Tuesday, 21 May 2013

A2 English Literature: The Bloody Chamber (story)

The opening of The Bloody Chamber gives us a certain impression of the nameless female narrator we are greeted with. Or, at least, it gives each person a certain impression; the fact that Carter allows for differing impressions is already great for AO3. In terms of the opening of the story, is the narrator "cute but essentially helpless", as critic H. Bertens says of Gothic women, or is she in fact strong-willed and independent?

'Cute but essentially helpless'

  • "I had, in some way, ceased to be her child in becoming his wife." Here Carter is playing with gender roles - something she does frequently throughout the text. The possessive use of "her child" and "his wife" suggests that the narrator is not a woman in her own right; she is merely passed from person to person like an object
  • "A starburst of lights spattered the drawn blinds as if the railway company had lit up all the stations through which we passed in celebration of the bride." Here the narrator arguably seems naive in assuming that stations are lit up for her. Her evocative language is reminiscent of Romanticism or Romantic idealism - something that the original Gothic genre was closely associated with
Strong-willed and independent

  • "bridal triumph" - this victorious imagery suggests that the narrator's imminent status as a bride empowers her
  • "away from girlhood" - Carter is presenting the narrator as within the liminal stage between girlhood and womanhood - many of her female protagonists are on this border, and it usually seems to empower them
  • "the pounding of my heart mimicking that of the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting..." - this one can go either way. Initially, it's interesting to note that Carter's use of dominant language ("pounding", "thrusting") is actually used, all sexual imagery aside, to compare to the racing of the girl's heart. Her life force is as strong and powerful as the engine of the train. However, it's also possible to argue that the blatant sexual metaphor shows how the narrator is merely a victim to the dominating sexual power of the Marquis which oppresses and endangers her - perhaps it foreshadows the loss of her virginity later in the story
  • The narrator states that her mother "beggared herself for love", and actively goes against her mother's word. The narrator isn't satisfied in mimicking the lives of her family - she is strong-willed in going off on her own
The introduction of the Marquis is also incredibly interesting, and great for AO2. Carter uses animal imagery and multi-sensory description to create a character who seems overbearing in more ways than one. The narrator refers to "the dark, leonine shape of his head", he has a "dark mane" and "heavy eyelids" and has an "opulent male scent of leather". The bestial imagery presents the Marquis as a lion - brave and deadly. Yet at the same time he smells of leather; he is very much alive and yet his scent is that of dead animal. This subtle touch suggests something is not quite right about the Marquis - the Gothic juxtaposition of life and death is already being suggested.

What's also interesting about the Marquis's animalistic nature is how Carter is using the Gothic techniques of employing transgression and metamorphosis. The Marquis seems to be mostly human but not quite - there is a touch of beast about him. Metamorphosis is common in the collection, and also applies to The Courtship of Mr Lyon, The Tiger's Bride, The Erl-King and The Company of Wolves to name a few. 

The setting of the story is also interesting. Upon arrival, the castle (already pretty Gothic) is referred to as "that magic place". This is, of course, before we meet the Marquis, and may tell us something about the naive nature of the narrator. She calls it a "fairy castle whose walls were made of foam", and yet later this very castle traps her and almost seals her fate. The way in which it is initially described seems to adhere to the typically fantastical castles seen in fairy tales; this is surely not a coincidence, since Carter takes all of these stories from fairy tales or folklore - this story in particular being reminiscent of Bluebeard

However, even after the girl has been subject to the Marquis's oppressive character, she still speaks fondly of "sea; sand; a sky that melts into the sea - a landscape of misty pastels..." These soft, feminine colours contrast with the bold reds and whites often used in association with the Marquis. She praises the "faery solitude" of his castle and "its turrests of misty blue", as though for her this fairy tale image is a form of escapism from her life with the Marquis. The castle is also presented as a liminal setting; it is "at home neither on the land nor on the water", and is referred to as an "amphibious place". Everything about the Marquis seems uneasy and slightly off; even his residence isn't fixed; it always has the sense of drifting between one thing and another.

