The Bloody Chamber
‘The Bloody Chamber’: Features of a Gothic Setting
The short story ‘The Bloody Chamber’ by Angela Carter includes an abundance of conventions effective in establishing a Gothic setting. The tale is a tragic one, where the innate curiosity of a young girl inevitably finds her in danger. Published in the late 20th Century, at a time when Gothic writing was less prominent in literature, it could be said that the tale is fairly progressive within the genre, with its underlying criticism of patriarchal society not being a particularly common theme in Gothic writing. However, being set the 3rd Republic in France, an era known for corruption and hedonism, and the use of classic Gothic elements in this passage, ensures the a strikingly Gothic setting is effectively established.
The majority of the narrative takes place at the Marquis’ castle, a place where the gothic setting of the story is particularly prominent. The location of the castle is extremely remote, it is “cut off by the tide from the land for half a day…” This creates an atmosphere of imprisonment and by including this significant detail, Carter deliberately makes explicit to the reader that the castle is away from the eyes of the outside world and is therefore difficult to escape from, which is key part of the Gothic setting that is established. The ellipsis used here encourages the reader to ponder on this detail as Carter subtly implies that it will be of importance later on in the novel. Indeed, at the end of the novel the Marquises sees he mother “galloping at a vertiginous speed along the causeway, though the waves crashed”, significant in that the reader come to the daunting realisation that had the mother’s arrival been even slightly later, the castle might have been inaccessible and the Marquises may not have survived. The tone of urgency, heightened by the use of the adjective “vertiginous”, combined with the fortuity of the situation significantly contributes to the Gothic setting through the sense of panic that resonates with both the protagonist and the reader. Furthermore, the atmosphere of confinement increasing exponentially as the Marquises’ journey to the castle progresses, until she reaches the bedroom. Here, she describes being “surrounded by so many mirrors!” which contributes to the Gothic setting through the atmosphere of suppression it establishes. The excessive decor in the bedroom implies a corruption of wealth, common of the era in which the tale is set; the 3rd Republic in France was known for its decadence, and here Carter criticises that, demonstrating that that it gave the rich (who were, at the time, almost always men) a means of enticing those inferior to them, as indeed the Marquis successfully does to the narrator. Carter not only emphasises the Marquises’ physical isolation, but her psychological isolation as well. This is made explicit through the significant change in the narrative tone as the Marquises exclaims “Enough! No; more!” clearly conflicted and insecure about the impending consummation of her marriage. This interior monologue is desperate and frantic as the narrative perspective becomes detached, heightening the sense of psychological isolation as the Marquises is unable to escape this distressing situation. Indeed, it is the overwhelming sense of isolation maintained throughout the story that so convincingly establishes a Gothic setting.
The Marquis’ chamber is a pivotal part of the tale and its allusions to hell are considerably successful in establishing a Gothic setting as the narrative reaches its pinnacle. Comparisons to hell are common in descriptions of settings in Gothic literature. This is seen, for example, in Charles Dickens’ ‘Bleak House’, where the character of Tulkinghorn’s chambers starkly resemble hell. In ‘The Bloody Chamber’, the first description made of the chamber itself is “Absolute darkness.” The absence of light being a classic Gothic convention, this powerful description establishes a Gothic setting whereby the Marquises is transgressing into the unknown. In Gothic literature, darkness traditionally demonstrates a lack of hope which is fitting here as the Marquises is about to discover women who’s fates were hopeless, and the Gothic atmosphere is established further as both the Marquises and the reader come to the realisation that “[she], too, was one of them”. The sheer horror of the chamber is made so apparent as the Marquises describes how even the walls “gleamed as if they were sweating with fright”; the contents of the chamber are so gruesome that fear even resounds in inanimate objects, demonstrating that the horror at this point in the story is incredibly overbearing. Moreover, the final description of the chamber, “like the door of hell”, is effective in leaving a harrowing impression on the reader, the simile and its Gothic resonance being indicative of the full extent of the horror the Marquises has uncovered and indeed intensifying the Gothic setting of the tale.
The symbolism of the lilies is of recurring importance throughout the story in establishing Gothic setting. They are used by Carter as a clear premonition of death, foreshadowing the narrator’s fate. Carter accentuates the way in which the Marquis “filled [the] bedroom with lilies until it looked like an embalming parlour” which strongly associates the themes of sex with death, whether this be the metaphorical death of female independence, as the Marquises will become corrupted by Marquis and from this point, is under his control; or whether this represents the literal death of the Marquis’ wives that preceded the narrator. Through this Carter criticises the inequality of marital relationships that was widespread during the period in which her story is set, implying that women were too quick to accept their inferior position, as here the Marquises makes no attempt to remove herself from a seemingly uncomfortable situation. In addition, the underlying tone of foreboding, a common Gothic trope, which manifests here successfully establishes a Gothic setting. This symbol is used again later on in the narrative as the Marquises compares her husband to the lilies, describing them as “the lilies I always associate with him; that are white. And stain you.” Here the contrasting sentence structure places emphasis on “stain you”, as the narrator retrospectively realises the corrupting influence the Marquis had on her, as well as how trapped she was in her marriage by his possessive nature, Carter again making a subtle criticism of women’s naivety. There are many parallels between the description of the lilies and that of the Marquis; the heavy, “waxen” appearance of the lilies appears to be linked to the “mask” like features of the Marquis, whereby the narrator struggles to uncover his true self. Similarly, his overpowering “opulent male scent” mimics the strong, suffocating odour of the lilies; this conceals the scent of death in the castle, as well as representing the concealed desires of the Marquis. The comparison between the lilies and the Marquis likens him to a typical Gothic antagonist by creating an element of mystery and corruption to his character. Indeed, the symbolism of the lilies throughout the story is a key component of the Gothic setting so firmly established by Carter.
In conclusion, there are an abundance of elements throughout the story of ‘The Bloody Chamber’ that ensure the foundations of this tale are deep-rooted in the Gothic style. The traditional Gothic devices and motifs are used throughout, combined with the intense, detailed description of the castle and Carter’s intention of creating an undeniable sense of danger and foreboding, are extremely successful in establishing an undeniably Gothic setting.
Gothic Traditions in ‘The Bloody Chamber’
The opening of the short story ‘The Bloody Chamber’ by Angela Carter includes an abundance of conventions typical of the Gothic genre. The passage sets the scene for a tragic tale, where the innate curiosity of a young girl will inevitably find her in danger. Published in the late 20th Century, at a time when Gothic writing was less prominent in literature, it could be said that the tale is fairly progressive within the genre, with its underlying criticism of patriarchal society not being a particularly common theme in Gothic writing. However, being set the 3rd Republic in France, an era known for corruption and hedonism, and the use of classic Gothic elements in this passage, ensures the foundations of this tale are deep-rooted in the Gothic style.
This passage in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ provides an introduction of the two main characters to the reader. The narrator gives a detailed description of her lover, and it is from this that the reader is so easily able to predict the fate of the narrator, since the Marquis displays numerous qualities of a typical Gothic antagonist. The allusion to beastly qualities made so early on in the narrative is stark, as the narrator describes the ‘the leonine shape of his head’ and ‘his dark mane’, likening the Marquis to a lion, indicative of his predatorial nature. The repetition of the animalistic imagery leads the reader to question whether or not the Marquis is fully human, with the knowledge that the Gothic genre typically includes aspects of the supernatural. Human or not, Carter makes it clear that Marquis is a danger to the narrator. This is emphasised through Carter’s use of floriography in comparing the Marquis to ‘a lily’, a funeral flower, foreshadowing that he will be the death of her. Here, Carter creates an overwhelming sense of foreboding, something that Gothic writing often depends upon to achieve one of its foremost aims: to frighten the reader.
The short story takes the form of a first person narrative, and this form introduces the reader to the other main character, this familiar pattern of Gothic narrative allowing the reader a greater insight into her character, as she undergoes a period of transition from childhood to womanhood, the catalyst being her impending marriage. Perhaps the most telling indicator of the narrator’s character is her clothing: ‘the white muslin’ and the ‘crimson jewels…bright as arterial blood’. Colour semiotics are so often used to depict characters in Gothic fiction, and here it is no different. The juxtaposing colours, the white with connotations of innocence and the red with connotations of evil and lust, demonstrate the possibility for corruption that makes the narrator so vulnerable to the Marquis. The notion that women are inherently susceptible to corruption is one that is commonly explored in the Gothic genre, which in this case of ‘The Bloody Chamber’, heightens the sense of foreboding and gives the reader considerable cause for concern as to the fate of the narrator. The symbolism behind the ruby choker emphasises the danger that the narrator has placed herself in, as it is reminiscent of one of the bloodiest periods of French history, again implying that the narrator’s destiny is uncertain. However, this would not necessarily evoke sympathy from the reader; the story was published in the late 20th Century, a time when the second wave of feminism was fairly prominent in society and thus a women of time might struggle to understand why the narrator is seemingly setting herself up for exploitation. Indeed, the reader’s response may have been of anger rather than sympathy.
