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Analyzing Angela Carters Feminist Fairy Tales English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2516 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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It is important to establish early on that there is no simple definition of what a fairy tale is; the simplest place to start is to explain why they’re called ‘fairy tales’ at all. Taken from the French phrase “contes de fées” – a title used by women writers in the French salons in the 17th century for stories written as narratives for passing on wisdom to young women – it was translated as “tales of fairies”. The first to use the phrase was Madame D’Aulnoy in 1697 as the title to her collection of stories, but was later used by the more familiar Brothers Grimm. Before that time fairy tales existed only in the oral tradition, a highly elusive medium of story-telling, which does not lend itself to consistency, often leading to each country, region, and even person having their own version of the same basic tale. Little is known about the history of fairy tales, only that from the 17th century they began to emerge as a popular literary convention and broke down into two main schools; that of Perrault and his ‘pure’ French tales, and the Brothers Grimm, who concerned themselves with only authentic German folklore. Throughout the 18th and 19th century their popularity grew, with each culture apportioning its own unique narrator, most famously in the guises of Mother Bunch, Mother Goose, and Gamma Gettel. To speak loosely of fairy tales, they are a subgenre of folklore, but Lane argues:

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Although Lane has made some very sweeping generalisations about what a fairy tale it not, this is because, as Tolkien puts it, “faerie [tales] cannot be caught by a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable” (Tolkien 1965:10). As I’ve illustrated, those who have spent their academic careers trying to define what a fairy tale is have agreed that it contains certain elements, but the problem lies in that they can’t agree which ones. For my purposes I am going to accept Thompson’s definition:

A tale of some length involving a succession of motifs or episodes. It moves in an unreal world without definite locality or definite creature and is filled with the marvellous. (Thompson 1977: 8)

The fairy tale is a desirable form of literature for authors to manipulate. With its strict confines, extensive use of stereotypes, accessibility, and moral framework it can be used to create an environment within which authors can explore their own ideas and ideals. Angela Carter is such an author; with the The Bloody Chamber being, essentially, a feminist re-evaluation of the predominantly masculine-dominated fairy tales as presented by the Brothers Grimm. Although the Brothers Grimm were amongst the first to preserve fairy tales in the writing they were considerably re-worked from their original oral counterparts in order to make them more acceptable to society. Fairy tales began as a female-orientated tradition – when Les Cabinet des Fées was published over half the authors were women, whose tales “offered gratifications that were already […] considered feminine: dreams of love as well as the sweets of quick and capital revenge” (Warner 1996: xii-xiv). When the Brothers Grimm, and others, transferred the oral tales in written ones they transposed of an essentially feminine form and replaced it was a masculine one, as Holbeck observes, “men and women often tell the same tales in characteristically different ways” (Holbeck 1987). This tradition has been carried through to the 20th century, with Disney adaptations relying on the damsel in distress, with the inevitable Prince Charming character to rescue her (although recent productions such as Enchanted and the Shrek trilogy have been a movement away from such archetypes). The Bloody Chamber concerns itself with those changes and calls them to attention by:

“heightening the intertextuality of her narratives, making them into allegories that explore how sexual behaviour and gender roles are not universal, but are, like other forms of social interaction, culturally determined.” (Kaiser 1994)

It is a collection of short stories that “extract the latent content from traditional stories” (Carter in John Haffenden’s Novelist in Interview) and create new ones from a woman’s perspective, an exploration of the journey between girlhood and womanhood with all the trappings that entails. It is a de-Bowdlerisation of Grimm’s ‘contaminated’ exercise of patriarchal power towards the ‘pure’ tales of Perrault and, more importantly for Carter, Bruno Bettelheim, whose books, Uses of Enchantment, has been hailed by a holy grail for the understanding of fairy tales.

