by Jenny Fabian
‘The strong abuse, exploit and meatify the weak’, says Sade. ‘They must and will devour their natural prey. The primal condition of man cannot be modified in any way; it is eat or be eaten.’ ______________________________________
‘In his diabolic solitude, only the possibility of love could awake the libertine to perfect, immaculate terror. It is in this holy terror of love that we find, in both men and women themselves, the source of all opposition to the emancipation of women.’
–Quotations from Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman
Over a century after George Eliot penned The Mill on the Floss and brought the troubles of Maggie Tulliver to our attention, feminism had become one of the new literary voices’ of post-modernism, an inclusive term for what Patricia Waugh describes as ‘a range of new literary voices highly self-conscious of their dislocated or oblique relation to the previous cultural consensus.’(i) Feminist critics may have had a problem with George Eliot’s female characters who either submitted to marriage or tragedy (in some cases both), but they couldn’t fail to appreciate a fundamental change in the nature of the heroines that inhabit Angela Carter’s collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber. First published in 1979, Carter had already written five novels, but it was The Bloody Chamber with its fertile ground for close reading that initiated serious critical scrutiny. It is significant that Carter came of age in the sixties, that fabled time of possibilities, and she describes the end of the sixties as a time ‘when, truly, it felt like Year One, that all that was holy was in the process of being profaned and we were attempting to grapple with the real relations between human beings.’ (ii)
In 1969 Carter left her first husband Paul Carter and, using the proceeds from the Somerset Maugham Award for Several Perceptions, travelled to Japan, where she stayed for three years and re-invented herself, and, as she writes in Nothing Sacred, she ‘became radicalised and realised what it meant to be a woman.’ She was influenced by many of the French surrealists she met out there who had fled their government’s 1968 crackdown. However, Carter did not attain real fame until after her death from lung cancer in 1991. Paul Barker writes:
She dies untimely, and everyone suddenly bursts out weeping. The obituaries give her better notices than anything she ever wrote received in her lifetime. Her books sell out within three days of her death. She becomes the most read contemporary author on English university campuses. Her last story, finished during her final illness, sells 80,000 copies in paperback. She has arrived. But she is dead.(iii)
Carolyn Heilbrun, in her feminist essays on literature, writes: ‘A feminist, as I use the word, questions the gender arrangements in society and culture (all societies and cultures) and works to change them; the desired transformation gives more power to women while simultaneously changing both the forms and the legitimacy of power as it is now established.’(iv) Carter had radical ideas about exposing the social control of women, most particularly in terms of sexuality, and she looks beyond the Symbolic Order(v) to a time when the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ do not carry all the cultural baggage we ascribe to them. If we examine the language and textual structure of Carter’s writing we can decipher her code. It is through Carter’s narrative structures in The Bloody Chamber that she reveals her consciousness of sexual politics, and, using postmodern techniques of parody and pastiche, she reflects upon and interrogates notions of male ‘authority.’
The stories in The Bloody Chamber are a reworking of the idea of the fairy tale, Carter revising and subverting the original intention. Carter defamiliarises our understanding of these popular tales. The idea as promulgated by Bruno Bettelheim(vi) in 1976 was that the fairy story enables ‘children to resolve real-life dilemmas through controlled textual means’; it could be argued, however, that protection is really a disguise for restraint. In The Sadeian Woman, Carter’s study of de Sade’s representation of women, she writes: ‘To be the object of desire is to be defined in the passive case. To exist in the passive case is to die in the passive case – that is, to be killed. This is the moral of the fairy tale about the perfect woman.(vii)
Lorna Sage notes that Carter’s Bloody Chamber tales were written while she was re-reading de Sade, and how they can be interpreted as: a cruelly self-conscious anatomy of the spell cast on women, including women writers, by the enchantment of passivity. Fairy tales have served this bad magic, but (Carter finds) they can help break the spell. They illuminate a whole English literary landscape, which becomes readable and rewritable in new ways. (viii)
Ironic recontextualising undermines the cultural authority of narrative, and The Bloody Chamber, the first story in the collection, is a baroque reworking of the Bluebeard story from The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, previously translated by Carter in 1976-77. Playing with meaning and imagery, Carter’s title, The Bloody Chamber, has subversive connotations of that sacred yet feared female body part, the womb; yet this ‘chamber’ of birth is also a ghastly ‘chamber’ of death, where the Marquis/Bluebeard entombs his wives.
