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Through the Lenses of Feminism

Updated on February 13, 2017


Despite being based upon fairytales and folklores meant for a younger audience, Angela Carter’s collection of short stories—The Bloody Chamber—was far from being innocent. Through evocative language that depicted the gothic settings and the brutalities upon her female characters, Carter recreated familiar children fantasies into dark, sexualized stories that carefully hid an underlying theme of feminism. Inspired by Marquis de Sade’s philosophy of sexual pleasure being free from any form of restraint (such as morality and religion), Carter’s proses subtly expressed her own version of feminism controversial towards other feminists carrying their own opinion of the ideology and to her society’s idea of women. By instilling several of her female characters with qualities deemed masculine under the lenses of a twentieth century society, Carter blurred her era’s social hierarchy that distinguished men from women, thus strengthening the sense of equality between opposite genders.

Comparison Between the Marquis and The Mother

Through the Marquis’s sadistic behavior towards his once alive wives in “The Bloody Chamber” (28 – 29), his fondness of physical violence evoked a notion that the society in the twentieth century associated masculinity with men whom can be aggressive, yet are unable to portray guilt. However, Carter abolished this conception being mainly concerned with men; when the mother of the protagonist killed the Marquis without any hesitance (40), the idea of women being solely loving and weak became refuted. In order to see how equality between opposite genders can be promoted through this masculine trait being demonstrated by women, we must first examine the Marquis’s facial appearance when he found out that the protagonist discovered the truth. From narrator’s perspective, the Marquis wore an expression of “suppressed excitement” (35), hence suggesting the lack of guilt he felt from murdering his previous wives. Just like the Marquis, the protagonist’s mother also displayed an absence of remorse when she shot her daughter’s husband. Without faltering in her intent to kill him, the mother eliminated a twentieth century society’s view of women being caring and powerless against figures of higher authority. To reinforce the idea that the mother’s act corroded her society’s perception of the female gender, recall that she and her daughter lived in impoverished conditions (7). By being situated in a low position in their society’s social structure, it was likely that they lacked influence over others; unlike the rich, their own say in their society would not have mattered as much, especially with themselves being women. Through “defiantly beggar[ing] herself for love” (8), the mother’s action of marrying someone below her status exemplified the notion that the voice of the rich was more influential than the poor. The influential power derived from wealth was illustrated through her defiance to submit to the social norms of her era: that is, to marry one of the same social status. However, that quote also implied that a woman’s voice was not regarded of much importance during Carter’s time; take note that the mother “beggared” to be wedded to a man she truly loved, rather than immediately acting on her intent. Why would she beg for something that seemed within her reach? Does not her wealth give her enough power to make her own decisions? From that single word, it can be interpreted that regardless of her wealth, her own say of her preferences was not held of much value to her society due to her gender. However, the rigid social structure that distinguished the wealthy from the poor and men from women dissolved once the mother ended the life of the antagonist. By performing her merciless execution, it can be inferred that Carter used the mother to promote a conception that the voices of minorities matter just as much as the figures of higher authority. Subsequently, the masculine qualities manifested through the mother’s murderous conduct can then be interpreted as Carter’s attempt to empower the idea of gender equality: that women do not have to conform to the social norms of their society and that their opinions can be seen just as valuable as men’s.

Domination in "The Erl-King"

