This story is the most ebullient of the reimagined fairy tales in Angela Carter’s 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber. The volume’s title suggests the more characteristic tone of these tales of sex, violence, and the struggles for power within male-female relationships in a patriarchal world. While thematically linked to its companions, “Puss-in-Boots” strikes a much lighter, comic note.
Versions of this animal-helper tale had been published by Straparola and Basile before the 1697 appearance of Perrault’s “The Master Cat, or Puss in Boots”; however, the Perrault tale—the first literary version to feature a male Puss and to introduce the unusual footwear— has become most familiar. In this version, the titular cat, the meager inheritance of the third son of a miller, promises to improve his master’s fortunes in exchange for a bag and a pair of boots. Using the bag to trap a variety of game, the cat makes a series of gifts to the king on behalf of his master, eventually persuading the king that his poor master is a man of great property, worthy of the hand of the princess, whom the young man eventually marries.
The moral of Perrault’s tale is a dubious one—success through deception. Carter’s version enthusiastically dismisses any question of such somber containment, revelling instead in the triumph of the roguish Puss and his allies over the story’s hypocritical guardians of morality. Carter’s Puss plays matchmaker for his love-struck master, whose beloved is the beautiful young wife of an elderly miser, a woman locked away and jealously guarded by a crone of a governess. Puss’s scheming allows his master first to see and eventually to have two sexual encounters with the young woman before the conspirators manage to dispatch the husband and governess and live happily—and carnally—ever after. Like earlier versions of the tale, Carter’s story is about the gulling of the wealthy and powerful by their supposed inferiors, but it seems to take particular delight in this upsetting of the order of things.
Much of the story’s exuberance derives from the distinctive voice of its narrator, Puss himself, whose earthy and unapologetic vitality anticipates that of Fevvers, the winged wonder who narrates Carter’s carnivalesque novel Nights at the Circus (1984). Puss is playful, irreverent, and entirely at home in his own body, as he demonstrates throughout in the attention he gives to the cleaning of his “sparkling dicky” between amorous encounters with the young wife’s female tabby. Puss’s earthy humour and behavior provide an ironic counterpoint to the actions of his human companions, particularly his master. Where Puss greets the tabby with “the customary tribute of a few firm thrusts of my striped loins,” the lovelorn young man turns to highflown romantic complaints—“A princess in a tower. Remote and shining as Aldebaran. Chained to a dolt and dragon-guarded”—prompting his animal companion to pause momentarily in the cleaning of his genitals and fix the man “with my most satiric smile.” The lover’s later attempts at poetry are greeted with equal contempt; to Puss’s mind, this is all “sentimental havering,” a tiresome prelude to the sexual pleasure the two lovers eventually enjoy, much to the delight of their feline go-between.
A recurrent theme in The Bloody Chamber is the embracing of an animalistic carnality as a means of refusing the division of masculine and feminine passions into the separate realms of Beauty and the Beast. Both “The Tiger’s Bride” and “The Company of Wolves” conclude with potential female victims of bestial lovers becoming instead equally carnal partners. In the lighter “Puss-in-Boots,” this theme is played out again, but in the high-spirited, comic mode that would become the hallmark of Carter’s last novels, Nights at the Circus (1984) and Wise Children (1991).
Carter, Angela. The Bloody Chamber (1979). London: Vintage, 1995.