Feminine Empowerment in The Bloody Chamber
Heroes, heroines, villains, fairy tale castles and happy endings are elements of classic fairy tales that often go unquestioned by adult readers. The stories of our childhood seem to be eternal. Fairy tales are what they are because they have always been that way. But for Angela Carter, everything is open to scrutiny. The Bloody Chamber is a collection of stories that revisits and retells a number of famous childhood fairy tales. Carter focuses mainly on retelling the works of Charles Perrault, the French author of Tales of Mother Goose. In this collection, Carter offers readers a set of gruesome and richly imagined stores that allow us to reevaluate our understanding of the narratives that have become so ingrained in our culture. In her writing, Carter attempts to deconstruct traditional symbolism and reveal a deeper meaning, and she is highly critical of the roles of women in these stories. Her work reveals a tension between realism and fantasy, and through fiction, Carter attempts to discover what it might mean for a woman to be empowered in a world that has been transformed by feminism.
The title story, “The Bloody Chamber,” is based on Perrault’s Bluebeard. It sets the tone for the rest of the collection by rejecting a number of common fairy tale modes. Compared to other stories in the collection, “The Bloody Chamber” is much more realistic. Nothing truly surreal or fantastic happens until the end of the story, when the heroine finds herself in the possession of a seemingly magical key. In spite of the greater realism in this story, it retains the magical quality of a fairy tale. Carter’s florid style of writing, her lush depictions of opulence and wealth, and her ability to instill a sense of growing dread in her readers, makes the story seem like something outside of our own world. “The Bloody Chamber” serves as an introduction to Carter’s style and her unique brand of fantasy. Reading this story is like passing through the looking glass. Without it, readers may find the stranger and more ambiguous stories, like “The Snow Child” or “Lady of the House of Love” too off putting
The story opens where many fairy tales end; with the engagement and marriage of a poor young piano player to an older and fabulously wealthy Marquis. In the first scene, the pianist and her mother are in her bedroom opening a present from her fiancée. The mother is described as a brave, heroic and fiercely independant woman who has travelled the world, and who once shot a tiger with a revolver. Her life story takes on mythical proportions in the eyes of her daughter who aspires only to live a comfortable domestic life. The girl serves as a stark contrast to her mother, and it is significant that the story opens with two such tremendously different women. They are each paradigms of two different kinds of feminine ideals. The mother represents feminine strength and independence while the daughter represents a more traditional idea of femininity that is passive, submissive, and dependant on male authority. Though the daughter is in awe of her mother’s strength, she laughs at the idea of her eccentric mother carrying a revolver. Eventually, the girl finds herself in a deadly position with no one to save her, and it turns out that the mother’s bravery and willingness to protect herself is no laughing matter. Through this story, Carter shows readers the dangers of excessive passivity and lack of independence in women, an idea that clashes with traditional depictions of virtuous women and girls in fairy tales.
As the girl moves into her new home, she hopes to find some security in the wealth that her fiancée offers, but rather than finding domestic joy and security, she feels an odd sense of trepidation. While Marquis’ wealth is appealing, she knows nothing about him, apart from the fact that he was married thrice before, and each of his wives had died. As the story progresses, the husband begins to reveal sadistic sexual tendencies. The girl finds a collection of monstrous pornographic books in the Marquis’ library, He violently strips his new wife, humiliating and frightening her, and the final consummation of their marriage is profoundly brutal and traumatizing. These scenes are not only shocking for their violent content, but also for the drastic change in style. By this point, readers may be lost in the beauty of Carter’s language and the unreal setting in which the story takes place. The scenes that involve sexuality have an incredible heightened reality that jolts readers out of the beautiful fantasy that Carter has woven. When the girl finds her husband’s pornography, she says, “…I had not bargained for this, the girl with tears hanging on her cheeks like stuck pearls, her cunt a split fig below the great globes of her buttocks on which the knotted tails of the cat were about to descend…” (Carter 16) As an author, Carter is incredibly meticulous about the words she chooses, and the use of the word “cunt” is somewhat out of character for the virginal young narrator, and it is shocking to even the most jaded readers. Carter refuses to shy away from the topic of sex, especially where sex is a veiled expression of the struggle for power. The text reveals Carter’s desire for readers to feel the shock, fear and despair of the heroine, and she uses the contrast between fantasy and reality to great effect. The sex scenes and the revelation of the Marquis’ character forces readers to question the concept of male power at the expense of female power, and the story contradicts the notion of marriage to a wealthy and powerful man as a romantic ideal .
