Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Summary of The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

This is a summary of Angela Carter's short story collection The Bloody Chamber which takes traditional fairy tales and attempts to restore the latent content within them. The elements that have been trimmed out as they have been tamed down over the years.

In this article, we are going to be focusing on the opening story in the collection which is the title story The Bloody Chamber a retelling of the tale of Bluebeard the old guy with a beard who murdered his wives.

So the story opens up with a lot of exposition as we learn that the protagonist is traveling away to live with her new husband. Carter is able to do this while simultaneously establishing suspense as is demonstrated by the opening paragraph.

"I remember how that night I lay awake in the wagonlit and a tender delicious ecstasy of excitement my burning key pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow and the pounding of my heart mimicking that of the Gregg Pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me through the night" 

Now there is a temptation to read a lot of the imagery as being sexual. There is a reason for that because the story is thematically all about the transition from innocence into corruption and sexual corruption in particular.

As we'll see later Carter is very good at bringing out those themes and enhancing them through use of symbolism and choices of language. But the Train is also no example of technology and it immediately places the story in a more modern setting than you might otherwise expect.

This is partly why Angela Carter's work often gets categorized as magic realism. Even though the main events take place in what is described by the narrator as a fairy castle. There is always the sense that modern civilization and technology is never far away. Example the telephone that keeps ringing and interrupting.

We are quickly introduced to the protagonist's mother and her own experience with marriage.
"My mother herself had gladly scandalously defiantly beggared herself for love and one fine day her gallant soldier never returned from the wars leaving his wife and child a legacy of tears that never quite dried a cigar box full of medals and the antique service revolver."
It is interesting that although she's not left with much. It is the same revolver which ultimately kills the murdering Marquis so there is a sort of implication that true love saves the day. By contrast, we know that the protagonist only really married for money and status because when asked if she really loves her husband she simply replies I'm sure I want to marry him. This is the first step towards her corruption.

The tension continues to build as we are increasingly given warning signs that something is not right. For example, the Marquis is described in odd beast-like terms with a lion iron shaped head and a dark mane. Also, we don't get a lot in the way of introspection on his part. His intentions and his thoughts inside his head are concealed even after his true nature is revealed.

Once they reach the isolated gothic location of the castle there is a feeling of being cut off from the protection of normal civilization. The narrator even says that she had exiled herself from the paraphernalia of the everyday world with her marriage. This is reflected in the way that technology fails her towards the end when the phone does not work.

In terms of context, it is worth noting that while Angela Carter was a feminist. She did not exactly toe the line at times and often provoked the wrath of her contemporaries. At the same time as publishing "The Bloody Chamber", she also published an essay redressing the pornographic works of the Marquis de Sade from the feminist perspective. Even though many feminists at the time condemned sod. Of course, pornography and in particular violent pornography is another major motif in The Bloody Chamber. At one point the protagonist finds an artwork owned by her husband called reproof of curiosity and that title to this very significant given that it is her own curiosity that she ends up being punished for.

It is worth considering actually that although the Marquis is a monster in terms of plot progression he is merely a catalyst. The true antagonist of the story is, in fact, the narrator was specifically her talent for corruption which is what ultimately leads her into The Bloody Chamber of the title. She even states that I was not afraid of him but of myself.

Relating to this idea of fragmentation of the self is the motif of the piano which becomes a symbol for her innocence. She takes refuge in her music after initially discovering the Chamber.
"I opened the lid of the piano perhaps I thought my own particular magic might help me now that I could create a pentacle out of music that would keep me from harm for if my music had first ensnared him then might it not also given me the power to free myself from him. I set myself the therapeutic task of playing all barks equations everyone and I told myself if I played them all through without a single mistake then the morning would find me once more a virgin."
The fact that to begin with the piano is out of tune reflects the identity crisis that the narrator is going through as she's gradually overcome by her desire for corruption.  It is while at the piano that she first meets Jean-Yves. The young piano tuner who later becomes the narrator's lover.

Another crucial detail is that Jean-Yves is blind and so he is not actually equipped with the necessary apparatus to objectify women in the same way that the Marquis does. When he looks at the protagonist like a connoisseur inspecting horse flesh. In hindsight, all of the warning signs are there really I think in that situation any ordinary person would be fleeing as fast as they can.

The marquee really is a creature of nightmares and this sort of villain could only exist in a fairy tale world. Indeed when the narrator's mother enters and breaks down the boundary allowing the civilized outside world in the marquee is seen as the fairy tale monster that he is and has no real power anymore at that point.
"The puppet master open mouths wide-eyed impotent at the last saw his dolls break free of their strings abandon the rituals. He had ordained for them since time began and start to live for themselves the King er gassed witnesses the revolt of his pawns and my husband stood Stockstill the sword still raised over his head as in those clockwork tableau of Bluebeard that you see in glass cases at fairs."
A scene that warrants some attention is the bloody chamber scene itself and the main thing to note about it is that it is very bloody. For example, there is all the fresh blood from the woman in the iron maiden.

summary-of-bloody-chamber


Now blood tends to be universal shorthand for loss of innocence and corruption not least because of its link with menstruation. But Carter also uses it as a symbol for how once lost innocence can never be regained.

This is embodied by the red mark left on the protagonist's forehead that will not wash off and no amount of paint or powder no matter how thick or how white will cover it. In other words, once she has crossed the boundary into knowledge and into corruption she can never return.