“The Fall River Axe Murders” was first published in the London Review of Books in 1981 under the title “Mis-en-scene for Parricide”; it later appeared under its more familiar name in Angela Carter’s 1985 short story collection, Black Venus (Saints and Sinners in the United States). The story revisits the case of Lizzie Borden, whose legend is summed up by the gruesome children’s rhyme that serves as the story’s epigraph: “Lizzie Borden with an axe / Gave her father forty whacks. / When she saw what she had done / She gave her mother forty-one.” On August 4, 1892, in Fall River, Massachusetts, Borden’s parents were bludgeoned to death in the family home by an unknown assailant. The 32-year-old Lizzie, the younger of the Bordens’ two daughters, was the prime suspect but was acquitted in 1893, and the case was never officially solved. Still, popular memory has clung to Lizzie Borden in the form of the axe-wielding caricature of the familiar rhyme.
Carter’s account humanizes the caricature by inviting us to imagine the world of Lizzie Borden in the months and days leading up to the murderous events that the story stops just short of presenting. Carter places a heavy emphasis on the stifling atmosphere of the Borden home at the time of the killings—on the “dementing” summer heat of Fall River; on the heavy, hot and confining clothes deemed proper for women of Borden’s class regardless of the intense heat; and on the claustrophobic qualities of the Borden family home itself, “a house without passages” whose narrow rooms “lead in and out of one another like a maze in a bad dream.” This close and confining atmosphere suggests the social and cultural circumstances of Lizzie Borden: a spinster condemned to lifelong residence in the home of her father and stepmother, a gentlewoman cut off from the society of her social equals because of the quirks of her father, who shuns “The Hill,” where Fall River’s other middle-class families reside. Carter creates a portrait of a woman imprisoned in her own mind-numbing, duty-bound, and joyless life.
Carter employs the techniques of realistic narrative to complicate a story that has been reduced to the crude outlines of folk legend. She situates the Borden family within the carefully delineated social space of Fall River, reminding us of the town’s economic base, its class and gender divisions, and the Protestant ethos that informs every part of life there. Her narrator adopts the guise of an invisible intruder in the Borden household, recounting events as they unfold as though before our eyes, even slipping on occasion into the mind of Lizzie herself, but never providing more than a tantalizing glimpse of the mystery’s impenetrable center.
However, Carter’s aim is not to present yet another in a long line of supposedly authoritative accounts of the Fall River murders. Working against these realistic qualities are the numerous reminders of the tricks and habits of storytellers, who transform events into narratives in part through distortion and omission. The story alludes to several fairy tales, those old, simple and familiar narratives that exert their shaping influence on new ones. Carter’s narrator also reminds us explicitly of the selective nature of historical narratives, introducing and then omitting an often-forgotten figure, John Vinnicum Morse, a visitor in the Borden household whose presence in the story would only diminish its “emblematic effect”—and so he is promptly erased, taking with him any claim of truth that might have been made for Carter’s often hyperrealistic narrative.
Like many of Carter’s stories, “The Fall River Axe Murders” mingles elements of fiction and critical commentary. Carter’s narrator shifts between her narration of events and her direct addresses to the reader; the resulting is a story that is at the same time an analysis of earlier versions of the story and a sceptical interrogation of historical narratives in general.
Carter, Angela. Black Venus. London: Chatto and Windus, 1985.