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Bodies that bleed

Anna Pasolini

Part 1

1. Generic and textual metamorphosis: Carter’s postmodern experiments

Texte intégral

1.1. Sexual and textual politics between folklore and literary tradition

  • 1   Incidentally, this is also one of the many contacts which can be established between the work of (...)
  • 2   As is perhaps already clear, Carter’s non-fictional writings are influenced by the early work of (...)

1Carter’s writings have been either praised or despised in the light of her alleged feminist agenda, of her appropriation and subversion of different generic conventions in order to expose and overthrow patriarchal control over social structures, power relations and the circulation of knowledge – or, most notably, her failure to do so – of her provocative claims and her bewildering style. Even if her subversive, parodic, sometimes mocking intentions are undeniable, on no account must Carter’s work be reduced to a coherent political agenda, to a supposed message she wants to communicate or to a set of meanings she wants to convey, which might be seen to inform her literary production and could therefore be used to interpret it. Rather, Carter’s fairy tales are first and foremost literary texts, and as such require an analysis which accounts for their dialogue with other literary texts belonging to the same as well as to different genres, whose goal is also that of finding out the reasons why traditionally established generic models are transformed. As to Carter’s political agenda, there certainly is one, or rather there are more, which have evolved over the years, and which she discusses in her non-fictional writings. The Sadeian Woman (1979), for instance, is a controversial essay that was published in the same year as The Bloody Chamber, and that as different critics point out (Wisker 1997; Day 1998; Sage 2007; Atwood 2007) undeniably sets forth what is represented in fictional terms in the fairy tales. «Do I situate myself politically as a writer?» (Carter 1997: 37) is the question Carter asks to herself in “Notes from the Front Line”, whose answer is unsurprisingly «Well, yes; of course» (Ibidem). Interestingly she also admits to be a feminist writer, «because I’m a feminist in everything else and one cannot compartmentalise these things in one’s life» (Ibidem). However, trying to retrace the articulation of a coherent feminist programme in her work would be useless if not forcing the point. What one can find throughout Carter’s writings is a deep commitment to materialism and historicism, which for her means being aware of one’s sexual and socio-cultural position and overtly exposing it as the standpoint from which one speaks. Therefore, far from being attached to a set of feminist worldviews in particular, what Carter is interested in is questioning her «reality as a woman», trying to investigate and disclose the processes through which the «social fictions that regulate our lives», first of all that of femininity, are created «by means outside [our] control». This goes hand in hand with historicism, which is a fundamental dimension of Carter’s politics both under an individual and a collective perspective. According to Carter, indeed, individual political consciousness and attitudes are forged by one’s own experiences, first and foremost by the «practice» of sexuality (Carter 1997: 39). These attitudes, nevertheless, are produced as well as represented by and enacted in social, collective practices, which fashion «what constitutes material reality» (38). Most notably, understanding sexuality as a historicised act, or series of acts, implies that it is subject to change over time, that it is an inherently transformative performance, whose core feature is instability and whose nature entails negotiation over multiple additional meanings1. When discussing the process though which patriarchal social arrangements ended up stabilising and naturalising female role positions in the Western world, Carter asserts «Our flesh arrives to us out of history» (Carter 1979b: 9), implying that women’s subject positions in specific epochs depend on the power relations which characterize those historical moments, on the tension between the normative and creative aspects of power, on the space which is left for rebellion or subversion, and thus on the agency – and the transformative potential – which is accorded to the unprivileged. Her statement reveals that it is necessary to be aware of the ways in which power imbalances and their underlying sexual politics constrain and control people by normalizing and naturalizing appropriate behaviours – or conversely blame, punish and isolate disturbing ones – and at the same time suggests that change is possible, as history is made and written by people (3)2.

2From Carter’s point of view, as it surfaces from a close reading of the fairy tales collected in The Bloody Chamber, the very possibility of change lays precisely in the emphasis on the situatedness of the characters as well as of the writer: «you write from your own history […] you have to bear it in mind when you are writing, you have to keep on defining the ground on which you’re standing, because you are in fact setting yourself up in opposition to the generality» (Haffenden 1985: 93). In other words, being aware of one’s own position within the network of relationships founded on a patriarchal, oppressive model, of the historical and material position which shaped and continues to shape one’s own existence is a precondition to be able to describe it, and subsequently to change it. Rather than imparting truths, or conveying stabilised meanings, Carter’s purpose in writing fiction is helping explain experience and «making the world comprehensible» (79), in order to present and represent ways to improve or radically reshape it. It follows that the fairy tales do not predicate how ideal role positions for women and performances of femininity should be, but show possible alternatives to those which are already provided by representing fictional examples of transformations and by creatively transforming already existent fictional models, i. e. genres, modes, figurations. In this sense, sexual and textual politics overlap in Carter’s tales, where the turmoil represented through often disturbing, rebel, or unconventional behaviours of the heroines mirrors the way themes, motifs and narrative strategies belonging to different textual genres are mingled and intertwined.

3My analysis regards The Bloody Chamber primarily as a work of art, a text whose literary qualities must on no accounts be considered subservient to a – feminist – political agenda, strong and evident as Carter’s political commitment could appear to be. That being the case, rather than identifying the flaws and contradictions emerging from the tales, incoherence and instability are praised as resources for challenging and changing established discourses and role positions designed for women within society.

4Carter is aware that literary works cannot avoid referring to previous works, which are chained together in an intertextual web of references, thus her well-known statement about her writing being a matter of «putting new wine in old bottles» (Carter 1997: 37). However, this claim also paradoxically means that Carter wants to communicate something new and considers herself capable of doing so. That is to say, she is aware of the resources offered by intertextuality, but also of the fact that texts are not merely «about texts» – i.e. there must be a «first book» about which the other books are (Carter, Katsavos 1994: 14). In The Bloody Chamber Carter plays with fairy tale’s generic conventions, plots and narrative strategies by complying with them enough to make fairy tales recognizable as such, but at the same time she also disrupts them for political – demythologising – purposes: she transforms them. Yet, the narrative strategies she politically and intertextually resorts to and her peculiar style, besides being the vehicle for change, are also to be interpreted as evidence of an authorial voice surfacing throughout the stories, a voice which speaks from a precise historical, social and gendered perspective, just as the female protagonists-narrators of the fairy tales do.