When the narrator later goes off to investigate the castle at night, she notes that above her bed she can see "the sardonic masks of gargoyles" watching her. Gargoyles are a typical feature of Gothic architecture, and it is as though the Marquis is constantly watching her.

The multi-sensory description is thick and dense, and really gives us an impression of just how overpowering and overbearing the Marquis really is. "A bouquet of hot-house flowers" give a visual artificiality to the place, and "a box of marrons glac├ęs" gives off a brilliant - yet fake - red. His eyes have "an absolute absence of light" (link this to The Erl-King where the protagonist refers to "the black vortex of your eye"), and the narrator notes how "that perfume of spiced leather always betrayed him.

And, of course, when discussing the sensory description associated with the Marquis it would be stupid not to mention the symbol of the lilies:

"He seemed to me like a lily. Yes. A lily. Possessed of that strange, ominous calm of a sentient vegetable, like one of those cobra-headed, funereal lilies whose white sheaths are curled out of a flesh as thick and tensely yielding to the touch as vellum."

In literature, lilies are often presented as symbols or omens of death. They are associated with funerals for this reason and the fact that the overpowering scent of lilies is associated with the Marquis throughout the story is no coincidence.

By referring to lilies as "cobra-headed", Carter is exploring the 'venomous' nature of the Marquis, whilst possibly alluding to the serpent from the Bible. Furthermore, 'vellum' is animal skin. The Marquis is not just animalistic, he is associated with dead animals. First the smell of leather, then vellum.

Later, the narrator notes how the Marquis's flesh has "too much in common with the armfuls of arum lilies", and refers to the lilies in her bedroom as "undertakers' lilies". The "heavy pollen" adds weight (literally) to the overbearing presence of the Marquis, and the narrator notes how they remind her of him: "The lilies I always associate with him; that are white. And stain you." The image of the narrator being 'stained' by the lilies directly relates to how she is 'stained' by the Marquis; he treats her like an object and brutally takes her virginity. And later, of course, he literally stains her by pressing the blood-soaked key to the bloody chamber to her forehead.

After the Marquis leaves her with the keys, the narrator notes that "the perfume of the lilies weighed on my senses". This enforces the notion that the lilies are very overbearing and 'heavy'. Not long after this, she refers to the lilies as "distorted", saying how "they looked like arms, dismembered arms". This links the symbol of lilies to death and perhaps foreshadows the means in which the Marquis intends to murder the narrator. Furthermore, the motif of dismemberment links to how the Marquis's cigar is "fat as a baby's arm". The lilies link back to him, as does the sense of dismemberment. 

The Marquis is undoubtedly very powerful. He is referred to as "a force I might not withstand" and in front of him the girl regresses into admitting "I knew nothing of the world". So what is it that attracts her towards the sinister Marquis?
  • Is it his power? Is Carter suggesting that for certain women anything and anyone can be attractive if they possess a typical male dominance?
  • Is Carter implying that sexual psychology cannot be explained, and that being attracted to someone is purely random and instinctive?
  • Is Carter suggesting that the animalistic side to the Marquis is representative of humanity's primal instincts and base desires - something that we are all attracted to?
The ruby choker, or "the bloody bandage of rubies", is also an interesting symbol in the story. The "flashing crimson jewels round her throat" represent the narrator's oppression and the Marquis's ownership, whilst also foreshadowing the means in which the Marquis intends to murder her. The simile "bright as arterial blood" isn't a coincidence - the "red ribbon like the memory of a wound" deliberately looks like a slit throat. And if you didn't get that already, Carter actually refers to it as "an extraordinarily precious slit throat". Later, as the narrator fears her imminent execution, she refers to the choker as being "coiled like a snake about to strike" - another possible reference to the serpent in the Garden of Eden, leading to connotations of evil and sin.

