Angela Carter was a novelist whose best known work is her short story collection, The Bloody Chamber. Often acclaimed as both gothic and feminist, these repurposed folktales and fairytales leave the reader in a thoughtful state. I have to admit to having not known of Carter or her work until quite recently. I’d seen a biography about her, but there are so many writers and my time seems always so limited. Then I saw The Bloody Chamber mentioned on a list of best gothic fiction. I had to find out what this was all about. The stories are indeed unlike much of the feminist literature of the seventies. The stories are focused on women, often young, and how they deal with being treated as the property of men.
The first, and lengthiest story, “The Bloody Chamber,” is a retelling of Bluebeard from the point of view of his last wife. It’s an extended reflection on feeling owned and boxed in—literally trapped—by men’s economic rules of property. Carter keeps readers on edge, even if they know the base story. This isn’t a simple retelling. Nor is it a lament about the natural, biological unfairness of sexuality. There’s an ambivalence here, an enjoyment tinged with melancholy that gives the story a gothic sensibility. The women in the different stories here prefigure more recent Disney heroines that take charge of their circumstances. And there’s also ambivalence about the setting of the stories. There are contemporary appurtenances but still castles and baronial mansions. You’re lost in time.
The collection has some stories, such as beauty and the beast, retold twice and ends with three versions of werewolf stories that play, to an extent, on little red riding hood. Some were tales with which I had no familiarity. The effect of the whole is thoughtful contemplation of the human condition. Much of the world, it seems, has been unduly influenced by a kind of literalism—a story, whether biblical or traditional, is supposed to go like this—that has not only robbed great texts of their depth, but has entrapped human beings in a stone-chiseled certainty. A self-righteousness, if you will. Even writing a text in stone doesn’t prevent others from interpreting it, however. Since none of us have all the answers, we are each interpreters. There was no historical Bluebeard. There have, unfortunately, been many men who embody his attitude towards women. Carter’s genius is to remind us that every story has at least two sides. And the woman’s side may well be the truer of the two.