The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories
The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, 1979
I remember how, that night, I lay awake in my wagon-lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, my burning cheek pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow and the pounding of my heart mimicking that of the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me through the night, away from Paris, away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage.
In 1977 Carter published her translation of the work of Charles Perrault as The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault and began work on her own collection, The Bloody Chamber. One of the main arguments presented in the collection is a rejection of the theory (popularised by Bruno Bettelheim’s Freudian analysis of fairy tales in The Use of Enchantment) that the primary function of fairy tales is to be consolatory. She even goes as far to say that a few stories in the collection are direct arguments against Bettelheim. As she has to say in one exchange in John Haffenden’s Novelists in Interview:
Haffenden: In rewriting these fairy tales for The Bloody Chamber, was it a deliberate part of your task to bring them out of the area of the unconscious?
Carter: Yes. My intention was not to do ‘versions’, or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, ‘adult’ fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories and use it as the beginnings of new stories.
This latent content is not particularly suitable for children or consolatory. It includes: cannibalism, incest, bestiality and infanticide. For Carter, fairy tales, through their oral tradition, were the literature of the poor, and can be read as such, open to many different interpretations. Carter’s interpretations call to mind the charged eroticism of Baudelaire and the grotesquery of Poe, while exploring burgeoning female sexuality and dominant and submissive gender roles the way only she can. While fairy tales may not be real, the latent subtext within them has evolved through the oral tradition. Carter understands that this still means they have something important to say about us in the same way that while the content of a dream isn’t real, the dream is. As Carter is a master of rich and meaningful symbolism, the imagery Perrault’s iconic works lend her is especially potent, making for some of the best of her short fiction.
The first story in the collection is The Bloody Chamber, a novella that encompasses Carter’s reimagining of the Bluebeard folktale. The protagonist is a demure innocent young pianist who is swept of her feet by a much older, wealthy aristocrat who is not so much prince charming as he is Gilles de Rais. The marquis sees in her the innocence of a child, and he is attracted to that because he senses the potential for corruption. He has been married and widowed on three separate occasions to an opera diva, a famous artist’s model and a Romanian Countess. He gives the girl a gift of a ruby necklace that was made for one of the female members of the family to wear to celebrate her status as the sole descendent who survive the terror with her head attached. After a courtship and a low key marriage ceremony to respect the fact his is recently bereaved, he spirits her away from her life with her mother to his chateau in Brittany where they are to live together. Almost upon arrival his takes her to matrimonial bedroom where, surrounded by mirrors (in the continuation of a theme from Fireworks), he strips her naked as one would strip the leaves from an artichoke, without care in a display of his dominance over her. Carter remarks how it resembles one of the pornographic etchings of the Belgian artist Felicien Rops, and after the stripping, which was only to whet his appetite; the protagonist finds his collection of bondage art hidden in his office. Finding her there, he chides her and takes her to the marriage bed where he makes her wear the necklace while they consummate the marriage, as she says of the act:
He lay beside me, felled like an oak, breathing stertorously, as if he had been fighting with me. In the course of that one-sided struggle, I had seen his deathly composure shatter like a porcelain vase fling against a wall; I had heard him shriek and blaspheme at the orgasm: I had bled. And perhaps I had seen his face without its mask; and perhaps I had not. Yet I had been infinitely dishevelled by the loss of my virginity.
Post coitus, the marquis receives a phone call from his agent informing him that he is needed in New York on urgent business, and leaves her with all the keys to the various parts of the chateau, including one he almost doesn’t give her, the key to his enfer. Despite him imploring her not to use it on the door it opens, after he leaves like Eve and Pandora before her she cannot resist the curiosity and uses the key to open the door to his private office against his wishes. Inside she finds a torture chamber and the corpses of his previous three wives: the diva embalmed perfectly, the artist’s model’s skull stripped of its flesh and the latest wife, the Romanian countess, in the iron maiden. She drops the keys in some of the blood that leaks from the iron maiden, and despite scrubbing it thoroughly it will not come off, and her husband shortly returns claiming that he received a call from his agent telling him he had been beaten to the business deal by one of his rivals. The girl believes this is a lie though, and the whole episode was to test her, as Carter writes:
I did not believe one word of it. I knew I had behaved exactly according to his desires; had he not bought me so that I should do so? I had been tricked into my own betrayal to that illimitable darkness whose source I had been so compelled to seek in his absence and, now that I had met that shadowed reality of his that came to life only in the presence of its own atrocities, I must pay the price of my new knowledge. The secret of Pandora’s box; but he had given me the box, himself, knowing I must learn the secret. I had played a game in which every move was governed by a destiny as oppressive and omnipotent as himself; and I had lost. Lost in the charade of innocence and vice in which he had engaged me. Lost as the victim loses to the executioner.
