Angela Carter (1940-1992) positions herself as a writer in ‘the demythologizing business Paper
-She defines myth in ‘a sort of conventional sense; also in the sense that Roland Barthes uses it in Mythologies’. Barthes states that ‘the very principle of myth’ is that ‘it transforms history into nature. This process of naturalisation transforms culturally and historically determined fictions into received truths, which are accepted as natural, even sacred.
-As Carter herself states in one of the interviews, the term ‘demythologizing‘ means for her an attempt to find out what certain configurations of imagery in our society and in our culture really stand for, what they mean, underneath the kind of semireligious coating that makes people not particularly want to interfere with them.
-In the very conventional sense, Rolland Barthes uses myths in Mythologies to describe trivial things of everyday use, Carter tried to define ideas, images and stories we tend to accept without thinking about them.
-Angela Carter’s collection of stories, ‘The Bloody Chamber’, was published in 1979 and provides a dynamic response to one of the crucial problems of radical feminism. How does one think outside the masculine myths of ‘woman’ without presenting the feminine as some ineffable and timeless essence. From familiar fairy tales and legends ‘ Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, Puss in Boots, Beauty and the Beast, vampires and werewolves ‘ Angela Carter has created an absorbing collection of dark, sensual, fantastic stories.
-The title story of this collection is Carter’s tale about Perrault’s Bluebeard. Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” is for the heroine a story of sexual self-discovery. She delights in her newfound sexual awareness, which Carter brings to life with vivid words such as, “I lay awake in the 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.”
-Carter’s use of the word “bore” compares the heroine’s journey to her married life to a rebirth. The comparison emphasizes how the heroine is not just getting married, but being transformed from a girl, “away from girlhood” into a woman.
The heroine’s arousal on the train, heightened by sexual verbs such as “pounding,” “thrusting” and “burning” comes not so much from her attraction to the Marquis but from her curiosity at the “unguessable” act of sex that she anticipates. Even though the Marquis evaluates her as though she is “horseflesh,” his condescension excites her because it makes her realize her own “potential for corruption,” for sexuality and desire. She does not find out until later how literally the Marquis makes love and corruption into a single act with the fetish of murdering his wives. He takes his favorite quote, by Baudelaire, literally: “There is a striking resemblance between the act of love and he ministrations of a torturer.” For him, the act of love is the act of torture. Because the Marquis’s objectifying remarks and actions excite the heroine, we can see that until she realizes the extent of her dilemma, she is somewhat complicit in her own subjugation.
-Images of rebirth and sexuality make the narrator’s entrance into marriage seem full of life.
-But the moment she arrives at the castle, this feeling is tempered with symbols of death that foreshadow her own near-death. She arrives at dawn, a time of freshness and possibility, but in the month of November in late fall, which traditionally represents a decline into winter and death.
-The sea has an “amniotic salinity”-the word amniotic referencing birth, but it surrounds the castle when the tide is high, so that for all its majesty the palace resembles a prison. She describes it as, “at home neither on the land nor on the water, a mysterious, amphibious place, contravening the materiality of both earth and the waves … That lovely, sad, sea-siren of a place!” To the heroine, the castle seems like a place where reality is suspended and strange things happen. When she compares it to a siren or mermaid, who lure sailors and then drown them, she evokes another symbol of death and foreshadows her fate.
-The bridal chamber itself is filled with symbols of death and martyrdom. On the wall hangs a painting of Saint Cecilia, who died by decapitation.
-The Marquis sees the heroine as his own personal Saint Cecilia, whom he plans to kill in a sick bastardization of martyrdom.
-The heroine’s necklace, which the Marquis instructs her not to remove, references the same bloody death. At the time, she does not realize that the necklace symbolizes the death that the Marquis has planned for her.
-Twelve mirrors surround the bed, the number twelve symbolizing the twelve apostles and therefore referencing Christ. Since Christ is the ultimate martyr, the mirrors comprise another death reference.
-Finally, the Marquis has filled the narrator’s room with so many lilies, which are reflected in the mirrors, that it appears to be a “funereal parlor.” The heroine connects sex with death most explicitly when she uses the word “impale” to describe the Marquis’s penetrating her.
-It is not the bridal chamber, but the Marquis’s secret murder room, that lends the story its title, “The Bloody Chamber.” However, the bridal chamber is a ‘bloody chamber’ of sorts because it is there that the Marquis spills the narrator’s blood by taking her virginity. Being a place for the consummation of marriage, it also represents the murder that always follows.