Despite the narrative giving insight into the character of the narrator, her identity still carries a certain degree of ambiguity, indeed the reader is never even made aware of her name. Through marriage, the narrator ‘ceased to be her [mother’s] child in becoming his wife’. Here the narrator’s identity is defined by possessive pronouns, which sets up the power dynamics between the narrator and the Marquis, with the women being the more subordinate of the two. At this point in the passage, the narrative voice hints at the suppression that so often accompanies Gothic female characters. The tale of ‘The Bloody Chamber’ derives from some of the most notorious tales of erotic literature in the 18th Century, the period in which the story is set, and in referencing this Carter makes a poignant criticism through parodying the literature of the time, denouncing the way in which, throughout history, it has been commonplace for men to objectify women – passing them off as possessions, something to be acquired rather than respected. Later on in the extract, the narrator is objectified as a piece of art as she considers herself to have been ‘invited to join this gallery of beautiful women’. From this metaphor, the reader detects ignorance in the narrator, yet another quality that is prevalent in female characters within Gothic writing, and subsequently a reaction of sympathy for the narrator is evoked in the reader, since at this point in the story she is not yet aware of the exile into which she will find herself, something that later becomes apparent to her.
The sense of foreboding that prevails throughout the passage amplifies as the narrator imagines ‘that magic place, the fairy castle whose walls were made of foam, that legendary habitation’ that will soon be her home. The excessively lavish description, with reference to ‘magic’ in the most innocent sense of the word, incites a suspicion in the reader as to whether or not the castle will live up to such a great expectation. It could be said that here, the description of the castle is a metaphor for the narrator’s perception of marriage, something which is also unlikely to live up to the narrator’s expectation. In the first Gothic novel, ‘The Castle of Otranto’, the castle itself reflects the personality of its owner. Here, Carter inverts this classic Gothic trope, whereby the ‘fairy castle’ is indeed an opposite reflection of its inhabitant, the Marquis, who is not the stereotypical Prince Charming the reader might expect to find in such a place. In doing this, Carter attempts to inflict a false sense of security upon the reader, something else which is often seen in Gothic writing.
In conclusion, there are an abundance of elements that a reader of Gothic literature would be familiar with in this extract from ‘The Bloody Chamber’. Even though the story is relatively modern within the genre, traditional Gothic devices and motifs are used throughout, with the intention of creating an undeniable sense of danger and foreboding, which in turn provokes a response of fear from the reader, indeed one of the foremost aims of Gothic writing.
Abstractionism in The Bloody Chamber and The Erl-King
Angela Carter’s work in the short story collection “The Bloody Chamber,” makes frequent use of concrete objects as expressions of abstract concepts, among them freedom, bondage, and death in multiple forms, not only physical.
In the short story “The Bloody Chamber,” the world the protagonist lives in is archaic. Although timeless in technicality, the reader gets the idea that it is set in the Victorian era or a little after. This idea is reinforced by the dress of the characters, the behavior of the majority of the women, and the use of wagons and horses as transportation, with the “motorcar” as a luxury item. The reader is shocked by the presence of the telephone, first revealed while the protagonist and her new husband are having sex for the first time, “A dozen husbands impaled a dozen brides while the mewing gulls swung on invisible trapezes in the empty air outside. I was brought to my senses by the insistent shrilling of the telephone” (TBC 17). Carter’s use of anachronism highlights the significance of the telephone in the story. In this instance, the telephone seems to symbolize safety or freedom. It is with the telephone that she is able to call her mother. That maternal bond between mother and daughter, via the telephone wire, ends up being stronger than her bond to her husband in marriage.
Carter’s use of concrete objects in place of abstract concepts is not limited to anachronisms. “The Bloody Chamber” and “O Belo Adormecido” use intertextuality as an effective strategy to subvert conventions. Ana Raquel Fernandes argues that Carter hinges “The Bloody Chamber” on multiple objects, relevant to the setting, which escalate in meaning throughout the story. Among them are the lilies in the bedchamber and the ruby choker. The liles, she says, are an illusion to death. She also makes note of the association the protagonist makes between the lilies and her husband: “In this first part of the story, the first person narrator, the young girl who tells her story retrospectively, describes the Marquis focusing on the stillness of his face and comparing him with a lily” (Fernandes 3). The section of text Fernandes refers to is the protagonist’s initial description of her lover.
“He was older than I… And sometimes that face, in stillness when he listened to me playing, with the heavy eyelids folded over eyes that always disturbed me by their absolute absence of light, seemed to me like a mask… Even when he asked me to marry him, and I said: ‘Yes,’ still he did not lose that heavy, fleshy composure of his. I know it must seem a curious analogy, a man with a flower, but sometimes he seemed to me like a lily” (TBC 8-9).
The Marquis himself, then, by this comparison to a lily, becomes an object in the story representing death. Fernandes goes on to explain the recurrence of the lilies throughout the story as foreshadowing impending death on multiple levels: “The lilies appear again in the description of the matrimonial chamber …although the lilies are white, they stain the narrator, their perfume confuses her senses and later in the short story, the stems become: ‘dismembered arms, drifting drowned in greenish water’ (TBC 22), an explicit reference to death. Indeed, from its first description, the bedroom is a death chamber” (Fernandes 4).
The choker carries potent symbolism of both death and the bondage of marriage. As a symbol of death, it references both the impending physical beheading of the protagonist and the death of self when the protagonist enters into marriage. Bondage, then, is death. This symbolism is alluded to when the choker is described: “A choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat” ( TBC 11). The symbolism of death is further exemplified in the detailing of the tradition the choker comes from: “After the Terror, in the early days of the Directory, the aristos who’d escaped the guillotine had an ironic fad of tying a red ribbon round their necks at just the point where the blade would have sliced it through…That night at the opera comes back to me even now… the white dress; the frail child within it; and the flashing crimson jewels round her throat, bright as arterial blood” ( TBC 11).
In “The Erl-King,” Carter uses the bird’s cages to overtly symbolize bondage and the broken fiddle to symbolize the absence of freedom. While the Erl-King has possession of the maidens, transformed by magic into birds, his music is their cries of sorrow. When the protagonist kills the Erl-King at the end and frees the birds, she strings the fiddle with the Erl-King’s hair, thereby restoring freedom as a concept and the fiddle’s song replaces the song of the birds. The fiddle’s less than joyous music brings our awareness to an uncustomary message. “Then it (the fiddle) will play discordant music without a hand touching it. The bow will dance over the new strings of its own accord and they will cry out ‘Mother, mother, you have murdered me!’” This notes the responsibility and sacrifice that comes with freedom of any kind.
The symbols of freedom in “The Bloody Chamber” are less overt and exist more in terms of negative argument than on its own. In other words, freedom is exhibited through the death of death (the Marquis) instead of being given its own object to live through. This is fitting since “The Bloody Chamber” seems to speak more about marriage as death and submission as bondage. The Erl-King, on the other hand, seems to speak more about feminism, and the dilemmas of sexuality and equality.
Carter’s use of concrete objects as abstractions is central to postmodernism. In the past, many works have used items to symbolize abstractions but in Carter’s work, the items are not props but actual characters in the work. The telephone, for example, is central in the plot of “The Bloody Chamber.” The choker becomes more of a character than some of the real people, for example, the piano teacher. The fiddle in “The Erl-King” even has lines of dialogue at the end of the piece, which puts it on full level with living characters. In this way, Carter makes abstractions like bondage, death, and freedom more than simple morals or behind-the-scenes concepts in her work. They take on lives of their own through the objects they inhabit and become central characters, speaking louder than the human characters with which they coexist.
Carter, Angela (1995), The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. London: Vintage .
Fernandes, Ana Raquel (2010), “The Bloody Chamber” and “O Belo
Adormecido”: intertextuality as an effective strategy to subvert conventions. Lisbon. The Sixth Congress of the National Portuguese Association of Comparative Literature.
Can a Person Be a Victim of Fate? Or Do We Suffer From Our Own Decisions?
Carter’s characters in The Lady of the House of Love (LHL), Wolf-Alice and The Werewolf differentiate between being victims of their own nature and victims of circumstance. These characters that are classified as ‘victims’ are often portrayed as being unable to help themselves as they cannot escape from their fate or situation, such as the Countess in The LHL; however one may argue that certain characters, the child in The Werewolf for instance, are initially victims who subvert their role and do save themselves by escaping from this role. The characters in these stories, particularly the women, are often victimised due to the circumstance of their sexuality and societies expectations of them, nevertheless the Countess is a victim of her own nature – her nature as a vampire which entraps her.
