Version classiqueVersion mobile
OpenEdition Books Ledizioni Di/Segni Bodies that bleed 1. The body as an inscriptive tra...

Bodies that bleed

Anna Pasolini

Part 2

1. The body as an inscriptive transformative surface

Texte intégral

1.1. The body in context: a discursive framework

1Carter’s fairy tales always represent a physical metamorphosis of some sort, the most obvious being that of the young woman who is growing up and experiencing the physical and psychological changes which are part of the transition from childhood to adulthood. A number of other symbolic and meaningful changes are illustrated, which embody the revolutionary and disruptive potential of Carter’s narratives in that they overthrow rather than sustain traditional gender roles and relationships by means of fantastic figurations. On the one hand, the tales describe human protagonists turning into animals and vice versa, in most cases the choice of giving up the human shape being a way for women to free themselves from binding and limiting role positions. On the other hand, the protagonists of the stories are often metamorphic creatures such as zombies, vampires and werewolves, that is hybrid and liminal beings who have already experienced a metamorphosis, who have challenged death and given up humanity, who threaten life, but who do not belong completely to either life or death, and therefore have to negotiate their position within and between the two.

2In any case, the body becomes the surface on which change is made visible, at times conceived of as a limit (usually the human body) but more often as the primary site in which desires can be fulfilled and constrained identities can be freed (usually the animal one). Most notably, Carter’s bodies are always sexed, in such a way that the traditional Western association ‘woman-body’ is unmasked and subtly criticized as a core part of the binary and oppositional system grounding Western philosophy and thought, which not only have naturalized female inferiority and consequent submission, but have also set up reproduction and motherhood as the sole suitable outcomes of female identity journeys.

3The fact that the female protagonists of some tales are or decide to turn into wild, cruel and threatening animals or supernatural beings is of particular significance, in that such bodies defy the codified associations or, at least, question their basic inferences and consequences in terms of disciplined behaviours. This aspect suggests that embracing the instinctual drives of desire from which they have always been restrained – if they wanted to suit the norm and avoid being marginalised – is a way for women to enact an autonomous, active, and free subjectivity instead. A similar process matches the way in which Carter intertextually plays with fantastic elements in manipulating fairy tale conventions: she is aware of their codification and is able to re-write them so as to make them at once recognizable and disruptive. In a similar fashion, her female protagonists seem to comply with social expectations – or at least to try to – that is, they embrace the associations woman-body/instinct-desire but then disrupt their conventional meanings and give them empowering new ones.

4In The Bloody Chamber the body is characterised both as an intrinsically transformative surface and as the site where the metamorphoses covertly transmitted through textual strategies and representations of identity development are actually performed. The meaningful, often transgressive, transformations experienced by some of the characters of the fairy tales are notably aimed to emphasise the importance of the body and the need to re-signify it anew from different perspectives. First of all, this process is part of Carter’s feminist politics, in that it reconfigures the available definitions of female identity development and subjectivity through the re-appropriation of the female body. Such re-appropriation requires new ways of approaching and understanding the body, which must be freed from the constraints of binary and mutually exclusive – patriarchal – knowledge. Secondly, and as a consequence, discourses about the body must be reshaped so as to being able to account for the specificities of sexual difference, that is to supersede the neutralising and universalising drives of the phallogocentric tradition. In other words, female bodies must be tackled in their peculiarities and differences, after giving up the patriarchal presumptions – derived from the mutually exclusive categories upon which similar knowledge is structured – that they represent a somehow lacking or inferior variant of the male body, to which they are set at the same time in dialogue with and in opposition to.

5Carter’s commitment, so frequently stressed and repeated by the writer herself, to materialism and to historically and socially grounded experience, finds expression in her almost obsessive focus on the female body and on the representation of embodied performances in the collection as well as throughout her career. It is of paramount importance, then, that the bodies represented in the fairy tales of The Bloody Chamber are caught and depicted in the act of changing, so that metamorphosis becomes once again the distinctive trait of most of the protagonists. Fourth, the link between sexuality, identity development and the visible results of the transformation on the body become vehicles for Carter’s project of devising alternative paths to patriarchal discursive constructions. The difficulty of straying from the path, so deeply rooted in cultural practices and affecting subjects from the very beginning of the process of their socialisation, is highlighted by the need to resort to fantasy, fictional, monstrous and magic bodily figurations to render the metamorphic liberation and empowerment of the female characters. Last but not least, this issue exposes the conflation – that in Carter becomes a weapon that women can exploit in order to achieve freedom to choose – of imagination and material experience in the development and enactment of narratives of the self. No longer engulfed in the limiting binary thought of oppressive discourses, indeed, those of Carter’s heroines who succeed in embracing change and leave behind the comforting and safe bonds of patriarchal submission are able to give an account of themselves and to find strength both in imagination and in the ‘reality’ of their positionalities.

6Carter’s fairy tales can be said to share one of the primary goals of contemporary feminists in trying to establish a philosophical and cultural tradition parallel to, not completely disjointed, but at the same time autonomous from its patriarchal predecessors in «refocusing on bodies in accounts of subjectivities» (Grosz 1994: vii). The first step towards a similar accomplishment is questioning, displacing and leaving behind the binary, mutually exclusive categories which have set the opposition between male and female and the supremacy of the former through its association with thought, reason and «culture», while confining the latter into a – biased and diminished notion of – body and nature. Interestingly, through the fictional accounts of female experiences narrativised in her fairy tales, Carter succeeds in revaluing concepts like materiality, body, and nature, which are disparaged by patriarchy through the comparison with their counterparts in a structure whose organising framework excludes incorporation and reciprocity on principle. The structural «inversion» advocated for by Grosz and enacted by Carter through her stories sets out to

Displace the centrality of mind, the psyche, interior or consciousness (and even the unconscious) in conceptions of the subject through a reconfiguration of the body. If subjectivity is no longer conceived in binarized or dualist terms, either as the combination of mental or conceptual with material or physical elements or as the harmonious, unified cohesion of mind and body, then perhaps other ways of understanding corporeality, sexuality, and the differences between the sexes may be developed and explored which enable us to conceive of subjectivity in different terms than those provided by traditional philosophical and feminist understandings. (Grosz 1994: vii)

7Carter’s fairy tales can be re-read nowadays in the light of these purposes, and offer a starting point and/or strategies of resistance to, disruption and renegotiation of alternative patterns to those based on a «binarized or dual» understanding of the individual and of social relations – in particular those between men and women. Sexuality itself, and by extension sexual relationships, may be redefined and acquire new meanings if the body is made the focus of attention in their re-conceptualisation. It can be understood

in terms of an act, a series of practices and behaviors involving bodies, organs and pleasures, […] in terms of an identity [that is, broadly speaking, gender] [… and as] a set of orientations, positions, and desires, which implies that there are particular ways in which the desires, differences, and bodies of subjects can seek their pleasure. (viii)

8The importance of redefining sexuality is due to its centrality in shaping people’s relationships with themselves as well as with the external world, as

Our conceptions of reality, knowledge, truth, politics, ethics and aesthetics are all effects of sexually specific – and thus far in our history, usually male – bodies, and are all thus implicated in the power structures which feminists have described as patriarchal, the structures which govern relations between the sexes. (ix)

9The function of the body, then, is dislodged here as the seed from which change can blossom, since it is impossible to universalise and neutralise the differences written on bodies, which can no longer be circumscribed to the «neutral» – but strategically empowered – masculine.