As soon as the narrator starts wearing this, her oppression is evident. The Marquis objectifies her like a "connoisseur inspecting horseflesh", looking at her as though she were "cuts on a slab". His treatment of her as though she is meat gives him even more power and dominance as her oppressor. His treatment of her is lustful yet violent - just one example of how Carter intertwines sex and violence (and in this case, sex and violence with meat and feasting), two Gothic extremes that become all the more horrifying when placed alongside one another. Violence and dismemberment are associated with the Marquis later, when his cigar is described as "fat as a baby's arm". This horrific simile conjures up images of grotesque dismemberment, and acts as just another example of how everything around the Marquis seems to relate back to his power, overbearing presence and/or violent nature.

When the Marquis takes the girl's virginity, it is as though she is 'initiated' into the sexual aspect of her relationship - the only aspect the Marquis seems to care about. Although Carter appears to present the girl's loss of virginity as something that belittles her and makes her feel "infinitely dishevelled", it can be argued that the loss of her virginity actually empowers her. It is interesting to note that once the Marquis has done his stuff, he breathes heavily "as if he had been fighting with me"; perhaps the loss of her virginity is empowering in a sense - it momentarily takes power away from the Marquis, who is lying like an "oak". Here Carter takes something natural - an oak - and warps it ever so slightly. The actual quotation, referring to him as "felled like an oak", suggests once more the death of something natural. And, to an extent, this is at the hands of the narrator. Furthermore, the narrator notes that during intercourse the Marquis loses his "deathly composure", and she "had heard him shriek and blaspheme at the orgasm". It is as though the power of virginity weakens the Marquis, if only for a moment; his defences are down and he becomes a radically different person. It reveals a part of him that couldn't be revealed in any other way.

I mentioned the Marquis being described as an "oak", but that's not where the comparisons end between his character and the natural world. The narrator notices how "his voice buzzed like a hive of distant bees" and uses a simile to compare his voice to "the soft consolations of the sea." In particular, the latter quotation has a sense of the sublime to it.

Once more, there are scattered lines throughout the story that suggest different things about the nature of our narrator: is she strong-willed or is she passive? There is no doubt that the Marquis treats her like a child or object; she is made to "perch on his knee" and compares him giving her a bunch of keys to "giving a child a great, mysterious treat". He even calls her his "Baby". So does the narrator succumb to his condescending language or does she defy it?

At one point she states, "I was only a little girl, I did not understand." Later, she somewhat echoes this line, saying, "I was only a baby." Instantly this suggests that our narrator is as naive, childish and helpless as we may have thought. However, on closer inspection that may not be so; it is interesting to note that Carter uses the past tense here. Now, of course, the whole story is more or less in the past tense, so it's not extraordinary by any means - but there is still the possibility that she is referring to herself back in the early stages of her relationship with the Marquis. We can assume that she is telling us the story from a later stage in her life. Who are we to call her meek and helpless if she is merely reflecting on how she has grown since that time?

Furthermore, the narrator's characterisation seems to be slightly laced with cunning. She is fully aware that "it must have been my innocence that captivated him", and knows that "my naivety gave him some pleasure". This suggests that she is more intelligent than we may have first thought; she is completely aware of why she is attractive to the Marquis, and arguably hides behind a facade to please him. She even admits that "I was not afraid of him" (link to The Company of Wolves where the girl is "scared of nothing"), and later the use of the word "demanded" suggests that her confidence is growing when she addresses the Marquis.

The Marquis gives our narrator a bunch of keys before he disappears, and the narrator notes that she "must take care of them all". This is brilliant for AO3. Why does he give her the keys...?

