This essay utilises a theoretical feminist approach to explore the depictions of gender, sex, power and feminism in the fairytales of Angela Carter, arguing that her work promotes a non-evasive ethic that tackles issues of denial and repression. The first chapter tackles the tensions between gender identities and sexuality, arguing that Carter’s work tests the limits of such representational boundaries. The second chapter argues that a greater comprehension of a female subject’s darker sexual aspects can potentially liberate her from patriarchal scripting, that facing the ‘shadow’ is a crucial step towards insight and self-governance. The third chapter argues that an awareness of binary systems and the transgression of such polarities constitutes a non-oppositional ‘underworld’ perspective. Overall, the nature of interrogating and potentially breaching intellectual absolutes and limitations will hopefully be of interest in a feminist context.
The writings of Angela Carter can be perceived as having many facets, edges and secret spaces. They have often rightly been figured as paths for tackling the issue of sexuality and the recognition of gender as a performance-based activity. Her work partially attempts to unveil the social constructs of masculinity and femininity, and the sexual currencies and taboos attached to them. Many critics have entered the labyrinthine debate concerning the writings of Angela Carter and the positive or negative influences her work has had on feminist discourse.
This essay of three chapters will take a feminist theoretical approach in exploring the fairytales of Angela Carter, with a general focus on The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, comparing and contrasting various feminist explorations of the material. The first chapter will argue that there are similarities and differences between our conceptions of sexuality and gender, and that a radical deconstruction of gender-types and a re-imagining of female heterosexuality is promoted in Carter’s tales. The second chapter will explore the ‘darker’ side of heterosexuality and the power-relations between men and women, arguing that Carter’s tales explore how the female subject might collude with the patriarchal scripting of her sexuality and identity, and that an awareness of how this occurs can be potentially liberating for the female subject. The third chapter will argue that a non-evasive ethic is evident in Carter’s tales, and that her writings consistently tackle taboo subjects of repression and denial, suggesting a non-oppositional ‘underworld’ perspective that favours the transgression of binary systems.
Gender and Sex – noticing the tensions
Carter’s interest in the complexities of sex and power, coupled with her provocative rhetoric, appears to make many critics uncomfortable. To this essayist it is Carter’s fairytale-themed writings, especially The Bloody Chamber, that seems to attract the most interesting criticisms. Patricia Dunker is suspicious of the fairytale itself and expresses a belief that using such a hetero-sexist paradigm somehow entraps the author. Dunker claims that ‘Carter envisages women’s sensuality simply as a response to male arousal. She has no conception of women’s sexuality as autonomous desire’. Here we might argue that for a heterosexual woman, especially one interested in penetrative sex, might not her sexuality be in some way connected to male arousal, especially if she is considering sleeping with him? This is not to belittle Dunker’s unease at some of the more disturbing elements in The Bloody Chamber, but, as Linden Peach perceptively suggests, the tales are:
not only explorations of women’s sexuality but of the ways in which men have sought to control that sexuality, of how both men and women need to reconfigure their sexualities, and of the commodification of women as ‘flesh’.
The aspects of Carter’s writing that explore this gender-as-performance scenario have many antecedents. The psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lancan proposed a realm of decentred and fictional human identities, both masculine and feminine, none of which are ‘real’ or ‘natural’. It is a lens through which Carter’s work is at least partially illuminated. This unveiling of the socially-constructed fictions of gender is a process that has found much currency in feminist theory and is largely associated with the work of Judith Butler and Luce Irigaray.
Both women were influenced by Lacanian psychoanalytical theories. Irigaray’s work predates Butler’s and concentrates on the masquerades of various feminine identities that are products of masculine scripts and roles. It is the acting out of these roles by the female subject that garners most of Irigaray’s attention. She comments broadly: ‘I think the masquerade has to be understood as what women do in order to recuperate some element of desire, to participate in man’s desire, but at the price of renouncing their own’. It is this quality, I would suggest, that Patricia Dunker senses in The Bloody Chamber; if not a possible acquiescence then at least a disturbing interest in male scripting of female desire.