The subject, recognized as corporeal being, can no longer readily succumb to the neutralisation and neutering of its specificity which has occurred to women as a consequence of women’s submersion under male definition. The body is the ally of sexual difference, a key term in questioning the centrality of a number of apparently benign but nonetheless phallocentric presumptions which have hidden the cultural and intellectual effacement of women. (ix)

10The fairy tales of The Bloody Chamber expose the «colonisation» of the body by discourses which try to conceal that in fact «in all cases, how bodies are conceived seems to be based largely on prevailing social conceptions of the relations between the sexes» (x) and that, as Butler would also eagerly sustain, bodies are no less cultural constructions than sexual relations and performances.

1.2. The body in this context: bodily inscriptions and transformations in The Bloody Chamber

11The bodies of The Bloody Chamber investigated in this work are both male and female, and although the former are devoted special attention, the latter are not disregarded either (most notably, the bodies of the Beasts in “The Courtship of Mr Lyon” and “The Tiger’s Bride”). They are caught in the act of changing in the process of growing up, of transforming into a different, animal-like or fantastic beings and/or in the choice of taking off a masque, of giving up a strategic or reassuring disguise. In any case, they are ‘lived bodies’ which change as a result of their experience, of which, in turn, they bear the signs. The bodies represented by Carter are not blank pages upon which meanings can be written and fixed, but rather surfaces of inscription, whose permeable skin can be etched, from time to time, with a range of unstable, unfixed and changeable meanings. Bodies themselves, then, become the maps where the development of identities can be tracked, whose pliable flesh bears the marks of experience and of transformation in the form of more or less visible scars: «every body is marked by the history and specificity of its experience. It is possible to construct a biography, a history of the body, for each individual and social body» (Grosz 1994: 142).

12More specifically, in Carter’s fairy tales some of the signs left by this carving of experience on the body can be spotted, enabling one to consider the bodies of the protagonists both as surfaces of inscription and as maps. The most evident example is perhaps that of the protagonist of “The Bloody Chamber”, whose body is forever marked by the heart-shaped, blood-red scar left by the bloody key her husband has pressed on her forehead as a symbol of her disobedience, as well as a sign of her complicity with a newly-awakened desire that she does not know how to define and how to control yet. In this case, the scar left on the body signifies a change that has taken place in the identity of the girl, which otherwise could risk going undetected, as it apparently has not changed her physical appearance – or, at least, not in a manifest way: she lost her virginity, but such a transformation is not evident on the outside. Other instances of the mappability of bodies could be found in the cases where something recognisable is left in the body of the character who underwent a radical transformation. This is what happens to the Beast in “The Courtship of Mr Lyon”, who, after turning into a man, still bears some traces of his previous beastly state, such as his eyes or «an unkempt mane of hair and, how strange, a broken nose, such as the noses of retired boxers, that gave him a distant, heroic resemblance to the handsomest of all beasts» (Carter 1979a: 51).

13These apparently random and undetectable signs emphasise that within social discourses, both the male and the female body are «involuntarily marked, but also incised through “voluntary” procedures, life-styles, habits and behaviors» (Grosz 1994: 142). In Foucauldian terms, in the bodies of Carter’s characters the technologies of production and self-production of subjects are uncovered and challenged, so that the body itself becomes the medium through which power relations and social discourses are made visible, questioned and amended. It is through the metamorphosis of the body, indeed, that some of Carter’s tales achieve the transformative potential required to change the way social power relations are organized and structured, and thereby allow the female protagonists to renegotiate their role positions and performances through the construction of a different social order based on new foundations.

14The transformative power of the bodies described and inscribed by Carter may be best accounted for if one turns to Foucault’s definition of the body as «the inscribed surface of events (traced by language and dissolved by ideas), the locus of a dissociated Self (adopting the illusion of a substantial unity), and a volume in perpetual disintegration […] totally imprinted by history and the processes of history’s destruction of the body» (Grosz 1994: 146). Foucault’s insights into the body, the tensions between its appropriation and signification by and through power, and the power it wields to resist power and disrupt social discourses when they are perceived as unbearable and no longer able to grant agency and a certain degree of autonomy to the subject are effectively summarised by Grosz as follows:

In Foucault, the body is the object, target and instrument of power, the field of greatest investment of power’s operations, a stake in the struggle for power’s control over a materiality that is dangerous to it, precisely because it is unpredictable and able to be used in potentially infinite ways, according to infinitely variable cultural dictates. […] power, according to Foucault, utilizes, indeed produces the subject’s desire and pleasures to create knowledges, truths, which may provide more refined, improved, and efficient techniques for the surveillance and control of bodies, in a spiral of power-knowledge-pleasure. The body is that materiality, almost a medium, on which power operates and through which it functions. (Grosz 1994: 146)

15The cogency of Foucault’s notion of the body, however, does not merely rely on its account of the body as subject to power, but rather, and most importantly, on its idea of the body as subject of power, as it is

acted upon, inscribed, peered into; information is extracted from it, and disciplinary regimes are imposed on it; yet its materiality also entails a resilience and thus also (potential) modes of resistance to power’s capillary alignments. It is a kind of passivity, capable of being mobilized according to the interests of power or in the forms of subversion, depending on its strategic position. (Ibidem)

16In Foucault’s terms, the «political investment of the body» in power relations thus constructed becomes a «useful force only if it is both a productive body and a subjected body» (149). This idea, of course, derives from his understanding of power as a network that ceaselessly brings things into reciprocal interrelations, negotiations, investments, which engenders control but at the same time bears within it the possibilities and strategies of resistance to its functioning (see Grosz 1994: 147-148). The most significant facet of Foucault’s thought stemming from these considerations about the body, which may best account for the bodies represented in Carter’s fairy tales, is the notion of sex, and the centrality of sexuality to power relations and struggles:

Sexuality is a particularly privileged locus of the operations of power because of its strategically advantageous position at the core of individualizing processes of disciplines and training […]. Sexuality is not a pure or spontaneous force that is tamed by power; rather, sexuality is deployed by power to enable it to gain a grip on life itself. (152)

17That is to say, sexuality is among the favourite loci where regulatory power operates, to the extent that it can be defined a «discursive-technological complex», and as such it cannot be identified with a biological, «material reality» (154). Rather, like the body, it is a historically contextual cultural construction, a product of determinate power-knowledge negotiations:

Sexuality must not be thought of as a kind of natural given which power tries to hold in check, or as an obscure domain which knowledge tries gradually to uncover. It is the name that can be given to a historical construct: […] a great surface network in which the stimulation of bodies, the intensification of pleasures, the incitement to discourse, the formation of special knowledges, the strengthening of controls and resistances, are linked to one another, in accordance with a few major strategies of knowledge and power. (Foucault 1978: 105-106)

  • 1For the main feminist objections to Foucault’s arguments, see Grosz (1994: 156-158).