Those characters who are victims of their own nature, in other words trapped in their roles due to their inherent make up. The Countess is an example of such a character, as are the Duke from Wolf-Alice and the grandmother from The Werewolf. All three of the characters are trapped in their states – werewolf and vampire – which are sometimes identified as specifically genetic, the Countess’s vampirism being descended from her father, who is too named as a vampire “Nosferatu” alluding to the vampiric film interpretation of Dracula. As a result the Countess becomes the “hereditary commandant of the army of shadows” which in a sense makes her a victim of circumstance as she inherits the isolation and “demented” history after her father’s assassination. However, the entire story repeatedly refers to her inability to escape from her vampire nature, symbolized through the caged lark, and her embedded need to kill in order to survive. The repeated references to her isolation and abandonment and the somber connotations to her description “all alone in her dark, high house” and “habitual tormented somnambulism” creates sympathy in the reader for her and highlights her inability to escape from her soulless state. She is unable to fulfill her dream to be human by herself and thus the “young officer” who is pure and possesses the “special quality of virginity” is needed on order for her to escape her haunted nature and be human as she wishes. Similarly, the Duke, too, relies on an external character to save him from his animalistic and haunted nature. It is implied that his nature is to be a “corpse eater” as he is non-human. Wolf-Alice humanizes him at the end of the story, saving him from his own nature. The grandmother however, is unable to save herself due to her werewolf nature and is not saved by anyone else but instead dies a victim of her nature. However, she also dies as a victim of circumstance, a circumstance from which she cannot escape.
One may argue that the grandmother is victimized through her role as a woman, a role from which when she tries to escape – by taking the form of a wolf and subverting her role of a domestic and pure woman – she dies. It is evident that she is unable to help herself as she is characterized by Carter as a weak woman “who has been sick” thus suggesting that even though she is a wolf, she is still weak and Little Red has to bring her food and care for her. She is trapped in her role as a domestic grandmother and thus tries to escape through her wolfish side, which in turn entraps her as well in a life destined for persecution. One may also argue that Wolf-Alice, too, is a victim of circumstance as she is trapped in the ‘nature’ of a wolf due to her upbringing and forced to conform to what is considered ‘normal’ by the nuns. She is unable to fully conform to societies expectations of her to “cover up her bold nakedness” and behave in a way expected of a woman as her wolf side has become embedded in her nature by her circumstances. One may contest, however, that she is not helpless as she saves the Duke from his wolfish side and initially did not need anyone to “rescue” her. Therefore, it is evident that there are characters in Carter’s tales who are not victims or helpless at all. The “young officer” in LHL may be initially presented as a victim of the Countess, but he survives and saves/defeats her as well as saves himself through love and innocence as “he is more than he knows.” The girl in The Werewolf is an independent woman, unafraid of the wolves and conformity and defends herself with her father’s hunting knife and therefore “she prospered” by refusing to become the wolf’s prey/victim.
Therefore, Carter’s characters vary between victims of circumstance and their own nature as well as those who are in fact heroes and survivors. Nevertheless, all of her characters begin as victims in their stories. Even those who are heroes, such as the young officer in the LHL and the girl in The Werewolf, are initially victims pursued by evils, wolves and vampires, but are able to save themselves, to help themselves and therefore they are undefeated and become heroes. Thus, all of the characters in The Werewolf, LHL and Wolf-Alice are victims of either nature or circumstance, but it is those who are able to help themselves who do not succumb to these roles. However, to a great extent those who are unable to help themselves are largely unable to do so as they are victims of their own nature and cannot break free from it as their nature is an intrinsic part of their existence.
Role of Environment in ‘The Bloody Chamber’
In The Bloody Chamber, Carter espouses setting as a tool which contributes towards the reader’s emotional reaction when delving into the corrupt themes of her stories. We can therefore become more engaged with her stories as the settings allow ideas such as superstition and male desire to surround the characters. Within the stories, these features function as external displays of characters’ faults.
The bedroom in The Bloody Chamber is symbolic and exemplifies the themes of male dominance and of a pernicious sort of female subjection in the story. This bedroom contains multiple mirrors, in which the narrator recalls watching “…a dozen husbands approach me in a dozen mirrors and slowly, methodically, teasingly, unfasten the buttons of my jacket…” an action which she seems to be reluctant to allow. Through the employment of multiple mirrors in the setting, the Marquis’ reflection is seen “a dozen” times, shedding light on his predatory approach. The imagery of multiple men asserts the idea that there is no escape for the narrator and that she must subject herself to the Marquis. She is in his house, in a room he has given to her; he is even ingrained in the walls “methodically” approaching her. Setting therefore has a significant role in the reader’s ability to empathize with the narrator, as we see through the setting a strong reminder that the Marquis is the predator and she is the prey.
The narrator again is alerted to her helplessness through the setting of the bloody chamber when she states, “Absolute darkness. And, about me, the instruments of mutilation.” Carter employs short, sharp sentences to describe the chamber here, allowing the horror of the scene to shine through. It is as though she cannot quite believe what she is seeing; this disbelief is further exemplified by the description of the torture devices as “instruments,” since the euphemism indicates that she cannot give an honest account of the setting in which she is standing. Once more, Carter reminds us of the helplessness of women unwillingly subjected and frightened, left in “absolute darkness” while the dominant males have full power over sexuality and freedom. The setting of the bloody chamber is a reminder of the horrible consequences women will find themselves in if they are subjected to fraught relationships of this sort.
Furthermore, “The Snow Child”’s setting contributes to the stories’ effect through the description of the girl who is created and melts back into the snowy woods which surround the count, a reminder of destructive male desire and its fruitless and potentially harmful physical manifestations. After the Count rapes the dead girl, she seems to melt away and “Soon there was nothing left of her but a […] bloodstain” which suggests that the Count’s fantasy was as only as real and as human as the setting around him. The image of blood contrasts with the appearance of “fresh snow,” creating a stain in the setting so that it is no longer “immaculate.” This sequence shows that while males may have unrealistic fantasies, it is foolish and harmful to wish these fantasies to exhibit themselves in the real world. Such desires are damaging to society’s ideals as a whole because they demand that women fulfill unrealistic expectations. This point is furthered by the phrase “soon there was nothing left,” as the reader can infer that there was never anything real there to begin with. The setting is simply something that the Count thinks he can use as a device to accommodate his desires, whereas we understand it to be a visual consequence of male appetite.
Carter also uses setting in “The Werewolf” to convey the themes of superstition and corrupted community that prevail later on in the story. The villagers’ houses are described as containing a “crude icon of the virgin,” “crude” implying that the villagers endorse a distortion of religion which encompasses them all. They mistake superstition for religious practice, prompting the alienation of outsiders in the village. It is ironic that they should posses a “virgin” which evokes connotations of saintliness and kindness. We understand that while the setting in which the villagers live in might contain signs of virtue, the people themselves are in fact delusional and corrupt. The virgin mocks their behavior as merciless killers; the graves of the town are described as having “no flowers put in front of them,” an allusion to the villagers’ own hearts – hearts lacking life. In this instance, the setting achieves the opposite, contributing towards the villagers’ cold behavior as manifested later by the murder of the grandma, rather than mocking it. Through the description of the setting, Carter characterizes the brutality and cold-heartedness of the community.
Setting is used as a device by Carter to enhance the themes portrayed in each of her stories, such as heinous male dominance and community mob mentality. Throughout, her descriptions make her criticisms of our own society more explicit and severe.
The Bloody Chamber, Frankenstein, and Doctor Faustus: Three Way the Transgression is Portrayed
A key feature of the Gothic genre in The Bloody Chamber,’ Frankenstein and Dr Faustus is Transgression. Transgression, put simply is the violation of a particular societal, moral or natural law. It is breaking boundaries, or breaking rules of society, which is reflected in all three works of literature. Frankenstein’s hubristic pursuit of creation and his thirst for knowledge lead him to subvert the laws of religion and nature and create artificial life. Faustus’ is also a hubristic character who, like Frankenstein has a thirst for knowledge that compels him to transgress religious boundaries in an act of blasphemy that would have shocked Elizabethan audiences. While Frankenstein’s transgression is emotional and passionate, Faustus’ is a cognitive choice, decided by reason and deliberated again and again (arguably making Frankenstein a more sympathetic character). Transgression in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ however is presented differently. While Frankenstein and Faustus are punished for their transgressions (and the reader is given a lesson in morality) the female protagonists in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ collection often subvert societal norms and ‘transgress’ in a way that liberates and should be celebrated. Patriarchy and male dominance is punished and Carter herself ‘transgresses’ against the fairy tale genre by subverting and challenging the stereotypes presented.
Both the Renaissance setting of Faustus and the 19th Century setting of ‘Frankenstein’ are societies that are at times of change. The Renaissance was divided between a return to humanistic values of balance, order and the study of classical works and the fiery debate over religion that characterised this period. England was divided over Catholic and Protestant loyalties and this provides a perfect backdrop for a protagonist with a divided soul to transgress. Frankenstein is also a protagonist who falls in between divided societal disciplines. The boundaries between Science, philosophy and religion were becoming more ambiguous in the 19th Century and society’s moral ambiguity allows his flawed character enough space to make his fatal mistakes. The context of both of these texts provides a societal rift in which the protagonists display transgressive behaviour which allows us to question traditional societal norms. ‘The Bloody Chamber’ on the other hand is a 20th century novel, written at a time of feminist uprising in the Western world. As a writer, she transcends (and could be said to transgress) against patriarchal societal norms (as do her female protagonists). Carter herself says that she is the ‘product of an advanced, industrialised, post imperialist country in decline’ and that that gives her ‘the sense of limitless freedom’ (Wandor, 1983)1 highlighting the freedoms that individuals in the 20th century enjoy. Comparing this context to that of the other texts prompts a new reading of Frankenstein and Faustus, one in which modern audiences could possibly praise them for their transgressive spirit, rather than condemn them as their own readers did.
