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Bodies that bleed

Anna Pasolini


Texte intégral

I desire, therefore I exist.
(A. Carter, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, 1972)

1After more than thirty years since its first publication, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979) still appeals to contemporary audiences, and a number of critical works have celebrated, criticized, analysed, contextualised and re-contextualised this astonishing and controversial collection of short stories.

2This study sets out to re-signify and develop new readings of the poetics and the politics of the collection through the notion of metamorphosis, which is at once deemed to inform Carter’s fiction with images and motifs linked to transformation, and recognised as an important aspect of her non-fictional writings. In Carter’s work change becomes indeed the kernel of reflections as well as a fundamental part of the action required to improve social relations, develop new forms of agency for women, and reduce the power imbalance between the sexes. Metamorphosis, that is, is the primary object of representation in Carter’s poetics and the main object of reflection in her politics. However, as we shall see, poetics and politics can never be really separated when dealing with Carter, therefore analysing the topic in its tangled fictional expressions also becomes an effective way of discussing its outcomes in terms of social action and engagement.

3The fairy tales collected in The Bloody Chamber are particularly significant to this extent, because they powerfully fictionalise the theoretical stances expressed in the critical essay The Sadeian Woman (which was written before, but published in the same year as The Bloody Chamber, 1959) and because they introduce experiments with metamorphic themes, which will be expanded upon in Carter’s following work. More specifically, in The Bloody Chamber Carter exploits the notion of – and the figurations related to – metamorphosis to fashion a new idea of change as denial of any stereotypically stable meanings. In so doing, she also moves away from contemporary feminist assumptions about a new myth of femininity, which seemed to seek the same stability and universality of the patriarchal ideal defined in negative terms – as other to the masculine, as something that lacks what its opposite stands for. Starting from their representation in The Bloody Chamber, metamorphosis and transformations become the tools for women to build a new myth of femininity, which is grounded first and foremost in the body and celebrates flux and instability, moving forward/towards rather than achieving a definite identity profile, advocates uniqueness, independence and agency for each woman – and man – through emphasising and empowering the potential of unbridled desire in any form. Last, but not least, in her powerful use of metamorphic images and textual strategies Carter can be said to forerun the idea of gender performativity (Butler 1990).

4Metamorphosis becomes the key concept through which reflections on desire, sexuality, identity, role positions, power-knowledge relations, storytelling and the materialization of the body are developed by Carter – and can be revitalised and re-signified while investigating her texts. It can be considered as a guiding principle for the analysis of the collection as a whole because it pervades the content and meanings of the tales, is a metaphor for alternative developments of female identity, and informs their structure and representation. As the heroines’ bodies and identities experience physical, social or psychological change, the borders between the genres are blurred and generic narrative conventions are bent and rearranged, change itself becomes the cornerstone of the texts both in terms of content and of style. The transformations devised by Carter address first and foremost the need to rethink human experience altogether, especially as regards – heterosexual – relationships and power distribution between the sexes. They call attention to the fact that from the second half of the Twentieth century, ongoing transformation has become an essential dimension of human life, a process which characterises people’s everyday lives, their identities, but above all their bodies (which undergo a series of transformations through time as a result of biological evolution, and of psychological and relational changes, unavoidably leaving some – readable and mappable – traces).

5When Carter writes The Bloody Chamber, it is the end of the Seventies, a time when the slow but progressive empowerment of women’s conditions and positions within society seemed to have emphasised the old urge to keep their bodies and the free expression of sexual desire under control. New, subtle devices refashioned those myths and ideals that virtually grant identification and recognition to women, but actually are cunningly subservient to a subordinating logic, often disguised behind the impression of being a free and/or empowering choice. Carter exploits the powerful potential of metamorphosis – as a concept, a topic, a structuring and guiding principle, and as a proposed model – in order to expose, challenge, design strategies of resistance to, and eventually overthrow, such myths and discourses.

