By Cody La Vada
In 1979, British novelist Angela Carter forever changed the model of the fairy tale with the publication of her short fiction collection, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, which contains ten reworkings of classic tales ranging from a novella-length piece inspired by the “Bluebeard” story to a micro-fiction piece that barely adds up to five hundred words based on an obscure variation of the “Snow White” tale. The anthology was revolutionary at the time of its publication because it reimagined traditional and beloved stories through a modern lens. Most notably, the collection remains a pivotal part of English literature because of Carter’s depiction of women; rather than playing into the tired tropes of female heroines in fairy tales as weak, or fragile, Carter creates dynamic young women navigating the complexities of adulthood. By drawing on and subverting the archetypes and motifs of classic fairy tales, Carter manages to both reflect the macabre undertones of the original works that inspired her, and the relevance of the stories in modern times.
The Bloody Chamber largely owes its success to an ancient tradition of oral story-telling, predating written human history by thousands of years. Long before Carter touched pen to paper and re-envisioned fairy tales for her audiences, her predecessors were doing the same; Basile, Perrault, Straparola, and the Brothers Grimm had long-since adapted folk tales into a literary tradition that could be read, shared, saved, and analyzed in one form, without being altered by subsequent word-of-mouth retellings. In a way, these men paved the way for Carter by establishing what we know today as the modern fairy tale tradition – and, indeed, most of the stories that we consider to be canonical fairy tales exist only because of these authors collecting, recording, and disseminating them. Each author has their own unique version of a specific story, and it was a common practice to sanitize stories and remove the darker aspects once the fairy tale paradigm shifted from an adult to a child audience. This was especially true for the Brothers Grimm, who severely edited the stories they collected to represent German nationalism and Christian ideology. The Grimms turned Snow White’s antagonist, the evil queen, into her step-mother to soften the blow of attempted cannibalism and filicide, despite the character initially being conceived as the heroine’s biological mother. In this tradition of alteration and reinvention, Carter expertly crafted her own interpretations of stories to reflect the shifting sociopolitical climate of the world at the time she was working.
We cannot credit Carter’s predecessors in the fairy tale genre without first acknowledging what would have certainly had the most impact and influence on her – the women of the French salons who truly cemented fairy tales as a bona fide literary market. Before the Brothers Grimm began adapting stories for children to glean moral lessons, aristocratic women in Paris were constructing and altering stories that they had heard to entertain their fellow high society ladies. These stories were created in a time when women were seen as property, with hardly any independent rights and the possibility of having their entire life controlled by men. As retaliation, these women constructed elaborate fantasies that expressed their latent fears and anxieties, presenting highly-stylized representations of their circumstances. For example, Beaumont’s version of “Beauty and the Beast,” while possessing similarities to the Cupid and Psyche myth from 2 BCE, seems to be, at its core, a story about the fear of arranged marriage, and how women never knew if they would find their husband to be a lover or a beast. Likewise, the “Sleeping Beauty” tale seems to reflect a fear of the loss of personal autonomy. With these stories being a language of symbols, such drastic hyperboles as a husband that is a transfigured beast are acceptable because they present audiences with heightened examples of fear that speak to an inherent, universal human condition.
Angela Carter’s stories go to the root of their classic counterparts and present their themes in Carter’s sensual, florid prose. Carter was adamant, however, that she had not created “adult fairy tales,” but rather had “extracted the latent content from the traditional stories” to present to the audiences of the 1970s, which were being gripped by second wave feminism and struggles for gender equality. Carter challenges the way that women are presented in fairy tales, contrasting strong heroines with the bleakness of Gothic backdrops to create an atmosphere of repression juxtaposed against characters that are sexually-liberated and self-aware. Her stories give new interpretations of familiar characters and represent the anxieties of women in modern times: identity, personal agency, relationship roles, sexuality, coming of age, balances of power in marriage, corruption, etc. In her “Beauty and the Beast” adaption “The Tiger’s Bride,” the Beauty character is seen plucking petals from a rose while her father gambles her away to wed a mysterious beast. In “The Snow Child,” beauty is depicted as a power more precious and destructive than wealth. In “The Bloody Chamber,” rather than being rescued from her murderous groom by her brothers as is traditional, the heroine is rescued by her loving mother. The oppressed (and repressed) woman seeking liberation is a common thread throughout each of the stories, with each of the female characters seeming to morph into one seamless representation of modern femininity itself, complex and rounded.
The Bloody Chamber continues to be regularly analyzed, studied, praised, and adapted for cinema and theatre because of its enduring messages and continued relevance. In a time rife with political turmoil, Angela Carter’s collection proves to be a milestone in escapist fairy tale literature, giving us relatable and complex heroines that remind us that myth and fairy tales are our way of combating and explaining away fears that have existed within us since the dawn of time.