If you can read the stories in Angela Carter’s collection, The Bloody Chamber, you’re not reading closely enough. The tales here are disturbing. They’re violent. Some are erotic. Like the fairy tales of old, they contain warnings:
You are always in danger in the forest, where no people are. Step between the portals of the great pines where the shaggy branches tangle about you, trapping the unwary traveller in nets as if the vegetation itself were in a plot with the wolves who live there, as though the wicked trees go fishing on behalf of their friends—step between the gateposts of the forest with the greatest trepidation and infinite precautions, for if you stray from the path for one instant, the wolves will eat you…Fear and flee the wolf; for, worst of all, the wolf may be more than he seems. (142*)
The collection opens with “The Bloody Chamber,” a retelling of the Bluebeard tale. A young girl (they’re all young girls in these stories) has just agreed to marry a much older, richer man to rescue herself and her mother from poverty. The man is sophisticated, but seems enchanted by the girl’s innocence. White roses are a motif all through these stories, symbolizing the naive virginity of the girls.The new husband (who has been married three times before to three very different women) gives his bride a set of keys that will let her into any room in the grand Brittany palace she can now call home. One the keys, he warns the girl, she must never use. He tells her it leads to a room were he can escape marriage and be himself when he needs to. So, of course, when the husband leaves, the girl gets into the room and discovers what happened to the first three wives. It seems she will meet the same end when the husband finds out that his “test” failed (as it was supposed to). But, here comes the twist. Unlike a traditional fairy tale, the rescue comes not from a noble peasant or chivalrous knight, but from the girl’s own mother. In The Bloody Chamber, the rescues never follow the course set by tradition.
The female protagonists of the stories are often their own rescuers. I picked up The Bloody Chamber not for its gender politics (which were fascinating), but because I knew that Carter was know for her “fractured fairy tales.”** In my favorite story in the collection, “The Tiger’s Bride,” the protagonist decides that she doesn’t need to be rescued. She’s found something with the Tiger that lets her carve out a new life for herself. This happens in other stories, too. This is another way that Carter twists the old tales. Sometimes, the girl doesn’t need to be rescued because there’s something as violent and wild in her as the wolves or other villains she encounters.
There’s so much to think about. As I read these stories, I started to making connections to other fairy tales and even other works of literature. As I read “The Bloody Chamber,” I couldn’t help but think of the nameless narrator of Rebecca, for example. This collection warrants multiple readings. The wolf tales at the end of the collection especially need more than one reading to figure out what Carter is trying to show you. I’ve only read them once, so I can’t pretend I entirely understand them. What I do know now is that Carter’s reputation is well-deserved.
* 2011 Penguin Books paperback edition.
** That’s what I call them, after the cartoon segments from The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. The fractured fairy tales were stories retold to be humorous and expose the absurdities of the original tales.