  1. Because she fits into the role of a typical domesticated woman in Gothic literature? - weak
  2. Because he trusts her to be a guardian of the majestic castle? - strong
The narrator states that she is "not afraid of him; but of myself". The line "I felt as giddy as if I were on the edge of a precipice" is a perfect example of how Carter uses the typical Gothic aspect of liminality to represent the inner turmoil of her protagonist. So why exactly is the narrator afraid of herself?
  • Does she feel more in-tune with the Marquis after she loses her virginity to him?
  • Is she concerned with who she has become - an objectified partner to a hulking savage?
  • Is she still unaware of why she finds the Marquis attractive? Is she scared of the ineffable nature of sexual psychology? She notes that "I longed for him. And he disgusted me." Does this link to Carter's exploration of the Gothic notion that some things cannot be explained?
Soon, of course, the narrator comes across the bloody chamber itself; the room that is so important it lends its name to the story as well as the entire collection. Yet as she walks down the "winding corridor", she stresses that "still I felt no fear". 

As soon as she enters the "room designed for desecration", Carter appears to be stressing the literary device of liebestod, a German word referring to erotic love and death being alongside one another. The Marquis's sexual fantasies relate directly to death - if that's not Gothic, nothing is. Later, the narrator refers to the whole situation as the Marquis's "game of love and death."

Upon entering the chamber, the narrator calls herself "a spoiled child" but says that "my mother's spirit drove me on"; the Gothic trope of absent mothers isn't necessarily true in this story. Not only do we see her at the end as a heroine, we also get references to her throughout the story.

The walls of the chamber "gleamed as if they were sweating with fright". Carter's use of personification here takes the narrator's fear to the extreme. Everything in the room adheres to the Gothic conventions of extremes and excess. Furthermore, the "funerary urns, of great antiquity" relate back to a fascination with the past that is typical of Gothic protagonists and/or villains, as does the line: "at the centre of the room lay a catafalque, a doomed, ominous bier of Renaissance workmanship..."

Then, after looking around initially, the narrator confuses us all by saying:

"I was almost consoled, then, and almost persuaded myself that I might have stumbled only upon a little museum of his perversity that he had installed these monstrous items here only for contemplation."

What?! is what I originally thought. But if you think about it, this is quite a human reaction. If you were to stumble across a room like this, would your first fully formed thought be 'this must be the room where my partner tortures all of his victims?' Not necessarily, no. You'd try to make sense of it - to make excuses to rid yourself of the crippling fear that such a place instils. And alongside all of the torture racks and Iron Maidens Carter still makes sure to link back to her favourite symbol: "an armful of the same lilies with which he had filled my bedroom".

Then, of course, we have the grotesque reveal of the dead bodies in the bloody chamber. All of this is terribly Gothic. Yet what makes it all the more disturbing is how death is closely linked to the beautiful: "the dead lips smiled." We also can't forget the fact that she refers to a skull as "beautiful". Death is terrifying in itself, but when fused with beauty and the erotic love that the Marquis desires, it is made all the more chilling.

At this point, it seems that the narrator has a true sense of self-realisation:

"My first thought, when I saw the ring for which I had sold myself to this fate, was, how to escape it."

Then, when the narrator needs help, she turns to the same person; her mother. Despite criticising her at the beginning of the story, the narrator seems to fall back on her mother as a figure of strength and reassurance:

"Assistance. My mother. I ran to the telephone; and the line, of course, was dead. Dead as his wives."

Carter's use of fragmented sentences here shows us exactly what is going on in the protagonist's head, second by second. Her mother is the character she can go to in times of need. And, as we soon learn, her mother is the character who saves her life.

Although she is terrified, when she thinks that the Marquis is entering the room, the narrator states, "I rose to my feet; fear gave me strength. I flung back my head defiantly." Now of course we soon learn that it is in fact Jean-Yves approaching, not the Marquis. Nonetheless, her attitude her is incredibly courageous. Furthermore, she seems to calm herself by finding solace in rationality when she plays the piano, seeking peace in "the harmonious rationality of its sublime mathematics", making particular reference to "Bach's equations". Typically, in Gothic literature of the 18th century, we'd expect rationality and mathematical language to be linked to strong and intelligent male protagonists. Yet in Carter's 20th century collection of modern Gothic stories, this role has been subverted; it is the young, female victim who is finding peace in rationality.