6From a generic point of view, the traditional structures and purposes of fairy tales, that is representing the resolution of a conflict, teaching how to move away from that which disturbs harmony and (re-) establishing a final equilibrium which mirrors stable, desirable and normalized social norms, are replaced by Carter with the very idea of embracing and performing – never-ending – change. Restyling generic conventions in turn influences the experiences of the characters, that is the identity journeys they are allowed to set out on and their aftermaths, because narrativisation is what enables them to be signified, made sense of and accounted for through language. In this respect, the tales seem to suggest that only through a continuous effort of analysing, understanding, and then questioning and changing their social definitions and locations, and most importantly by devising creative narratives to account for them, can women be active masters of their destiny. The body is the site where change becomes visible, so it can be considered both the surface of inscription of the transformations portrayed on a textual level and conceptualised in terms of identity politics, and the means through which change can actually be performed. Carter’s literary work turns the body into «writing», that is marks it with the signs which narrativise identity by inscribing it onto and making it readable from the body surface itself (see Brooks 1993).

7Ultimately, the purpose of this study is an analysis of the different kinds of metamorphosis represented in The Bloody Chamber, which endeavours to expose without attempting to resolve the tensions and contradictions characterising either the individual tales or the collection as a whole. Contradictions, flux, and polysemy are praised as keywords to understand the subversive potential of Carter’s fairy tales, in which change, malleability and instability of meanings and identity make their reinterpretations and re-appropriations after almost forty years not simply possible, but still productive.


8The first section, “Sexual-textual politics”, sets the framework of the analysis in terms of generic conventions and gender politics, that is the first two dimensions of metamorphosis that are investigated in Carter’s fairy tales. In this first part, the central topics in the poetics and sexual politics of The Bloody Chamber are identified and a selection of critical approaches to the analysis of the stories are put forward, which hinge on transformative images to advocate for a renewed understanding and practice of women’s identity construction and of the relationships between the sexes.

9Part two “Staging metamorphosing bodies to re-signify the body” explores the ways in which metamorphosis is made visible and physically enacted, or better, enfleshed, in the fairy tales. The weight of female metamorphosing bodies and the potential of change they embody is of paramount importance in Carter’s stories, for it symbolically draws on the disrupting representation of female sexualities and identities and materialises the creative use and blend of generic conventions. Although the representation of hybrid, subversive, grotesque and transforming bodies has been extensively investigated in Carter’s novels, surprisingly enough the topic has not been examined in depth in her fairy tales, where attention has mainly been drawn to issues as the development of female identities and sexualities or unconventional economies of desire without focusing on how they are actualised and given shape on the bodies. In trying to fill this gap, I turn to the theoretical work of feminist philosophers such as Grosz (1995), Butler (1993, 1999) and Braidotti (2002) who, like Carter, understood the body as a porous surface, a site of power struggles and a cultural construct always historically and contextually signified, and at the same time as the locus where change is enacted and the transformation of the existing – oppressive – order is made possible.

  • 1   This research exclusively deals with the fairy tales collected in The Bloody Chamber for a number (...)

10The bodies represented by Carter are lived bodies, signified in the process of changing, of being appropriated by woman in her own ways, inscribed with new, but always provisional meanings, to emphasise, once more, that change and transformation themselves are not only fundamental dimensions of life, but also – and most importantly – the features that women must embrace and master in order to finally enjoy new forms of agency and empowerment1.


1   This research exclusively deals with the fairy tales collected in The Bloody Chamber for a number of reasons. Even though some later tales by Carter deal with similar topics –most notably metamorphosis – or share the same narrative strategies, the choice of focusing primarily on The Bloody Chamber is due to the analytical angle and critical tools opted for, which draw on The Sadeian Woman as well as the work of some contemporary feminist scholars. The need to select and narrow the scope of the investigation, then, also led to the choice of excluding other related themes such as motherhood, as well as the work of some contemporary feminist authors who write (and re-write) fairy tales with a political agenda. Needless to say, all these ideas could be developed in future research.


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