Women in Gothic Literature: The Bloody Chamber and Northanger Abbey

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23/09/19 English Literature Reference this

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The Gothic is a male genre which either excludes women or presents them negatively. Compare and contrast how the writers present women in “The Bloody Chamber” by Angela Carter and “Northanger Abbey” by Jane Austen

The Gothic genre is considered a male dominated genre because of the negative portrayal of women.

This can be identified through using the Male Gaze theory which suggests that a woman’s purpose is solely for male sexual pleasure. Two works that portray negative presentations of women in a Gothic setting are ‘The Bloody Chamber’ by Angela Carter and ‘Northanger Abbey’ by Jane Austen. Both texts have been written by women and it is interesting to note that Angela Carter is a writer known for her feminist views while Jane Austen is considered ahead of her time with views on how women were treated throughout the Victorian era. ‘The Bloody Chamber’ by feminist author Angela Carter uses a modern feminist agenda against the male patriarchy using Gothic themes. ‘Northanger Abbey’ by Jane Austen uses satirical Gothic styles to present women as independent while having an underlying tone that men are still trying to be powerful and dominant.  The negative portrayal of women can be seen in ‘The Erl King’, ‘The Bloody Chamber’ and ‘The Snow Child’, with the sexual  exploitation of women evident through the attitudes of men while ‘Northanger Abbey’ uses the men to try and exploit women for financial gains.

‘The Erl King’ opens with typical Gothic scenery with the “sky hunkered with grey clouds that bulge with more rain” (Carter, 96) which is relevant because the pathetic fallacy creates a tense mood for the reader linking to the disturbing nature of what is to come. By having the skies bloated with dark colours removes the expectations of being in company of a King, who is assumed to hold wealth and power. The use of gender roles are switched in this story by having the Erl King act as “an excellent housewife” (Carter 99). This may not seem substantial, however, it is important to note that Carter is trying to create a view of feminism which moves away from stereotypes but most importantly, to create opportunities for everybody. ‘The Erl King’ uses this idea of feminism and makes a scenario where the male is doing what are considered female tasks. What this story accomplishes is to give women the chance to be able to have sexual attractions  while having modern potential to be independent. Human emotion is pushed aside as the Male Gaze theory becomes prevalent. The handling of this woman is treated like a hunk of meat as “[h]e is the tender butcher” (Carter, 100).

By providing a juxtaposition, on being caring and loving, the bloody attributes of a butcher creates a sense of dominative, using force to strip hunks of meat apart. This sexual attraction brings out the worst of this King and puts the woman in a position of power after discovering that the chirping of the birds were the trapped girls who the Erl King took advantage of. The ideals of security of being around a strong, initially loving man however, is soon diminished when his protection is actually false.  This Gothic story which uses setting to create a mystic theme has allowed the woman in this story to be want to experience her sexual desires and uses the Erl King to enhance her own pleasures.

Carter puts the role of women in a situation where they become a property of the man by using

graphic imagery to shock the reader and to provide the lifestyle of the patriarchal society in ‘The

Bloody Chamber’ and ‘The Snow Child’. The way ‘The Bloody Chamber’ has been written is in the

method of a memoir, this gives the story personality and an emotional connection because it is the

reader reliving the experiences. The man “in his London tailoring; she, bare as a lamb chop” (Carter, 11) uses the symbolism of lambs to show innocence and fragility as well as the birth of new born in spring. As she is a young girl, her virginity is still with her but brutally loses it in shame and embarrassment, “I had heard him shriek and blaspheme at the orgasm;  I had bled … I had been infinitely dishevelled by the loss of my virginity” (Carter, 14). This description of sex provides two contrasting sides of the experience, the male who seems to enjoy himself taking the girls virginity while the graphic bleeding of the girls by men show the pain and the loss of innocence and linked with the description of being a lamb. To examine these sexual exploitations, Germaine Greer, a leading feminist author responsible for the Second Wave of Feminism with her book ‘The Female Eunuch’, provides a view into how women should be treated rather than act submissively in the patriarchal society which Carter portrays in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ collection. Greer uses sex as a topic of discussion as she believes that “Love making has become another male skill, of which women are the judges” (Greer, 47). This supports Carter as the girl in this story succumbs to the sex which creates enjoyable sex for the man but leaves the girl to act as the “judges” and links with this loss of virginity as the girl has to just allow herself to be taken away by this man who does this to please herself rather than making it pleasurable for the two of them. As this story goes on, the art possessed by the male leaves the reader in disturbance as the books of Belgian artist Rops are in his possession. The art depicts a “girl with tears hanging on her cheeks like stuck pearls, her cunt a split fig below the great globes of her buttocks … while a man in a black mask fingered with his free hand his prick” (Carter, 13) what is exposed in this explicit scene is yet again, the man who is the one who is engaging with the act of sexually dominating the woman. For Rops, the art he is known to create which includes erotic satanic imagery which were common throughout the Victorian era as the gothic genre circulates around the power of men and continues the idea of women being perceived as weak for sexual gain. By providing a comparison between a “cunt” to a “split fig” shows the woman being devoured as a piece of fruit. The connotations here is that food is to be enjoyed and that’s what Rops is portraying in this artwork, the male figure in the painting is using women for the sole purpose of sexual pleasure and using food provides a sense of life, without food, humans cannot live so for the artist, sex is what fills his appetite. The ‘Bloody Chamber’ story shows how women are presented negatively within a male environment and as a result, women are presented negatively.

