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Angela Carter's "The Bloody Chamber" - A Reader's Guide

209 pages
Angela Carter's “The Bloody Chamber” is probably the most widely studied work by secondary-school students and first-year university undergraduates in most universities around the world. Andrew Milne's idea to write this book, which could be termed as a running-commentary on the ten stories that make up the collection, came out of the constant contacts and questions raised as to why nothing existed to help them understand the pieces. “The Bloody Chamber” is their first contact, in most cases, with the author. He has used simple, plain English to help every student of Carter get to grips with the basic notions and themes present in the study of the taes in the collection. He takes us on an extensive detective chase analysing the intertextual clues left by Carter as we move from Blake to
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Angela Carter’s
“The Bloody Chamber”
A Reader’s Guide
Andrew Milne
Angela Carter’s
“The Bloody Chamber”
A Reader’s Guide
Translated from the French by Andrew Milne

Éditions Le Manuscrit

© Éditions Le Manuscrit, 2007

ISBN : 2-7481-7115-2 (fichier numérique)
ISBN : 9782748171150 (fichier numérique)
ISBN : 2-7481-7114-4 (livre imprimé)
ISBN : 9782748171143 (livre imprimé)

To Toby, my godson.

Table of contents
Introduction .......................................................................... 9
The curious one will be rewarded....................................11
The ones that lived happily ever after.............................27
The ones that changed back into animals.......................39
The ones who do it just for fun .......................................57
The ones who speak a certain way...................................73
The ones who wear the trousers ......................................97
The ones who see the reality of the light of day..........109
The ones who are afraid of granny................................131
The one who knows what she wants ............................145
Th is a frog…or a toad….............................167
Bibliography ......................................................................197

This book is the translation of the research carried
about by me in France in 1999 and subsequently
reworked under the title “Angela Carter – “The Bloody
Chamber” – un palimpseste féministe”, while I was at
the University of Toulouse-Le Mirail, France working
on a DEA research degree there.
After many years of teaching and hearing from
students that there was nothing adequately aimed at
secondary-school students both in France and the
English-speaking world, I decided to set about
translating the research and turning it into a running
commentary of Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” in the
hope that it might prove of some use to those students
who might find Carter’s most popular piece of fiction
beyond their reach at that stage. The present book is by
no means everything that we could say about this
particular collection of Carter’s, but in some ways it
touches on the most dealt with elements of intertextuality at
this stage. Each chapter begins with a short synopsis of the
tale in question and is followed by a detailed running
commentary of the primary points that any student might
wish to deal with. It can be used for self-study, or
alternatively in the classroom with the teacher as a reading
guide to each story. After each chapter there follows a short
list of internet sites that could be used as further research
material for intertextual sources present in the texts.
I have tried to present the chapters simply and deal
with the intertexts in such a way as they might be
understood by everyone, but in particular for first-time
readers of Carter. Enjoy reading the tales…
And for more information please take a look at the
Angela Carter Web Site at www.angelacartersite.co.uk
Andrew MILNE,
Toulouse, France, 2007.
9 Angela Carter: “The Bloody Chamber” – A Reader’s Guide

Andrew Milne is lecturer at the ISEG Graduate
Business School of Toulouse, France and also teaches at
the IEP University of Political Science in Toulouse
(Sciences Po). He is doing a PhD at the University of
Middlesex, London, researching the hybrid texts of
Angela Carter. He has recently co-authored a collection
of English oral exercise books entitled “Prépa à l’oral


Chapter 1

“The Bloody Chamber” was published for the first time
in the collection entitled The Bloody Chamber and
Other Stories in 1979.
This tale is a rewriting of the Bluebeard fairytale.
Many different versions of a story in which a forbidden
room is described exist and in particular stories from
“The Thousand and One Nights”. However, it would
appear that Perrault’s (1697) is probably the first real
version of the Bluebeard tale as we know it in modern
terms. We know that Carter was interested in this story
1as she was preparing to write a sequel to Jane Eyre just
before her death in 1992 as explained by Susannah
Clapp, executrix of Carter’s will:

When Angela died she left with her publishers the
synopsis for a novel about Jane Eyre's step-daughter,

1. Carter also wrote the introduction to Jane Eyre published by Virago
in 1990.
2. A. Carter, American Ghosts and Old World Wonders, London: Vintage,
1994, p. x.
11 Angela Carter: “The Bloody Chamber” – A Reader’s Guide

Jane Eyre is of course based on the theme of the
fairytale of Bluebeard and we can also see similarities
with Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. But, this tale by
Carter remains just one rewriting of the original fairytale
and perhaps the only direct link with Jane Eyre is the
fascination for the theme of the first wife.
Some critics, and in particular Bettelheim, believe
that Bluebeard is not a true fairytale, since the characters
do not develop with the action of the story but remain
static, and there is nothing either magical or
supernatural involved in what happens. However, in
Carter’s version, on the contrary, the personalities of the
characters and their relationships change through the
reading of the story. The story is freely based upon the
original tale but its sexual nature is accentuated in true
Carter fashion.
A young woman marries a wealthy aristocrat and
leaves her mother’s house (her father has died during
the war) in order to take up residence on the family
estate of her new husband. Carter’s story, despite a few
allusions to Dracula and the Carpathian Mountains,
takes place in Brittany, in France:

“The Bloody Chamber” story […] is set quite firmly in
the Mont Saint Michel, which is the castle on an island
1off the coast of Brittany.

