Section B, Q. 8: “Re-vision – the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction – is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival” (Adrienne Rich). To what extent could Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories be described as an act of feminist ‘re-vision’?
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Produced in 1979, in the midst of the third way feminist movement, Angela Carter wrote The Bloody Chamber. This text features popular tales that have been rewritten and reinterpreted by Carter through employing techniques of Gothic subversion. Carter quotes that her intentions with this text was to “extract the latent content from the traditional stories and to use it as the beginnings of new stories” (Simpson, 2006). In considering this and Adrienne Rich’s theoretical essay: As We Dead Awaken: Writing Re-vision, I will speculate to what extend The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories act as a feminist re-vision; specifically focusing on the stories of The Tiger’s Bride and The Company of Wolves. Carter’s reinterpretation of the dominant male discourse of the fairytale, has suppressed stereotypical gender roles and adopted a first-person narrative structure that allows the voice of the previously silenced female protagonists to be presented. These motifs, characters and narrative structure will be considered in the evaluation of the text’s description as feminist re-vision. Lastly, considering to what extent the re-vised representation of the female characters throughout the tales contributes as an act of survival for women.
The oppressive history in which the original fairy tales were produced has meant they were initially used as educational propaganda for the younger audience. A consequence of this is that the original tales have been fundamental to shaping the myths and images that have influenced girls and women for centuries. In these teachings, it was put forth that in order for women to succeed, they need to fit into the narrow view of what was beautiful, as well as being passive and the epitome of patience and kindness. Adrienne Rich argues for re-vision to take place women need to stop being haunted, not only by “convention and propriety” but by the internalised fears of being themselves, which has been heightened through the barriers of the original fairy tales. Carter dismantles the archetypal ‘damsel in distress’ and creates strong female characters who embody varied characteristics that enable women to visualise themselves within the tales, rather than a stereotypical perception of what they should be.
An example of Carter demonstrating this is within the third story of the collection “The Tiger’s Bride” which is based upon Madame de Beaumont’s tale ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1756). The Beauty begins her narration with a phrase that immediately displays her consciousness of her status as a
commodity within the patriarchal society: ‘My father lost me to The Beast at cards”. Carter allows the female protagonist the ability to convey her own interpretation of the social and political structures in which they live by using a first-person narrator, rather than an omnipotent third-person narrator. This narration provides the silenced female a platform to communicate and is another aspect of Carter’s re-visioning of the recognised tale; as a central element of the traditional fairy tale is the suppression of the female perspective.
There is an emphasis on the burden of surviving as an object under the male gaze, as Beauty labels the world as “the market place, where the eyes that watch you take no account of your existence”. This awareness and focus on the active presence of the Beauty throughout, foreshadows her ability to manufacture her own destiny and deconstructs the initial influence upon young women; that they need to abide to the stereotypical convention of being a ‘damsel in distress’. The importance of this outcome is portrayed by scholar (Gamble, 1997) as she quotes Carter explaining her theory of the myths created by the original tale: “extraordinary lies designed to make people unfree.” In ‘de-mythologising’ the texts at hand Carter suppresses the former male-canon of literature and embarks on an innovative critical direction in favour of a feminist school of thought.
Carter flourishes this tale into a feminist re-vision by illustrating what women are truly capable of. When the heroine feels free to remove her clothes she comments: “I felt I was at liberty for the first time in my life”. Her femininity which has been preventive mask of its own, now allows her to release the beast within herself and in doing so Carter symbolically portrays that whatever a man can be, a woman can likewise achieve. As (Rich, 1993) argues one problem within literature is the lack of the image of a real woman: “what is not found is yourself – a puzzled, sometimes inspired creature.” In considering the premise of the question this heroine’s act of survival is the re-vision of this tale which critiques the stereotypical restrictive categories of ‘Beauty’ and ‘Beast’. This is also displayed through metamorphism of the Beauty as the Beast “ripped off skin after successive skin” with his tongue to reveal her “beautiful fur”. The figurative and literal unmasking of each other, symbolises the deconstruction of both repressive gender concepts and makes the both characters equal in form. The attitude of the Beauty also translates what Carter is projecting in her re-vision of this tale, as the Beauty ignores her initial fears of the tiger that had been induced by a Nursey tale as
a child: “Nursery fears made flesh and sinew; earliest and most archaic fears”. The use of the adjective “archaic” exemplifies Carter’s perspective of the outdated and misconstrued morals of many original fairy tales.
