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Bodies that bleed

Anna Pasolini

Part 1

2. Issues of performance, role positions and relationships in Carter’s transformative gender politics

Texte intégral

2.1. Getting ready to explore identity journeys

1As has already been remarked, power is the key to understand how the transition of metamorphosis from textual strategy to its visible materialisation on the body through gender politics works in Carter’s fairy tales. The stories sketch a definition of metamorphic female identity at least in a twofold way. First of all, subjectivity is represented as unstable, fragmented and multiple, and is caught in the act of being made through language and storytelling. This means that it is a never ending process mediated by individual – and by necessity partial – desires and drives as well as by the social interactions and relationships in which the subject is engaged (Foucault, 1998; Braidotti 2002). Secondly, the identities described by Carter are rooted in material experience and historicity, thus they invariably change according to contextual and contingent situations, therefore transformation could be considered, if any, their only foundational and stable feature. Furthermore, in order for women’s conditions in society to improve, as suggested by the portraits of Carter’s heroines, change is to be considered the chief achievement which is worth fighting for (Carter 1979b). Of course, change is not disruptive in itself, and does not necessarily entail improvement (Bacchilega 1997; Zipes 2002).

2The centrality of power in The Bloody Chamber surfaces from the description of unequal relationships where violence, aggression, polarities and imbalances are depicted both in terms of gender and of class. A similar understanding and representation of power and its consequent impact on the development of self, social and gendered identity most probably derives from Carter’s acquaintance with the work of Foucault, which she quotes at the beginning of The Sadeain Woman (1979), her theoretical manifesto on sexual politics, and may have inspired her famous contention that «Flesh comes to us out of history» (Carter 1979b: 11). In general, Carter shares Foucault’s conviction (Sage 2007: 34) that power is an omnipresent component of society and human relationships – which it constitutes through its constant circulation – that its nature is both constrictive and productive, that it is inscribed in knowledge and its transmission, and above all that sexual politics is contingent on historically determined discourses.

  • 1   If the reach of Carter’s work in terms of criticism towards patriarchy is unquestionable, it is a (...)

3The Sadeian Woman. An Exercise in Cultural History sets forth Carter’s stances on the relationships between men and women, the cultural construction and naturalisation of gender roles and performances, the disruption and depiction of empowering patterns of development for female identities. In this influential essay Carter engages in a criticism of patriarchy – which she calls «demythologising business» (1997: 38) – which turns its discourses against themselves. Through the critical and polemical examination of Sade’s work Carter reveals the centrality of the category of sex in defining identity and meanwhile dismantles the binary oppositions informing and sustaining patriarchal thought by exposing the cultural constructedness of their naturalising drives and outcomes. In so doing, the contingency of what have been traditionally considered appropriate roles, positions and behaviours for men and women, and therefore for the relationships between them, is exposed. Acknowledgement and disclosure of the discursive dynamics at work is then followed by their challenge and disruption, that is by the suggestion of alternative patterns (in theoretical terms in The Sadeian Woman) and by their representation (in fictional terms in The Bloody Chamber). In this way criticism leads to agency, and it is precisely the analysis of Carter’s strategies of resistance and empowerment for women that allow one to examine her feminist agenda and the political impact of her literary work1.

2.2 Women in process: Carter’s sexual politics from The Sadeian Woman to The Bloody Chamber

4The process through which the female protagonists of The Bloody Chamber construct their identities could be described as a transformation taking place during the transition from submission (to and within a patriarchal discursive order) to the achievement of different degrees of empowerment. These journeys caught while still in progress, nevertheless, never come to an end, as the protagonists’ struggles and negotiations with themselves and with the other – mainly male – people do not lead to everlasting happiness. Rather, their accomplishment seems to be the journey itself, the process through which they experience change, the always still-in-act itinerary of identification and subject-formation. As Manley points out with reference to the narrator of “The Bloody Chamber”, who initiates the journey of the collection and to a certain extent typifies the experiences of the other female characters: «She is a woman in process, someone who is exploring her subject position and beginning to tell her own story» (2001: 83). These private, personal journeys where young women learn how to make an account of themselves are always grounded in their material conditions, which Carter discloses and questions as a primary influence in the development of their identities.

5The gender politics set forth in The Sadeian Woman and enacted through fictional examples in some of the tales of The Bloody Chamber can be investigated in the light of some core patriarchal practices and systems whose primary purpose is to ground and stabilize the relationships between the sexes over time. More specifically, the patriarchal institutions openly addressed and contested by Carter in both texts are marriage (particularly in “The Bloody Chamber” and “Puss in Boots”), the commodification of women through bargains between fathers and husbands (in “The Courtship of Mr Lyon” and “The Tiger’s Bride”), rape and sexual violence (which are hinted at – more or less overtly – in most of the stories). These issues, besides being of paramount importance within the feminist debate of the Sixties and Seventies, are tackled by Carter in the usual fashion of presenting the reader with both alternatives: acknowledgement and understanding of patriarchal practices and elaboration of strategies of resistance, never represented as definite solutions or successful outcomes but on the contrary as processes through which the heroines struggle, make mistakes, and/or assess the extent of their success. It is important to note that in The Bloody Chamber women’s complicity with their subversion is often emphasised – as it is in The Sadeian Woman – to underline that they must first of all be aware of the part they play in sustaining their subordination.