The character of Beauty has such an interest in ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’, possibly the least radical of Carter’s Beauty and the Beast interpretations. Beauty’s time with the Beast makes her strangely aware that she ‘was learning, at the end of her adolescence, how to be a spoiled child and that pearly skin of hers was plumping out, a little, with high living and compliments’. Later we are informed that her face ‘was acquiring, instead of beauty, a lacquer of the invincible prettiness that characterises certain pampered, exquisite, expensive cats’.
To elude or subvert this male scripting of the female subject Luce Irigaray proposes a stratagem of resistance that she terms ‘playing with mimesis’. This is a strategy of employing parody and excess in mimicking patriarchy-defined feminine identities and thus exposing them as artificial and inauthentic. In this way, she argues, the female subject avoids the essentialist trap of trying to access some authentic femininity that might exist beyond this social construction of gender. We can see this blurring of gender identities in many of Carter’s texts, most dramatically in The Passion of New Eve. In this decentred, postmodern novel the transsexual Evelyn/Eve character comments on the strangeness of being surgically transformed into a ‘masturbatory fantasy’ and she tells us: ‘the cock in my head, still, twitched at the sight of myself’. During her sexual ‘relationship’ with the sadistic Zero she notes her own mimesis: ‘I was tense and preoccupied; although I was a woman, I was now also passing for a woman, but, then, many women born spend their whole lives in just such imitations’.
In the work of Angela Carter as a ‘problematic’ feminist there can be seen this desire to avoid a hard-line acceptance of idealism or essentialism, anything that suggests a natural or transcendent gendered-self, because these ideas have helped promote the ascendancy of patriarchy and have impaired general critical-thinking. We can see how, if the woman is indeed vampirised through this erroneous belief in her natural passivity, an absurd ‘ideal femininity’, a resistance to these false truths might promote a genuine empowering of the female subject, and a recognition that a female subject independent of patriarchal scripting exists in the first place.
But in Carter’s work there does seem to be this complex fascination with the patriarchal scripting of female desire that Patricia Dunker alludes to. As Paulina Palmer and other critics have argued, Irigaray’s view of mimesis is not without its problems. Palmer comments in an essay: ‘How can we differentiate a woman who is passively enacting a male-defined image of femininity from one who is subversively ‘playing with mimesis’?’ This tricky question of credibility can be levelled at Angela Carter herself, as well as the female characters that populate her fiction. This kind of mimesis has been criticised by writers like Palmer, Robert Clark and Patricia Dunker for its ‘lack’ of overt political resistance, because the female subject must necessarily use this strategy in an abstract world of ideas, surfaces and images. It is a criticism that is often levelled at Carter’s earlier work, including Shadow Dance and The Magic Toyshop.
The latter novel, one soaked with fairytale imagery, begins with Melanie standing in front of a mirror and exploring her teenage sexuality, dragging her hair ‘sluttishly across her face’. Like Dunker, Palmer suggests that the women in Carter’s early texts submit to what Irigaray calls ‘the dominant economy of desire’. Palmer goes on to say that Carter ‘represents woman as puppet, performing scripts assigned to her by a male-supremacist culture’. It is a problem that Palmer believes inherent in Carter’s writing up until Nights at the Circus, where a more heroic playing with mimesis comes to the fore and Palmer states that the character of Fevvers ‘engages in an exuberant version of it’.
Yet, there is an implication in Palmer’s essay that Carter’s earlier work embodies a lack of some kind – that this mimesis is an insubstantial shadow-play and that Carter falls short of her original intentions, perhaps due to her gothic fascination with phallocentric ideologies. But as Elisabeth Mahoney suggests, ‘Representational limits are what Angela Carter’s fictions consistently test, especially those associated with questions of sexual difference and identity’. Perhaps the reason that Carter so excels at this kind of shadow-play is because she is acutely interested in the nature of story-telling and her works are often tales about stories.
