From Barbe Bleue to The Bloody Chamber: an Interpretation of Angela Carter’s Rewriting
English writer Angela Carter (1940-1992), offers with her work an interesting example of how a reflection on themes concerning the representation of the feminine in the symbolic order and the position of the woman in the context of western societies, can be conducted not only at the level of content as on that of organization and structure of narrative and textual order. Carter’s figure splits into that of a journalist and essayist, who in her articles analyzes the mechanisms of construction of sexual stereotypes, and that of a writer of fiction, who can more easily give voice to differentiated positions, move between truth and fiction, and raise doubts and questions in her audience. Her literary production is, in this sense, particularly interesting to verify what it means for a politically committed woman to use writing as a space of dissidence towards traditional ideological convictions.
Carter, having started her career as a writer in the 1960s in England, was certainly influenced by the emergence of the feminist and libertarian political movement that produced big changes in the relationship between the sexes that we record today. Her literary production is contemporary to the decade during which feminism was transforming from a movement of strictly political aim about equality between men and women to a cultural and philosophical elaboration of sexuality and its different forms. Yet, in her narrative production, she does not limit herself to recording or reflecting on the historical-social context. In this sense, it is not possible to consider the literary word as endowed with a fixed sense, but rather as a crossing of textual surfaces.
I will argue that the collection of short stories The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Carter exemplifies the possibility to use apparently more monological literary genres that tradition has given us, precisely those fairytales, “cleaned up” from the aristocratic and patriarchal pedagogical operation, transferring their themes and language into a different, feminist context. Carter builds a space for a new “feminine” to be invented by changing traditional materials, even the most compromised by patriarchal culture. The title of the collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, refers to the homonymous story, which is a rewriting of the original by Perrault, Barbe Bleue. The story focuses on a rich and powerful man with an unpleasant blue beard. Although he hands her the keys, his wife is prohibited to enter one specific room of the castle where they live in. As soon as the husband is absent the woman crosses the threshold of the room and makes a macabre discovery; there, she finds the corpses of Bluebeard’s previous wives. As soon as the husband finds out what she has done, she is about to end like the other women, but her brothers’ arrival saves her. Carter keeps the narrative sequence unchanged, however, she changes parts of the plot and the narrative point of view.
To a closed and monolithic world view, the fantastic narrative opposes a revitalization of the representation of reality, opening itself to a multiplicity of voices. It is above all the explicit eroticism of Carter’s stories that shows us that one of the sources of pleasure of these narratives is not tied to their consolatory and reassuring moral as to the erotic charge subtended to them. It could be argued that, in this case, Carter’s literary writing intends to restore the corporal dimension to the fairytales, dimension which Perrault’s didactic writing had tried to erase.
The process of empowerment in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber is insured not only by the content and character portrayal but also by the narrative voice, tense levels and subject disposition. The first obvious deviation from Perrault’s text is the introduction of an auto diegetic narrator, which coincides with the protagonist herself. “Carter empowers her female protagonist by assigning her the traditionally male-dominated role of the storyteller” (Bhatt and Pareek, 5). The narrative is therefore oriented according to her point of view; instead of an impersonal and omniscient narrator “who is the voice of patriarchy” (Arikan, 124) and who begins to tell the story with the usual “once upon a time”, with which each fairy tale is located in a mythical and absolute past, here the story starts with the following “I remember how, that night, I lay awake”. In this way, there is a double and basic deviation in regard to Perrault’s text: the protagonist herself tells us about her experience and the present tense, used in the act of remembrance, creates a time gap towards the actual events which are narrated in the past. In other words, we find a split typical to stories told in autobiographical form.
I remember how, that night, I lay awake in the wagon-lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, my burning cheek pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow and the pounding of my heart mimicking that of the great pistons ceaseless thrusting the train that bore me through the night, away from Paris, away from childhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage. (Carter)
In the entire first paragraph, all determining elements to understand the story are already traceable. There is a change of the state in which the protagonist finds herself which is determined by the transition between two places with a meaningful symbolic value: Paris, a quiet and familiar place represented by the maternal house, and the new mysterious territory of marriage. According to Arikan, “with this long sentence, the narrator is given the opportunity to tell her own story and express her emotions” (Arikan, 120). The narrative therefore evolves from her point of view and becomes the pretext for a journey of discovery in which the reader participates and is involved in the task of deciphering the messages of the text.
Moreover, even the confusion of temporal levels and persons of the verb with which the protagonist reports the words of the husband, from the past to the present, from third-person, to first person to modalities of direct dialogue, help to perceive the continuous alternation of charm and repulsion of the protagonist towards the disquieting world of the groom: with him, he brings transgression, pleasure and pain.
My dear one, my little love, my child, did it hurt her? He’s so sorry for it, such impetuousness, he could not help himself; you see, he loves her so… and this lover’s recitative of his brought by tears in a flood. (Carter)
Later on she will say: “I lay in bed alone. And I longed for him, And he disgusted me”. Both characters cover the role of the grammatical subject, to prove again the fact that she is not necessarily dominated by circumstances and by a stronger will than her own, but plays along with him, at least initially, in their perverse game.
And, in the red firelight, I blushed again, unnoticed, to think he might have chosen me because, in my innocence, he sensed a rare talent for corruption. (Carter)
The shift from a male-dominated society to a progressive environment where female agency is acknowledged, is mirrored in Carter’s use of a first-person narrative. Moreover, frequent tense shifts as well as the alternation of subjects, marks the wife’s opposite emotions; she plays and experiences together with her husband the perverse relationship between victim and executioner and its ambivalences. The use of different narratological devices, compared to traditional ones, helps to subvert the reader’s perceptual point of view towards the women in the story.