This compares with ‘The Snow Child’ as this short story provides an account about the Count who uses desire to dream up a girl by having her “white as snow … red as blood … black as that bird’s feather” (Carter, 105). The Count’s actions shows the Countess’ personality as bitter or arrogant because her objective is to kill this child to reassure herself of being loved by the Count. By throwing her glove into the snow and sending the girl to look for it, she risks a child’s life to maintain her love with the Count. The cunning behaviour of the Countess is to seem clumsy while having sinister plans. By asking the girl to pick up a rose, it can be seen as a change of heart by picking up a symbol of love. This allows the Countess to accept the girl into the traditional nuclear family, but as the girl “pricks her finger on the thorn; bleeds; screams; falls” (Carter, 106), the girls death brings misery to the Count as he failed to protect her. The emotional suffering causes the Count to “[thrust] his virile member into the dead girl” (Carter, 106). Another reading of the treatment of the Countess would have been to treat the girl negatively because she knows that she will live a life as a part of the nuclear family and as Greer says, “Every wife must live with the knowledge that she has nothing else but home and family” (Greer, 261). For the Countess, she could not allow a child to live a life strapped to the shackles of a patriarchal society which restricts the freedoms and expressions that were not available to women as a result of male actions. As she composes herself, she picks up the rose and says “It bites!”(Carter, 106) This sudden ending reveals a metaphor for the pain of love and is demonstrated as the emotional pain of losing a child and visually watch its body become a sexual shrine for the Count leaves a bitter and disturbing taste for the reader. This reinforces the idea that the patriarchal society is to try to diminish the power of women by sexually acting in the interest of the male, but also playing with the life of a child for desire provides the depths that certain men will go to for pleasure. How women are presented within the Gothic genre as they are presented as emotionally weak but also socially by being trapped within the ideals of the nuclear family.

The stories in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ provide sexual themes which present women negatively,

however, ‘Northanger Abbey’ by Jane Austen, Catherine Morland is left in a situation where John Thorpe’s desire for wealth and prosperity takes the better of him within this satirical Gothic novel. Morland, who comes from the quiet countryside, is invited to Bath with neighbours. As she embarks on this adventure, she meets Henry Tilney who is considered as “intelligent … if not handsome, was very near it” (Austen, 25). Her experiences with John Thorpe are negative as Catherine says “I do not like him at all” which provides her feelings towards Thorpe as he tries to eye Catherine for the riches that he believes she has. Karl Marx as the creator of Marxism provides an insightful opinion in how the passing of wealth should be done in the eyes of a Communist. “We Communists have been reproached with the desire of abolishing the right of personally acquiring property” (Marx, 23). The jealousy provided by Thorpe and General Tilney is because of the understanding of Morlands true wealth. Thorpes lies meant that Catherine “was guilty only of being less rich than he had supposed her to be” (Austen, 228) and his initial reasons for acting as if he loved Catherine was due to his conceptions of wealth and being able to inherit the wealth which Marx is against due to the Proletariat implications of  a capitalist society. These communist beliefs link with the idea of a patriarchal society as within Marx’s views, the dream to create a society of equals where men and women are no different and can achieve their goals.  Even though ‘Northanger Abbey’ does not have communist roots, the feminist agenda of having the courage men of wanting to be in a relationship because of the belief that it will enhance their interest is important to note because it gives Catherine that independant feminist viewpoint. However, these are contrasted in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ with ‘The Werewolf’ which is a reimagining of the fairy tale ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. In this story, Riding Hood embraces this modern lifestyle where she “lived in her Grandmother’s’ house; she prospered” (Carter, 128). This is a notable story when answering this question because being the feminist writer, Carter portrays a new social society which moves away from the need to be within the nuclear family setup and links with the context of ‘The Bloody Chamber’ being published in 1979 when female British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was admired for being a strong independent woman who did not allow anybody push her around with her famous “The lady’s not for turning”  quote she made to the Conservative Party Conference in 1981 which can be seen as inspiration for the Riding Hood character who allowed her grandmother to die as neighbors “pelted her with stones until she fell down dead” (Carter, 128). This contrasts with ‘Northanger Abbey’ as while both female characters had to make sure that they kept their reputation, Catherine didn’t gain wealth or begin with riches despite the suspicions of her background while in ‘The Werewolf’, while on the other hand, Riding Hood gains property and is seen as an independent young girl who can live and fight for herself which is needed in a modern society where the patriarchal normalities need to be broken down.

In conclusion, it is fair to say that the Gothic genre is dominated with a male agenda as the writings

provided by Angela Carter in the stories used in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ provide negative tales about

women who have been exploited for sexual gains or have been trapped in the shackles of the male

patriarchy society which Germaine Greer focuses on in her book ‘The Female Eunuch’ as the lack of

social advances and that women need to do more to be independent and happy within life rather than

have the same life experiences as other women in the nuclear family. However, this is contrasted by

the experiences in ‘Northanger Abbey’ as the desire for wealth and fortune is the reason for why

women are seen to be lowered in society despite the normality of Catherines life.

Word Count – 2236

Bibliography

  • Angela Carter – ‘The Bloody Chamber’
  • Jane Austen – ‘Northanger Abbey’
  • Karl Marx – ‘The Communist Manifesto’
  • Germaine Greer – ‘The Female Eunuch’
  • CARTER, A., 2006. The Bloody Chamber.
  • AUSTEN, J., 2003. Northanger Abbey.
  • Thatcher, M. 1980. Speech to Conservative Party Conference [Speech online]. 10 October [viewed 21/01/2019]. Available from: https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/104431

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