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The Bloody Chamber

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Helena Gookey

on 25 May 2014

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Transcript of The Bloody Chamber

The Bloody Chamber
'The Bloody Chamber'
The Bloody Chamber can be seen as a Gothic text. The Gothic tradition in literature was an attempt to warn, in a sensational and entertaining way, about the social and personal consequences of going against the accepted beliefs of the time, also found in Frankenstein with Victor’s dabbling in the divine art of creation. The thrills are provided by the sense of going beyond the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. This is usually accompanied by dire consequences for the protagonist.

The imagery of blood and passion, the overwhelming forces of nature and supernatural beings, the anticipation of horrible events, and typically Gothic architecture of castles, towers and secret passages all contribute to the clear Gothic tradition seen in this collection.

The structure of ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is taken from a European fairy tale by Charles Perrault, ‘Bluebeard’, which was written as a moral tale warning against curiosity. Carter, however, frames the story as a sexual awakening of a young woman, deliberately parodying a particular type of erotic literature. The opening paragraph sets a feverish tone, as the narrator recalls the “delicious ecstasy” of the girl, anticipating her wedding night with a “burning cheek” and “pounding…heart”.

Man, Woman and Nature
The use of the masculine noun 'man' to mean humanity as a whole was a common cliche being challenged at the time Carter was writing 'The Bloody Chamber'. Carter, however, makes a clear distinction between 'man' and 'woman'. Man is shown to be disconnected from nature in these tales, while woman is potentially a creature of nature.
Marriage
Throughout the collection, marriage is identified with the past, with corruption and with deception. The first story in the collection opens with the new bride eagerly looking forward to and travelling excitedly towards her future life married to the Marquis. However, 'The Bloody Chamber' goes on to portray marriage as a moral and literal equivalent of death. Similarly, in 'The Courtship of Mr Lyon,' the marriage contract is financially motivated: a woman, owned and controlled by the father, passes into the ownership of another man. Carter is suggesting that men behave as if they still have the right to control women, as they did in historical times, and her stories challenge that.
Beauty and Wealth
A recurring theme in the stories is that beauty can, but should not, be bought or owned by the wealthy. Unlike the standard fairy-tale endings, Carter's characters show the escape from the material world as freedom from corruption.
Metamorphosis
Metamorphosis can be used in fiction to represent the presence of two nature in one person. As in the Gothic double of Robert Louis Stevenson's 'The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,' Carter explores how man can also be beast:
"hairy on the inside"
.
Sexuality
The collection offers an impression of sexuality as a frightening and exciting aspect of adult behaviour. Carter certainly does not hold back from portraying the extremes of desire at its most perverse.

