Friday, 15 July 2011

Boldly Addressing the War of the Sexes - A Review of 'The Bloody Chamber' by Angela Carter

During the course of my studies, I've had the good fortune to write a paper on an interesting short story/novella, entitled The Bloody Chamber. Written by Angela Carter, a prolific reteller of faerie tales, The Bloody Chamber is a reimagining of the famous Bluebeard story (by Charles Perrault).

Unlike Bluebeard however, The Bloody Chamber's rich prose bravely interrogates complex patriarchal ideologies underlying so much of humanity's gender relations.

By use of symbolism and imagery, Carter successfully exposes flaws in societal systems governing the relationship between the sexes. Such systems are often taken for granted in the approach sexes have towards each other, a situation which - sadly -creates a high potential for abusive behaviour.

(Warning: Spoilers ahead)

19th century 'Bluebeard' illustration
by Gustave Dore
The Bloody Chamber follows the path of an un-named heroine who willingly marries a sadomachistic Marquis for his wealth and status. In return, she is to bear him an heir.

Following their marriage, the Marquis corrupts the heroine's ideals and sexuality. He dominates her view of her nature and role in the world. When the Marquis leaves the heroine to go on a business trip, he provides her with keys to all the chambers in his castle, but forbids her to enter one of them (as depicted in Gustave Dore's 19th century illustration). The heroine of course disobeys the Marquis's prohibition, only to discover inside the bloody chamber the bodies of the many wives the Marquis had previously murdered. He returns, intending to kill her for her disobedience, but she is ultimately saved while he is killed; she inherits his castle and wealth.

There are a lot of layers to Carter's story. What stood out to me was that the heroine's discovery of the bloody chamber ultimately turns her aware of abusive patriarchal roots in humanity's social systems.

The high maternal mortality rates symbolised by the bloody chamber made the original Bluebeard tale tilt towards feminism if read as a warning against the death that marriage commongly brought to the women of Perrault's time (the 17th century). What I found interesting in The Bloody Chamber however is that Carter has gone a step further in depicting just how victimised the male psyche is by abusive patriarchal systems as well.

In this context, the Marquis's evil became understandable to me (his ancestry was one of such violence and misogyny, it would have been remarkable if he didn't turn out the way he did). Carter contrasts the Marquis's worldview with the opposing gentle male psyche of the blind piano tuner, Jean-Yves who - though he supports the heroine - cannot truly assist her in any meaningful way as the Marquis is more powerful than he is.

The ultimate hero of the piece is the heroine's mother, who rides to her daughter's rescue and dispatches the Marquis with a single bullet. To me, this was a powerfully variant feminist ending to the tale - when have mothers ever ridden to the rescue of their children in any faerie tale, despite many doing so in real life?

Indeed, when have mothers ever been portrayed in traditional storytelling as powerful and strong figures who successfully combat evil?

I couldn't help reading Carter's ending also as a reinterpretation of traditional (and arguably patriarchal) views of the Biblical 'original sin' event. Instead of being a one-dimensional and painful punishment, woman's ability to give birth becomes also a gift to true wisdom from love (by creating the parent-child bond) instead of fake/meaningless wisdom from the cold-blooded motivations of the intellect (or mind-centred curiosity, which ultimately led Eve to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden).

There may be flaws to this view of the world - that considerations of the heart should supersede those of the intellect. I've always thought that a holistic person is one who embraces both mind and heart. But perhaps the point is that compassion and kindness distinguish the thinking human from the merely intellectual.

From this compassion-friendly vantage, there is an attractive humanism in Carter's approach. She doesn't balk at considering the abuses suffered by both genders under patriarchal societal structures; she neglects neither masculine nor feminine genders in her exploration of society's abusive gender role-playing.

For this reason, The Bloody Chamber (and Carter's other faerie tale retellings in her short story collection The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories) have truly been a stimulus for my seeing the way genders are constructed by illusory systems that cause us to abuse each other for the benefit of man-made motivations: the bartering for power.

I only wish that I had had the pleasure of reading stories like these in my younger years, so that my eyes could have been opened all the sooner to the manipulative power structures that have been so coldly entrenched in our world for so many generations. It is stories like Carter's which shed light on why men and women behave the way they do. More importantly, such stories remind us that structures which violently influence gender relations can be re-thought and changed, if only by one's individual courage and compassion to challenge the abusive status quo.

Prominent blogger Nathan Bransford wrote recently on how we make sense of the world around us through our interpretation of narratives/stories. Like him, I believe stories are powerful mediums through which we can reimagine our world in clearer (and perhaps more truthful) colours. Books like The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories only strengthen my belief in the power of storytelling to expose narratives that are built on abusive - and false - premises.

I am hopeful that the more writers write about such issues, the more arbitrary man-made systems may one day be transcended to achieve fairness and equality between all human beings.

In the meanwhile, if gender studies/narrative studies is something you're interested in, Carter's excellent collection of stories might be something you'd like to have a look at. In any event, I'm certain you won't be disappointed by her richly crafted stories:)

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