By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Snow Child’ is the shortest tale in The Bloody Chamber. Indeed, it is not even two pages long, but in a few hundred words, the British author Angela Carter incorporates a number of elements from different snow-themed fairy tales, but its most important influence was a grisly tale collected by the Brothers Grimm which they chose not to publish.
‘The Snow Child’ is about a Count who wishes a beautiful girl into being. This girl acquires the Countess’s possessions until the Count feels sorry for his wife, and permits her request of the girl: that she pluck a rose and present it to the Countess. The story contains a shocking moment which, like many stories in The Bloody Chamber, sees Carter tackling taboos in order to explore the relationship between men and women.
‘The Snow Child’: plot summary
A Count sees snow on the ground while out for a ride with his wife, and wishes for a child ‘as white as snow’. When he sees a hole in the snow containing a pool of blood, he makes a similar wish, this time for a girl as red as blood. And when he sees a raven on the bough of a tree, he wishes for a girl as black as the bird’s feather.
No sooner has he made this third wish than a girl appears by the roadside, with skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as the raven’s feather. He desires her, but the Countess’s first thought is how she can get rid of this rival for her husband’s attention. So she deliberately throws one of her gloves onto the snow and commands the girl to bend down and retrieve it.
But the Count merely says he will buy her new gloves. And at that moment, the Countess’s furs sprang from around her neck and wrapped themselves around the naked girl to warm her. The Countess, not one to be put off course easily, throws her diamond brooch into the icy water and commands the girl to fetch it, but the Count dismisses such a suggestion. At that moment, the Countess’s boots leap off her feet and on to the girl’s.
The Countess commands the girl to pick her a rose from the bush, and the Count, feeling sorry for his wife, agrees to this suggestion. But when the girl plucks a rose, a thorn pricks her finger and she dies, bleeding and screaming. In a shocking moment, the Count gets off his horse and violates the dead girl’s corpse while the Countess watches.
When he’s finished, the dead girl melts away into the snow until nothing is left of her except a raven’s feather, a bloodstain, and the rose she plucked. The Count presents the rose to his wife, but when she takes hold of it, it bites her.
‘The Snow Child’: analysis
The fiction of the English writer Angela Carter (1940-92) is, first and foremost, the fiction of ideas. She is best-known for her 1979 collection of tales, The Bloody Chamber, which is often described as a series of ‘versions’ or ‘retellings’ of classic children’s fairy tales. But as Carter was quick to point out, she was actually writing new tales which revealed the latent violence – including sexual violence – of those old folk tales.
It is relatively easy to uncover a possible ‘subtext’ for ‘The Snow Child’. The ‘snow child’ of the story represents the Count’s mistress: a woman he desires who is not his wife, a mistress to whom he gives his wife’s possessions in order to woo her and make her his. He desires a younger woman; he goes in search of her; finds her; and bestows his affection and desire upon her rather than his wife. But he eventually feels guilty about treating his wife like this, so he agrees to make a sacrifice of the mistress in order to save the marriage.
Ordinary people are merely the playthings of the rich for them to use and then discard as they wish. Note how the ‘snow child’ is literally naked in the snow: she owns nothing, whereas the Countess has warm furs around her neck and thick boots on her feet. The snow child, then, represents the poor, and the Count is prepared to violate her – even after he has killed her – without a thought. The Countess wants this love rival destroyed.
But if the snow child represents a mistress, she can also represent something closer to (the familial) home: a daughter. Specifically, the snow child might be interpreted as the Count and Countess’s young daughter on the verge of adulthood (that blood again, symbolising menstruation, and with it, the onset of womanhood), and their realisation that their little girl has become sensual being who represents, on some twisted level, a love rival to the Countess.
Indeed, as Kari Sawden has observed, in the earliest version of the Snow White story collected by the Brothers Grimm, in 1810, Snow White was actually the biological daughter of the woman who seeks to destroy her; she only became her stepdaughter in 1819, perhaps in an effort to downplay the unfavourable suggestion of the original.
However, it seems more tempting, as Sawden notes, to view the Countess as more of a stepmother figure: someone without any maternal desires or instincts of her own. After all, it is the Count who ‘creates’ the snow child, without any input from his wife. The gender roles have been reversed: in the Snow White story, the mother pricks her finger and, watching the drops of blood, she makes a wish that her little daughter will grow up to be as white as snow, as red as her blood, and as black as the ebony window frame.
And sure enough, the queen’s daughter grew up to have snow-white skin, cheeks as red as her mother’s blood, and hair as black as ebony. A mother’s wish for a beautiful child (her daughter) is obviously quite different from a father’s wish for a beautiful ‘child’ (not his daughter), born of a rather less innocent ‘desire’. This is male fantasy, rather than maternal longing for a daughter who will be beautiful and thus marriageable.
Angela Carter plants her stories thick with suggestive symbols, and ‘The Snow Child’ is no different. The bloodstain represents not only the sacrifice the girl has been turned into for the aristocratic couple’s enjoyment, but also the breaking of the hymen, the loss of her innocence (she is but a snow ‘child’ after all) and the violation of her dead body.
But alongside this evocative symbolism, Carter does some interesting things with narrative style in ‘The Snow Child’, too. Note how the story begins in the present tense – ‘The Count and his wife go riding’, not ‘went riding’ – only to pivot to the more usual past tense from the beginning of the second paragraph. The crucial shift occurs at the moment the snow child is magicked into being.
One way to analyse the significance of this shift is to think about the effects of present-tense narration versus past-tense. The past tense implies that everything has already happened or perhaps, even, that everything is somehow inevitable or predetermined (or utterly predictable). After all, if it’s already happened so it can be related in the past tense, there can be no surprise developments.
‘The Snow Child’ may begin in the anything-may-happen world of present-tense narration to convey the heady excitement and relentless desire of the Count as he dreams his ideal image of woman into being, but once the story moves into the past tense, it is as if the young girl’s fate has already been decided.
Indeed, although we say ‘The Snow Child’ begins in the present tense, it technically begins in a sort of tenseless void, with that three-word opening sentence that is without any marker in time other than that it’s one ‘Midwinter – invincible, immaculate.’ Is this past, or present, neither, or both? It could be any time, the opening sentence seems to say: stories like this one are a constant throughout human history.