It is a theme that became especially popular among writers of the late 1800s and early 1900s, exemplified in the works of authors such as E.F. Benson (1867-1940) and P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975); it is also evident in the plays of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900).
In Zuleika Dobson, Beerbohm is less successful than some of his literary contemporaries in perceptively satirizing the extremes of his society. Other authors created satires that resonated more enduringly with audiences outside the satirized group. Beerbohm was a society caricaturist more than a satirist, and so it is unsurprising that his artistic work is geared towards the comparatively limited audience of his age and privileged social circle. The novel sometimes seems an exercise in self-indulgence, as if Beerbohm was writing the story for his own pleasure or the pleasure of some small society of friends. And yet somehow the work became popular beyond that small society.
One of the ways in which Beerbohm limited the wider appeal of Zuleika Dobson was through his consistent use of classical references. While the author might have believed his classical parallels would be timeless, few modern-day readers have an extensive knowledge of classical history or myth. Even at the time of writing, such references limited the work's appeal to those privileged enough to have received an education in the classics. However, since Beerbohm’s classical allusions are not always apt, a less educated reader may have some advantage.
Beerbohm struggled to strike the balance between sophistication and simplicity. The novel begins absorbingly, but as the story drags on the entertainment offered to the reader lessens. The work needs tightening. Sections of the story are over-long, while some aspects seem incomplete, under-developed, rushed, or simply tacked on.
Nonetheless, Zuleika Dobson does have an unusual charm. When it is clever, it is very enjoyable; and for a supposedly farcical glance into life at the University of Oxford, the novel is sometimes frighteningly close to the truth.