The British writer Angela Carter got famous for her short stories and her examination of The Sadeian Woman. In her writing she often deals with sexuality and power. The story The Bloody Chamber is one of ten short stories in Angela Carter’s collection The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, which was published in 1979. In this particular story she reworks the fairy tale of Blue Beard and transforms it into a feminist retelling by combining it with results from The Sadeian Woman. With this work she wants “not simply to point out what is wrong with conventional representations of gender; she is concerned at once to offer different representations, different models” (Day 134). Thus her short stories are full of variety and different topics and take place in a Gothic atmosphere. Carter herself claimed that she followed a realism because she wanted to fulfill the desire of the people to believe the word as fact (Day 134). Therefore she uses topics which are familiar to everybody. Sexuality in a wider sense is one of the predominant ones in her stories. It shows a “sexuality that is situated beyond cultural borders and might therefore be more ‘natural’ than the conventional notions of sexual identity” (Gruss 212). However, the sexuality in The Bloody Chamber often seems strange, abhorrent and even disgusting. Thus, especially the sexuality serves to create a Gothic atmosphere by the help of different means. In the following paper I want to examine how this is done by use of three Gothic concepts: The haunting, abject and grotesque, and the uncanny.
2. The Haunting
The first central aspect of Gothic fiction in Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” is the concept of hauntings. Generally, this concept is about the past coming back to haunt the present. In many Gothic works this is done by the use of specters. But hauntings don’t have to be ghosts in the narrowest sense. They are rather projections, which can appear in various forms. Ghosts function as entities which always “provide the bridge between self and other” (Smith, Hauntings 148), between past and present (Smith, Hauntings 147). This idea of bridging is essential for all hauntings. Thus ghosts can firstly be “projections of our innermost anxieties” (Smith, Hauntings 148). Following Freud the self is always haunted by the subconscious (Smith, Hauntings 148), which means that ideas and images find their way into our minds without us realizing that. Although they occur inside us, they are outside any human control and therefore cannot be rationally understood or controlled (Smith, Hauntings 149). By reading them one can try to decode anxieties. Besides that model of subjectivity, specters often haunt a whole culture. Here they display the bridge between the past of a culture and its present. Mostly it is a covert and dark history which haunts the present. Hauntings work as a constant reminder of the unconscious and the forgotten because they cannot die or vanish (Smith, Hauntings 153). Thus ghosts and other projections are always “historical beings because they are messengers about the preoccupation of a particular age” (Smith, Hauntings153). They give us an insight into what haunts either one person or a whole culture and it is therefore necessary to read and understand them.
In feminist writing the concept of hauntings was adopted, too, and was used to describe the image of marriage. It follows the idea that women “has been depicted as ‘ghostly’, haunting in the sense that she is disembodied/disempowered through being subjected to ‘male man’” (Wallace 26). Throughout the centuries marriage presented an erasure of the female identity (Wallace 29). In the common models of marriage there was only space for one full person, because the couple was seen as ‘one flesh’ with one head. In most cases the man subsumed his wife. Thus, while the man remained the subject, the women became his object (Wallace 30). Marriage became a dead end for the ambitions and personality of the woman. Within marriage women transformed into ghosts, following their husbands like shadows. They lost their will and had to obey the order of their husband. Many women experienced “boredom and frustration with their roles” and were “haunted by a sense of wasted time” (Wallace 36). They were a subject only to their husbands and their property. John Stuart Mill even stated that there is a relation between marriage and slavery because it is “the only actual bondage known to our law” (Wallace 34). Because of that the status towards their country remained ambiguous. As property of the man they could hardly expect any protection and support from the law (Wallace 33). This understanding isn’t only haunting married women but in fact most writings of and about women (Wallace 26). Angela Carter adopts this understanding in her short story “The Bloody Chamber”, too, where it creates a Gothic atmosphere.
In The Bloody Chamber Angela Carter reworks Charles Perrault’s Blue Beard tale (Day 151). In Carter’s version a wealthy man, the marquis, marries a relatively poor woman and takes her to his castle. Short after their arrival he must leave the country because of his business. He gives her the keys to every room and tells her that she can move freely and enter and search every room except for one. But she is too curious and visits the forbidden room. There, she finds the corpses of his three former wives. Suddenly her husband returns, discovers what she did and wants to kill her, too. Fortunately her mother saves the girl in time by killing the marquis. The short story thus deals with traditional marriage and the consequences which disobedience can have. It is told from perspective of the young bride as a first person narrator. Therefore the reader gets to know her feelings. The girl believes in the old-fashioned idea of marriage and in the beginning is very proud of her “bridal triumph” (Carter 1). She is naïve and thinks that this journey from girlhood “into the unguessable country of marriage” (Carter 1) is everything that she wants for her life. Although her mother and her nurse try to convince her not to marry the marquis, she is telling herself that she does the right thing. The mother is very distrustful about the marquis and asks her daughter if she loves him. But that isn’t what matters to her when she answers: “I’m sure I want to marry him,” (Carter 2). “With a handful of coloured stones and the pelts of dead beasts” (Carter 15) the marquis buys his bride. Thus even before the wedding the girl becomes his object, his slave. After a while she realizes that and the idea of being the property of someone else troubles her. Nevertheless she sees in him her leader and doesn’t question his behavior. This is obvious in her defloration. He takes over the total control and she does what he wants from her. During the act he doesn’t take any respect for her and afterwards one realizes that she didn’t enjoy it. However, she thinks that’s due to her inexperience and not his fault. Moreover the furnishing of the bedroom contributes to her feeling of inferiority. There are mirrors everywhere and she can see “the young bride, who had become that multitude of girls” (Carter 10). This only makes her submissive: “And I longed for him. And he disgusted me,” (Carter 19). She is very indifferent about her feeling towards the marquis. Even when she is angry at his departure, she knows that she must be subordinate to his will. Moreover she is trapped in boredom.
