I remember being particularly proud of my determination to stick to the terms of the question, and not mention the word 'feminism'. It had been thrown around our lessons a lot, and I felt a kind of perverse pleasure at writing an essay leaving it out, despite the fact that bringing in 'context' was one of the criteria for getting full marks (I was an arrogant little arsehole back then).
Now I'm quite glad I did, because I certainly didn't know what 'feminism' was back then, and I escaped having to give an account of it. Not to say I know what it is now: feminism may be in that category of subjects that, whoever tells you they know what it is, are probably lying. That said, my self-imposed directive didn't stop me from using terminology such as 'patriarchy' and 'subjectivity', which I knew equally little about. I think I got away with it because I was trying to describe Carter's ideas, rather than impose external ideas onto the work. For that, you really do need a solid understanding of the context, and thus, history.
‘The construction of female adult identity hinges on the movement from being objectified to gaining self-awareness’
How does Carter explore this journey towards subjectivity in her collection ‘The Bloody Chamber’?
At its simplest, a fairy tale involves a journey towards happiness, and during the course of the journey a moral is revealed: don’t stray from the path, don’t open your door to strangers. Sometimes the protagonist is rewarded for following the moral (The Frog Prince). Sometimes she stumbles, and needs the help of a prince to set things to rights (Red Riding Hood). In such stories the heroines are objects – forced to comply with morals that are imposed on them; and when they do not, they are rescued by paternalistic forces imposing the status quo. Carter’s re-worked fairy tales rebel against this format. Her heroines fight to break free from externally imposed ideas of who they are and who they should be. The individual tales provide examples of female empowerment – different chokeholds that must be broken. As a whole, the tales build up as a clash between a dominant, overpoweringly male world and the abused, dissident female heroes trying to live in it, finding pockets within the patriarchal system where they can become truly themselves.
‘The Bloody Chamber’ introduces these two forces. Carter subverts the Bluebeard story to portray a woman redefining herself as independent and strong. At the same time, she subverts the Eve myth to show us the brutal suppression of women in Western history and culture. In Perrault’s original story the heroine’s disobedience is portrayed as recklessly curious and is condemned, even though that disobedience uncovers the murderous nature of her husband. In Carter’s re-worked story, this censure of women is linked with Genesis, where Eve is also condemned for being curious:
‘I only did what he knew I would’
The test of the forbidden room is the same as the test of the forbidden tree. In both situations, a masculine force denies knowledge while conditioning his female ward so that she won’t be able to resist. It may be reckless curiosity that drives the women to disobey, but that path is the only one set out for them. In Carter, this force is not only seemingly all-knowing and all-powerful, but sadistic, misogynistic and brutal. The angry God is the malignant factor, not the woman. The husband carefully fans the flames of his wife’s curiosity: his long description of the forbidden room is designed to entice. He spoils her, which encourages the reckless hysteria that leads her to the bloody chamber. As the narrator says: ‘I had played a game in which every move was governed by a destiny as oppressive and omnipotent as himself, since that destiny was himself’. The husband fashions his wife so that she falls, which then gives him the right to punish her. The allusion to Genesis shows how a particular paradigm of female behaviour (created by men) has been forcefully applied to women throughout western history, so that they become objectified by it. Furthermore, Carter shows us that the basis and justification for this – the Judeo-Christian God – is a grotesque sadist.