Victor’s thirst for power that science offers is sparked by a lightning storm in which a ‘stream of fire’ leave a ‘beautiful oak’ ruined. This ‘dazzling light’ symbolises an epiphany to Frankenstein who watches with ‘curiosity and delight’. Electricity is seen as a force that can both illuminate and ‘utterly destroy,’ and the dual forces of this paradoxical power are reflected in human nature and other dualities in the novel. The ‘stream of fire’ alludes to Prometheus (which is referenced in the novel’s subtitle ‘The Modern Prometheus’) who mistakenly gave fire to mankind and was punished by Zeus. This Classical allusion foreshadows Frankenstein’s own transgression against nature. He is further driven by his university lecturer’s rhetoric that new philosophers will ‘penetrate the recesses of nature’ and ‘show how she works in her hiding places.’ A feminist reading would see the lexical choice of ‘penetration’ as symbolic to an act of ‘rape’ of nature. Nature is often personified as a feminine aspect and Frankenstein tries not only to harness the natural world, but to subvert the role of women all together by usurping their role as the creators of life. Developments in 18th and 19th century science were beginning to question the nature of life and how science and humans could take on the role of reanimating life. This posed conflicts for what had once been a religious society and Victor’s hubristic pursuit could be seen by readers as blasphemous. Victor is overcome with his need to pursue this and the compulsion to do so, and to transgress against nature and God seem overwhelming. He talks about his ‘soul grabbling with a palpable enemy’ and ‘feelings which bore me onwards like a hurricane’. In a psychoanalytic reading, the subconscious force driving Victor forward is the uncontrollable ‘id’ the pleasure principle and primal aspect of the human psyche. A hurricane is a natural and uncontrollable, violent force that causes destruction and so this metaphor serves to foreshadow the later destruction. Ironically, a hurricane can be described as an ‘act of God’ and so the very thing compelling Frankenstein could be said to be the thing he tries to usurp. Frankenstein’s hubris is highlighted by his delusions of grandeur and his blasphemous pursuit of omnipotence. He talks of pouring ‘a torrent of light in to this dark world’ with his creation, an image which reminds us of God’s creation of earth and how ‘a new species would bless me as its creator’. His grandiose speculations are clearly so full of hyperbole that readers of the time would condemn his blasphemy.
In the same way as Frankenstein, the transgressive nature of Dr Faustus allows us to question traditional societal norms as he commits the ultimate sin, a rejection of God to pursue power as well as pleasure. The chorus – which is evocative of a Greek tragedy – foreshadows Faustus’ fate; ‘his waxen wings did mount above his reach,’ this allusion to Icarus, who went against the advice of his father flew too close to the sun, melting his wings of wax. In this case for Faustus it foreshadows his arrogance, pride and greed which leads to his downfall. Wilhelm Wagner (1969)2 argues that ‘the devil and our lives on earth can give us no greater satisfaction than God,’ however, Faustus believes that to ‘live in all voluptuousness’ is worth more than the rewards he will gain in heaven if he follows a moral path. The opening soliloquy of ‘Marlow’s Dr. Faustus’ reveals many different characteristics of the protagonist. As well as establishing Faustus’ character, the soliloquy is a reflection of the Renaissance world, by presenting Faustus as a man of his time since the character is influenced by changes in society, encountered in the Renaissance era. However, Faustus rejects the learning of his time, rejecting first the great philosopher Aristotle’s ‘Analytics’ and logic by questioning its purpose:
“is to dispute well logic’s chiefest end?
The read no more, thou hast attained the end
A greater subject fitteth Faustus’ wit”
The fricative and tongue twisted last phrase is difficult to say and a renaissance audience with highly tuned ears would notice this and hear the warning in his hubristic statement. He moves on to the study of medicine, rejecting the ‘gold’ it can offer and bragging that he has already ‘attained that end’. Instead of worldly learning, he chooses the ‘necromantic books’ which he paradoxically believes are ‘heavenly’. Frankenstein also rejects conventional religion and science by obsessing on the works of Cornelius Agrippa, a sorcerer and necromancer. His father’s disapproval that his works are all ‘sad trash’ further shows us that both society and his close family disapprove of his studies but that this is not enough to stop him. In grandiose assertions that are similar to Frankenstein, Faustus believes they will lead to ‘power, honour and omnipotence’ and in the same way that Frankenstein wishes a new species to ‘bless’ him as its creator, Faustus wants ‘all things that move beyond the quiet poles to be at (his) command”. The difference between Frankenstein and Faustus is that while Frankenstein is motivated by a subconscious, uncontrollable force that is tipped over the edge by grief of the death of his mother, Faustus’ pursuit of divine power and delight is far more deliberate and conscious and Marlowe’s use of the soliloquy here helps us to see the deliberate and conscious decisions he is making. This makes his transgression more sinful. Renaissance, religious audiences would view this transgression as sacrilegious and blasphemous but modern audiences may aide with Faustus and see him as a revolutionary antihero and a true Renaissance Man.
Transgression is seen differently in the 20th Century text, ‘The Bloody Chamber’. In the title story, the Marquis breaks the moral and societal boundaries by fusing erotic love with death. His Bloody Chamber, a ‘room designed for dissection’ hides the corpses of his previous lovers. By murdering people, he breaks a significant boundary; by combing a sexual element with death he expands his transgressive behaviour and nature to tackle several taboos. Carter says,” My intention was not to do ‘versions’ or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, ‘adult’ fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories and to use it as the beginnings of new stories.” (Helen Simpson 1979)3. Carter’s reworking of fairy tales to expose their ‘latent content’ which is inherently violent and sexual. The male protagonists act as pornographers: The Marquis in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ undresses the protagonist while he remains dressed, and examines her ‘limb by limb’, the lexical choice here highlights his intentions to defile and then murder her shows how patriarchy objectifies and silences women, expecting them to be ‘docie bodies’. The ultimate passivity is death and that is what the Marquis will do. The Marquis is a connoisseur of sadism and his chamber is a shrine to his work. The items of torture, ‘Wheel, rack and Iron Maiden’ are set alongside a ‘catafalque’ ‘funerary urns’ and ‘bowls of incense’ and these ornaments of death show his obsession with the theatre of sadism and death. The narrator (and perhaps the reader) is shocked when they realise how the ‘dead lips smiled’ demonstrating how the victim was complicit and derived pleasure in the sadism that led to her death. Carter seems to be implying that women are just as capable as men of sexual depravity and sadomasochistic tendencies. Even the narrator revels in the depravity of her husband’s deviant fantasy. It is her virginity and ‘innocence which he lusted after’ that especially excites him and the thought of defiling an innocent. Disturbingly, the narrator is also excited by his objectification of her: “and, as at the opera, when I had first seen my flesh in his eyes, I found myself stirring”. She feels a ‘strange impersonal arousal’ and a mixture of ‘love’ and ‘repugnance’ at their first sexual encounter. This paradox and unwanted feelings of arousal at someone who disgusts you could be Carter’s appreciation of the role of the Freudian ‘Id’ in driving behaviour. Below consciousness, she is drawn to the deviance in his practices and they represent the painful experiences of womanhood. This is similar to Frankenstein who is also compelled by an ‘Id’ below his conscious control. Ozum (n.d)4 suggests that “Carter’s tales fabricate new cultural and literary realities in which sexuality and free will in women replace the patriarchal traits of innocence and morality in traditional fairy tales,’ Carter subverts traditional gender stereotypes by giving female characters the freedom to dominate their own sexuality and reveal the narrator’s perverse pleasure at her objectification. Gothic texts often try to shock, and certainly the other two texts contain ideas that were shocking to readers and audiences of the time and Carter’s Bloody Chamber does the same. Even modern readers, in a media age where little shocks are inclined may be shocked at not just the socially transgressive behaviour of the Marquis, but also the Freudian revelations that desire and disgust are closely linked within the female psyche. Carter is revealing the empowerment of women through sexuality. Although the institution of marriage serves to disempower the protagonist, (Carter herself said ‘what is marriage but prostitution to one man instead of many’)5 and she highlights the commodification and objectification of the wife through the protagonist: ‘my purchaser unwrapped his bargain’. The narrator (who is empowered by the ability to tell her own story, a subversion from the fairy tale tradition) is aware of her objectification and how her husband had ‘conspired to seduce her’. It may be this that empowers her as she knows that it is her ‘innocence that captivated him’ but also that he, as the connoisseur of sexual deviancy sensed in her ‘a rare talent for corruption’. Carter illustrates the paradoxical nature of desire in the oxymoronic phrase ‘And I longed for him. And he disgusted me’ showing how revulsion and desire are not the mutually exclusive concepts that the reader could have thought they were. Gothic literature is powerful and exciting because readers and audiences can vicariously experience the thrill of transgression and project desires of the Freudian Id on to harmless characters when they are unable to express them themselves because of societal boundaries. Carter, like Shelley and Marlowe shocks readers by exposing the darkest of human nature and desire.
