Of Virginity and Violence: The Bloody Chamber as Moral Pornography
By Henrike Scholz
Certain qualities of classical fairytales and myths beg for feminist adaptations. The blatant misogyny and unapologetic reinforcement of patriarchal values they display has prompted a host of contemporized re-imaginations such as those of The Bloody Chamber. Carter’s interpretations specifically shift the focus of the original fairytales away from the male heroic figures and towards female heroines, while simultaneously complicating the construct of the heroic model itself. One theme that is especially foregrounded is female desire and sexuality. The anthology catalyzed a considerable amount of controversy. Patricia Duncker, in her essay titled Re-imagining the Fairy Tales: Angela Carter’s Bloody Chambers, argues that “Carter is rewriting the tales within the strait-jacket of their original (patriarchal) structures” (6). She criticizes Carter’s failure to alter the “deeply sexist psychology of the erotic” (6). The explicitly violent and pornographic nature of Carter’s writing has also been accused of merely re-producing and amplifying the patriarchal binary of the victim and the oppressor (Kappeler, 133). Yet despite these criticisms, an unmistakable feminist agenda can be found underlying the works of The Bloody Chamber. Carter combines the fairy tale, that most basic and innocent form of moral education, with pornography; material that also occupies the realm of fantasy, but for the antithetical purpose of eliciting erotic excitement. In doing so, she challenges the lessons about identity, gender and sexuality disseminated through both genres.
“Looking-glass upon the wall, who is fairest of us all?” (Grimm, 214). This simple, catchy quote bears the weight of patriarchal values: beauty as woman’s main asset; competition as the only sanctioned relation between women. Fairy tales, described for one as “the primary information of the culture” (Dworkin, 34) or, more sinisterly, “educational propaganda for children” (Duncker, 5), have been the recipients of much feminist criticism. In her novel Woman Hating, Andrea Dworkin explains the inherent sexism and misogyny that exists in the roles, interactions and values taught through fairy tales. Through her interpretations of well-known stories in The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter exposes these patriarchal structures and makes a parody of them. The majority of the female characters in The Bloody Chamber begin their tales in states of purity, innocence and virginity. The heroine in ‘The Company of Wolves’, for example, is immediately introduced to readers through the description that “she stands and moves within the invisible pentacle of her own virginity. She is an unbroken egg; she is a sealed vessel” (113/4). This state of virginity is what seems to entice the male characters in the stories; the ‘pure’ nature of Carter’s female heroines establishes them as objects of obsession. This mirrors Andrea Dworkin’s explanation of the role of the princess or damsel in a fairy tale, whom she categorizes as “the beauteous lump of ultimate good” (42). They are “objects of romantic adoration”, yet “do nothing to warrant” it (42).
The virginal quality is also portrayed as a source of value: In ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, the narrator’s desirability lies in the fact that the Tiger demands “the sight of a young lady’s skin that no man has ever seen before” (61). In this sense, the notion of virginity stands alongside patriarchal values. The women in Carter’s tales are characterized as ‘belonging’ to their fathers, who invariably give them away to another man. This is demonstrated well in the Beauty and the Beast adaptations: Beauty is described as her father’s “girl-child, his pet” (41) in ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’; in ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, the narrator describes how “my father lost me to The Beast at cards” (51). This same father, having had to part with his daughter, laments: “I have lost my pearl, my pearl beyond price” (55); his sorrow seems to stem more from the loss of a precious possession than a living being. Carter removes any choice or independence from the female figure; she is a passive object who is defined by the desires of the male hero or villain. Carter’s women blatantly reflect patriarchal values in that they “are all characterized by passivity, beauty, innocence and victimization” (Dworkin, 42). Dworkin also argues that “the worship of virginity” has “aborted women in the development and expression of natural sexuality” (73). Carter counteracts this through the duality present in her virginal females. Carter’s portrayal of female purity and virginity frames these qualities as a weakness rather than a virtue; as something to be exploited. As the female narrator of ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ puts it: “I wished I’d rolled in the hay with every lad on my father’s farm, to disqualify myself from this humiliating bargain” (61). The innocent state is further cast as a circumstance that characters want to break free of. Carter often alludes to “the special quality of virginity … power in potentia” (97), both explicitly and implicitly presenting the “potentiality for corruption” (11) that accompanies it. The virginal female is described in such a way that hints at an unexplored, dormant sexuality: “she has inside her a magic space the entrance to which is shut tight with a plug of membrane … she does not know how to shiver” (114).