Another important aspect that could describe The Bloody Chamber as an act of feminist re-vision is that Carter considers how women are able to use and abuse power, focusing on the advancement of sexual freedom and the imagery of women’s bodies. In the case of the “The Company of Wolves” the heroine uses her sexual power as a literal act of survival. It is important to assess the traditional message of Little Red Riding hood in order to contemplate the extent of the feminist re-vision of the tale. The Brothers Grimm’s version “Little Red Cap” written in the 18th century highlights obedience to the Mother is utilised as a warning to young females about strangers and the threats of intercourse. Similarly, Perrault’s version in the late 1600s is a warning to children against predators. Carter, though, deviates from these moralistic warnings, placing an emphasis on the power of sexual freedom.
Carter attempts to compose an independent woman by portraying the heroine as comfortable with her own sexuality. The protagonist in this tale is represented in a highly sexualised manner as “her breasts have just begun to swell”. Yet, she still inhabits a pure desirability considering that “she stands and moves within the invisible pentacle of her own virginity”. Thus, Carter portrays her protagonist as an adolescent who is recognising and taking control of her own sexuality. The protagonist uses her sexual power and desirability to ensure her survival: When faced with what she believed would be her demise. She takes control rather than giving in to fear by realising that since “her fear did no good, she ceased to be afraid”. Carter describes the process of the girl seducing the Wolf until she was “clothed only in her untouched integument of flesh”. (Rich, 1993) argues that feminist scholars exposed how fairy tales perpetuate the myths of sexuality, actively participating in constructing the boundaries of masculinity and femininity by reinforcing traditional ideas about sex roles. Therefore, Carter works against these ideals and utilises the protagonist’s sexual freedom to reverse the roles of prey and predator and conveys the power of a woman comfortable with her sexuality.
However, it can be distinguished that Carter undermines her feminist re-vision by her engagement with patriarchal conventions and her objectification of women. The initial introduction and description of the heroine is described by (Lau, 2008) as one of the “conventional pornographic tropes surrounding the sexually desirable young girl” (pg. 85). Therefore, this supports the argument that the sexualisation that is meant to be representative of de-victimising herself essentially feeds into a male fantasy and disregards the depiction of female empowerment. Yet, as (Rich, 1993) discusses “it is part of refusal of self-destructiveness of male -dominated society. A change in the concept of sexual identity is essential if we are not going to see the old political order reassert itself in every new revolution” in considering this, Carter’s re-vision of the tale does challenge the taboo of discussing women and sexual desire.
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In conclusion, Carter successfully integrated innovative tales that subvert the archaic ideology and implements contemporary meanings whilst still making the old tales recognisable. She effectively composed feminist re-visions of the fairy tales that consistently expose and challenge the conventional gender roles and moralistic virtues that dictated what a woman should be. In considering the description in which the question has engaged with: “Re-vision – the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction – is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival”. I feel Carter’s imaginative and provoking work is central to the ongoing development of the feminist movement due to its explicit manner of exposing taboos and recognising the active female presence. The advancement of her critical direction is for women an act of survival as it presents strong female figures that are otherwise sparsely portrayed and therefore misrepresented within the literary form of fairy tales.
- Sarah Gamble. Angela Carter; Writing from the Front Line. Edinburgh: The Edinburgh University Press, 1997)
- Kimberley Lau. Erotic Infidelities: Angela Carter’s Wolf Trilogy . Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2008) p. 85
- Adrienne Rich. When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision. In A. Rich, Poetry and Prose. (London: Norton 1993) p. 166-77
- Helen Simpson. Introduction. In A. Carter, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (London: Vintage, 2006) p. viii-viii.
- Adrienne Rich, When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision. Adrienne Rich in Poetry and Prose, By Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi (New York and London: Norton, 1993), p. 166-77.
- Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (London: Vintage, 2006).
- Rita Felski, Literature after Feminism, 1st ed (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003), p. 149-164.
- Karen Seago, New Wine in Old Bottles: Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber of Revisioned Fairy Tales’, London: University of London Press, 1999) p. 77-98
 The Bloody Chamber: The Tiger’s Bride – p. 56.
 The Bloody Chamber: The Tiger’s Bride -p. 73-74.
 The Bloody Chamber: The Tiger’s Bride – p. 72.
 The Bloody Chamber: The Tiger’s Bride – p. 75.
 The Bloody Chamber: The Tiger’s Bride – p. 74.
 The Bloody Chamber: The Company of Wolves. p – 133.
 The Bloody Chamber: The Company of Wolves. p – 133.
 The Bloody Chamber: The Company of Wolves. p – 138.
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