-The events that surround the forbidden chamber echo Eve’s temptation and fall in the Garden of Eden, thus connecting each wife’s downfall to the idea of original sin. As Jean-Yves explains, the heroine “only did what The Marquis knew she would” just as, he implies, God knew that Eve would taste the forbidden apple and be sentenced to pain and (eventual) death. -The Marquis sees himself as God because he is a man and a royal figure; therefore, he feels it is his mission to tempt and punish women. But far from being godlike or right, the Marquis’s actions are perverted. He is like the man in his engraving, “Reproof of Curiosity,” who arouses himself by whipping a naked girl, only he is worse for being a murderer. The allusion to Eve suggests that inasmuch as the “bloody chamber” is a place of suffering and death for the other wives, it is one of learning and rebirth for the heroine.
-In this way, the term “bloody chamber” can also refer to the womb; it is a physical symbol of birth and of Eve’s punishment; pain in childbirth as well as the pain of knowledge.
-Like many traditional fairy tales, “The Bloody Chamber” ends ‘happily ever after.’ But the heroine’s happiness does not come from finding a stereotypical prince charming and living out her days in luxury. Rather, she marries a blind piano tuner, gives away her fortune, and lives with her mother and husband on the edge of town. This ending embodies a feminist perspective. The heroine starts out as a sexual object, manipulated into submission with the promise of material comfort. The Marquis condemns her to death for refusing to obey him blindly and remain ignorant. Her triumph, as Moore explains, is in recognizing her own intelligence and mettle as a human being, and rejecting the role of submissive child.
Having learned from her experience, the heroine rids herself of all remnants of that former identity. She rejects wealth, which is what the Marquis used to win her trust. She marries a blind man, who cannot objectify her for her beauty because he cannot see her. She even rejects the traditional household of two in favor of living with her mother as well as her husband. By doing so, Moore says, she “avoids the institution of marriage with its requirement to love, honor, and obey a husband till death. She replaces a relationship between power and submission with one of mutual affection and equality.” Even though the heroine is married, she does not rely solely on Jean-Yves for money or love, because she earns money giving piano lessons and has her mother’s company.
Even though the mark on the heroine’s forehead proves her triumph over both death and misogyny, she is ashamed of it. The key that made the mark was, as Moore says, “the key to her selfhood,” but she does not consider the mark a badge of success; to the heroine, it is a permanent reminder that she let herself be lured, bought, and mistreated. In rejecting wealth, earning a living, and residing with her mother, the narrator not only fulfills her wish for independence; she does a sort of penance for allowing sexist abuse in her former life. This penance she also does by telling her story, in hopes that other women might not fall prey to a man like the Marquis.
-To begin with, one can read Carter as an exemplary postmodernist. Her stories are written in the voice of fairy tales, with ‘The Bloody Chamber’ being a first person re-telling of ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’ from the female protagonist’s point of view. A received and traditional narrative is re-told from the point of view of its classically objectified and silent other, the sexually violated women. The text inhabits a narrative to show its force, foregrounding the values and positions it creates.
-However, there is also a utopian or deconstructive dimension to Carter’s text. Carter’s narrative does more than repeat the narratives of tradition as narrative; it is more than a playful postmodern inhabitation of a discourse that it also disavows. Not only does Carter add another voice to the text; she rewrites the very notion of voice.
-She does not just add a ‘female’ voice to a masculine narrative; she destroys the simple way of thinking about the opposition between male and female. She shows the feminine to be a masculine construction, an image, fantasy or projection of male desire.
-The female character in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ constantly views herself in mirrors, sees herself from the point of view of male desire, and adopts all the jewels, dress, fantasies and poses that place her in the position of created sexual object. In narrating the story she looks back to a time when she was both an unselfconscious and a passive object of desire and recalls the moment at which she adopts and internalizes the male gaze that fixes her as female:
“That night at the opera comes back to me even now…the white dress; the frail child within it; and the flashing crimson jewels around her throat, bright as arterial blood. I saw him watching me in the gilded mirrors with the assessing eye of a connoisseur inspecting horseflesh, or even a housewife in the market inspecting cuts on the slab. I’d never seen, or else had never acknowledged, that regard of his before, the sheer carnal avarice of it; and It was strangely magnified by the monocle lodged in his left eye. When I saw him look at me with lust, I dropped my eyes but, in glancing away from him, I caught sight of myself in a mirror. And I saw myself, suddenly, as he saw me, my pale face, the way the muscles in my neck stuck out like thin wire. I saw how much that cruel necklace became me. And for the first time in my innocent and confined life, I sensed in myself a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away.” (Carter 1979, 11).