The marquis marks her for her crime with the spot of blood that would not come off on the forehead, and it will not come off; a stain she cannot remove like the mark of Cain. It remains a reminder of her shame, perhaps not so much for seeking knowledge, but for surrendering her innocence and being debased by the marquis. The crime for her trespassing is death by beheading, and the marquis gives her time to say her prayers before he decapitates her with his own ceremonial great sword. Out of the widow coming towards the castle on horseback though, she spies her mother who has sensed something was wrong from an earlier phone call where her daughter cried over gold dolphin taps, and she arrives just in time, as he has the girl on the block, to save her by shooting him in the head. With her husband dead and the girl being the inheritor as his wife, the girl goes onto have a normal family life married to the blind piano turner she befriended earlier in the story and her mother. There are a number of interesting things about this story. The first is that even by Carter’s usual standards the prose is very rich, as she introduces biblical, mythological and art symbolism into the story to the contrast between the girl’s innocence and her husband’s decadence. The way in which Carter subverts the common tropes of fairy tales subtly shape the changes within her own story. While in the original Bluebeard the girl is punished for her disobedience, in Carter’s retelling the girl has no choice as stripped of her virginity she is also stripped of her innocence and it is her destiny, like Eve or Pandora, to acquire that knowledge that is forbidden. It is in a sense an empowering experience and not a crime. Carter also replaces the traditional ending of a female being saved by a man with the arrival of her mother, who can sense she needs her through a mother’s intuition. While the girl is young and naive, her mother has suffered hardship and has years of experience, and represents the opposite of her daughter. Our serial killer villain is no match for a strong willed experienced woman as she won’t be so easily dominated.
The next two stories in the collection are retellings of the Beauty and the Beast folktale, one with a leonine beast, The Courtship of Mr Lyon, and the other with an anthropomorphic tiger, The Tiger’s Bride. In the former, a man is brought to financial ruin and finds himself broken down outside an old mansion. Needing to use the phone to call someone to come out and fix the car, he goes into the mansion where he is lead by a small dog to food and drink, and then to a phone which he uses to make his call. As he is leaving, in the garden he sees a solitary white rose, the one thing his daughter, Beauty, always asks for, so despite the hospitality already given to him by the owner of the mansion, he takes the rose and is confronted by the master of the house, the Beast. Fearing for his life, the father explains why he took the rose and the Beast says that he will allow him to take the rose and not harm him if he will bring his daughter for dinner. He consents and brings his daughter, who enchants the Beast so much that he offers to have his lawyers work on her father’s behalf in order to try and restore his fortune while she stays at his mansion. Her father goes to London, and despite his initial shyness, the Beast spends time with Beauty, and the two become friends and enjoy each other’s company. Eventually, her father sends for her from London as things are going well, and she promises Beast she will return to see him before the end of the winter. When she arrives in London, her father buys her expensive clothes and they enjoy their regained place in society. The Beast continues to send her white roses, but she forgets her promise and as winter ends the spaniel arrives at their door. Beauty, remembering her promise, rushes back to the mansion as fast as humanly possible as she fears that he is dying. When she arrives she finds the Beast in his room in the attic dying, and she says she’ll stay with him if he doesn’t die, at which point he begins to change until he becomes a man. At the end of the story he says he can manage some breakfast as he is starting to feel better.
