Angela Carter always knew that she was drawn to “gothic tales, cruel tales, tales of wonder, tales of terror, fabulous narratives that deal directly with the imagery of the unconscious”. This is exactly what the reader gets in her short story collection The Bloody Chamber. It contains retellings of fairy tales with subversive, feminist twists, rich language filled with literary references and evocative symbols of blood, snow, feathers and fur. Similar themes run throughout her work: in Nights at the Circus, a winged woman named Fevvers hatches from an egg; in The Magic Toyshop, a puppeteer inflicts his twisted control on his family. Decades later, they are as sharp and mysterious as ever.
In The Bloody Chamber, Carter said her intention “was not to do ‘versions’ or ‘adult’ fairy tales, but to extract the latent content… and to use it as the beginnings of new stories”. And that latent content was violent, sexual and often focused on the horrible fates that could befall women at the hands of men. Carter brings these same themes out in vivid detail. How do we see fairy tales now?
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The women in Carter’s work are often in danger from violent men — but she strongly believed that women should not see themselves as victims. Her heroines can only survive by refusing to play passively the role of the damsel in distress. In this way, they are able to save themselves, or sometimes to tame the beast and turn the tables against him. Is this still an important message of feminism?
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Sexuality has a dual role in Angela Carter’s work. On the one hand, it is an empowering way for women to break free from the passive roles they are forced to play in society. But with sex, there also comes danger: take the first story of The Bloody Chamber, where the narrator’s sadistic husband has tortured and murdered his previous wives. Society’s views on sex are still as complicated as ever…
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Carter’s stories are often tinged with violence. She never shies away from descriptions of rape, murder or mutilation. But the violence is not gratuitous, or modern: it comes from a long tradition of gruesome fairy tales. Later, her work softened somewhat. “Sometimes, when I read my back pages, I’m quite appalled at the violence of my imagination,” she said. “Before I had a family and stuff.”
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Carter often uses animals to express the desires and violence of humans: there are winged women and wolf children throughout. This is typical of fairy tales — think of Beauty and the Beast, which she adapts twice in The Bloody Chamber. In one version, the heroine transforms into a tiger after the Beast licks off her skin to reveal fur. Are we closer to animals than we think?
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