Introduction: In the context of gothic literature, womenare portrayed as one of two personalities: either the predator or the victim.The predator is more of a powerful, attractive character whereas the victim ispresented as fragile, vulnerable and is often the ‘damsel in distress’.Moreover, women are presented as objects of desire; a prize given to men as areward1. Angela Carter challenges the fairytale tradition through the explorationof different themes within her short stories. She borrows themes from a widerange of fairytales and legends. The legend of ‘Bluebeard’, ‘Beauty and theBeast’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ are amongst thefairytales that serve as inspiration for the gothic adaptations2,in which she subverts to comment on female representation and stereotypeswithin gothic literature. However, although Carter extracts themes from eachfairytale, she incorporates gothic elements within her short stories- such asthe use of supernatural beings and gloomy atmospheres.
Above that, she alsochallenges themes typically prevalent within gothic literature, specificallyfemale identity and representation. In ‘The Bloody Chamber’, Angela Carter uses elements of the gothic genrethroughout her short stories. However, as opposed to adhering to the typicalstereotypes prevalent within gothic literature, Carter challenges certainelements to confront the idea of femininity through the embodiment ofcharacteristics within the heroines that, to an extent, defy those of a typicalfemale within gothic literature.
Specifically regarding the final three short stories in ‘The BloodyChamber’, Carter creates three different heroines, each embodyingcharacteristics and intrinsic qualities that serve to challenge those of atypical heroine within gothic literature, which will be explored throughout thisessay, which also serves to explore the gothic notion of femininity. In gothicliterature, the perception and portrayal of a woman’sessence consists of “inferior brain weight, tendency to brain fever ifeducated, ubiquitous maternal instinct, and raging hormonal imbalance”3.This constitutes as part of the gothic notion of femininity, which will beexplored as the defining factors through which women and specifically femalecharacters are perceived as feminine. Thus, the question used as a lens to explorethis text is, “To what extent does Angela Carter challenge the gothicnotion of femininity through the characterization of the heroines in thewerewolf trilogy in “The Bloody Chamber?” The Werewolf: In the first short story of the werewolf trilogy, “The Werewolf”, Cartercreates an opening and setting up for what seems to be a classic fairytale.Through this, Carter embeds a sense of irony; as the story unfolds, there are themesand traits embodied by the female character that mirror those embodied by thetraditional fairytale heroine. In this context, the traditional fairytaleheroine can be viewed as a female character that embodies qualities andperforms actions that adhere to the gothic notion of femininity.
The narrator goes on to introduce new characters, along with theprogression from the introduction to a focused event; a mother instructing herdaughter to deliver oatcakes to her grandmother. Interestingly, instead ofexercising caution, the mother demands that her child go forth with her journeydespite the presence of lurking, dangerous creatures. “Do not leave the pathbecause of the bears, the wild boars, the starving wolves”.4 Thisaffirms certain gender stereotypes where men are encouraged to be brave andface danger whereas women (especially young girls) are portrayed as fragile andshould be protected.
‘The bears’, ‘the wild boars’ and ‘starving wolves’ embodyelements of danger; through avoiding those creatures and staying on the pathdue to the presence of these creatures, Carter reinforces the vulnerabilitythat is perceived to be a part of a woman’s personality, aiding to theaffirming of the gothic notion of femininity. However, the incorporation of variouselements that embody danger or evil is a feature of gothic literature, used inthis short story to provide a threatening force for the female character inorder to evoke reactions and responses that either adhere to the gothic notionof femininity or defy it. This isexemplified in Carter’s gothic retelling of the Grimm’s fairytale “LittleRed-Cap”, otherwise known as “Little Red Riding Hood”. The mother arms theyoung girl with her father’s knife. “Here, take your father’s knife; you knowhow to use it”5.Not only does this indicate that the girl was being entrusted with a weapon,but that she also had experience using it, perhaps through hunting activitieswith her father- which is typically an activity that only men partake in.
Thissubverts certain gendered stereotypes that dictate what activities and hobbiesmen and women can or cannot take part in, such as hunting, in this case.Moreover, through portraying the female character as one who takes charge ofher own protection, Carter challenges the gothic notion of femininity. Likewise, Carter builds on thischallenging of the gothic notion of femininity by introducing an element ofdanger- embodied by the wolf- who serves to provide, as previously mentioned, athreatening force for the young girl, manifesting as the girl trudges throughthe forest on her way to deliver the oatcakes to her grandmother. “When sheheard that freezing howl of a wolf, she dropped her gifts, seized her knife andturned on the beast”6. Throughthis, Carter challenges the defenseless nature of women that is portrayedwithin gothic literature by allowing her to take control and giving her thepower to tackle the beast, without the help of a male figure.