The second take on the Beauty and the Beast theme, The Tiger’s Bride is about a father and daughter who emigrate from Russia and find themselves in an Italian town in which all visitors must play a hand of cards with the local Lord. Her father, being a man of poor character, bets everything he has, including his daughter, against the Lord’s land and fortune on one hand and loses to trip aces. The Lord is covered from head to toe so no flesh is showing, wearing a mask to cover his face and gloves his hands. He also has an assistant with him to translate, as his own speech is unintelligible to them. After her father loses, she is taken to the Beast’s castle (who she calls Milord), placed in a cell like room alone with only a wind-up automaton maid and told by the Beast’s valet that the Beast only has one desire and if she complies then she is free to go. The Beast would like to see her naked. She is insulted, as she feels that she is being treated as if she were a common prostitute, and despite gifts sent to appease her (a diamond earring), she remains angry at the nature of the request. When the valet returns later she does consent to go out riding with him and the beast, where she has something of an epiphany:
A profound sense of strangeness slowly began to posses me. I knew my two companions were not, in any way, as other men, the simian retainer and the master for whom he spoke, the one with clawed forepaws who was in a plot with the witches who let the winds out of their knotted handkerchiefs up towards the Finnish boarder. I knew they lived according to a different logic than I had done until my father abandoned me to the wild beasts by his human carelessness. This knowledge gave me a certain fearfulness still; but, I would say, not much . . . I was a young girl, a virgin, and therefore men denied me rationality just as they denied it to all those who were not exactly like themselves, in all their unreason. If I could see not one single soul in that wilderness of desolation all around me, then the six of us – mounts and riders, both – could boast amongst us not one soul, either, since all the best religions in the world state categorically that not beasts not women were equipped with the flimsy, insubstantial things when the good Lord opened the gates of Eden and let Eve and her familiars tumble out. Understand, then, that though I would not say I privately engaged in metaphysical speculation as we rode through the reedy approaches to the river, I certainly meditated on the nature of my own state, how I had been bought and sold, passed from hand to hand. That clockwork girl who powered my cheeks for me; had I not been allotted only the same kind of imitative life amongst men that the doll-maker had given her?
Arriving at the riverside, she is informed by his valet that if she will not remove her clothes for the Beast, then she must be prepared for him to bare himself to her. When he does, the girl feels so compelled by the way that he has revealed himself to her, showing him the secret that he goes to great pains to hide, that she reveals her self to him by baring her breast. Returning to his castle, the Beast is true to his word, and not only allows her to go but provides a decoy girl so that she will also be free of her father, but she instead decides to stay. Going down to his lair, she removes the furs he has given her and changes into a tiger like him. I view both of these stories are being almost like a dichotomy, two different sides to a coin in the relationship between Beauty and the Beast. The first is a bad relationship because it is wholly dependant on a form of emotional blackmail. As Carter herself says in the aforementioned interview, the only morally correct thing for Beauty to do in that situation is say “die, then”. The transformation in the story also seems to me more like regression, as speaking in the language of symbols, a man is inferior to a lion. In the second story, the Beauty chooses to reveal herself sexually to the Beast and to join him when he is willing to let her go free. She transcends herself and her male defined role in society to become a tiger like him: powerful, sleek, and majestic.
The next story in the collection is inspired by Puss-in-boots, after which it is titled and deals with gender roles, fairytale princess tropes, and male bravado. Puss enjoys a life of adventure: fighting, stealing and delivering love notes to brothels and convents alike in the employ of his master, but that all changes when his employer falls in love. The girl he falls in love with is a beautiful young maiden married to a greedy older man who keeps her locked away in a tower. In a subversion of tradition folklore tropes though, that tower is in the centre of the town in plain view of everyone and her captivity is like an elephant in the room to the town. She is only ever allowed out to go to church, but even then she has to be attended by an old hag in the employ of her husband and must cover head to toe; the whole thing is almost like a sort of grim auto de fé. Though Puss is originally disappointed in his master for falling in love and spoiling their fun, he is industrious and with the help of a tabby who lives in the tower he is able to carry out an elaborate ruse in which they act as rat-catchers in order to get entry to the girl’s room, where his master and the girl make love (she is still a virgin as her husband is impotent and sees sex as a waste of energy that could be better used for business). Carter shows through this act that while her husband can dominate her by being locked up, he cannot take away her sexuality and in the act she is loud and wild because it is an act of empowerment. Puss believes that this will cure his master and this will all be over, but the sex only makes him more in love with her, so Puss once again with the help of Tabs plots a way for the pair to be together. Disguised as doctors and with the help of both Tabs and the girl they are able to get rid of the husband once and for all (by declaring him dead and having him buried alive) and pay off the hag. Afterwards they form a pair of two couples, Puss even settling down and having kittens. As well as the gender issues discussed, Carter also shows that traditional ideas of marriages are less desirable than relationships that act as equal partnerships, as seen in the cooperation between Puss and Tabs throughout the story. The once bawdy and full of bravado Puss is able to settle down and be content, but at the same time does not place anything on a pedestal or idealise ideas about gender that are perpetuated through marriage.