Angela Carter
In 'The Courtship of Mr Lyon' the bankrupted father brings
'Miss Lamb'
to lie with
'Mr Lyon'
and s resolve a dispute about the rose he stole from Mr Lyon's garden. The benefits of economic alliances formed through marriage arrangements are demonstrated in her
"new-found prosperity"
.
Her absence from the Beast's home causes his domestic affairs to fall into neglect and
"disillusion"
. Domestic affairs is an activity stereotypically associated with the housewife, so the dying flowers symbolises not only the Beast's romantic pining for his love but also hint at the future Miss Lamb will have as Mrs Lyon: domestic servant.
She knows "nothing of the world" and is wholly unprepared to deal with the conflicting responses she feels when her husband delays the moment of consummation of their marriage. It is her sexual response - a "
strange, impersonal arousal"
- which she fears. The Marquis suggests that the anticipation of the even is far more pleasurable than the event itself, and that is certainly true for her.
The view of sexuality within the stories is exclusively a female view, presented as a challenge to some attitudes in the 1970s. Male sexuality is represented mostly as aggressive and selfish. The men in the stories do not face any life-threatening rite of passage or dilema: their sexual destiny seems assured.
Carter represents human sexuality as something dangerous and animalistic. this is shown in the violent images in 'The Bloody Chamber'; the exhibitionism in 'The Tiger's Bride'; the imprisonment of the women in 'The Erl-King'.
Some of the women in the tales express a fear of sex. This may have its roots in the fact that for women sexual activity brings with it the possibility of pregnancy and the inevitability of the pain of childbirth, which in the past, brought with it a considerable risk of death. Sexuality is therefore seen as a doorway through which a woman passes towards possible fulfillment, perhaps motherhood, or even death. The sensation of fear, is thrilling. It is this thrill that underpins the reader's experience in the Gothic genre; humans find fear a pleasurable sensation, up to a point.
The bride does not mention any personal fear towards the Marquis until she is approaching the forbidden chamber itself. She only admits a
"dreadful anguish"
when she realises she is to join the macabre display of dead wives, yet he finds that "fear gave me strength", until the return of her husband does cause genuine fear. She is then only capable of delaying the moment of execution long enough to be rescued.
This thrill of fear accompanies all the experiences of young women in these tales as they find themselves confronted by strange men who exert power over them. Even Beauty in 'The Tiger's Bride', though openly annoyed, is a little disappointed to discover The Beast has not asked for more than a look at her naked body:
"That he should want so little is the reason why I could not give it."
The narrator is passive in 'The Bloody Chamber', taking no active part in the consummation of their marriage:
"my husband beds me"
. After losing her virginity, she recalls the moment with hints of the violence involved. The Marquis seems so exhausted, he might have been
"fighting
" with her; his composure was shattered
"like a porcelain vase flung against a wall"
; she heard him
"shriek and blaspheme"
; and there was
"blood."
Her unfulfilled desire is thwarted by The Marquis' decision to abandon her on the honeymoon for business. Her frustration is expressed when she has
"to be content"
with only having dinner with him.
There is not so much a focus on marriage but on sexuality in Carter's stories, particularly the consummation of the marriage in 'The Bloody Chamber'.
Transformation revealing some idea of truth is a common theme of folklore and fairy tales. In the original 'Beauty and the Beast', for example, the creature is rescued by the goodness of a true woman who restores him to his handsome self. Carter's two retellings of the tale offer something quite different. She inverts the traditional transformation from beast to human and its symbolism: to be beast-like is to be virtuous; to become more human is to be vicious.
Mr Lyon loses his attractiveness and powerful animal qualities and ends up looking
"unkempt"
.
In 'The Tiger's Bride' it is not the The Beast, but Beauty who is transformed, free to shed
"all the skins of a life in the world"
and become a beast herself.
In 'The Lady of the House of Love', a beautiful aristocratic vampire is transformed into a
"far older, less beautiful"
woman.
'The Snow Child' offers a different view on metamorphosis: a wish can become reality, but can just easily disappear. The transitory nature of male desire is emphasised by the melting of the child:
"Soon there was nothing left of her but a feather ... a bloodstain ... and the rose."
Subtle suggestions are made that wealth distances humans from each other and from themselves. Carter is influenced here by the Marxist analysis of capitalism and its effects on people, as Marx referred to this concept as alienation, where people become strangers to themselves.
The Beast in 'The Tiger's bride' wears a mask of a painted
"beautiful face"
but it is
"too perfect"
to be
"entirely human".
Carter is playing with the reader's expectations and understanding of the character at this point in the story. She is deliberately hiding the real identity of the Beast.
In 'The Bloody Chamber' the bride is bought with jewels and clothes.
In 'The Tiger's Bride' and 'The Courtship of Mr Lyon', Beauty is bought through dishonest dealing.
In each case, wealth corrupts beauty: the
"tell-tale stain"
on the narrator's forehead takes the
"shape and brilliance of the heart on a playing card"
; Beauty becomes vain:
"she smiles as herself in mirrors a little too often"
and learns to accept her father's cynical view
"that, if you have enough money, anything is possible"
. Their appearance and emotional state show that being groomed for their master's pleasures damages them.
'The Snow Child' for example, is created
"as white as now ... as red as blood ... as black as that bird's feather".
'The Erl-King' shows the spirit of nature as a man, but an isolated and feminised man:
"He is an excellent housewife"
. In the middle of the wild forest, the Erl-King tends to domestic chores, looking after all living and growing things in his garden, yet there is emphasis on his gathering of
"unnatural treasures
". The meaning of this is not immediately clear - the Erl-King's
"cruel
" habit of keeping
"singing birds"
in cages.
The concept that man hides his true nature behind a mask is presented in 'The Bloody Chamber' and 'The Tiger's Bride', where the Marquis and The Beast are at their most dangerous when the mask is removed. In other tales, the power of nature is disfigured or disguised in man, for example the Beast in 'The Courtship of Mr Lyon' or the werewolf in the last three stories.
It is the figure of the werewolf which most clearly presents the relationship between man and nature as an evil trick played upon woman:

"Carnivore incarnate, only immaculate flesh appeases him."

This statement applies equally to the Marquis in 'The Bloody Chamber'.

