A teenage girl marries an older, wealthy French Marquis whom she does not love. When he takes her to his castle, she learns that he enjoys sadistic pornography and takes pleasure in her embarrassment. She is a talented pianist, and a young man, a blind piano tuner, hears her music and falls in love with her.
The women’s husband tells her that he must leave on a business trip and forbids her to enter one particular room while he is away. She enters the women in his absence and realizes the full extent of his perverse and murderous tendencies when she discovers the bodies of his previous wives.
When the Marquis returns home he discovers that she has entered the room and proceeds to try to add her to his collection of corpses through beheading. The brave piano tuner is willing to stay with her even though he knows he will not be able to save her. She is saved at the last moment at the end of the story by her mother, who arrives and shoots the Marquis just as he is about to murder the girl.
The girl, her mother and the piano turner go on to live together, and the girl uses her now considerable fortune to convert the castle into a school for blind children.
Here are some points we can make about the summary of the story:
- This is a simple melodrama with a piano tuner twist. This is a ‘good vs evil’ story where good is captured by evil and then rescued.
- It is a expected story with an unexpected outcome. This makes the reader question their assumptions. The bilnd piano turner should have been the hero. However, it turns out that the mother is the hero.
- ‘Sadistic pornography’ is when people cause pain for pleasure. The male character is called the ‘Marquis’ after a man from the French revolution called the Marquis de Sade. He wrote a book ‘120 days in Sodom’ which is basically a perverted pornographic book.
Some Critical Terms
- The denouement (climax of the story) is when the Marquis is shot by the mother.
- There is an Epilogue which is the story after the main story, P41 ‘We led a quiet life…’.
- There are lots of Freudian symbols scattered through the story. These are symbols with obvious sexual connotations.
- There is intertextuality where there is deliberate referencing of other texts that the reader is likely to know. The Bloody Chamber was wrote 100 years after the Marquis de Sade wrote 120 Days in Sodom.
- There is menstrual taboo which is the cultural uneasiness and reluctance to speak about the menstrual cycle.
- There is olfactory imagery. This is imagery that appeals to the readers sense of smell and taste.
- This is a pastiche. This is the self-consciously retelling and altering a well know tale, possibly for witty effect. In the case of ‘The Bloody Chamber’, the Carter is retelling is Bluebeard’s castle.
- There is lots of pornography in the story – sexual explicit representation in art, literature or other media.
- Sadomasochism – sexual gratification by the giving or receiving of pain (word comes from the Marquis de Sade).
- Simile – deliberate comparison using the word ‘like’ or ‘as’ in the phrase.
- Symbolism – using the familiar qualities of an object to represent an abstract notion (e.g. dove = peace).
- Gothic setting of being remote, imprisoning and strange.
- Gender representations.
- Passivity and sexual aggression – sadomasochism.
- Fairy tale referencing – an “aware” non-realistic text: ‘I really do believe that fiction absolutely self-conscious of itself as a different form of human experience than reality (that is, not a logbook of events) can help to transform reality itself”. (Carter letter to a friend).
- Transgression – She opens the door to find out what is inside. This could be seen like the Bloody Chamber is the womb where she opens herself up to knowledge, like Eve did in the Garden of Eden.
Form and Structure
- ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is a pastiche of Bluebeard’s Castle.
- It is a Novella – between a short story and a novel.
- The narrative form is 1st person subjective, past tense, ‘I remember how, that night..” (opening).
- Creates empathy with the young bride.
- Allows tension to develop since the narrator only foreshadows the danger rather than the ultimate happy ending.
- Historic setting gives scope for many cultural reference points in music, literature and art.
Here, I will go through the novella looking at key quotations along with page numbers. If the quote does not have a page number, take that it is on the same page as the above quotation that has a page number with it.
- P1 ‘I remember how, that night’. This makes clear that this novella is a retrospective narrative.
- ‘I lay awake in the wagon-lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement’. The novella beings on a note of expectation – there is fear and excitement in becoming a wife and a women.
- ‘great pistons ceaselessly thrusting’. This is a Freudian symbol with the pistons being a phallic symbol.
- ‘My eagle-featured indomitable mother’. There are gender expectations for the mother of being quite feisty.
- P2 ‘ “Are you sure you love him?” / “I’m sure I want to marry him” ‘. There is a distinction between love and marriage.
- ‘gladly, scandalously, defiantly beggared herself for love’. Here, she is talking about poetry and love.
- ‘antique service revolver’. This is a narrative technique which will somehow resolve the plot.