He was older than I. He was much older than I; there were streaks of pure silver in his dark mane. But his strange, heavy, almost waxen face was not lined by experience. Rather, experience seemed to have washed it perfectly smooth, like a stone on a beach whose fissures have been eroded by successive tides. And sometimes that face, in stillness when he listened to me playing [the piano], with the heavy eyelids folded over eyes that always disturbed me by their absolute absence of light, seemed to me like a mask, as if his real face, the face that truly reflected all the life he had led in the world before he met me, before, even, I was born, as though that face lay underneath this mask. Or else, elsewhere. As though he had laid by the face in which he had lived for so long in order to offer my youth a face unsigned by the years.
By interrogating the authority of language as a male-conceived framework (ix) for truth and reality, Carter illustrates its fundamental indeterminacy. For example:
‘It was as though the imponderable weight of his desire was a force I might not withstand, not by virtue of its violence but because of its very gravity.’
The juxtaposition of ‘virtue’ and ‘violence’ is unsettling, and the way Carter uses the word ‘might’ endows it with ambivalence: it can be interpreted as a possibility, ‘might not be able to,’ or a definite, ‘would not be allowed to.’ Another meaning of ‘might’ is power, which links the ‘force’ of the Marquis’s ‘desire’ to ‘gravity.’ ‘Gravity’ also incorporates double meaning: both the pull of attraction and the burden of authority. If on the one hand the heroine is overpowered by this gravitational mass, there is also the implication that the Marquis is unable to break out of his own historical construct of desire.
Anthony Elliott writes: ‘Desire, according to Freud…infiltrates all human intentions, ideals, and imperatives’. (x) Carter demonstrates how desire plays a dominant structuring role in the way gender identities are artificially mapped on to us. Her interrogation of de Sade’s (pre-Freudian) writing informs some of her radical concepts of female flesh as a commodity not solely for the use of the male, but also as a form of economic empowerment for its inhabitant. Although ‘The Bloody Chamber’ contains Gothic elements, Carter’s first person narrator is not the typically passive Gothic (or fairy-tale) heroine: she actively takes destiny into her own hands by agreeing to marry the Marquis for reasons other than the notion of romantic love. Asked by her mother, ‘Are you sure you love him?’ the daughter’s reply is equivocal: ‘I’m sure I want to marry him.’ Carter exposes the erotic subtext to acquisitive desire, and how the sexual authority of the market place can work both ways:
This ring, this bloody bandage of rubies, the wardrobe of clothes from Poiret and Worth, his scent of Russian leather – all had conspired to seduce me so utterly that I could not say I felt one single twinge of regret for the world of tartines and maman that now receded from me as if drawn away on a string, like a child’s toy, as the train began to throb again as if in delighted anticipation of the distance it would take me.
Carter blurs the boundaries of time; her method of moving in and out of different tenses and time frames dissolves temporal and spatial boundaries; her narrative floats like the Marquis’s castle, ‘at home neither on the land nor on the water.’ This instability is compounded by Carter’s use of a double narrative perspective, which enables the teller of the tale to reveal a retrospective understanding of the depravity of the Marquis as well as the gradual loss of her own innocence. There is an implied voyeurism to this ironic self-distancing; Carter was operating in a culture that had become preoccupied with visual images almost to the extent of fetishism, and in the seventies the male gaze was coming under feminist interrogation. Laura Mulvey, in her influential 1975 essay, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,’ argues that ‘bound by a symbolic order…the silent image of woman [is] still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning’. (xi) Carter shakes off the shackles by appropriating the male gaze for her narrator, and attempts to subvert feminist resistance to it by acknowledging the pleasure it can bring to the object of desire:
And I saw myself, suddenly, as he saw me, my pale face, the way the muscles in my neck stuck out like thin wire. I saw how much that cruel necklace became me. And, for the first time in my innocent and confined life, I sensed in myself a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away.
