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.