This essay was originally submitted for my Textual Intervention II module in my 2nd year of university. It is the second of two essays that I achieved a mark of 70 on and I include it here for posterity.
All works of art either uphold the status quo, or challenge it: Discuss how Angela Carter has used appropriation of a pre-existing text to challenge or promote specific socio-cultural agendas or ideas
In The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories Angela Carter set out to “extract latent content from the traditional stories and to use it as the beginnings of new stories.” This essay will focus on the titular story of the collection and examine how Carter has used appropriation of the pre-existing text, Bluebeard to challenge and promote specific socio-cultural agendas or ideas.
There are many similarities between Bluebeard and The Bloody Chamber; both feature a female character forced into a perilous situation masterminded by a villainous male character. Carter subverts the original story by her inclusion of feminist themes which would have been scarce when Bluebeard was first published in Paris, 1697. By contrast, Carter’s The Bloody Chamber was first published in 1979 at the height of a resurgence in feminist activity. Feminists in the 1970s were determined to root out sexism wherever it could be found and to abolish it and it is probable that Carter’s writing was influenced by the attitudes of the time and the fight for equal rights.
Whereas the principal character of Perrault’s fairy tale is ultimately rescued by her brothers in a show of masculine triumph over femininity, Carter’s heroine is the girl’s action-ready mother. This can be seen as a significant piece of feminist literature and a subversion of the classic fairy tale’s need for masculinity to prevail. Women are often seen as weak and unable to fend for themselves; Carter turns this on its head and it is often the male characters who find themselves under the control of a woman. A case in point would be the ultimate demise of The Marquis who, up until this point of the story has had the upper hand, and now finds his life at the mercy of his wife’s mother. “Now, without a moment’s hesitation, she raised my father’s gun, took aim and put a single, irreproachable bullet through my husband’s head.” In this moment the theme of female empowerment is raised, a theme that can be clearly seen in other Carter works such as The Company of Wolves; “She laughed at him full in the face.”
It can also be argued, however that Carter was not directly going for a feminist slant in her telling of the story; indeed Carter was said to be critical of conventional femininity, which she viewed to be a blend of “masquerade” and of “male impersonation.” This personal viewpoint can be evidenced in her early realist writing, however that soon gave way to her own unique style of writing. There is no doubt that Carter was a feminist and the strength of her female characters is certainly a testament to that, but her viewpoints were not always that of contemporary feminism and she is said to have raised a few hackles by ‘re-reading and celebrating de Sade in the light of contemporary thinking about violence as a form of freedom.’
In The Bloody Chamber collection Carter can be said to be celebrating the power of female desire and in the titular piece this can be seen in the Marquis wife’s desire to satisfy her curiosity of the locked room. A well known cliché is the popular metaphor, ‘curiosity killed the cat’ originated as ‘care will kill a cat’ by Ben Jonson in 1598. In this instance the metaphor applies to the girl’s investigation and discovery of the Marquis’ previous murders. Perrault’s text also features curiosity as a theme and like Carter it entails the investigation of a forbidden room and the discovery of bloody murder. In this case, Carter can be said to be promoting the socio-cultural idea of excessive curiosity leading to perilous situations.
Another area in which Carter challenges socio-cultural ideas is the issue of feminine sexuality. Although the sexual revolution of the 1960s had done much to shake the Victorian attitudes towards sexuality, there has always been a particular taboo on female sexuality and women who use their sex and bodies for empowerment are still viewed negatively by much of society today. Carter challenges this idea by her implication that female sexuality is a force for good empowerment and is not something to be feared or ashamed of. The 18th century writer, Mary Wollstonecraft stated that women are “taught from infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.” This can imply that women are taught that they have power only through their beauty and not in mind or ability, an idea that Carter challenges in her text.
Sexuality and virginity are a particular theme of The Bloody Chamber, however in this case it can be argued that Carter initially uses it as something the Marquis has taken from his wife and she feels a “repugnance” for the man who has defiled her. In this instance the male has sexual power over the female and Carter seems to be adhering to the archaic socio-cultural idea of male dominance over femininity. Throughout much of The Bloody Chamber the theme of male dominance is present as the protagonist finds herself under the control of her husband. It is only during his brief absence in the story that she has a newfound courage to disobey her husband’s commands. Therefore Carter can be said to be challenging this socio-cultural idea as ultimately femininity triumphs over masculinity.
Although the title, The Bloody Chamber, is no doubt a reference to the forbidden room within the text, it is possible that Carter is also using the phrase to refer to the loss of a woman’s virginity and the bloodshed in menstruation. “A dozen husbands impaled a dozen brides;” here Carter can be said to be making another reference to sexuality and perhaps the loss of virginity as well. This therefore encompasses the importance of sexuality within the text.
The issue of male dominance arguably resurfaces with the idea of the “choker.” Within the text, the choker of rubies is the Marquis’ family heirloom and its placement on the protagonist signifies her loss of power at that moment.
Carter plays on the falsified idea of male superiority in the way in which the Marquis treats his new wife. The Marquis views her as though she is a delicate and feeble child; “have the nasty pictures scared Baby?” By mockingly referring to her as ‘baby,’ the Marquis is removing her femininity and adulthood and reducing her to little more than a scared child.
It can be argued that the way in which Carter’s female protagonist is saved by feminine intuition shows a promotion of feminist agendas. Within the text, the protagonist is only saved by a chance phone call to her mother leading to her mother realising that all is not right in her daughter’s new life. It is a popular and bogus belief that it is only women who can experience a form of intuition and it is perhaps probable that Carter was referring to this idea in her writing. It is also possible, however that Carter was simply drawing on the idea of a bond between a mother and her child. This is a notable change in the course of events that lead to the protagonist’s salvation in Bluebeard in which she has to ask her sister, Anne, if she can spot her brothers riding to save her. This builds tension until the brothers do at last arrive and rescue her. Carter instead builds her tension in the question of whether anyone will come to her protagonist’s aid until the timely arrival of the mother.
Angela Carter can be said to be aiming for the subversion of the male hierarchy and she uses a variety of narrative techniques to detail the power structure between male and female. Although the Marquis is a male character in a position of some height it is this power that ultimately leads to his demise. His excessive need for dominance over his wives and lust for continual power puts him beyond redemption. By contrast, the other male character of The Bloody Chamber, the blind piano tuner has no such issues of power and lust and his only vice is a desire to hear the protagonist play the piano. By being blind, the piano tuner is not entranced by the girl’s physical beauty and his attraction to her is due foremost to her musical prowess. With this character, Carter is therefore challenging the socio-cultural idea that a man can not see beyond physical beauty in a woman. There is a depth to the piano tuner’s attraction that the Marquis is incapable of.
It can be argued that Angela Carter sets out to challenge as well as promote specific socio-cultural themes and ideas within The Bloody Chamber. As has been detailed before, Carter was not a conventional feminist, although she was most certainly a feminist in her own way, and she held many of her own ideas and beliefs which often clashed with the views of other feminists of her era. The Bloody Chamber can be said to be an inherently feminist piece of literature but that would be doing it an injustice. In writing the story, Carter was setting out to challenge the power structure between male and female and to subvert it. At the start of the story the status quo is upheld but by its end, Carter has reversed the gender roles and it is the girl who ultimately comes out on top. The prosperity she enjoys from the Marquis’ demise is echoed in one of Carter’s other short story, The Werewolf. In conclusion, when Carter was asked, ‘why is there no female Shakespeare,’ she would respond by stating: “There was only one Shakespeare, dammit.” This shows Carter’s strive to be considered an author who set out to challenge and do something new with her work.