In The Bloody Chamber the reader gains access to a collection of lenses that are not just rewritten fairytales but are multidimensional stories about fairytales, in which the nature of power-relations, sexual desire and transformation are all keenly explored. This is perhaps the greatest strength of the book for those that care to see; that it deconstructs and reconstructs ideas concerning narratives and human identity, and presents depictions of a certain ‘conscious artifice’ through which these ideas can be laterally viewed. Although The Bloody Chamber is largely concerned with the seductions and controls of heterosexuality there are many tales in the book that are equally concerned with the performance aspects of both masculinity and femininity, and Carter gleefully celebrates the significance of the meta-gendered or transgendered subject. As the heroine of ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ explains in Carter’s strangest version of the Beauty and the Beast tale:
And each stroke of his tongue ripped off skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world, and left behind a nascent patina of shining hairs. My earrings turned back to water and trickled down my shoulders; I shrugged the drops from my beautiful fur.
When read against ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’, where Beauty and the Beast stroll through a garden in a drift of petals like a ‘normal’ romantic couple, we can see the genuine radicality that is suffused in ‘The Tiger’s Bride’. Not only does the heroine discover her own innate animalism, an equal to the male Beast, but the accoutrements of her fictional femininity reveal themselves to be water, a mere glamour that she happily shrugs off.
Despite the importance of such gender deconstructions, we must not forget the physical realities of life that Carter herself was so obviously interested in. To put it somewhat crudely; if a heterosexual woman intends to fuck a man she desires, doesn’t she need his erect phallus to complete her experience? Doesn’t the man need her wet vagina to similarly complete his experience? I only use such language to make a point, as it were, one that is sensible and valid. However, this mechanical need for male and female genitalia during heterosexual encounters does not mean that there should be a fixed social identity for either women or men. In The Bloody Chamber, though it is strange and disquieting, Carter explores a host of reciprocal roles that attempt to move beyond scripted notions of gender identity. Yes, women and men often enjoy fucking each other, but that is a much-desired physical act and not a constraining and limited social fiction. Sarah Gamble implies this, despite having reservations with Carter’s work, when she argues:
It is not until the stories in The Bloody Chamber that Carter, if not deconstructing ‘the’ couple as such, certainly begins to renegotiate the terms on which they meet through her speculation that a sincere exchange of affection between the sexes is possible.
Masculinity and femininity, in this sense, is up for grabs, but the fact of sex is not. The mythologies surrounding sex are definitely ripe for reinvention, and in The Bloody Chamber as elsewhere there are characters that face their darkest conceptions about what constitutes ‘the other’ and are somehow both masculine and feminine as a result. Or as the French theorist Julia Kristeva argues in Strangers to Ourselves:
By recognising our uncanny strangeness we shall neither suffer from it nor enjoy it from the outside. The foreigner is within me, hence we are all foreigners. If I am a foreigner, then there are no foreigners’.
This is an argument that is deeply resonant with ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ as well as the tale of ‘Wolf-Alice’, where the protagonist tends to the Duke who is locked in a painful liminal zone between identities. He seems both self and other, male and female at this stage:
an aborted transformation, an incomplete mystery, now he lies writhing on his black bed in the room like a Mycenaean tomb, howls like a wolf with his foot in a trap or a woman in labour, and bleeds.
Angela Carter seems deeply interested in possibilities of transformation and indiscreet states of being in The Bloody Chamber. Could it be her skill and acuity as a teller of tales that accounts for ‘problematic’ aspects that critics like Clark, Dunker and Palmer have noticed in her work; the fact that there are fractures and contradictions in her writings? It seems Carter herself would have balked at clean-cut easy answers to such questions, since desire and power often possesses a transgressive quality. As Elaine Jordan argues in her essay ‘The Dangerous Edge’, the ‘abyss between desire and its satisfactions, and between the thinkable and the thing thought of, is crucial to the persistence of desire and thought’.