6The transformation of patriarchal economies of desire grounded in the metamorphosis of the ways in which women can develop autonomous and empowered identities is introduced in the fairy tales by the representation of reciprocity. The identity journeys constructed in the stories, indeed, can be considered attempts to amend the experiences of Sade’s Justine and Juliette – described by Carter as the binary alternatives of female role models in the categorical opposition set by patriarchal discourse. The performances and behaviours of the Sadeian women are considered as either/or, as the only alternatives offered by a phallogocentric economy, and their limits are unveiled, criticized and deconstructed. As Carter points out, Justine is the «heroine of a Black, inverted fairy tale» (Carter 1979b: 44):

Always the object of punishment, she has committed only one crime, and that was an involuntary one; she was born a woman. […] She is a gratuitous victim. And if there is no virtue in her suffering, then there is none, it turns out, in her virtue itself; it does nobody any good, least of all herself. […] The passive virtue of a good woman, ensures she can never escape them [misfortunes] because the essence of her virtue is doing what she is told. (Carter 1979b: 44, 45, 53)

7With Justine’s example, Carter unmasks the dangers of abnegation and submissiveness in those women who identify with the socially imposed ideal of the subservient, modest, silent angel of the house. Furthermore, she deconstructs the definition of the virtue – or rather, its emptiness and lack of foundations – behind which those women hide in order to justify their otherwise pointless suffering: «The question of her virtue is itself an interesting one […] why does such an intelligent girl so persistently locate virtue in the region of her genitals?» (54). After Justine has been raped, she goes on being stubborn and amends her concept of virtue, without however unbinding it from – the denial of active – sexuality: «she concludes her virtue depends on her own reluctance» (55), because

her denial of her own sexuality, is what makes her important to herself. Her passionately held conviction that her morality is intimately connected with her genitalia makes it become so. Her honour does indeed reside in her vagina because she honestly believes it does so. (Ibidem)

8In other words, Justine has come to – most likely unconsciously – endorse the patriarchal discursive reduction of women to sexuality, from which they are allowed to redeem only through virtue. Such a notion of virtue, in turn, is itself devised by established discursive arrangements aimed at disciplining the development of female identity and at keeping the female body under control in order to master reproduction.

9Interestingly, Justine is totally sterile despite doing nothing to prevent conception, which for Carter stands for her «inability to be changed by experience» (Carter 1979b: 58). The obstinate conviction that she can preserve her virtue no matter what, which always guides and justifies her actions, to a certain extent does not make her feel responsible for her conduct. Therefore, «she is always the dupe of an experience that she never experiences as experience; her innocence invalidates experience and turns it into events, things that happen to her but do not change her» (57-58). In sum, Justine represents «the prototype of two centuries of women who find the world was not, as they have been promised, made for them and who do not have, because they have not been given, the existential tools to remake the world for themselves» (65).

10What is most relevant in the framework of this analysis, is Carter’s insistence on Justine’s inability to change, which may be the only feature she shares with her reversed mirror image: her sister Juliette. According to Carter, indeed, their lives are «in a dialectical relationship» (89).

11Contrary to Justine, Juliette epitomises the aggressive, self-made woman, who appropriates masculine traits and is thus constrained into the opposite role of the martyr Justine, namely that of the whore. In a patriarchal economy where the binary distinctions set a clear-cut opposition between the public and the private sphere, respectively – and exclusively – assigned to men and women, a woman who decides to occupy the public domain and to engage in its business-like transactions has one only asset to sell; her body: «in a world organised by contractual obligations, the whore represents the only possible type of honest woman» (65). The only way in which Juliette can be rich and free and wield power is to «enter the class» of men: «the life of Juliette proposes a method of profane mastery of the instruments of power. She is a woman who acts according to the precepts and also the practice of a man’s world» (90). As a consequence, nevertheless, not only does she obtain men’s benefits (that is wealth, power, free will), but she is also by necessity infected by the consequences of being – and needing to remain – the dominant half of the binary. Thus, she has to give up also the positive aspects of femininity in order to embrace masculinity and «cause […] suffering» (Ibidem). Even if she has succeeded in overcoming the limits of her condition, her example does not undermine patriarchal definitions of femininity, as the role reversal merely leads her «by the force of her will, [… to] become a Nietzschean superwoman, which is to say a woman who has transcended her gender but not the contradictions inherent in it» (98). What Carter suggests in order to empower women, then, is that they can construct an identity freed from patriarchal constraints only through the redefinition of the category of woman itself, and certainly not by trying to appropriate masculine attributes. Both sisters are negative ‘ideals’, or more precisely ‘types’ of woman exactly because their performances, subversive as they may seem – above all in Juliette’s case – do not undermine the binary categories which define and constrain women in traditional Western thought and practice. As Carter comments, both Justine and Juliette should be considered «type[s] of female behaviour» rather than models, and the former’s failure and misery is to be matched to the latter’s apparent triumph (90):