5The insistence on Carter’s authorial voice is inscribed in the representation of metamorphosis on a political level: it promotes the possibility of actual changes in women’s agency. These changes, Carter seems to suggest, must be grounded in the material reality of women, of which they must be aware. The deconstructionist claims of the death of the subject do not seem to make sense in the case of a female writer who proclaims the need to demythologize and expose the structures of oppression and their narratives, who plays with the literary canon to expose, parody and mock its most prestigious texts. «One cannot deconstruct a subjectivity one has never been fully granted control over» (Braidotti 2002: 82); one must first be aware and take control of her subject position in order to be able to change it. In Carter’s material perspective, therefore, who speaks, where and when does matter (Alterves 1994: 18), even if, of course, the literary texts will be able to speak for themselves, to be interpreted in different ways and to signify something different to readers over time and in disparate cultural contexts.

6Closely interrelated with this topic is Carter’s stance on myths. Her pronouncement «I’m in the demythologising business», is grounded in the firm belief that «all myths are products of the human mind and reflect only aspects of material human experience». Carter interprets myths as «consolatory nonsense[s]» (Carter 1979b: 6), that is false universals where women are encouraged to find the reasons for their underprivileged position within society by identifying with mythical models, which would embody the most desirable features of femininity. According to Carter, failing to acknowledge that these supposedly universal models are in actual fact false and misleading makes women complicit in their submission, as they prefer to «dull the pain» of their condition by looking for ideal images which legitimise and to a certain extent universalise submission and voicelessness as the natural destiny for all women. Finding «emotional satisfaction» in «the myth of the redeeming purity of the virgin», in that of «the healing, reconciling mother», or even in worshipping a «mother goddess» (Ibidem) means indeed choosing the shortcut of identifying with taken for granted patriarchal discourses instead of engaging in investigating one’s own material reality in order to be able to question and to change it. Once again, then, changing the way in which one looks at reality and interprets past experience and current behaviours proves to be the core dimension of Carter’s commitment to the enterprise of making women aware of their subordination as well as their potential for improving their position. Carter’s «demythologising business», then, can be seen as a «transformative commitment», that is commitment to transforming one’s (especially women’s) understanding of social roles and relation to be able to materially transform them. The new, transformed myths offered by Carter in The Bloody Chamber are no longer to be meant in their traditional sense of stabilising abstractions, but rather as a historicised set of meanings, which are subject to – indeed must bring about– change.

7Besides their historically locatable origin and their inherently unstable character and transformative potential, all the new myths of The Bloody Chamber play intertextually with the literary as well as folkloric tradition and intratextually relate with each other thanks to the omnipresent, underlying idea of metamorphosis. Instead of emphasising the starting point or the product of the transformation, or pointing out the achievements of the protagonists who have been able to solve a problematic situation, Carter’s tales seem to associate the ongoing process of turning into something else, in whatsoever shape, with the most important outcome of their adventures. In this way the new myths offered to women become examples of a – more often than not disturbing – metamorphosis of some kind. It is worth noting that metamorphosis as it is represented by Carter does not devise role models to be embraced as sources of consolation, but on the contrary it sets up problematic examples to be put into question, since exposing the mechanisms of transformation means crossing boundaries, destabilising borderlines, unveiling the fluidity and instability of the categories and frameworks through which the world is made sense of (Walker Bynum 2001: 31).

1.2. In-between complicity and rebellion: the transformative social function of Carter’s fairy tales

  • 3   The term ‘psychosocial’ is purposely used here to highlight two intertwined fundamental features (...)

8The metamorphosis and redefinition of the fairy tale as a narrative genre which result from Carter’s re-writing of traditional fairy tales foregrounds the productive interaction between poetics and politics, textual and sexual politics in The Bloody Chamber. The metamorphosis of female identity and of gendered role positions and social relationships represented in the tales is indeed strongly connected with its textual rendition. Storytelling and identity development are mutually productive, and Carter’s transformative texts embody the changes which are taking place in the psychosocial3 development of the characters. Furthermore, the protagonists of some tales are given the opportunity of accounting for themselves by narrating their own stories, or by being the focalizers of the events in the context of a third person narration.

9Stating that Carter’s fairy tales perform a social function implies endorsing the view that the literary fairy tale is the product of an intertextual interaction between folk tales and previous literary versions. In addition, establishing a dialogue between the oral and literary tradition of the fairy story is one of the hallmarks which allows one to label the short stories collected in The Bloody Chamber ‘fairy tales’ despite the number of features which distance them from the genre.

10Jack Zipes has devoted his scholarly work to researching and advocating for the need to trace the origins of the fairy tale as a genre in the oral tradition, which the literary one has not yet ceased to refer back to and mingle with:

The literary origins of all our canonical fairy tales in the West mark the culmination of an oral tradition in history but certainly not its end. As historical culmination, the literary fairy tale regulates an oral folk tale thematically and stylistically, possesses it, passes it off and on as its own, and thus does violence to it. Therefore, it is at the intersection of the oral with the literary that we can begin to trace the cultural significance of a fairy tale. (Zipes 1993: 7)

  • 4   Besides her work being a major reference throughout my research on fairy tales, this section in p (...)

11Bacchilega4 basically agrees with Zipes’ stance when she asserts:

The ‘classic’ fairy tale is a literary appropriation of the older folk tale, an appropriation which nevertheless continues to exhibit and reproduce some folkloric features. As a ‘borderline’ or transitional genre, it bears the traces of orality, folkloric tradition, and sociocultural performance […]. And conversely, even when it claims to be folklore, the fairy tale is shaped by literary traditions with different social uses and users. (Bacchilega 1997: 3)

  • 5   The folkloric elements, indeed, had been censored by a writer whose intended audience was the Fre (...)

12The stories of The Bloody Chamber are located exactly on the threshold where the oral and the literary tradition are hinged. Deciding to write fairy tales which refer back to both the folk and the literary versions seems to be the culmination of the process started by Carter when she was translating Perrault’s fairy tales and felt the need to bring the texts back to «the simplicity and directness of the folk tale» (Carter 2008: 76)5.