18Carter’s appropriation of Foucault’s work can be considered groundbreaking, for it succeeds in overcoming one of the main objections feminist scholars make to Foucault’s conceptualisation of sexuality and the body. As Grosz remarks, indeed, Foucault’s bodies are defined as surfaces of inscription without specifying the nature of the surface itself: in fact it makes a great deal of difference if the body which is being written upon is male or female1. Carter’s project of demythologising femininity precisely entails acknowledging that women are history’s makers, that they play an active role in the relationships they are involved in – whether they result in subversion or empowerment – and, above all that «sexual differentiation» is a matter of cultural construction which cannot be disregarded (Carter 1979b: 3-4, 7) and which affects the body as well: «Our flesh arrives to us out of history, like everything else» (9). The pronoun «our» in this case, includes but also limits, as it does not address a universal commonality of the human experience, but on the contrary refers to women, and thus stresses the specificity of female flesh. Shortly after, indeed, Carter adds: «Flesh is not an irreducible human universal» (Ibidem). As a matter of fact, in the fairy tales which are about to be analysed, examples of both male and female bodies are put forward while caught in the process of self-creation, definition, modification, embodiment, which are invariably historically and culturally specific and depend on the identification with or amendment of roles, positions, behaviours and models of embodied sexuality – as has already been stressed, always within the confines of a heterosexual economy.

19In the light of these considerations it is also possible to fully grasp the reasons why the disruption of patriarchal discourses performed by some characters of The Bloody Chamber needs to pass through compliance. In order to be twisted and turned against themselves, indeed, power structures need to be understood and incorporated. From this awareness and enactment, then, rebellion can surface and try to change what is perceived as oppressing or limiting, for power generates power and the negotiation of new power-knowledge formations springs from a restyling of the existing ones:

Power must be understood […] as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization; as the process which, through ceaseless struggles and confrontations, transforms, strengthens, or reverses them; as the support these force relations find in one another, thus forming a chain or a system, or on the contrary, the disjunctions and contradictions which isolate them from one another. (Foucault 1978: 92)

20Carter’s female characters are represented in the process of «self-production and self-observation», while they wander along or across the «fine line» which separates compliance and subversion. What is emphasised through the transformation of their bodies is their «enmeshment in disciplinary regimes» as the subjects’ condition of «social effectivity, as either conformist or subversive» (Grosz 1994: 144).

21Last, but not least, if the body and sex are not natural givens, but the product of ongoing discursive negotiations and of contextual power-knowledge organisation, and if power’s instability incorporates the potential of resistance, then it also involves the possibility of agency. This is of paramount importance, as it allows one to introduce the notion of ‘performativity’, which draws together identity development and bodily acts, and is linked to action in that it entails the idea of – more or less – purposely making visible on the body what has been happening beneath its surface. In addition, such concept also points to theatricality and masquerade as strategies deployed in order to take action and to shape the inscriptive surface of the body in polemical compliance with or subversive contrast to discursively established ideals.

1.3. Staging the female body: theatrical performativity

22The notion of ‘performativity’ as it is reworked by Judith Butler in Bodies that Matter (1993) allows one to draw interesting connections between the development of (gendered) identity, sexuality and the body, which prove to be particularly insightful for an account of the metamorphoses of the female bodies represented in The Bloody Chamber. The process of subject formation reflected and/or mediated by mirrors or influenced by one’s own or someone else’s gaze (especially when the other who looks is a man who stands for the patriarchal tradition) is indeed crucial for the analysis of the protagonists’ identity development as a process of inscription of meanings on the body. As the performances of different characters throughout the collection show, identity journeys bring about negotiations and struggles between self and social perceptions about oneself, the proper/appropriate role positions one is allowed to occupy, acceptable or discouraged behaviours, normal and deviant ways of giving an account of or defining one’s experience. In general, these couples of alternatives emphasise that identity construction is an ongoing effort, which requires endless mediation if one refuses to uncritically take on whatever position is attached to them according to the limited span of options offered by current discourses. As will be shortly illustrated, representing a change in the way meanings and performances are attached to the body by starting from the re-appropriation or by different approaches to the signification and understanding of the body itself is a particularly valuable strategy when it comes to women. Their identities, indeed, have traditionally been shaped by phallocentric discourses first and foremost to keep their bodies under control – mainly in order to control reproduction – while at the same time the body itself, and its association with the category of ‘woman’ has been devalued within the binary logic of mutually exclusive alternatives. More to the point, reading the bodies represented by Carter against Butler’s conceptualisation of performativity discloses the reciprocity implied by the productive interaction body-identity, where the body displays the marks left by the stages of identity development and at the same time is the medium through which the latter can escape the discursive constraints to which it is subject.

23Butler’s definition of performativity draws on Foucault’s insights into the centrality of sexuality, conceived of as a «regulatory ideal» which compels the materialisation of the body through power-knowledge organisations. The normativity of the discursive settlements about sexuality, however, is then displaced – again in Foucauldian fashion – by the idea that the imposition of power as constrictive is always paired with an inherent possibility of resisting and overthrowing it. In this way, the body is proved to be able to exceed the norms which compel its materialisation, enabling the subject to turn the law against itself «to spawn rearticulations that call into question the hegemonic force of that very regulatory law» (Butler 1993: 2), that is the body is configured as the primary locus of agency. In Butler’s words:

The category of sex is, from the start, normative; it is what Foucault has called a “regulatory ideal”. In this sense, then, “sex” not only functions as a norm, but is part of a regulatory practice that produces the bodies it governs, that is, whose regulatory force is made clear as a kind of productive power, the power to produce – demarcate, circulate, differentiate – the bodies it controls. Thus, “sex” is a regulatory ideal whose materialization is compelled, and this materialization takes place (or fails to take place) through certain highly regulated practices. In other words, “sex” is an ideal construct which is forcibly materialized through time. It is not a simple fact or static condition of a body, but a process whereby regulatory norms materialize “sex” and achieve this materialization through a forcible reiteration of those norms. (Butler 1993: 1-2)

24Nonetheless, within this never-ending process, «bodies never quite comply with the norms by which their materialization is impelled» (2).

25Not only is the subject whose body and identity are thus constituted subject to the regulatory ideal which compels its identity formation and the materialisation of its body, but it also, and most importantly, has the power to actively disrupt the reiteration of the law and to bend and amend it. Interestingly, according to Butler one of the most effective ways in which the subject can question the repetition of the norm and disrupt its naturalisation is through repetition itself, that is by mimicking the behaviours prescribed by the regulatory ideal and thereby disclosing its artificial, constructed nature. The norms which «both produce and destabilize sex through reiteration» naturalise sex and the prescribed behaviours attached to it, but at the same time the ritual «opens up gaps and fissures that allow disruption to be performed» (10) because the «reiteration of a norm or set of norms […] acquires the status of act-like […] and conceals or dissimulates the conventions of which it is a repetition» (12). Butler calls the ritual, citational repetition involved in performativity «theatricality», which clearly suggests that it is the result of acting, of playing a role, regardless of the intentionality or awareness on the part of the subject.

  • 2   Interestingly, among the consequences of the materialisation of the bodies conceived of according (...)

26In sum, performativity and theatricality acquire in Butler – as well as in the way Carter plays with the motif – a double character. On the one hand they unveil and question the practices underlying identification and subject formation, and emphasise the need to be aware of them in order to be able to locate their flaws and turn them against themselves. On the other hand, and as a result, they disclose the agency hiding underneath the surface of the apparently inescapable circuit of reiteration which does not trap the subject in compulsive repetition, but rather allows it to mimic such theatricality in parodic fashion, and to exploit its covert normative character to perform change and promote and entrench destabilising alternatives: «The subject who would resist such norms is itself enabled, if not produced, by such norms. Although this constitutive constraint does not foreclose the possibility of agency, it does locate agency as a reiterative or rearticulatory practice» (15, my emphasis)2.