In opposition, Carter sets out another system of values in parallel to the first, one that would allow her heroine to re-gain her subjectivity. The new approach is embodied in the character of the mother, who flouts the female social norm that has been imposed on so many other women – she has shot tigers, fought pirates and has ‘gladly, scandalously, defiantly beggared herself for love’. The protagonist has chosen to ignore her mother’s example and marry for money and status. When the mother asks her if she loves her future husband, the narrator becomes distracted by the luxurious wedding clothes and concludes that she is sure she wants to marry him. By this decision, the narrator is acting within her husband’s (and society’s) idea of who she is – a foolish girl dazzled by wealth. The first moment of self discovery comes when she is confronted with her own image in the mirror. Her reflection forces her to see herself as her husband sees her – as an object: ‘I saw him watching me in the gilded mirrors with the assessing eye of a connoisseur inspecting horseflesh’. At the consummation of the marriage the mirrors show ‘a dozen husbands impaling a dozen brides’ – they reveal the brutality of her husband, and the multiplicity of images suggest that his actions and attitude are not idiosyncratic, but the accepted idea of male-female relations in her society. As the horrors of this husband (and of men everywhere) are revealed; her mother’s model becomes increasingly important to the narrator. In the bloody chamber, she notes that ‘this spoilt child did not know she had inherited nerves and a will from the mother who had defied the yellow outlaws of Indo-China.’ The ‘spirit of her mother’ encourages a new, ‘defiant’ attitude towards the savagery she encounters – attempting to seduce her husband, delaying her execution as much as possible and springing from the block to let her mother through. In the overpoweringly male setting of the castle – which manifests the mind of the antagonist (pornography in the library, impersonal office, brutal hidden obsessions in the bloody chamber) – the heroine learns to walk ‘as firmly as I had done in my mother’s house’. She usurps the constricting masculine landscape with another, feminine one from the past she abandoned. In adopting the example of her mother, the heroine escapes the role ordained by her husband. Instead of the sadistic, patriarchal force dictating the conclusion to her story, the narrator is saved by a more powerful force of motherly care and affection. The paternal God is overthrown by a maternal God, who allows her children to become fully themselves. Unlike the dead husband, Jean-Yves sees the heroine ‘clearly’ – her subjectivity is celebrated rather than suppressed into an object.
In the two stories that follow – both re-telling Beauty and the Beast – there is no powerful maternal figure to save the heroines from being objectified. They have to gain subjectivity on their own. As in ‘The Bloody Chamber’, the protagonists in the two stories are in some way trapped in a very male atmosphere (the manor of the Beast), this time due to the indiscretion or recklessness of their fathers rather than a personal choice grudgingly allowed by the mother. They are treated as commodities used as a trade to keep their fathers in the clear – they become objects. While the mother in ‘the Bloody Chamber’ allows the heroine to gain her subjectivity, in these two stories the fathers are the reason the heroines don’t have theirs. The system of patriarchy – where men control the world and where daughters only exist to be sold to husbands – is a barrier that prevents women from becoming individuals. In ‘The Bloody Chamber’, it is never mentioned that the narrator marries Jean-Yves – the couple rebel against this system of values. In the stories that follow, the heroines must carve their own subjectivity from within this patriarchal frame.
In some ways, ‘Mrs. Lyon’ has it much easier than the ‘Tiger’s Bride’. Her beast is only monstrous in shape: he is very civil to her father when he is stranded and is embarrassed by his awe-inspiring body so much that he hides himself, rather than revelling in his beastliness as the ‘leonine’ husband in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ does. This embarrassment shows how Mr. Lyon is a human being in all but physicality. Indeed, the very name indicates a civilised gentleman. When first seeing a photograph of the heroine, he notices how ‘her eyes might pierce appearances and see your soul’. He hopes this is the case, but he cannot help but use patriarchal methods (‘selling’ a rose) to gain an audience. What redeems him is his adoration of the protagonist. It is clear that, like Jean-Yves, the Beast values her subjectivity – particularly her ability to see ‘clearly’ into him. It is the heroine that must learn to appreciate the Beast in the same way. While in London, the protagonist develops a taste for her new wealth gained with the help of her admirer. In the mirror, she notes how the ‘sweetness and gravity’ that had captured the heart of Mr. Lyon has turned a ‘mite petulant’. She is acquiring the look of a ‘pampered, exquisite, expensive cat’ – part of her humanity is ebbing away as she enjoys the spoils of her ‘contract’. Her father is partly to blame, as he fills the ‘loneliness’ the heroine feels after she gains her freedom with shopping trips. When the heroine rejects the values of her father (and the patriarchal system) and truly appreciates the human soul of the Beast, both her and the Beast can regain their humanity.
