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The Bloody Chamber

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English Literature

Angela Carters The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979) shocked its early readership with its descriptions of pornography, sadistic torture, and murder, combined with familiar folk story and fairy tale elements. Will you, a present-day reader, find it equally shocking? Read on to find out!

A brief analysis of Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber

The Bloody Chamber(1979) is the title story in an anthology of short stories belonging to the genre of magic realism.

Texts belonging to the genre of magic realism merge realistic fiction seamlessly with surreal and supernatural elements.

In writing The Bloody Chamber (1979), Angela Carter took inspiration from Bluebeard (1697) and the historical figure the Marquise de Sade. Many parallels can be drawn between the plot and characters of The Bloody Chamber and Bluebeard (1697). However, the author has stated that it is its own story, not a feminist retelling, as it has been described by many critics and reviewers.

My intention was not to do versions or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, adult fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories and to use it as the beginnings of new stories1 (Angela Carter, 2006).

The story features themes such as the male gaze, power, sexuality, violence, love, and desire. It can be interpreted as a didactic tale, warning against passively marrying rich and powerful men for wealth and stability.

The Marquise de Sade (17401814) was a French nobleman whose erotic literature was banned in France until 1957. It is from these erotic works that the term sadism stems.

Sadism can be defined as the act of taking pleasure or sexual gratification from inflicting pain, suffering, or humiliation on others.

In what ways can the Marquis in The Bloody Chamber (1979) be interpreted as sadistic?

Summary of The Bloody Chamber

The title story, The Bloody Chamber’, follows the narrative of a young, unnamed female protagonist. It opens with an introduction to her family and a description of her social and financial circumstances. This later helps to explain the character’s motivations for marrying the Marquis.

We are introduced to her mother, an adventurous, romantic, and eccentric character who chose to give up a life of wealth and privilege for love. In contrast to her mother, the protagonist marries not for love but for the security, luxury, and elevated social position a union with the Marquis would grant her.

The protagonist’s early childhood is described as characterised by love, tragedy, and a genteel kind of poverty. Her father died in a war when she was a young child, and she is raised by her grief-stricken mother and an elderly nursemaid. Despite their financial hardship, she is able to attend the prestigious Conservatoire due to her devoted mother selling all of her jewellery, and she earns a little money playing the piano for aristocrats. At one such job, she meets the thrice widowed Marquis, who takes an interest in her.

The Marquis’ brief courtship of her is detailed, and his murderous intentions are dramatically foreshadowed by details such as his gift of a ruby necklace that looks like a slit throat when worn and the excess of lilies (traditionally a funeral flower) which fill the bride’s new bedroom.

The Marquis takes his new bride to his ancestral seat, an ancient castle by the sea. Soon after consummating the marriage, the Marquis claims to leave on urgent business. He gives her all of his keys, forbidding her from opening just one room in the entire castle. The protagonist’s curiosity gets the better of her, and she unlocks the forbidden room, where she discovers the remains of the Marquis’ three late wives.

She seeks help from Jean-Yves, a blind piano tuner, who follows her to the forbidden room where the stench of blood alone proves her claims. They discover that her husband has not left at all but has been lying in wait for her to open the bloody chamber. The Marquis marks her with the blood-soaked key and instructs her to prepare for her execution. The piano tuner is helpless to save her, and all seems lost when her mother arrives just in time, shooting him dead with her late husband’s revolver.

The protagonist inherits the Marquis’ vast wealth and property. However, she donates most of it to charity, keeping only enough to set up a music school to provide her with a livelihood. She marries the piano tuner for love, and the couple live together with her mother. Her elderly nurse, who could be interpreted as representing polite society, is scandalised and soon dies. However, the protagonist is content in her second marriage she is safe, happy, and fulfilled.

Consider the different types of masculinity that the Marquis and the piano tuner represent.

The Bloody Chamber: Quotes

The following quotes provide foreshadowing to the sinister elements of the short story:

Married three times within my own brief lifetime to three different graces, now, as if to demonstrate the eclecticism of his taste, he had invited me to join this gallery of beautiful women.

Here, the women are framed as objects to be collected and displayed by the Marquis. The use of the phrase of beautiful women also foreshadows the bloody gallery of their corpses he later keeps in his forbidden room.

the white dress; the frail child within it; and the flashing crimson jewels round her throat, bright as arterial blood.

Consider the connotations of purity and innocence that the colour white and childhood represent. These, combined with the troubling imagery created by her necklace, present the protagonist as a sacrificial victim. Carter’s description of this necklace foreshadows the Marquis’ intention to behead her.

The themes of The Bloody Chamber

Important themes in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ include the male gaze, and love and desire.

The male gaze

The male gaze features in The Bloody Chamber both figuratively and literally through the use of mirrors. These mirrors enable the protagonist to watch the Marquis watching her, literally reflecting his desires.

The term male gaze can be interpreted in literature as a sexualised way of viewing and describing women and girls through the lens of heterosexual male desire. The male gaze is usually presented as sexually objectifying women at the expense of their innate personhood.

