Monday, 27 May 2013

A2 English Literature: The Company of Wolves

The Company of Wolves opens with the story of a hunter who tries to kill a wolf that has been terrorising his local town, and then the story of a man who is presumed killed by a wolf and later returns to his family, turning back into the wolf when he sees that his wife has remarried.

The main body of the story, however, starts with a "strong-minded child" who aims to take "delicious gifts to a reclusive grandmother"; the parallels with Little Red Riding Hood are obvious and yet another example of how Carter aims to extract the "latent content" from typical fairy tales.

Carter pays special attention to the fact that the girl is a virgin. She refers to her virginity as an "invisible pentacle"; this mystical imagery suggests an element of inexplicable power surrounding her virginity - her virginity is both liminal and cannot be explained, two prominent features of gothic literature. This also continues Carter's recurring motif of virginity. The narrator in The Bloody Chamber is a virgin, as are the characters in The Courtship of Mr Lyon, The Tiger's Bride and The Erl-King to name a few. Furthermore, in The Lady of the House of Love, the young bicyclist's virginity is also referred to as a "pentacle" - so perhaps it is not female virginity that Carter is highlighting, but virginity itself.

The girl's virginity in this story appears to keep her strong as she walks through the wolf-ridden forest: "she is a closed system; she does not know how to shiver. She has her knife and she is afraid of nothing." There's no doubt at this point that the girl is presented as a strong character. The same cannot be said for the girl in The Bloody Chamber, however. Furthermore, it is said that the girl "knew she was nobody's meat." This directly contrasts with the treatment of the girl in The Bloody Chamber, who is inspected as "cuts on a slab."

I'm not going to go through the story moment by moment and focus on AO2 with The Company of Wolves, because I think it is more important to tackle the AO3 aspects of this story. The story ends with the girl meeting with the wolf who has devoured her grandmother. She removes her clothes and willingly loses her virginity to the wolf - and this appears to be what empowers her. By submitting sexually to the wolf, her life is spared.

This can be argued either way - some will argue that by doing this the ending is feminist and liberating. Others will argue that this belittles the girl's strength and reduces her to nothing more than an object. Perhaps Carter is likening the naked male form to terrifying beasts that prey on the innocent. Are men to be feared and submitted to?

Alternatively, it is possible to argue that Carter is saying that sexuality shouldn't be feared, but embraced. The other characters who become victims of the wolf also seem to be 'victims' of some kind of oppression:

  • The woman in the first tale is attacked by the wolf whilst straining macaroni - perhaps she is attacked because she is oppressed by her role as a passive, domesticated woman (an archetype that fits with the gothic and fairy tale genres)
  • The hermit who is killed by the wolf appears to be oppressed by his servility to God - is the wolf a symbol of freedom or self-realisation, attacking those who are not able to free themselves?
  • The woman who remarries an abusive man is beaten by her husband after he kills a wolf (symbolic of the oppressive man killing the woman's hope at freedom, perhaps). She is servile to her husband
  • The girl's grandmother is servile to God and to domesticity - when the girl enters her grandmother's house, it is interesting to note how Carter pays attention to the fact that "the Bible lay closed on the table"
Yet the girl is not tied down by domesticity, femininity or religion; she is her own person and she makes her own decisions. She even laughs in the face of the wolf as she undresses herself. She is the only character in the story who adapts to the situation in order to survive; she becomes a woman at the hands of the wolf and this arguably reverses the predator/prey dynamic that is so often prevalent in fairy tales. Carter reinvents the fairy tale genre by giving the young child the power to overcome the beast.

One interpretation is that the wolf is a symbol of something that we are all greeted with in life; the chance to realise our own freedom and break free of any restricting forces. Some take the opportunity while others do not. Alternatively, the wolf may be a symbol of humanity's carnal desires (this certainly links to The Tiger's Bride where the titular character becomes a beast by embracing her desires). Therefore the argument that the girl is a strong character seems to have more weight than the argument suggesting that she objectifies herself by using her virginity to survive.