Carter’s use of mirrors shows the 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 performative aspect of women as a disruptive literary device to challenge social perceptions of femininity. The clockwork maid in ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ is a parody of a woman dehumanised by the ‘apron strings’ of male-ordered life, the literal construction of woman’s position. “We have dispensed with servants,” the valet said. “We surround ourselves, instead, for utility and pleasure, with simulacra and find it no less convenient than do most gentlemen.’” Carter here suggests that women are made ‘inauthentic’ through replication in some false image. Waugh notes how Carter’s fiction appears to be involved ‘in a knowing play with ideas of the Freudian revisionist Jacques Lacan, for whom self is always an endless pursuit of reflections in the eyes of others, love a desire for the desire of the other’. (xii) Feminine inscription within Lacan’s Symbolic Order necessarily involves a sense of loss, a lack of self-worth, hence Carter’s equation of woman with puppet.
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 her husband’s gaze:
I could not meet his eye and turned my head away, out of pride, out of shyness, and watched a dozen husbands approach me in a dozen mirrors and slowly, methodically, teasingly, unfasten the button of my jacket and slip it from my shoulders…I guessed it might be so – that we should have a formal disrobing of the bride, a ritual from the brothel.
Woman as commodity, purchased, unwrapped, at the purchaser’s disposal; Carter draws the parallel between a wedding night and a night at the brothel: as she writes in The Sadeian Woman, ‘all wives of necessity fuck by contract.’
Carter disturbs the equilibrium in her narratives by repeatedly weaving in lines from the original fairy tales, which, rather than signifying comforting familiarity, evoke a sense of unease and menace. In The Bloody Chamber the well-known chant ‘All the better to see you’ is associated with the male gaze as an act of consumption. The metaphor of eating often stands for sex: instead of luncheon, the Marquis feasts on the narrator’s body, skewered and fragmented into multiple images: ‘A dozen husbands impaled a dozen brides while the mewing gulls swung on invisible trapezes in the empty air outside.’ This use of multiplicity enables the narrator to both recall and dissociate herself from the sexual act by depersonalising and objectifying herself, a recurring technique in Carter’s narrative structure. Having reduced her narrator’s identity to a state of fragmentation, Carter escapes from this textual circus with a break in the narrative: ‘the empty air’ becomes an empty space on the page.
The intrusion of modern-day reality brings the narrator back into the subjective, and the narrative resumes: ‘I was brought to my senses by the insistent shrilling of the telephone,’ perhaps an echo of the ‘mewing gulls.’ A telephone ringing in a Gothic castle fractures time; there is a sense of doubling up, as though what happened in some distant mythic context is being re-enacted in the ‘present’ of the story. At the same time the artificiality of Carter’s representation challenges the myth of authority associated with the male sexual role. In The Sadeian Woman Carter argues that ‘myths deal in false universals, to dull the pain of particular circumstances,’ and the tricks of her narrative structures work to dismantle and transform these ‘false universals’ as though striking at the very root of memory.
Waugh writes: ‘Carter’s fictions seem to call for the sort of interpretative and epistemological framework offered by psychoanalysis,’ and Freud’s theory of the uncanny, ‘something repressed which recurs,’ percolates through Carter’s narratives. Desire is played out by repetition, and repetition that creates a pattern and form is a dominant tool in the narrative structure of contemporary fiction. Carter not only uses repetition in The Bloody Chamber collection, she self-reflexively signals that she is doing so. In The Lady of the House of Love ‘the beautiful queen of the vampires’ seems to be the distant representation of some ancient poetic image(xiii) that has brought itself into being:
Her voice filled with distant sonorities, like reverberations in a cave: now you are at the place of annihilation, now you are at the place of annihilation. And she is herself a cave full of echoes, she is a system of repetitions, she is a closed circuit.
