The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter

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The Gaze of the Beast

One of the most fascinating aspects of ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is its portrayal of the Marquis and his gradual descent into darker and deeper levels of criminality. He is, unquestionably, a bestial figure: ‘the dark, leonine shape of his head’ is described early on in the story. This reference is meant to echo the earlier comment by the narrator that her mother had, when she was a young woman, shot a ‘man-eating tiger’ dead – an incident also referred to at the end of the story when she kills the Marquis.

His identification with the tiger is not simply to add colour; it raises an important point about him: he has indulged himself by killing a woman in a sexual context and become addicted to the pleasure this gives him – so that he has to do it more and more often in more and more extreme ways. As is well known, tigers do not generally hunt humans. However, if one does happen to kill a man, woman or child, it acquires a taste for human flesh and will do so again and again. A ‘man-eater’ therefore has to be killed, since it has become an indiscriminate threat to all of human society.

The descent of the Marquis into this perverse tigerism is carefully mapped out by Carter. He first conceives a passion for an opera singer, one particularly associated with performing the famous Liebestod of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde . Carter’s prose allows us to imagine him looking down on this ‘sumptuous diva’ in a romantic context and falling in love at the very moment she, in character, dies for love. One of the themes of Tristan and Isolde is how human beings are always frustrated in their desires – always longing for something they can never have – but the Marquis is so rich he is not as limited as ordinary men in the pursuit of his fantasies. He manages to seduce the diva and marry her and then, one assumes, in a moment of grand and theatrical passion, he strangles her. He then has her body embalmed and placed on a catafalque, preserving the moment in which she ‘died for love of him’. Interestingly, she is described by the narrator as happy in her manner of death: ‘The worst thing was, the dead lips smiled.’

The Marquis’s fall into perversion and crime is easy to chart: the diva was never really a person to him at all; merely an essential element in an elaborate fantasy he feels compelled to act out with her. The man gazing down at the beautiful opera singer has seen only the externals, only the performance, and is henceforth possessed by a cruel and inhuman desire to make the moment of the Liebestod real. He continues to be haunted by Wagner’s opera, and it is mentioned again at the end of the story.

His second wife is, like the diva, a figure who is very publicly seen: she is an artist’s model:

Her face is common property; everyone painted her but the Redon engraving I liked best, The Evening Star Walking on the Rim of Night. To see her skeletal, enigmatic grace, you would never think she had been a barmaid in a café in Montmartre until Puvis de Chavannes saw her and had her expose her flat breasts and elongated thighs to his brush.

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