The contemporary gothic form deals with the feminist perspective on sexuality and gender, as well as gender roles in the sense of them being socially and culturally conditioned. Violence and the sublime are translated into the fear of consequences of the choices imposed on the female protagonists by the society and the dominating male-villains. The modern twist on the fear of the consuming male figures is transformed into fear of villain-husbands with a horrid secret threatening to destroy the female, dark erotic desires exploding in violence, rape, torture – both mental and physical – and ultimately death. The basic instinct that along with the survival instinct enables the species to continue is turned into a perversion both of manner of sexual gratification and the inversion of the object of desire, and trained in the fashion of the social and political context, revealing the deeply set fear of the limitless power of the dominating strata – aristocracy – and the inexhaustible power that status in society allows to the point of giving certain members the right to subdue, subjugate and defeat others in the acts of dominance – physical and psychological.
In the subversive revisions of some of the most popular fairytales and their symbolism unmasked, The Bloody Chamber and The Snow Child, Angela Carter deals with the formula of ‘dreadful pleasure’ and gender and culture conditioned sexuality – the taboo of dark erotic desires and the attraction-repulsion relation; and the possibility of altering the paradigms of the society assigned gender roles.
The Taboo and Gender and Culture Conditioned Sexuality
Angela Carter materializes the universal fear of what is anomalous and dark, and personifies the monstrosity that is otherwise unwanted in the open, present yet tabooed and represented only through symbolism.
Though The Bloody Chamber begins as a story of marriage between an unnamed 17-year- old, a virgin piano player, a culture’s child, and a much older aristocrat who seduces her, cunningly exploiting her gullible character and lack of experience by literally buying her into marriage, it is the use of fairytale-typical symbolism and motifs that Carter employs subversively for the purpose of unmasking the true nature of their desires and the ties that bind the two into a relationship of attraction and repulsion, and it is even more apparent in The Snow Child story. The heroine of the story, not unlike the Countess from The Snow Child, is drawn to a mysterious dark figure of a man who represents a potential passage not only to adulthood but also social recognition. Her desires seemingly innocent are soon revealed as based on inexperience both of the world and the sexual nature of marriage. That is, unaware of her own sexuality other than the generalized conceptions of what she is supposed to endure, on the one hand, and on the other provide for her husband and likewise receive, she becomes psychologically and emotionally disheveled – after she has had the taste of her new-husbands bed-manners, the heroine admits to desiring him as much as she is repulsed.
Similarly, the Countess in the story of The Snow Child seemingly relinquishes her freedom and innocence in order to gain status and wealth and both of them are bought either by marrons glacés, flowers, jewelry and the like. As the former marries the mysterious aristocrat whom she does not even know how to love because she is merely a child, she accepts the passivity which is both imposed by default and implied by the arrangement, and indulges her husband’s sexually charged whims: she is first stripped naked by him in a room filled with ominous death-white lilies, surrounded by mirrors in which she obviously cannot recognize her own reflection – that of flesh – observed in a manner in which goods are assessed upon purchase, then asked to wear a painful ruby choker around her neck on her first wedding night as well as every other time the two are to be intimate – a symbol both of her entrapment and her unpromising life in marriage. Similarly, the Count in The Snow Child will encounter the child-girl he desires completely naked in the snow and simply take her. Upon her arrival at the castle where she will uncover the truth about the man to whom she loses her virginity and freedom in order to gain financial security and social status, she discovers gruesome evidence of his fascination with violent pornography and his sadistic propensity. Obviously, the manner in which she is tempted to see the true face of her husband is another fairytale parallel, but this young bride is doomed to fail from the moment of her arrival – being given a test in which she is not to enter just the room in the castle which he calls his den and naturally, considering that her fear of him is greater than affection, she contradicts his wish and finds an underground chamber in which the bodies of his former wives are exhibited as trophies or even spoils, amongst rich tapestries and invaluable art pieces with images of sacrifice, sex and immolation. The discovery encourages introspection and she admits to her own mistake. In the story of The Snow Child, interestingly, it is the Countess that tricks the girl, herself, into picking the rose flower and it may also be considered an unconscious recognition of her own erroneous judgment in youth. The manner in which the sadist Marquis kills his wives: asphyxiation, beheading and multiple stabbing, speaks volumes of his own sexuality – distorted and oriented towards the satisfaction of violent urges rather than sexual contact in itself, while their torturing brings only a portion of the taste of complete victory. In The Bloody Chamber Carter gives a brief account of the Marquis’ family history through the mouth of Jean-Yves, a blind piano-tuner who is characterized almost as a female because of his being as powerless as a woman, in the forms of terrifying legends that shed light on why and how a Marquis would develop a sadistic taste for women and desire their literal sacrifice in marriage. The Count in The Snow Child violates the fallen girl until nothing is left in snow but a mark.
Altering the Paradigms of the Assigned Gender Roles
Examining the dark side of sexuality and the taboo of revealing it in its naked form in a society that accepts it only when it is convention-bound and condemning its otherwise repressed forms that stray from it, the female body as objectified by the male normative and perpetually exploited is uncovered and Carter exposes civilized monsters and delves into the mechanisms of repression, the collective denial of the socially approved violence and distortion of morality – the morality that at the same time regulates the constructs of the accepted forms of sexuality and gender constructs to which they are assigned. Defined as the capacity to experience erotic desires and provide an adequate response of sexual nature, sexuality is conditioned firstly by one’s physical and emotional development. In addition to that, sexuality is conditioned by culture as well as social and other factors that inspire interpersonal communication on this level and, perhaps more importantly, the nature of the sexual communication. At the same time, sexuality is disciplined by culturally constructed ideas about sexes, which is manifested in the assignment of typical gender roles and the limitations they encounter society-wise.