27Different textual examples in The Bloody Chamber convey the impression that Carter is well aware of the mechanisms of performative staging of identity – which will be conceptualised by Butler more than ten years later – and above all that she exploits all their playful and subversive potential. To begin with, as has already been highlighted, some of the stories are set in historically recognisable periods in order to stress that particular patriarchal discursive formations are being scrutinised. As a consequence, their historicity and the naturalised performances they engender are no longer «dissimulated» (Ibidem), and the theatricality implied in the related staging of identity is overtly addressed. Furthermore, the more or less conscious idea of staging one’s identity through performances which imitate, and to a certain extent also parody, expected, disciplined behaviours is presented on more than one occasion in the fairy tales.

28The first instances of Carter’s approach to the idea of theatricality and of staging one’s identity can be found in “The Bloody Chamber”. Interestingly, throughout the story a sort of progress can be detected, whereby the protagonist, at first playing what she considers the appropriate role for a young woman who is about to get – and then has just got – married, later on deliberately acts the normalised role of the wife in order to trick her husband. That is to say, at the beginning of the story, when the girl is still unaware of the changes in her body and of her sexual desire – which has just awakened – she stages her identity because she strives to conform to the behaviours which she deems her husband’s ideal. As she gains awareness of her situation, of the brutality of the bargain she has sold herself in, the nature of her performance slightly, but unmistakably changes. The young woman experiences estrangement when she looks at her reflection in the mirror, and is unable to recognise what she sees because of the new consciousness of her body and of sexual desire. However, she refuses to accept to be defined by and to identify completely with the way her husband sees her, since his lustful gaze blames the desire which she begins to appropriate. When she has just arrived at the castle of the Marquis, the girl thus tries to encourage herself, at a time when she has not fully understood yet what she has bargained for: «Courage! I shall act the fine lady to the manner born one day, if only by virtue of default» (Carter 1979a: 19). Although she consciously decides to play a role that does not belong to her, here the girl still proves to be unaware of all the implications of acting «the fine lady». Therefore, during her first sexual encounters with the Marquis, it seems that she is experiencing his assaults from outside of her body, as if she was just the viewer, witnessing through specular reflections what is happening to someone else. The loss of her virginity, in fact, is staged like a private theatrical performance set within closed «purple velvet curtains» that the husband has arranged for himself, where the main actress is nothing but an uninformed, casual victim:

I had Cointreau, he had cognac in the library, with the purple velvet curtains drawn against the night, where he took me to perch on his knee in a leather armchair beside the flickering log fire. He had made me change into that chaste little Poiret shift of white muslin; he seemed especially fond of it, my breasts showed through the flimsy stuff, he said, like little soft white doves that sleep, each one, with a pink eye open. But he would not let me take off my ruby choker, although it was growing very uncomfortable, nor fasten up my descending hair, the sign of a virginity so recently ruptured that still remained a wounded presence between us. (Ibidem)

29And when the libertine suggests that only an expert could have detected a «promise of debauchery» on her «thin, white face» (20), at first the girl is impressed and scared. She admits she is afraid of herself (Ibidem) because she identifies completely with the image reflected by her husband’s eyes, where she feels she is «reborn», and as a consequence sees in her newly born desire only a «talent for corruption» (Ibidem):

I felt a vague desolation that within me, now my female wound had healed, there had awoken a certain queasy craving like the cravings of pregnant women for the taste of coal or chalk or tainted food, for the renewal of his caresses. Had he not hinted to me, in his flesh as in his speech and looks, of the thousand, thousand baroque intersections of flesh upon flesh? I lay in our wide bed accompanied by a sleepless companion, my dark newborn curiosity.
I lay in bed alone. And I longed for him. And he disgusted me. (22)

30This passage is interesting under multiple points of view. First of all, the loss of virginity is described as a wound in the female body, as something that requires healing, and at the same time as leaving an invisible, but very substantial scar. Secondly, desire and the longing for the husband accordingly take on the negative meaning of something inevitable and disgusting, as the scar left by a wound which has healed but whose barely visible imprint on the skin is destined to remain as a reminder. The reason why the girl abhors such a longing is that she has not realized yet what pleasure means, because it has been violently taken, stolen from her. Moreover, her remarks could stem from the association, already made explicit by the Marquis, between female desire and perversion, corruption, something deviant which should be kept under control. In this context, sex is a performance which leaves no room for reciprocity and exchange, because it is staged by a patriarchal director whose sole purpose is to tame the puppet-woman into his disciplined ideal of the perfect wife – which, in this particular case, implies being subject to, but most certainly not of, his perversions. Even though the girl has never been explicitly compared to a marionette or a doll, significantly enough, towards the end of the story, when he realises that his perfect deadly plot has been spoiled, the Marquis is addressed as a – failing – puppet-master: «The puppet-master, open mouthed, wide-eyed, impotent at the last, saw his dolls break free of their strings, abandon the rituals he had ordained for them since time began and start to live for themselves; the king, aghast, witnesses the revolt of his pawns» (Carter 1979a: 39).

31In the end, the girl manages to break free, and although her liberation is pragmatically effected by her mother, her emancipation symbolically begins when she stops lowering her eyes and bowing her head to look away – and turn away – from her self. The beginning of the process which enables the young woman to set herself – or rather, be set – free can be traced back to the moment when she witnesses the true character of her husband’s homicidal perversion – that is when she enters the bloody chamber. The second step is the encounter with the piano tuner, which lets her experience the implications of selfless affection and reciprocity with a man for the first time, and after which she can finally fully grasp the scope of the role imposed on her by her husband. Carter emphasises this change in perspective the second time the young bride is described while playing a part, which becomes – albeit desperate and hardly successful – a willing act, a deliberate performance. The young woman stops trying to imitate the constitutive constraints of the identity imposed on her by her husband, or to escape them by turning her eyes away from his and from mirrors, and purposely stages – imitates – that performance with deceptive intentions: «With the most treacherous, lascivious tenderness, he kissed my eyes, and, mimicking the new bride newly awakened, I flung my arms around him, for on my seeming acquiescence depended my salvation» (34).

32The young protagonist of “The Bloody Chamber” could be considered a disembodied subject in that she has yet to take hold of her body, to learn how to mark it, how to write her own cartography on its surface. That is why she cannot help but learn how to live with the mark of shame impressed on her forehead by the bloody key, which symbolises the power of signifying her body that her husband still wields: «I scrubbed my forehead with the nail brush as I had scrubbed the key but this red mark would not go away, either, no matter what I did, and I knew I should wear it until I died» (37).