Key quotes highlighting the male gaze

When I saw him look at me with lust, I dropped my eyes but, in glancing away from him, I caught sight of myself in the mirror. And I saw myself, suddenly, as he saw me

The protagonist’s sexual awakening runs in parallel to her increasing understanding of male desire and sexuality. More specifically, as she gains an understanding of the Marquis’ sexual attraction to her, she gains a new perspective of herself.

I saw him watching me in the gilded mirrors with the assessing eye of a connoisseur inspecting horseflesh, or even of a housewife in the market, inspecting cuts on the slab.

Here, the protagonist shows a complete awareness of the Marquis’ possessive objectification of her. A metaphor is used to compare the Marquis to an interested buyer.

A dozen husbands impaled a dozen brides

The Marquis has had the walls of the bedroom covered in mirrors, creating this voyeuristic optical illusion.

Analyse the violent language used to describe the consummation of their marriage. What connotations does impaled have? How do you think the protagonist feels about her first sexual experience?

Love and desire

The marriages in this short story can be interpreted as marriages of love and marriages of desire.

Key quotes highlighting love and desire

Are you sure you love him? Im sure I want to marry him, I said. And would say no more (p. 3).

The Marquis and the protagonist’s engagement is based upon their mutual desire to acquire something from the other. For the Marquis, it is sexual acquisition and the literal acquisition of her corpse for his collection.

In the absence of love or lust, what does the protagonist stand to gain from a marriage with the Marquis?

her gallant soldier never returned from the wars, leaving his wife and child a legacy of tears that never quite dried

The mother chooses to marry a poor man for love. When he dies, both mother and child are heartbroken and endure financial hardship. In light of this bereavement, the protagonist chooses the opposite path for herself, marrying a rich man she doesn’t love.

I know he sees me clearly with his heart

The protagonist’s fairytale-esque happily ever after involves marriage to the blind piano tuner Jean-Yves. The short story concludes with the protagonist following her mother’s example and marrying a poor man for love.

The genres of The Bloody Chamber

The title story can be interpreted as both a didactic and a feminist story.

A didactic story

The Bloody Chamber (1979) is a richly detailed short story about love, lust, desire, and danger that has elements of Bluebeard (1697) embedded within it. Whereas Bluebeard (1697) can be interpreted as a moralistic warning against female curiosity and disobedience, The Bloody Chamber has a different message. But it, too, contains didactic elements. The protagonist gets her happy ending when she eschews luxury and wealth and marries for love.

In literature, the term didactic is applied when a text contains a teachable element or moral instruction.

A feminist story

The works of Angela Carter are hallmarked by features of third-wave feminism, and The Bloody Chamber can be read as a satirical parody and gradual subversion of the traditional performance of femininity.

Third-wave feminism was concerned with the analysis, reclamation, and redefinition of the ideas and language used about womanhood, sexuality, femininity, and masculinity.

In many ways, the protagonist seems to initially conform to patriarchal ideals, as the young, dependent virgin wife of a rich and powerful older man and later as his passive, helpless victim. However, by the end of the story, this protagonist undergoes a powerful development of character. She exits the story as a sexually experienced woman in a marriage of equals, working alongside her new husband in their joint business venture.

You never saw such a wild thing as my mother, her hat seized by the winds and blown out to sea so that her hair was her white mane, her black lisle legs exposed to the thigh, her skirts tucked round her waist, one hand on the reins of the rearing horse while the other clasped my fathers service revolver

The character of the mother subverts the traditional performance of femininity as she rescues the damsel in distress, a role which is traditionally fulfilled by male characters.

Traditional performance of femininity and masculinity in Bluebeard (1697)

A subversion of the traditional performance of femininity and masculinity in The Bloody Chamber (1979)

The protagonist’s brothers kill Bluebeard, saving her.

The mother saves her daughter and shoots the Marquis dead.

The protagonist inherits great wealth, remarries, and remains in the socially accepted housewife role.

The protagonist inherits great wealth and remarries. However, she chooses to donate most of that wealth and opens a music school, re-entering the professional life.

Although she is defined by her relationship with Bluebeard as his wife, and her later ‘happily ever after’ involves a re-marriage, the protagonist’s sexuality is not discussed.

The protagonist’s growing awareness of sexuality, sadism, pornography, the male gaze, and her own sexual desires are explored.

The characters of The Bloody Chamber

The main characters of ‘The Bloody Chamber’ include the unnamed protagonist, her mother, the Marquis, and the blind piano tuner.

The unnamed protagonist

The unnamed protagonist is a young and talented pianist. It is her voice that narrates the short story. Her character features many characteristics of the typical female Gothic victim. She is a young virgin, physically slight, and pretty. As the story progresses, the character matures, becoming aware of the motivations of the Marquis and learning to value love above money and status.

The protagonist’s mother

The protagonist’s mother, also unnamed, is presented as an eccentric, emotionally intelligent, and romantic figure. She was the daughter of a rich tea planter and enjoyed a privileged upbringing abroad but was disinherited when she chose to marry a poor man. We are given a list of her early exploits during her youth in Indo-China, from shooting a man-eating tiger to getting the better of wicked pirates.