-In this sense, ‘woman’ does not exist; ‘she’ is only that feared lack or absence created by the masculine assertion of presence. In order for a text or image to represent anything at all it must presuppose an absent or lost presence which it aims to recall.
-Carter’s stories show the mythic production of the lost origin. Her female characters are viewed through the lens of a male desire that can be active, representing and masterful only through its production of a passive, represented and slavish feminine. The opposition between male and female then structures all the oppositions between subject and object, for the masculine is just that which is other than the represented, other than that silent body which cannot speak or represent itself.
– Carter exposes the feminine as a mythic presence produced through the idea of subjectivity and representation; only with the idea of a world there to be represented, and a subject who actively represents can we have the sexual hierarchy. We can only think the opposition between subject and object, presence and absence, signifier and signified through sexual imagery. The feminine is just that imagined lack perceived from the point of masculine subjectivity.
-However, while denying or exposing the feminine as a lie, or while saying that woman does not exist, Carter also speaks in the voice of the feminine. The feminine is a fiction and illusion and it is also the only reality outside the play of mirrors. Carter produces a female voice or subject that disrupts the fiction of sexual difference. Indeed, the only way to destroy the fantasy of sexual difference—of woman as man’s necessary negation or other—is to repeat and intensify the fantasy, both by showing the production as a production and by producing differently.
-Carter parodies the female subject who would take on all the active, violent and masterful strategies of the masculine subject, exposing such projections of the self-authoring subject to be a fiction. Often her female characters take on heroic, active but also absurdly masculine roles; the masculine model of the subject is powerfully adopted at the same time as it is parodied: ‘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 plague, shot a man-eating tiger with her own hand and all before she was as old as I?’ (Carter 1979, 7).
-Her work is therefore ironic, negative and deconstructive.
-It is ironic because it inhabits the simple mythic world of sexual difference in order to expose its absurd simplicity. It is negative because it takes what is conceived to be outside language and subjectivity—woman—and shows that otherness to be an effect of representation. It is, most importantly, deconstructive because it does not just repeat and parody the opposition between male and female; it also takes the affirmative step of gesturing to all those forces of desire and difference that precede all myth, meaning and representation.
Many of her stories enact a utopian promise of going beyond the human or beyond the subject for whom the world is merely so much passive material to be mastered and re-presented.
-The fairy stories of myth and tradition are presented as so many ways of inscribing a border between animal and human. Carter repeats tales of werewolves, for example, in order to show the ways in which the human self was, and is, haunted and doubled by what is not itself. The subject is neither self-authoring nor transparent. The human is a collection of features that we have perceived from inhuman life: ‘her cunt a split fig below the great globes of buttocks on which the knotted tails of the cat were about to descend’ (Carter 1979, 16); ‘I could see the dark leonine shape of his head and my nostrils caught a whiff of the opulent male scent of leather and spices that always accompanied him’ (ibid. 8); ‘his white, heavy flesh that has too much in common with the armfuls of arum lilies that filled my bedroom in great glass jars’ (ibid. 15).
Carter’s writing is composed of layers of scents, tastes, perceptions, recollections and quotations, with her characters’ bodies never being self-contained objects so much as sites of competing affects. Against all these bodies and layers of sensibility, Carter sets the absent male gaze, the point from which all sensations are organised and rendered both sexually different and meaningful. To be a subject, or to speak, is to be complicit with this objectifying gaze. There can be no pure and innocent femininity outside this structure precisely because the female body is produced as female only through this desire: He stripped me, gourmand that he was, as if he were stripping the leaves off an artichoke—but do not imagine much finesse about it; this artichoke was no particular treat for the diner nor was he yet in any greedy haste. He approached his familiar treat with a weary appetite.
And when nothing but my scarlet, palpitating core remained, I saw, in the mirror, the living image of an etching by Rops from the collection he had shown me when our engagement permitted us to be alone together …the child with her sticklike limbs, naked but for her button boots, her gloves, shielding her face with her hand as though her face were the last repository of her modesty; and the old monocled lecher who examined her, limb by limb. He in his London tailoring; she, bare as a lamb chop. Most pornographic of all confrontations. And so my purchaser unwrapped his bargain. And, as at the opera, when I had first seen my flesh in his eyes, I was aghast to feel myself stirring. (Carter 1979, 15).