Carter uses this ‘system of repetitions’ to signify how women are trapped within the ancient discipline of language and order. She dresses the vampire-girl in the artificiality of prose, ‘a fabulous lending, a self-articulated garment in which she lived like a ghost in a machine’. (xiv)
The central narrative concern of fairy stories is fear, and in ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ Carter suggests women must confront the fears foisted on them by male authority in order to change themselves and find any kind of autonomous identity. ‘The tiger will never lie down with the lamb; he acknowledges no pact that is not reciprocal. The lamb must learn to run with the tigers’.(xv) In ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ Carter shows how the fear of being devoured, a dominant theme in fairy stories, is inscribed onto us from childhood; the girl who has been lost to the tiger-Beast at cards by her father faces this terror: ‘He will gobble you up. Nursery fears made flesh and sinew; earliest and most archaic of fears, fears of devourment.’ It is when the naked bride reaches out to the unmasked Beast without fear that, symbolically, the very edifice of gender construction appears to crumble: ‘The reverberations of his purring rocked the foundations of the house, the walls began to dance. I thought: “It will fall, everything will disintegrate”.’
In this disintegration gender roles are not so much reversed as re-arranged. Carter transforms the image of acceptable femininity and the girl reveals her animal essence:
His tongue ripped off skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world, and left behind a nascent patina of shining hairs. My earrings turned back to water and trickled down my shoulders; I shrugged the drops off my beautiful fur.
There is a sense of returning to nature in some kind of surreal land of make-believe where accepted meaning gets distorted and turned inside out, leading the reader to question the whole gender set up. Carter’s heroines are fearlessly transgressive: in ‘The Company of Wolves’, which is a reworking of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, it is the laughter of the girl that assuages the savagery of the wolf-man: ‘The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat.’ Marina Warner writes:
Part of Angela Carter’s boldness…was that she dared to look at women’s waywardness and especially at their attraction to the Beast in the very midst of repulsion…her Beauties choose to play with the Beast precisely because his animal nature excites them and gives their desire licence. (xvi)
The girl rips off the wolf’s clothing, and Carter moves into the future fantastical: ‘she will lay his fearful head on her lap and she will pick out the lice from his pelt.’ Finally, we are given the image of reconciliation between the sexes and the suggestion that the animal in the woman can humanize the beast that is man: ‘See! sweet and sound she sleeps in granny’s bed, between the paws of the tender wolf.’
Just as literature broke away from the idea of the grand narrative into diasporas of smaller postmodern narratives, Carter refuses to be constrained by genres, and her narrative-free play of words, themes and images spill over and repeat themselves like dream content from one short story to the next. Carter blurs the autonomy of each story by the way they seem to be a re-telling of each other, and her shape-shifting characters escape from one story of enclosure and imprisonment only to reappear in another tale in a different disguise, as Carter deconstructs and manipulates identity, specifically that of gender.
The motif of the chamber reappears in The Erl-King in the form of a forest, a typical location of the fairy tale: ‘The woods enclose you. You step between the first trees and then you are no longer in the open air; the wood swallows you up.’ Carl Jung maintains that the sylvan terrors that figure so prominently in children’s tales symbolize the perilous aspects of the unconscious, that is, its tendency to devour or obscure one’s reason. In the make-believe world of the fairy tale we expect fantastic things. In The Erl-King Carter adjusts the focus in her play with perception:
The lucidity, the clarity of the light that afternoon was sufficient to itself…A young girl would go into the wood as trustingly as Red Riding Hood to her granny’s house but this light admits of no ambiguities and, here, she will be trapped in her own illusion because everything in the wood is exactly as it seems.
Carter is signalling the lack of definition between surface and interior, reality and fantasy, that in a postmodern world has become synthesised into what Frederic Jameson describes as ‘new depthlessness’. (xvii) In this world of superficiality we are haunted by the fear that everything really is ‘exactly as it seems,’ that there is only surface, no depth and the authority of meaning has been lost.
The Erl-King by Johann von Goethe (1782)
Who rides there so late through the night dark and drear?
