The Importance of Positioning in the Construction of Power: An examination of three short stories by Angela Carter, and the corresponding film The Company of Wolves

“The Werewolf”, “The Company of Wolves” and “Wolf Alice”, three short stories by Angela Carter, recreate and transform, the traditional story of “Little Red Riding Hood”. The Company of Wolves, a 1984 film directed by Neil Jordan and co-written by Carter, incorporate these stories and adapts them for the screen. Despite the different mediums, both Carter’s short stories and Jordan’s film examine the power of storytelling; portraying stories as a way to construct meaning and either re-enforce or question social norms. Also central to these works is the examination of gazing and the male gaze. Both gazing and storytelling are portrayed as means of power because they dictate how males and females are positioned and portrayed within society. Carter’s preoccupation with the positioning of women in fiction can be seen in her choice to re-write a fairy tale and is also evident in the folk tales incorporated in her short stories which are retold by Granny and Rosaleen in the film. Through the examination of storytelling and gazing, Carter and Jordan suggest that the positioning of female characters created by these elements is central in the construction and portrayal of power.

Carter describes fairy tales as stories “put together…out of all sorts of bits of other stories” (Carter, as quoted by Lappas 125). This recognition of the changeable and authorless nature of fairy tales is starkly different to the myth propagated by Perrault, the Grimm Brothers and other fairy tale writers that their versions of the stories were true, original, and untainted folklore (Gruss 196). In The Company of Wolves, Jordan in keeping with the medium of film, a literary form that emphasizes visual presentation, and uses “space as its formative principle” (Elliot, citing Lessing), incorporates images connected with popular fairy tales and myths to subtly suggest the malleable nature of stories. The inclusion of the Snow White imagery of doves at the well; the Hansel and Gretel imagery of the gingerbread man given to Rosaleen by her Granny; and the presence of the snake and the apple suggestive of the Genesis creation story (The Company of Wolves), references the fact that all stories are made up of similar tropes and ideas, and every story uses some combination of these, depending on their purpose and audience. This challenges the idea that fairy tales, or indeed, any stories are “unchangeable, timeless, and limitlessly valid entities” (Gruss 197), leading viewers to question Granny’s assertion that her story is “God’s honest truth” (The Company of Wolves).

This idea of the one true story is also challenged in Carter’s short stories, through her use of tone, a fitting technique for a written form which, like the novel, is, “conceptual, linguistic (and) discursive” in nature (Elliot, citing Lessing). Carter’s ironic tone in “The Werewolf” subverts the peasants’ unquestioning belief in tales about “the Devil” (“The Werewolf” 108). Carter’s tone drips with sarcasm when she describes the town’s perception of “a witch – (an) old woman whose black cat, oh, sinister! Follows her about all the time!”(“The Werewolf”, 108). In re-telling this fairy-tale through short stories, Carter not only questions the idea of the true and timeless story but also challenges the existence of one correct way of viewing the world and society. As Gruss (196) points out, the morals, the portrayal of women and the norms present in the Perrault and Grimm versions of fairy tales were designed to encourage specific sets of socially accepted beliefs. For example, the morals included in Perrault’s stories attempt to propagate the idea that the socially acceptable woman is graceful, hardworking, neat, polite, beautiful and self-controlled (Gruss 195). In contrast, Carter attempts to suggest an alternative to this patriarchal, oversimplified, stereotype of women. Her collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber, retells fairy tales and focuses on female characters who showcase other traits, such as intelligence, bravery, foolishness, goodness, or cruelty (Gruss 198). Therefore, by re-writing a fairy tale, Carter not only undermines the idea of one true story but also challenges a dogmatic view of society and women.

The stories that Granny tell in the film, similar to the versions of Red Riding Hood by Perrault and the Grimm Brothers, reinforce a dogmatic, patriarchal view of society. Just as Perrault and Grimm depict their protagonist as a willing victim of the wolf’s attack, Granny’s incessant warnings to “keep to the path” (The Company of Wolves) and her claim that men are “beasts” (The Company of Wolves) – and, therefore supposedly incapable of controlling themselves – perpetuates the idea that girls who do not follow her injunctions, deserve their fate, (Lappas 119-120). Consequently, the audience can see that, although storytelling has the power to undermine and question socially accepted values, it can also be used to reinforce them. Through Granny’s stories and warnings, we see that women too can be implicit in reinforcing their powerless position.

The story of the she-wolf and the story of the wedding reception, which appear in Carter’s short stories, and are told by Rosaleen in the film The Company of Wolves, draw attention to the power of storytelling and the power of the gaze. Lappas (116), discusses the power of the gaze, specifically, the male gaze. Lappas contends that when literature is from the perspective of this gaze, women are made the object, and therefore this gaze is ultimately possessive and dominating (116). The oppressive effect of this gaze can be seen in Carter’s short story “The Company of Wolves”. When trapped in Granny’s house by the wolf, Carter’s protagonist wants her basket but does “not dare reach for it because his eyes [are] fixed upon her” (“The Company of Wolves” 117). This male domination caused by the male gaze can also be seen in The Company of Wolves. For the majority of the film, especially in the first half, Rosaleen seems to be the object of the male gaze. As Granny and Rosaleen walk through the woods, the camera peers at them voyeuristically through the bushes. While the short stories leave us to imagine, what the wolf’s “big eyes” (“The Company of Wolves” 117) see of the girl, the film makes it very clear. Almost always, when Rosaleen, is viewed from a third party angle the shot places an emphasis on her clear skin, flowing hair, large eyes, and feminine figure. In this way, Lappas claims, Rosaleen is turned “into a fetish” (120), with her female form depicted as “her totality” (120).