Justine is the thesis, Juliette the antithesis; both are without hope and neither pays any heed to a future in which might lie the possibility of a synthesis of their modes of being, neither submissive nor aggressive, capable of both thought and feeling. (Carter 1979b: 90-91)

12At this first stage, hence, Carter calls on women to be able to make a synthesis between the attributes which they have been traditionally associated with and those which would allow them to fight back and re-appropriate their voices and bodies in order to narrate their own stories in their own terms. The same synthesis, in other words, which the Sadeian heroines failed to achieve:

The Sadeian woman, then, subverts only her own socially conditioned role in the world of god, the king and the law. She does not subvert her society, except incidentally, as a storm trooper of the individual consciousness. She remains in the area of privilege created by her class, just as Sade remains in the philosophic framework of his time. (133)

13The truly revolutionary and subversive move is made towards the end of the book, where Carter proclaims the necessity for reciprocity, which was denied to the Sadeian protagonists – both men and women, perpetrators and victims – and which would be the pivotal requisite to experience sexuality and pleasure as something which can lead to change and improvement. Instead of a mutually enriching and pleasurable activity, sexual intercourse – and one could broaden the scope to other aspects of the relationships between the sexes – thus becomes something one can steal from the other, a mutually exclusive activity where one loses what the other gains. In the Sadeian economy of desire, «when a woman pilfers her sexual pleasure from a man, she patently reduces his own and to witness her pleasure can do nothing more for him than to flatter his vanity» (Carter 1979b: 167). The same logic governs the binary thought organised according to mutually exclusive categories: what is praised in one term is despised in its counterpart, so that if one embodies the positive side of the binary, by necessity its ‘other’ can only be assigned the residual negative meaning. As a consequence, the sexual experience in Sade, as Carter contends, is «entirely inward» and besides «is not experienced as experience», that is «it does not modify the subject. An externally induced phenomenon, its sensation is absolutely personal, just as it does not hurt the knife if you cut yourself with it» (169).

14With the fairy tales of The Bloody Chamber Carter tries to design alternatives to the inescapable stillness and incapability to actively experience and narrativise women’s processes of identity development. The idea of reciprocity allows one to investigate the – new – conceptualisation of identity emerging from the stories as well as the way in which women can literally and materially engage in the redefinition of their selves and of their roles within society.

15The female identities materialised in the fairy tales can be defined as ‘transitional’ for they are best understood, or rather grasped, as processes in transition rather than accomplishments. What Carter suggests with fictional examples is not a definite alternative to existing models of development and outcomes of female subjectivities. Rather, it is the painful, at times misleading, often ambiguous and even contradictory efforts of women who try to divert from the readymade path and to build new ones. The difficulty of these endeavours stems from the fact that – as Carter never ceases to remind readers – before relying on a brand new set of tools, they must start from what is already at their disposal, that is patriarchal categories and discourses. Before actively starting to construct, therefore, they need first to be aware of what has already been built, find a way to deconstruct it, and after having resourcefully devised strategies of resistance, overthrow it and replace it with something more desirable – but nonetheless equally transitory and partial. As Braidotti would put it, «the point is not to know who [they] are» in an essential way, «but rather what, at last [they] want to become, how to represent mutations, changes, and transformations, rather than Being in its classical fashion» (Braidotti 2002: 2).

  • 2   Thus Braidotti defines what she means with ‘politics of location’, which is fundamental in order (...)

16The cartographic approach advocated for by Braidotti is an effective methodological guideline to analyse – as well as itself the expression of – Carter’s way of dealing with identity ante litteram. A similar standpoint, indeed, «fulfils the function of providing both exegetical tools and creative theoretical alternatives» (Ibidem), for Carter’s fairy tales interpret and criticize their times as well as try to put forward possible practical, experiential options. Moreover, both texts strive to provide «alternative figurations or schemas for these locations [spatially and temporally individual positionalities]2, in terms of power as restrictive (potestas) but also as empowering or affirmative (potentia)» (Ibidem). Last, but not least, the notion of subjectivity conveyed by Braidotti’s theoretical claims seems to be the outcome Carter’s protagonists struggle to achieve, that is «a decentred and multi-layered vision of the subject as a dynamic and changing entity» whose definition takes place «in between […] in the spaces that flow and connect in between» (Ibidem).

  • 3   These ideas stem from a lecture held by Judith Butler at the University of Cambridge: “Understand (...)

17As has already been pointed out, the experiences of the female subjects accounted for by Carter remain enclosed within a heterosexual matrix. This could be interpreted as the author’s endorsement of patriarchal discourses, which cannot escape the oppositional, enclosing categories of man and woman. Yet, though Carter does not challenge sexual difference altogether, she most certainly tries to question the grounds on which difference is constructed in order to problematize it. In other words, even though the normative nature of sexual difference is not turned down by the fairy tales, it does not mean that its normalisation is not disputed and amended3. Thereby, the sustainability of the claim that Carter succeeds in turning patriarchal categories against themselves and in re-arranging their signification in a non-binary, non-oppositional manner.