With this character, Angela Carter truly turns expectations on their head: she is no quiet, respectable middle-aged widow. She is the female hero of this story, and she ultimately saves her daughter’s life by arriving in the nick of time to shoot the evil Marquis.

The Marquis

Angela Carter took inspiration from Bluebeard and the Marquis de Sade to create this character. He is the monster of this fairy-tale style story. There is an element of the uncanny about the physical description of him, where he is described as both old and oddly untouched by time. The Marquis takes sadistic pleasure in murdering his wives and collecting their corpses for display in his bloody chamber.

The blind piano tuner

The blind piano tuner, Jean-Yves, can be interpreted as a subversion of the fairy-tale prince in this short story. The protagonist seeks his help after she discovers the bodies of the Marquis’ late wives. Although unable to rescue the protagonist, he provides her with information and tries to comfort her. He later marries her and works alongside her in their music school, tuning the pianos.

How is The Bloody Chamber shocking?

The Bloody Chamber (1979) is shocking in part due to the genre from which it takes its latent content, fairy stories and folktales. Whilst fairy tales often hint at elements of sexuality, relationship, and the danger of sexual predators, these aspects are not explicit. After all, their traditional intended readership is young children.

The wolf in Little Red Riding Hood (1697) can be interpreted as a sexual predator, lying in wait for vulnerable women and girls.

Angela Carter took inspiration from the Marquis de Sade, himself a historical figure of scandal, for the creation of her Marquis character. She goes into graphic detail about his sadistic sexual desires, describing his pornography and the sexual element of his mutilation and display of corpses.

The Bloody Chamber - Key takeaways

  • The Bloody Chamber (1979) belongs to the genre of magic realism.

  • Angela Carter subverts expectations of the performance of femininity, which is particularly evident in the character of the protagonist’s mother.

  • The character of the Marquis was inspired by the character Bluebeard and the historical figure of the Marquis de Sade.

  • This story has taken the latent content from the traditional tale of Bluebeard (1697) to create a new story.

References

1 Helen Simpson, Femme Fatale: Angela Carters The Bloody Chamber’, The Guardian (2006).

The Bloody Chamber

The plot focuses on a young pianist who marries a wealthy and thrice-widowed Marquis. She discovers the remains of his late wives in a forbidden room. As her husband prepares to kill her in retribution for entering the forbidden room, the girl’s mother arrives and shoots him. The story covers a variety of themes, including the male gaze, sexuality, power, violence, love, and desire.

‘The Bloody Chamber’ could be interpreted as a didactic tale warning against marrying for money and a title. The protagonist ultimately ends up finding love and fulfilment making a modest living running a music school with her piano tuner husband. Unlike the tale Bluebeard, which serves as an inspiration for ‘The Bloody Chamber’, this story is not a moralistic warning against female curiosity.

‘The Bloody Chamber’ was considered shocking when it was published in 1979 and is still considered shocking today. This is largely due to its sexually explicit content within the context of familiar fairy and folk tales.

The mirrors in ‘The Bloody Chamber’, present at the Opera and the marital bedroom, can be interpreted as symbolising the male gaze. The male gaze is a term to describe the sexual objectification of women by men. It is through glimpsing herself in these mirrors that the narrator gains an understanding of how the Marquis views her, and why he is attracted to her.

‘The Bloody Chamber’ features many characteristics of third-wave feminism. It explores and subverts the traditional performance of femininity, which is especially evident in the character of the mother, who is presented as the active, rescuing hero of the piece. It also explores female sexuality through the protagonist’s narrative.

Final The Bloody Chamber Quiz

Question

Who rescues the protagonist?

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Answer

The protagonist’s mother.

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Why does the protagonist marry the Marquis?

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Answer

For wealth and status.

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Question

The protagonist remarries and lives happily ever after.


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Answer

True.

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Question

The character of the Marquis is partially based upon a real historical figure.


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Answer

True.

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What do the mirrors represent?


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Answer

The male gaze.

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Who narrates The Bloody Chamber?


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Answer

The protagonist.

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What does the protagonist do with the castle after the Marquis’ death?

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Answer

 Turns it into a school for the blind.

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What visible mark does the protagonist carry for life after her ordeal with the Marquis?


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A red mark on her forehead from the blood stained key.

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How does the protagonist make a living after the Marquis’ death?


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Answer

She opens a music school.

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Question

Which of the following best describes the term ‘the male gaze’ in literature?


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Answer

When a male character views and describes a female character in a way that sexually objectifies them.

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Which of the following flowers features prominently in The Bloody Chamber?


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Answer

Lillies

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The Bloody Chamber has drawn inspiration from which fairy story or folktale?


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Answer

Bluebeard. 

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Question

Which of the following best defines sadism?


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Answer

Taking pleasure in or sexual gratification from inflicting pain, suffering, or humiliation on others.

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How did the Marquis intend on killing the protagonist?


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Answer

Beheading.

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How did the Marquis die?


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Answer

 He was shot.

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Question

How does the Marquis describe the protagonist's talent at music?

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Answer

A white gift

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