Angela Carter takes naked pleasure in exploring the limits of mimesis, desire and decentred identity in many of her stories. In the title-story of the Black Venus collection Carter attempts to flesh out the character of Jeanne Duval, the mistress of the iconic poet Charles Baudelaire. Jeanne attempts to move beyond her prescribed role as mystical muse; a gendered ‘vase of darkness’ filled with ‘black light’. Carter discusses the tensions that move between Baudelaire and Duval; the mingling and oppositions of their voices. It is a subtle, intelligent tale. I would suggest that Carter’s writings attempt to liberate sexuality and consciousness, through ethical transgressions that recognise the indeterminacy of meaning and identity.
Initiation Rites – facing your demons
The Bloody Chamber can be seen as a primarily heterosexual initiation ritual, a process that ushers the female subject into the House of Rational Magic that constitutes adult creativity and sexuality. If we figure patriarchy as a social shamanism of an external and limiting kind, one composed of power-relations masquerading as natural truth, then perhaps Carter is proposing an initiation into a certain internal shamanism; a form of magic that does not align itself with the myths of nature or essence.
The Bloody Chamber does not offer the advice ‘just lie down and take it’ to the heterosexual female. Instead it offers the female subject an opportunity to create a synthetic or individualistic identity based on fragments and associations of whatever she deems appropriate, that she can then use in her relationship with men and with herself. Female sexuality is not naturally passive. Nor is it conversely aggressive like the fanged rose in ‘The Erl-King’, a motif that returns in ‘The Lady of the House of Love’ when the female vampire informs us of ‘the dark, fanged rose I plucked from between my thighs’. It can be a sexuality that is decentred and thus potentially liberated, as in ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ or ‘Wolf-Alice’; or perhaps an identity that has its centre, if anywhere, in the infinite canvas of fiction.
I would suggest that Carter is interested in enlivening and recuperating the fairytale genre – and the feminine myth – as much as she attempts to deconstruct and demystify it. This is evident from the sheer pleasure she takes in sensuous descriptions of the gothic, the occasional complicity of her heroines, and the allusive dreamlike quality of her prose. She recognises voices from the past and marginal themes, and rather than confining or prescribing female identity she utilises fairytale tropes in order to shape new and inclusive identities.
This pleasure that she takes is nakedly erotic as well as intellectual; it is akin to what the Greeks called Eros. David Punter argues that channelling sexuality into conventional white-washed forms ‘is repressive and, in the end, highly dangerous, [in] that it is a denial of Eros and that Eros so slighted returns in the form of threat and violence’. Or we might argue that if we repress Eros it can return as Thanatos – the death instinct, with all its polymorphous qualities. As the researcher James Hillman eloquently argues in his perceptive book The Dream and the Underworld:
If we follow this notion of Eros, then it is the brother of death and not the principle that will save us from it. There would be a closer bond between what goes on in dreams and a love that fulfils itself in darkness, in the intangible bodies of psychic images. Thus there is a downward love, and not only an Eros stretching itself towards the horizon of others.
Carter attempts to fearlessly explore these themes in The Bloody Chamber, with close attention paid to the interiority of the female subject.
In Lucie Armitt’s evocative essay ‘The Fragile frames of The Bloody Chamber’ she references the critics Elaine Jordan and Merja Makinen, and says of them, ‘They acknowledge the role these tales fulfil as textual explorations of the genuine complexities that confront even the most assertive of heterosexual women under patriarchy’. I would suggest this is the power that Carter sensed in being able to take hold of the narratives that govern women’s lives and their interactions with men, especially men they desire. If during this process of self-reinvention a female desires to flirt with patriarchal myths this does not mean that she is passive, rather it suggests agency – a desired sophistication in understanding the tropes of those myths.
