Critiques of the Sadean Male in Angela Carter’s 'The Bloody Chamber'
by Hannah Wardle
Polyphony, Volume 1, Issue 1
First Published March 2019, Manchester
Angela Carter’s controversial 1979 collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber, has been subject to much criticism from writers such as Patricia Duncker for its violent and destructive depictions of male sexuality. Its stories, often described as feminist re-tellings of classic fairy tales, have been condemned for portraying their central female characters as essentially passive and vulnerable in the face of sexually tyrannical men, as well as taking on fairy tale form, which is historically entrenched in patriarchal ideas. This essay outlines the ways in which Carter portrays these expressions of sexuality and exploits the fairy tale form ironically to highlight the power imbalances in heterosexual relationships and to empower women to liberate themselves from the oppressive force of male sexuality.
Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (See note 1) has long been subject to criticism from writers such as Patricia Duncker for the ways in which its short stories, which are ‘often described as a group of traditional fairy tales given a subversive feminist twist’, (See note 2) present male and female heterosexual dynamics. Although Carter’s stories overtly depict female sexuality and pleasure, Duncker disputes that this alone does not justify feminist interpretations of Carter’s fiction. For Duncker, the very fact that these ‘celebrations of erotic desire’ are written within the ‘straight-jacket’ of the fairy tale form means that the messages they deliver are inherently patriarchal. Carter may be attempting to tell stories of female sexual liberation, but ultimately her female characters are still victims of male sexuality concerned with the ‘possession, the capture, breaking and ownership of women’. (See note 3) Whilst this destructive male sexual desire is prevalent within her stories, I would argue that Carter uses the fairy tale form, as well as depictions of male sexuality, to draw attention to, and criticise, the violence and oppression which is inherent within them, rather than, as Duncker claims, allowing it to exist unchallenged. This essay will demonstrate the ways in which The Bloody Chamber does not contribute to the patriarchal hierarchies of traditional fairy tales, but rather deconstructs and reinscribes the patriarchal fairy tale form to condemn violent male sexuality. By looking first at how form and style work towards this effect throughout the collection, and then examining representations of male sexuality within the stories, ‘The Bloody Chamber’ and ‘The Snow Child’, I argue that, through critiquing patriarchal sexual relations, Carter advocates sexual pleasure outside the oppressive confines of male sexuality.
The tales in The Bloody Chamber are often interpreted as retellings of fairy tales; thematically, the stories mirror classic fairy tales such as ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’, ‘The Tiger’s Bride’), ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ (‘The Were-Wolf’, ‘The Company of Wolves’, ‘Wolf-Alice’), and Charles Perrault’s version of the French folk tale, ‘Bluebeard’ (‘The Bloody Chamber’). This is problematic to Duncker as fairy tales have historically reproduced patriarchal hierarchies, subjugating women and reducing them to the status of perpetual victim. According to Duncker, the fairy tale form is one of the earliest forms of narrative a child will be exposed to, and therefore stories which fall into this genre act as a ‘structure of educational propaganda’. (See note 4) The messages in these stories are absorbed by children as part of their early socialisation as children internalise these power structures and apply them to their surrounding environment and social relationships. Therefore, Duncker claims that the convention in classic fairy tales of women and girls as victims is a ‘process by which women are taught fear [...] as a function of their femininity’. (See note 5) It is this intrinsic misogyny which leads Duncker to believe that Carter cannot successfully create a feminist depiction of female sexuality within the literary landscape of fairy tales, for the very nature of the fairy tale is to uphold such patriarchal values and are disseminated among younger generations.
However, there is a certain effectiveness in reworking and altering classic, well-known stories, which simply would not exist had Carter’s stories of female erotic desire not taken the form of fairy tales. Retelling a traditionally masochistic story such as ‘Bluebeard’ in a way which empowers the heroine and undermines the violent sexuality of the dominant male, as Carter does in the collection’s opening tale, ‘The Bloody Chamber’, prompts readers to draw direct comparisons between Carter’s version and the original. The story is told, in Carter’s version, from the narrative perspective of the female character. The narrator repeatedly refers to her husband (who we discover later to be the villainous ‘Bluebeard’ character) as her ‘Marquis’ (p. 4), referencing of course the Marquis de Sade, which foreshadows the revealing of the character’s sadistic nature. Taking a well-known story and retelling it from a female perspective, as Carter does, allows us to critically view the destructive masculine sexuality which is prevalent within many traditional tales, and draw comparisons between the new interpretation and the ‘original’ to highlight the problematic areas of familiar fairy tales which we may not have recognised. Although Duncker may be right to note that the stories Carter deals with do contain themes of violent masculinity and female oppression, she fails to acknowledge how the changes Carter makes actually draws attention to these ideas and the ways in which they can be damaging. As Merja Makinen writes, ‘Carter argued that Bloody Chamber was ‘a book of stories about fairy stories’ [...] and this ironic strategy needs to be acknowledged’. (See note 6) Carter’s retellings are not simply altered versions of fairy tales, but are stories which bring to light the ways in which these traditional stories work to subjugate female sexuality whilst celebrating male sexual dominance. It is through this choice of form that Carter achieves an irony which allows her to criticise traditional views of male and female sexuality — writing fairy tales does not make Carter complicit in supporting these views, but rather allows her to directly challenge them.