Throughout Carter’s tales, her female heroines travel from the state of innocence and virginity to a more knowledgeable place. This transformation begins on the level of the family: as the female characters depart from childhood, they also leave the safety and shelter of the family home. This also represents an escape from the patriarchal structure: in parting from their families and most importantly from their fathers, the heroines gain independence and personal freedom. Carter’s females take on characteristics that Dworkin criticizes for being absent in the conventional damsel: they begin to “think, act, initiate, confront, resist, challenge, feel, care, (and) question” (42). To emphasize this, Carter reveals the inner feelings, desires and fears of characters and establishes them as active participants in their own stories. An example is the narrator in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ who conjures up a ‘lover’ out of the blind piano tuner when she needs him: within the course of one page he transforms from “Jean Yves, our latest servant, hired but the preceding morning” (37) to “my lover” (38). Patricia Duncker condemns Carter’s representation of an “invalid” as the only possible partner in a “marriage of equality for Bluebeard’s bride”, suggesting that it is not an adequate answer to the question of “the new male erotic identity” (11). Yet the piano tuner’s blindness can also be interpreted not as proof of his ‘invalidity’, but rather as a characteristic that emphasizes the fact that his affection has been earned by the narrator’s actions rather than her physical beauty. Differently from the Marquis himself, his romantic adoration arises only after and arguably through the narrator’s fulfillment of an active role in her own tale. Specifically, it is her gift of music that attracts him: “I thought I’d never heard such a touch” (32). Carter bestows power and choice upon the female character and emancipates her from the fairytale archetype of the damsel: she is no longer her “father’s daughter” (65).
This emancipation also occurs on the level of sexuality. In the original fairytales that the works of The Bloody Chamber are based on, the desire of female characters is completely ignored. The concept of love is always imposed by the male hero and straightforwardly, unquestioningly reciprocated. This is far from the case for Carter’s female ‘damsels’. The concept of the virginal female and her dormant sexuality, for one, is accompanied by a sense of anticipation, described as “a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement” (7). Carter makes up for the lack of passion and desire exhibited by the conventional fairytale damsel through her use of very sensuous and evocative language, most prominently in the anthology’s title story. Phrases like “my satin nightdress … teasingly caressed me, egregious, insinuating, nudging”, (8) support the concept of the dormant sexuality and allude to a world that has yet to be explored by the heroines. This sense of anticipation mounts into a ‘turning point’ that is featured in many of the stories: a point at which the heroine decides to finally leave her state of innocence. In ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ this watershed moment can be found when the narrator “showed (the Tiger’s) grave silence (her) white skin” (64); in ‘The Company of Wolves’ when the main character “freely gave the kiss she owed” the Wolf (118). Important here is the choice that Carter’s females have in taking charge of their own sexualities and desires. Dworkin states that the fairytale damsel “is desirable because she is beautiful, passive and victimized” (48). In The Bloody Chamber, Carter’s female is removed from all of these characterizations; yet she is still desirable and, more importantly, able to desire.
Carter draws attention the lack of feminine desire in traditional fairytales by making it the focus of her interpretations, but the manner in which she does this is so explicit and profane that her writing borders on the pornographic. Violence is also an essential factor in this exploration of sexuality. This violent aspect is invariably introduced by the male villain in Carter’s stories. They are often portrayed in a monstrous and vicious manner, not only in their physical appearances (i.e. the Beast, the Wolf) but also their characterization; of “the sheer carnal avarice” (11) of the Marquis’ gaze and the feeling of the Erl-King’s “sharp teeth in the subaqueous depths of (his) kisses” (88). Violent imagery appears constantly in relation to sex. In ‘The Erl-King’, the narrator describes how “you sink your teeth into my throat and make me scream” (88); in ‘The Bloody Chamber’, the loss of virginity is recounted as “a dozen husbands impaled a dozen brides” (17). As Carter’s heroines are emancipated from their limitations within the patriarchy, they also gradually grow out of their positions as the oppressed. Rather than remain passive victims, they appropriate the violence and monstrosity that is wielded against them by the male villains. In ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, instead of the Tiger shedding his bestiality to transform into a handsome Prince, the female narrator embraces his savage nature and subsumes it: “I shrugged the drops off my beautiful fur” (67). The woman in ‘The Erl-King’ describes how “she will carve off his great mane with the knife he uses to skin the rabbits” (91). Through this role reversal of the oppressor and the oppressed; of the male and the female, Carter challenges what Dworkin describes to be the ultimate moral of the traditional fairy tale: that “men and women are different, absolute opposites. (…) She could never do what he does at all, let alone better” (47).