I would suggest it is fruitful to acknowledge our shadows; it affords us our sanity. Aidan Day comments on this in his perceptive book Angela Carter – The Rational Glass. He argues that a ‘rational and ethical self is central to Carter’s programme in The Bloody Chamber collection, and it cannot sustain itself by evasion and repression’. This non-evasive ethic is something that Carter seems to promote at all times, even when such an agency might appear on the surface latent or collusive with the patriarchy it attempts to subvert. Lucie Armitt suggests this when she comments at the end of her essay: ‘Taking a leaf out of her own protagonist’s book, Carter flirts with textual danger on her own untamed terms, refusing to give us clearly defined answers’.
In The Bloody Chamber the female subject encounters all the alluring and horrid phallocentric myths that constitute patriarchal social shamanism, and the reader is geared with some insight as to why these myths were perhaps so alluring even when they clearly restrained and limited her. We can see this vividly expressed in the title story, in part a reworking of Charles Perrault’s version of the Bluebeard tale. During a contentious scene in Carter’s version the young heroine notices her attractions to the Marquis that she has recently wed. After leading her to his garish mirrored bedroom he strips her naked without any tenderness, approaching his ‘familiar treat with a weary appetite’, and she notes:
He in his London tailoring; she, bare as a lamb chop. Most pornographic of all confrontations. And, as at the opera, when I had first seen my flesh in his eyes, I was aghast to feel myself stirring. […] And I began to shudder, like a racehorse before a race, yet also with a kind of fear, for I felt both a strange, impersonal arousal at the thought of love and at the same time a repugnance I could not stifle for his white, heavy flesh
She notices her arousal and that it is impersonal, fulfilling some interior mythical dimension, rather than a simply passive response to the Sadeian unpleasantness of the Marquis. She does not evade herself and is perhaps rewarded with insight. Here we might argue that the heroine intuits that her husband is merely a vehicle, one that excites a dark interconnection of signs and motifs within her own psyche. As she informs us earlier in the tale when she is given a ‘cruel necklace’ by the Marquis: ‘And, for the first time in my innocent and confined life, I sensed in myself a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away. The next day we were married’.
This seems to be a very important though misunderstood key in unlocking Carter’s work and the power it possesses. To be a genuine female subject, where genuine is synonymous with self-made and active, one must understand the horrors and allures of feminine identities created by patriarchal coercion. One must understand the allure of passivity, or sado-masochism, or the possible masculine architect of such ‘feminine’ images. One must also comprehend that such a melancholy femininity cannot exist without its demonic counterpart; the very phallic masculinity that appears so powerful and controlling. Both are fictions that live primarily within, and only through this binary can they exist unnoticed. If women sometimes collude with patriarchal scripting of female desire, then men do it also with a counterpart scripting of male desire – in these instances both sexes are flirting with a polarised phallocentric mythology. Since they are internal polarities, unveiling the actions of one must necessarily destabilise the actions of the other. As Marianne informs her barbarian lover Jewel in Carter’s post-apocalyptic novel Heroes and Villains, ‘You, you’re nothing but the furious invention of my virgin nights.’
The Bloody Chamber is largely concerned with exposing the supposedly ‘natural’ wisdom and codes of canonical fairytales as false, as mediated social constructions with purpose, whether that purpose is sinisterly conscious or blithely unconscious. Without this exposure heterosexual women and men might be liable to feel corrupted, coded in ways they do not fully understand, entrapped by their dark psychic content, by their sexual fantasies, by their own will-to-power. The interlocking nature of The Bloody Chamber can help to off-set this entrapment by bringing us face to face with some of the reasons why it occurs and how we might unknowingly collude with our own psychic slavery. Lucie Armitt utilises Julia Kristeva’s conceptions of the abject when she suggests that abjection is ‘a particularly useful concept to apply to any metaphoric narrative, and especially to a mode of writing which, like these tales, prides itself on the interrogation of apparently impenetrable limits’.