2.3. Identifying visions: constructing and mastering identities through gazes and reflections

18The transition of female identity journeys towards change through reciprocity in The Bloody Chamber is variably represented by and through the motif of the gaze and/or a complex play with mirror images – which are always linked to sight and looking. Also in this case the stories are intertextually arranged in a climatic fashion. The journey starts with “The Bloody Chamber”, where the protagonist basically remains subject to the male gaze and tries to negotiate her self – and social – identity by struggling with the image her husband imposes on her. After that, with the “Beauty and the Beast” stories the compliance and subjection to the male gaze exposed in “The Courtship of Mr Lyon” is amended and broadened in “The Tiger’s Bride”. The “Red Riding Hood” story which concludes the collection, then, epitomizes the culmination of the process of identification through mirroring as reciprocity. “Wolf-Alice”, indeed, directly addresses issues of subject formation and socialisation by explicitly reflecting on the Lacanian mirror stage, and shows how an unmediated socialisation can lead to a mutually healing relationship.

  • 4   The symbolic reach of such a replacement of sight with smell and taste also stresses the necessit (...)
  • 5   As Grosz contends: «Of all the senses, vision remains the one which most readily confirms the sep (...)

19Interestingly, in those tales where the transition is emphasised from being subject to, to being subject of the gaze – that is, in the instances where alternatives for an autonomous configuration of female subject formation are provided – different sensory dimensions are given pre-eminence and eventually substitute sight4. Carter’s fictional examples of alternative patterns for the development of female identity could be said to originate precisely from the awareness of the power imbalance underlying the centrality of vision – specifically of the male gaze – in the process of subject formation. Imbalance that is then challenged by introducing other sensory experiences together with or as opposed to sight, even if, as the omnipresent play with mirroring reflections shows, sight itself is not completely done away with. Rather, Carter seems to try to negotiate a redefinition of the workings of the gaze through different significations of the looking glass – whether it is an actual mirror or a reflective surface which casts back a reflection, such as the other’s eyes – in order for women to master it, and by extension become masters and narrators of their self-development5. Furthermore, the relation between sight and the other senses is a hierarchical one, given that vision is not dependent – as the other senses are – on space, being rather the «point of view» around which other sensory experiences are organised: «the look is the domain of domination and mastery […] The tactile, auditory, and olfactory sense organs depend on some spatial representation, which, in our culture if not in all civilizations, is hierarchically subordinate to the primacy of sight» (Grosz 1990: 38).

20The ways in which the male gaze establishes its primacy over the female one are the product of socio-historically contingent discursive formations, whereby the masculine subject of the gaze puts its object at a distance and by so doing prevents the object’s possibility of taking part – that is of being actively involved – in the action of looking itself. Frozen in their being looked at, female subjects are left in an apparently inescapable passive position and their participation in their definition of themselves is hindered. As a result of this process, woman is constructed as the negative – i.e. lacking, maimed, incomplete or imperfect – mirror image of man, who besides needs the power of man’s word and gaze to be defined and completed. As Carter seems to suggest with her fairy tales nevertheless, the first step towards the destabilisation of such an encaging male gaze is recognising its provisional character and its dependence on contextual power-knowledge organisations, and on female complicity. Likewise, mirroring itself is not «value free […] but a “special effect” of ideological expectations and unspoken norms – a naturalising technology that works hard at […] re-producing “Woman” as the mirror image of masculine desire» (Bacchilega 1997: 29).

21Sight is an extremely powerful motif throughout The Bloody Chamber insofar as it establishes intertextual echoes among the stories, as well as draws together issues of sexual and textual politics, and above all their ‘embodiment’.

22The female subject experiences the world first and foremost through the body and its relation to what surrounds it, a relation which is always in progress, its development through time leading to mutual influences and changes. Most notably, subject formation and the construction of identity are indissolubly linked with and mediated by the body. Sight in terms of perspective is certainly connected with the analysis of sight as underlying power relations in determining who is looking, i.e. who the subject of the gaze is and who, conversely is its object. Last, but not least, sight also enables one to turn to the body in investigating the implications of Carter’s emphasis on other sensory experiences, as provocative and/or empowering alternatives to – masculine – vision.

23Unsurprisingly, among the range of sensory experiences described in The Bloody Chamber, sight is probably the most complex and articulated. First of all, the action of looking or the condition of being looked at links the changing body to narrative, for who looks and who is looked at determines who the focalizer and the focalized of the text are, thus opening up questions of narrative perspective. This, in turn, allows one to establish the degree of activity and passivity of the female protagonists of the fairy tales, and to assess the extent to which their metamorphosis – whether it is physical or psychological – changes the power arrangements and enables them to speak for themselves and give free accounts of their identity journeys. Furthermore, the gaze is connected to questions of objectification and otherness, since the subject of the gaze wields the power to define the object of its gaze. The alternatives offered to the subject gazed upon are limited to passively conforming to the meanings attached to it, or resisting and challenging them, thus being labelled as ‘other’ and marginalised. In fantastic literature, like in all narrative accounts, the body is «generated in language – in narrative strategy and descriptive technique – and is simultaneously the expression of the vision of a particular narrator, whose act of looking translates the objects seen in particular ways» (Harter 1996: 51). Moreover, the gaze determines the point of view, establishes and tries to fix the difference between the self and the other in order to keep its threatening, unknown nature under control (Ibidem). Harter’s insights into the objectifying gaze of the narrator in fantastic texts emphasise the construction of the female body as a body in pieces, as the dismemberment of the female form allows the male gazing subject to own it, to safely represent it without experiencing the feeling of hesitation generated by the unknown.