Carter’s work belongs to a level of literature, which re-launches the works of the past by inserting them in a new circuit of meaning. This operation, however, does not need to deny and destroy the old; her aim is to rewrite and change the meaning, obtaining unexpected effects thanks to the coexistence of the old and the new. Her work constitutes a reinterpretation and expansion of those traces that in the original texts by Perrault, allude to an unspeakable desire; in those stories, this desire remained in fact unnamed and was neutralized by the closed structure of the fairytale and by the rigidly coded positions and functions of the characters. In The Bloody Chamber, more than in any other story from the collection, the theme of sexuality is evident; here the protagonist experiences a certain sexual awakening that goes beyond the sadomasochistic/pornographic tendencies of the Marquis, but that initiates women to a new kind of sexual liberty. Carter denounces the male gaze and oppression against women in pornography, but at the same time claims the importance of sexuality as a form of liberation for women. Ultimately, “ that she therefore evokes the gamut of violence and perversity is certainly troubling, but to deny their existence is surely to incarcerate women back within a partial, sanitized image only slightly less constricted than the Victorian angel in the house.” (Makinen, 13)
What Carter’s stories manage to achieve is to recover the pleasure of the narration itself as well as exemplifying the possibility of their critical re-reading according to the present perspective. Marja Makinen, in this regard, defends Carter’s operation from the rather schematic accusations, made by some critics, of having used the form of the fairytale, which would be reactionary and misogynistic in itself, reflecting the myths related to sexuality produced by the patriarchy. On the contrary Makinen claims that no form, not even the “rigid” fairytale, can be considered the absolute vehicle of a certain axiological position. If it is true that narrative genres also have an ideological value, it is equally true that reusing the codified forms of the genre itself in a different historical and cultural dimension, can only lead to a re-discussion of the presumptions of the said dimension, because of the inevitable ironic strategy implied. Irony is in fact the discursive mode that allows authors to both reject and, at the same time, reclaim the discourse to which they refer.
To Carter, it is meaningless to restrict feminism to political and social equality; this is why she includes themes of sexuality and female desire in her stories; she uses the most male-centered material of all, sexuality, to claim the birth of a new woman. For this reason, she has been target of sharp criticism from those who see literature as a place of ideological coherence and political propaganda. Sexuality is just one of the forms which help redefine notions of femininity by normalizing sexual desire itself, while still taking position against the patriarchal objectification of women.
Bluebeard’s wives were punished by him with death for not having been able to resist the temptation to approach the forbidden room of the castle. Moreover, to reinforce the didactic aim of the story even more, Perrault himself concludes it with an explicit comment that is also a moral advice to women: avoid (sexual) curiosity. The infringement committed by them is therefore related to the subversion of their own passive sexual role. However, in the case of Carter’s story this grotesque is amplified through the protagonist’s relationship with her own desire. In fact, according to Makinen, “the protagonist retracts her consent halfway through the narrative, when she realizes her husband, Bluebeard, is planning to involve her in real torture […]. Up until then, the adolescent protagonist has not denied her own interest in the sadomasochistic transaction.” (Makinen, 13).
Through the subversive character constellation of her stories, Angela Carter transfers new forms of agency to the women of said stories. In fact, when looking at the character list of The Bloody Chamber, those characters that she takes over from Perrault are: Bluebeard, the bride and her mother. Those that she omits instead are: the bride’s friend, sister and brothers. Let’s start therefore precisely with the analysis of these characters, trying to explain why Angela Carter has deliberately let go of them. In the original, the sister Anna intervenes only just before the conclusion, playing an absolutely marginal role, but of great significance in this analytical perspective. Her function is to report to the new bride, waiting for her punishment, if on the horizon one can see the brothers who can guarantee salvation. This scene is nothing more than a visual extension, which allows the protagonist to take a look outside the window. She shows impossibility of action and an obvious inability to intervene in favor of her sister; thus, we see a typical image of the feminine that the popular fairytale perpetrates, but that Carter decides to eradicate here completely.
Although she is passive, Anna is not explicitly negative; the same cannot be said of the protagonist’s friends, who decide to pay a visit to the new bride to admire the riches of her new home. They are described as not only superficial, but also as envious and vain. Such figures could not be profitable in writings that want to eliminate patriarchal prejudices, and for this reason Carter adopts the same process of elimination as before. Finally, her decision to omit the brother, the true heroes of the Perrultian fairytale, is consequential to the introduction of the strong and independent mother. Here, the author operates a full substitution, which modifies the perceptual point of view of the reader towards the protagonist. In fact, it is no longer the brothers who save the new bride, but her own mother; therefore, here the image of passivity, that accompanies the female characters of the original story, is affected and reversed.
Traditional figures that were usually portrayed in fairytales do not fit within the subversive anti-patriarchal context of Carter’s writings, and this is precisely why the author tries to find new elaborations for them by means of replacement and elimination. In other words, the subversion, substation and elimination of characters from the original tale proves the transfer from a patriarchal society to a feminist ideology.
In The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter is seeking to change the reader’s on women through readjusting and re-elaborating the traditional format of the fairytale. Through the substitution of characters (to adapt to the new representation of womanhood), the insertion of a first-person narrator (to claim the importance of the protagonist’s point of view, as well as to create a connection between narrator and reader), and discourses of sexuality (to prove that feminism includes the freedom to be sexually active), she transforms traditional forms of fairytales into new forms showing a new type of feminine. Her collection of stories is particularly significant to the issue concerning the relationship between writing and gender and between writing and genre. The stories are used to examine the ways in which a certain type of narrative can fit into the debate relating to the representation and construction of sexual difference.
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