Women as Victims in a Patriarchal World in 'The Bloody Chamber'

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It can be argued that Angela Carter only ever presents women as victims in a patriarchal world in The Bloody Chamber Collection. Carter implements this through nuanced female characters, many derived from fairy tales giving opportunity for the feminist lens to decipher the prevalence of the patriarchal influence that configures a female’s role in society. By challenging the archetypal characters and stereotypical female and male figures, Carter re-examines the themes of marriage, sexuality, power relations between males and females, gender roles and female liberty. Standing against the oppression by males, she announces the liberation of females in fairy tales. This is debatable, as many of Carter’s stories still present her female characters as victims under the patriarchy, contained by male superiors. This juxtaposes with traditional gender roles in fairy tales, in which female characters are deceived as weak, passive and naïve.

The Snow Child is an example from Carter’s collection that appears to prove how women are only ever presented as victims in a patriarchal world. It is the shortest story, yet its power to shock and disturb is not diminished by its relative brevity. From the quote “I wish I had a girl as white as snow…as red as blood…as black as that bird’s feather”, Carter shows the Count’s inexplicable desire and the way the patriarchy shapes women in the image of the fantasies of men. The reference to blood coveys the blood thirsty nature of the Count, yet could also be a feminist interpretation of menstrual blood, or the blood shed when virginity is lost. Carter gives proof later on in the story, when the girl “picks a rose; pricks her finger on the thorn; bleeds;” This substantiates that blood has significant meanings; the rose represents femininity and virginity, and along with the blood, reminds us of the girl’s virginity and innocence and life, which are about to be taken away from her. The graphic scene of necrophilia that follows is an extreme image which is both appalling and heinous for the reader to witness. Kate Millett in “Sexual Politics”, suggests how most of the male characters she examined across literature were “denigrating, exploitative and repressive in their relations to women”. This is delineated in The Snow Child, as the Count not only commits a crime of rape, but also rape of a dead child, which could be another ominous notion from the author to show his paedophilic nature and sexual exploitation. It also reinforces the idea that Carter only ever presents women as victims in a patriarchal world, as not only the child, but the Countess is also under male dominance, through of the last line of the story- “it bites!”. This is cross cultural, as Carter asserts that regardless of social and economic power, a woman still deteriorates in the eyes of a man, merely being an object, used for his temporary gratification. This conclusion is also ambiguous, as it raises questions for the reader as to whether the Countess has been hurt by the thorn herself, or recognise that it “bites” and drops it before it can hurt her as it hurt the man’s fantasy child. The bite can also refer to love itself hurting, attributing to a lady’s struggle in the patriarchy, where female competition and male deception is frequent.

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On the other hand, Carter’s eponymous tale The Bloody Chamber is taken from the European fairy tale Bluebeard, which was written as a moral tale warning against excessive curiosity, specifically in women. Carter, however, fabricates the story as the “sexual awakening” of a young woman, deliberately parodying a particular type of erotic literature, thus liberating. Throughout the story, the first person narrator is female, but her name is unmentioned. She is called “Madame” by workers at the castle, and with some diminutive words such as “My little nun”, “My child” by her husband. As Seda Arikan alludes, “whether language produces our perception of gender roles and sexism or it is a consequence of sexism in a community is a contradictive issue”. However, it is an undeniable notion that language produces our perception of the world”. By referring to his wife as “my child” and “baby”, the Marquis is seen as predatory and belittling in his marriage. The girl, to him, from a feminist perspective, could be deciphered as his commodity, someone he exploits for his sexual satisfaction. This articulates to the patriarchy, as the female is given no sexual freedom herself, but instead, has to give herself in a pure, virginal state to her husband, who objectifies and uses her to fulfil his own erotic fantasies. Equivalently, in The Tiger’s Bride, as the possessive form suggests, the reader is prepared to read a story of confinement. Just like in The Bloody Chamber, the girl is unnamed because of “disallowed self-identification” by her father and his society. Feminist critics berate the “inequality of gender-specific terms”, and they aim to “reconstruct female sexuality”. Carter’s use of the word “loins” in The Tiger’s Bride and three more times in other stories is an example of abstaining from androcentric terms for genitals and may have even gender neutralised it. The purpose of this is to show that male and female genitals each have a proportionate role, without one monopolising the other. The title of her story collection, The Bloody Chamber, is an “overt reference to female genitals” and the loss of virginity and menstruation. The title references the transition of the girl entering womanhood, where females are typically shamed for having sex, whereas males are rewarded for their sexual attitudes by the patriarchy.