- Good Quote ‘sea-girt, pinnacled domain that lay, still, beyond the grasp of my imagination…that magic place, the fairy castle whose walls were made of foam’. Here is a fairy tale reference – she sees her life as a fairy tale. This links in with the Gothic theme of entrapment.
- P3 ‘Whiff of the opulent male scent of leather and spices’ – Olfactory imagery.
- ‘his footfall turned the carpet into snow’. This has reference to ‘The Snow Child’.
- ‘He was older than I. He was much older than I’. This brings the point forward that the older you get, the more power and experience you gain.
- ‘A lily. Possessed that strange, ominous calm of sentient vegetables like one of those cobra-headed, funeral lilies’ – Complex multi-layered symbolism: of being phallic, a snake and to represent death.
- P6 ‘I caught sight of myself in the mirror. And I saw myself, suddenly, as he saw me’. There is a sexual violence threat because she is now conscious about how she looks to others.
- P8 ‘I swear to you, I had never been vain until I met him’. This makes clear that she has changed since being with the Marquis (possibly for the worse).
- Good Quote P18 ‘Not the key to my heart. Rather, the key to my enfer’. ‘Enfer’ is French for hell. This makes clear that this room is not a pleasant room but has evil behind it.
- Good Quote P19 ‘And he disgusted me’. She is in the complete power of the Marquis.
- P20 ‘He was blind, of course; but young, with a gentle mouth and grey eyes that fixed upon me although they could not see me’. This is the first description of the piano tune. Since he is blind, he is the opposite of the male gaze.
- ‘I asserted myself’. She has a strong side to her.
- P21 ‘I telephoned my mother’. This is a plot device. It is because the young girl telephoned her mother that caused the mother to come to the castle and, in the end, rescue her.
- Good Quote ‘this lovely prison’. This is a great quote for Gothic entrapment.
- ‘that bunch of keys no longer intimidated me’. The keys are a symbol for trying to understand a husband (as well as being a sexual Freudian symbol too). It is a symbol for women wanting to understand men.
- ‘jinn’s treasury’. This provides the reference of being ‘genie-Aladdin’ fairy tale like.
- P23 ‘at last! – a file marked: Personal‘. The young girl is starting to discover secrets.
- There is reference to Dracula and the other vampire story Camilla on P24.
- The Bloody Chamber is symbolic of the Marquis sole inner man. Therefore, the novella is a story for people finding out about each other.
- P25 features a lot of setting, ‘and the castle was adrift, as far as it could go from the land, in the middle of the silent ocean where, at my orders, it floated, like a garland of light’.
- ‘For some reason, it grew very warm; the sweat sprang out in beads on my brow. I could no longer hear the sound of the sea’. As she approaches the forbidden room, the setting is slowly changing to that of hell which creates tension.
- P26 ‘My mother’s spirit drove me on, into that dreadful place, in a cold ecstasy to know the very worst’. This makes clear that female characters are not victims (gender role reversal).
- The actual Bloody Chamber is an anti-church by what it possesses.
- P27 ‘The worst thing was, the dead lips smile’. This can have reference to Frankenstein in the sense that the monster is made from dead human parts and ‘a grin wrinkled its cheeks’ when it was first alive. However, it could also make the point that the female dead body is content being in this room which is terrifying for the girl and the reader.
- P28 ‘I dropped the key’. The key is now a symbol for her guilt.
- ‘as if to tell me the eye of God – his eye – was upon me’. The Marquis is watching over her.
- P29 ‘Assistance. My mother.’ Her mother is the source of rescue.
- ‘Every lamp in my room burned, to keep the dark outside’. Since the room is candle lit, a Gothic setting is created.
- P30 ‘Mechanically, I began to play but my fingers were stiff and shaking’. She is using music to wash away the guilt of going into the Marquis’ forbidden room.
- Carter uses minor sentences to create suspense, ‘Crash of a dropped stick’.
- P32 ‘tumbled the fatal key out of my handkerchief’. The key also now represents the Marquis’ evil deeds.
- ‘gouging tunnels’. This is a phallic symbol.
- Good Quote P33 ‘the more I scrubbed the key, the more vivid grew the stain’. The blood stain on the key represents her guilt for going into the room.
- Good Quote P34 ‘I knew I had behaved exactly according to his desires’. The Marquis knew she was going to go into the room – it was all a trap.
- Good Quote ‘The secret of Pandora’s box; but he had given me the box, himself, knowing I must learn the secret’.
- P35 ‘If he had come to me in bed, I would have strangled him then’. She is not a complete victim as has some fight in her.