The interlinked frames in The Bloody Chamber, as well as the repetition of motifs and the reoccurrence of character-types, is a beautiful method that Carter uses to signify the relationship between ideas of the self and the other, between violence and desire, or freedom and control. Perception is a shifting, indeterminate process. Therefore, can the female subject ever really be contained within patriarchy, or within the interconnected lenses of the book itself? The logic of the book is not phallic or linear, and while its goals include self-knowledge and the ability to reason it is not the reason of an apollonian day-world sort. It is a reflexive non-linear reason that holds the tales together, a tissue of poetic associations that could be described as a gyroscope of shifting lenses. Or as Armitt elaborates:
In other words, images, symbols and motifs from one story turn up in another in a way that reiterates and reworks the concerns of a previous vignette. As a whole, this multiplicity of interconnecting frames is, like the contents of the coffin, only precariously encased within the larger frame of the whole.
It is this arrangement that allows us to see themes deconstructed, decentred and revivified in ways that are disturbing and perhaps useful.
One of the key themes in The Bloody Chamber concerns the female subject courageously confronting the horror of the ‘rape-scenario’ that is perhaps implicit in fairytales and patriarchal masculine-feminine discourse. Sarah Gamble reiterates Margaret Atwood’s essay ‘Running with Tigers’ when she suggests that The Bloody Chamber is ‘best understood as a kind of fictional companion volume to The Sadeian Woman, for it constitutes an exploration of the same predator/prey equation that preoccupies the de Sade study’. It is the little-girl-in-peril motif, the ‘heterosexual fucking as rape’ implications, that Angela Carter finds so interestingly abhorrent.
Perhaps it is the presence of these themes that so disquiet critics like Dunker, Clark and Palmer. These unquestioned violent motifs serve to terrify both female and male subjects into intellectual passivity, Carter would claim, and create the monolithic fiction of the masculine as an almost supernaturally-sexualised predator. Discussions concerning the actual fragility of the male phallus and problems of impotency only serve to furnish us with intellectual insight, but to undercut the power of such a pathological myth we must return to the canvas of stories, for it is there that the myth gains or loses its power to entrance. By demystifying the Marquis or the Wolf in fictional terms Carter is thus able to destabilise their power-centre at the source, so to speak. To put it another way, if we fear or detest certain stories then we must question them and re-imagine them at ‘ground zero’, at the level of storytelling itself. We must return to old texts and read them with contextual differences, and create new texts that borrow whatever is needed from the old myths to provide elucidation.
This is what Carter is doing, I feel, she is borrowing as much from patriarchy as she needs to make her ideas intelligible and engaging. To expose Bluebeard or the Wolf, Carter must first have them present in some identifiable form. It is the same with apparently passive female characters. These images dwell within the psyche, nurtured or questioned by our imaginations. This does not necessarily mean that Carter is re-inscribing female disempowerment or adding to the phallocentric mythology, even if she senses in herself a gothic attraction and interest in such ideas. Is it unacceptable to be attracted to Bluebeard or the Wolf, or to the fiction of the passive feminine? Is it unacceptable to explore this attraction, its reasons and limits, through fiction? I would suggest that it is not, especially when the manifesto is one of general emancipation.
Underworld Perspectives – reinventing the Self
There is wisdom contained in much of Carter’s prose, concerning self-responsibility and the acknowledgement of our shadows, but in The Bloody Chamber it is constellated into this very unique hall of mirrors or Chinese boxes arrangement. Thus it takes on the quality of an initiation rite, or a descent into an underworld of images where egoist consciousness is not always in control. It is a willing oblation, akin to the tarot card called ‘The Hanged Man’; a willingness to experience a measure of melancholy and uncleanliness as a toll for entering the netherworld and gaining valuable insight. We could draw parallels with the Greek myth of Charon, the ferryman who must be paid with silver for safe passage across the River Styx. Simple ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ idiom is not enough to successfully traverse this realm of the dead. In fact, those initiated into the place below the world must attempt to unite or transgress binary systems, to perceive the artificiality and co-dependence of opposites.
