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Angela Carter: The Bloody Chamber – Analysis: Patriarchal Gender Roles vs. Strong and Self-sufficient Mother Figure

I’ve read Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” (the first one in a collection of short stories) as a mandatory read in one of my university seminars on Gothic literature a while ago. Although it is far from my usual quirky and bubbly books, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and would recommend it to anybody who is interested in Gothic literature, or reading classics.

The story revolves around an unnamed 17-year old girl who has just married a Marquis and is brought to his castle, away from her mother and their life together. After arriving in their new home, the Marquis shows the girl her new room, full of the sweet but heavy scent of lilies. The girl is anxiously, but also curiously awaiting their wedding night, which the Marquis is happy to have now, despite the broad daylight. She is already sure that she no longer belongs to herself, but her husband. After their marital encounter in bed, the Marquis is quick to leave the castle – apparently, he needs to leave for America for a business meeting. As the girl is contemplating how to pass her time, she remembers that her husband gave her a vast amount of keys to various places of the castle, but forbid her to enter one special room. As if pulled by gravity, the girl finds the room and unlocks it. Inside – true to the story’s name, she finds a bloody chamber: a room filled with the corpses of her husband’s ex-wives. Struck with fear and shock, the girl lets the key fall to the ground, into a puddle of one of the girls’ blood. No matter what she tries, the blood stain won’t come off. She anxiously awaits the night in order to flee the castle, when her husband suddenly returns and finds the bloodstained key. She will be next in the macabre collection of dead wives, he informs her. Until someone unexpectantly comes to the girl’s rescue…

I find this story highly interesting, as it has so many tropes and hidden messages between the lines. The mother is a very prominent figure in Carter’s tale. In the beginning of the story, it is the mother who reluctantly lets go of her daughter into the arms of her new husband. Though this sounds like it supports a patriarchal custom, it is highlighted from page one that the girl’s mother is a strong and self-sufficient woman:

“My eagle-featured, indomitable mother; what other student at the Conservatoire could boast that her mother had outfaced a junkful of Chinese pirates, nursed a village through a visitation of the plague, shot a man-eating tiger with her own hand all before she was as old as I?” (p.7)

Not only that, it is, of course, also the mother who comes to her daughter’s rescue in the end, and not at all in a ladylike manner: after all, her appearance on her arrival is likened to that of Medusa. Furthermore, it is described that:

“On her eighteenth birthday, my mother had disposed of a man-eating tiger that had ravaged the villages in the hills of Hanoi. Now, without a moment’s hesitation, she raised my father’s gun, took aim and put a single, irreproachable bullet through my husband’s head.” (p.40)

What I find especially interesting is that the mother uses her husband’s gun to kill of her daughter’s husband. Interestingly, this tale shows hints of both the genre’s notion of reinforcing patriarchal gender roles and simultaneously also that of empowered female heroines, such as the mother figure. Though the unnamed girl is in a way accepting her fate, she is at the same time also transgressing the boundaries her husband has set for her. She finds a lover the same day he leaves the castle, and lives happily ever after with him on the money he has left behind after his death (though they give most of it away to charity).

Have you read this story? Did you enjoy it? What did you think of the mother and daughter relationship? Tell me in the comments below!:)

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