24The analysis of the images linked to sight in The Bloody Chamber problematize the issue of the gaze and its implication in power distribution even further if they are read against Kaplan’s contention that the male gaze «carries with it the power of action and possession that is lacking in the female gaze» (Sheets 1991: 646). In other words, women are looked at and can look back, but allegedly cannot act on their gaze. The reasons why the male gaze aims at dominating women is the need to contain the threat and exorcise the same fear for women’s sexuality that also leads to the representation of femininity as monstrosity. Carter, however, challenges the traditional power arrangements and manages to set free enslaved and codified representations of femininity by conveying alternatives to that of sight. This means that she does not try to reverse the roles and to give the female gaze the same oppressive, enclosing power of the male counterpart, but rather exploits the other senses to suggest strategies of resistance and empower female agency. Some of Carter’s heroines, for example, speak (they account for their experiences in the first person), that is they have a voice, therefore «can be heard without being seen» (648).

25The last, important articulation of the motif of sight in Carter’s fairy tales is the examination of the omnipresent image of the mirror, which takes on a number of meanings with relation to the articulation of female identity, otherness and the idea that the subject achieves self-awareness through the incorporation of the other in the reflection of its body into the other’s eyes. The complexity conveyed by reflections in The Bloody Chamber is due to the manifold meanings attached to mirrors. It is by glancing at their reflections in the looking glass that the heroines «see themselves being seen» as subjects and, at the same time, it is through the same process that they see their reflection into the other’s – usually male – eyes (Pi-tai Peng 2004: 117). Significantly enough, the extent to which women are able to act and to empower their sexual position depends on «the way the female subject participates» in the complex visual exchange she engages in with the master gaze (Ibidem).

26“The Courtship of Mr Lyon” and “The Tiger’s Bride” can once again be read as complementary reflections also with reference to the process of female identity construction and to account for its transformation to and through the achievement of reciprocity. For starters, as Bacchilega remarks, the “Beauty and the Beast” stories are privileged vehicles for «women’s transformative powers», since regardless of Beauty’s active or submissive role, she is able to «transform another being, and more specifically, a sexually and/or socially threatening male» (Bacchilega 1997: 78). Even though this kind of female power most probably related to women’s «ability to produce new life» has been systematically reduced «within patriarchal ideology to the popular ‘kiss a frog motif’» (Ibidem), Carter’s stories succeed in bringing back female transformative agency under a double perspective. The first, most obvious kind of transformation performed by Beauty is a physical one, whether it is the more traditional metamorphosis from beast to man represented in “The Courtship of Mr Lyon” or the subversive metamorphosis of woman into wild animal, as in “The Tiger’s Bride”. Secondly, the physical transformation implies a covert transformation as well: what is made explicit through the bodily remodelling is the metamorphic process experienced by the woman while trying to come to terms with and to map her identity journey. In Carter’s tales both developments require or lead to reciprocity, as the physical transformation is enacted only after both male and female characters have faced the need to renegotiate their individual and/or social identity and acknowledged the need to change with each other’s help. Significantly, in both instances self-awareness and action stem from a mirroring process where a transformation in the way of looking underpins the reconfiguration of gender relationships. Thus the other – either the woman as object of the gaze or the beast as animal – is no longer perceived as ‘object’, and both characters are allowed to become subjects of the gaze.

27In “The Courtship of Mr Lyon” the transformation of Beast happens in Beauty’s eyes, regardless of the actual change in the bodily shape of the lion: it is «Beauty’s transformed vision of herself» that transforms Beast (Bacchilega 1997: 94). Furthermore, as in “The Bloody Chamber”, vision here is the prevalent sensory experience, even if it is no longer the one-way threatening gaze of the patriarch, which forces on women its ideal definition of their role and place in society. Rather, Beauty’s fear gradually turns into braveness and confidence, so that when she sees her reflection in the Beast’s eyes she is not shocked because of the unfamiliar, alien and scary nature of what she sees. On the contrary, she starts to see herself for the first time precisely from the moment in which she glances at her reflection into his eyes. On their first night together, «Beauty and Beast exchange a crucial look» (Bacchilega: 1997: 93), which already suggests the mutuality of their relationship and the fact that the Beast’s gaze is not empowered, one-dimensional or othering. «He drew back his head and gazed at her with his green, inscrutable eyes, in which she saw her face repeated twice» (Carter 1979a: 47). Up to now, the Beast’s eyes are «inscrutable» precisely because Beauty is only able to see herself in them. However:

