First sentence: “I remember that night, I lay awake in the wagon-lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, my burning cheek pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow and the pounding of my heart mimicking that of the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me through the night, away from Paris, away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage.”
Imagery: “His wedding gift, clasped round my throat. A choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat.”
In this retelling of the legend of Bluebeard, Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” follows a 17-year-old girl who marries a rich, successful older man. She leaves her mother and home behind to live in a castle in France, isolated and entirely surrounded by the sea (wonderfully described as “mysterious,” “amphibious,” “a sea-siren of a place.”) The narrator joins a “gallery of beautiful women” that have been his wives over the years. When her new husband gives her a ring of keys to every room in the house, she’s tempted to discover his secrets. There are precise and intense allusions to torturous love, to “some dark night of unimaginable lovers whose embraces were annihilation.” Carter navigates the complexities of love, abuse, corruption, of the power play between the experienced and the naive with beautiful imagery. And she plays with readers senses, from the description of the heavy ruby necklace, to all the lilies in the home, to how the husband always smelled of Russian leather. The story is a sensory experience, clever and entertaining.
Thinking it through: Carter corrupts my childhood with this collection. I read it in its entirety over a year ago for a class centered on comparing past fairy tales (Grimm, Perrault) with contemporary interpretations (as Carter does here. Anne Sexton’s poetry collection Transformations also reimagines popular fairy tales, and Robert Coover wrote an excellent postmodern interpretation of the sleeping beauty story, called Briar Rose). People may hesitate to be critical of fairy tales because the stories do hold a special (often sacred) place in many people’s lives (especially girls).
But feminist critiques have sought to subvert the common themes and motifs of fairy tales in order to unearth the less than savory messages they perpetuate. I recently put a feminist critique to use after I saw the “Oz The Great and Powerful.” Rather than modernizing the classic tale with nuanced portrayals of the witches, the movie kept women trapped in age-old, sadly “timeless” binaries: We’re either good or evil, saints or sinners, virgins or whores. I have never disliked Michelle Williams as an actress, not even when her character on Dawson’s Creek went crazy and said stupid things (which was actually always). But then I saw her as Glinda the Good Witch. It was sickening – a radiant blonde, all in white, who smiles too much, and speaks in a fluttery whisper, while mothering everyone around her. It’s this flat, angel-esque perception of women still being pedaled to audiences in the 21st century that makes the work of feminists ceaseless. While some new interpretations of fairy tales may turn the formula on its head (perhaps more often in animated features), some are still doing the work of Perrault, whose tales were characteristically sexist and didactic–and understandably so, given the century he lived in. What’s my century’s excuse?
Naturally, after I took that class I had to wonder if there was anything to like about fairy tales. And perhaps that’s the same thought Carter had before she decided to appropriate the genre. Carter must have asked herself, if I don’t like the message, why don’t I change it? And that’s what “The Bloody Chamber” does, it changes the message by creating a more complex female character that has doubts and worries, flaws, who isn’t entirely spineless, naive, vain, or materialistic, though she’s tempted to be so. And there’s also some sex and violence. The writing is at times poetic, in other instances almost too heavy handed in its symbolism and imagery, but that can be forgiven. The genre calls for the fantastic and the gothic.
In the end, the story is fairly optimistic. It doesn’t deny the repercussions historically sexist stories have had on a woman’s self-perception, but neither does it continue the traditional narrative that engages the problematic tropes. So if you want to believe in fairy tales still, this is the feminist reimagining you want to read. Now, if you don’t mind being crushed by the cynical and depressing, then you’ll enjoy the way Sexton imagines Snow White’s future, post-happily-ever-after, as SW grows older, is no longer fairest of them all, consults the mirror “as women do,” and is doomed to repeat the cycle, becoming the next evil queen. Yeah, fun times.