This voyeuristic gaze shifts dramatically in the forest scene when Rosaleen and the village boy are together. When Rosaleen runs away from him, the boy is unable to see her, but as we can tell from shots taken from behind her, as though from her perspective, she can see him. Having the camera from her perspective gives the power to Rosaleen. Rosaleen’s own gaze is further developed after Rosaleen climbs the tree and looks down upon the boy as he walks underneath. Interestingly, it is only after this event in which Rosaleen becomes in charge of her own gaze, that she further asserts her own confidence and authority, by telling her own stories: an act which, Lappas claims “re-enacts gazing” (123).

The story of the witch at the wedding party undergoes an interesting transformation when told from Rosaleen’s perspective in the film. In “The Company of Wolves”, this story is told by a third person narrator, from the perspective of the townsfolk. The story briefly tells of a “spite[ful]” (111) witch who “turned an entire wedding party into wolves because the groom had settled on another girl” (111). When Rosaleen tells the story in the film, it cuts to a reenactment of the wedding scene and takes into account the witch’s gaze. From the witch’s perspective, the audience can see the callousness and gluttony of the wedding guests. It is also made clear, from the shot of the woman’s pregnant figure, the position in which the groom’s selfish actions have placed her. In Rosaleen’s version, she emphasizes the woman’s power. Interestingly it is the witch’s gaze, which seems to be the source of her power: she breaks the mirror simply by looking at it. Immediately after the mirror breaks, the camera cuts to shots of the guests’ transformation. During the transformation, the camera continually cuts from the guests to a close up of her face suggesting that it is also with her gaze that she turns the wedding party into wolves. It is the positioning of the woman, in Rosaleen’s version of the story, that constructs the woman’s power. In the written version we are told the witch brings the wolves to her house at night out of “spite” (111). However, Rosaleen claims the witch does this to derive pleasure “from knowing the power that she had” (The Company of Wolves).

This understanding of the power of the gaze, which Rosaleen showcases in her telling of the witch story, can be seen in both the film and the short story “The Company of Wolves”, during the confrontation between the wolf and the girl in Granny’s house. In “The Company of Wolves”, the girl refuses to be the object of the wolf’s gaze: “she knew she was nobody’s meat” (118), and seduces him through her confidence in her own feminism and sense of sexuality that comes with her powerful gaze: “she laughed at him full in the face, she ripped off his shirt for him and flung it into the fire” (118). Consequently, in the short story, it is through establishing her own gaze that the girl is able to establish her own “path” (“The Company of Wolves”) and come to a sense of fulfilled sexuality. In the film, the same outcome is implied, but it is done through Rosaleen telling her own story, suggesting once again the power of storytelling, and its inherent link to gazing. While these characters find some fulfillment and freedom in their positioning, neither the “Company of Wolves”, or the film, suggests that this is a perfect solution. Gruss comments on the outcome of “The Company of Wolves” saying “the story neither establishes a relationship or a sexual identity that can be acted out within society nor does it attempt to change society according to these newly conceived norms”(212). The incompatibility of this way of life with the norms of their society is demonstrated in the film, in which Rosaleen transforms into a wolf (The Company of Wolves), symbolizing her inability to live in a male-dominated society.

Angela Carter’s short stories and Jordan’s film, The Company of Wolves create a discussion of the positioning and portrayal of women in both literature and society. Pointing out the fallibility of any story, by re-writing a fairy tale, and emphasizing the patriarchal and oppressive nature of both fairy tales, and the society that bred them, through Granny’s stories, Carter sets the stage for an alternative. This alternative is demonstrated through “The Company of Wolves” protagonist and through Rosaleen, the central protagonist in Jordan’s film. Both these characters seem to gain their own identity, and authority, by viewing people and situations themselves and telling their own story. However, neither Carter nor Jordan claim this as a perfect solution. While both the short stories and the film seem to suggest that female power may be regained through women reclaiming their own gaze and perspective, it is suggested that doing so may ultimately separate these women from society as we know it.

Works Cited

Gruss, Susanne. Genus: Gender in Modern Culture, Volume 11: Pleasure of the Feminist Text : Reading Michèle Roberts and Angela Carter. Editions Rodopi. 2009. Online. Kamilla Elliott. “Novels, Films, and the Word/Image Wars”. A Companion to Literature and Film.

Robert Stam and Alessandra Raengo Lappas, Catherine. “’Seeing is believing. but touching is the truth’”: Female Spectatorships and Sexuality in The Company of Wolves.” Women’s Studies. 25. 2, (1996). 115-21. Online

The Company of Wolves. Dir. Neil Jordan. Hen’s Tooth, 1984. Film. Carter, Angela. The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. Penguin Books. Harmondsworth, England. 1993. Print.