Although the narrator was responsible for her loved one’s demise, the death of her lover in “The Erl-King” extinguished the inequality between opposite genders. Through her murderous scheme, the protagonist expressed a quality perceived to be more suitable for men under the eyes of a twentieth century society: being dominative. In order to illustrate how the protagonist’s masculine quality countered the idea of women being subordinate to men, we must examine her shift of position from a state of submission to a state of power. Recall the scene where she was enraptured by the Erl-King’s eyes (90). By indicating that his eyes were like “a reducing chamber” and that “if [she] look[ed] into it long enough… [she] will diminish to a point and vanish”, the narrator revealed her sense of herself as an independent individual diminishing as the Erl-King’s manipulation reduced her to a state of submissiveness. From this scene, it can be construed that the Erl-King represented masculinity through the lenses of Carter’s era in the form of dominance. When the narrator realized that her lover intended to transform her into a bird (90), the scene suddenly evoked a parallel to the gender inequality apparent during Carter’s time. By becoming a bird, the protagonist would have turned out just like the past lovers of the Erl-King: imprisoned under the power of a stronger authority and exercising limited freedom. In other words, she would have exactly embodied a twentieth century society’s degrading opinion of the female gender. However, she defied her pre-planned fate when she decided to condemn her lover to death. Bring to mind the scene where she instructed the Erl-King to “[l]ay [his] head on [her] knee so that [she] can’t see the greenish inward-turning suns of [his] eyes” (91). Unlike her other responses to her lover, this quote evoked a connotation of empowerment; by commanding the antagonist to do something for her, the narrator transitioned from a state of submission to being the one in power. Hence, this new position the narrator attained enabled her to regain control over her decisions. By being in a dominant position, the narrator was able to murder her lover (91) for her stance in power gave her the confidence to do so. Moreover, her new position of power offered her a fresh perspective of her situation: it enabled her to notice the dangers of her relationship with the Erl-King and see that it was one constructed out of his manipulation. On the other hand, the Erl-King seemed to have been demoted from his position as a dominating figure. By lowering the position of a male character and giving a masculine feature to a female character, it can be interpreted that Carter intended to blur the gender difference between male and female by exchanging the role as a dominative figure between the antagonist and protagonist.


Take Pity on the Countess!

Subtly hinted through the Countess in “The Snow Child”, masculinity seemed to be in the form of independence, hence once again reducing the disparity between men and women. In order to support the idea that the independence was regarded as a masculine quality during the twentieth century, we must inspect the scenes were the Count revealed his desire for a girl and when the Countess dropped the rose. Recall the husband’s desire for a girl with physical characteristics “as white as snow… as red as blood… as black as [a raven’s] feather” (91). At first glance, it may have seemed like the Count merely wanted a child in parental means; however, that initial interpretation of the Count’s desire becomes thwarted once he performed sexual intercourse upon the dead body of the child (92). By conducting necrophilia, it can then be construed that the Count’s desire for a girl was sexually driven. Hence, those outward appearances he wished for can be interpreted as his erotic desires towards the female gender. Subsequently, it can be inferred that the Count represented a twentieth century society and that his erotic cravings symbolized the opinions the society in Carter’s era had towards women. Moreover, the girl with physical traits exact to the Count’s desires can be seen as a representation of the women in the author’s time: that women were passive to social norms. Once again, Carter refuted this idea of women being submissive through the scene where the Countess dropped the rose given to her by the Count and exclaimed that “it bites!”. When the Countess released the rose from her grasp, it was as if she was rejecting her husband’s desire of her to conform to his erotic wishes. Through her action, it can be conceived that the Countess would not be a suitable representation to a twentieth century society’s view of women; her action does not correlate with the past notion that women should be submissive to both social norms and a figure of higher authority. Without acting in accordance to what is expected a woman in Carter’s time should behave, the Countess exempted herself from being a part of that era’s stiff gender hierarchy. As a result, the Countess portrayed herself as a woman independent from the social norms and power struggles within a twentieth century society: the qualities she portrayed did not succumb to the expectations her society had towards women. Hence, it can be inferred that the Carter may have arranged to Countess to exhibit this masculine feature in order to promote the idea of women independence.

To Sum It Up!

Through her female characters, Carter displayed masculinity in order to illustrate her intent to ebb away the discrimination towards women and to evaporate the stiff gender hierarchy that made one gender distinct from the other. Through the portrayal of the mother as a heartless murderer in “The Bloody Chamber”, it can be inferred that Carter supported the notion that women do have a right to speak their preferences. Meanwhile, the narrator in “The Erl-King” switched roles with her lover, hence disintegrating the walls that separate men from women. Finally, the Countess in “The Snow Child” offered itself as an example of a women not dependent upon social norms and on people possessing greater social power. By portraying her female characters with qualities deemed masculine before the eyes of a twentieth century society, Carter’s proses swept away the boundaries that divided both opposite genders and acted as a beacon for women suppressed from behaving in the way how they desire to act.

© 2017 Joy Astudillo


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