The next story in the collection is an adaption of the Erlking story about a maiden who does not heed the warnings about the dangers of the forest and when through it wandering meets the Erl-King. The Erl-King seems to have a strange power on the inhabitants of the forest that apparently also works on humans as he seduces her and takes her back to his place in the woods where they have sex, and she loses herself to an extent within him. He teaches her the ways of the forest, but during this time she begins to realise that he is really weaving a cage to keep her in, just as he has made cages to keep birds all around his one room cabin. She is unwilling to accept that fate; she strangles the Erl-King with his own hair when he is sleeping and then frees all the birds from their cages. One of the things I like most about this story is Carter’s wonderful description of the quiet, almost desolate forest (unfortunately too long to quote here), as it paints the picture of the forest itself being a prison, tricking and trapping those who enter like a series of Chinese boxes, one opening up after the other as you travel further inside. The ending again sees a reversal of common folklore tropes as the girl is neither trapped for her folly or needs to be saved by a man. She takes matters into her own hands in an act of violence that frees her from her would-be captor. In her sexual awakening she has not become merely subservient to the Erl-King as he wants her to be, she is still strong and intelligent enough to avoid becoming another one of his birds, another one of his possessions.
The Snow Child is the short and probably the strangest of the stories in The Bloody Chamber as the latent subtext is seems to draw from its origin is that of necrophilia. When out riding with his wife one day, a Count spies the snow, a hole filled with blood and a black raven’s feather, and wishes for a child that would resemble each of these things. A child matching the description appears, naked, and the count is delighted, but all his wife wants is to be rid of it so she contrives a number of situations in which the child will have an accident, but is thwarted each time by her husband’s generosity. However, the Countess uses that to her advantage and asks the child to pick a rose for her, which the Count cannot deny her, and the young girl pricks her finger and dies. The Count then climbs down from his horse and engages in intercourse with her corpse while the Countess watches. After her death the child returns to those three items she was created from, a feather and a bloodstain on the snow, as well as the rose which the Countess picks up and declares that it bites. The idea behind Carter’s interpretation seems to be that men define the roles that women play in society as is shown by the way in which the Count creates the snow child in the image of what he wants. When she is cut by the rose, it is symbolic for menstruation; therefore she is fair game for the Count to have sex with after she dies, seemingly as much about possessing her as it is about desire. Upon her death she turns back to the objects that made the Count wish for her, showing that she was merely constructed of these elements of desire and was never real. Flowers in art have long been representative of vaginas, and the pain that the countess feels from the rose represents the pain of being a woman.
The story The Lady of the House of Love was adapted from a radio play written by Carter for BBC Radio 3 in 1976, and as a result isn’t a direct reimaging of any particular fairy tale, but it does invoke ideas from Sleeping Beauty, Jack in the Beanstalk, and vampire folklore. It is about a vampire Countess, the orphaned daughter of Nosferatu who lives in an abandoned village in Romania in her castle, dressed in her dead mother’s wedding dress with only a caged bird for company. She repeatedly draws cards from the tarot deck and the result is always the same: wisdom, dissolution, and then death, and even though she tries to interpret them in different ways it always amounts to the same. One day a young English soldier arrives in the town on bicycle, exploring Europe before he has to report to the barracks, and on that day the tarot shows her a card symbolising the hand of love and death. The Countess has survived thus far by seducing men who came to the village, and when the soldier arrives in her castle she begins the same game with him, “Suivez-moi. Je vous attendais. Vouz serez ma proie.” The solider is inexperienced, but he is not afraid of the Countess because he does not believe in vampires. She represents the old Europe, and he is the face of the new changing Europe where the supernatural is replaced by the rational. She leads him into the bedroom where she intends to feed on him, but she cuts herself on glass and while she is deep in thought looking at her blood, the solider kisses her wound. The solider wakes in the morning to find her slumped at the table where she does her readings dead with a single rose. He loves the village behind him on his bicycle, but takes the rose where back at the barracks he places it in water to bring it back to life and succeeds, but there is still something unholy about it despite its majesty. The next day after this he is sent to France to fight in the Great War. As mentioned earlier, one of the main themes seems to be the new way of Europe is the conquering of the old ways with reason, although ironically this leads to war. For a story about seduction, the Countess seems rather desexualised and while the soldier is the virgin she is uncomfortable doing something she should be experienced at. In a subversion of Sleeping Beauty, instead of life the kiss brings death, although it is still compassion that provides the female protagonist with her freedom.