Moreover, regardingthe human ‘fight or flight’ response, one would expect this girl to takeflight, instead, she responds to the ‘fight’ instinct with no hesitation.Therefore, this challenges society’s internalized notion that young women tendto be vulnerable and are easily threatened by danger. The tension rises as theevents quickly escalate, resulting in the girl wielding her knife and cuttingoff the wolf’s paw. “The wolf let out a gulp, almost a sob, when it saw whathad happened to it”7.Through the action of mutilation, the young girl establishes dominance over thewolf and subverts the power dynamic typically prevalent between a femalecharacter and a larger, more dominant force, such as the wolf in this case.Moreover, it also subverts the previously mentioned defenseless behaviorassociated with women in gothic literature, which by extension, serves tochallenge the gothic notion of femininity.
Moreover, Carter then creates a relationship between the wolf and thegrandmother, which acts as the foreshadowing of what is to come, as it is laterrevealed that when the child had shaken out the wolf’s paw from the cloth, ahuman hand had been in its place. “There was a wedding ring on the third fingerand a wart on the index finger… she knew it was her grandmother’s hand”8.This creates a sense of shock within the reader through the use of irony, as itwould not have been expected that the young girl’s grandmother- a member of herfamily- would be the one to try and put her in harm’s way. From this, thereader can perceive that this tale illustrates how women can sometimescontribute to the downfall and/or harming of other women, as it is discussedthat even though it can be men who contribute to the downfall or harming ofwomen, there is in a lack of unity that exists amongst women, which is likelywhat Carter has aimed to portray through the events of this story.
Throughthis, she also affirms the gothic notion of femininity by depicting asupernatural female character as the villain- the predator, essentially- whichis a common representation of some female characters within gothic literature9. The Companyof Wolves: In this short story, much like in ‘TheWerewolf’, the main element of danger that serves to acts as a dominating forcein the young girl’s journey is a wolf, described as a manipulative creature. The author goes on to describe the perils of theforest in which the “grey, unkind” wolves live, with knives being one’s onlyprotection against the creatures- the weapon also being a feature in ‘TheWerewolf’. Another comparison that can be drawn from ‘The Werewolf’ is themorphing of wolf to man when killed, as well as the cutting of the wolf’s paw.This is significant in that it is an act of dominance against the once superiorwolf. In early Gothic, womenwere often portrayed as weak, selfless and innocent10.In ‘The Company of Wolves’, the female character initially adheres to thenotion of innocence, as she is portrayed as “an unbroken egg…moving withinthe invisible pentacle of her own virginity”11.
The theme of ‘virginity’ is associated with innocence, therefore adhering tothe gothic portrayal of the female character as ‘innocent’. Through the descriptionof the ‘unbroken egg’ and such, Carter adheres to the theme of vulnerabilitythat is associated with young women and also affirms the gothic notion offemininity. However, the story then shifts to thegeneral plot implemented in the original Grimm’s fairytale of ‘Little Red-Cap’;a young girl trudging through the forest in order to deliver food to hergrandmother, despite the dangerous path filled with wolves. In contrast, theyoung girl in ‘The Company of Wolves’ is described as strong-minded andunafraid of any potential danger. She is “quite sure that the wild beastscannot harm her”.12This depicts a certain level of innocence- as she rejects the notion of threatand danger- adding to the youth of the girl. Much like in ‘The Werewolf’, the girl also carries a knife in herbasket.
The recurring theme of self-defense challenges the helplessnessassociated with many female characters, as the young girl is taking charge ofher own protection, which challenges the gothic notion of femininity. On theother hand, Carter creates somewhat of a vulnerable sexualized image, thereforepainting her as an object of desire, an element generally specific to womenthat is prevalent within gothic literature, adhering to the gothic notion offemininity. Moreover, through saying “she is an unbroken egg; she is a sealedvessel; she is a closed system”13,the author portrays her as delicate and of great value; she is untouched, whichenhances her desirable image. “Due tothe political and social uncertainty of the times the Gothic novelists feltcalled upon to either seek to protect patriarchal values or use the upheaval toabandon traditionally restraining concepts of female virtue.
“14 Theconcept of female virtue is reinforced through the characterization of thisheroine. However, it is later abandoned when there is a depiction of a scene inwhich the young girl begins to take off her clothes. This can be interpreted asa shedding of physical means through which the girl’s innocence is protected,therefore going against her previous description of being a “closed system”. Furthermore, the introduction of the howl of a wolf that is then heard withinthe forest is a device used to generate a negative response and evoke fearwithin the heroine. However, “She saw no sign of a wolf, nor of a nakedman…there sprung onto the path a fully clothed one, a very handsome young one”15.
