Metamorphosis of the Feminine – The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

Georges Méliès, Bluebeard, 1901.

Georges Méliès, Bluebeard, 1901.

The following essay performs a close textual reading of two extracts from Angela Carter’s, The Bloody Chamber. Given the constraints of the assignment [1,000 words] this is a rather crude analysis which, unable to unpack its implications, leads in some respects to the generic and the obvious. In spite of these concerns I have nevertheless aimed for perceptual depth. Since the two passages are analogous I have privileged the former while drawing upon the latter. Rather than litter the post with copious footnotes you can read the Angela Carter Extracts here.I have given the page numbers for reference.

“His wedding gift, clasped round my throat. A choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat.” [p.6]

Carter’s employment of language here is extremely precise. The idea of clasping, of holding fast suggests power and possession (to have and to hold until death do us part?), as if the Marquis’ hands are literally round her throat. If we read this metaphor as asphyxiation, of becoming unable to breathe, and the ‘choker’ as a restriction of the body, particularly the neck (an erogenous zone) and vocal cords this would also increase the awareness of one’s own body as an object. His apparent gift is not just a symbol of wealth but a contractual exchange to which the female protagonist is committed by receiving and wearing it. At this point the choker metaphorically pre-figures the female protagonists fate in the final act and what appears to be her inevitable decapitation.

However in this passage a powerful and wealthy matriarch is introduced, the Marquis’ grandmother “whose red ribbon made up of rubies” is “a gesture of luxurious defiance” initially take up by “the aristos who’d escaped the guillotine…tying the red ribbon around their necks […] where the blade would have sliced through” [p.6] This not only speaks of inherited wealth prompting the question as to whether the Marquis has earned his possessions but also suggests the female protagonist has potential agency over her fate. Carter carefully re-iterates this in a later passage. “He made me put on my choker, the family heirloom of one woman who had escaped the blade.” [p.13] If the guillotine represents the threshold between life and death, this story possible represents the threshold between innocence and sexual awakening since the female protagonists senses within herself “the potentiality for corruption that took my breath away.” [p.6]

(I)

Is it also possible to draw an analogy between the decadent, erotic and sadistic description of an “extraordinarily precious slit throat” with female anatomy i.e ‘an extraordinarily precious slit.’ Whether Carter intended this or not the average size of the vagina of a mature woman of child-bearing age is 2.5-3inches [1]. If we assume this “frail child” is not yet of child-bearing age it is conceivable that her vagina is comparable to the choker of rubies at “two inches wide”. Equally if there is a relation between the choker, the vagina and asphyxiation this is perhaps representative of the Marquis’ psyche (considering Carter’s readings of the Marquis de Sade). It is no coincidence that the French idiom for orgasm is La petite mort, the little death. In their first fully carnal sexual encounter, which in fact takes place “on the bed in which he has been conceived” [p.13], we only hear the Marquis “shriek and blaspheme at the orgasm” [p.14] suggesting he is asphyxiated prior to this in more ways than one.

“…and it was strangely magnified by the monocle in his left eye.” [p.6]

Considering this analogy between the choker, the slit throat and female anatomy has subsequently coloured the reading of the Marquis’ monocle. Is his eye and “the sheer carnal avarice” [p.6] reflected within, an organ now enlarged by the lens of the monocle, therefore a representation of phallic symbolism? Lacanian psychoanalysis defines the gaze as a “scopic pulsion”, equating vision with “sexual penetration of varying degrees of intensity and the regard directed upon the Other is explicitly described as a sexual thrust” [2]. In fact how the Marquis views the female protagonist objectifies her as a sexual object, an image he can possess, since he doesn’t gaze on her directly but through the “gilded mirrors” (and through his monocle, another object of reflection) “with the eye of a connoisseur inspecting horseflesh”. Averting his gaze and catching “sight of myself in the mirror” she does not gaze upon herself as a subject but as an object. “I saw myself, suddenly, as he saw me […] I saw how much that cruel necklace became me.” [p.6]

Before concluding I cannot help but draw analogies between the guillotine, the “slit throat”,” the memory of a wound” and female anatomy in relation to Freud. His controversial theories of the Oedipus complex (in the case of the male child desire for the Mother) and castration anxiety “a literal and figurative emasculation” occurs in the sexual development of children. In the case of the male child the Father is both a threat to desire for the Mother and the source of castration anxiety. According to Freud the “boy’s understanding of female anatomy is that the penis has been removed and that this punishment, for desiring the Mother, will be meted out by the Father [3] .” Against this cultural model the feminine is represented as [   ], put simply because she lacks the phallus (there is nothing to see as far as her sexuality is concerned within this visual economy of the sign).

Reflecting upon Carter’s The Bloody Chamber makes apparent the metamorphosis of the female character against the stasis of the Marquis’ character (in spite of his sexual appetites and his brute physicality) suggesting a form of impotence. The Marquis operates within a strictly defined set of ritualistic practices which it appears he is destined, also in a Freudian sense, to repeat indefinitely in a Sisyphean Manner [4]. In fact the Marquis “kissed those blazing rubies, too. He kissed them before he kissed my mouth.” [p.14] Since this is a family heirloom (previously worn by his grandmother and perhaps his mother?) who exactly is he kissing when he kisses the rubies? (“Of her apparel she retains/Only her sonorous jewellery” p.14 emphasis added) and who exactly is he trying to kill repeatedly after fornicating in his mother’s bed? I can only pose the question here awkwardly as an inadequate conclusion but does this symbolically represent an unresolved Oedipus complex in an act of Matricide?

© Text written by Denise Startin. Selected Extracts from Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber, Vintage Books: London 200, pp.5 and pp.13-14

Image reproduced from http://roberthorton.wordpress.com/2011/03/06/bluebeard-the-cornfield-21/

Footnotes

[1] http://facts.randomhistory.com/vagina-facts.html [2] Reading Pictures, Viewing Texts, Chapter 1 Touching with the Eye, Claude Gandelman. 1991: pp.5.This hegemony of vision, at the expense of the other senses, is a Western paradigm. The mastery of the detached objectifying eye, the male gaze upon the female, has been the source of much debate within the Feminist canon of Critical Theory and Philosophy particularly in relation to theories of embodiment and the deconstruction of image regimes. [3] The Oedipus Complex was ‘named after the character in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex who accidentally kills his father and marries his mother.’ http://psychology.about.com/od/oindex/g/def_oedipuscomp.htm [4] The concept of repetition compulsion is central to Freudian psychoanalysis. Its basis is a repressed traumatic event that the person cannot remember. This trauma is relived in the present and finds ‘conscious expression in symbolic form’ however ‘symbolic solution cannot resolve the actual conflict’ hence repetition compulsion. http://www.mannpsych.com/repComp.html. In Greek Mythology Sisyphus ‘is a sinner condemned to roll a boulder uphill then watch it roll back down again’ repeating his task indefinitely. http://www.mythweb.com/encyc/entries/sisyphus.html.