I was worried about re-reading The Bloody Chamber, the late British writer Angela Carter’s most famous work, a collection of short stories based on the Western fairy-tale canon that Penguin Classics has just released in a deluxe edition to commemorate what would have been the author’s 75th birthday. Originally published in 1979, it preceded the recent wave of fairy-tale remixing by roughly three decades, and I feared that the Internet’s endless Disney Princess variations might have robbed Carter’s stories of the potency they possessed when I first read them, over a decade ago. Specifically, would the insistently feminist tone of so much contemporary reappropriation render The Bloody Chamber‘s own celebrated view of gender in our culture’s most cherished bedtime stories too obvious to be thrilling?
What I didn’t remember about Carter, who I haven’t read in years despite also loving her novels Nights at the Circus and The Passion of New Eve, is how singular her feminism is. In fact, it bears so little resemblance to the feel-good “badass heroines” and “strong female characters” of so much current revisionist storytelling that it almost seems misleading to characterize these two approaches as part of the same movement. Carter isn’t primarily concerned with inverting gender roles or making sure women come out on top in any given fairy tale or even just showing readers how deeply misogynist some of these stories are (although she does often succeed in doing that as well). Instead, she sinks deep into their imagery and language — and in delving into the symbolic underpinnings of the myths that constitute so many people’s first encounters with literature, she can’t help but speak volumes about the social expectations and psychological pressures that govern women, men, and the interactions between the genders.
Often, she accomplishes this purely through repetition and juxtaposition. In The Bloody Chamber‘s nearly novella-length title story, based on “Bluebeard,” the teenage bride of a hulking, mysterious, wealthy man comes to live with him in his castle. It is immediately followed by “The Courtship of Mr Lyon,” a love story similar to “Beauty and the Beast,” in which a hulking, mysterious, wealthy leonine creature demands that a beautiful young woman be brought to him after her father abuses his hospitality. Next comes “The Tiger’s Bride,” a less traditional take on the same source material; here, the father gambles away his daughter, and she’s held captive by a far more beastly beast who won’t free her until she agrees to let him see her naked body. The outcomes of these stories is very different — there’s revenge, romance, and a strange sort of metamorphic resolution that might preoccupy your thoughts for hours afterward. But what Carter gets across, without explicitly pointing to it, is how deeply embedded the union of innocent girl and dark, animalistic male is in the Western subconscious.
This sort of repetition takes place within the stories as well, and among them on the level of individual images. Over and over, Carter draws our attention to the snow-white skin of a young virgin and the fragrant yet delicate flowers with which they are courted and the thorns they or their tormentors pierce their fingers on when those flowers happen to be roses. (“The Snow Child,” the book’s briefest story at just two pages long, is devoted almost entirely to these symbols, quite bluntly illustrating how beautiful dead girls are eroticized.) We come to see, as these images recur, how connected they are to the rites of menarche and sexual awakening; blood-stained sheets appear just as often as pricked fingers. A whole constellation of ideas about purity and defilement surround the girls (and sometimes boys) in these stories. Refreshingly, Carter doesn’t seek to resolve the contradictions between them. A first sexual encounter can lead to peril, or it can lead to agency — or it can lead to the latter by way of the former. Even in the realm of fairy tales (a setting Carter often modernizes without distracting from the timelessness of the stories), there is an invigorating realism to this.
As her two versions of “Beauty and the Beast” suggest, Carter is also fond of pulling apart the many thematic threads that make up the fabric of these ancient tales. The Bloody Chamber‘s final three stories view “Little Red Riding Hood” through a prism. “The Werewolf” seizes on its contrast between youth and old age, as the traditionally innocent title character masterminds her grandmother’s destruction, a girl coming of age and usurping the crone’s space in the world. “The Company of Wolves” (from which the Neil Jordan film was adapted) latches on to the latent sexual dynamic between the girl and the wolf stalking her through the woods — and, like “The Bloody Chamber” and “The Tiger’s Bride,” among others, involves a virgin’s initiation. The book ends in an impressionistic reckoning with the fear of wildness that drives “Little Red Riding Hood”; in “Wolf-Alice,” the child and the wolf become one and the same.
The insight behind Carter’s manipulation of these stories is remarkable, but what eases her versions into the subconscious as readily as the originals is the lushness of her language, which preserves the grandness of fairy-tale diction while bringing sexual subtext to the surface and alluring the reader with an air of decadence. Just listen to her describe the tragic monster at the center of “The Lady of the House of Love”:
Wearing an antique bridal gown, the beautiful queen of the vampires sits all alone in her dark, high house under the eyes of the portraits of her demented and atrocious ancestors, each one of whom, through her, projects a baleful posthumous existence; she counts out the Tarot cards, ceaselessly construing a constellation of possibilities as if the random fall of the cards on the red plush tablecloth before her could precipitate her from her chill, shuttered room into a country of perpetual summer and obliterate the perennial sadness of a girl who is both death and the maiden.
Her voice is filled with distant sonorities, like reverberations in a cave: now you are at the place of annihilation, now you are at the place of annihilation. And she is herself a cave full of echoes, she is a system of repetitions, she is a closed circuit. ‘Can a bird sing only the song it knows or can it learn a new song?’ She draws her long, sharp fingernail across the bars of the cage in which her pet lark sings, striking a plangent twang like that of the plucked heartstrings of a woman of metal. Her hair falls down like tears.
We may be suffering from a surfeit of reimagined fairy tales and too-easy feminist remixes of sexist tropes, but The Bloody Chamber retains its power because there will never be enough writing this perceptive — or just plain beautiful.