Analysis of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber

The Bloody Chamber collects 10 of Angela Carter’s short stories, linked by their common source material, familiar tales from the folk tradition including “Bluebeard,” “Snow White,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Puss in Boots,” and “Little Red Riding Hood.” As the volume’s title suggests, in Carter’s hands these tales often bear little resemblance to the generally tamer versions best known to contemporary readers and moviegoers. The combination of sex and violence implied by The Bloody Chamber gestures back to the often gruesome nature of the ancient oral tales that began to enter the literary realm only when they were gathered and recorded by such early folklorists as Charles Perrault and Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. The title also highlights some of the other kinds of narratives informing Carter’s tales: the gothic fictions of writers such as Poe, Hoffman, and Lefanu and, most controversially, the pornographic writings of the Marquis de Sade.

Carter’s interest in fairy tales was an abiding one, evident throughout her body of fictional writing for both adults and children, and even more so in her work as an editor and translator, which yielded The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault (1977), Sleeping Beauty and Other Favourite Fairy Tales (1982), The Virago Book of Fairy Tales (1990), and The Second Virago Book of Fairy Tales (1992). As she wrote in the preface to her edition of Perrault, these old tales represent “the great mass of infinitely various narrative that was, once upon a time and still is, sometimes, passed on and disseminated through the world by word of mouth—stories without known originators that can be remade again and again by every person who tells them.” However, Carter had little interest in fairy tales as vehicles for mere fantasy and escapism. In an interview with John Haffenden published in 1985, Carter abruptly and comically dispatched Hans Christian Anderson and J. R. R. Tolkien with his “horns of elfl and faintly blowing,” arguing that “too much imaginative richness makes Jack a dull boy; and no good at killing giants” Carter’s tales are not about escape but about confrontation and critique. In her afterword to Fireworks (1974), she praised the tale for its unsettling, antimimetic qualities, which—unlike the more realistic tendencies of the short story—prevent readers from discovering in it “a false knowledge of everyday experience” (122).

Angela Carter. Photo: ullstein bild/Getty Images

The Bloody Chamber appeared in the same year as Carter’s controversial polemic The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, which was her contribution to a deeply divisive debate among feminist thinkers at the time on the subject of pornography. In a phrase that became notorious, she envisioned a “moral pornographer” who “might use pornography as a critique of current relations between the sexes” (20–21). Carter regarded Sade as a “terrorist of the imagination” whose shocking representations of sexual cruelty made glaringly apparent the power imbalance underlying both the sexual and the broader social relations between men and women in his society.

Fairy tales, too, reflect the unequal relations of power brought to light by Sade and so afforded Carter the opportunity to engage in some imaginative terrorism of her own. Marriages of young maidens to handsome princes are to be found in her collection, but Carter’s tales leave little of the more accustomed romantic idealism intact. Marital relationships in The Bloody Chamber tend to involve negotiations between unequal partners. The title story, for instance, is Carter’s version of “Bluebeard,” but her revised title shifts attention from the monstrous groom to both his chamber of horrors and the marital chamber into which he brings his bride, an innocent who married not for love but to “banish the spectre of poverty from its habitual place at our meagre table.” Her husband, the Marquis, receives in turn her eroticized virginity in an exchange whose imbalance of power is signified by his wedding gift, “a choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat.”

This theme of patriarchal marriage as an economic exchange involving unequal partners is picked up again in the collection’s two versions of “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” and “The Tiger’s Bride.” Carter described these tales as a partial response to Bruno Bettelheim, author of the landmark study The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1976), who viewed “Beauty and the Beast” in a positive light, as an account of a young woman transferring her emotional attachment from father to lover. In her tales, Carter is keen to highlight the economic underpinnings of this transfer, as Beauty becomes a commodity exchanged between a debtor father and a creditor Beast. However, such limiting patriarchal constructions of the feminine are not shown here to be inescapable. Although “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” ends with Beauty having been manipulated into accepting the role of the bourgeois Mrs. Lyon, “The Tiger’s Bride” ends very differently, with the unnamed Beauty figure embracing her own bestial nature, refusing the status of victim and engaging with the Beast as a lustful equal—a pattern that recurs in “The Company of Wolves,” Carter’s version of “Little Red Riding Hood.”

For many of Carter’s readers, The Bloody Chamber marks a pivotal point in her career, standing between the incisive feminist and postmodern critiques of her earlier work and the yoking of that critical approach to the new narrative exuberance and playfulness so obviously present in her final novels, Nights at the Circus (1984) and Wise Children (1991). Certainly, the volume that led one commentator to nominate Carter the “high priestess of post-graduate porn” (Bristow and Broughton, 1) cemented her reputation as a bold explorer of our common cultural inheritance who takes the familiar and renders it strange and startling.

Analysis of Angela Carter’s Novels

Bacchilega, Cristina. Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.
Bristow, Joseph, and Trev Lynn Broughton, eds. The Informal Desires of Angela Carter. London: Longman, 1997.
Carter, Angela. The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. London: Gollancz, 1979.
———. Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces. London: Quaitet, 1977.
———. The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography. London: Virago, 1979.
Hafferden, John. Novelists in Interview. London: Methuen, 1985.
Roemer, Danielle M., and Cristina Bacchilega, eds. Angela Carter and the Fairy Tale. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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