– In The Bloody Chamber masculinity is described as a mask, as achieving its power only in not being seen; it is only by viewing the body as masked, as clothed, that a male subject is posited as unseen, behind all the staging. Similarly, it is only through the threat of law, prohibition and punishment, only through a violence directed against the female body, that the male subject is produced as authority. Sexual difference is not, for Carter, a topic to be treated ironically. On the contrary, the very structure of irony is itself sexual. The point of view that observes, objectifies and is other than any determined body, or the point of view of narration, voice, desire and speech, has traditionally been defined as different from the feminine. Indeed, the feminine is just what is other than, or different from, the pure gaze of subjectivity.
For this reason, Carter’s narrating female voice is not a point of view outside traditional difference. Rather, insofar as she speaks, Carter’s narrating female character is also other than her own desired body. ‘The subject’ is itself a fantasy of difference, created through narratives that differentiate desiring gaze and voice from desired and viewed body. Masculine and feminine are images or figures of a difference that is inherent to all thinking and speaking.
As de Man and Derrida have noted, to use a concept or speak is to intend or posit some being or sense that is there to be presented, and to create a subjective point of view of one who speaks. One cannot adopt a postmodern play that frees itself from metaphysical commitments, a commitment to presence. But one can look at texts to see the ways in which they constitute subject positions and points of view over and against a posited presence. Carter’s narrative shows the ways in which this structure of subject and object, presence and absence, sign and sense has a sexual imaginary. To speak is to be other than the object, and the primary imagined object— that original desired body from which all speech must detach itself—is the female body.
-There is also, however, an affirmative dimension to Carter’s irony. She does not just present the classic image of the speaking and viewing subject as masculine; she also intimates a new mode of difference. Here, the feminine would not just be that which is other than the voice of speech and representation, not just that towards which the active and objectifying gaze is directed. Carter’s writing suggests that bodies themselves have a differential power.
Bodies become human, become animal and, in ‘The Company of Wolves’, her rewriting of ‘Red Riding Hood’, animal and human bodies fall in love and live happily ever after. Difference is not just the imposed relation between male and female on otherwise equivalent bodies. The body is not a presence that is then taken up in representation; nor is it an imagined and lost presence forever desired by a self-enclosed and disembodied voice of representation. Just as Derrida insists that speech intends or posits some sense beyond the sign, and cannot therefore be reduced to a closed system of difference, so he also argues that signs create forces beyond sense and presence. Carter, similarly, not only looks at the ways in which the traditional sexual binary posits some lost presence—the female body there to be viewed—she also looks at the way the inscription of this fantasy and the bodies it represents can have a force that exceeds sense.
-Her stories are ironic repetitions of the production of the feminine as a lost absence; but she adopts this voice and then shows that it is not a simple or negated outside. The body disrupts inside and outside, male and female subject and object. Carter’s characters constantly undress to reveal an underlying animality, or a becoming-animal. The human is not some basic essence that we all share; nor is it a common ground. On the contrary, the human in Carter’s stories is achieved through performance and clothing. This allows us to add a further dimension to Carter’s irony and demythisation.
-Not only do her texts inhabit and disrupt the traditional images of male and female that have been used to differentiate object and subject, she also creates new styles of voice. If traditional speech and point of view create an ‘I’ who speaks over and against a presence that is there to be re-presented, new styles of writing would destroy the singularity of point of view. This would be postmodern, not because it set itself ‘behind’ or above all the discourses that it surveyed but did not intend. Rather, the text would destroy the position of speech and point of view, producing not a subject/object or subject/predicate logic, but a humorous play of surfaces. Carter’s stories often repeat phrases from other stories, without quotation marks or a defined speaker.
– In ‘The Bloody Chamber’ a phrase from Red Riding Hood—‘All the better to see you’— is printed as though it were the speech of the Count, but it is not in quotation marks and is typographically set off from the paragraphs that surround it. Carter uses the space of the page, the literal text, to display the voices of myth and tradition that traverse our narratives and perceptions. Carter presents these lines, not in sentences or quotations, but almost as objects dropped onto the page, without a clear attribution, voice or point of view.
-Carter uses the position of the feminine in a critical and utopian manner; if the feminine is produced as other than the male subject, then it can be repeated to gesture to what lies beyond sense and subjectivity.