The Beast in ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ is almost the opposite of the gentle, shy Mr. Lyon. He apes humanity by wearing a mask and wig, but underneath is alien and monstrous. He embodies the ‘cruel south’ – lording over everything including the winds. Unlike the clean, beautiful snows that characterise the heroine’s northern homeland (and the tale of Mr. Lyon) the climate is oppressive and suffocating. In this setting, the protagonist has few options in escaping being objectified. Her father and the Beast both see her as a commodity to be traded in a game of cards. She identifies with the clockwork maid in the Beast’s manor, who has no independent existence, but is completely a creature fashioned by male hands for male purposes. When seeing the nakedness of the Beast, the heroine realises that she must learn to ‘run with the tigers’ – match the ferocity and pride of her adversary with her own – for the tiger ‘acknowledges no pact that is not reciprocal’. This new awareness prompts her to fulfil the bargain: which she does not with ‘shame’, as would be expected, but with ‘pride’. Such a defiant manner makes the Beast look away. The wind he controls disappears – it is defeated. In another mirror scene (Carter seems particularly fond of this device) the heroine realises that she will lose the power and subjectivity she had gained in the disrobing if she goes back to her greedy father, who treats her as a pawn to be traded when times are rough. Instead, she stays with the Beast and gives free reign to the tiger inside her. As Beauty must match the lamb-like qualities of Mr. Lyon in order to retain her individuality, the tiger’s bride must transform herself to match the monstrous nature of her Beast in order to gain hers. Beauty is lucky in her admirer in that her gentleness is returned (and, in fact, saves her). When conditions aren’t as favourable – when the bonds that reduce women to objects are heavier – women must sacrifice their lamb-like characteristics to achieve equality.
These first three stories are linked by their cat-like male antagonists, and a somewhat feline sensibility. The men are very graceful and elegant, yet somewhat sly and (in the case of ‘Bloody Chamber’ and ‘Tiger’s Bride’) cruel. The settings are luxurious (‘vermilion lacquer, gold leaf’)’, and invoke a feeling of 1920’s sophistication. In contrast, the last three tales share a ‘wolfish’ motif. They are set away from civilization; in rural villages and wild forests where people lead ‘harsh, brief, poor lives’. Carter has stripped away the complex societies of her first three tales, and has almost gone back to a simpler time. The feline characteristics in the first trilogy are linked with a corruption of the human in modern society. The last trilogy features werewolves – symbols for the primitive, animalistic beastliness within each person that is revealed when civilization is in its infancy. ‘The Werewolf’ and ‘Company of Wolves’ chart how the confident, rich cats have grown out of starving, desperate wolves, and how this shift contains the roots of the suppression and objectification of women.
In ‘The Werewolf’, Carter’s Red Riding Hood isn’t helpless; and unlike the naïve and disobedient little girl who strays from the path in the original story, she ‘does as her mother bids’. She shows remarkable courage when attacked by the wolf, proving herself to be a true ‘mountaineer’s child’. However, this label points out the heroine’s lack of subjectivity. She is the product of her environment, and has very little personality of her own. Unlike the cat trilogy, the narrative voice in this tale keeps its distance from the protagonist. The lack of insight into the heroine’s thoughts and feelings make her out to be cold, efficient – an object – when she calmly wipes ‘her knife clean on her apron’. But this conformity and lack of individuality seems less of a problem here, as the teachings of her parents keep her alive. Not only that, when the child abandons the familial tie to her grandmother in support of her society’s superstitions, she is allowed to take over the house and ‘prosper’. Even so, the abruptness of the concluding sentence is disquieting. The heroine has played by society’s rules for material reward; she has not broken them and discovered her sense of self. Her actions are similar to the heroine’s marriage in ‘The Bloody Chamber’. But in this tale, Carter may be more tolerant of this decision. In such a bleak landscape, sacrificing subjectivity for a comfortable life may be more justifiable.