That is, according to Judith Butler1, gender is a produced construct that differs in different historical and social contexts, but ‘If one is a woman, that is surely not all one is; the term fails to be exhaustive, not because a pre-gendered ‘person’ transcends the specific paraphernalia of its gender, but because gender is not always constituted coherently in different historical contexts, and because gender intersects is merely a modality and cannot be considered outside of the socio-political context of the time. Furthermore, it is these assigned roles, the prearranged positions and modes of behavior, the logic and the irrationality, the determination for self-actualization and the coping mechanisms that gothic literature deals with, in different degrees, by means of analysis of the psychological processes behind the pathology expressed in its typical themes. On the level of the two stories, the fairytale type that conceals the horrifying notion that a woman must be subjected to a great loss in order to ritually become recognized by society, by patriarchy, as a woman is unmasked – the loss of virginity and innocence, emotional and physical scarring and ultimately a life in the role of a passive being, an objectified entity that is purchased, acquired and possessed by the active male who ultimately has her life in his hands, both on the figurative and the literal level.
The young Marquise feels obligated to marry a figure seemingly appropriate for her status advancement, all the while being much aware that her choice of husband is made not on the basis of love, but opportunity and utility though not openly – her attempts on rationalizing the lack of genuine emotion cease the moment she begins to fear death. The nature, though, of the narrative reveals a significant shift from the typical fairytale narration for it is in the first person and the unnamed heroine in fact reveals her journey – both physical and psychological – and shares her experience with the reader from a perspective of a woman who has discovered that her role may not be exclusively passive or that she need not acquiesce to being a victim. Moreover, she does not refer to herself as a Marquise. At the same time, the female protagonists in The Bloody Chamber, initially radically different – the mother described in a manner in which a man would be described, riding through the castle gates on a horse, her skirt revealing her thighs and waving an old revolver at the villain son-in-law as if she were a cowboy from an American Western saving a damsel in distress – merge into a singular proactive and assertive energy uncharacteristic of the female gender construct, which is exactly what is subversive about The Bloody Chamber and its female protagonists.
What is implicit in the characterization of a woman by her supposedly natural sex and (culturally conditioned) gender, becomes explicit at the very peak of the storyline – the complete loss of control, the realization of the loss of power and the literal threat of imminent death by the sadistic husband, and is therefore brought to surface to be examined, along with the underlying principles responsible for the creation of the construct that with racial, class, ethnic, sexual and regional modalities of discursively constituted identities. As a result, it becomes impossible to separate out ‘gender’ from the political and cultural intersections in which it is invariably produced and maintained.’ (Gender Trouble) deprives the female of any power. The mother of the unfortunate bride and wife is the one that is described as an exception to the gender by the very narrator only to be, in fact, the symbol of the possibility of another paradigm – a gender that is neither imbued with stereotypical or demeaning values attributed, nor downtrodden by the nature or features of the body. Other female characters, interestingly, such as the maids in the castle, are man’s women – speakers of their language, their allies and cogs in the wheels of their culture and show no genuine compassion for the members of their own sex. This further implies that they too are lured into the trap of constant perpetuation of a culture that bogs down on the basis of natural sex, which culturally modified, is still nothing but a construct pertaining to the untouchable male norm, or in this case the aristocratic one. In The Bloody Chamber Carter purposefully chooses the setting of isolation with implications of its relation to the civilized world – as the Marquis mentions to his wife when explaining how his curious staff would be content to see blood on his sheets – a context in-between in which she is able to explicate how both male and female codes of behavior have to be learned through rituals and ideology and how fear, submissiveness and pre-conceptions perpetuate such a mechanism.
However, in The Snow Child, a short story that differs from fairytales only by its morbid and disturbing twist in the plot, the origin of sadistic tendencies is merely in the background and the sudden unmasking unexpected and shocking whereas the focus is on the inability to alter the mind-frame of the female character even upon the realization of her ultimate loss – not merely virginity, but freedom and innocence – in marriage. The Countess, initially jealous of the naked child her husband craves, however ambiguously one may initially understand his fairytale phrasing2, is ultimately bitten by the realization of what the rose flower signifies and her realization is endlessly painful because of her inability to imagine an alternative. Namely, when the child is finally fallen (dead) and raped by her husband, the child being herself of course, she receives her fur-coat back and strokes it. Her desire to attain and retain her status is more powerful and unlike the heroine in The Bloody Chamber, this Countess is not willing to part with her illusion. Furthermore, the naked child is portrayed as if she were an instrument or an object, not a human being with a mind of her own. Her role, just like the role of her corrupt older self, is entirely submissive. Foucault3 places emphasis on sexuality as a social apparatus for control of individuals and in that sense, if women are perceived as passive receivers who accept the
The History of Sexuality
sexuality ascribed to them, it becomes a tool for the control of the individual because it implies a position in society in broader sense, but more importantly, it defines the role and boundaries within the society’s nucleus – the family.
In The Bloody Chamber and The Snow Child Carter depicts the same problematic notions of conventionalized sexual violence and sexual exploitation allowed by the social apparatus that both defines and restricts sexuality and gender as constructs all the while blurring the ethical and moral boundaries by forcing the oppressed to be a part of the mechanism that perpetuates their own destruction in the sense of rendering them displaced and dissatisfied, unaware of their identity and of the limitations imposed.
- Buttler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge, 2006
- Carter, Angela. The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. London: 2006
- Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality. London: Penguin, 1990
- Punter, David. The Literature of Terror: a History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day. 1996