Language and Effect
Here are some more quotations that are worth pointing out.
- ‘And did he give it to his other wives and have it back from them?’ – Melodramatic (i.e. obvious) foreshadowing.
- ‘Like an extraordinarily previous slit throat’ – necklace.
- ‘I sensed in myself a potential for corruption that took my breath away’ – This is not a simple presentation of gender stereotypes (repeated in other stories in the anthology).
- ‘He was awake and gazing at me’ – This is the “male gaze”: the feminist critique of patriarchy (Jean Yves’ blindness).
- ‘A remembered fragrance that made me think of my father’ – Freudian imagery, Oedipus/Electra complex.
- Good Quote ‘bare as a lamb chop’ – This is the most pornographic of all confrontations.
- ‘My little nun has found the prayer books, has she?’ – Gothic connection of religion and sexuality, e.g. Lewis’ The Monk.
- ‘I clung to him as though only the one who had inflicted the pain could comfort me’ – She is the complete control of the Marquis / sadomasochism.
- ‘To think he might have chosen me because, in my innocence, he sensed a rare talent for corruption’ – The Marquis knew that she would look into his chamber of dead wives.
- ‘A long winding corridor, as if it were the viscera of the castle’ – setting human mind or body metaphor.
- ‘The key slid into the lock as easily as a hot knife into butter’ – Freudian imagery.
- A quote from Charles Baudelaie – Les Fleurs du Mal, ‘There is a striking resemblance between the act of love and the ministrations of a torturer’.
- ‘The dreadful revelation of that bloody chamber’ – The bloody chamber has a double meaning: it could also mean the womb.
- ‘But the key was still caked with wet blood’ – Menstrual taboo.
- ‘The secret of Pandora’s box: but he had given me the box, himself knowing I must learn the secret’ – This has the connection to the Garden of Eden that it is the women that cause the problems because they are the ones that transgress.
- ‘The atrocious loneliness of that monster’ – Empathy.
- ‘That tell tale stain had resolved itself into a ark the shape and brilliance of the heart on a playing card’. This has connections to Macbeth but is also not realistic. It is instead symbolic to remind the reader of having blood on hands.
- ‘I only did what he knew I would’ / ‘ “Like Eve”, he said’ – This is anti-religious and blames women for doing bad things.
- ‘A crazy magnificent horsewomen in widow’s weeds’ – Questions gender stereotype and gender expectations (Jean Yves is useless).
- ‘No paint nor powder, no mark how thick or white, can mask that red mark on my forehead: I am glad he cannot see it…because it spares my shame’. She is marked by experience from transgressing. It is also the mark of discovery about herself and therefore the mark of shame.
Connections to Others
- Courtship Of Mr Lyon – Loving the monster, ‘leonine shape of his head’ pitiful nature of the male protagonist.
- Tiger’s Bride – Marriage is a contract or bargain, fearful male protagonist, discovering the beast within.
- Puss In Boots – Fairy tale pastiche, but melodrama versus comedy makes them very different.
- The Erl-King – Loving the monster, male is powerful yet empty.
- The Snow Child – Sexual violence and colour imagery.
- The Lady Of The House Of Love – Mirror image with opposite gender roles.
- The Werewolf – Unexpected role for an older women.
- Company Of Wolves – Loving the monster, the beast inside.
- Wolf Alice – Exploration of female sexual development and awakening (psychoanalytic subtext).
- Freudian Psychoanalysis – Oedipus complex and phallic imagery.
- Jungian Patriarchal analysis – complex symbols.
- Sadomasochistic interpretation – deliberate ambiguity in destination.
- Deconstruction – Intertextuality, attempt to reinterpret fairy stories.
- Feminist and gender reading: patriarchy, male gaze, stereotyping, questioning gender roles
- Charles Perrault (1628-1703) Histoires ou Contes due temps passe – translated by Carter in 1977 (TBC 1979).
- “Bluebeard” French: (La Barbe bleue) is a French Literary Folktale, the most famous version remaining that written by Charles Perrault and first published by Barbin in Paris in January 1697 in Histoires ou Contes due temps passe’. The tale tells the story of a violent nobleman in the habit of murdering his wives and the attempts of one wife to avoid the fate of her predecessors. Gilles de Rais, a 15th-century aristocrat and prolific serial killer, has been suggested as the source for the character of Bluebeard, as he has Conomor the Accursed, an early Breton king.
- The Sadian Women – Carter 1979 about Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) “120 Days in Sodom” etc.