Gothic Elements in Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber
Effective gothic literature goes beyond the clichés of dark castles and flickering candles and actually reveals something about humanity. Examine this view in relation to the texts you have studied
Gothic literature is characterised as a hybrid of horror and romance. As a result, it embodies elements of both genres, such as a heroine in distress, spooky castles, sexual suppression and the exploration of human emotions such as that of love, horror, and despair. The term ‘’gothic’’ is used to refer to a medieval architecture style which is popular setting for many novels of this genre because they are mystical, dark and often too spacious to the extent that characters get lost or are unaware of the secrecy that surrounds them. For this reason, gothic fiction was popular during the 1800s due to its evocative and terrorising nature which many Victorian readers found thrilling. However, the sole purpose of gothic literature is not merely to entertain, but to explore and question Victorian ethics and provide a moral message. Gothic fiction is often characterised as the literature of transgression and is concerned with the challenging of boundaries by exceeding the socially acceptable limits of desire, psyche and knowledge. It often encompasses a great amount of taboos, especially forbidden in the Victorian era, such as sexual repression, rape, class transgression and role reversal. Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories consists of a collection of dark, sensual narratives inspired by fairytales and folk tales such as Little Red Riding Hood Beauty and The Beast and The Snow Child. She claims that her writing style is “all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially of the pressure of the new wine makes the old bottles explode.’’ Meaning that her intention was to transform well known stories into completely new stories which reflect her social and political views rather than write new versions of the same old stories. She made a clear distinction between what she defined as “fragments of epiphanic experience which are the type of the 20th-century story”, and the “ornate, unnatural” allegory and imagery of traditional tales which inspired her work. Like Carter, John Keats was also fascinated by the past rejected the ideas of the age of enlightenment and longed to return to earlier age where the mystery of life had yet to be revealed.
Most readers would agree that Dracula represents a figure of evil which perhaps stems from societies fears and anxieties about the corruption of ‘’pure’’ women. However, I believe that there is more to Dracula than meets the eye. Perhaps, Stoker uses Dracula to reveal something about humanity; the notion that evil is within us all. Jonathan Harker claims that ‘’the man (Dracula) was close to me and I could see him over my shoulder but there was no reflection of him in the mirror’’. Stoker in this scene applies the superstitious belief that creatures without souls have no reflection. This is a metaphor which illustrates that Dracula has no moral vision. However, Harker’s inability to ‘’see’’ Dracula can be seen as a reflection of his own moral blindness. The predominant theme in gothic fiction of duty conflicting with temptation is evident through the character of Jonathan Harker. As married man, he has a duty to remain faithful to his wife but his ‘’wicked burning desire’’ leads to his temptation and permits him to be seduced by the three sisters.
This Christian notion is also expressed in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber which is based on the legend of Bluebeard by Charles Perrault. Carter makes an intertexual reference to the Greek mythology of Pandora’s Box and the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis. The Marquis is depicted as a godly divine being who is ‘’omnipotent’’. His wealth and riches could be a metaphorical representation of heaven while the keys here represent control which is commonly linked with freewill. The Marquis gives his wife the keys to his mansion and provides her with the opportunity to explore it but just as God provided limitations for Adam and Eve, the marquis restricts the heroine’s ability to explore every chamber. Eve was forbidden by God to eat from a particular apple tree, whereas the narrator is permitted to enter every chamber with the exception of one. However, similar to Eve, her ‘’dark new-born curiosity’’ leads her to disobey his wishes. In the same way that Eve was responsible of the fall of humanity and disorder in nature, the heroine is left to deal with the consequences of her actions. However, as a feminist, Carter expresses the idea that it is okay to be curious. In fact, she is encouraging female readers to seek knowledge as apposed to being passive. It is this trait which leads the heroine to follow a different trajectory than that of the marquis’ previous wives.
Dracula was published prior to the suffragette movement, which meant that the expectations and standards for women remained enormously restrained. The Victorian culture revolved around the restriction of women and their subordination to men. Robert Kidd states that ‘’at the heart of the gothic text is the tension provided by the possible violation of innocence – the concept of ‘virtue in distress’’. This notion is seen in Dracula through the two main female characters in the book. Van Helsing refers to Mina as ‘’one of god’s women’’ and highlighting her close relationship with God. Throughout the novel, the male characters seem to think that it is their duty to protect Mina from Dracula. If he turns her into vampire, her sexuality will be unleashed like Lucy who breaks the rigid moral and social codes of the Victorian era by explicitly displaying her sexuality. For this reason, the novel has been accused of being a ‘’underlying misogyny’’ by Gail B. Griffin, who claims that the worst horror it can imagine is ‘’not Dracula at all, but the released, transforming sexuality of the good woman.’’ Angela carter also explores the theme of female purity conflicting with sexuality in The Bloody Chamber. Carter’s heroine is a seventeen year old who ‘’knew nothing of the world’’ this is a metaphor for her immaturity and lack of sexual experience prior to entering “the unguessable country of marriage’’. This is contrary to her husband who is described as ‘’old’’ and beastly. Carter’s use of the binary opposition of youth and age as well as experience and naivety, paints the protagonist as a vulnerable character. It is this characteristic that leads the Marquis ‘’choose [her] because he sees in [her] a potentiality for corruption’’. However, as the tale progresses, the reader is invited to question her innocence. In the opening paragraph of The Bloody Chamber,
Jonathan Harker is portrayed as having characteristics which are usually associated with women. He reports that he “lay quiet, looking out under [his] eyelashes in an agony of delightful anticipation”. This confession paints him as a passive character, which is usually a feminine trait in gothic literature. This role reversal in the novel is interesting because there were specific roles men and women were subjected to in the Victorian era. Men, even in today’s society, are generally regarded as more sexually aggressive and expressive of their desires in comparison to women. The fact that the three brides seduce a married man would have been regarded as a morally incorrect. Nonetheless, some critics argue that Dracula’s possessive nature over Harker in this chapter is subtly homoerotic.
Lucy Westenra is the epitome of the typical gothic female character whose vulnerability and weakness gradually leads to her own death. She is physically beautiful and ‘’pure’’, however, even before her vampirism, she exerts an aura of subtle sexuality and promiscuity. She attracts three men as apposed to her good friend Mina Harker is merely interested one man in which she remains faithful to, despite his disappearance. Lucy even complains of her need to choose between the three suitors and fails to understand ‘’why they can’t let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her, and save all this trouble?’’ This controversial statement is not compatible with the behaviour of a Victorian lady who was expected to be a passive recipient of men’s attention thus breaking the moral and social codes of the Victorian era. Similarly, in Carter’s The Company of Wolves, the adolescent heroine, who is more active and sexually alert than the original protagonist in the little Red Riding Hood, is depicted as a subtly sexual character who embraces her sexual desire. It can be argued that her red cape which resembles ‘’blood on snow’’ is a connotation of her sexual maturity, it also symbolises menstruation and the act of losing her virginity. The narrator also refers to her red cape as ‘’the colour of sacrifices’’ reinforcing the position of women in the society which she lives.
Carter explicitly illustrates the theme of feminism by contrasting conventional aspects of gothic literature which generally portray female characters as passive and victims, with strong female protagonists. Carter also subverts the conventions of fairytales by citing protagonists who are active and highlights the archetypes and stereotypes of women in these popular stories.
There is a wealth of evidence in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, published in 1897, which illustrates this element of the genre. For example, the novel explores the concept of ‘’the new woman’’ who in her demand for sexual, financial and political independence, was deemed as a threat to conventional gender roles, through the characters of Lucy and Mina as well as the three seductive, female vampires. Similarly
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