33A similar instance of female body devoid of meaning and therefore compared to that of a puppet because its owner is not able to inscribe it with her own meanings, can be found in “The Lady of the House of Love”. Although this tale will be extensively analysed with reference to monstrosity and the female grotesque, it is worth stressing also its significance as to the issue of a dis-owned body, a body which has been forever marked by immortality, which in her case also means impossibility of changing. The destiny of immobility to which her ancestors have condemned her is perceived by the Lady-Vampire as helpless, unwelcomed, disgusting, a «role» that she is most reluctant to play: «Everything about this beautiful and ghastly lady is as it should be, queen of night, queen of terror – except her horrible reluctance for the role» (Carter 1979a: 95). Here the body is even more central than in “The Bloody Chamber”, not so much because the woman does not understand it – after all, it cannot change – but rather because it imposes its urges, its hunger on her:

The white hands of the tenebrous belle deal the hand of destiny. Her fingernails are longer than those of the mandarins of ancient China and each is pared to a fine point. These and teeth as fine and white as spikes of spun sugar are the visible signs of the destiny she wistfully attempts to evade. (94)

34This passage discloses a pivotal strand within patriarchal discourses that Carter sets out to unmask, criticise and overthrow, namely the contention that «anatomy is destiny», that women’s fate is written on their bodies. Interestingly, Carter tackles the topic by resorting once more to theatrical figurations, and she conveys the inability experienced by this woman to change and appropriate her body by comparing her to a «ventriloquist’s doll», to an «automaton», and later on to a «haunted house»:

Her voice, issuing from those red lips like the obese roses in her garden, lips that do not move – her voice is curiously disembodied; she is like a doll, he thought, a ventriloquist’s doll, or, more, like a great, ingenious piece of clockwork. For she seemed inadequately powered by some slow energy of which she was not in control; as if she had been wound up years ago, when she was born, and now the mechanism was inexorably running down and would leave her lifeless. This idea that she must be an automaton, made of white velvet and black fur, that could not move of its own accord, never quite deserted him; indeed, it deeply moved his heart.
She herself is a haunted house. She does not possess herself. (102-103)

  • 3Needless to say, this description is produced by the male character, who is the focalizer of this (...)

35Significantly, the automaton here does not stand for the potentially empowering hybridisation between human – and more specifically woman – and machine most aptly advocated by Donna Haraway (1985), but rather for her disembodiment, which man is eager to fill with his own meanings3. That is why, perhaps, the young cyclist is «moved» by the Lady’s ostensible forgery and later on does not hesitate to fantasize about possible ways of fixing what seems wrong in her body.

36In both tales – “The Bloody Chamber” and “The Lady of the House of Love” – theatricality and mimicry do not represent the achievement of an empowered subjectivity freed from patriarchal constraints. Rather, they disclose different, almost opposite, hardships endured by women in the process of forging their own identity while facing disembodiment but at the same time perceiving that bodily inscription is the core of both their submission and their latent liberation and empowerment. More precisely, the first tale tells the story of a girl who is growing up – therefore her body as well as her social position are changing – and, more or less willingly, has to face the displacement caused by the realisation that she is forced to act a limited span of parts that have already been prepared for her. The second story represents instead a woman who is prevented from changing, whose body incarnates her eternal predatory stillness, and whose – bodily – performances are therefore ironically doomed to be an ongoing repetition of sameness. This woman literally embodies the constitutive constraints of disciplined performative repetitions and re-enactments of the same, from which she does not seem capable of escaping, thus her identification with a ventriloquist’s doll, which is voiceless and whose very movements depend on the will of the master.

37So far, then, the issue of theatricality has been exposed as something exploited by Carter to trigger awareness, to disclose hidden, too often undetected and too deeply internalised patriarchal strategies of spreading and rooting discourses about disciplined female bodies. Nonetheless, these first connotations pave the way for a significant set of implications related to the concept of theatricality and the staging of identity on and through the body, which are also related to and may engender resistance and agency; the notion of ‘masquerade’.

1.4. Bodily performances: paradoxical masquerades

38In introducing the tenets of her notion of masquerade, Tseëlon (1995) sets out to explore some of the «paradoxes which frame the feminine experience in contemporary West», which Carter, too, tries to disclose and question through her fairy tales. In particular, among the most significant traits of both texts are the attention for the intersection between cultural, discursive constructions and bodily inscriptions; the mutually productive nature of the relationship between self and social identity; and the close analysis of the role of representation in shaping embodied subjects:

The departure point of my work is the notion that a cultural designation is instrumental in shaping a personal one. There is a dialectical dialogue between cultural categories and the people who embody them: the act of representation modifies the nature of the represented object. (Tseëlon 1995: 3)

39Tseëlon proposes a definition of the category of woman, which suits the lived experience of Carter’s characters, and besides could be a response to the urge of redefining instead of rejecting the category of woman advocated for by Braidotti. According to Tseëlon, «woman» defies «any categorical designation», therefore she constitutes herself «as a paradox, a perpetual deference, an image of reality with the unavailability of desire, an absent presence» (2). Despite her apparent impossibility of being grasped, however, woman has always been imposed on roles that she is supposed to wear, or to perform, which puts her in an even more liminal and paradoxical position:

The roles that are available to her (social, psychological, visual) place her in another impossible position. If she embraces them she is supporting the ideology which defines her in the first place. If she rejects them outright she denies herself a certain amount of options, now marked, that would have otherwise been available to her. (2-3)

40This is exactly the problematic situation in which Carter’s heroines find themselves and from which they try to escape. The protagonists of The Bloody Chamber are often caught in the need of acknowledging the ways in which oppressive discourses work in order to be able to question and defy them, and the necessity of finding alternative articulations to those available to them. The performances of the protagonists of “The Bloody Chamber” and “The Lady of the House of Love” also fit into one of the paradoxes articulated by Tseëlon’s analysis of female identity as masquerade, namely «female identity as non-identity» (Tseëlon 1995: 33). This paradox «ranges from mythological and theological descriptions which define the essence of the woman as dissimulation, […] as an inessential social construction» (33-34). Broadly speaking, the outcomes of such contentions, which according to Tseëlon are – albeit with fundamental differences (see Tseëlon 1995: 34) – the definition of femininity as fake, duplicitous, masquerade in the light of the importance of «the appearance of femininity» raise questions about the authenticity of the category of woman. In other words, Tseëlon asks, is the appearance of femininity «indicative of inauthenticity of character», or is it «external to the self»? Regardless of the arguments laid out in order to answer this question, what is of relevance here is that in this debate one voice is significantly always absent: that of woman herself (34). The real question to ask, then, which underlies the former, would be: «Given that women are placed in these feminine roles, do they experience them as alien or as part of the self?» (Ibidem).

41With the instances of “The Bloody Chamber” and “The Lady of the House of Love” Carter seems to engage precisely in this controversy, which is not resolved, but nonetheless is invariably problematized. As the experience of both female protagonists highlight, indeed, the roles designed for women are most certainly socially and discursively devised and more often than not foisted on them – therefore they are alien to their selves. Nevertheless, if Butler’s arguments about theatricality, performativity and repetition, Tseëlon’s remarks and the way in which they are represented in Carter’s stories are drawn together, the interplay between and mutual productivity of acting and the embodiment of imposed role positions – experienced as alien as well as part of the self – becomes apparent. Carter’s characters and their fictional experiences show that patriarchal established ideals of femininity are at first pivotal to female subject-formation and identification, that is they are the first stage in which the idea of «what it means to be a woman» is approached and internalised. After that, however, acknowledgement of the fiction of femininity thus encoded is necessary, and is followed by – as the protagonist of “The Bloody Chamber” reveals – the parodic, acquiescent embodiment of those roles aimed at turning patriarchy against itself, that is at mimicking patriarchal conventions in order to trick and bend them. Only then can it be conceivable for woman to finally perceive the roles she wears as «part of the self», as something which belongs to the subject, that can consciously be displayed at will. And, most importantly, this is the assumption which enables one to take a step further, that is to begin to build defiant autonomous sets of roles and performances.