The last three stories are inspired by different versions of Little Red Riding Hood, The Werewolf, which is a short story telling of a young girl who is attacked by a werewolf on the way to her grandmother’s house, In the Company of Wolves, in which a young girl meets a hunter in the forest who bets he can beat her to her grandmothers and Wolf-Alice, a tale about a feral child who is sent to live with a werewolf. In the first tale, the girl is able to defend herself because her society has adapted to a history of violence from wolves in the forest, and chops off one of the werewolf’s paws with the knife she carries to defend herself. On arriving at her grandmother’s house, she finds her grandmother has a hand missing and, realising that it was her she fought in the forest, kills her. Here Carter shows us that men are not the only thing that women have to fear, as other women can be just as dangerous. The girl is young and beautiful and because of this the grandmother is jealous and threatened and therefore attempts to kill her. The girl, like the Little Red Riding Hood’s of the original tales, is no victim though and is able to defend herself. In the second story the girl meets a hunter in the forest who claims he knows a shortcut to her grandmother’s house, but she will not take it so he bets that he can beat her there, the prize being a kiss. The hunter arrives first and is invited in by the grandmother who realizes what he is to no avail, as he strips to reveal he is a werewolf and kills her, disposing of her body and dressing as her. When the girl arrives, he demands his kiss and more, showing the animalistic sexuality that he represents while the wolves bay outside the house. Despite being a virgin she takes the wolf into the bed embracing her own sexuality, and as Carter says “she eats him”. The final story, Wolf-Alice, is interesting in that the main character, being a feral child raised by wolf, is symbolically a werewolf in a sense. After she is found and taken away from the wolves, she is taken to a nunnery where they make very little progress with her and instead send her to live with the Duke, who is himself a werewolf and has no reflection. When the moon is full the Duke goes out terrorising the town while Alice begins to becoming more aware of the passing of time, previously only being able to comprehend existence in terms of an everlasting present. With the coming of her period, she learns through her cycle to understand the passage of time, both in terms of the past and the future. The Duke, despite his affliction, has a mirror in which Alice plays with her reflection, believing it to be another wolf, but she comes to realise that there is no one in the mirror and that it is an illusion and when she does she washes herself and puts on a wedding dress (that once belonged to a bride the Duke took on her wedding day) symbolising her transition from animal to human. Alice heads into town, where the husband of the dead bride is waiting with a small arsenal to get revenge on the Duke, but when they see Alice they believe that she is the ghost of the bride returning to get her own revenge on the Duke, saving the Duke in the process. Back at the Duke’s castle, Alice licks the wounds the townsfolk inflicted upon the Duke and in the mirror his reflection starts to appear. The themes present in the story seem to me to be once again the idea of transformation, but in this story Alice is a human who becomes an animal and then by the end of the story somewhere in between the two. In a sense Alice is both Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf as she has a place in both worlds and the pity that she feels for the Duke comes from the shared feeling of being different from other wolves and not human compassion. Like the other girls in Carter’s Little Red Riding Hood stories, Alice has no fear of the wolf but it is through her becoming a woman that she is able to overcome her situation.
In conclusion, The Bloody Chamber is Carter’s seminal collection of short stories containing a number of important observations on the purpose served by fairy tales and the latent subtexts that drive them as well as gender roles in our society. Jeff VanderMeer recently called it a must read for all serious fantasy fans, but I’d be willing to go further and say that it is a must read for all people who enjoy reading. Carter’s use of language is masterful, her symbolism is vivid and always full of meaning and she is, without a doubt, one of the best Anglophile writers of the last fifty years. This should be on every reader’s book shelf.
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