Consequently, it is set in a real landscape, but
peopled with fictitious characters; or perhaps not quite
entirely. Carter bases her macabre marquis on de Sade
and on some of the characters that figure in l'Histoire de
Juliette, and also in La Nouvelle Justine. These multiple
literary allusions are enriched by various different
pictorial and theatrical references.
As in all of the versions of Bluebeard, there is a
forbidden room (where the bodies of Bluebeard’s wives

1. Anna Katsavos, “An Interview with Angela Carter” in The Review of
Contemporary Fiction vol. 14. no. 3, 1992, p. 11.
12 The curious one will be rewarded

are kept), the bloodstain and the key. However, Carter
subverts the end of the tale by attributing the mother
with the role of hero when she saves the young girl
from the threat of death at the hands of her husband. In
this chapter we shall take a look at the symbolism
involved in the theme of the forbidden room and the
key. We shall show the importance of blood, the opal
stone ring and the ruby necklace in this macabre story
which mixes crime and sexuality and in which it is the
mother that snatches her daughter from the evil clutches
of a dangerous husband.
From the very opening of the tale we know that the
wife of the marquis is not dead, since she is the narrator
of our story. But, as she remembers (“I remember […]
and I remember” (p. 7)) the reader forgets little by little
while reading the story and the suspense is maintained.
This young girl, hardly any older than de Sade’s Juliette
(“I was seventeen” (p. 9)), is not only young (“my young
girl's pointed breasts and shoulders” (p. 8)) but also a
virgin (“the sign of virginity” (p. 19)). She is
inexperienced in the things of the adult world; and
Carter in this first tale of the collection insists on the
moment of transformation, and is fascinated by it: “I
ceased to be her child in becoming his wife.” (p. 7).
Such inexperience makes the young girl believe that
she is in love with Bluebeard, since she has known no
other man, except her own father, who is dead: “'Are
you sure you love him?'I'm sure I want to marry him,' I
said.” (Ibid).
In reality, she has no idea of the notion of love. She
is seeking to replace her absent father through the union
with the marquis. The tale implicitly plays upon the
classical oedipal myth. The marquis is older than she is:

He was older than I. He was much older than I. There
were streaks of pure silver in his dark mane (p. 8)

13 Angela Carter: “The Bloody Chamber” – A Reader’s Guide

And he brings her what she has been lacking due to
her father’s death: “He had prevailed […] to let him buy
my trousseau.” (p. 11). She wants for nothing and she
does nothing, since in the castle every wish will be
carried out by servants from the moment that she
arrives. Furthermore, her mother, who has a very strong
character, has raised her:

[…] what other student at the Conservatoire could
boast that her mother had outfaced a junkful of Chinese
pirates, nursed a village through a visitation of the
plague, shot a man-eating tiger with her own hand and
all before she was as old as I? (p. 7)

In the absence of her father, the female narrator has
not had a masculine role model during her childhood,
having grown up in an essentially feminine world
(surrounded by her mother and her English nanny). But,
Carter transposes the masculine characteristics to the
mother who is given the status of practically a living
In the same way, and although the marquis is old
enough to have seen both his parents die, the reader is
told nothing about his father’s life. Consequently, the
marquis too has lived in an essentially feminine world (his
mother, his grandmother, his great-grandmother, the
governess, and the servants), except perhaps for the
existence of the phallic sword of the great-grandfather.
The memory of his mother remains present in the opal
ring of his mother’s that he offers to his new bride at
each marriage. The memory of his grandmother remains
alive in the ruby necklace that foretells of the death of his
wife. Furthermore, it would seem that one mother might
not be sufficient for this particular man, and he has
replaced her by the governess, a sort of adoptive mother
to him:

14 The curious one will be rewarded

He told me [the housekeeper] had been his foster-
mother, “as much part of the house as I am, my dear”.
(p. 14)

Out of this paternal lack for the two protagonists
there is born a form of emotional opposition: jealousy
for the girl and perversion for the marquis. The girl has
a tendency to commit errors of judgment. She is jealous
and unstable in her relationship with the marquis, and
the tale insists on the loss of her father:

[…] her gallant soldier never returned from the wars,
leaving his wife and child a legacy of tears that never
quite dried […] (p. 8)

In the beginning, she does not even want to hear
mention of the fact that the marquis has already been
married; whereas he has been married not once, but
three times:

