by Margaret Atwood
Published in 1979, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories retells classic fairy tales in a disturbing, blood-tinged, explicit way. Angela Carter revises Sleeping Beauty, for example, from an adult, twentieth-century perspective. You might think that fairy tales are the sorts of stories to read to children in bed to lull them to sleep – not these versions! Her renditions are intended not to comfort but to disturb and titillate.
The title story re-appropriates the legend of Bluebeard, the mysterious French nobleman who murders his many wives. The legend, as recorded by the seventeenth-century author Charles Perrault, begins with the marriage of a girl to an eccentric, wealthy man. Called away on business, the newlywed husband leaves his wife the keys to every room and cabinet in the house. This keyring includes one key that she must not use: the one to the “room at the end of the great gallery.” Of course, like all fairytale heroines worth their salt, she enters the room forbidden to her. In it she finds the corpses of her husband’s previous wives, all with their throats cut. Startled, the girl drops the key, which is enchanted and permanently stained by the blood on the floor. From this stain, Bluebeard discovers her disobedience and is about to add her to his macabre collection – but just in time, her brothers arrive to slay the murderer.
Though it follows the basic structure and plot of the original tale, “The Bloody Chamber” fleshes out character and describes setting in a lurid way. Carter’s tale raises issues of sexual awakening and sexual depravity, of the will to live, and of life in hell. In having the young bride be the one to tell her story and in having her courageous mother come to the rescue, Carter flips the viewpoint and tells a familiar tale in a fresh and modern way.
IB Learner Profile:
Lang and Lit Concept: Transformation
“The concept of transformation is bound to the idea of intertextuality. Texts may be said to exist not as isolated unitary works, but rather as inter-texts in which the meanings of any one text is always bound to other earlier texts. Texts may be said to appropriate and borrow from other texts, extending, changing, and challenging in creative and imaginative ways that which has gone before.”IB Language and Literature Subject Guide
Transformation in one form or another is concept you’ll come back to time and again when studying this text. You’ll learn about the appropriation and re-telling of Charles Perrault’s stories from Carter’s fresh, feminist perspective; you’ll see how the male gaze transforms the way women look at themselves; and finally you’ll discover the stages in the ‘rites of passage’ by which children are separated from the world they know and love and follow a path that leads to adulthood.
Areas of Exploration: Intertextuality
- How valid is the notion of a classic text?
- In what ways can comparison and interpretation be transformative?
The Narrator: Rite of Passage
The narrator of “The Bloody Chamber” is a young pianist who has grown up in Paris with her mother and nanny. She is seventeen when she meets the Marquis, and she is still slender, delicate, and sexually naive. She is a child who does not know how to answer her mother truthfully when she is asked if she loves the Marquis, and who orders avocado, shrimp, and ice cream for dinner. All she knows is that the Marquis stirs her in some way, but she is unfamiliar with what these feelings mean.
When confronted with the horrors of her husband’s past, she gains maturity: “Until that moment, this spoiled child did not know that she had inherited nerves and a will from the mother who had defied the yellow outlaws of Indo-China.” Facing disaster, she calls on her mother for help and strength. In the end, she finds true love in a blind piano tuner. Still, she is scarred with the imprint of the bloody key, a mark she equates with shame, an inevitable result of her maturation that began when she was seduced in a room full of white lilies and mirrors.
In this section, find out about the stages of a rites-of-passage story, and complete a quotation-sort activity, helping you trace the narrator’s transition – and perhaps even pinpoint at what moment you think she leaves her childish self behind.
In The Bloody Chamber, Carter flips the traditional viewpoint of fairy stories, giving us the female perspective. She’s also subverting the typical ‘rites of passage’ recounting of first sexual experience, by adopting the genre of erotic literature and presenting it through the girl’s point of view.
To begin with, the narrator sees herself as a child, describing herself as a ‘toy’ on a string and ordering shrimp and avocado with ice cream as her first formal dinner. However, the situation she is placed in is one of an adult, and the story can be understood as a coming-of-age narrative, through which the child transitions to adulthood.
Take the quotations from the quotation sort below, print them and cut them out. Sort them into an arrangement that follows the stages of the Rites of Passage or the Hero’s Journey diagram. You might want to use a large piece of sugar paper, on which you can both arrange the quotations and annotate them with your thoughts and observations.
The narrator’s visit to the Bloody Chamber can be seen as the ‘liminal’ stage from the Rites of Passage, or the ‘Ordeal, Death and Rebirth’ moment in Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth. After this moment, the narrator has transitioned from childhood to her adult self.
Write a piece in which you compare and contrast the narrator’s thoughts, speech and actions from before the visit to the chamber with the same aspects of her character after the visit. What does a close study of these things reveal about the narrator’s ‘new self’? If you’re a bit stuck, take a look at this example of some student work on this topic.
The Marquis and the Illusion of Power
Modeled after the legendary figure of Bluebeard, the wife-murderer of legend and lore, much of the Marquis’s character remains a mystery. He is “much older” than his seventeen-year-old bride, but his exact age is not given. He is as “rich as Croesus,” the ancient Lydian king, and lives in a forbidding castle surrounded by a moat. A Marquis, he comes from a long line of French aristocrats, but seems to have no family. This large, leonine man has been married three times, but each of his wives has died mysteriously, though he shows no grief.
An enigma then; later though, the narrator discovers clues to his character: he is a “connoisseur” of pornography and is involved in an opium-dealing ring in Laos. All these discoveries, including a cryptic love note from his third wife, the countess, leads her to disobey his ultimatum – that she not enter the locked room in the west wing – where she discovers his true nature as a murderer.