The story which is most overtly concerned with ‘the capture, breaking and ownership of women’, which Duncker claims is intrinsically tied to male sexuality, is the collection’s eponymous opener, ‘The Bloody Chamber’. (See note 7) Male sexual expression is portrayed in this tale through the motif of consumption: as Oana Urulescu notes, ‘the flesh of women, most often girls with awakening sexuality, maidens, is described in terms of food’. (See note 8) The narrator of ‘The Bloody Chamber’ describes herself, after being undressed by her husband, as being ‘bare as a lamb chop’ (p. 1), whilst the comparison between herself and young lamb’s meat emphasises her youth and innocence, foregrounding her powerlessness. This also depicts her as an object of consumption for her husband’s enjoyment. She is ‘his bargain’ (p. 11), something won and possessed by him, for him, to devour and enjoy — the idea of her pleasure is completely omitted as she is objectified through these metaphors. She is the young, fresh meat which the beastly male preys on; her frailty is contrasted with his carnal violence within this sexual encounter.
Here, the typical conventions of male and female sexuality are presented in exaggerated terms, which signifies the imbalance of power in sex and the dehumanising effect this can have upon women. Andrea Dworkin’s writings in ‘Pornography: Men Possessing Women’ reflect these ideas, explaining how depictions of sex too often show ‘the normal and natural sadism of the male happily complemented by the normal and natural masochism of the female’. (See note 9) This heterosexual power imbalance has become so normalised in erotic fiction that it is expected that the woman will submit herself to the destructive desires of her male partner. When considering how she portrays this power imbalance in The Bloody Chamber, we may be inclined to agree with critics who, as Madelena Gonzalez writes, suggest Carter is ‘complicit with male dominance’, after all these carnal metaphors depict the exact kind of sexual relationship which Dworkin claims is oppressive to women. (See note 10) However, the ending of ‘The Bloody Chamber’ sees the Sadeian male character punished for his destructive masculinity after sexually dominating and brutally murdering several of his female partners. His death at the hands of the narrator’s mother symbolises the uprising of women against — and liberation from — the violent force of male sexuality. This, then. cannot be said to be a tale complicit with male dominance, for it portrays clearly the downfall of the sexually dominant male at the hands of liberated women. While this particular tale details the destructive force of male sexuality, its ending is a clear criticism of this force, and even more importantly demonstrates that women must, and are capable of, escaping from its oppressive powers.
Despite being the shortest of all the ten tales in The Bloody Chamber, ‘The Snow Child’ is one of the most impactful pieces, particularly in the ways it presents violent and destructive male desire. A page long, it is finely constructed with symbolic imagery and intricate choices of language. Although Duncker claims that Carter neglects to address the ways in which ‘male sexuality’ is ‘linked with power and possession’, the language used in the opening of this particular tale would suggest otherwise. (See note 11) The narration begins in the historical present tense; we are told that ‘the count and his wife go riding’ (p. 105) in midwinter. This tense is associated with stories or jokes which are told by mouth, emulating the style of traditional fairy tales which were told and passed on through speech rather than writing. Carter again reappropriates and reinscribes the fairy tale form, despite Duncker’s belief that the fairy tale form reproduces patriarchal power structures. This idea is emphasised in the story as the characters are introduced: whilst ‘the Count’ is referred to by his title, the female character is initially called only ‘his wife’, reducing her to an accessory of the dominant male (p. 105). Male ownership is taken to its extremes when the Count describes a female ‘child of his desire’ (p. 105), who then appears before him, provoking jealousy in the Countess. The phrasing here appears to be deliberately ambiguous. This can be read simultaneously: that the girl who he has constructed from his imagination is the child he paternally wishes for, or that she is the ultimate object of his sexual desire, fusing the two ideas, encouraging readers to consider how men might sexually assert themselves over women, taking a possessive role over them as a parent might ‘possess’ their child. The diction used within the short opening section of the story is indicative of the developing themes of male sexual authority through Carter’s use of symbolism.