13In the introduction to The Virago Book of Fairy Tales (1990) Carter endorses the folkloric origins of fairy tales while also giving a definition of the genre:

The term ‘fairy tale’ is a figure of speech and we use it loosely, to describe the great mass of infinitely various narrative that was, sometimes, passed on and disseminated through the world by word of mouth – stories without known originators that can be remade again and again by every person who tells them, the perennially refreshed entertainment of the poor. (Carter 1990: ix)

  • 6   The strong, permeable links between folk tales as fictions of the poor and their literary remould (...)

14Even though her versions owe a lot to the popular tradition, they can be unmistakably considered literary texts: «writing them down […] both preserves, and also inexorably changes, these stories» (ix-x). Besides being tailored to suit a particular audience and lose their original democracy, the literary versions are to be framed in the literary creativity of a writer who reworks their ingredients in a personal way – «This is how I make potato soup», as Carter writes of herself (Ibidem). She appropriates, plays with, disrupts and puts into question fairy tales’ depiction of relationships between men and women which sustain «fertility and continuance» (Carter 1990: xviii). Turning conventions against themselves as she always does – both on a textual and on a political level – Carter exploits the normative functions of these tales but instead of enforcing «the ties that bind people together» (Ibidem), represents ways of questioning them, and teases their sub-text «to isolate their elements for cruelly lucid contemplation» (Sage 2001: 68)6.

15Among the central concerns of the collection are power relations, represented and scrutinised by Carter by exposing their inherent instability and disrupting their naturalisation in traditional fairy tales. The protagonists’ struggles against oppressive power arrangements also emphasise that in traditional folk and fairy tales – as in actual life – striving for independence does not necessarily mean subverting established social discourses, but sometimes only leads to uphold current power structures (Bacchilega 1997: 6). As a matter of fact, even when change is realised in the tales, social relations are not necessarily altered (Zipes 2002: 28). The reason why Carter represents «the alliance» and not simply the conflict within power relations is to be found, once again, in her intention to ground her fictional writing in the materiality of human experience, where the variety of alternatives to the solution of conflicts aimed at improving one’s social conditions is rich and unpredictable. Moreover, it is rooted in her polemical criticism of traditional fairy tales sustaining patriarchal gender politics and the naturalisation of women’s subservience and passivity, which is intertextually evoked in order to be criticised and possibly overthrown.

16Carter’s fairy tales can be deemed to perform a political function first and foremost because they are a response to the urge to investigate and renegotiate power arrangements and established social discourses involving women in a specific historical moment – the second half of the Twentieth Century. The transformations Carter represents in The Bloody Chamber manage to give her stories emancipatory developments and – albeit open – endings because of the changes she introduces in their generic conventions, for

Narrative genres clearly do inscribe ideologies (though that can never fix the readings), but later re-writings that take the genre and adapt it will not necessarily encode the same ideological assumptions […] when the form is used to critique the inscribed ideology […] then the form is subtly adapted to inscribe a new set of assumptions. (Makinen 1992: 4-5)

  • 7   Notaro (1993) effectively explains the transition of the function of the genre from its literary (...)

17A pivotal aspect of the social function of Carter’s stories is also the polemical distance they take from the literary canon insofar as it hands down and purports to stabilise naturalised and disciplined behaviours, which sometimes renders the stories escapist and consolatory, therefore of no use besides questionable entertainment. This critical stance allows one to draw further connections between narrative and politics, as Carter’s narrative techniques and devices also endorse feminist criticism and promote strategies of resistance against the imposition of patriarchal ideologies – which explains why her fairy tales are so often called ‘feminist’7.

18As Carter declares: «My intention was not to do “versions” or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, “adult” fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories […] and to use it as the beginning for new stories» (Haffenden 1985: 84). In metanarrative fashion, she also describes the collection as «a book of stories about fairy stories» (Makinen 1992: 5). Of course, this is an attempt to disavow any easy labelling of her work on the part of the writer, which, however, is not unfounded. What Carter does, indeed, is twisting the original content of folk tales, remoulding their plots and structures, mocking the purposes they took on through their different literary adaptations and manipulations in history, blending them with other narrative genres and adding her personal touch to let the mix amalgamate and get a new flavour altogether. Bacchilega calls Carter’s rewritings «magic re-clothing» (1997: 51), which «involves substantive though diverse questioning of both narrative construction and assumptions about gender» (Ibidem) not only on the part of the writer, but also on that of the reader, who is «actively» engaged in «a feminist deconstruction» (Makinen 1992: 3).

19As a matter of fact, re-writing seems to suit the fairy tale particularly well, as it is «the genre par excellence of iteration (re-telling)» (Crunelle-Vanrigh 2001: 128), which accordingly welcomes the metamorphosis and distortion of its structures. The principle underlying the changes introduced by Carter in her versions does turn some of its conventions utterly upside down, as

Fairy tales are informed by closure, a movement from change to permanence. Their plots move from an initial, pernicious metamorphosis to a stable identity that must and will be reached or recaptured. Carter, however, stubbornly moves the other way round, from stability to instability, undermining the closed binary logic of fairy tale.
[…] The fairy tale moves from the margins to the center, Carter from the center to the margins. (Crunelle-Vanrigh 2001: 128-129, 139)

20In the old bottle of the generic conventions of the fairy tale, which perform social functions by being primarily concerned with power structures and struggles, Carter puts new wine, that is she explores topics and strategies of storytelling which do not normally find place in the genre. These strategies have frequently been labelled, too many times unproblematically, ‘postmodern’. If postmodernism is to be considered, following Hassan (1993) as a «theory of change» (280), a social as well as artistic phenomenon which encompasses provisional, disjunctive, even contradictory discourses, then Carter’s fairy tales fit the paradigm well enough. The analysis of her supposed allegiance to a postmodern aesthetics could then help organize – as systematizing would be too hard, and perhaps useless, a goal – the study of demythologising strategies, intertextual references and play with generic conventions in The Bloody Chamber.

21In line with Carter’s stance on historicity and her claim that her fiction is always grounded in material experience, it is possible to reconcile postmodernism with the constant changeability it entails and historicity, materialism and commitment to feminist politics through the notion of change itself (which the various levels of metamorphosis represented in The Bloody Chamber testify to).

