20 May 2013

Analysis of The Bloody Chamber: 'A Bloody and Frightening Tale', Angela Carter and the Gothic for the AQA A2 Lit B Exam

“A bloody and frightening tale.” To what extent is this a valid description of the story ‘The Bloody Chamber’?

This plan considers the key words in the question in order: 'bloody', 'frightening', and finally, alternative interpretations.

Evidence in favour of the description: 'bloody':

[1] The title 'Bloody Chamber' contains 'bloody', but can be interpreted in two ways: either as a murderous chamber - which we find in the story, or as a pun meant to refer to the womb, suggesting this will be a story about the female condition as victim of male violence as in the 'Bluebeard' story collected by Perrault. Here, a new bride unlocks the forbidden room in her husband's castle to find the murdered corpses of his former wives. Simpson writes: 'Perrault draws the moral that female curiosity leads to retribution'.

[2] The male protagonist is a serial killer inspired by Bluebeard, and recalls the Marquis de Sade, with whose works Carter was preoccupied. De Sade lends his name to sadism – a love of violence to others. If you start googling him on a school computer you will soon receive an unsupportive visit from tech support.
Angela Carter on de Sade:
'To be the object of desire is to be defined in the passive case. To exist in the passive case is to die in the passive case - that is, to be killed. That is the moral of the fairytale about the perfect woman.'

[3] The Marquis is the archetypal gothic villain: bestial at times, looking to ‘devour’ his prey
Blood imagery appears from the start: the fashion of wearing red ribbons in the 'Terror'. The Marquis gives the heroine a ruby choker to wear - like an 'extraordinarily precious slit throat', suggesting she enjoys the violence implied

[4] The forbidden key is stained with blood, and leaves a bloody mark on the narrator’s forehead as a reminder of what she has witnessed

[5] The scene in the dungeon is particularly bloody – notably the iron maiden

[6] The use of the colour red evokes blood in a series of images: from the red chairs in the opera house; where the crowd at the opera house part 'like the red sea'; his lips are 'red and naked'; the bed has 'vermillion lacquer'; after sex, the sheets in the marriage bed are stained with blood as if he ahs eaten her innocence; the rugs on the floor of the library are the same shade as 'heart’s dearest blood'

[7] The paintings on the walls of the Marquis' castle are bloody and violent: the Rape of the Sabine women; the martyrdom of St Cecelia

[8] Sex is described as the marquis impaling the narrator, foreshadowing the violence to come

Evidence in favour of the description: 'frightening':
The tale is full of other gothic elements designed to elicit fear and create terror in reader, such as:

[1] The remoteness of the setting creates a sense of the vulnerability and isolation of the female narrator. In her introduction to The Bloody Chamber, Simpson writes there is 'more than a nod to Sade's cannibal Minski and his lake-surrounded castle with its torture chamber and captive virgins.'

[2] Trope of innocent girl under threat from evil man

[3] The Marquis is reminiscent of beasts in fairy tales. The descriptions of him make the story appear he is tracking down his prey.

[4] The Marquis is made more frightening by his family history: they are generations of murderers – possibly a sense of the 
vampiric about him – note the choker bites her neck

[5] Suspense and tension are developed by Marquis’ perversions: predilection for violent pornography suggest he is dangerous

[6] Descriptions of journey into the bloody chamber is tense and frightening: she is ‘transgressing’ and the stakes are high

[7] The realisation he has murdered his ex wives creates fear in the reader as the narrator appears doomed

[8] The race against time before the narrator is beheaded is frightening
Some might argue that for all the gothic elements of the supernatural and horrifying, the tale is not frightening as the first person narrator means we know she escapes – are they right?

But is it more than this?

It is a feminist tale, which explores the presentation of women in literature and also their position in society
The bloody chamber itself can be interpreted as the womb: it gives birth to something new.
Suggests women are forced into submissive role of victim, a role they often accept: the Marquis chooses the narrator because of her innocence.
Suggests women need to be more assertive or they will be devoured (Atwood).
Presents a woman as capable of changing her destiny: the narrator does not end up like the other wives despite the Marquis’ best efforts.
Also presents a strong woman taking a more active role and saving the day.
The tale can be seen a female instinct defeating male cunning.
Traditional ending is altered to have mother not brothers being the saviour figure.
Male ‘hero’ role is passive – piano tuner offers support but can do nothing more.
Story explores the concept of the male gaze and its dangers: narrator becomes what she thinks she should be – a role defined by men.
Symbolically, her lover is blind: he cannot define her by how she looks.
The story also looks at how women were viewed in 1900: the traditional Victorian submissive wife is contrasted with the suffragette mother who society views as wild.
The marquis is armed with an old weapon and the mother with a new one, linking man to old phallocentric ways.
This is reinforced by Marquis association with medieval methods of torture.
The tale questions whether anything has changed with 2nd wave feminism.
Marriage is seen as little more than legalised prostitution – a role the narrator accepts.
The mirrors in the bedroom suggest the couple are not unique: they represent many such men and women.
The seductiveness of traditional gender roles is also explored in the erotic nature of the language: some have even criticised the tale for being too seductive to challenge gender stereotypes.

And

Some see the story as one in which the narrator moves from innocence to experience: her journey is a metaphorical one as well as literal one to the castle – the mark on her forehead is seen by some as a third eye of experience (Topping).
It is a coming of age tale in which the girl becomes aware of the world in which she lives and moves into a ‘corrupted/experienced’  state.
The tale also touches on the notion of female sexuality: women are seen as capable of sexual desire but the tale suggests they must take control of this for themselves and not be shaped by male views of sexual roles.
The key image might also draw comparisons with Januarie and May in the Chaucer’s Merchant's Tale.
The tale looks at how seemingly innocent fairy stories contain powerful socio-political messages such as gender roles in society – the subversion of the traditional fairy tale might also be seen as frightening, too.

The political message is also strong: the ruling class are seen as powerful and above the law.
The unfairness of a society where wealth is unevenly distributed is also evident: the narrator is treated differently merely because she marries into money.
The narrator does not live in the castle at the end – she also uses her money to help others.
The tale also seeks to engage the reader through its use of intertextuality: it is not just looking to frighten but also to engage the intellect.
The manipulation of the Perrault’s story and the various references to fairy stories is in some ways a complex toying with the reader to amuse them.