Perhaps for Carter, since we are all male or female impersonators, it makes selfhood a unique and vibrant thing if we can achieve some kind of synthesis or androgyny at the level of storytelling, if we can face our shadows, for it is this level of perception from which our mythologies and social interrelationships must arise. In Margaret Atwood’s essay on Carter’s work, ‘Running with Tigers’, she comments insightfully:
What Carter seems to be doing in The Bloody Chamber – among other things – is looking for ways in which the tiger and the lamb, or the tiger and lamb parts of the psyche, can reach some sort of accommodation.
If we are familiarised with gender and power relationships when we are children, often through fairytales, then those stories are loaded with significance and potential in terms of our maturation, and are just as powerful when we return to them again as socially-constructed adults. Angela Carter’s writing is filled with fairytale tropes that have a liberating potential, even if this potential is sometimes latent or ‘lacking’, as critics like Patricia Dunker and Robert Clark have maintained.
In an underworld scenario the uncertain persona, or mask of ego, must eventually comprehend why certain things are simultaneously seductive and controlling to the psyche, as Atwood suggests. The persona can then return to the over-world with a liberating insight. James Hillman encapsulates this kind of decentred, non-oppositional perception, and sees it as a way towards healing or re-imagining the self. He argues insightfully:
If we do speak in terms of opposites, then there is only one absolute material opponent to any position in life, and that is its death. If we deliteralize that statement, we are saying that ‘death’ is the way through the opposites, that is, it is the self-regulation of any position by psyche, by non-literal, metaphorical perception. In this sense, conjunction and the identity of opposites mean the simultaneous perception by the perspectives of life and death, the natural and the psychic. […] We see the hidden connection between what had hitherto been oppositions.
This salient connection to the underworld and its gothic, willing-sacrifice resonances should be brought into relief here. As Lucie Armitt highlights:
It is perhaps this masochistic dynamic that takes us to the world of the Gothic, a form less easily encompassed by formulaic convention, for although it flirts with the fairy-tale genre’s own spatial trappings, it usually transcends their protective bounds.
In this odd realm Angela Carter gives form to the tensions of the remade identities of self, versus the patriarchal identities of wounded-self that are usually offered for women to act out like eidolons, phantom images of the underworld. Carter comes down firmly on the side of the remade self because it is, in this context, a consciousness that has traversed the underworld successfully. It understands the ways it colludes with or subverts the roles and relationships thrust upon it by phallocentric mystification, and it crucially acknowledges such a patriarchy as a constellation of illusions.
The young heroine realises this during her final confrontation with the wolf in ‘The Company of Wolves’. As Carter describes: ‘she knew she was nobody’s meat. She laughed at him full in the face, she ripped off his shirt for him and flung it into the fire, in the fiery wake of her own discarded clothing’. I would suggest this scene is not a rape, or an acquiescing to male desire on the part of the female subject. It is a unification of opposites and a sexual initiation that recognises ‘the other’ as part of the self in the dream of consciousness, resulting in the young heroine sleeping soundly ‘between the paws of the tender wolf’.
The form of the fairytale in the way Angela Carter utilises it lends itself to this exploration of blurred and overlapping identities. This is especially true of The Bloody Chamber, due to its ‘initiation’ quality and its underworld aesthetic. But once a subject has traversed the underworld and has found insight, what then becomes of her when she returns to the over-world? Carter attempts to explore these important questions in Nights at the Circus and Wise Children, published towards the end of her career, and we might argue that a certain cynicism with her own proclivities meant that such questions were never too far from her awareness.