22According to Bacchilega, «‘postmodern’ retellings» can be distinguished from other contemporary fairy tales «on the grounds of narrative strategies (doubling as both deconstructive and reconstructive mimicry) and subject representations (self-contradictory versions of the self in performance)» (1997: 140-141). «It is Carter’s focus on subjectivity as constructed in social and narrative contexts that makes hers a postmodern approach» (21), together with the enquire of borderlines performed by her fiction and her practicing «writing-as-experience-of-limits» (Hutcheon in Bacchilega 1997: 20). Furthermore, Carter’s postmodern rewriting is

twofold, seeking to expose, make visible, the fairy tale’s complicity with ‘exhausted’ narrative and gender ideologies, and, by working from the fairy tales’ multiple versions, seeking to expose, bring out, what the institutionalization of such tales for children has forgotten or left unexplored. (Bacchilega 1997: 50)

23The choice of the fairy tale model is evidence of signals Carter’s incredulity towards «metanarratives» (or «master narratives») which according to Lyotard characterises the postmodern condition and is expressed by the refusal to «posit any structures […] – such as art or myth – which […] would have been consolatory» (Hutcheon 1988: 6). These «attractive» and «illusory» «systems» are countered by Lyotard with smaller, petit récits, or particular, localised narratives (Lyotard 1993), precisely what Carter’s fairy tales do as opposed to the myths they set out to demythologise.

24‘Metanarrative’ is a term which deserves particular attention within the investigation of Carter’s postmodern narrative strategies, for it could be also understood as «narrative about narrative», as Makinen probably does when she points out that Carter’s fairy tales are in fact «stories about fairy tales». An expansion of this connotation of metanarrative can be found in the metacommentaries, which surface form a close reading of some stories within The Bloody Chamber. The most evident instance of these self-reflexive comments within the stories is perhaps to be found in one of the first paragraphs of “The Erl-King” (Kramer Linkin 1994: 312): «The woods enclose. You step between the first trees and then you are no longer in the open air; the wood swallows you up […]», which continues, after a few lines:

the woods enclose and then enclose again, like a System of Chinese boxes opening one into another; the intimate perspectives of the wood changed endlessly around the interloper, the imaginary traveller walking towards an invented distance that perpetually receded before me. It is easy to lose yourself in these woods. (Carter 1979a: 85)

25Intertextuality, seen after Barthes as a common, inevitable feature of every text, in The Bloody Chamber is a powerful narrative device, which takes on a number of embedded meanings and functions. The fairy tale as a genre is intrinsically intertextual, as it is characterised by the accumulation and intertwining of multiple «versions and inversions» (Sage 2001: 69) produced, written and handed down in different socio-historical contexts, thus taking on different meanings and implications. Like intertexts, fairy tales are «“permutation[s] of texts” in which several utterances, taken from other texts [in this particular instance, above all from previous versions of other fairy tales] intersect and neutralize one another» (Kristeva in Allen 2000: 35). In addition, not only do these texts include, appropriate and re-signify traces of other texts, they also «contain within them the ideological structures and struggles expressed in society through discourse», that is the stratification of the «cultural textuality» (36) which is the result of intertextual accumulations. Most notably, intertextuality must not be reduced to simple reference to «“sources” or “influences” stemming from what has traditionally been styled “background” or “context”», as it implies practice and productivity as well, that is the engagement in «on-going ideological struggles» over the different meanings texts never cease to take on (Ibidem).

  • 8   For example, “The Courtship of Mr Lyon” and “The Tiger’s Bride”, both of which refer to “Beauty a (...)

26Conscious of the implications of a similar stratification of overlapping but distinguishable meanings over time, which is the product of endless struggles and negotiations, Carter chooses to revise fairy tales further, fully exploiting their intertextual potential and making it even more intricate. The complexity of this postmodern hyper-reflexive operation consists in adding to the fairy tales other generic conventions in order to broaden the scope of their significations, writing fairy tales which comment on previous – oral and literary – versions of the story, and/or linking different tales within the collection in a complex intertextual web of references, whereby the tales are in dialogue with one another. The most subversive intertextual act, however, is perhaps Carter’s choice to set the stories in precise historical moments and in geographically locatable places. In this way the writer is able to comment on and criticise the sets of values and the power structures and relations of different periods, by pointing out with her fictional examples that the imposition of naturalised and disciplined behaviours and norms is merely the result of contextual – therefore provisional – discursive arrangements. Furthermore, the same impression of the temporary and circumstantial character of discursive positions is conveyed, even magnified, by the comparison of different versions of the same tale within the collection8.

27Even though an all-encompassing and exhaustive analysis of the entangled web of sources to which Carter’s fairy tales refer would be necessarily partial and beyond the scope of this work, a couple of examples are provided in order to account for the refined intertextual net cunningly woven by Carter in her metamorphosing and critical intents.

28“The Bloody Chamber”, the opening story of the collection, turns at least to two main sources: the fairy tale “Blue Beard” by Perrault – and possibly to other revisions of this motif and of that of the «forbidden chamber» (Bacchilega 1997: 121) – and the figure of Sade. The first reference is easily drawn through the plot of the tale, which basically follows Perrault’s structure but for the end, where instead of being saved by her brothers, the protagonist is rescued by her mother. Other important variations are to be found in the change of some details where the feminist politics of the text can be pinpointed, such as the female first person narrator, her speculations about her complicity in her dreadful destiny and on the nature of sexual desire, the link between curiosity and the heart-shaped bloodstain the key leaves on her forehead, the description of the heroine’s journey towards self-consciousness and the shaping of her female identity. The most outstanding disruption of readers’ expectations is to be located in the overt association between the male antagonist of Carter’s tale, whose name is eloquently enough «the Marquis», to the literary master of pornography, Sade. Consistent with this reading is the possibility of associating the young bride with Justine, the innocent masochistic victim of countless libertines, who, like the protagonist of “The Bloody Chamber” is to some extent implicated in her submission (Notaro 1993: 20). Among the most significant allusions to pornography which can be detected in the story (see Sheets 1991) is the description of the shock the protagonist experiences when she enters her husband’s library and finds books interspersed with pornographic illustrations. After setting eyes on a copy of «Huysman’s Là-bas» and on some books by Eliphas Levy, the young lady is suddenly confronted with a dreadful truth. Even though at first she does not understand the implications of titles such as «The Initiation, The Key of Mysteries, The Secret of Pandoras Box», the young bride cannot avoid to quiver when she looks at the pornographic pictures and reads their unmistakable captions

