[Bea’s Book Reviews] The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (1979)

the bloody chamberI am an enormous fan of fairy tales because they were a huge part of my childhood and have been a huge influence on me as a writer (yeah, I write, whodathunk?). Grimm’s fairy stories were my bread and butter in the later years of primary school and that seeped into my high school years, not to mention the works of Charles Perrault both major influences on me when I was starting to experiment with what I could and could not write, about what I liked and what I did not. What I loved about these stories is that they weren’t made to merely entertain- they served as cautionary tales, to teach you a lesson. But on the other hand back when they were first written, they were aimed more toward young girls and women- don’t be curious, don’t question what Father and Husband say and don’t believe you are any more than what you are. Viva la patriarchy.

It wasn’t until I hit university however that I was introduced to Angela Carter, who has been publically known as a ‘feminist author’. I won’t deny that I went through a huge period as a gung-ho feminist (yes, I said the dreaded ‘f’ word- feminist, feminist, feminist, feminist, FEM-IN-IST) and naturally I gravitated to how Carter re-told past fairy stories but with a modernised, pro-female and voluptuously verbose twist. Speaking for myself NOW, I consider myself more as a humanist because why should one species receive exclusive favour when ultimately we are all the same genus, which lends me a new type of appreciation for Carter’s stories. The authoress had said in the past that she did not intend for her stories to be female-exclusive, rather she wanted to focus on the prevalent themes that affect us all and conceptualise them via cautionary tales of wonder and excitement. She also wanted to challenge the perception of women’s roles in fairy tales while also in a way taking pains to keep the traditions alive. “The Bloody Chamber” is perhaps Carter’s well-known and appreciated work because of how heavily sexual it is without becoming pornographic, it’s relevance in a sociological light as well as showing that male human beings can be just as vulnerable as female ones. Although the title of the anthology shares the same name, I will be looking at the short story itself, just in the name of avoiding confusion.

“The Bloody Chamber” is Carter’s re-telling of “Bluebeard” where an unnamed woman-child is married off to a much older, intimidating and Jupiterian Count in who not only excites her but also deeply scares her. The bride’s mother is highly suspicious of the man that her child is marrying, but is unable to voice her concerns because she has nothing to base her accusations on. It’s not long before the Count reveals himself to be a sexual sadist who doesn’t hesitate to make good on his new, quivering acquisition. In return for this however she is given an exorbitantly luxurious home to live in, countless clothes to wear and her needs and wants are the priority of the staff. Fair trade, how sweet. However, despite all of this privilege, the only thing she wants more than anything else is to look inside a mysterious room that her husband has forbade her access.

Needless to say, such a tantalising prospect haunts the young bride and she tries to find a way to get into the room, while at the same time fostering a tender romance with a young musician who is blind. At last she manages to satisfy her curiosity and it is rewarded by the gruesome sight of the Count’s previous wives, his trophies, something she will be if she does not try and save herself. She tries to keep it a secret but the husband inevitably finds out about her disobedience, he flies into a frightening rage and tries to kill her, and the wife’s young musician is impotent and cannot save her. In one of the most genre-defying twists however, the girl’s saviour is not a prince, or a man, but her own mother, who unhesitatingly kills her daughter’s beast of a husband. While not to say there is absolutely no other fairy tale that has parents playing an active role in the story, you don’t often get the mother or father of a main character who breaks the last straw in order to save their child. Carter figuratively whipped out The Finger at the distinct sense of patriarchy of “Bluebeard” by making the only other male character technically redundant and doing away with the stereotypical masculine in favour of incorporating virile member of the opposite sex- the mother. When you typically think of the term ‘virile’ it’s usually an adjective to boast male sexual potency, but it may also be employed as a term that refers to the measure of strength and power a person has, male or female, and what could be more stronger than a mother protecting her child?

Much of Carter’s writing deals with the idea of the “coming of age” story and “The Bloody Chamber” is no different- you have a female protagonist who is not quite a girl yet not quite yet a woman who has been sheltered from the world at large, only to be taken by a dominant, worldly and evil force in the form of the Count where she quickly learns that not all the world is genteel and there are people out there who prey on such naiveté. The term “Bloody Chamber” more or less is in reference to the Count’s forbidden room, but if you want to get all sexual about it, it could easily be translated as a term for the passage between the vagina and the womb and also menstruation. Theoretically speaking, menstruation may be termed as a “loss of innocence”.

In the case of the protagonist, she is forced to relinquish her virginity to the Count at his leisure that it actually comes across akin to rape. As the character herself describes it, she feels that a part of her innocence has been taken from her. It’s all quite sexually psychoanalytical and Carter ain’t afraid of going there considering half of the fairy tales out there could be considered metaphors for sexual awakening or something thereto. Another poignant element to all of Carter’s stories is a glaring reprimand of the use of sexual objectification when it comes to women and how pornography in its basest form is an agent of this. At one point, the main character stumbles across some truly shocking books in the Count’s possession that depict violent and sexual congress. When the Count catches her flipping through these texts, he cruelly admonishes her by calling her a “baby” (basically regaling her to inferior status) and initiates their first, grotesque sexual encounter all to show her that she now belongs to him. She is his object and he feels he can do what he pleases with her because he sees her as his property.

What really makes the prose pop is how sumptuously all of these themes and ideas are written, Carter was an expert wordsmith who weaves a heady and intoxicating world from the page and into your mind as you read it. While reading this recently, it occurred to me it had the same spell-binding lull that the movie “Picnic At Hanging Rock” possesses, only to do a thematically 180 when the Count discovers his wife’s fatal trespass, then it becomes a thriller that doesn’t let up until the mother comes in to save the day. It is really one of the best fairy tales an intelligent reader could hope to read, and it continues to remain a stalwart in contemporary literature even now. Not only is it powerfully written, but it really stays with you- I remember first reading this story 12 years ago and the effect it had on me and it still makes me feel the same now. If you are just about sick to death of watered down fairy tales that have been sanitised in the interest of PC, go to your local library, or fire up your Kobo and give “The Bloody Chamber” a read- there is no doubt in my mind you will develop a new respect for the genre.


Review written by Bea Harper

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