In THE BLOODY CHAMBER, the English writer Angela Carter retells fairy and folk tales with a difference. The difference is sex. In these versions men and women conspire as nearly equal partners in the quest for sexual fulfillment, and these versions are a joy to read.
In her previous book The Sadeian Woman, Carter told us in no uncertain terms what was to come: Sade, she wrote, urges sexual activity upon women, "so that powered by their enormous and hitherto untapped sexual energy," they will then be able to fight their way "into history and, in doing so, change it." Whatever Sade intended, this is what Angela Carter urges, and she is a woman who thinks hard and writes lovely prose.
The Bloody Chamber, then, is a collection of fairy and folk tales retold by someone who knows that "all the mythic versions of women, from the myth of the redeeming purity of the virgin to that of the healing reconciling mother, are consolatory nonsense: and consolatory nonsense seems to me a fair definition of myth, anyway." Carter apparently decided, after the Sade book, that consolatory nonsense was an appropriate definition of fairy tales, too. She has therefore retold these tales by taking up their transformation just at the point where Bruno Bettelheim left off: that is, she gives women an active part in the stories. In Carter's versions we are delighted to find women who are lusty and clever, animals who are tender and loving, and stories with a narrative pull like Scheherazade's. The reader's only regret will be that they do not go on for a thousand and one nights.
Women must have been itching to retell fairy tales for years. Only recently, when the times were right, have they got around to it. Yet Carter's tales, let me hasten to say lest I frighten off lusty men who will enjoy them, are not "feminist" in the sense that gives Moslem judges the pip. Rather, Carter raises the women in these stories from the level of myth to the level of fiction. If myth, as Carter has told us, "deals in false universals, to dull the pain of particular circumstances," fictions deal with the concrete possibilities of life, including its pleasures. Such fictions will most concern women, because it is women whom fairy tales have defrauded.
At the end of 19th-century fairy tales, women either marry or die, fading in either case from view. As Northrup Frye has instructed us, the heroine by her marriage "completes the cycle and passes out of the story. We are usually given to understand that a happy and well-adjusted sexual life does not concern us as readers." It concerns us all right! is Carter's answer, here transformed to fable.
My favorite story is the first: a stunning retelling of "Bluebeard," with the sophistication of Sade and the fascination of Dracula. In addition, the girl's art redeems her (she is a pianist), and her mother, who can decipher daughterly signals and shoot straight, saves her life.
The power of virginity is invoked in this and all the stories, but it has nothing to do either with male requirements of women or with "redeeming purity." It has everything to do with the heightened perceptions that serve the virgin's own needs. In one of the stores, the virgin is male, headed for war as women head for marriage, and saved by his sense of self. Virgins, for one thing, see beyond the skin (or fur) to the person beneath: a magical endowment.
If lusty men and women rejoice at these stories, particularly, one would guess, at the several audacious retellings of "Little Red Ridinghood" and "Beauty and the Beast," feminists may wish for more sisterhood. Female isolation is as extreme here as in all fairy tales: the mother in the first story in a unique exception. Alone, dealing with dangerous men, the women in these stories set out on journeys into what Carter calls "the unguessable country of marriage." One can only dream of what so gifted a writer might create in the unguessable country of women, when women's friends are no longer disguised as stepmothers or male protectors. Perhaps Carter would answer that women must first perceive the men beneath male disguises before they can recognize each other. With that hope, we can look forward to her next book while relishing this one. w