42The function of the body and of its changes in this process is crucial. It is primarily through the body that woman displays her masquerade, whether it is complicit in what is expected from her or subversively plays with the different identities she is required to wear. Moreover, it is chiefly through the body that the change in attitudes, which is more often than not a sign of will and choice, is made visible. Far from signalling a «lack of identity», then, the paradoxical condition of femininity, its masquerade, is a weapon in women’s hands. This is to say, the duplicity with which they are associated and which is source of fear and eludes clear understanding is evidence of women’s ability to change and thwart the constrictions of the binary thought.

43Besides staging and questioning female identity performances through theatricality and masquerade, the mask and the idea of playing a role are exploited by Carter to call into question masculine strategies of identity construction through the body and embodiment as well, and to expose their fictive and performative nature. Significantly enough, if one turns to the stories about “Beauty and the Beast”, some paradoxes also emerge from Carter’s characterisation of masculine identity and its transformations.

  • 4As will be argued in the following section, animals in Carter’s fairy tales take on very different (...)

44Carter’s approach to masculine identity construction in these tales is peculiar, as it develops from the need for the male characters to transcend their physical appearance as animals, which they reject. Interestingly – and paradoxically – both Beasts literally endeavour to overcome an actual animal shape, whereas the female protagonists try to overcome woman’s symbolic associations with and reduction to the animal, which goes hand in hand with her identification with the body4.

45In both “Beauty and the Beast” stories the Beasts are dressed, and/or exert themselves to behave like men, in spite of the grotesque results of their efforts. In “The Courtship of Mr Lyon” the Beast’s attitude and appearances highlight the paradoxes of a self split between the resolution to look like a human being and the inevitable surfacing of beastly attributes. On his first appearance before Beauty’s father, the Beast stands on his hinder legs and is elegantly dressed like a wealthy man. Yet, his body betrays his nature and his rage exposes him for what he is; a wild animal: «Head of a lion; mane and mighty paws of a lion; he reared on his hind legs like an angry lion yet wore a smoking jacket of dull red brocade and was the owner of that lovely house and the low hills that cupped it» (Carter 1979a: 44). Significantly, in front of Beauty’s father, the Beast does not hesitate to stress his animal nature when he feels outraged. When the scared man addresses him as it is convenient because of the aristocratic surroundings as «My good fellow», the Beast thus reacts: «Good fellow? I am no good fellow! I am the Beast, and you must call me Beast» (Ibidem). When it comes to Beauty, however, the lion tries to behave like a gentleman, although the result is grotesque. When he kisses her hand, indeed, it takes her a while to realise what he is doing:

As she was about to rise, he flung himself at her feet and buried his head in her lap. She stayed stock-still, transfixed; she felt his hot breath on her fingers, the stiff bristle of his muzzle grazing her skin, the rough lapping of his tongue and then, with a flood of compassion, understood: all he is doing is kissing my hands. (Ibidem)

46Despite the twisted character of the scene, Beauty still feels a pang of surprise when she fully realises that she is in fact facing an animal, which walks on all fours: «Then, without another word, he sprang from the room and she saw, with an indescribable shock, he went on all fours» (Ibidem).

47The male protagonist of this story, thus, is a liminal creature, unmistakably embodying animal features, but at the same time displaying enough human attributes to prompt his final transformation into a human being. Unlike the Beast of the following story, “The Tiger’s Bride”, this one can speak, even if his voice is a «dark, soft, rumbling growl» which «seemed to issue from a cave full of echoes» (46).

48The beastly character of “The Tiger’s Bride” literally wears a mask «that concealed all [its] features», even though he doesn’t succeed in disguising his actual looks, thus conveying a strident, utterly fake ensemble. The Beast’s body is completely hidden: his face is covered with a mask, his clothes do not leave an inch of his furry body visible.

I never saw a man so big look so two-dimensional, in spite of the quaint elegance of The Beast, in the old-fashioned tailcoat that might, from its looks, have been bought in those distant years before he imposed seclusion on himself; he does not feel he need keep up with the times. There is a crude clumsiness about his outlines, that are on the ungainly, giant side; and he has an odd air of self-imposed restraint, as if fighting a battle with himself to remain upright when he would far rather drop down on all fours. He throws our human aspirations to the godlike sadly awry, poor fellow; only from a distance would you think The Beast not much different from any other man, although he wears a mask with a man’s face painted most beautifully on it. Oh, yes, a beautiful face; but one with too much formal symmetry of feature to be entirely human: one profile of his mask is the mirror image of the other, too perfect, uncanny. He wears a wig, too, false hair tied at the nape with a bow, a wig of the kind you see in old-fashioned portraits. A chaste silk stock stuck with a pearl hides his throat. And gloves of blond kid that are yet so huge and clumsy they do not seem to cover hands. He is a carnival figure made of papier mâché and crêpe hair. (Carter 1979a: 53)

49His smell, too, is clumsily dissimulated so that it actually reveals instead of concealing what it tries to hide: «My senses were increasingly troubled by the fuddling perfume of Milord, far too potent a reek […]. He must bathe himself in scent, soak his shirts and underlinen in it; what can he smell of, that needs so much camouflage?» (Ibidem). Despite his pitiful, desperate attempts to disguise its animal nature, this Beast is even less human than the lion of the previous story, as he cannot speak: «His masked voice echoes as from a great distance as he stoops over his hand and he has such a growling impediment in his speech that only his valet, who understands him, can interpret for him, as if his master were the clumsy doll and he the ventriloquist» (53-54).

50Besides accounting for the masquerade of male identity, this description provides interesting insights into the parallels between woman and animal drawn by the patriarchal tradition, which usually go undetected because of the internalisation and naturalisation of its mutually exclusive binaries. Like other female protagonists throughout the collection, indeed, this – male – Beast does not have a voice of his own, therefore his experience must be mediated, that is translated by another person – the valet – as, for instance, the protagonist of “The Bloody Chamber” needs her husband’s gaze to articulate a definition of her self and the mediation of the mirror to be able to account for it and then to part from it. More to the point, the Beast is directly compared with a ventriloquist’s doll, as is the female vampire in “The Lady of the House of Love”, which suggests that their bodies are soulless empty vessels. As a matter of fact, the vampire is source of fear and threats humanity because it is a body without soul, as the soul has left the body when the latter died, and the fear it engenders in the human being causes its isolation and marginalisation: the threat must be kept under control, confined and expelled from society. Likewise, the animal is traditionally granted a lesser status than the human for its lack of soul or conscience.

51As Fudge’s study on the perception of animals in Early Modern England (2002) shows, at the origins of the distinction between the human and the animal, and above all of the binary subordination of the latter to the former, lies the uncritical definition of «humanity» regardless of the attributes of «human-ness». «Human-ness» would designate «the qualities which […] each area of thought proposes as specific to the human» (Fudge 2002: 9). This is not to say that there exist some features or behaviours that qualify humanness, but rather that different historical epochs – and thus different discursive formations – define what standards are to be met for human beings to qualify as such. Conversely, the term «humanity» works through exclusion, that is it designates as human – in essential terms – that which possesses the features of humanness within a specific socio-cultural discourse, which is then extended to embrace a supposedly universal human condition. As a consequence, humanity becomes «the unproblematic and unthought category of human: those who are human whether or not they possess the qualities of humanness» (9-10). This is how, for example, having or not having a soul/conscience (the latter being the case of animals and monsters) has become a way of distinguishing the human and the animal and, most importantly, of subordinating what is associated with the animal – as Carter polemically emphasises in these stories, the common features of women and animals. This seems to be a sufficient reason why the Beasts try to disguise their animal nature and to imitate humanity, even though, as the fairy tales highlight, humanity has to be redefined altogether in order that both men and women be able to freely construct and express their selves.