The father it is, with his infant so dear;
He holdeth the boy tightly clasp’d in his arm,
He holdeth him safely, he keepeth him warm.-
“My son, wherefore seek’st thou thy face thus to hide?”
“Look, father, the Erl-King is close by our side!
Dost see not the Erl-King, with crown and with train?”
“My son, ’tis the mist rising over the plain.”-
“Oh, come, thou dear infant! oh come thou with me!
Full many a game I will play there with thee;
On my strand, lovely flowers their blossoms unfold,
My mother shall grace thee with garments of gold.”-
“My father, my father, and dost thou not hear
The words that the Erl-King now breathes in mine ear?”
“Be calm, dearest child, ’tis thy fancy deceives;
‘Tis the sad wind that sighs through the withering leaves.”-
“Wilt go, then, dear infant, wilt go with me there?
My daughters shall tend thee with sisterly care
My daughters by night their glad festival keep,
They’ll dance thee, and rock thee, and sing thee to sleep.”
“My father, my father, and dost thou not see,
How the Erl-King his daughters has brought here for me?”
“My darling, my darling, I see it aright,
‘Tis the aged grey willows deceiving thy sight.”-
” I love thee, I’m charm’d by thy beauty, dear boy!
and if thou’rt unwilling, then force I’ll employ.”
My father, my father, he seizes me fast,
Full sorely the Erl-King has hurt me last.” –
The father now gallops, with terror half wild,
He grasps in his arms the poor shuddering child;
He reaches his courtyard with toil and with dread,–
The child in his arms finds he motionless, dead.-
In The Erl-King Carter pushes the limits of the fantastic: the woods becomes a slippery metaphorical space of engulfment and annihilation; in conflict with the narrator’s fearfulness there is a sense of excitement and release. In thrall to a sublime metamorphic creature, who ‘came alive from the desire of the woods…I knew from the first moment I saw him how Erl-King would do me grievous harm,’ the girl thrills to her submission to the Erl-King, ‘whose touch both consoles and devastates me’:
His skin covers me entirely; we are like two halves of a seed, enclosed in the same integument. I should like to grow enormously small, so that you could swallow me, like those queens in fairy tales who conceive when they swallow a grain of corn or a sesame seed. Then I could lodge inside your body and you would bear me.
This desire for assimilation, reversal and rebirth is both sensual and fantastic; at the same time the allusion to fairy stories signals the narrative’s artifice, and displacement of reproductive functions on to the Erl-King challenges accepted biological roles.
Pastiche plays its part in the superficial construction of Carter’s narratives, but parody lies at the heart of her critical discourse. The Erl-King is based on a poem by Goethe, in which the boy child is killed by the Erl-King. Carter reverses the hand of male power and places it at her heroine’s disposal: she moves the narrator’s tale into a possible ‘future’ where the heroine chokes the irresistible object of her desire: ‘I shall take two huge handfuls of his rustling hair…and wind them into ropes…and, softly, with hands as gentle as rain, I shall strangle him with them.’ Because the Erl-King is a creature born of the girl’s own imagination, the fiddle strung with his dead hair calls out: ‘Mother, mother, you have murdered me!’ In most of Carter’s fiction the mother is usually absent, and it is the father figure of authority who has the power over the daughter, either to be obeyed or resisted. Aiden Day notes how, in The Bloody Chamber, with the ‘image of the rescuing and avenging mother, Carter usurps a masculine trope and puts it at the service of the feminine’ (xviii). In the original Bluebeard story the girl’s brothers rescue her; in Carter’s reworking she is rescued by her mother, who has appropriated not only the role of the avenging father, but his weapon as well:
You never saw such a wild thing as my mother, her hat seized by the winds and blown out to sea so that her hair was her white mane, her black lisle legs exposed to the thigh, her skirts tucked round her waist, one hand on the reins of the rearing horse while the other clasped my father’s service revolver.
This mother in The Bloody Chamber is a ‘new’ woman in an old world.