Then there is a short section of the story where Jean-Yves comes along as the kind and gentle boy whose kindness causes the protagonist to faint. She feels comforted in his arms - something she could never say about the Marquis.

The Marquis soon enters, and the narrator realises the situation that she is in: "I had played a game in which every move was governed by a destiny as oppressive and omnipotent as himself..." The language used here is typical of the old Gothic convention of how characters deal with forces that cannot be reckoned with. The Marquis's power is compared to some kind of force, or 'destiny', and the word 'omnipotent' (all-powerful) is often associated with God. Is the Marquis a dreadful violation of the power of God? When he speaks to her, she notes how his voice has "the timbre of certain great cathedral organs that seem, when they are played, to be conversing with God." Furthermore, there is an interesting snippet of dialogue between the narrator and Jean-Yves:

"'I only did what he knew I would.'
'Like Eve,' he said."

Is the protagonist the Eve to the Marquis's God?

Then, Carter reintroduces the horrible language used before to describe the Marquis: "his tongue ran over red lips already wet", "he half-snarled", "his curling mane was disordered". Now we've seen the bloody chamber, the animalistic imagery is all the more horrifying. He's not just an animal, he's a predator. And he intends to kill her. He calls the bloody chamber his "kingdom of the unimaginable" (delusions of grandeur much) and presses the blood-stained key into the narrator's forehead, leaving a heart-shaped mark that never leaves. He marks her - she is his object. This links directly back to the foreshadowing when she notes that he, like the lilies he is associated with, "stain you".

Carter employs some typical phallic imagery when the Marquis brandishes his ceremonial sword: "The heavy sword, unsheathed, grey as that November morning, sharp as childbirth, mortal." The phrase 'sharp as childbirth' isn't something that we hear everyday. 

Then, the Marquis talks to the girl as though she is meat, combining sex, death and feasting in a morbid triad that seems all to prevalent in this story:

"'Do you think I shall lose appetite for the meal if you are so long about serving it? No; I shall grow hungrier, more ravenous with each moment, more cruel...'"

And as he admires the beauty of her neck, he likens it to "the stem of a young plant". This may link back to the symbol of the lilies. The lilies which foreshadow death; by beheading her, it is as though he is beheading the lilies, as though their use as a device for foreshadowing is over - there's nothing more to foreshadow, since it appears that her death has arrived.

But, of course, it doesn't arrive. In a slight violation of Prince Charming riding to the castle to save the damsel in distress, the narrator's previously absent mother rides to the castle and kills the Marquis. This act of feminine power subverts the typical Gothic trope of a) women being passive and b) mothers being absent. This section is particularly interesting. Below is a section of an essay I wrote concerning the arrival of the mother, where I consider whether the arrival of the mother helps secure a feminist ending to the story:

'In one respect, the actual resolution to the story is all down to the narrator’s mother, who is presented at the story’s climax as an incredibly powerful female figure. Carter uses masculine and bestial imagery to describe the mother, in a way that is not dissimilar to earlier imagery to describe the Marquis. The narrator refers to her mother’s hair as “her white mane”; just as earlier she had referenced the Marquis’s “dark mane”. The juxtaposition between light and dark here is a typical example of Gothic extremes; while the Marquis seems to represent darkness – the supernatural and evil – the mother is associated with the colour white, which often symbolises purity, innocence and rationality. She also refers to her mother as a “wild thing”. Carter also uses the setting to complement the powerful image of the narrator’s mother riding to her rescue. The backdrop of the sea is referred to as “savage”, like “the witnesses of a furious justice”. In Gothic literature it is common for great expanses of nature such as oceans or moors to be referred to in the sublime sense; in this instance, the great power of the sea is merely witnessing the justice that the mother is delivering. It is as though her power is greater than nature itself. Furthermore, the sea is used earlier in the story when the narrator describes the Marquis’s voice as “like the soft consolations of the sea”. It appears as though the male and female dynamics have been shifted with these two direct links to the sea; the Marquis is the one associated with softness and docility whereas the mother seems to be the one commanding the sea and bringing about its true power. In this respect, she is certainly a strong female figure who arguably brings about a feminist happy ever after to the story.
However, the strength of the mother is not the be-all and end-all of the story. Firstly, it is interesting to note that particular attention is paid to the fact that the mother holds the narrator’s “father’s service revolver”. The male figure is therefore not necessarily as absent as one might think; the actual tool that is intended to kill the Marquis is explicitly referred to as the item of a man. Furthermore, it is important to note that the narrator does very little to secure her own safety, and the main resolution of the story is placed in the mother’s hands. The narrator is presented as a very passive character in the denouement of the tale; she is simply saved by her mother and is then able to live out her life in happiness. In this respect it is arguable to suggest that she is not a strong female character or, at least, she is not as strong as the reader may have hoped. Carter also highlights the contrasts between the narrator and her mother. The narrator notes that “on her eighteenth birthday, my mother had disposed of a man-eating tiger”, and juxtaposes this with “here I was, scarcely a penny richer, widowed at seventeen in the most dubious circumstances”. In this respect, the ending is not particularly feminist at all; although the narrator has been saved and is given a happy ending, her role in the climax of the story appears to be similar to that of a typically passive Gothic female character. She is also physically tarnished by the events of her past, noting that “no paint or powder (…) can mask that red mark on my forehead”. Despite the resolution and the fiercely powerful actions of the mother, the narrator is still objectified even after the Marquis’s death; she is branded with his mark, as though she was never really a woman in her own right.
Without meaning to sound like a colossal douche (which is hard, I've been trying to word this for about 10 minutes now), what I've put here is stuff that an examiner will like, since my teacher kindly gave the essay full marks. 

Finally, I've put together some links to other stories:

The Company of Wolves
  • The narrator in The Bloody Chamber "was not afraid of him", and the girl in The Company of Wolves is "scared of nothing"
  • It can be argued that for both girls the loss of their virginity empowers them (but this depends on your interpretation regarding The Bloody Chamber)
  • Both stories arguably feature unconventional happy endings
  • Both the Marquis and the wolf are very animalistic and seem to crave sexual gratification
  • Both girls are in the latter stages of puberty and are virgins when the stories begin
  • Both girls find the bestial characters strangely attractive
  • Sex and feasting/devouring are frequently placed alongside one another
The Erl-King
  • References are made in both stories to the eyes of the antagonists
  • Both antagonists trap/oppress their victims
  • Both antagonists appear to be in-tune with the natural world
  • Both antagonists have a 'bloody chamber'; for the Erl-King it is his hut where he imprisons his victims
  • Both protagonists are virgins at first
  • Both settings of the stories are liminal
  • Both antagonists are liminal in nature and link to the Gothic idea of metamorphosis
The Lady of the House of Love
  • Both antagonists have a 'bloody chamber'; for the Countess it is the room in which she murders her victims
  • Both protagonists are virgins at first
The Courtship of Mr Lyon
  • Mirrors feature heavily in both stories - there are mirrors all around the protagonist's room in The Bloody Chamber, and the protagonist of The Courtship of Mr Lyon becomes obsessed by her own image in the mirror
The Tiger's Bride
  • Both the Beast and the Marquis view the protagonist as a pornographic image at one point or another
  • Both protagonists are virgins at first
  • Both protagonists are considered as objects or property at one point or another
The Snow Child
  • Both male characters view the girls as objects to be desired 
  • Liebestod is present in both stories