Perhaps we might figure this idea in another way; as the limits and dissatisfactions of an underworld transgression, or of an indeterminate ‘postmodern’ sensibility. At the end of The Magic Toyshop we could argue that Melanie and Finn are left feeling strangely bereft without a governing patriarch, facing each other ‘in a wild surmise’. This does not mean that such a patriarch is needed, only that Carter is perceptive enough to sense the feeling of ambiguity or loss that might remain once a system is overthrown or seen through, despite its controlling or monstrous qualities.
Perhaps we might briefly discuss Mikhail Bakhtin’s concepts of the carnivalesque, and its limits in figuring the underworld. Once the world has been turned topsy-turvy by transgression into the carnivalesque, we might return to find that the controlling paradigm remains much the same as when we left it. How do we then apply the insights gained during our time in such a realm? In connection to this we might also argue that the Feast of Fools was an authorised Dionysian revelry, a way of relieving social tensions, and is perhaps more closely aligned to the controlling paradigm than it might appear at first glance. Is the concept of the underworld as figured by James Hillman simply a version of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque? Is it a masculine sleight-of-hand that ultimately denies the female subject, as intelligently discussed by Jane Miller in her book Seductions: Studies in Reading and Culture, and can it be explained away as patriarchy sanctioning occasional transgressions to defuse political discontent and to edify its power-base?
While Miller’s arguments have a strong political resonance, I would suggest that Hillman’s concept of non-oppositional perception is something far greater than what she is referencing. Elisabeth Mahoney makes a highly interesting point that might be useful here. She notes how feminine sexuality is dominantly coded as a lack of something, and that psychoanalytic theories ‘posit feminine desire as enigmatic; purely relational (for Freud through penis envy; for Lacan through the lack of the phallus, the universal signifier)’ and she goes on to argue:
Such models suggest that women are unable to articulate their own desires and remain trapped as objects of masculine desire, as the ‘other’ of the male gaze. Such influential psychoanalytic perspectives on feminine desire have prompted feminist theorists and cultural practitioners to rethink, if not altogether repudiate, these paradigms.
Therefore, in defence of the underworld perspective as an internal strategy to evade repression and denial of our darker aspects, we might consider that many scholars, including James Hillman and Julia Kristeva, believe the intellectual transgression of all absolutes is a profound and necessary tool in negotiating more inclusive concepts of sexuality and identity. I suspect it is a far more dangerous and transformative perception than Bahktin’s concept of the carnivelesque, or Bruno Bettelheim’s view of fairytales as deep unchanging archetypes that are purely positive and safe. This concept of the underworld implied by scholars like Hillman and Kristeva is always interrelated with our perceptions, both past and present, and like fairytales themselves it contains both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ polarities. It is the non-oppositional perspective from which we might perceive, rather than an unchanging aspect of a text or ourselves – and it does not play safe.
If we were to connect all the instances of resistance, subversion and transgression created by women throughout history, both in art and politics, might this interconnection form a counter-argument or a parallel tract to official history that is both reflexive and aggressive – an underworld of suppressed or denied experience? Perhaps through economic and cultural dominance the voices of patriarchy are heard loudest but they are not the only voices, nor have they ever been singular. The term ‘patriarchy’ itself is mutable, as is ‘feminism’.
We might consider that a heterosexual perspective is not the only one that can be used to analyse Carter’s work, or fairytales in general. Perhaps an application of queer-theory might garner some useful insights in this regard – the complexities of same-sex relationships as figured in fantastic literature, or simply a queer reading of Carter’s texts with regards to sexuality, identity and power.
There have always been other voices and other interpretive strategies, and like all things they rely on interrelationships for their meanings. Meanings change, and I would suggest that this is the power of an underworld perspective – a politicised and open-minded stewardship of ourselves, in all its multiplicity. I would argue that if the language for describing something changes, so too is the thing described also changed. Within that paradox lies an immense source of creative power because, as self-conscious beings gifted or cursed with the capacity for language, we must necessarily discuss ourselves into existence both externally and internally.
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