Arguably, Carter does not only ever present women as victims in a patriarchal world, as The Snow Child could presents another faction to it; female sexual jealousy and the competition between women for the attention of men. This does not simply present women as victims in the patriarchy, because they are the ones destroying each other, without any masculine pre-eminence over them. This is displayed through the story when the envious Countess makes two attempts to rid herself of the girl; “dropped her glove in the snow…threw her diamond brooch through the ice of a frozen pond”. Both of these actions have magical consequences, leaving the Countess naked and the girl “furred and booted”. Carter seems to be using symbols of clothing and jewellery to portray the transference of predilection from an older to younger woman that is prevalent in society. The third symbolic contraption she employs against the girl is more devious: the picking of a rose. It is a typical deception as practised by the stepmother in “Snow White”, a seemingly harmless gesture or act of kindness concealing ruinous intent. H. Bertens writing on gender, advocates “to say women are naturally timid, or sweet, or intuitive, is to construct a role for them”. Carter corroborates this through the character of the Countess, who does not nurture any of these traits, and in lieu, uses her authority to treat the girl as a servant, furnishing off the same powers as the Count. This is later reiterated when she “watched him narrowly” thrust himself into the dead child, implying how she rid herself of female competition; one must die, in order for the other to prosper from male attention. This is due to the mind-set that a patriarchal society enforces, to keep women from defining success in ways unrelated to male adoration.

Nonetheless, some could argue that Carter is giving her heroines power in stories like The Bloody Chamber, to defy the patriarchy, and overturn women from victim to holder of power. An illustration of this is the character of the potent mother. To feminists, she is the “reinvention of the hero as a maternal icon”. In the original fairy-tale, the girl’s brothers come to save her. In preference, Carter has suppressed the traditional role that males have to rescue the females, but rather, turns the mother into the hero of the story, implying how her maternal instincts are not a weakness of a woman attributed to “soft” or “fragile”, but rather, her feminine side is an emblem of clout. The impact of this is that in the traditional tales, the texts contain “ideological patriarchal messages, and there is almost a direct address to female characters warning them against males, sexuality and liberty”. Carter has detached these messages and has validated that female characters can achieve the same durability as any other male. The flower metaphor is another converted element in the stories. In traditional tales, flowers are related to females with connotations such as naivety, purity and fragility. Carter decodes this metaphor by associating white lilies with the Marquis; “Possessed of that strange ominous calm of a sentient vegetable…whose white sheaths are curled out of a flesh as thick and tensely yielding to the touch as vellum”. With resembling the lilies to Marquis’s “white flesh”, Carter conveys the idea that females do not have to be naïve, and nor do flowers have to be harmless and related to females. Sara Mills emphasises that “language is clearly not simply a place where meanings are imposed, but rather a site where certain meanings are negotiated over, or struggled over”. In this sense, Carter’s approach to metaphors appears as a bid of this conflict of the female voice.

In conclusion, it would be difficult to argue that Angela Carter only ever presents women as victims in a patriarchal world in The Bloody Chamber Collection. Carter subverts the ideologies and stereotyping on gender roles, through a feminist lens. She not only deconstructs the sexist meanings in the original fairy tales, but also presents alternative stories to show the oppression of females, and how women can re-define themselves as strong, brave, cruel or evil: all are equally valid versions of the female. This juxtaposes with traditional gender roles in fairy tales, in which female characters are deceived as weak, passive and naïve.


  1. AQA. (2015). AQA English Literature B Anthology. AQA.
  2. Arikan, S. (2016). Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber: A Feminist Stylistic Approach.
  3. Carter, A. (2006). The Bloody Chamber and other stories. Vintage .
  4. Millett, K. (1970). Sexual Politics. Rupert Hart-Davis.
  5. Mills, S. (1995). Feminist Stylistics. London: Routledge.
  6. Roberts, S. (2012). York Noteas; The Bloody Chamber. York Notes.
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