  • 5Although the topic is beyond the scope of this research, Biblical references in Carter’s fairy tal (...)

52The association between woman and animal, and the fact that the Beasts’ masquerades are performed through clothes must not be disregarded. It could be helpful here to recall another of the paradoxes of femininity pointed out by Tseëlon; the definition «of the essence of the woman on the side of the matter (body and appearance) as opposed to spirit» and the simultaneous proscription of woman on account of «her inferior essence» (Tseëlon 1995: 7). According to Tseëlon, the importance played by fashion and dress codes in defining and expressing female identity dates back to early Christianity, when female bodies were considered vehicles of sexuality, deemed source of temptation and consequently threats of men’s damnation: «since the Fall is blamed on the woman, the links between sin, body, woman and clothes are easily forged» (14)5. Clothes play an ambivalent role in the revelation and concealment of sexuality «because clothes, through their proximity to the body encode the game of modesty and sexual explicitness, denial and celebration of pleasure. Clothes veil the body. Do they provide a kind of disguise of the body’s nakedness, or enhance the body’s nudity that is fantasised behind?» (Ibidem). Furthermore, fashion can be included among the technologies of gender and the mechanisms through which the body is kept under control: «Fashion has functioned as a technology of social control» (Ibidem).

53Interestingly, in Carter’s fairy tales clothes take on at least two distinct but related sets of meanings. To begin with, they disguise the body; they are masks to be worn by the male Beasts to hide their animal nature and to enact a masculine performance, but they also conceal, enclose and confine the female body, that is, female sexuality. In the first sense, then, they are a metaphor of lack of power over the body, of the difficulty to escape social control, either because the need to identify with something familiar and accepted is too strong (in the case of the Beasts) or because they are the vehicles of a set of imposed behaviours which the subjects are not yet able to question and to elude (in the case of the Beauty in “The Tiger’s Bride”). Nonetheless, clothes also play a second, important role in Carter’s stories, for they are instruments through which subjects express agency as well. This second instance accounts for the performances of different characters in the collection and, paradoxically, is represented through two opposite actions: wearing or taking off clothes.

54Wearing clothes generally conveys the idea of putting on an identity, and expresses performances through the body. In “The Bloody Chamber” the young bride uncritically wears the clothes her husband gives her in order to identify with his desired image of her, until she finally realises that she can exploit this imposed identification to willingly perform the part of the subservient wife for her own advantage. Obviously enough, this cannot be considered downright subversion, as it does not trouble patriarchal discursive arrangements, but rather a preliminary strategy of resistance.

55In “The Lady of the House of Love” clothes are played with to provide a grotesque contrast between the predatory and deadly nature of the female vampire and the virginal, alluring innocence her white bridal gown is supposed to convey. The Lady utterly – and most likely purposely – mocks the mythical «seductive threat» (Tseëlon 1995: 25) ascribed to woman. Her attire, indeed, does not carry the seductive dangers of a young untouched body nor promises the fulfilment of sexual desire, but rather conjures up pathetic childish games:

[…] this shape resolved itself into that of, of all things, a hoop-skirted dress of white satin draped here and there with lace, a dress fifty or sixty years out of fashion but once, obviously intended for a wedding. And then he saw the girl who wore the dress […] so that it was little by little, as his eyes grew accustomed to the half-dark, that he saw how beautiful and how very young the bedizened scarecrow was, and he thought of a child dressing up in her mother’s clothes, perhaps a child putting on the clothes of a dead mother in order to bring her, however briefly, to life again. (Carter 1979a: 100)

56Far from being a seductive threat, then, the «shipwrecked bride» (101) gives the impression of a young girl – «he thought she must be only sixteen or seventeen years old» (Ibidem) – clumsily playing the grownup woman, even though she is in fact the ancient, dreadful «beautiful queen of the vampires […] queen of night, queen of terror» (93, 95).

57In this instance, then, clothes represent the attempt to wear an identity which does not suit the subject, a masquerade which dissimulates an inherent monstrosity that the woman is not able to escape. It is important to note that this does not mean that the Lady possesses an essential nature, which she is not able to run away from, as if identity was an easily pliable inner core. Rather, as Carter suggests by means of this story, what is inescapable for the vampire is the immobility of her condition, the impossibility of changing, which is the reason why she strives for becoming human and persists in staging her identity even if she is doomed to fail. The bridal gown, then, is also evidence of the empowering potential of the staging of identity, a choice the woman makes of eternally being on the threshold in a double sense; she cannot help being halfway between life and death and she paradoxically chooses to be in one of – human – women’s most displaced position: the wedding day, which traditionally formalizes the transition from girlhood to womanhood.

58“Wolf-Alice” is perhaps the best example of how wearing clothes could be an empowering act. After the girl has started to recognise her image in the mirror and gone through the subsequent stages of identification, she maladroitly manages to wear a white dress – which, once again, could remind one of a bridal gown:

She pawed and tumbled the dress the Duke had tucked away behind the mirror for a while. The dust was soon shaken out of it; she experimentally inserted her front legs in the sleeves. Although the dress was torn and crumpled, it was so white and of such sinuous texture that she thought, before she put it on, she must thoroughly wash off her coat of ashes in the water from the pump in the yard, which she knew how to manipulate with her cunning forepaw. In the mirror, she saw how this white dress made her shine. (124-125)

59The dress has a double symbolic implication for the wolf-girl. On the one hand, it is evidence of Alice’s humanity, which did not have a clear status before, as she behaved and perceived herself more like an animal than like a human being: «now she knew how to wear clothes and so had put on the visible sign of her difference from them» (Carter 1979a: 125). On the other hand, it suggests that the girl is starting to enact her femininity, to take hold of her identity and performatively stage it.

60Both these contentions could be argued against, as they could put forward a regression on Alice’s part, as if by wearing a female dress she had decided to give up the animality which was a vehicle of her positive difference from the other human beings (i.e. the fact that she was not subject to normalising cultural discourses and that she could escape and freely act outside of limiting social constrictions). Moreover, the wedding dress could signify that after all she has decided to identify with disciplined heterosexual performances of femininity. However, evidence in the text demonstrates that Alice’s entrance into discourse maintains enough peculiarities to be still considered subversive. In fact, she has not entirely abandoned the animal features that empowered her; like a wolf she still relies more on smell than on sight, which means that she will not be subject to the defining powers of the male gaze, unlike other protagonists of The Bloody Chamber.

Although she could not run so fast on two legs in petticoats, she trotted out in her new dress to investigate the odorous October hedgerows […] delighted with herself but still, now and then, singing to the wolves […].