In repeatedly returning to the transformation of this triangular relationship between man, woman and nature, Carter challenges the notion that there is such a thing as an unchanging human nature or a natural order in human society.
With few exceptions, nature in the stories is a cold and unwelcoming place that begins where human civilisation ends. Nature in Carter's stories can be interpreted in a number of different ways: it can refer to the physical world itself, or to the physical world as a symbol, or to a character's instinctive nature that breaks the social codes of civilised behaviour.
The climate is as much a feature of the natural world as the landscape in stories, and most are set in the coldest parts of the world in the coldest season. 'The Courtship of Mr Lyon' unfolds in a
"winter's landscape"
that is slow to leave Mr Lyon's home - although the image of
"a drift of fallen petals"
suggests the arrival of spring and a more hopeful ending. 'The Snow Child' is set in midwinter, as are the 'The Company of Wolves' and 'The Werewolf'. The depressive effect of the cold weather in each story in succession is relieved by contrasting settings for other stories. 'Puss-in-Boots' anticipates the arrival of the first "vernal hint of spring" as the cats and lovers mate so enthusiastically. The main action in 'The Lady of the House of Love' takes place in
"hot, ripe summer"
and the events of 'Wolf-Alice' span a period that is not tied to one season.
The way human behaviour is shaped by a harsh and bleak environment is a theme Carter uses frequently. It forms a part of the introduction to the main story in both 'The Werewolf' and 'The Company of Wolves'. The combination of
"cold weather"
and
"cold hearts"
is related to the fear of hungry wolves,
"grey as famine"
, made more dangerous in wintertime when food is scarce.
The distance from civilisation, or how far society is from being truly civilised, is symbolised by the emptiness of the landscape that surrounds the fortresses of the patriarchs. The
"amphibious"
isolation of the Marquis' castle in 'The Bloody Chamber' is echoed in the
"bereft landscape"
surrounding The Beast's palace in 'The Tiger's Bride, a "
burned-out planet"
dominated by the
"sad browns and sepias of winter".
The sea in 'The Bloody Chamber' is linked to matriarch, as the narrator describes the
"amniotic salinity of the ocean"
This compares the sea to the amniotic fluid that surrounds a baby in the mother's womb. The clearest expression of the connection between mother, sea and child comes when the narrator's
"avenging angel"
emerges from the sea. She is not only her daughter's saviour, she is the personification of the protective maternal instinct.
The forest is a paradoxical symbol in the stories. The fairy-tale forest is physically unwelcoming and alluring at the same time. This is the most obvious in 'The Erl-King', where the narrator enjoys the
"delicious loneliness"
at the same time as she is aware of the fact that
"there is no clue to guide you through in perfect safety"
. The forest is a place where civilisation and its restricting boundaries do not apply, a place where humans can discover their true nature, or be saved, or sacrificed.
The male character, the Marquis, is first introduced as a mysterious figure. He gradually takes on more of an identity as the story unfolds. He is associated with symbols of wealth – “gold” and a “gigantic box” for the narrator’s wedding dress – while his physical form is conveyed through a “kiss” and a “rasp of a beard”. The marquis remains shapeless and mysterious while the narrator recounts the beauty, talent and tragedy of his first three wives; and she is clearly flattered by his invitation “to join this gallery of beautiful women”. Carter here foreshadows the events of the story in seemingly innocent remark that also alludes to the original story of Bluebeard.
All of the tales in this collection are set in a faraway time and place. These settings are largely borrowed from the traditional tales that inspired the collection. They create a sense of distance for the reader, putting Carter’s characters in a place where anything – even the most fantastical elements of Carter’s imagination – are possible. Against traditional backdrops, the more contemporary elements which Carter has introduced to the tales can stand in the foreground, drawing the reader’s attention.
Carter’s tales explore female sexuality. They do not present stereotypical feminist views of women as either heroic fighters against, or passive victims of, patriarchal dominance. Carter’s aristocratic male characters are often defined by the stereotypes of power, greed and cruelty associated with privilege. Carter’s female characters are often their victims. The stories are structured by the resolving of this imbalance of power – but frequently in surprising ways.
While the narrator’s innocence and naivety attract the Marquis’s “carnal avarice”, the Marquis represents to the narrator the mysterious and appealing danger of the unknown. The Marquis’s “carnal avarice” suggests two seemingly contrasting lusts: the sexual, and the financial, physical gratification and the display of wealth. Both of these are satisfied by his bride as they are by his collection of erotic art.
The Marquis symbolises everything about patriarchal society that stops women having control of their own lives. Carter’s villain in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is a representative of the past, of patriarchy, of a dying social order.
The postponement of his satisfaction, with no regard for her, suggests the Marquis’s absolute control. This suggestion of sadism is reinforced by the violent imagery in the narrator’s description of her husband’s erotic art, emphasised by the shocking bluntness of her language. The connection between sex, violence and death is made clear as she is “impaled” by him. The physical violence in this verb is particularly shocking, and dismisses the use of clichés or euphemisms here. Her sense of detachment as she reports the experience, seen in the bedroom’s multiple mirrors, is chilling. It is presented entirely without emotion or any sense of her feelings or pleasure. The detachment of the narrator here reflects the impact of male selfish desire.
It soon becomes clear that the Marquis is interested only in the physical. The narrator’s statement, “he closed my legs like a book” shocks not just because of the Marquis’s disturbing voyeurism, but also because it equates the bride with his collection of pornographic texts. He considers her nothing more than a text to be read or consumed at his pleasure.
The notion of the male gaze is central to feminist theory, which argues that patriarchy regards the audience as men, and women are therefore obliged to adopt a masculine perspective when looking at images that represent women as objects for male satisfaction.
The mirrors and lilies are powerful symbols of the Marquis’s control and dominance in this environment. The lilies are associated with funeral rites and therefore with death; the mirrors embody the Marquis’ objectification of his bride as a living, breathing pornographic image.
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