Bettelheim was a distinguished psychoanalyst who applied his writing to the written fairy tale, concluding that they were a way for children to comfortably deal with separation anxiety and essential in the development of the unconscious; “let the Fairy Tale speak to his unconscious, give body to his unconscious anxieties and relieve them without this ever coming to conscious awareness” (Bettelheim 1977: 15). Bettelheim’s readings of fairy tales lie strongly in Freudian theory. Freud is most well-known for his championing of the oedipal complex, wherein a boy has desire for his mother and competes with the father for affection, or a girl who has desire for her father, sparking a rivalry with the mother. The latter is also referred to as the Electra complex, though Freud often disagreed on the existence of a female counter-part. In his book, Bettelheim states that:

Oedipal difficulties and how the individual solves them are central to the way his personality and human relations unfold. By camouflaging the oedipal predicament, or by only subtly intimating the entanglements, fairy tales permit us to draw our own conclusions when the time is propitious for our gaining a better understanding of these problems. (Bettelheim 1977: 201)

This excerpt comes from his essay on Snow White, which Bettelheim argues is a perfect fairy tale version of the oedipal conflict between mothers and daughters. Certainly, the version he and Carter, in her tale The Snow Child, use heightens the oedipal tensions through its simplicity (Kaiser 1994). Carter furthers this by manipulating the popular themes and underpinning them with the notion of desire, a key theme throughout The Bloody Chamber.

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Colours are incredibly important in the Gothic genre, and due to the nature of Carter’s fairy tales, they can certainly be described as such. Carter’s count asks for “a girl as white as snow […] red as blood […] black as that bird’s feather” (Carter 2006: 105) without any appropriation of those colours, it is only after the girl appears that Carter redistributes them in the traditional style of “white skin, red lips, black hair” (Carter 2006: 105). Those three colours continually appear throughout all of Carter’s short stories and are used in a highly symbolic fashion. White is traditionally seen as the colour of purity, innocence, and wholeness, but red, the symbol of love, signals passion and sexual desire, whilst black represents death, destruction, and the decent into the unconscious. If we transfer these attributes to the Count’s wishes, it is plausible to conclude that the Count is imagining a daughter who embodies all those things; a virgin who awakens sexual desire in him on the unconscious level. In doing so, he gives the girl multiple facets, and an ambiguous quality – she is sometimes pure and perfect, sometimes passionate and sexual, or negative and deadly. Three sides, three colours, three aspects of the human soul. The theme of colours is similarly extended to the Count and Countess – note that Carter provides the colours of their horses. The Count sits upon “a gray mare” (Carter 2006: 105) – the only other colour mentioned in the tale, noticeably different to the surrounding contrast. If we see the Count as a representation of society, then the greyness symbolises a lack of self-examination, of stepping back from the coloured representations apparent in the rest of the scene, to which Carter is now attempting to hold a mirror up to. The count’s horse also provides a back-drop for the Countess’, giving significance to her riding “a black one” (Carter 2006: 105); she is also seen wearing “glittering pelts of black foxes” and “black shining boots with scarlet heels” (Carter 2006: 105). My interpretation of her attire is one that suggests that to the Count his wife no longer represents the idea of purity (the absence of white), and that he has very little sexual desire for, as the colour red is contained to the lowest part of her body – her heels. Instead, she represents the Count’s mortality, of getting older, and what Klein describes as a ‘bad object’ that a child will seek to expel by projecting negative emotions towards it, shown by the excessive use of black. This is highlighted by his wishes for the child, who is predominantly snow white when “stark naked” (Carter 2006: 105) – the ‘good object’ that a child seeks to join with and keep safe from the unpleasant influence of bad objects. Carter’s Count “lifted her up and sat her in front of him on his saddle” and “thrust his virile member into the dead girl” (Carter 2006: 105-106) – perfect representations of that same ‘joining’ and ‘protecting’.

