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A Feminist view of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber

Angela Carter's short story ‘The Bloody Chamber’, a retelling of Charles Perrault's classic fairy tale ‘Bluebeard’, juxtaposes the representation and role of women in the traditional tale. While keeping themes of pornography, violence, and patriarchy active concurrently, Carter juxtaposes the fairy tale with her own story on its major theme of patriarchal power and female oppression with female empowerment. Although it is reasonable to believe that Carter altered the complexity of the traditional tales to produce her own ‘version’, she defends the modifications in an interview by pointing to the potential of the "latent content" in the tales that suited a more feminist perspective (Boonpromkul 51). This essay therefore examines and evaluates how the stereotypically oppressive theme in the tales has evolved into one that is more reflective of contemporary feminism.

By adopting the first-person narrative of the young bride in her story and emphasizing the girl in particular, Carter tries to challenge the traditional view on women as being insignificant. In contrast to ‘The Bloody Chamber’, ‘Bluebeard’ employs third-person narration, and the bride is not given special attention unless the theme is sexual objectification, helplessness, or dependence on men. The bride in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ was still sexually objectified, though Carter's decision of first person narrative may have been a subliminal attempt to emphasise the importance of the bride’s perspective, almost restoring her authority lost to a patriarchal society.

The bride in "The Bloody Chamber" recognises the authority she restored on several occasions during the course of the story. She demonstrates this authority, for example, when the piano tuner tells her that she shouldn't be punished by her husband for entering the forbidden room, to which she responds, "Who can say what I deserve or no?" (Carter 23). By implying that no other entity can have an influence on her acts or their results, the bride powerfully displays her feeling of individuality. She makes it clear that she is capable of making decisions on her own and that she is not dependent on others to do so.

The bride's autonomous decision to go into the restricted room is essential to the story's development. The bride in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ chose to explore the room without considering how her husband might react, as evidenced by the lines "I felt no fear, no intimation of dread” (Carter 15), in contrast to the bride in "Bluebeard," who deliberated whether or not to disobey her husband and whether doing so would make her husband unhappy (Perrault) . While the bride in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ goes through a similar period of deliberation, she defends her decision by arguing that she has a right to enter the room to determine whether her husband is holding any secrets from her. This discourse was more typical of a relationship in which both partners are conscious of their emotional entitlements, especially the wife. Afraid of 'disobeying’ her husband, the bride in ‘Bluebeard’ enters the room under the power of 'temptation’ (Perrault). This reflects a form of prehistoric patriarchy in which women were expected to be subservient to and follow men in order to avoid upsetting them and becoming the subject of punishment.

When her husband discovered that she had disobeyed him, the bride in ‘Bluebeard’ implored him on his knees, promising that she would never again disobey him (Perrault). In contrast, the bride in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ almost asked her husband what form she should take before giving in to the punishment (Carter 22). While the bride in ‘Bluebeard’ expresses a sense of conformity to the patriarchal environment by pleading with her husband, the bride in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ exhibits a sense of defiance to the patriarchy in that she did not need to beg her husband for her freedom because she alone was in control of it. The bride was open to the idea that no one else has the authority to determine her freedom and accepted accountability for her actions. Due to this, the bride paved a pathway for her personal metamorphosis that would enable her to emerge more empowered and independent from the oppression she had experienced at the hands of her husband. This notion was subtly mirrored throughout the plot, most notably in a passage where the bride laments, “I had played a game in which every move was governed by a destiny as oppressive and omnipotent as himself, since that destiny was himself; and I had lost” (Carter 21). The bride's self-realization serves to demonstrate that she has been subjected to constant oppression, even as she awaits a transformation that will make her independent. This is accomplished through the help of her mother.

Before receiving the punishments, brides in ‘Bluebeard’ and ‘The Bloody Chamber’ both turn to figures that can help them be free. The bride in ‘Bluebeard’ calls out to her sister Anne to ask her if she can call her brothers so they could come save the bride from getting beheaded. On the contrary, the bride in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ makes a call to her mother. The bride describes her mother as bold, brave and compassionate (Priyanka 1066). The mother has attained the pinnacles of independent feminine strength and independence, as evidenced by the lines, “My eagle-featured, indomitable mother; what other student at the Conservatoire could boast that her mother had outfaced a junkful of Chinese pirates, nursed a village through a visitation of the plague, shot a man-eating tiger with her own hand and all before she was as old as I?” (Carter 2). In contrast to the wife in ‘Bluebeard’, who was forced to turn to her brothers in the form of men, Carter's choice to substitute the brothers with the bride's mother in her story implies a desire to uphold equal strength and ability between the genders. In order to further support feminism, Carter purposefully gave the female characters strength and success. This is implied by the descriptions of the Marquis' three prior wives, the first of whom is presented as a talented opera singer, the second of whom is a passionate model for a well-known artist, and the third of whom is the Romanian Countess of High Fashion.

The stereotypical portrayal of women in earlier works of literature devalues their potential. The ideal depiction of women is that they do as they are told and fundamentally adhere to the norms that men establish for them. The bride played by Angela Carter in "The Bloody Chamber" experiences dealing with those expectations. The bride, however, breaks these norms in the most practical ways. She achieves personal autonomy through overcoming her fears and develops into a mature, independent woman. The story as told by Angela Carter demonstrates unequivocally that female education and maturity can be based on sexual knowledge and independence rather than patriarchal oppression.

  • Zahie Hosain
  • University of British Columbia
  • Vancouver ( Canada)
  • References:
    Boonpromkul, Phacharawan. “Rewriting Genders, Revising Genres: Reading Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ as a Female Bildungsroman.” MANUSYA, vol. 17, no. 2, 2014, pp. 50–72., https://doi.org/10.1163/26659077-01702004.

    Priyanka, P. “Feminist Re-Writing in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber.” International Journal of English Literature and Social Sciences, vol. 4, no. 4, 2019, pp. 1065–1068., https://doi.org/10.22161/ijels.4422.

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