The Appropriation of Perrault’s “Bluebeard” in Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” and “The Piano”

The fairy tale of Bluebeard has fascinated writers, filmmakers, photographers, and artists throughout history and across national boundaries. Coming from the European oral tradition, the first, and most famous, written version is Charles Perrault’s La Barbe Bleue, published in 1697. Developing a tale of a murderous aristocrat who whose wives have all mysteriously vanished, Perrault’s tale inscribes patriarchal power structures; elevating males figure while emphasising female oppression and silence. By appropriating Perrault’s Bluebeard, feminist writers have been able to subvert traditional assumptions about knowledge and power to critique the tale as a discourse that produces a disparate representation of the genders. In her short story The Bloody Chamber (1979), Angela Carter takes the essence of the original tale, and reworks it so that its social contexts of patriarchal power dynamics become significant to modern day readers. Jane Campion’s film The Piano (1993) also retells the Bluebeard story within the context of nineteenth-century New Zealand. Both Carter and Campion’s texts engage with late 20th century values and feminist principles. The prevailing notion of a woman’s curiosity, traditionally perceived as disobedience, is explored in both texts. But instead, the knowledge of one’s desires is used to empower, not punish the female protagonists. Complicated, female voices are also present in both texts, which effectively shift the patriarchal power dynamics in Perrault’s tale. While Carter and Campion’s feminist rewritings incorporate key elements, it is their complication of these elements that dramatically deviates from the values in the original Bluebeard.

The notion of the purely-feminine trait of curiosity is addressed in The Bloody Chamber within the framework of the fairy tale genre. Since the book of Genesis, women were seen as decedents of Eve; whose knowledge and independent sexuality deemed to be likewise punishable. Carter’s female protagonist uses her newfound knowledge and active sexuality to her own advantage; which effectively plays upon the Perrault’s misogynistic version. As the narrator spies the Marquis lustfully watching her through a mirror, she catches her own reflection, recognizing “a potentiality for corruption” for the first time in her “innocent and confined life”. The knowledge that she can excite the gaze of her husband sparks her intrigue towards her sexual power. When the Marquis takes her virginity, she notes during intercourse she “had heard him shriek and blaspheme at the orgasm”, as if the power of her virginity weakened him and she could see through his usual “deathly composure”. Initially, the loss of virginity is presented as something that makes the narrator feel “infinitely disheveled”, but leads to her recognize her independent sexuality, describing it as “reborn in his unreflective eyes”. She becomes fully aware that “it must have been my innocence that captivated him”, and knows that “my naivety gave him some pleasure”. The narrator’s confidence and desperation for more knowledge can be traced as she disobeys the Marquis strict directions in order to satisfy her “dark newborn curiosity”. This newfound confidence is shown as she walked through the gruesome chamber and stresses “still I felt no fear”, and later in the piano room, “Fear gave me strength. I flung back my head defiantly.” The narrator’s defiance to the Marquis grows as she discovers more; less prepared to receive punishment for her curiosity, as she states “I’ve done nothing; but that may be sufficient reason for condemning me”. Therefore, while Perrault is warning his readers or listeners against over inquisitiveness and wifely disobedience, Carter is conveying the opposite. Angela Carter has shown the “purely-feminine” characteristic of curiosity to be a strength that shines through in adversity, not one that needs discipline or punishment.

As a contemporary female filmmaker, Campion’s modern sensibilities allow her to deconstruct the perceptions of a women’s sexuality and curiosity conveyed in Perrault’s tale. Set in nineteenth-century colonial New Zealand, The Piano follows the story of a mute, mail-order bride and talented pianist, Ada, who is sent to enter an arranged marriage with colonist Alistair Stewart, but finds herself romantically involved with neighbour George Baines. Similar to Carter’s text, the film’s female protagonist’s intrigue and self-defined expression of desire is a path to emancipation, not “deep regret”. Ada brings with her a piano, an item through which she vividly expresses her emotions and attracts the attention of Baines. After asking for piano lessons from Ada in his hut, Baines strikes a bargain with her by which she earns back one of the piano’s keys for each visit and, in return, allows him to caress her as she plays. In order to get back her piano, Ada willingly accepts the deal and its consequences. Baines’s hut symbolises the forbidden chamber in both Perrault and Carter’s texts; a place where a woman’s curiosity overcomes her and leads to her punishment. However, in the process that follows, Ada herself is sexually awakened by Baines. Being able to acknowledge herself as a sexual being, Ada recognises the control she has over Baines, and thus men in general. With her sexual desires awakened, but her access to Baines restricted, Ada turns to Stewart for her own sensual contact. In a scene where she strokes his body and buttocks, she uses her newfound sexual awareness to control Stewart, withdrawing when he tries to participate.