The fact that the protagonist understands her own objectification empowers her to embrace this and use her own sexuality to transgress and gain power. Carter’s use of the motif of mirrors shows the Bloody Chamber’s protagonist’s emerging sense of subjectivity. Her heroine’s ability to stand outside herself allows Carter to strip away conventional moral fabric, at the same time signalling the fictive construction of her characters: the muscles that resemble ‘thin wire’ allude to the marionette motif that runs through many of the narratives in ‘The Bloody Chamber.’ Carter uses the objectification of women as a disruptive literary device to challenge social perceptions. Puppets and mirrors are common instruments of magic and Carter employs both these as motifs of deconstruction; in the mirrored bedroom of the ghastly Marquis the new bride becomes a series of multiple reflections of the male gaze. Mirrors are another important recurring motif throughout the book. The heroine is able to see herself reflected many times and see what an object she has become. The ‘funereal’ lilies reflect the Marquis’ mask-like face. The ‘pornographic confrontation,’ where the woman is naked and the man is clothed, is another important image of power and objectification. Count in The Snow Child completely orchestrates a paedophilic fantasy in which the ‘child of his desire’ appears and disappears at his command. The Snow Child is made from the Countess physical desire for her, thus Carter places the Count in the position of the writer, he is able to control what she says and does. The Snow Child is a masculine fantasy, she is a helpless figure and it is the Count who has control of her destiny. The Countess is revealed to be a strong woman whilst the Count is trying desperately to live his dying fantasies, the Count ‘watched him narrowly’ as she reigns in her ‘stamping mare,’ Carter portrays her as a strong woman who is in control of her sexuality whilst the Count is controlled by his sexual desires. Frankenstein, in contrast, is not in control of his own destiny, he is disempowered and ultimately ruined by his transgression and although Faustus is more aware of his, he still is ultimately powerless to resist his fate. The differences here may lie in context: the 20th century is a more liberal society than both the Renaissance or the Enlightenment and so the absolute lines of morality are not so clearly defined and the readers are prepared to have heroes and heroines who break societal boundaries to empower themselves.
Moreover, in ‘The Bloody Chamber’, it is the narrator’s transgression to disobey her husband which liberates her. Although forbidden, she takes the keys to enter the room convinced it holds her husband’s identity. The instruments of torture she finds and the chamber itself are a metaphor for the pain of womanhood and the rite of passage that a girl must go through in order to become a woman. The fact that she is rescued by her mother, rather than a man is a celebration of sisterhood and the unbreakable nature of female bonds. The protagonist marries a blind man who cannot objectify her with ‘the male gaze’ and rejects the transaction of marriage in which the Marquis offers her material wealth in return for her subjugation and ultimate death by marrying a man with no money and living a simple life. Similarly, in ‘The company of the wolves,’ the heroine is free and liberated due to her own sexual awareness. Carter uses mystical imagery such as referring to it as a ‘pentacle’ and a ‘magic space’ to show the special power it has that can be harnessed by the owner rather than exploited by the taker. Her virginity that could have been a weakness becomes strength. When she embraces it, she seems to take on a role that is stronger than the wolf. Carter notes how seeing her makes the wolf ‘slaver’, and she also actively undresses the wolf as well as herself.
All three texts covering different time periods show that protagonists of different genders and epochs are compelled to transgress. However, the male protagonists transgress because of a hubristic desire for power and knowledge and are punished. The female protagonists in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ are liberated by their transgression as theirs is not for a (arguably) masculine egotistical desire for omnipotent power, but for emancipation from gender inequalities that have subjugated and oppressed women since the beginning of time. It could be because of this that they are liberated instead of punished but it could also be because of a more liberal context in which readers are not so absolute in their religious or societal boundaries. It does seem though that transgression is a part of human nature. Since the Bible, we know that humans are compelled to sin and this is why Gothic Literature focusses heavily on this aspect of humanity to engage readers. Readers and audiences over time experience the vicarious thrill of transgression through the characters.
Sexual Preferences and the Liberation of Oneself in the Company of Wolves
Angela Carter’s The Company of Wolves is a different adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood where, instead of the little girl becoming the victim to a villainous wolf, she embraces the wolf as an experience beyond anything she has known or been taught. Red Riding Hood is coming into herself as a young woman; she is going through puberty which often signifies changes in sexual interest and curiosity. Her family took the time to preach to the little girl that there are beasts outside of her protected bubble that are dangerous and not suitable to interact with at such a tender age. Since she is the youngest and the prettiest child, her mother and grandmother put forth mass efforts to ensure she remains as innocent as possible. However, when the little girl makes her way into the woods, she finds that she is not interested in being innocent. She discovers that she wants to explore her sexual desires which are not civilized. Sexual desire is something wild and natural, something that civilized and cultured girls should never want to explore. Women are often discouraged from exploring their sexual desires because it is a behavior that is not normally characterized as feminine. The heroine of The Company of Wolves rejects her civilized lifestyle in order to experience animalistic sexual desire.
The Company of Wolves starts out with an old wives’ tale and a warning. A little girl is told stories of beasts that make “you” quiver in fear and are untrustworthy She is told these stories by her grandmother to ensure the little girl would remain innocent and pure. However, Red Riding Hood is told these old wives’ tales about these wolves and how they preyed on innocent townspeople; she took this and, instead of cowering to him like prey, she asserted her dominance when in front of the wolf. The old wives’ tales are meant to scare her into obedience; in order for her to remain a little girl, her mother and grandmother make an effort to kill any inkling of curiosity. They tell her to “Fear and flee the wolf; for, worst of all, the wolf may be more than he seems” (Carter 111). This resonates closely with the implication that boys will be boys; they do not know how to control themselves. Women take it upon themselves to teach their daughters stereotypical behaviors of men and that good women are not supposed to engage in such behaviors. The women in this story, with the exception to the heroine, could almost be characterized as the antagonists. They discourage her from exploring her sexuality and sexual desires by using scare tactics in hopes that their youngest and prettiest child will remain civilized and innocent. However, by doing this, there is a disconnect in their care for her; the heroine does not seem to care that her grandmother has been eaten by this wolf. She is actively rejecting her teacher of how good girls should act. Without her grandmother, there is no one to force her to conform to the rules of their society but even in the death of her grandmother, the rattling of her bones is meant to act as a warning against the wolf.
The red shawl not only symbolizes her coming into her womanhood but it is also physically shielding her body from the wolves. As a developing young woman, “her breasts have just begun to swell” and she has started her period; her grandmother makes the cape to shelter her granddaughter from being preyed upon (Carter 113). She burns her cape to show how she is unafraid of the wolf. She burns her clothes to reject her civilized lifestyle and to be accepted into an animalistic lifestyle. Carter says, “She bundled her shawl and threw it on the blaze, which instantly consumed it” (Carter 117). Once she throws the shawl into the fire, she has immediately relieved herself of the pressures of being in a civilized society. She does not want that life for herself; instead, she is allowing for the wolf to introduce her to the world of sexual desire and acting on natural instincts rather than learned behaviors. The shawl is the first thing she burns because it is the antithesis of what she wants to be and what the wolf can teach her. After the shawl burns, she begins to undress herself to embrace her natural body. “The thin muslin went flaring up the chimney like a magic bird and now off came her skirt, her woolen stockings, her shoes, and on to the fire they went, too, and were gone for good” (Carter 118). She undresses herself to slowly show she is willing to shed herself of everything she has been taught. Then she undresses the wolf to put them on a level playing field. Neither has an advantage and she is not in immediate danger because they are the same kind of exposed in front of each other. This story is not about love; it is purely about lust and a biological hunger for sex. The description of the heroine makes it clear she has no intention of loving the wolf. Rather, she is looking forward to exploring the sexual desire in herself. Their roles have reversed; she is supposed to be afraid of the wolf because his intention is to eat her. In the end, the act of having sex and consuming another being are closely aligned. She “burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat” when the wolf said he was going to eat her (Carter 118). It ended up being about two hungry beings consuming each other instead of being a predator devouring its prey.
Often, nature has acted as the place to find one’s truth. Carter placed Red Riding Hood in the woods because she is meant to begin to seek her sexual truth. While the wolf is interested in pursuing her in a sexual manner, it would have been a different story if the wolf purposely sought her out in the comfort of her nurturing community. Red Riding Hood finds herself in the woods without the protection of her mother or grandmother; she finds herself wanting to explore sexual desires and is in a perfect position to do it. Instead of following what people have told her to do when she goes into the woods, she acts on her animalistic instincts and sexual desires. The wolf is dirty and untrustworthy while she is pure and clean by continuous grooming and sheltering from her family. She loses her virginity to the wolf; she sheds her blood and immediately loses the innocence her family had been protecting her from. Her instincts told her she needed to experience her sexual awakening because she did not have any other opportunity to do so. Since losing one’s virginity is often paired with marriage in a civilized society, Red Riding Hood found herself making some kind of commitment to the wolf by having sex with him. “She will lay his fearful head on her lap and she will pick out the lice from his pelt and perhaps she will put the lice into her mouth and eat them, as he will bid her, as she would do in a savage marriage ceremony” (Carter 118). Lice is the quintessential telling that someone is not clean; Red Riding Hood says she would perhaps put the lice in her mouth in order to show she is willingly becoming unclean. She did not catch lice from the wolf while they were engaging in sex; she takes them inside herself enthusiastically as part of her new life.