I did not want to remember how he had loved other
women before me, but the knowledge often teased me
in the threadbare self-confidence of the small-hours.
(p. 9)
She becomes jealous as if the subject/object
dichotomy were collapsing. She realizes that her destiny
is closely linked to that of the previous wives. She is
following the same path, and she finds her own destiny
reflected in the first three wives of the marquis. History
is repeating itself and she is not subject, but object. In
the same way, in the conjugal bedroom in the castle, she
sees her image reflected twelve times in the mirrors that
cover the walls. She senses her reflection in the first
three wives just as she looks at the twelve reflected faces
in the mirrors of the bedroom:

Our bed. And surrounded by so many mirrors! Mirrors
on all the walls […] the young bride, who had become
15 Angela Carter: “The Bloody Chamber” – A Reader’s Guide

that multitude of girls I saw in the mirrors, identical in
their chic navy blue tailor-mades, for travelling. (p. 14)

The repetition of “mirrors” and the alliteration of
[m] in “mirrors” and “multitude” intensify the image.
The false sublimation is inversed and fragments.
The fantasy of the other woman is contagious. The
young, newly married girl has doubts during her
honeymoon, when her husband is forced through
obligation to leave her on business on the other side of the
Atlantic. She asks herself questions and wonders if this
business affair might be more than simply commercial:

Might he have left me, not for Wall Street but for an
importunate mistress tucked away God knows where
who knew how to pleasure him far better […]? (p. 22)

The enquiring words of the narrator intensify in
rhythm and strength from “might” to “God knows
where who knew how”. She is jealous on two levels:
firstly because of her insecurity, due to the absence of
her father, and secondly due to her lack of sexual
Sexuality is very much present in “The Bloody
Chamber”. The narrator begins her story aboard the train
en route for the castle of her husband, accompanied by all
of the sexual references that might be evoked by the power
of the train and the rhythmic movements of the pistons:

[…] the pounding of my heart mimicking that of the
great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me
through the night, away from Paris, away from girlhood.
(p. 7)

The rhythm is increased by the repetition of [p] and
[m]. But, the young girl must wait, even if her husband
gives her a taste of the pleasures to come:

16 The curious one will be rewarded

His kiss, his kiss with tongue and teeth in it, and a rasp
of beard, had hinted to me […] of the wedding night,
which would be deferred until we lay in his great
ancestral bed in the sea-girt, pinnacled domain […] that
legendary habitation in which he had been born. (p. 8)

The repetition of “his kiss” indicates to the reader the
state of ecstasy of the young girl in the train that is
speeding them towards the castle. But, she must wait, as if
the marquis were impotent outside of his family seat. This
castle with its tower, isolated and phallic, symbolizes the
sexuality of the marquis:

And, ah his castle! The faery solitude of the place; with
its turrets of misty blue, its courtyard, its spiked gate, his
castle that lay on the very bosom of the sea. (p. 13)

The castle is inaccessible at certain times. It is cut
off from the mainland by the sea, just as the marquis
finds himself in a position of isolation through his
mother, or rather his surrogate mother, the governess.
The marquis, however, represents the opposite of his
young bride. The jealousy of the latter exists, but it is a
match for the intense perversion that is her husband’s. The
marquis turns towards fetishism and perversion by
renouncing the possibility of regular sexual relations, in the
absence too for him of a masculine role model.
We know that the marquis, on the first evening in
the castle, entirely undresses his wife:

He stripped me, gourmand that he was, as if he were
stripping the leaves off an artichoke - but do not
imagine much finesse about it, this artichoke was no
particular treat for the diner. (p. 15)

She is the object of his desire, but it is not a
reciprocal desire. In the incongruous image in which we
recognize Carter’s humour, the young girl is fresh and
ready to be consumed (“artichoke”). She is undressed,
17 Angela Carter: “The Bloody Chamber” – A Reader’s Guide

but the marquis remains entirely clothed (“in his
London tailoring”, p. 15). Carter explains in Nothing
Sacred the importance of clothes for both men and

Marilyn Monroe […] knew exactly what [she] was doing
when [she] took [her] clothes off; [her] skin itself was
the sign of [her] status, [her] nakedness [her] sole but
irrefutable claim to existential veracity. The male models
of Playgirl and Viva do not exhibit such self-confidence;
1and no wonder.

In marked contrast, the power of man is not to be
found in his nudity, but rather in his clothes. Here, we
witness the power of the marquis over his young bride
in the fact that he remains clothed. The effect is
heightened here due to the fact that the clothes are
elegant and tailor-made. By taking off the clothes of his
wife, he demonstrates his force and strength, and reveals
the nature of his sexual relations which must surely be
violent and selfish:

He lay beside me, felled like an oak, breathing
stertorously, as if he had been fighting with me. In the
course of that one-sided struggle, I had seen his deathly
composure shatter like a porcelain vase flung against a
wall; I had heard him shriek and blaspheme at the
orgasm; I had bled. (Bloody Chamber, p. 18)

It is interesting to see here that the cliché is associated
with the marquis rather than with the virgin girl. Love
here is not reciprocated and the pleasure is egotistical.
The marquis blasphemes, and in shrieking his obscenities
we automatically think of various characters of de Sade,
in particular Dubourg in La Nouvelle Justine:

1. A. Carter, Nothing Sacred, London: Virago, 1993, p. 115.