Unlike a traditional fairy-tale with an impartial third-person narrator, Carter rewrites Bluebeard from the intradiegetic point of view of his fourth wife. Allowing the female to narrate her own story gives the reader a deeper insight into her conscious thoughts and reflections, thus complicating her beyond Perrault’s purely physical description of a “perfect beauty”. The narrator repeatedly states “I was only a baby,” and “I was only a little girl. I did not understand,” in which past tense conveys an empowered, retrospective voice reflecting negatively on her former self. By suggesting that the female has moved beyond her role as a Marquess, Carter has debunked the purely-biological role of women in Perrault’s Gothic narrative. The striking twist in Carter’s plot is the role of the narrator’s mother, who is presented as a strong, independent and fearless, who grew “magnificently eccentric in hardship” through the death of her beloved husband. At the start of the narrative, the narrator states how her mother had once “outfaced a junkful of Chinese pirates; nursed a village through a visitation of the plague, shot a man-eating tiger with her own hand”. This description alone shows an alternative characterization of women- as active, courageous and capable. It is later seen that she comes to the rescue of her daughter and saves her from imminent death, thus replacing a heroic figure that is usually the province of males. Before she successfully shoots and kills the Marquis, her confident, assertive image paralyses him, and he stares at her “as if she had been Medusa.” This description of the Marquis’s shock at the sight of a “wild” woman represents Carter deliberately addressing former patriarchal power structures. “As he saw his dolls break free of their strings, abandon the rituals he had ordained for them since time began and start to live for themselves.” Describing the Marquis as “the puppet master” and the narrator as one of “his dolls”, we see Carter directly symbolizing the destruction of patriarchy. By shifting the narrative voice and the heroic savior to be female focused, Carter shines light on former female figures previously oppressed within the patriarchal narrative of Bluebeard.

The Piano also represents the female character as complicated, strong-willed and powerful. Much of the film is seen from Ada’s point of view, emphasizing the audience’s identification and intimacy with her. The opening sequence of the film situate the audience as Ada, peeping through gaps of her hands, moving with the panning camera to see a dark room from her perspective. Her “inner-voice” informs the audience that she chose to become mute at a young age, refusing to learn the paternal language. Ada’s lack of literal voice does not leave her without expression, as she says, “―I don’t think myself silent, that is, because of my piano.” The camera then focuses on her as the centre frame with a medium close-up of her back image. A black Victorian costume, black piano, together with a dark room shot in dim light create a sense of oppression. Nevertheless, the moment her fingers touch the piano keys, the lighting enhances dramatically. From this scene, her silence can be seen as her opposition to patriarchal oppression and her music a vehicle for an intimate language of her own; which both her father, who called it a “dark talent”, and her husband do not understand. Ada and her husband’s first meeting becomes detrimental to their disconnected relationship. In this scene, Stewart refuses to transport the piano from the beach to his home, not understanding it’s importance. Furious, Ada does not respond to his questions, and he shouts, “Can you hear me?”, in which she replies “I need the piano” in written capital letters. This scene shows Ada’s stubborn character makes up for her lack of literal voice. Her anguish is captured through a close-up shot of her face as she turns and yearningly gazes at the abandoned piano, as if it were her soul, from the clifftops. Her determination allows her to convince Stewart to return to the piano later that day, in which she plays for him. On seeing her piano again, the usually detached and serious expression on Ada’s face is replaced by a brilliant and heartfelt smile. The cross-cut shots of this scene switch between close-ups of Ada’s fingers delicately playing the piano keys and long-shots of her and the piano isolated on the vast expanse of the beach highlights the frightening intimate connection between them. Ada’s choice for muteness and active resistance to patriarchal control over her passion highlights her strength and independence- reversing the power dynamics in Perrault’s tale. By emphasizing the female viewpoint, Ada is portrayed as the subject rather than the object, and thus, the conventions of power in Perrault’s tale are subverted.

In many ways, The Bloody Chamber and The Piano embody their own feminist concerns, ones that come from being a female author in contemporary society. Both their works are centrally focused on the female experience and their lack of representation in history. By doing so, Carter and Campion have shifted the nature of knowledge and power that come from a patriarchal frame of mind. Through their female narrators, Carter and Campion are able to explore the complicated elements of the female character that have been generally absent or silenced in society.