The Company of Wolves was a story about embracing sexual liberation and rejecting social norms and expectations. Red Riding Hood aggressively goes against everything she is taught by her civilized family to explore her natural desires as she is coming into her womanhood. The wolf, a wild animal, seeks to murder the heroine’s grandmother in order to silence her voice of reason and conformity. Anticipating a girl that would be afraid of the wolf’s predatory antics, the wolf asserted his dominance only to be met with equal power from Red Riding Hood. Instead of listening to the antagonistic voices of her mother and grandmother to fear the wolf, Red Riding Hood embraced him and his animal behaviors; she engaged in those same behaviors in order to shed her clothes from a forced, civilized life. By going into the woods, she entered a natural environment where she would not be pressured to conform to women’s ideals regarding femininity and what behaviors are acceptable for a girl to be involved in.
The Female Gaze: Desire as a Source of Power to the Objectified Female
As a subversion of what we understand today as the “male gaze”, Angela Carter in The Bloody Chamber, The Company of Wolves, and The Courtship of Mr Lyon exercises postmodern parody in order to both expose and destabilize gender stereotypes through the use of desire as a propelling force to action by the objectified female, and by telling the stories from the female perspective. Carter skillfully knits themes of rites-of-passage, sex and death through the retelling of well-known traditional fairy tales in order to describe the imbalanced relationships contained therein. The female protagonists all undergo a mental transformation which allows them agency and prevents them from becoming one of the many women preceding them who have succumbed to the fate designated to women in a patriarchal society. Carter overthrows traditional gender positions by allowing her female characters a subjectivity gained through their own narration of the stories (Renfroe 89)– stories which in the past have been dominated by the masculine voice.
In The Bloody Chamber it is this subjectivity that stresses the importance of the girl’s journey to self-discovery through the Bloody Chamber. Thus, in the same way that the narrator is introduced to a new way of thinking through her exposure to the bloody chamber, so the reader is forced to re-examine the dominant ideologies that surround the original fairy tales that Carter reimagines (Renfroe 91). Rites-of-passage, sex and death become interlinking themes in these stories through the female characters exploring their sexualities in a manner that allows them to become more cognizant of their own positions and their relation to a masculine world.
What is interesting is that this metamorphosis is accompanied by the theme of death. According to Cheryl Renfroe in her article Initiation and Disobedience, in The Bloody Chamber, the protagonist’s probe into the forbidden chamber is her rite-of-passage and defines the chamber as a liminal space. As defined by Arnold van Gennep’s The Rites of Passage (1909), a liminal space is one in which the initiand is removed from the ordinary life to a place of isolation where s/he experiences an tribulation that causes him/her to return to the normal life with a transformed standpoint. This space is then the indeterminate middle phase when the initiand is exposed to an ordeal in order to be able to leave one life stage behind in order to arrive at another (Renfroe 92). It is in this moment that the protagonist undergoes a realization of her character: “Until that moment, this spoiled child did not know she had inherited nerves and a will from the mother who had defied the yellow outlaws of Indo-China” (Carter 26). This is a moment of female empowerment as the daughter grasps the true strength that she has been taught by the primary female figure in her life. Her power thus comes from being able to appreciate her mother’s power and channel that strength into her own situation.
Furthermore, the emphasis on the woman as savior is a clear subversion of gender roles and encourages a new perception of women as being capable of significant action in a patriarchal society. Here, the imbalanced relationships between genders in traditional stories are toppled and the readers come face to face with the fact that a female lead can have as much importance and sway as a male one. It is in this room that she comes face to face with the intimate relationship between sex and death. Her sexual initiation becomes inextricable from the death of the women who came before her. She realizes that once she had sexually satisfied her husband, she became disposable. It is in this way then that the term “le petit mort” for sexual orgasm gains literal meaning as “a little death”. The orgasm of her husband means death for her. Desire, power and death intertwine in this moment of confrontation with the implicit truth of what her husband is, and the protagonist cannot help but think of a quote by her husband’s favorite poet: “There is a striking similarity between the act of love and the ministrations of a torturer” (Carter 26). The power gained through sexual dominance is thus explored, and the sexually dominant partner is able to control the submissive partner – roles which have conventionally been attributed to males for the former and to females for the latter.
Carter’s re-exploration of the classic folk tale allows a partiality to be given to a female voice, as well as an empowerment of the female characters. This is most clearly seen by how the protagonist attempts to use her own sexuality in order to prevent the fate decided for her by the dominant male character: “I forced myself to be seductive, I saw myself, pale, pliant as a plant that begs to be trampled underfoot, a dozen vulnerable appealing girls reflected in as many mirrors, and I saw how he almost failed to resist me” (Carter 36). In this moment there is both an inversion of traditional gender roles and a subversion of power dynamics. Sex and death become even more intricately involved as the protagonist states that: “If he had come to me in bed, I would have strangled him, then” (Carter 36). She is willing to take control in a sexual situation and exert any power that she might have gained. Furthermore, power is afforded the female especially through the twist that makes the mother the savior and not a male. Even after the moment of release from her husband, the protagonist further defies tradition by living with a man outside the sanctity of marriage – an act which both defies societal expectations of women as well as affirming her own changed perceptions of the world and her part in it.
In The Company of Wolves, desire, gender and power are important in the retelling as the role of the innocent Red Riding Hood is destabilized. In Carter’s re-exploration, the protagonist is a girl on the cusp of womanhood willing to explore her own sexuality. She has a sexual curiosity that is awakened when she meets a handsome man in the forest. The wager then becomes an opportunity for her to experience her own sexuality: “…for she wanted to dawdle on her way to make sure the handsome gentleman would win his wager” (Carter 140). What makes her interest so important is that it allows her to experience sexuality in a manner normally only afforded to males. Her curiosity comes to fruition when, even faced with the realization of what he had done to her grandmother, she “freely gave him the kiss she owed him” (Carter 144). Her choice thus becomes what sets her apart from her traditional counterpart. She is not saved by her father or a male figure as in the original story, instead, she saves herself by recognizing her own power – power found in her sexuality. It is in this moment that power dynamics are overthrown by both allowing the female voice subjectivity and portraying sexual desire as being natural to females, as well as males. Furthermore, the use of sexuality in attempting to escape patriarchal oppression is blatantly obvious when the protagonist laughs at the apparent threats of the werewolf: “She laughed at him full in the face, she ripped off his shirt for him and flung it into the fire, in the fiery wake of her own discarded clothing” (Carter 144). By laughing and proclaiming that she is “nobody’s meat” she detaches herself from patriarchal pornography and grants herself sexual license as a strong female (Lau 87). Furthermore, by burning the clothes of the wolf-man she chooses to accept his beastiality and thus decides to accept a concept of sexual liberation (Lau 87). This use of sexuality in order to lead the males away from their original destructive paths make Carter’s female protagonists more interesting than the traditional virginal perception of the female character. Lorna Sage in Angela carter: The Fairy Tale encapsulates this wonderfully by stating that “The blameless woman is for Carter also the unimaginative woman” (Sage 58).
Once more, the virginal qualities that make the traditional fairy tale female so attractive to the male protagonist is undermined, and the female gains agency by moving beyond the constructs of what is expected of her. Her very natural sexual desire serves to separate her from the unrealistic expectations placed upon her. In terms of sexual conquest, the female re-informs traditional views by making Little Red Riding Hood a sexual agent (Lau 86). While Little Red Riding Hood has been changed primarily in her character, Carter retains some of the narrative techniques of the original story as Little Red Riding Hood follows the dialogue set for her, before utterly destroying its historical power. After dictating the physical prowess afforded the male by saying the celebrated “What big arms you have” (Carter 144), Carter excellently sabotages its significance by following it with “All the better to hug you with” (Carter 144). In this moment, the wolf is no longer as threatening and Little Red Riding Hood gains agency by freely indulging her desire for the kiss they wagered upon. The Courtship of Mr Lyon as a postmodern parody of the Beauty and the Beast is powerful one because of Carter’s unique ability to subvert traditional power dynamics through the appropriation of fresh gender roles focussing on the expression of latent female desire and sexuality.