Susanne Kappeler, in her novel The Pornography of Representation, condemns the fact that Carter “lapses into the fallacy of equal opportunities” (133) and fails to change the patriarchal binary option “to suffer and cause suffering” (144). She suggests that Carter’s “knowledgeable libertine” merely profits from the existing patriarchal structure rather than altering it (210). Yet the theories that Carter posits in her non-fiction text The Sadeian Woman, which she wrote concurrently to The Bloody Chamber, give a clue to her motivations for embellishing her fairytale interpretations with a pornographic and violent element. The Bloody Chamber broaches the subject of erotic violence, “the area in which censorship operates most defensibly” according to Carter. This occurs because it “reveals too clearly that violence has always been the method by which institutions (and men) demonstrate their superiority”. It makes all too apparent the violence and (sexual) abuse, as well as the “psychological mutilations performed in the name of love”, that “take place in a privacy beyond the reach of official censorship” (“Sadeian Woman”:22/3). In The Bloody Chamber, Carter explores erotic violence and abuse in depth, confronting a reader with the reality of it. She does not necessarily condemn this phenomenon, either, which makes her the recipient of Susanne Kappeler’s criticism. Instead, what Carter seems to offer a reader is “the key to a peaceable kingdom in which his appetite need not be my extinction”, which is what the narrator in ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ imagines herself to be (“Bloody Chamber”:67). She posits the idea of erotic violence in the service of pleasure, rather than for the demonstration of superiority.
In The Sadeian Woman, Carter proposes the idea of the ‘moral pornographer’. He is one who “might use pornography as a critique of current relations between sexes. His business would be the total demystification of the flesh and the subsequent revelation, through the infinite modulations of the sexual act, of the real relations of man and his kind” (19). In The Bloody Chamber, Carter approaches the taboo and unspoken topics of sex and desire in all of its ‘infinite modulations’, facilitating a demystification and expansion of the notion of sexuality. She also argues that the more “pornographic writing acquires the techniques of real literature, of real art”, the more it can reach and affect a reader (“Sadeian Woman”:19). The Bloody Chamber represents an effort on Carter’s behalf to see the realization of this statement. She combines explicit and pornographic writing with language that is poetic and artful, as is demonstrated by the following quote:
And there lay the grand, hereditary matrimonial bed, itself the size, almost, of my little room at home, with the gargoyles carved on its surfaces of ebony, vermilion lacquer, gold leaf; and its white gauze curtains, billowing in the sea breeze. (“Bloody Chamber”: 14)
As she moves her explicit and pornographic writing into the realm of ‘real literature’, Carter also forces her reader to realize that the questions her writing raises are not confined to fantasy but rather comment upon “real relations in the real world” (“Sadeian Woman”:19).
Carter employs pornographic writing to address and lay bare the real and unjust relations between men and women in society. To do so, she uses and alters the most basic form of education through which the roles and values associated with gender are taught to society: the fairy tale. Throughout this process, Carter is able to expose and criticize many of the patriarchal constructs that are ingrained in society: the idea of passivity as being “the good woman’s most winning quality” (Dworkin, 42), for example, or the sanctioned victimization of women. Through The Bloody Chamber, virginity is portrayed as sexuality lying dormant rather than a source of virtue, and female emancipation is celebrated. So, despite Duncker and Kappeler’s criticisms, there is no doubt about the fact that Carter remolds patriarchal social structures with a feminist agenda. The author embraces the shadows to which female sexuality and erotic violence have been relegated and in doing so allows her reader “to obtain a fresh perception on the world and, in some sense, transform it” (“Sadeian Woman”:17).
Carter, Angela. The Bloody Chamber, and other stories. New York: Penguin, 1993. Print.
Carter, Angela. The Sadeian Woman: and the ideology of pornography. New York: Pantheon, 1978. Print.
Duncker, Patricia. “Re-imagining the Fairy Tales: Angela Carter’s Bloody Chambers” Literature and History, 10.1 (1984): 3-14. Periodicals Archive Online. Web.
Dworkin, Andrea. Woman Hating. New York: Penguin Books, 1974. Print.
Grimm, The Brothers. Household Stories. New York: Dover Publications, 1963. Print.
Kappeler, Susanne. The pornography of representation. Cambridge: Polity press, 1994. Print.