I had not bargained for this, the girl with tears hanging on her cheeks like stuck pearls, her cunt a slit fig below the great globes of her buttocks on which the knotted tails of the cat were about to descend, while a man in a black mask fingered with his free hand his prick, that curved upwards like the scimitar he held. The picture had a caption: “Reproof of curiosity”. […]
I turned the pages [of The Adventures of Eulalie at the Harem of the Grand Turk] in the anticipation of fear; the print was rusty. Here was another steel engraving: “Immolation of the Wives of the Sultan”. I knew enough for what I saw in that book to make me gasp. (Carter a 1979: 16-17)

29Besides their significance as omens of what is about to happen to the girl, these images are particularly telling because they hint at the nature of the Marquis’ sexual appetite and of the sadomasochism underlying the pleasure of his sexual encounters. Most notably, however, they also show Carter’s extreme – intentional – intertextual provocation, as similar images of violence and explicit descriptions of sexual intercourse certainly never appear in fairy tales – at least, not after they have started to be addressed to children.

30“Puss in Boots” is an interesting, playful example of intertextual references to less known, but more overtly linked with the popular tradition, literary versions of the fairy tale with the same title. Most likely, the main reference made by Carter is to the Italian tale “Cagliuso” by Gianbattista Basile, collected in Lo cunto de li cunti (The Tale of Tales [1634-36] – Roemer & Bacchilega 2001: 13). This is unquestionably a political choice, as Basile’s book incorporates, too «an eclectic range of styles and themes drawn from various traditions», and above all it is aimed at rearranging «linguistic and cultural hierarchies» through the intersection of high and low culture and by means of subversive strategies – such as having a noble man speak the Neapolitan dialect at a time when it meant being associated with «peasants, vagabonds, fools» (Ibidem). Mockery of social conventions and their subversion seem to be Carter’s purposes as well, as her tale happily ends with «the low subordinat[ing] the high in fun and challenge» (15), when the poor master succeeds in tricking the rich Signor Pantaloon and in conquering both his wife’s heart and his money. Even if Carter changes the Neapolitan setting of Basile’s story, the backdrop of “Puss in Boots” remains all the same an Italian city, Bergamo (Carter 1979a: 68). Hints at the fact that the original story resorted extensively to the Neapolitan dialect can be traced in Carter’s use of Italian words within the English text (68, 72, 77).

31The more one proceeds through the stories of The Bloody Chamber, the more intertextual references become entangled, as it is evident from the complexity of the intertextual web characterising “The Erl-King”. The sources of this tale, indeed, rather than in previous versions of fairy tales are to be recovered in the folkloric tradition as well as in the literary one. As the title-character suggests, the story is based on the figure of the Erl-King, a malevolent spirit of the forest who lures and kills unaware human beings who cross its path. Although this is a character of Northern European folkloric legends, and reference to similar old wives’ tales would be consistent with Carter’s re-writing project which also seeks to bring fairy tales back to the folk, the main reference here is most probably to Goethe’s ballad Erlköning. As Kramer Linkin (1994: 207) claims, nevertheless, Carter’s purpose is not to refer directly to Goethe’s «ballad of fathers and sons», but rather to use it to address more broadly the Romantic aesthetics of which it undeniably is a product. As a matter of fact, its narrative is «conspicuously overlaid with echoes of canonical nineteenth-century lyric poetry» (Ibidem). What Carter sets out to criticise by means of intertextual references is thus the gender politics underlying an aesthetics which represents women as invariably «encapsulated within the male, as if they can only be Blakean emanations whose separate existence in a public sphere so threatens the integrity of the male» (308). Thus, the recurrent images of cages and entrapment which permeate the story, suggested since the beginning in a halo of foreboding from the descriptions of the forest, where threats seem to be hidden in every corner: «the woods enclose […] the wood swallows you up» (Carter 1979 a: 84). The forest is a «subtle labyrinth», where women who got lost – and have lost themselves – are condemned to «hunt around hopelessly for the way out» (84-85). The same claustrophobic motif of entrapment is soon after repeated like a refrain – «the woods enclose and then enclose again» (85). In this way the reader, too, is encouraged to speculate about Romantic representations of nature and desire, sticking to which, the narrator warns, «It is easy to lose yourself in these woods» (Ibidem). Read as such, the story becomes a sort of cautionary tale, which urges readers to put into question Romantic-like male chauvinist perspectives on reality and relationships if they want to avoid being done «grievous arm» (Ibidem) by the ominous Erl-King.

32Another shade of The Bloody Chamber’s intertextuality which deserves to be investigated is the re-writing of different versions of the same fairy-tale type within the collection, i.e. “Beauty and the Beast”, of which Carter provides two versions, and “Red Riding Hood” of which the collection includes three variations (if one considers “Wolf-Alice” among them following Bacchilega’s classification –1997: 65). Although each of these tales has an internal intertextual consistency of its own, the scope of their intertextual complexity is best understood when they are read against each other. In other words, they can be «considered narrational units; however they are also sites of opening, thresholds on to other tales which themselves provide entries into others» (Roemer 2001:107). Intertextuality as a narrative choice in Carter’s work is therefore once more to be paired with transition and change, because through it different sets of values are simultaneously juxtaposed in the minds of the readers, enabling them to cross different ideological territories and to transit «to new modes of thinking» (Renfroe 2001: 95).