This subversion of gender roles is most evident by the Beast’s reaction to Beauty leaving him to meet her father: “The Beast sunk his great head on to his paws. You will come back to me? It will be lonely here, without you” (Carter 53). His response is that of a man in love who is easily directed by Beauty (Brooke 73). Beauty too is far removed from the innocent Beauty in the traditional folk tale who fails to recognize her own beauty; Beauty in Carter’s tale becomes vain with the attention bestowed upon her. She finds herself looking into mirrors often and “She smiled at herself with satisfaction. She was learning, at the end of her adolescence, how to be a spoiled child and that pearly skin of hers was plumping out, a little, with high living and compliments” (Carter 54). This image is far removed from the Beauty in the traditional story who asked only for a single rose when her father travelled. This Beauty “could sometimes turn a mite petulant when things went not quite as she wanted them to go” (Carter 54). It is this moment that Carter’s use of parody becomes obvious as when the story begins, the reader is exposed to a Beauty that fulfills the expectations set by the traditional folk tale, but this perceived innocence becomes less attractive when stated by Beauty herself: “And such a one she felt herself to be, Miss Lamb, spotless, sacrificial” (Brooke 73). Carter’s takes this parody one step further by having Beauty take on the role of a subservient female, but only because of the appearance that she thinks this will create as herself as a virtuous female (Brooke 74). This amplification of gender stereotypes draws attention to the perilous discrepancy between manifestation and true being (Brooke 74). As such, Carter also exposes the extent to which women will silence their own voices in order to become what they think will be most attractive and what will serve to please most the men who are primarily in control of their lives. Carter expertly weaves this into the storyline in order to highlight that the subjugation of women is not only sustained by the dominant male voice, but also by the female perpetuation of the norms which serve to demean them.
It is clear that Angela Carter is expert at clawing at the gender norms that permeate every inch of society in such a way that the reader is left unable but to come to understand better the subtle inundation of female submissiveness which serve to inform the female function. By using well-known folk tales that most people have encountered, Carter manages to subvert the expectations placed upon genders by proficiently retelling the story in such a way as to grant the female voice agency through her wonderful linking of the significant relationship between desire, gender and power. The females in her story gain their power through the acceptance of their own sexual desires and their knowledge of how this sexual desire may be used by them against the male figures who often attempt to govern them.
Works Cited Brooke, P. (2004). Lyons and Tigers and Wolves – Oh My! Revisionary Fairy Tales in the Work of Angela Carter. Critical Survey, 16(1), 67-88. Carter, A. (1979). The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. New York: Penguin . Lau, K. J. (2008). Erotic Infidelities: Angela Carter’s Wolf Trilogy. Marvels and Tales, 22(1), 77-94. Renfroe, C. (1998). Initiation and Disobedience: Liminal Experience in Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber”. Marvels and Tales, 12(1), 82-94. Sage, L. (1998). Angela Carter: The Fairy Tale. Marvels and Tales, 12(1), 52-69.
The concept of transformation is a key element of Carter’s text and of Gothic writing in general. Explore how Carter presents this concept in two or more of her stories
Throughout The Bloody Chamber, Carter uses traditional fairytales as a template for discussion on gender and sexual politics. Therefore, although her short stories contain conventional forms of transformation – men turn into wolves in The Company of Wolves, at the end of The Courtship of Mr Lyon Mr Lyon turns back into a man, and in the conclusion of The Tiger’s Bride the protagonist changes into a beast as well – they also include a deeper, metaphorical notion of change. At the time of writing, the Second Wave Feminism movement had reached its peak; this shift in attitudes may have influenced Carter’s frequent use of symbolic imagery to denote a character’s emotional and psychological transformation.
Carter advocates an accommodation between the tiger and lamb binary opposites of human nature as a means of achieving wholeness. The titles of both The Courtship of Mr Lyon (TCoML) and The Tiger’s Bride (TTB) have a clear male emphasis; the fact that the protagonist is described as ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ suggests his ownership of her, an obviously unequal power dynamic. However, by the end of the stories (both of which involve a physical metamorphosis) the relationship between the male and female figures has also changed, conveying Carter’s desire for socially constructed notions of gender to be discarded. The final line of TCoML – ‘Mr and Mrs Lyon walk in the garden…’ – is symbolic of the two opposing forces conforming to meet the needs of each other. This links to the key concepts of the 1970s feminist movement, which put forward ideas concerning gender as a social construct. This notion was presented in Simone de Beauvoir’s, the famous French feminist, book The Second Sex (1949); the author famously wrote, ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’. This reflects both de Beauvoir’s and Carter’s belief that femininity does not arise from differences in biology, but that it is a construct of civilisation; someone’s situation determines their character. People are gradually shaped by their upbringing, and biology does not determine what makes a woman a woman – women learn their roles (or have them forced upon them) by the male dominated society they inhabit. They are not born passive, secondary, and nonessential, just as men are not born dominant, superior, and authoritarian, but external forces have conspired to make them so. Lawrence Phillips, on Carter, wrote, ‘change, [her work] seems to suggest, is an extremely difficult business to come about’. These forces are hard to overcome, and will inevitably take a long time, but this is within reach. Glimpses of this optimistic attitude are apparent throughout the stories of The Bloody Chamber (TBC), but especially in The Company of Wolves (TCoW), the last line of which reads, ‘See! sweet and sound she sleeps in granny’s bed, between the paws of the tender wolf’. This highly symbolic physical accommodation not only resembles the biblical image of the lamb lying down with the lion, but it also reinforces Carter’s claim that ‘I am all for putting new wine in old bottles’, the ‘new wine’ in this case being the wholeness achieved from the merging of two previously conflicting halves, and the ‘old bottle’ being ‘granny’s bed’, which is a symbol of the patriarchy – old, irrelevant, and outdated. Carter’s use of allegorical symbolism as a means of promoting her views of equality and unity goes hand in hand with her aim to transform classic fairytales from a form of literature which inherently reinforces the socially constructed nature of female identity and sexuality, to a feminist political rewriting of the genre.
Carter’s stories deal with the objectification of women in a phallocentric order and the way traditional fairytales reinforce the perception of women as merely objects. For instance, in The Snow Child (TSC), the defining feature of the woman is that she’s the Count’s wife, and her appearance reflects this; ‘wrapped in the glittering pelts of black foxes’ and other glamorous items, her identity is based entirely on materiality. The Count himself also regards women as objects, the repetition of ‘I wish’ is a symbol of the patriarchy shaping and moulding women to fit male desires and expectations. The nature of these expectations is inherently linked to the treatment of women as disposable commodities; the Count’s yearning for ‘a girl as white as snow’, and ‘as red as blood’ brings to mind images of corpses, suggesting that women are more attractive when they are dead, and therefore completely submissive to male figures. Helen Simpson wrote, ‘Menace is located not in the darker side of heterosexuality, in sadomasochism and the idea of fatal passion’. This notion is reinforced when the Count ‘thrust his virile member into the dead girl’; she doesn’t have to be autonomous for the Count to view her as a sexual object, in fact he, a symbol of the patriarchy, prefers her in a state in which she is absolutely passive. The rivalry between the two female figures is also evidence of the materiality by which women are valued – as the Count rebuffs the Countess’ demands, ‘the furs sprang off [her] shoulders and twined round the naked girl’, symbolising the shifting of the Count’s affection. The Countess’ dependence on the Count is made obvious as she is ‘left bare as a bone’, her nakedness a metaphor for her vulnerability and disempowerment in a male dominated society. The treatment of women as mere objects is prevalent throughout the title story of TBC; the Marquis gleefully asserts his dominance over the nameless protagonist as he seeks, like the Count in TSC, to transform her from an autonomous, free-thinking individual into a submissive sexual object. The Marquis strips the heroine of her clothes (again bringing to mind the connotations of disempowerment that accompany nudity) ‘as if he were stripping the leaves off an artichoke’ – Carter’s choice to liken the narrator to a vegetable emphasises the Marquis’ desire for her to enter a vegetative state, passive and unresisting. When the Marquis is about to execute her he remarks, ‘Such a pretty neck, […] A neck like the stem of a young plant’. Rosemary Moore wrote, ‘In the late seventeenth century it was deemed natural that husbands should master their wives. The Marquis is the paradigmatic Western man whose attitudes to sexuality are feudal and who believes that a woman is his slave’. However, it seems as though he aims to reduce the protagonist further than the status of slavery, down to just a piece of meat, regarding her as a ‘lamb chop’. Carter’s unrelenting and visceral handling of objectification demonstrates the aims of the patriarchal society to deprecate and undermine women’s autonomy in order to maintain the unequal power dynamics already in place, and prevent any transgression or transformation.