Still “inscrutable”, his eyes are no longer “sick of sight”, for in their green meadow Beauty’s reflection begins to blossom. The naturalizing gaze works “on some magically reciprocal scale”: as she turns into the promise of life, he offers her a new vision of herself. (Bacchilega 1997: 93)

28Likewise, as if he could foresee Beauty’s ability to free him from his miserable animal condition, the Beast was bewitched by her picture not simply because of her looks, but because he glimpsed in it the potentially transformative perceptiveness of her eyes:

The Beast rudely snatched the photograph her father drew from his wallet and inspected it, first brusquely, then with a strange kind of wonder, almost the dawning of surmise. The camera had captured a certain look she had, sometimes, of absolute sweetness and absolute gravity, as if her eyes might pierce appearances and see your soul. (Carter 1979a: 44)

29Of course, in this instance, as in that of “The Tiger’s Bride”, the power imbalance between masculine and feminine is reduced because the male protagonist of the story is a Beast, thus himself embodying a form of otherness – which narrows the distance from the woman and lessens the authoritativeness of his gaze: «He disliked the presence of servants because […] a constant human presence would remind him too bitterly of his otherness. […] She found his bewildering difference from herself almost intolerable» (45).

30The image of Beauty cast back from the Beast’s eyes far from reducing her self-awareness to what he wants to see, paves the way for Beauty’s second significant encounter with her self, when she is sitting alone in her room in front of the mirror, far away from the Beast’s palace.

Returning late from the supper after the theatre, she took off her earrings in front of the mirror; Beauty. She smiled at herself with satisfaction. She was learning, at the end of her adolescence, how to be a spoiled child and that pearly skin of hers was plumping out, a little, with high living and compliments. […] She smiled at herself in mirrors a little too often, these days, and the face that smiled back was not quite the one she had seen contained in the Beast’s agate eyes. (49)

31The physical distance from the place where the girl caught sight of her self for the first time could suggest that, unlike the protagonist of “The Bloody Chamber”, she is not objectified, nor is her self-perception influenced by the master’s gaze.

32The crucial transformation of Beauty’s identity, which triggers the Beast’s physical metamorphosis, takes place when the girl goes back to the castle to find him agonising. There she has the chance to look once more into the lion’s eyes and to realise that she had never looked at them, but only at her reflection within them: «His eyelids flickered. How was it that she had never noticed before that his agate eyes were equipped with lids, like those of a man? Was it because she had only looked at her own face, reflected there?» (Carter 1979a: 50). That is to say, for the very first time Beauty acknowledges the presence of the other beneath the reflective surface of his eyes, and recognises humanity in them. In an entangled play with specular reflections, Carter thus shows how in order to avoid objectification one must first recognise herself in order to be able to recognise the other, and that this mutual knowledge is achieved provided that one is capable of seeing in the other’s eyes what lays beyond one’s own reflection. The mutual process of recognition will then lead to a transformation which will make ongoing mutual exchange and sharing possible.

33In “The Tiger’s Bride” the motif of vision is equally central and is conveyed through the transition accounted for by the I narrator from object to subject, which finds expression in «the splitting of the subject/object of focalization» as a «necessary step in the difficult process of turning the younger ‘eye’ into the exuberant ‘I’-narrator who acts upon her desire» (Bacchilega 1997: 95). As Bacchilega suggests, the tale is focused on «the familiar tabu against looking», which affects equally Beauty, as she «refuses to be seen», and Beast, who «wears a mask» (96). Here, too, the mirror is an intermediary between the girl and her perception of herself and of the world: «“I saw…I saw… I saw” she says, fulfilling our expectations of a careful “I-witness” with a detailed perception of places, people, and feelings. But much of this in-sight soon proves to be mediated, indirect, already materially and culturally framed» (97). As a consequence, the more the protagonist understands about herself and about the Beast, the less her experience – symbolised by her gaze – is mediated by the mirror. As the privileged space of otherness, where the undesirable is trapped in order for the desirable to be able to take place, but always winks and threatens to surface; as the place where different – imagined, projected, physical as well as psychological – spaces are superimposed to one another, the mirror seems to take on a heterotopic function (Foucault 1967). The reflection of one’s gaze in the mirror or upon a reflecting surface thus stands for the process through which the individual tries to appropriate its own identity by mapping the contours of its body and trying to reach, by looking into one’s own/the other’s eyes, what lies beyond.