33The first couple of openly intertextually connected tales reworks the theme of “Beauty and the Beast”. The main common sources of these stories are to be located in the Latin tale “Cupid and Psyche”, in Perrault’s “Riquet à la Houppe” (Bacchilega 1997: 89-90) and in what is perhaps the most famous version of “Beauty and the Beast” written by Mme Leprince de Beaumont (91). Bacchilega (Ibidem) and Day (1998: 135) agree that the first of Carter’s rewritings, “The Courtship of Mr Lyon”, is «more a version or imitation» (Bacchilega 1997: 91) of Le Prince de Beaumont’s story, because it more or less upholds its plot and does not introduce revolutionary changes. Yet, as Bacchilega specifies, «Carter’s language and focalization […] complicate matters, shifting her tale towards Perrault’s ironically ambiguous “Ricky and the Tuft”» (Ibidem). Less direct flashes of intertextual links with other fairy tales can also be glimpsed, such as the description of Beauty recalling the traditional portrait of Snow White: «This lovely girl, whose skin possesses that same, inner light so you would have thought she, too, was made all of snow» (Carter 1979a: 41), or the reference to Alice in Wonderland when Beauty’s father arrives at the Beast’s house and finds «On the table, a silver tray; round the neck of the whisky decanter, a silver tag with the legend: Drink me, while the cover of the silver dish was engraved with the exhortation: Eat me, in a flowing hand» (43). Even if this is an apparently innocent and harmless version of the story, its – intertextual – disruptive potential surfaces when it is compared to the tale which follows in the collection, that could be considered its specular rewriting: “The Tiger’s Bride”, which questions and distorts everything that was considered normal and domesticated in “The Courtship of Mr Lyon”. First of all, the father-daughter relationship from an affectionate submission in impeccable patriarchal style – «Yet she stayed and smiled, because her father wanted her to do so» (Carter 1979: 45) – turns into the passionate account of a girl who is bitterly disappointed with her father because he «lost me to the Beast at cards» (51). To the silent, unquestioning submission of Mrs Lyon to-be, the future Tiger’s Bride opposes her rational, albeit emotional disappointment towards her father’s behaviour, which is definitely not absolved:

Gambling is a sickness. My father said he loved me yet he staked his daughter on a hand of cards […]. Oh, I know he thought he could not lose me; besides, back with me would come all he had lost, the unravelled fortunes of our family at one blow restored […]. You must not think my father valued me at less than a king’s ransom; but, at no more than a king’s ransom. (Carter 1979a: 54)

  • 9   At least another group of tales can be productively read intertextually: those which rework the m (...)

34Furthermore, the evident change in narrative voice and focalisation is particularly telling, as its difference is a vehicle for two divergent significations of the metamorphosis taking place in both stories. The «external, camera-like» (Bacchilega 1997: 94) distant focalisation of “The Courtship of Mr Lyon” depicts «Beauty’s transformed vision of herself [which] also transforms Beast», and whose magic «leaves its work visible» (Ibidem). Even though the bourgeois idyll of its happy ending describes the re-establishment of an «objective naturalisation» (95) of the patriarchal order: «Mr and Mrs Lyon walk in the garden; the old spaniel drowses on the grass, in a drift of fallen petals» (Carter 1979a: 51), the «work of focalization» produces a subtle criticism of «the fairy tale’s collusion with bourgeois and leisurely carnivorousness» (Bacchilega 1997: 94-95). This criticism is then made explicit and turned into subversion in “The Tiger’s Bride”, where the female first-person narrator is given the opportunity to describe her own self-development outside of any patriarchal prescribed framework9.

1.3. Postmodern demythologising business: the contradictory doubleness of historiographic metafiction

35The analysis of poetics and politics in the framework of the postmodern textual subversions performed in Carter’s fairy tales can be further investigated with reference to the relation they engage in with history, which scrutinises historicity itself. Carter’s re-writings can be interpreted as «a kind of seriously ironic parody that often enables this contradictory doubleness: the intertexts of history and fiction take on parallel status in the parodic reworking of the textual past of both the ‘world’ and literature» (Hutcheon 1988: 124). Also in this respect, then, Carter’s enterprise proves to be metamorphosing, as she re-writes well-known texts without completely fulfilling readers’ expectations in order to point to the need for such traditional narratives to be re-signified – that is to be changed through new interpretations. Only in this way, Carter seems to suggest, is it possible to describe a renewed reality where traditional roles and expectations are scrutinised and alternatives are devised, and where female agency is not only thinkable but also feasible.

  • 10   The backdrop of “The Bloody Chamber”, for example, is «the world of decadent turn-of the century (...)

36Carter’s stories show a «contradictory doubleness» because some indispensable features of the fairy tale are retained so that they can still be recognised as belonging to the genre. At the same time, nevertheless, these conventional elements are aptly and subtly subverted – sometimes in a parodic way – or mixed with typical traits of other genres. To begin with, some stories are located in a precise, or in any case easily locatable historical and geographical setting, which obviously enough is at odds with the timeless ‘neverwhere’ of fairy tales, and which has at least two important political implications. First of all, moving «the tales from the mythic timelessness of the fairy tale to specific cultural moments» (Kaiser 1994: 30) discloses the context-bound and therefore provisional character of the power structures sustained and transmitted by traditional – both folk and literary – fairy tales. In addition, and as a consequence, the social function performed by fairy tales is exploited by Carter to propose alternative discourses, which could guide the development of female identity, and free and empower female sexuality and desire through the metamorphosis of the foundations of power relations themselves. Traditional fairy tales are indeed shown to be primary vehicles for the enforcement of specific normative systems, and to represent harmless struggles for power, as they do not endeavour to challenge social structures and/or power discourses, but only to change the social status of the protagonists10.

37In this way, Carter gives examples of her theoretical statements about her demythologising business grounded in and sustained by her commitment to historicity and materialism, which is materialised through the postmodern narrative device of historiographic metafiction.

38The critical work of historiographic metafiction suits Carter’s appropriation of fairy tales on two main accounts. On the one hand, they share «theoretical self-awareness of history and fiction as human constructs» which are made «the grounds for rethinking and reworking […] the forms and contents of the past» (Hutcheon 1988: 5), that is generic conventions and the discourses they hand down. On the other hand, historiographic metafiction like Carter’s parodic criticism of patriarchy is inherently contradictory, for it «always works within conventions in order to subvert them» and «paradoxically both incorporates and challenges that which it parodies» (5, 9). Furthermore, this powerful postmodern notion discloses what Carter represents in fictional terms, that is the «meaning-making function of human constructs», among which history and narrative hold the same authority, as «both history and fiction are discourses, both constitutive systems of signification by which we make sense of the past […]. History cannot be written without ideological and institutional analysis, including analysis of the act of writing itself» (Hutcheon 1988: 88; 91). With her stories Carter challenges a common trait of historical narration and the fairy tale, which «tend to suppress grammatical reference to the discursive situation of the utterance (producer, receiver, context, intent) in their attempt to narrate past events in such a way that the events seem to narrate themselves» (92-93), even if they do so in different ways. History, indeed, derives its authoritativeness from the assumption that those facts which account for themselves have most certainly happened in the real world whereas fairy tales reach the same goal in that the events they account for are outside of plausibility, and belong to the fictional – therefore altogether unreal – realm of magic. The consequences of the de-contextualisation of the production and reception of both narratives on these grounds, however, bypass the fact that they are situated discourses imbued with political purposes and implications, which are unmasked by Carter through the description of the settings of her fairy tales. Since the writer is well aware that «both history and fiction are cultural sign systems, ideological constructions whose ideology includes their appearance of being autonomous and self-contained» (112), she decides to turn «“Events”, which have no meaning in themselves» into «facts», which are instead signified» (122). Far from leading to extreme relativism, which is the consequence of postmodernism most feared by engaged feminists, the outcome of Carter self-reflexive fiction is rather disturbance and challenge of taken-for-granted narratives, which does not mean that they are made obsolete, but rather rethought and confronted with alternative possibilities.