Carter’s use of settings underline the repressive nature and imbalance of power in patriarchal society. The harsh and unforgiving landscapes that several of the stories take place in reflect the vulnerability of the female characters – in TSC, the first line reads, ‘Midwinter – invincible, immaculate’. The concise sentence evokes an atmosphere of hostility, echoed in the demeanour of the Countess, who is filled with hate and devoid of emotion. This hate is a product of her oppression, but rather than being directed towards her oppressors (the Count among them), it is directed towards her fellow woman, the young girl the Count wishes into existence. This female rivalry prevents the female figures from toppling their oppressors, keeping them subjugated. Similarly, the castle in TBC is an extension of the Marquis’ wealth, domination, and power over the heroine, serving as a symbol of the patriarchy. Described as possessing a ‘faery solitude’ and ‘cut off by the tide from land’, it physically entraps the protagonist, preventing her escape and thus aiding the Marquis’ attempts to prevent her from transgressing and gaining any form of autonomy. To reinforce this notion, Carter likens the castle to a prison, describing the Marquis’ key ring as being ‘as crowded as that of a prison warder’; the idea that she is being held captive emphasises the imbalanced power dynamic between the two. The concept of entrapment appears in The Erl-King (TEK) as well, in which Carter’s description of the ‘autumn wood’ evokes an air of claustrophobia; the unnerving conciseness of ‘the woods enclose’ immediately brings to mind the notion of the woods being alive, and this is further strengthened when Carter writes ‘once you are inside it, you must stay there until it lets you out again’. The protagonist is trapped by the sentient woods, left hunting ’round hopelessly for the way out’ as she wanders through the ‘house of nets’. However, the woods possess yet another symbolic layer, as traditionally in literary histories and discourses concerning women, forests are the setting for the heroine losing her way, navigating and negotiating through the woods, and emerging to achieve a new identity. Indeed, at the end of TEK, the narrator forges her own destiny by killing the Erl-King, replacing male power with female domination. This conclusion is similar to that of TBC, in which the castle, previously a symbol of male dominance and female entrapment, is turned into a ‘school for the blind’, literally and metaphorically opening the eyes of people to the ways of society, while simultaneously suggesting a new way forward.
In conclusion, Carter’s use of imagery, both to attack an inherently unbalanced society, and advocate equality between genders, serves as a call to arms for women, encouraging them not to follow in the footsteps of those before them and continue to be passive, unyielding figures. The author’s stories, while being brutally viscera in their depiction of power dynamics and gender politics is also subtly optimistic. The endings of many of her short stories involve women taking matters into their own hands and defying conventional narrative conclusions, which usually involve men solving the problem. For instance, in her rewriting of Bluebeard, which was originally written by Charles Perrault in 1697, it is the protagonist’s mother who saves her, rather than the two brothers of the original. Perrault’s version was intended to be a cautionary tale, warning women against being too curious (and advising them subliminally to remain submissive and accepting of society’s ways) – rather than simply penning a completely new narrative, Carter’s version of Bluebeard achieves not only in exposing the domination and oppression of women, but also in showing how society can change to accommodate both previously opposing genders.
The Liminal Experience in Angela Carter’s The Erl King
Liminality pervades Angela Carter’s short story collection, entitled The Bloody Chamber, in her characters, physical settings and even her narrative voice. The bloody chamber, as a physical ‘chamber’ can refer to a room where violence and enlightenment occur simultaneously. It is a space of transformation for the heroine that changes her irrevocably. Bloody chambers are often connected with not only the blood of violence, but also with the bloodshed when a woman loses her virginity and when she menstruates. The concept “bloody chamber” can also refer to the vagina or womb, and Carter uses this fact to underscore the connection between women’s sexuality and the violence they experience. Carter creates an atmosphere that possesses elements of the ‘bloody chamber’, both power and torment simultaneously, particularly in ‘The Erl King’, a story in which all aspects exist liminally. The narrator in the Erl-King describes the sensation of liminality as “vertigo.” When the Erl-King, a liminal creature who is half-human, half-woods, draws her into his “gravity” of in-betweenness, she is unpleasantly disoriented. This disorient translates to the ambiguity of the King’s identity and the narrator’s intentions. In literature, liminal spaces traditionally give the occupant both power and torment. By existing in two states or being two things simultaneously, the occupant has qualities of both. At the same time, he or she is condemned to never live in either state. The two halves of the liminal being’s experience do not seem to make a satisfying whole. Her more radical statement, however, is that all women are forced to live life as a liminal experience. Carter’s liminal experience in the text works to deconstruct and reposition female sexuality in a male-dominated space. The narrator, a female, lives subconsciously on the threshold of the ‘virgin’ and the ‘sexual being’, unable to identity fully with either; Carter is suggesting that women who use their sexuality as empowerment are isolated from society and those who neglect it are oppressed by patriarchal figures, particularly, the Erl King.Carter begins the text in a relatively conventional way; her narrative voice is easily accessible. However, at first mention of the forest and the King, who are eventually revealed to be the same being, Carter manipulates the reality planes in the story, indicating the effects that the forest has physically and mentally; “The woods enclose and then enclose again, like a system of Chinese boxes opening one into another…it is easy to lose yourself in these woods.”(Carter 85) The narrator is aware of the demystifying effects of her surroundings, but seeks out the dangers anyway, representing the naivety in young women. She discloses in her winding sentences that the woods and the object of her desire, the Erl King, are the same being; he exists in the state of forest and man simultaneously; “When he combs his hair that is the color of dead leaves, dead leaves fall out of it; they rustle and drift to the ground as though he were a tree and he can stand as still as a tree…”(Carter 87) She makes mention of his physical body as well; “…because his flesh is of the same substance as those leaves that are slowly turning into earth.”(Carter 88) The Erl King is neither man nor woods, and his seducing tendencies prove successful upon the ‘virginal/highly sexual’ female narrator. The narrator must not be portrayed as a victim; instead, Carter is propping her up as an independent, sexual being. She confesses that it is only the ‘imprisoning’ effect that the King possesses that inspires fear in her: “I am not afraid of him; only, afraid of vertigo, of the vertigo with which he seizes me. Afraid of falling down.”(Carter 87) Vertigo is a type of dizziness, where there is a feeling of motion when one is stationary. The narrator is experiencing the King ‘liminally’ in a physical sense, and in a mental state, as well as in a sexually liberating way and entrapping way.The relationship between the King and the narrator is highly romanticized by the latter. The erotic language and artful images of nature are characteristic of the Romantic Era, one that Carter is utilizing in a contemporary way. However, while the Romantics looked to nature as a source of spiritual enlightenment and life, in The Erl-King, it is a source of confinement and death. The narrator’s initial description of the woods already foreshadows her entrapment; she depicts the light filtering through the trees as “these vertical bars of a brass-coloured distillation of light coming down from sulphur-yellow interstices in a sky hunkered with grey clouds.”(Carter 86) Since the narrator is complicit in her imprisoning, she knows that she is “caged” or trapped from the moment she enters the woods. She is subject to their power; because everything in the woods “is exactly as it seems,”(Carter 86) any person who steps into them imprints her own desires on them. On one level, the narrator desires to be caught, and the cage-like patterns of light are reflections of this desire. She admits her knowledge by stating, “this light admits of no ambiguities.”(Carter 87) The narrator even details her impending punishment before she comes into contact with the King, “The two notes of the song of a bird rose on the still air, as if my girlish and delicious loneliness had made me into a sound.”(Carter 85) Carter characterizes the song of birds as “girlish and delicious”, commenting on the vulnerability of women in sexual situations. However, the narrator matures quickly in response to the ‘marriage-like’ proposal that the King has in store for her.The narrator herself begins to convey liminal elements, as she falls subject to her virginal side as well as her sexually independent nature. This is characterized when he explains the King’s effect on her; “ Your touch both consoles and devastates me.”(Carter 89) She encourages the Erl-King’s domination because she is caught in the “vertigo” between her erotic desire for the Erl-King and her desire to be independent. Summarizing her dilemma in two words, she calls him a “tender butcher”; she knows that he is both her lover and destroyer. Carter cleverly manipulates setting as character, as the narrator becomes an active figure within the thematic ‘bloody chamber’. The King is her source of pleasure and punishment, as he strips her of her virginity and of her sexual appetite; her identity is highly ambiguous. She believes that the Erl-King can enlighten her by consuming her; she wishes, “I should like to grow enormously small, so that you could swallow me … Then I could lodge inside your body and you would bear me.”(Carter 89) In the end, the narrator’s extreme solution is to kill the Erl-King and supplant male domination with female domination. While other heroines in Carter’s stories find happiness in relationships with men, the narrator of The Erl-King rejects them entirely. She must kill the male figure in order to substitute him as creator. The narrator admits she was conscious of the dangers of ‘subjugation’ all along, and confesses, “…I loved him with all my heart and yet I had no wish to join the whistling congregation he kept in his cages although he looked after them very affectionately…”(Carter 90) Carter is ultimately commenting on the ‘imprisoning’ effects of marriage. The narrator equates a marital bond with that of a ‘caged’ bird and it’s owner, she rejects surrender by liberating herself through sexual violence.The narrator and Erl King both exhibit liminal tendencies; the King exist in a physical realm of the liminal experience, living in a state of man and forest simultaneously, meanwhile, the narrator exists mentally on the threshold between vulnerable virgin and independent sexual body. There is a connection to the liminal space in Carter’s thematic symbol of the ‘bloody chamber’, in which the narrator is stripped of her virginity but commits violence as well, in order to expel herself from the forest’s abusing grasp. Carter romanticizes the concepts of sado-masochism and erotic violence in order to artfully convey the oppression women experience in heir surrender to marriage. The narrator, a female, lives subconsciously on the threshold of the ‘virgin’ and the ‘sexual being’, unable to identity fully with either; Carter is suggesting that women who use their sexuality as empowerment are isolated from society and those who neglect it are oppressed by patriarchal figures, particularly the Erl King.Works CitedCharter, Angela. The Bloody Chamber: And Other Stories. Harmondsworth [u.a.: Penguin, 1986. Print.]