After the consummation of the marriage, the Marquis leaves for business. Before he goes, he gives his wife a set of keys that will open everything in the house. He shows her each key, telling her what each one opens. Finally, he gives her what he describes as the key to his “enfer,” a room in the foot of the West tower. He tells her that it is secret and she must not go in. The wife agrees at first, but loneliness, fear and boredom overwhelm her. She opens the door to the dungeon and discovers the bodies of her husband’s three previous wives. In a moment of shock, she drops the key into a pool of blood and stains it. The blood only grows brighter as she tries to scrub away the stain, and she knows that upon returning, her husband will see the key, and he will kill her and add her to his “gallery of beautiful women.” The castle is revealed to be a horrific prison from which the heroine cannot escape. This universally recognizable symbol of happy endings is undermined by the gruesome scene in the dungeon and the threat of murder.
The original story ends when the woman is saved by her two brothers, but Carter’s version offers readers an unexpected hero. The only other male character in the story is a blind piano tuner, named Jean Yves, who falls in love with the girl. Though he is brave in his willingness to stand with the heroine and oppose the Marquis, blindness renders him incapable of fighting. The male hero that we often find in fairy tales is nowhere to be seen, and there seems to be no hope of salvation. In the last moment, the mother, a personification of feminine strength, storms the gates of the castle to save her daughter and kill the husband. The daughter learns from her mistakes, shunning the fairy tale castle and living only on what she needs in the company of her mother and the piano tuner.
Perrault’s story finishes with the moral, Ladies, you should never pry,— / You’ll repent it by and by! / ‘Tis the silliest of sins; / Trouble in a trice begins. / There are, surely—more’s the woe / Lots of things you need not know. / Come, forswear it now and here— / Joy so brief that costs so dear!” An alternative, and rather contradictory, moral is tacked on at the end. “You can tell this tale is old / By the very way it’s told. / Those were days of derring-do; / Man was lord, and master too. / Then the husband ruled as king. / Now it’s quite a different thing; / Be his beard what hue it may— / Madam has a word to say!” (Perrault 78) These morals teeter between praising the heroine and condemning her for her curiosity. The alternative moral seems to have little bearing on the events in the story. The heroine in Perrault’s version never speaks her mind, and she intends to follow her husband’s commands, but her “foolishness” and curiosity overwhelm her. The most assertive thing that she does is to call for her brothers, but she is a largely passive character. The first moral seems much more closely connected to the story. If the girl had not looked into the room, perhaps she would have continued to live in comfort and happiness. Carter’s final moral is clearer. By the end of the story, the girl is more assertive than she was at the start. Having married a man she knew nothing about, she feels that something is amiss, and she bravely sets out do discover more about him. She does not find the room out of idle curiosity, but because she knows that her husband’s secret could be potentially dangerous. Ultimately, the knowledge of her husband’s perversity saves the heroine. Perrault’s story ends when the wife marries off her sister and finds a new husband “who banished from her mind all memory of the evil days she had spent with Blue Beard.” Carter rejects the idea that a happy ending necessitates a traditional marriage, and in her version of the story, the heroes establish a new kind of family where the women retain their power.
This story is followed by two versions of “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon,” and “The Tiger’s Bride.” “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” follows the traditional fairy tale fairly closely. Here again, Carter seems to be building up an introduction to her world by giving us something very familiar, but when the story is taken within the context of the entire collection, and with Carter’s entire body of work, certain feminist messages are revealed. When Beauty learns that she must stay with the beast, Carter tells us,
She stayed, and smiled, because her father wanted her to do so … (When the Beast) suggested with a hint of shyness, of fear of refusal, that she should stay here, with him … She knew with a pang of dread as soon as he spoke, that it would be so and her visit to the beast must be, on some magically reciprocal scale, the price of her father’s good fortune. (Carter 45)
Carter reminds the reader that Beauty’s situation is the result of an economic exchange between her father and the Beast. Though Beauty ultimately benefits from the Beast’s patronage, she is compelled mainly by her sense of obligation to her father, and later, to the Beast himself.
In the original version of the story, Beauty grows to love the beast in spite of his strangeness. But Carter places much greater emphasis on Beauty’s sense of revulsion. Even when Beauty has begun to feel some friendship for the Beast, She continues to feel disgusted by his affection.