In this section, you’ll learn characterisation techniques employed by prose writers (‘STEAL a Symbol’) and discuss the nature of the Marquis’ power. It is three-pronged: his ancient bloodline, his formidable wealth, and the way he projects an image of authority. However, what the narrator comes to understand, and what the Bloody Chamber stories can teach us is that such power can be illusory. We must simply refuse to fall under it’s spell.
- Conduct a STEAL analysis of the Marquis’ character, by sorting the quotations (below) into the following headings: speech; thoughts; effect on others; actions; looks. Discuss your findings with your class.
- Investigate the nature of the Marquis’ power by collecting your own quotations under three category headings: aristocratic heritage and inheritance; wealth; appearance and projection.
‘The Bloody Chamber reveals that the projection of power is often illusory; it does not lie in an aristocratic heritage, money or fine clothes and jewels, although people think these things are powerful.’
Explore the above statement in a short essay about power in The Bloody Chamber. Use the Marquis as your case study.
Sex, Violence and Moral Corruption
The narrator’s descent into moral corruption parallels her sexual initiation. After the consummation of her marriage on her first night at the castle, which she uses the word “impale” to describe, she finds a “dark newborn curiosity” stirring in her. This curiosity is fueled by the pornographic books she finds in the library, the contents of which “make her gasp.” This curiosity also leads her to the torture chamber, where the connection between sex and death is made explicit, for the third wife has been killed by being impaled by the sharp spikes of the Iron Maiden.
The mark she bears on her forehead at the end of the story signifies her moral corruption, which was initiated in the consummation of her marriage. The loss of her virginity, symbolized by the bloodstained sheets, along with the scar on her forehead, indicate the corrupting knowledge — sexual and moral — that the Marquis offers her.
Print out the quotations below, all of which feature sex, seduction and eroticism. Annotate the quotations with your thoughts and observations about how Carter shows that the narrator’s sexual awakening parallels her descent into moral corruption, and exposes her to the threat of violence and death.
Explore the sexual awakening of the narrator in a short written piece (one-two pages) for your learner portfolio. You could follow this structure if you like:
- The power of seduction, and how the narrator responds;
- How sexual awakening is framed by ideas of moral corruption and debauchery;
- How sex and violence are intertwined in the text;
- The links made between sex and death.
All is Allusion
A first-time reader of The Bloody Chamber may feel a little overwhelmed by all the allusions to people, places, and events that happened outside of the text. But with a little wider reading and research, the meaning of some of these allusions will become clear. For example, the characteristics of the Marquis allude to the real life Marquis De Sade, an infamous 19th century libertine with quite extreme tastes and proclivities.
In this section you’ll uncover some of the obvious (and less obvious) allusions, and discover how allusions help create dramatic irony. If the reader recognises some of the allusions – particularly to the items found in the Marquis’ castle – they will suspect the truth long before the naive narrator, and feel the tension of the story thicken as a result.
Discover the wider world of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber by researching the allusions in the document below. There is also a place for you to record your findings, and consider the way allusions help create dramatic irony, uncover the sordid truth of the Marquis’ identity, and submerse you in the atmosphere of Carter’s early 20th century Gothic European world.
Write a one-two page journal entry in which you discuss the use of, and effects created by allusion in the story:
- To what extent is allusion an effective part of the way Angela Carter constructs her early 20th-Century European world?
- How is allusion used to foreshadow events to come in the story?
- Explain how frequent allusion creates dramatic irony, by which you become privy to knowledge that the narrator of The Bloody Chamber does not possess.
Jean-Yves and The Male Gaze
The importance of Jean-Yves’ character is signaled by the fact that he is the only character to be assigned his own name. The reason for his importance derives from Carter’s intention: to flip the traditional fairy-tale perspectives and roles. When Jean-Yves first appears in the story, we might think he is the ‘heroic rescuer’, an archetype from traditional ‘damsel-in-distress’ narratives. But in Carter’s version, while he empathizes with the narrator’s plight, he is doesn’t actually perform any rescuing. This role is instead given to the narrator’s mother.
What Jean-Yves does do is he falls in love with the protagonist’s piano playing – her talent – and with her personality, not with her appearance. One of the overriding concerns of ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is the damaging ways in which men look at women, and the way, in turn, in which women can come to enjoy being looked at in a certain way by men. Jean-Ives, as a blind man, is physically incapable of the Marquis’s ‘male gaze’, something Carter emphasizes from his first appearance, when the narrator mentions his ‘grey eyes that fixed upon me although they could not see me.’ Find out about ‘The Male Gaze’ by reading these articles, the first of which is by Janice Moreck from Monash University. Try to decide what are the constituents of the Male Gaze (one example to get you started would be objectification):
- Examine these etchings by Felicien Rops (1833 – 1898) that the Marquis enjoys collecting and displaying in his castle. Annotate the images with explainers of how they are examples of the ‘male gaze’.
- Read the passages from The Bloody Chamber (below). Collect examples of Carter’s presentation of the male gaze; annotate the passages with your observations.
‘One of the overriding concerns of The Bloody Chamber is the damaging ways in which men look at women, and the way, in turn, in which women can come to enjoy being looked at in a certain way by men.’
How does The Bloody Chamber successfully shine a light on the phenomenon of the ‘male gaze’? Write a one-two page journal entry in which you respond to the prompt above. Include your ideas about:
- The way the Marquis ‘looks’ at women;
- The way the new bride ‘looks’ at herself;
- The importance of Jean-Yves character in ‘rescuing’ the narrator from the ‘male gaze’.
Symbols and Symbolism