Or it may not. For although the heroine’s decision is commonsensical, Carter casts significant doubts about the society the heroine is part of and upholds. Mockery creeps into the narrative voice when the superstitions of the villagers are discussed (‘whose black cat, oh, sinister! follows her about’), casting doubt on whether the women who are persecuted are really witches. The callous tone of ‘then they stone her to death’ rams home the cruelty this society is capable of. The heroine’s grandmother is another victim of the mob, killed because she is a werewolf and has threatened her granddaughter. But Carter moves us to pity her when describing her death: the neighbours ‘beat her old carcass’ and ‘pelted her with stones’. As the wolf, she seemed more the victim than the aggressor in her confrontation with her granddaughter: it lets out a ‘sob’ when it is attacked and flees, with the narrator commenting that ‘wolves are less brave than they seem’. Her lycanthropy seems like something she cannot help, and Carter may be using it as a metaphor for the unconscious, unbridled, savage nature of women which this culture fears and attempts to eradicate. The seeds that would create the sadistic and misogynistic God described in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ are hinted at in this witch-hunt. The mother’s instructions to the protagonist are not in speech-marks, which would humanise them and make them personal. Instead they sound impersonal and monolithic, as if the entire culture (or its God) is issuing a commandment. The heroine follows it unquestioningly – she has no subjectivity – and is rewarded for her obedience. But her betrayal of her grandmother leaves us uneasy. The heroine may prosper, but she does so at the cost of losing the mysterious, feminine wolfishness her society reviles.
The second Red Riding Hood story serves as a warning against this decision. The first line: ‘One beast and only one howls in the woods at night’ suggests that the feminine ‘beast’ portrayed by the grandmother has been suppressed, and now only the masculine ‘beast’ is left. And these wolves are a bigger threat compared with the anguished female werewolf in the former story; and yet they are still blamed on a ‘witch’ who had been scorned. The evils of the world are still blamed on female malevolence, even when that female ‘wolfishness’ – which did pose some danger in ‘The Werewolf’ – has been eroded. Now, women suffer under the wolfishness of the men. The extended introduction narrates how a woman ‘wept and her second husband beat her’, even though she is blameless in our eyes. In this society, our Red Riding Hood is particularly brave to venture on her quest. In the former story the forest is just scenery; here it closes around the protagonist ‘like a pair of jaws’. It has become the habitat of the werewolves – the unbridled beastliness of men.
However, this heroine is different from the cold automaton in ‘the Werewolf’. She disobeys her father (who would have ‘forbid’ her foray into the forest), and ‘her mother cannot deny her’. Her free spirit is already rattling the bars of her cage. Even so, she is ‘seduced’ by the dashing woodsman, and reacts with ‘commonplaces’ – the lowered eyes and blush her culture expects of a young girl. She wants to lose her wager so that she can be kissed, a feeling shared by the protagonist of ‘The Bloody Chamber’ who also ‘dropped her eyes’ at her husband’s look of lust, and is surprised and half-exited by her ‘potentiality for corruption’ (it ‘took my breath away’). In ‘The Bloody Chamber’, the heroine tries to use this to seduce her husband, and ‘he almost failed to resist’. The male God he represents is too far gone in his cruelty and misogyny to fall. But in this story, the wolves ‘would love to be less beastly’, but they can only become so ‘through some external mediator’. Carter’s Red Riding Hood is that external force. While the ‘Bloody Chamber’ heroine is repelled by her husband, here the heroine pities the wolves: ‘it is very cold, poor things’. Her wolf tries to dominate her, and she laughs in his face knowing she is ‘nobody’s meat’. The male wolves here are as weak as the female one is in ‘The Werewolf’. They are not alien beasts like the one in ‘Tiger’s Bride’, which required the heroine to lose her humanity to gain power. Instead, she can transform him into a ‘tender wolf’, leading him to reject the ‘company’ of those who are ‘hairy on the inside’ – who have lost their humanity and will become the evil antagonists in the cat trilogy. Our heroine has embraced the maternal care and affection of the mother in ‘Bloody Chamber’, the maternal God over the paternal God her grandmother worships. It is unclear whether she ‘prospers’, but in rejecting the rule of her fathers she is truly herself. Carter ends with a message for the company of wolves – the men who have inflicted so much suffering. It is possible to realize a ‘werewolves’ birthday’; where ‘the door of the solstice’ – the woman who can deliver your soul – ‘stands wide open’. ‘Let them all sink through’, and in this unity be reborn as human beings.