34A similar spatial understanding of subjectivity through mirroring is what could enact Braidotti’s recommended «cartographic» approach to describing and narrativising subjectivity. In this particular tale, the culmination of the process of identification coincides with the physical metamorphosis that will set forth Beauty’s liberation and empowerment: the disrobing. At the beginning, for example, the protagonist looks at the room where her father is losing her at cards – and by extension approaches an attempted understanding of the situation where she is definitely turned into a bargaining object – through a mirror: «The mirror above the table gave me back his frenzy, my impassivity, the withering candles, the emptying bottles» (Carter 1979a: 52). The same mirror casts back the reflection of the Beast, himself concealed by his disguise which performs the same mediating function that the mirror does for Beauty: «The mirror above the table gave me back […] the still mask that concealed all the features of The Beast but for the yellow eyes that strayed, now and then, from his unfurled hands towards myself» (Ibidem). Everything in the Beast is camouflaged: his face is covered by «a mask with a man’s face painted most beautifully on it», which however is blatantly fake, as this beautiful face is «one with too much formal symmetry of feature to be entirely human, […] too perfect» (53). He also wears a wig, a silk stock and gloves to cover his hair, neck and hands, and even his smell is covered by a «fuddling perfume» (Ibidem). Even though his eyes are the only true and seemingly lively thing, Beauty cannot see her image reflected in them, neither can she look at his face for recognition not so much because he is an animal, but because of his deliberate disguise – that is, his intentional refusal to be recognised for what he is: «And yet The Beast goes always masked; it cannot be his face that looks like mine» (56). This also means that, at this stage, Beauty is still looking for resemblance, for sameness in the other to make sense of and accept both. The first disruptive experience of the girl occurs when she meets her clockwork maid, «a soubrette from an operetta, with glossy, nut-brown curls, rosy cheeks, blue, rolling eyes. […] she is a marvellous machine, the most delicately balanced system of chords and pulleys in the world» (59-60). Later on, indeed, when she is riding with the Beast and his valet, she realises that the maid is «a clockwork twin of mine», for «had I not been allotted only the same kind of imitative life amongst men that the doll-maker had given her?» (60, 62). This means that she acknowledges that so far she has just been the puppet of her father or of the other men in her life, having allowed them to pull her strings as she refused to drop the veil which covered her eyes, to leave behind the mirror which mediated her experience of herself and of the world – either out of fear or out of convenience. Only then is she ready to «bear the sight of him» (64), so she finally looks at the Beast’s naked body, and willingly decides to take off her clothes in a true instance of «reciprocal pact» (Bacchilega 1997: 96). As soon as the Beast has eventually, bravely, given up his disguise, indeed, Beauty, too, feels empowered enough to take off her clothes and even to accept being deprived of her own skin.

35Hence, for the first time in the collection, reciprocity leads to the representation of an instance of female identity development which is linked to the male other as it needs the other’s gaze in order to awaken self-awareness, but at the same time is not entirely defined, nor conditioned by the other. Rather, mutual exchange and a balanced distribution of power within the masculine and the feminine are required in order for both of them to develop an independent but not lonely identity journey where reciprocity is not only possible but becomes necessary to achieve independence. Most notably, this accomplishment brings about and is subsequently re-enacted and amended through the change of the established social – discursive – order. The issue at stake with regard to the alternative and empowering development of female identity in these two stories reveals once again the tensions between complicity in and transgression of the patriarchal order and naturalised ideals of female subjectivities and role positions:

In both stories, Carter intertwines gender and narrative concerns to comment on how the classic fairy tale plots women’s “developmental” tasks and desires within patriarchy in more ways than thematically and psychologically. The questions at work here do not simply concern Beauty’s self-fulfilment or desire as she gains control over the path of her initiation process, but also investigate how narrow that narrative path is, and how it shapes the heroine’s conforming or contesting journey. (Bacchilega 1997: 102)

36It is not by chance that the first and the last story of the collection circularly emphasise the idea of a transformative journey towards subject formation – albeit in different ways. The identity development of the protagonist of “The Bloody Chamber” is established from the very beginning as a journey «away from girlhood […] into the unguessable country of marriage» (Carter 1979a: 7). Her «destination», identified by the girl with her «destiny» (8), that is with marriage, is the castle of the Marquis, set in opposition to the house of the mother, the «enclosed quietude» (7) of childhood. The unpredictability of this destiny is highlighted by the opposition between the «quietude» of what is known and reassuring and the inability even to guess what is waiting for her after the wedding. Since the beginning, therefore, it is clear that the protagonist is experiencing a process of transition, which she does not know how to handle. This apparently minor element is of particular significance in that it gives reasons for the girl’s utter powerlessness against her husband, who can thus impose convenient definitions and role positions on her without being questioned.

37As for “Wolf-Alice”, the last tale in The Bloody Chamber and «a kind of summary of the collection’s preoccupations and perspectives as a whole» (Day 1998: 162) it represents female identity journey as an ongoing process which must be rethought, re-signified and above all freed from patriarchal disciplining discursive constructions. “Wolf-Alice” could be considered an alternative model of female identity development, which tries to negotiate and compensate for the lacks and losses of the other female protagonists of the collection. The tale, indeed, displays the provisional consequences of an identity journey which starts from unusual premises – that is a girl who comes into contact with human civilization only after living with wild wolves for years – and is articulated outside of a normalised – phallogocentric – discursive framework, as the people who try to tame her soon realise that there is not enough humanity in her and thus she cannot be socialised. Wolf-Alice’s experience shows that the wild girl in fact does go through a similar processes of identification and subject formation to that of the other human beings. However, her marginalisation and independence from established social conventions and recommended role positions at the same time transforms these processes, so that eventually the development of her identity will reach different outcomes. More explicitly, she will be able to experience reciprocity and to bring the werewolfish Duke back to life thanks to her pristine alienation.