1.4. Who’s speaking/looking? Unreliable narrators and disruptive focalization

39The last set of issues at stake within the discussion of Carter’s postmodern narrative experiments has to do with her disruptive choices in terms of focalisation and narrative voice, and introduces other significant ramifications of the intersection between poetics and politics in her literary enterprise.

40In spite of what Carter claims in the introduction to the Virago Book of Fairy Tales – that folk tales are «anonymous and genderless» (Carter 1990: x) – implying a certain «nostalgia for anonymity, for the archaic powers of the narrator whose authority rests precisely on disclaiming individual authority» (Sage 2001: 21), textual evidence in The Bloody Chamber proves the contrary. The narrative strategies deployed in these literary fairy tales reveal in fact that Carter lets her authorial voice and the politics underlying the texts surface, first and foremost through the subversion of the typical third person account of the events, where the focalization is usually external. The use of first person narrators is all the more disruptive, as it also substitutes the types of the fairy tale with psychologically complex characters, and reaches a particularly high degree of complexity when Carter rewrites two different versions of the same story, one told in the traditional fashion and the other in the first person (for instance, “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” versus “The Tiger’s Bride”). Moreover, it is more dynamic and less stable than the typical omniscient third person narrative voice of fairy tales, even more so when doubts can be cast on the narrator’s reliability – that is to say, in all the instances, like “The Bloody Chamber” or “The Erl-King” in which the story is told by the female protagonists, we know that she wants the reader to learn her version of the events to understand and justify her actions. Last, but not least, the choice of using female first person narrators in the stories, which is strictly related to their psychological complexity, can be drawn back to Carter’s metamorphosing enterprise, whereby telling ones version of the story equals empowerment.

41Carter’s complex characters, whose personalities instead of being clear-cut or typified are multiple and problematic, often displaying features of the ‘good’ as well as the ‘bad’ woman at once are caught while describing – narrativising – the inner struggles they faced to come to terms with the contradictions of their selves. Most notably, the end of the story rarely coincides with a resolution of this conflict, thus suggesting that the most important part is the struggle itself, the journey, the process which leads to transformation. Rather than embracing the typical traits of the desirable woman or of the wicked witch, the protagonists of The Bloody Chamber usually deconstruct mythical versions of femininity and substitute them with women who are struggling, who must negotiate with their conflicting selves, who decide what is best for them despite social expectations or the threat of marginalization and exclusion. The best examples of these inner struggles accounted for in the first person are therefore the “The Bloody Chamber” and “The Tiger’s Bride”, where the protagonists spell out the conflicts they experienced when faced with the sudden inevitability of ‘becoming women’, as well as with being turned into bargaining objects in the patriarchal exchange presided over by their fathers and/or husbands. In these accounts of female maturation, the girls are confronted with a double dimension of change. First of all, they experience the inevitable changes occurring while growing up (both physically and psychologically), which necessarily alter the way in which they understand and interact with themselves and the others. Besides this obvious step, Carter’s heroines are then presented with the alternative of conforming to the ideal of the ‘passive, good woman’, which usually has negative consequences and leads to experiencing fear, violence and helplessness (as in the case of “The Bloody Chamber”), or the possibility of embracing change as an empowering dimension (as in “The Tiger’s Bride”).

  • 11   This notion is grounded in Hutcheon’s new formulation of postemodern subjectivities, which always (...)

42Not only do Carter’s fairy tales display a shift of female character’s perspective to the centre11 – that is they move from the place of the object of desire/of the hero’s quest to subject of the gaze, i.e. focalizers, or to be the narrative voice of the stories – but they also feature more complicit and traditional female characters. The transformative movements towards the centre and towards alternative perspectives do not coincide with the central, dominant ones but provide empowering alternatives to them. More to the point, when two versions of the same source-story (such as “Beauty and the Beast”) are presented with different narrators and under different points of view, changes and displacement become even easier to detect.

43Besides being disruptive as they unsettle fairy tale’s generic expectations, the stories which feature a first person narrator in The Bloody Chamber are all the more problematic either because the narrative voice is combined with peculiar or shifting focalizations – as in the cases of “The Bloody Chamber” and “The Tiger’s Bride” – or because the narrator herself is unreliable – as in “The Erl-King”.

  • 12   For a thorough analysis of narrative voices in The Bloody Chamber, see Bacchilega 1997.

44As Culler points out in the introduction to an edition of Genette’s Narrative Discourse (1990), «In what is traditionally called a first-person narrative the point of view can vary, depending on whether events are focalized through the consciousness of the narrator at the moment of narration or through his consciousness at a time in the past when the events took place» (Genette 1990: 10). The narrator of “The Bloody Chamber” belongs to the first instance, since the story is told by a woman after the facts have taken place but the actual narrator is not always the main focalizer; different points of view are offered as the gaze is alternatively that of the young girl whose story is being told or that of the grownup woman who is telling the story12. «Narrators in fiction become either disconcertingly multiple and hard to locate […] or resolutely provisional end limited – often undermining their own seeming omniscience» (Ibidem). If the latter is the case of the narrator of “The Bloody Chamber”, who is unreliable because she is far from being omniscient (she can only account for her past experience with her present, provisional and still in-process point of view), the former variant suits the narrative voice of “The Courtship of Mr Lyon”. In this story, indeed, the apparently normal third person omniscient and powerful narrator of traditional literary fairy tales actually hides a difficulty of pinpointing whose perspective is being adopted and the multiple focalization, which in fact is character-bound (Bacchilega 1997: 91).