[…] then her nostrils twitched to catch the rank stench of the dead that told her co-habitor was at hand […]. And if her nostrils flare suspiciously at the choking reek of incense and his do not, that is because she is far more sentient than he. (Carter 1979a: 125)

61In addition, her humanity remains at odds with that of the other villagers, who are superstitious and hostile, who reject difference and refuse to understand it, therefore are unable to conceive of reciprocity and exchange. Not only have they confined Alice and the Duke at the margins of society because of their difference, but now they hunt the Duke down and try to kill him because they believe he is a threat to their survival, as they did with Alice’s wolf mother – despite neither was harming them: the Duke feeds on corpses, not on lively bodies, he «hunts the graveyards» (124). It is, finally, by means of one of the senses discarded by human beings, taste, that Alice is able to save the Duke, that is to bring him back to human life, licking «without hesitation, without disgust, with a quick, tender gravity, the blood and dirt from his cheeks and forehead» (126), as an animal would do. The ongoing metamorphoses of her self and her choice to perform her womanhood resulting from it hide a transformative potential which, in its reciprocal reach, is capable of remodelling the other, too.

62As for the female dress the girl picks from the Duke’s wardrobe, it is certainly a sign that Carter decides to stay within the territory of a normalised heterosexual economy. Nevertheless, at the same time it questions traditional associations between woman and animal, since the act of putting on a dress sets forth a distinction between the realm of the human and that of the animal, although their boundaries are porous, so that the woman always has the chance to embody those animal attributes which can help her contest and resist the external imposition of a tailored and buttoned-up female identity.

63Taking off the clothes, when it is the outcome of an autonomous decision is a less ambivalent act, which more often than not can be directly associated with agency and empowerment. In The Bloody Chamber nakedness is not to be read in negative terms as lack of modesty or intentional and tricky seductiveness, as the patriarchal tradition would interpret it (see Tseëlon 1995: 29), but rather as the willing act with which woman embraces sexual desire and acknowledges that her connection with the body is not a limit, but a potential – the experience of pleasure and reciprocity which engenders and celebrates change.

64In “The Company of Wolves” Carter plays with the transitional ritual described in the folkloric versions of the fairy tale “Red Riding Hood”, where the wolf orders the girl to throw her clothes into the fire, which traditionally symbolises renewal and rebirth (see Bacchilega 1997). In Carter’s story, it is the protagonist herself who willingly takes off her clothes and throws them into the fire, after she has understood that being scared of the wolf – and of the sexual desire it stands for – does her «no good»:

She […] took of her scarlet shawl, the colour of poppies, the colour of sacrifices, the colour of her menses, and, since her fear did her no good, she ceased to be afraid.
What shall I do with my shawl?
Throw it on the fire, dear one. You won’t need it again.
She bundled up her shawl and threw it on the blaze, which instantly consumed it. Then she drew her blouse over her head; her small breasts gleamed as if the snow had invaded the room.
What shall I do with my blouse?
Into the fire with it, too, my pet.
The thin muslin went flaring up the chimney like a magic bird and now off came her skirt, her woollen stockings, her shoes, and on to fire they went, too, and were gone for good. The firelight shone through the edges of her skin; now she was clothed only in her untouched integument of flesh. (Carter 1979a: 117-118)

65After that, the girl takes off the wolf’s clothes as well, and takes the initiative of kissing him:

Then went directly to the man with red eyes in whose unkempt mane the lice moved; she stood up on tiptoe and unbuttoned the collar of his shirt. […]
She freely gave the kiss she owed him […then] she ripped off his shirt for him and flung it into the fire, in the fiery wake of her own discarded clothing. (118)

66With these acts, Red Riding Hood shows that she is eager to dismiss all the disciplined behaviours society has taught her and to start acting on her desire in her own terms, even if it means breaching all the laws of disciplined and convenient femininity – her «integument of flesh» is «untouched» because she is a virgin, but also in that now she is free from any externally forced restraint. The agency and empowerment implied by this action are expressed through the domestication of the wolf: instead of eating her, he lies with her in bed, where the dangerous, threatening beast has now turned into a «tender wolf» (118). Once again, the transformation of the girl, who decides to free herself from social expectations, results in the transformation of the animal, and in a telling reversal, the supposedly dangerous untamed female desire succeeds in taming an actually dangerous creature. The wolf, indeed, tries to scare the girl: «What big teeth you have! […] All the better to eat you with», only to find out that she bursts out laughing, as now she is wise and «she knew she was nobody’s meat» (Ibidem). Then, in a lovely act of mutual exchange, she encourages the wolf to do what she did by helping him take off his clothes.

67Likewise, in “The Tiger’s Bride” willing unclothing on the part of both characters exposes the reciprocity required for a transformation that goes beyond and at the same time emphasises the metamorphosis taking place in their identity, and pre-empts the actual physical change. The Beast finally decides to take off his mask and to show himself for what he is:

The tiger sat still as a heraldic beast, in the pact he had made with its own ferocity to do me no harm. He was far larger than I could have imagined, from the poor, shabby things I’d seen once, in the Czar’s menagerie at Petersburg, the golden fruit of their eyes dimming, withering in the far North of captivity. Nothing about him reminded me of humanity. (Carter 1979a: 64)

68And the girl chooses to look at him, despite the fear and the panic arising in her at the very idea of such a sight:

“If you will not let him see you without your clothes –”
I involuntarily shook my head –
“– you must, then, prepare yourself for the sight of my master, naked.”
[…] My composure deserted me; all at once I was on the brink of panic. I did not think that I could bear the sight of him, whatever he was.
[…] When I saw how scared he was I might refuse, I nodded.
[…] I felt my breast ripped apart as if I suffered a marvellous wound. The valet moved forward as if to cover up his master now the girl had acknowledged him, but I said: “No.” (64)

69After confronting her fear, Beauty realises that the Beast is afraid of his nakedness as well, of being helpless in the face of his body and desire, therefore she is ready to give up her disguise, too, that is the idea that nakedness is shameful and sexual desire something to be restrained: «I, therefore, shivering, now unfastened my jacket, to show him I would do him no harm» (Ibidem). As a result of this wilful act, she acknowledges: «I felt I was at liberty for the first time in my life» (Ibidem). And when she returns to her room she realizes that the clockwork maid is no longer – as she had felt earlier – her twin: «[…] while my maid, whose face was no longer the spit of my own, continued bonnily to beam. I will dress her in my own clothes, wind her up, send her back to perform the part of my father’s daughter» (65). The woman is now freed from patriarchal discursive constraints because the choice to fully identify with her body and to embrace her desire made her realise that it is source of power, and she is ready to undergo the ultimate metamorphosis, to voluntarily turn into a beast.


1 For the main feminist objections to Foucault’s arguments, see Grosz (1994: 156-158).

2   Interestingly, among the consequences of the materialisation of the bodies conceived of according to Butler’s idea of theatrical performativity, there is the production of accepted and abject bodies, which do not «qualify as fully human» because of their deviance. Even though Butler mainly refers to those bodies which exceed the heterosexual norm, and are thus considered abnormal, this notion will be exploited to discuss some aspects of Carter’s monstrous bodies in the following sections.

3 Needless to say, this description is produced by the male character, who is the focalizer of this section.

4 As will be argued in the following section, animals in Carter’s fairy tales take on very different meanings depending on their sex.

5 Although the topic is beyond the scope of this research, Biblical references in Carter’s fairy tales are numerous and telling. See, for example Renfroe (2001) who draws a parallel between the protagonist of “The Bloody Chamber” and Eve.


Volume papier
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search