She no longer felt the slightest apprehension at her nightly interviews with the beast … she would talk with the lion … on the nature of the moon and its borrowed light, about the stars and the substances of which they were made, about the variable transformations of the weather. Yet his strangeness made her shiver; and when he helplessly fell before her to kiss her hands, as he did every night when they parted, she would retreat nervously into her skin, flinching at his touch. (Carter 48)
When the Beast finally allows Beauty to return home and see her father, she forgets him, but this forgetfulness is not the result of a broken magical spell, or some other fantastic force. Rather, Beauty willfully chooses to forget. She still speaks about the Beast, and buys him flowers, but Carter tells us, “when she left the florist, she experienced a sudden sense of perfect freedom, as if she had just escaped from an unknown danger” (Carter 48). It is not until Beauty sees that the Beast is dying that she returns to the castle. There she says, “Don’t die, Beast! If you’ll have me, I’ll never leave you” (Carter 51). But Beauty never promises love, and there is reason to believe that she is motivated primarily by her sense of guilt. The story is subtly critical of relationships based on material necessity, and a close reading reveals a confused mingling of revulsion, obligation and affection that could never be accurately termed “true love.”
In the second version of the story, “Beauty and the Beast” is turned on its head. Beauty is cynical and angry woman whose father lost her to the Beast in a game of cards. Here again, the theme of bought women is repeated, and Beauty tells us, “You must not think my father valued me at less than a king’s ransom; but no more than a king’s ransom” (Carter54). Unlike the Beauty found in “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon,” this Beauty feels a strong sense of resentment and injustice. In her outrage, Beauty delights in humiliating the Beast, and when he asks her to remove her clothes for him, she refuses. She takes ownership of her sexuality by refusing, and she even says that she would sleep with the Beast. Even so, he would not see her naked, and she would never allow him to lose his sense of shame in asking her to remove her clothes. Carter emphasizes this Beauty’s unladylike demeanor, and Beauty tells us, “I let out a raucous guffaw; no young lady laughs like that” But I did. And do” (Carter 58)
Finally, the Beast tells Beauty that if she refuses him, then she must see him naked instead. She is horrified by the prospect, but when she finally sees the Beast, she decides to remove her clothes for him. In this story, the concept of transformation is reversed. Rather than taming the tiger, Carter chooses to turn Beauty into a beast. In the end, the Beast licks away her human skin, and she is transformed into a beast. The transformation in Carter’s story is reversed, and it points to a Carter’s belief that women must make a transformation if they are to find equality.
The collection also includes two versions of “Little Red Riding Hood.” In “The Werewolf,” the girl is not helpless or naive, and she arms herself before going out. The wolf is a somewhat pitiful character. When the girl cuts its paw, Carter tells us, “The wolf let out a gulp, almost a sob, when it saw what happened to it; wolves are less brave than they seem.” (Carter 109) In the end, the wolf turns out to be the grandmother, and she is stoned to death. This story blurs the line between “good” and “evil” characters, and because the girl is the only one to actually see the wolf, her story is not entirely reliable.
The second version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” reveals the sexual undertones of the story. The original story by Perrault ends with the lines, “Little girls, this seems to say, / Never stop upon your way. / Never trust a stranger-friend; / No one knows how it will end. / As you’re pretty, so be wise; / Wolves may lurk in every guise. / Handsome they may be, and kind, / Gay, or charming never mind! / Now, as then, ‘tis simple truth— / Sweetest tongue has sharpest tooth!” Perrault’s story discourages young girls from interacting with strangers, a valuable lesson for any child. But there is more beneath the surface of “Little Red Riding Hood” than readers may know. The earliest versions of the story are pornographic, with Little Red Riding Hood stripping and throwing her clothes on the fire to distract the wolf and make her escape. Perrault would likely have been aware of the history, but his version of the story contradicts its original themes by encouraging girls to be wary of men and to shun curiosity and sexual exploration. In Carter’s version, the wolf is a potentially dangerous sexual predator, but the girl is unwilling to accept the role of the victim. In response to the famous line “All the better to eat you with.” She “burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat.” (Carter 118) In the end, the girl sleeps with the wolf, and she is rewarded for her sexual exploration, rather than submissiveness and the repression of sexuality.
When speaking of her own work, Carter asserts that by revealing the true meaning behind the symbols of classic tales, the symbols themselves are destroyed. But the true value of her work is that she takes old symbols and uses them to make the argument that the ideas that they represent are corrosive and dehumanizing. She uses old symbols to create a new feminist mythology. Ultimately, fantasy allows us access to parts of ourselves and our imaginations that we would not be able to access through strict realism. Carter’s true gift is revealing value of symbolism and myth in literature.
Carter, Angela. The Bloody Chamber. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.Perrault, Charles, A. E. Johnson, Gustave Doré, and Charles Perrault. Perrault's Fairy Tales. New York: Dover Publications, 1969.