Review by Elsie Ohem
As a staple in English British literature courses, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber contains a series of short stories based on familiar fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood. What is most wonderful about her collection, and most educational, is her ability to capture elements of each tale without creating a different genre for adult fairytales. Moreover, her collection is a prime illustration of British literature that highlights women’s agency.
Each of Carter’s 10 short stories extract an element of female liberation and female agency by the means of sexual fierceness, fastidious desires, strong protagonists, and contrasting gender roles, as seen through the eyes of the protagonist in “The Company of Wolves”:
She saw how his jaw began to slaver and the room was full of the clamor of the forest’s Liebestod but the wise child never flinched, even when he answered:
All the better to hear you with.
The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat. She laughed at him full in the face, she topped off his shirt for him flung it into the fire, in the fiery wake of her own discarded clothing. The flames danced like dead should on Walpurgisnacht and the old bones under the bed set up a terrible clattering but she did not pay them any head.
“The Company of Wolves” is a re-inspiration of the classic Red Riding Hood, or Little Red Cap, story with a much darker twist. Utilizing the familiar elements of the forest, the old woman, the wolf, and the hunter, “The Company of Wolves” is a fantastic example of female agency, sexual fierceness, and contrasting gender roles. Specifically, Carter juxtaposes aspects of myth with issues of marriage by highlighting this story’s “stolen night of consummation.” In this sense, the female bride is still “virginal”—and the fact that she still is makes her agency more powerful when she decides how to consummate her stolen wedding night.
“The Tiger’s Bride” is also a story with a lead female character in that Carter illustrates the choices a daughter makes when the main character’s father loses her to a card game. The girl’s choices contrast with the common theme of female passivity in that her decisions reveal themselves as a way of overcoming her father’s negligence. Moreover, this story showcases her physical transformation (in a literal case) both in a sensual realm by becoming accustomed to the power of her own sexual agency and in an active realm, where she learns to find her own control in a demeaning situation:
I squatted on the wet straw and stretched out my hand. I was now within the field of force of his golden eyes. He growled at the back of his throat, lowered his head, sank on to his forepaws, snarled, showed me his red gullet, his yellow teeth. I never moved. He snuffed the air, as if to smell my fear; he could not.
Slowly, slowly, he began to drag his heavy, gleaming weight across and filled the little room; he had began to purr.
In becoming the tiger’s bride, the main character undergoes a supernatural and metaphorical transformation of the self as she re-evaluates her identity as a woman by using her newly found agency.
Ultimately, Carter’s short stories explore these topics in a unique and fantastical way. Each story allows the female character to learn much about herself and about her own power. As a female reader, I enjoy reading the creative development of each character as a process that can easily be understood and, perhaps, replicated in my own writing. The addition of its fairy-tale aspects makes The Bloody Chamber relevant to young adults and adults who are reading from its subtexts, and is received much better in this fashion than if these messages were communicated in a different style.
Angela Carter was born in 1940. After her first novel, Shadow Dance, she was immediately recognized as one of Britain’s most original writers. From 1976 through 1978, Carter was Arts Council of Great Britain Fellow in Creative Writing at Sheffield University, and from 1980, through 1981, she was visiting professor in the Writing Program at Brown University. She traveled and taught widely in the United States and Australia but lived in London. She died in February of 1992.