Carter’s collection of stories opens in a world loaded with decadent atmosphere and history and closes in a degraded world of hybrid existence. In the final story, ‘Wolf-Alice,’ the erstwhile Marquis’s double is a dried-up Duke, whose ‘eyes see only appetite…he is cast in the role of the corpse-eater.’ In comparison to the Marquis’s contrived ‘bloody chamber’ of murdered female bodies, the Duke inhabits a disordered ‘bloody chamber’ of ‘shrouds, nightdresses and burial clothes that had wrapped items on the Duke’s menus.’ Out of this degeneration comes gradual recognition, and Carter uses the mirror motif to bring ‘Wolf-Alice’ into an awareness of herself. Carter also uses the mirror to reiterate her idea that women can, with understanding, bring men into a more reciprocal and humane identity. There is no hope for the Marquis, he is trapped in history and has to be destroyed by the avenging mother. However, the devouring Duke, who ‘ceased to cast an image in the mirror’ at the start of the story, is finally ‘brought into being’ in ‘the rational glass, the master of the visible’ through the pity of the wolf-girl. He has become ‘mastered’ by representation, but it is questionable whether this is liberation or a subordinating process.
Whatever masquerades and metamorphoses take place within Carter’s fictional world, there is no escape from the notion that language is a male construct of control. With no alternative but to express herself by this patriarchal system, Carter, as ‘puppet master’ over her own text, hovers between irony and lyricism that disrupts logic almost to a nihilistic degree, like the girl in ‘The Snow Child’ who melts into the snow until she is only ‘a bloodstain, like the trace of a fox’s kill on the snow.’ Carter’s interrogation of authority seeks to break the chain of connection with the past and construct a newly gendered landscape, where women can negotiate a pre-linguistic wholeness, an elusive desire in a postmodern world of fragmentation.
(i) Waugh, Patricia, 1995. Harvest of the Sixties, OUP.
(ii) Carter, Angela, 1997. ‘Notes from the Front Line’ in Shaking a Leg: Collected Journalism and Writings, Chatto and Windus.
(iii) Barker, Paul, 1995. The Return of the Magic Story-Teller in the Independent on Sunday.
(iv) Heilbrun, Carolyn G., 1991. Hamlet’s Mother and other Women, The Women’s Press.
(v) A term coined by Jacques Lacan: ‘It is in the name of the father that we must recognize the support of the symbolic function which, from the dawn of history, has identified his person with the figure of the law.’ See ‘The Symbolic Order’ from The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis, 1956.
(vi) See The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Penguin.
(vii) Carter, Angela, 1979. The Sadeian Woman, Virago.
(viii) Sage, Lorna, ‘The Woman in Process’ in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber.
(ix) i.e. the Gospel of John identifies the Logos as God: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ John I.1.
(x) Elliott, Anthony, 1994. Psychoanalytic Theory: An Introduction, Blackwell.
(xi) Mulvey, Laura, 2002. ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ in Rivkin & Ryan, eds.,Literary Theory: An Anthology, Oxford University Press.
(xii) Waugh, ibid.
(xiii) Gaston Bachelard writes in 1958: ‘it is in…reverberation…that I think we find the real measure of the being of a poetic image. In this reverberation, the poetic image will have a sonority of being.’ From The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press.
(xiv) Here Carter alludes to philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s phrase ‘ghost in the machine’ that he introduced in The Concept of the Mind (1949) in which he disparages René Descartes theory of mind-body dualism. (See Roger Scruton, Modern Philosophy, p.219
(xv) Note how hard it is for Carter to escape Biblical symbolism, i.e. Isaiah 11.6: ‘The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;’
(xvi) Warner, Marina, 1995. From the Beast to the Blonde, Vintage.
(xvii) Jameson, Frederic, 1991. Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Verso.
(xviii) Day, Aiden, 1998. Angela Carter – The Rational Glass, Manchester University Press.
(xix) For Lacan, the first instant of self-recognition in the mirror is a critical moment in the construction of the ego. See ‘The Mirror Stage’ in Rivkin and Ryan, eds., Literary Theory: An Anthology, Blackwell.
An earlier edition of this piece was published in London Grip, 2009.