38The tale, then, can be considered a solution to the difficulties and impossibility of developing an autonomous and empowered identity that the other female protagonists of The Bloody Chamber had to face. The «alternative» to a subject formation and identity development imbued in patriarchal assumptions, expectations, normalising and disciplined strategies is articulated through the example of an individual who grew up without being subject to them, thus being able to articulate an autonomous socialising process, which led to reciprocity, recognition of the other, and life.


39The Bloody Chamber is sprinkled with examples of performances of femininity accurately staged by Carter to expose their fictional character, their theatrical playfulness and the ambiguities and contradictions inherent in the enactment of a gendered identity which is partly subject to external – more or less conscious – discursive constraints and the need to devise strategies of resistance to and negotiation with them. The development and ongoing transformations of female identity are both shaped by and negotiated with reference to an entangled play of gazes and reflections, where autonomy and empowerment are struggled over through learning how to master vision and to signify specular reflections. In other words, the process through which female subjects gain – different degrees of – awareness of their selves and construct their identities is based on how woman sees herself and the extent to which she can(not) avoid identifying with the image conveyed by those who master the gaze and have the power of defining the meanings of the reflections cast by the rational glass – in whatever form.

40The disparate experiences of Carter’s protagonists show that the development of identity is a painful, complex effort, a journey with many diversions and deviations, a never-ending work in progress of mediation with oneself and with the world, always provisional and never conclusive. The gallery of examples described by Carter portrays different patterns of development for female subjectivity; some that comply with established discursive arrangements, some that fail to stray from the path they know, for it is already too deeply rooted in their (un)consciousness, some, finally, that manage to amend or re-signify the normative role positions society expects them to take on.

41In general, the solution devised by Carter for an alternative articulation of subjectivity seems to be reciprocity, which implies mutual exchange with the other, incorporation instead of appropriation, and is based on the refusal of a binary and oppositional organisation of experience in mutually exclusive categories – which, needless to say, have always ended up disempowering and subordinating women and what is associated with them in the binary.

42After introducing the different paths that these identities can take and their (problematic) discursive construction in language, special attention needs to be devoted to the «how», that is to the ways in which change and metamorphosis take place and/or are made visible throughout. In other words, the focus is to be placed on the body, i.e. on the surface where transformations are enacted and detectable during the endless, uneven, erratic process of identity development, and of its deconstruction, reconstruction and signification.

43A further bridge between the articulation of identity and its enactment on the body and through the body can be built starting from notions of theatricality, mimicry, masquerade and performance. Similar concepts suggest that embodied subjects are structured through the discursively established identification with ideal bodies and behaviours, but also that they can struggle over imposed role position by staging their own performances through the body, its expressions and disguises. Most notably, when one turns to the body, the category of gender is even more crucial in patriarchal attempts to devise and control the circumscribed meanings that can be attached to female subjectivities. Thus it is from and by means of the body that the metamorphoses performed or experienced by the female protagonists of The Bloody Chamber succeed in creating actual alternatives to the available – phallogoncentric – discourses on womanhood. Starting from acknowledgement, questioning and deconstruction of the patriarchal systems, the tales end up turning their assumptions against themselves, and then propose alternative, subversive patterns of development through disruptive metamorphoses of the female body.


1   If the reach of Carter’s work in terms of criticism towards patriarchy is unquestionable, it is also true, however, that the tales collected in The Bloody Chamber show an evident limit: working within the heterosexual matrix. The relationships between the sexes are indeed scrutinised and patriarchal assumptions about them are challenged without undercutting or providing alternatives to the heterosexual economy of desire. Far from underestimating or minimising the revolutionary and subversive range of her literary speculations, it could be argued that Carter is interested in questioning and remoulding power dynamics and relationships between the sexes, which however results in the endorsement of normative – albeit disruptive – heterosexuality.

2   Thus Braidotti defines what she means with ‘politics of location’, which is fundamental in order to correctly frame and understand the similarities between her theorisation and Carter’s fictional accounts grounded in the materiality of experience: «The politics of location refers to a way of making sense of diversity among women within the category of “sexual difference” understood as the binary opposite of the phallogocentric subject. In feminism, these ideas are coupled with that of epistemological and political accountability seen as the practice that consists in unveiling the power locations which one inevitably inhabits as the site of one’s identity. The practice of accountability […] as a relational, collective activity of undoing power differentials is linked to two crucial notions: memory and narratives. They activate the process of putting into words, that is to say of bringing into symbolic representation, that which by definition escapes consciousness» (Braidotti 2002: 12).

3   These ideas stem from a lecture held by Judith Butler at the University of Cambridge: “Understanding society” (22/05/2013).

4   The symbolic reach of such a replacement of sight with smell and taste also stresses the necessity to re-appropriate identity through the body, and is therefore linked to the reflections that will be articulated in the following chapter.

5   As Grosz contends: «Of all the senses, vision remains the one which most readily confirms the separation of subject from object. Vision performs a distancing function, leaving the looker unimplicated in or uncontaminated by its object. With all of the other senses, there is a contiguity between subject and object, if not an internalization and incorporation of the object by the subject». (1990: 38)


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