Unlike ‘The Werewolf’, there is no eminent sign of danger, but rather it isdisguised within the seemingly harmless, attractive male. “He laughed with aflash of white teeth when he saw her and made a comic yet flattering littlebrow; she’d never seen such a fine fellow before”16.The newly-introduced male can be perceived as somewhat manipulative, as he usessimple gestures to distract the young girl from the suspicious nature of hisemergence directly after a wolf’s howl is heard.
The theme of deception (lies,disguises, etc.) is one of the heavily prevalent gothic themes and motifs17,which can be embodied by men to sway the opinions or determination of theheroine. This is demonstrated in the male character’s use of the previouslymentioned actions as a means of deceiving the female character into believingthat he is not dangerous. However, the notion of sensibility within womenvanishing in the presence of physical attraction to a good-looking male is alsoa theme applicable to real life. In portraying this in her short story, Carterreinforces the concept of female vulnerability against patriarchal figures,adhering to the gothic notion of femininity. Similarly, the connection formed within this male-female relationshipserves to support the naivety surrounding the female character in the presenceof this patriarchal figure. Moreover, the girl places her trust in him, whichis not uncommon for young girls when approached by a handsome man.
“When heoffered to carry her basket, she gave it to him although her knife was in itbecause he told her his rifle would protect them”. This goes back to thepreviously mentioned theme of lack of sensibility in the presence ofpatriarchal figures. “She forgot to be afraid of the beasts, although the moonwas rising”18.The rising of the moon is generally associated with an increase in theemergence of dangerous creatures- werewolves included.
Therefore, this acts asforeshadowing to signify the threat of danger in the near future. Moreover, themoon can also be associated with themes of femininity. As it is “often associated with a feminine symbol, the moon representsthe rhythm of time because it embodies the concept of cycles”19. Thepresence of this symbol signifies female empowerment and through the rising ofthe moon, Carter brings the woman to a position of power and by establishingthis superiority, she subverts the gothic notion of femininity that otherwiseportrays women as weak. Unlike ‘The Werewolf’, Carterkeeps the character of the wolf and the grandmother as separate individuals,instead directing the focus to the relationship between the young girl and theman. Amidst the girl and the man/wolf’s heated reunion- followed by the manstripping naked and devouring the grandmother- the girl throws the wolf’sclothes into the fire which, as previously mentioned, condemns a wolf to alifetime of being that way. “Seven years is a werewolf’s natural span but ifyou burn his human clothing you condemn him to wolfishness for the rest of hislife”20.
This suggests that this is an act of revenge against the wolf, despite theirseemingly loving relationship, as it condemns him to a life of animalisticbehavior. Wolf-Alice: The short story ‘Wolf-Alice’, the final installment of the werewolftrilogy, appears to depict Alice, who is a woman raised by wolves- and believesshe is one of them. The wolves are, in this case, regarded as family withhumans being the enemy, due to a group of peasants shooting the mother-wolf todeath. “A hyphen joins two or more words together”21.In this context, the use of the hyphen in the title ‘Wolf-Alice’ morphstogether the identity of Alice(human) and beast into one, similarlydemonstrated in ‘The Werewolf’ in which Carter combines the character of thegrandmother and the wolf into one. Through presenting Alice as beastly, herphysical appearance acts as the stepping stone through which she challenges thegothic notion of femininity.
‘Wolf-Alice’ allows the reader to explore the reverse-development of ayoung girl from beast to human- as opposed to some of Carter’s other shortstories, such as ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, in which the heroine becomes a beast.Alice is described with the characteristics that pertain to wolves- such as aheightened sense of smell- but when discovered by ‘them’, she is taken away andtaught things that pertain to her human nature, which she actively resists.”She always seemed wild, impatient of restraint, capricious in temper… shearched her back, pawed the floor, retreated to the far corner of the chapel,crouched, trembled, urinated, defecated- reverted entirely, it would seem, toher natural state”22.
Thesubconscious orientation of one’s identity is a theme explored throughout’Wolf-Alice’. It is generally assumed that one should act according to their’natural state’, as opposed to what one is familiar with, such as in Alice’ssituation. However, Alice subconsciously rejects that notion and behaves the onlyway she knows how to.
Since Alice does not conform to her natural state, shebecomes a burden upon the people and is therefore sent to ‘the Duke’- describedas a creature who sleeps by day, feasts by night.. “He lives in a gloomymansion, all alone but for this child who has as little in common with the restof us as he does”23.The Duke can therefore be regarded as an ally to Alice, as he too is consideredvicious and unnatural- although, traditionally, he would be regarded as theenemy. Through the alienation of both the male and female character from therest of society, a bond is formed and the societal divide between the two sexesis demolished. “Although still represented byarchetypes, such as the persecuted maiden, femme fatale and the virtuous motherfigure, the character’s resolve and identity is often determined by the type ofmale tyranny inflicted upon them.
