The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter

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Accepting the Beast’s Gaze

Carter, however, adds a further element to this theme: the protagonist’s arousal by the Marquis’s treatment of her: ‘And, as at the opera, when I had first seen my flesh in his eyes, I was aghast to feel myself stirring.’ This leads the reader to consider one of the most interesting – and disturbing – elements of the story: the degree of potential ‘corruption’, as it is phrased by the narrator, in her own nature. This supposed ‘corruption’ is closely related to the ‘male gaze’ in its most brutal form. The female protagonist describes herself at the opera being viewed by her fiancé as ‘horseflesh’ or ‘cuts on the slab’. She even appreciates (unknowingly) the ‘cruel necklace’ through which the Marquis fetishizes her beheading, and this leads her to comment: ‘I sensed in myself a potential for corruption that took my breath away.’

The nature of this corruption is hinted at later in the story, but it first needs to be pointed out that her acceptance of the Marquis’s gaze is not simply a woman’s pleasure at being looked at and found attractive: the whole point of the ‘male gaze’ is that it is not affirming, but humiliating. The proper context for such feelings is soon established when the narrator finds the Marquis’s ‘prayer books’, which are actually volumes of sado-masochistic illustrations. The Marquis’s term for these items is insistently ironic: the narrator is not an innocent ‘nun’ – she has indeed been drawn to these books rather than any others in the castle’s library. Her subsequent deflowering is pornographically visual (by ‘broad daylight’ and reflected by a multiplicity of mirrors) and it is described as something painful and violent (she is ‘impaled’). The key element, again, of the experience is its visual component: ‘All the better to see you’ says the Marquis, intentionally quoting the wolf from ‘Little Red Riding-Hood’.

Whether the narrator’s enjoyment of sexual humiliation and objectification (and possibly of pain as well) is right or wrong must be left to the reader’s own judgement: both pro- and anti-BDSM positions have been advocated within specifically feminist circles in recent years, never mind in the more general cultural discussion of such matters. What seems beyond doubt, however, is that it is the reason why the narrator is stained by the magical blood she found in the Marquis’s chamber of horrors, and that the narrator is pleased that her second husband – Jean-Yves – is blind and unable to see the mark the blood has left on her forehead.

Is this a degree of ‘corruption’ within her, as the narrator seems to believe? Or is it something with which the Marquis has infected her? Something that would not have existed in her psycho-sexual nature without his influence – and therefore, considering the narrator’s youth, something akin to the grim reality of child grooming and sexual abuse? The latter reading would make ‘The Bloody Chamber’ a totally and unequivocally feminist piece – something which seems a likely intention of the author.

An element, however, which possibly suggests that the first reading is the correct one is the title of the story itself. Many readers assume a double meaning in ‘The Bloody Chamber’: that the words refer not only to the Marquis’s ‘enfer’, but also to the (menstrual) womb. If this is correct, it is a somewhat strange association to make: fundamentally, the womb is a place of life-giving nourishment and maternal care. Does the title rather refer to a masculine terror of the female reproductive organs, associated with menstrual blood, and the source of a deep-seated misogyny in men like the Marquis? Or does the title suggest that within their own psyches some women carry their own ‘bloody chamber’; their own dark ‘corruption’ of sexuality; their own desire for such ‘horrors’ – something perhaps associated subconsciously with the flow of their own menstrual blood? That reading is perhaps not one that Carter herself would have adhered to, but it is certainly a possible interpretation of her words.

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