45Carter’s self-reflexive narratives unsettle the generic conventions of the genres to which the tales refer and foreground the writer’s commitment to a feminist gender politics, thus also epitomising the outcomes of the postmodern narrative strategies deployed throughout the collection. Admittedly, resort to fragmented and unreliable narrators in The Bloody Chamber goes hand in hand with the unstable, still in-process female subjectivities they represent, whose metamorphoses can be described by analysing the political consequences of Carter’s transformative textual strategies on the subjects they portray and on the identity journeys they are accordingly allowed to set out to.


1   Incidentally, this is also one of the many contacts which can be established between the work of Carter and Judith Butler’s notion of performativity (Butler 1990, 1993). That is to say, with her emphasis on sexuality’s historicity, Carter seems to uncover performativity’s attempts to conceal its historical dimension (Butler 1993:12) and to pass as a natural, universal bodily condition.

2   As is perhaps already clear, Carter’s non-fictional writings are influenced by the early work of Michel Foucault, whom she quotes at the very beginning of The Sadeian Woman (1979b: 3) and mentions among the critical references. For more about the influence of Foucault’s work on Carter’s, see Day 1998 and Sage 2007.

3   The term ‘psychosocial’ is purposely used here to highlight two intertwined fundamental features of Carter’s characters. On the one hand, it underscores that not only is their development shaped by the relationships and discourses which rule their experiences and interactions, but they are also given psychological depth. On the other hand, their psychological characterisation and its metamorphosis emphasise Carter’s significant amendment of the generic conventions of the fairy tales. In The Bloody Chamber, indeed, the traditional types are often replaced by individuals with a rounded and constantly problematized personality.

4   Besides her work being a major reference throughout my research on fairy tales, this section in particular is indebted to Bacchilega’s insights. In addition to carrying out an apt and interesting analysis of postmodern fairy tales, Bacchilega’s critical investigation of Carter’s stories is groundbreaking also with regard to the exploration of the political implications of the writer’s narrative choices.

5   The folkloric elements, indeed, had been censored by a writer whose intended audience was the French Court of Louis XIV. Far from despising Perrault for the changes he made in moralising and mitigating the original content of folkloric versions, Carter rather shows the sharp awareness that «Each century tends to create or re-create fairy tales after its own taste» (Carter 2008: 76) and accordingly decides to show in hers what she deems to be the required changes in values and power structures – obviously after her own taste.

6   The strong, permeable links between folk tales as fictions of the poor and their literary remoulding can be easily detected through a close reading of the fairy tales collected in The Bloody Chamber, particularly those which have a clearer and traceable folk origin, such as “Little Red Riding Hood”. All the three stories explicitly referring to this folk tale contain descriptions of the rural settings and superstitions, which reproduce the atmosphere of the places where different versions of the cautionary tale were most probably told and which do not usually find place in the most famous literary adaptations.

7   Notaro (1993) effectively explains the transition of the function of the genre from its literary systematisation which took place in the Eighteenth Century, when fairy tales lost their «original purpose of clarifying social and natural phenomena but became sources of refuge and escape in that they made up for what people could not realize in society» (Zipes in Notaro 1993: 72) to contemporary feminist re-writings. Like some fellow feminist writers (such as Tanith Lee), Carter’s fairy tales criticise those literary adaptations which «perpetuate the patriarchal status quo by making female subordination seem a romantically desirable, indeed an inescapable fate» because «fairy tales are not just entertaining fantasies, but powerful transmitters of romantic myths which encourage women to internalize only aspirations deemed appropriate to our “real” sexual function within patriarchy» (Rowe in Notaro 1993: 73, 92). Most importantly, not only do the tales explicitly question the patriarchal naturalization of a convenient status quo, but they also offer alternatives, criticising «current shifts in psychic and social structures and […] point[ing] the way toward new possibilities for individual development and social interaction» (Zipes in Notaro 1993: 73).

8   For example, “The Courtship of Mr Lyon” and “The Tiger’s Bride”, both of which refer to “Beauty and the Beast”, and the three tales which intertextually rework the motif of “Red Riding Hood” in different but interconnected ways: “The Werewolf”, “The Company of Wolves” and “Wolf-Alice”.

9   At least another group of tales can be productively read intertextually: those which rework the motif of “Red Riding Hood” in three very different, but interconnected ways, which also «dialogue with the folkloric traditions and social history» of their sources (Bacchilega 1997: 59) and with mainstream literary adaptations, such as that of Perrault and of the Grimm brothers. In addition to sharing the similar wintery mountain setting crowded with obscure popular legends and superstitions, these tales are linked together by a trail of blood. Due to the significance of this web of intertextual references in the representation of the body, their implications will be discussed at length in part two.

10   The backdrop of “The Bloody Chamber”, for example, is «the world of decadent turn-of the century French culture, amongst the operas of Wagner and the fashions of Paul Poiret» (Kaiser 1994: 30). The main settings of the story are Paris, where the narrator enjoys a cheerful, public life before getting married, and the dreadful isolated castle of the Marquis – whose description reminds one of Mont Saint Michel – where the young wife is trapped in her new, unwelcomed private life. Moreover, and most importantly, through its portrayal of the socio-geographical landscape the tale explores issues of class and the protagonist’s «socio-economic motivations for entering the bloody chamber of collusion» (Bacchilega 1997: 126).

11   This notion is grounded in Hutcheon’s new formulation of postemodern subjectivities, which always draw on what they purport to subvert (as disruption always does in Carter’s fairy tales): «The decentering of our categories of thought always relies on the centres it contests for its very definition […]. The power of these new expressions is always paradoxically derived from that which they challenge» (1988: 59). It is important to note that ‘de-centering’ in this sense does not simply entail the displacement of the centre so that it can be replaced by what is marginal, but rather a questioning of both the centre and the margins «from the inside as well as from the outside, against each other» (69). Inasmuch as «the centre used to function as the pivot between binary opposites which always privileged one half», it established a language of otherness that must be transformed and replaced with a language of difference and discontinuity which breaks with the norms sustained by the discursive impositions of the privileged half. After the centre has been put into question, «if [it] is seen as a construct, a fiction, not a fixed and unchangeable reality, the old either-or begins to break down […] and the new and-also of multiplicity and difference opens up new possibilities» (62).

12   For a thorough analysis of narrative voices in The Bloody Chamber, see Bacchilega 1997.


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