Carter continues to use symbolism throughout the rest of the ‘Snow Child’ which evokes not just possessive male sexuality, but also destructive male sexuality. Duncker specifically calls this: ‘the capture, breaking and ownership of women’. (See note 12) First the Count symbolically ‘destroys’ his wife, through humiliation as his desire for the child grows and the Countess becomes jealous, she gradually becomes undressed as her clothes appear instead on the child, until she is ‘bare as a bone’ (p. 105) in the snow. His desire for the young girl, and neglect of his wife, drives the countess to a level of jealousy which leaves her physically vulnerable, stripped of her protection in the cold winter landscape. This is the first instance of the Count’s sexual desire having a destructive effect on the female characters, which continues as we see the child of his creation prick her finger and bleed to death on a rose she is ordered to pick by the Countess. This shedding of blood can be read to symbolise her menstruation and reaching sexual maturity, as the Count’s immediate reaction upon seeing the girl bleed and fall to the ground is to ‘thrust his virile member into the dead girl’ (p. 106)— even though she is now dead, the Count must use her, having reached maturity, for his sexual gratification, emphasising the idea that the girl is no more than an object of desire to him. Immediately after this, the girl melts until there is ‘nothing left of her’ (p. 106); as soon as she reaches sexual maturity she is used as a sexual object, emphasised by the fact that she is in a passive state of absolute death when the Count defiles her, and is then destroyed completely by this act of male sexual dominance. Finally, the rose which culturally symbolises romantic love — and now comes to symbolise the girl’s death — is presented to the Countess by her husband. This conventionally romantic offering from husband to wife is tainted as the symbols of love and death are combined, summarising in one simple gesture how heterosexual relationships can be violent and destructive towards women. By offering his love, he is also offering his ownership and destruction of her, highlighting perfectly the ideas presented by Duncker about male sexual dominance.
Whilst Patricia Duncker rightly observes that the fairy tales which informed the stories of The Bloody Chamber play a role in the transmission of patriarchal ideas of female passivity and male ownership, she fails to acknowledge the ways in which Carter uses this format as a way of challenging such ideologies. (See note 13) Writing within this genre allows Carter to draw attention to the misogynistic themes of traditional fairy tales and create new stories which demonstrate just how harmful dominant male sexuality can be for women in heterosexual relationships. It is also important to consider the context from which Carter was writing this collection: Hera Cook diligently notes that it was widely accepted ‘prior to the 1970s that, with few exceptions, women were passive in relation to physical sexual activity’. (See note 14) Therefore not only is The Bloody Chamber an effective criticism of violent male sexuality today, but it was — at the time of its publication — ground-breaking in recognising and challenging issues concerning how male/female sexual interactions were viewed. Carter was one of the first female writers to challenge these previously assumed notions of male sexuality, writing fiction which sympathised with women who were oppressed by male sexuality, as well as encouraging them to seek liberation, which is why The Bloody Chamber remains an iconic feminist text today.
1. Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber, (London: Vintage, 2006)All in-line references are from this edition of the text.
2. Helen Simpson, ‘Introduction’, The Bloody Chamber, p.vii
3. Patricia Duncker, ‘Re-imagining the Fairy Tales: Angela Carter’s Bloody Chambers’, Literature and History,10.1 (1984), 3-14
6. Merja Makinen, ‘Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and the Decolonization of Feminine Sexuality’, Feminist Review, 42 (1992) 2-15 http://www.jstor.org/stable/1395125[accessedApril302018] (p.5)
7. Duncker, p.7
8. Oana Urulescu, ‘I Love You so Much I Have to Kill You: Eros and Thanatosin Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories’, Studiide Stiintasi Cultura, 7 (2011) 127-140 <https://doaj.org/article/5355a8a4132f4f4784307b95f3511fc0> (p.132) [accessed April 302018]
9. Andrea Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women (London: The Women’s Press, 1999),p.109
10. Madelena Gonzalez, ‘Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber: A World Transformed by Imagination and Desire — Adventures in Anarcho-Surrealism’, in A Companion to the British and Irish Short Story, ed. by Cheryl Alexander Malcolm and David Malcolm (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2009),507-515 <https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/9781444304770.ch45> [accessed April 302018] (p.507)
11. Duncker, p.7
14. Hera Cook, ‘Angela Carter’s ‘The Sadeian Woman’ and Female Desire in England 1960-1975’, Women’s History Review, 23 (2014), 938-956 <https://doi.org/10.1080/09612025.2014.906840> [accessed April302018] (p.939)