Gender and Fairy Tales

A Scopophiliac Fairy Tale: Deconstructing Normative Gender in Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber”

By Caleb Sivyer, Cardiff University, UK

1In 1979, after having published two novels that set out to thoroughly debunk myths – those “extraordinary lies designed to make people unfree” (Carter, Notes 38) – Angela Carter published a collection of short stories under the title The Bloody Chamber, a set of reworked fairy tales, or “stories about fairy stories” as she puts it (Carter, Notes 38). Unlike the falsity of myth, Carter saw fairy tale and folktale (she uses the terms synonymously) as having a radical political edge. Whilst myths have to be “argued with, dismantled through the act of writing”, folklore is “a much more straightforward set of devices for making real life more exciting and is much easier to infiltrate with other kinds of consciousness” (Carter, Notes 38). This is thanks to the flexibility of the form of folk and fairy tales: transmitted orally, each new teller could modify the tale to suite the particular context in which it was told. Since tales are thus “embedded in social and material conditions” (Warner xvii), they are perfectly suited for the interrogation of the kind of issues that preoccupied Carter, such as the deconstruction of gender norms and ways of seeing.

2One dominant aspect of Carter’s oeuvre is a concern with the visual. An early scene in her novel The Magic Toyshop involves the protagonist Melanie gazing at herself in a mirror, whilst in Love the character of Annabel is described in terms of still images from expressionist films. Carter’s interest in the visual is always in relation to the myths and conventions that structure society, and how they relate to the construction of identity. Susan Sellers notes that Angela Carter views mythic images of women as ‘consolatory nonsenses’, and goes on to say that Carter “attacks this mythic inscription for dealing in what she calls ‘false universals,’ since it ignores the complexity of individuals as well as the mutability of history” (108). The stories collected in The Bloody Chamber certainly explore mythic images of women and show both their violence and attraction. They also feature many scenarios in which looking and being looked at are the central focus, along with the consequences of certain ways of inhabiting the visual world.

3In this paper I have chosen to examine the title story from this collection, arguing that “The Bloody Chamber” foregrounds the ambiguity of the visual world, revealing both the violence and the seductiveness of certain ways of seeing or being seen. It does this by showing the relationship between ways of seeing and gendered identity, examining both how subjects take up positions within the visual world and the potentially violent consequences of such positions. As noted above, Carter uses the genre of fairy tale because of its flexible structure, the most evident demonstration of this occurring at the level of narration: Carter’s female first-person narrator is able to flood a familiar fairy story with her own form of consciousness. In this way, Carter is able to retell a traditional story and explore it from her own point of view, foregrounding her interest in the politics of gender and vision. My analysis will look at two forms of vision that relate to gendered identity, examining both the pleasure and the violence of such ways of seeing, and will conclude by considering the alternatives that Carter’s short story offers to such a violent economy of vision. Throughout my analysis I draw upon influential theories of vision, such as Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of “the look,” John Berger’s dichotomy of ways of seeing, and Laura Mulvey’s notion of “the male gaze.” These ideas will be used to shed light upon Carter’s explorations of gender and the visual.

Bluebeard and The Bloody Chamber

4Before commencing my analysis, some background information about the story is useful to note. “The Bloody Chamber” is a modern re-telling of the fairy tale Bluebeard by Charles Perrault. This tale tells the story of a young woman who discovers that her newly wed husband is a violent psychopath who keeps the dead bodies of his previous wives in a secret room. She discovers this fact by entering this secret chamber, against her husband’s declared wish that she not do so. Although her husband finds out about her transgression and attempts to murder her, her two brothers arrive just in time to prevent her death. As well as coming to their sister’s rescue, the brothers also kill the husband and the tale ends felicitously by noting that the woman eventually marries a “worthy man” (Tatar 156). The two central themes of the tale are thus caution in marriage and the dangerous consequences of a too-strong desire for knowledge. But this latter theme is not gender-neutral. Instead, there is an emphasis upon the dangers of curiosity for women, which draws on traditional images and archetypes of the dangerous woman. As Maria Tatar explains, “Perrault aligns the intellectual curiosity of Bluebeard’s wife with the sexual curiosity of women in general, thus hinting that his protagonist is very much a daughter of Eve” (146). Although the tale is resolved through her being rescued by her brothers and her marriage to a “worthy man,” these two themes continue to resonate so that the tale does not simply end “happily ever after.”

5Carter’s short story takes up both of these themes but gives them a feminist twist. Firstly, the theme of caution in marriage is shown to be haunted or complicated by the privileged status of masculinity – for example, the young woman is rescued from poverty by her wealthy husband. Secondly, the theme of cautioning women about the desire for knowledge (linked to the myths of Pandora and Eve) is revealed as a fiction that supports the hegemony of male desire and the inequalities of patriarchal society. Carter brings out these ideas through the use of vision – through visual encounters and visual metaphors. The different ways in which characters see and take pleasure in seeing is the central mechanism in her short story, as I will demonstrate in my analysis.