As mentioned, the oedipal complex is one concerned with transference – not only of emotions, but, in the case of The Snow Child, a physical transference through clothing. In a similar style to the presence of the Count’s grey horse, we are not given a description of the Count’s clothing, giving strength to my argument that he is a representation of society, and therefore not clothed because it is the provider of clothes, or ‘labels’ (e.g. mother, wife), for everyone else. Unlike the Brothers Grimm version, Carter does not have the Count decide between his wife and his daughter, instead she has him display his authority over them through the attribution of material constructs. The Countess, presumably acquiring her title from marriage, is wholly defined by her husband – her title, her clothes, her horse, all representations of the social constructions of wealth and nobility. When the Countess is replaced in her husband’s desires by the girl there is a transference of clothing, and of those symbols of society, “the furs sprang off the Countess’s shoulders and twined around the naked girl […] then her boots leapt off the Countess’s feet and on to the girl’s legs” (Carter 2006: 105). Here we see the deconstruction of the modern women – a disrobing of the masculine confines imposed upon the Countess. Kaiser points out that it is “a sign of their mutual dependence on his favour, the furs, the boots, and jewels fly off the Countess, onto the girl, and back again depending on the whims of the Count” (Kaiser 1994). During the tale there is always a woman who is naked, drawing attention to the semantic field of clothes – when women are not dressed they are reverted to a representation of Nature, in direct opposition to the man as ‘culture’, which in turn makes them appear vulnerable. In response to this criticism, Kaiser continues that “although some feminist theorists claim to find a kind of liberation in the position of women as ‘other’ in phallogocentric culture, Carter finds the situation morecomplex and more troubling” (Kaiseer 1994).This can be seen reflection in the ambiguous ending Carter has created, when the Countess exclaims “It bites!” is she rejecting female sexuality through the symbol of eternal feminine sexuality of the rose? is she rejecting love itself? Or simply her husband’s – and therefore men’s – desires? Bacchilega suggests that the Countess “recognizes the myth of the vagina dentate for what it is” (Bacchilega 1988: 18). The ending leaves a lot to be desired for traditional readers of fairy tales, without the typical ‘happily ever after’ finish Carter leaves the tale with no promise of happiness and it remains open for individual interpretation.

To re-address my original question, one of Carter’s most avid critics, Patricia Duncker read the ending of The Bloody Chamber as “carrying an uncompromisingly feminist message”, whilst the other tales merely recapitulate patriarchal patterns of behaviour. Duncker is right in her reading of the texts as remaining within the patriarchal sphere of thought, but as Kaiser parallels with my own opinion “what Dunkcer perceives as an inconsistent application of feminist principles is, I believe, merely a reflection of Carter’s project in this collection, to portray sexuality as a culturally relative phenomenon” (Kaiser 1994). It is my personal belief that Duncker is not in possession of a sense of humour, or merely cannot grasp Carter’s sense of irony in her insistence on staying within the already accepted boundaries, “in order to question the nature of reality one must move from a strongly grounded base in what constitutes material reality” (Carter 1997: 38). With The Bloody Chamber Carter has concerned herself not simply with pointing out the problems with conventional patriarchal views of gender, but rather has created a series of different representations, that although don’t directly challenge the traditional fairy tales, they provide alternative models. She does not, as the title suggests, capitulate the idea of a masculine-dominated or phallaogocentric representation of the fairy tale, but rather highlights the single-mindedness of those tellings by displaying stories with the same basic building blocks that have hugely different influences.

Ours is a highly individualised culture, with great faith in the work of art as a unique one-off, and the artist as an original, a godlike and inspired creator of unique one-offs. But fairy tales are not like that, nor are their makers. Who first invented meatballs? In what country? Is there a definite recipe for potato soup? Think in terms of the domestic arts. ‘This is how I make potato soup.’ (Carter 1987: 3)

The culinary allegory serves her purpose of exemplifying the fairy tale; a recipe will seldom have an individual source and are prepared in a multitude of ways, varying with the ingredients available and the person preparing it, evolving over time, just as female subcultures adapted to suit personal, cultural, and historical needs.


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