” 24Thisnotion is subverted, as the development of Alice’s character is not defined bythe Duke, but is rather a process that Alice goes through on her own. Byabstaining from the dependence on a male figure to catalyse the process ofAlice’s development, she challenges the gothic notion of femininity bymaintaining independence; as opposed to the way in which women are portrayedwithin gothic literature as relying on a male figure to aid to theirdevelopment. Moreover, Carter incorporatesthemes within ‘Wolf-Alice’ that are also prevalent within ‘The Werewolf’. Menstruationis among those themes, however , it does not serve to act as a symbol of sexualmaturity, but rather is the catalyst for Alice’s character development frombeast to human.
“She learned to expect these bleedings, to prepare her ragsagainst them, and afterwards, neatly to bury the dirtied things”25.Carter uses an aspect of Alice’s own self in order to allow for herdevelopment, rather than it being defined by the influence of a patriarchalfigure. It is through her own means that Alice discovers and explores differentaspects of her environment to aid to her own growth. This is significant, as itcreates a strong female character, whereas traditionally within gothicliterature, as previously mentioned, it is the role of the male figure thatdictates the progression of the young woman’s life. Moreover, along withmenstruation, Carter also emphasizes traditional notions of femininity in orderto effectively portray Alice as a woman. “On those white nights when she wasleft alone in the house, she dragged out his grandmother’s ball dresses androlled on suave velvet and abrasive lace because to do so delighted heradolescent skin”26. The stereotype of’dresses’ and ‘lace’ forming the basis what is deemed ‘feminine’ is reinforcedhere. This allows the reader to be able to clearly identify Alice as female,which also exposes the inherent gender stereotypes internalized by society.
Furthermore, suspense begins to buildthrough the introduction of conflict- the attempted hunting of the Duke. Whenwounded, Alice reverts back to her wolfish behavior and responds to thesituation as any animal would. “She leapt upon his bed to lick, withouthesitation, without disgust, with a quick, tender gravity, the blood and dirtfrom his cheeks and forehead27”.This not only suggests that, although one may physically pertain to thequalities of a certain category, one’s natural state is rather intrinsic, italso subverts the previously mentioned notion of femininity; femininity is notusually placed alongside animalistic qualities, as it is more internalized bymale figures, aiding to their dominance. Conclusion In conclusion, it is apparent that AngelaCarter does in fact challenge stereotypes and gender roles typically common withinsociety through her work.
However, she does not seem to fully subvert thegothic notion of femininity or blatantly affirm it through the representationof these female characters, but rather she makes a statement about the complexnature of femininity. She begins by building the female’s character in a waythat presents her as a typical gothic female and then allows her to presentqualities that are not associated with the typical female – or reverse thatdevelopment, as seen in Wolf-Alice. Perhaps Carter is communicating that whileit is important for a woman to break free of society’s conceptions aboutfemininity and create a persona of her own, it is the common traits that existamongst women that serve to unify and universalize their experience; to abandonthese traits entirely introduces an alienation amongst them. By using herplatform to put out work that serves to expose the different aspects of awoman’s personality, Carter celebrates what it means to be a woman and byattributing courage, strength and individuality to the female characters thatare otherwise considered ‘unfeminine’, she aims to redefine and portray thediversity of women and incorporates the qualities that are under-representedwithin different novels- considering the one-dimensional nature of femalerepresentation. Bibliography Bidisha. Angela Carter’s wolf tales (‘The Werewolf, ‘The Company of Wolves’ and ‘Wolf-Alice’).
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“Female Virtue in Gothic Literature 1780-1810.” PEARL Home, Plymouth University (2016). Clamp, Rachel. “The Significance of Female Identity Within Gothic Literature.” LetterPile (2016).
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28 July 2017. Libin, Farah. “In Gothic writing women are presented as either innocent victims or sinister predators or significantly absent.’ Consider the place of women in gothic writing in light of this comment.” London News (2016). Lit Charts. Humor, the Gothic and the Supernatural Theme Analysis.
n.d. Article. September 2017. Makinen, Merja. “Angela Carters “The Bloody Chamber” and the Decolonization of Feminine Sexuality.” Feminist Review (1992). Milbank, Alison.
“Gothic fiction tells us the truth about our divided nature.” Guardian News and Media (2011). Article. Mitchell, Donna. “The Monstrous Feminine: A Portrait of Female Sexuality in Irish Gothic Literature.” Sibéal (n.
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2015. Blog. October 2017. Rodrigo. “Women are often portrayed as selfless, innocent, and virtuous in gothic literature.” The Write Pass Journal (2013). Spitz, Ellen Handler. “The Irresistible Psychology of Fairy Tales.
” New Republic (2015). Article. The Pen and The Pad. Diverging Roles of Men and Women in Gothic Literature .
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