“Into marriage, into exile; I sensed it, I knew it - that, henceforth, I would always be lonely. Yet that was part of the weight of the fire opal that glimmered like a gypsy’s magic ball […]. The ring, the bloody bandage of rubies […] - all had conspired to seduce me so utterly that I could not say I felt one single twinge of regret for the world of tartines and maman that now receded from me […]” (Carter 7).
This shows again that she sells herself to the man and that she knows what a classical marriage means for the woman. She is aware of the fact that she will be lonely in her boredom but thinks that it’s just a natural feature of marriage. It is also her boredom and her curiosity which make her disobey her husband’s rules. She realizes that this disobedience is “sufficient reason for him to punish [her]” (Carter 38). She doesn’t even really try to escape the situation because she knows that she is his property. As his property she doesn’t have to expect any help from the law or other people. He is the wealthiest man in France and everybody would rather believe him than her.
“Once at the village, I would fling myself directly on the mercy of the gendarmerie. But - could I trust them either? […] Who, on this coast, would believe the white- faced girl from Paris, who came running to them with a shuddering tale of blood, of fear, of the ogre murmuring in the shadows? Or, rather, they would immediately know it to be true. But were all honour-bound to let me carry it no further.” (Carter 29)
She is totally trapped in the believe that she can’t do anything about her situation. Only the marquis has the right to decide over her life and death. It is not his actual power but the power she gives him because “she was truly blind to her own desires when she took [his] ring” (Carter 39).
Summarizing, the concept of the haunting image of marriage is really strong in “The Bloody Chamber”. I think that it isn’t scary to see how badly the husband behaves, but how the girl subordinates. In our enlightened minds it is hard to understand how a woman can capitulate that easily. Although she may take some halfhearted attempt to escape her death, she quickly surrenders. In the end it is coincidence that her mother arrives in time to save her soul.
3. Abject and Grotesque
The concepts of the abject and grotesque are closely connected in Gothic theory but nevertheless don’t represent the same thing. Both are concerned with otherness but in a slightly different sense. In the OED the word abject means despicable, of low status, degraded, downtrodden etc. This doesn’t really explain the understanding which I will be concerned with. Julia Kristeva includes in her book Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection a good presentation of her perception of abjection. It is mainly about thingness and materiality which is important for Gothic horror (Hurley 138). It is “what does not respect borders, positions, rules” (Kristeva 4). “The body’s secretions and excretions are abject, breaching the boundary between the (seemingly self-contained) body and the external world” (Hurley 138). Thus it is for example blood, flesh, saliva, sperm and wounds which are considered abject. Moreover things which “trouble a culture’s conceptual categories” (Hurley 139) are abject because they are outside the understanding and at a “place where meaning collapses” (Hurley 139). We try to repress these unwanted things because they remind us of “our origin and fate - birth and death, the wet bloody suchness of material existence” (Hurley 144). It brings us back to a point where we are nothing but animals. We put effort in it to remain a thinking subject and thus are scared of abjection (Hurley 144). Although the abject might be horrifying, it is always combined with fascination. “One cannot bear to look upon it, but cannot bring oneself to look away from it either” (Hurley 138). More examples for the abject are sexual shift, identity changing and other metamorphoses (Hurley 139). Additionally situations in which we are confronted with “states where man strays on territories of animal” (Kristeva 12) are regarded abject. I would argue that sexual interaction is abject, too, because it combines the most typical animalistic behaviors: sex and violence. Furthermore the abject is marked by dynamism. It comes unwelcomed, surprisingly and fast (Hurley 144). This connects it to sex, too, as I will examine later.
The word grotesque was originally used to describe a kind of decorative art and architecture with monstrous and bizarre ornamentation (Cornell 175). It was seen as “violating both classical aesthetic norms and the laws of nature” (Hurley 140). It is, like the abject, about thingness and can be seen as a deformation of real life (Cornell 175). Thus Cornell states that grotesque bodies often even seem like caricatures. Bodily features are exaggerated and look differently (Cornell 175). The OED explains the meaning of the word grotesque in a similar way: characterized by distortion or unnatural combinations, fantastically extravagant, bizarre, absurd and ludicrous. On the grotesque body the stress lies rather on the lower regions and extremities as on the upper regions (Hurley 140). Although grotesque figures, like e.g. the gargoyle, are daunting, there is again a certain fascination in it. We feel a curiosity which is pulling us towards it, although we fear it at the same time.
Both, abject and grotesque, refer to thingness and materiality. Although they are different they are closely connected. In Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber both concepts are used, too. In the story of the young girl marrying the wealthy marquis, sex plays an important role. The bride is naïve but nevertheless the whole time aware of her bridal duties. One part of the wedding is the wedding night with the defloration of the virginal bride. She is looking forward to it and her “skin crisped at his touch” (Carter 5). She knows what’s awaiting her in his castle but when it comes closer, she gets afraid. After he showed her the bedroom, he starts to strip her naked. During that she is disgusted with him.
And yet, you see, I guessed it might be so - that we should have a formal disrobing of the bride, a ritual from the brothel. […] 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. […] 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” (Carter 11).
In this situation she realizes that she must do what he wants and that she will never say aloud
what she thinks. As in the previous chapter already said, she is captured in her believes of marriage and takes the marquis as her possessor. He, as the man and thus the head, knows better what should be done and how it should be done. The girl is his fourth wife and she expects him to know how to handle women. Nevertheless she is surprised how animal like he behaves in the bedroom. She probably has a totally different picture of sex in her mind when “[her] mother, with all the precision of her eccentricity, had told [her] what it was that lovers did” (Carter 13).