By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Bloody Chamber’ is the title story in Angela Carter’s 1979 collection of fairy tales rewritten from a feminist perspective. In the story, the longest in the collection, a young bride recounts her marriage to a Marquis whose previous three wives all died in mysterious circumstances, and the grisly discovery she made in a ‘bloody chamber’ of his castle.
‘The Bloody Chamber’: plot summary
The story is narrated by a young woman who, at the beginning of the narrative, is travelling by train from Paris to her now home. With her is her husband, a rich marquis who has been married three times before. Each of his previous wives – an opera singer, a model, and a countess – died in mysterious circumstances. For example, the Marquis’ third wife, the countess, died just a few months before the narrator met him, reportedly in a boating accident, though her body was never found.
When they arrive at the island castle that is to be their marital home, the Marquis is almost immediately called away on business. In her husband’s absence, the narrator discovers an out-of-tune piano in the conservatory. Since she is a pianist, she takes an interest in the instrument, but she is shocked by the pornography collection she finds in her husband’s library.
The Marquis returns to find her looking at these books, and, forcing his wife to wear a ruby necklace around her neck, he consummates their marriage. Afterwards, the Marquis is once again called away on urgent business, this time to New York. He leaves his wife the keys to every room and cabinet in the castle, but tells her she must not go into the room at the foot of the west tower.
The narrator explores the various rooms of the castle, and becomes intrigued to learn more about her husband, who was a stranger to her when they married. She finds a secret compartment in the desk drawer in his office. Seeing it marked ‘Personal’, she opens it, and finds postcards – love notes – from his previous wives which hint at the dark perversions of her husband. She decides to go against his wishes and open the door to the forbidden room in the west tower.
There, she finds the room is a torture chamber, containing the bodies of her husband’s first three wives. The first, an opera singer, has been strangled, while the model is hanging from a wall and the third wife, who was a countess, is inside the torture device known as an iron maiden, her body pierced by a hundred spikes. The narrator drops the key to the room and it falls in a pool of blood. Retrieving it, she flees from the chamber and tries to plan her escape. When she tries to phone her mother, the line is dead.
The piano-tuner she had recently employed, a blind boy named Jean-Yves, has been listening to her play the piano as she thinks through her options. She ends up telling him everything, and her story confirms the rumours he has heard about the Marquis. When dawn arrives, the Marquis returns and the narrator tries to wash the blood from the key, but it magically remains. She tells Jean-Yves to leave her on her own so she can confront her husband, and the piano-tuner reluctantly agrees.
When the Marquis sees his wife with the key, he is angry and presses it against her forehead, scarring her; the key miraculously becomes clean again. He then tells her to prepare for her ‘martyrdom’ and ‘sacrifice’, informing her that he is going to behead her. He has sent all of the servants away, and the narrator sees them all leaving the castle.
The Marquis then calls her into the courtyard so he can kill her there. As she prepares to meet her grisly fate, the narrator sees a female rider approaching the castle: her mother, who has sensed her daughter is in danger when she didn’t hear from her.
The mother shoots the Marquis dead. The narrator inherits her late husband’s wealth, giving much of it away to charity and turning the castle into a school for the blind. She sets up a home in Paris with Jean-Yves, and they teach music together. The story ends with the narrator confessing that she is relieved Jean-Yves cannot see the key-mark on her forehead, because it is a reminder of her ‘shame’.
‘The Bloody Chamber’: analysis
Angela Carter takes the Bluebeard fairy tale as the basis for ‘The Bloody Chamber’, but she makes several important changes to the original story (which we have analysed in detail here).
First, the role taken by the heroine’s sister in the Charles Perrault version of the story – surely the most definitive and well-known version – is instead given to a blind boy, the piano-tuner named Jean-Yves. Second, whereas in the Bluebeard story, it is the heroine’s brothers who rescue her from her murderous husband, in Carter’s story it is her mother who rides – literally – to her rescue.
The second of these modifications to what we might call the ‘source material’ for ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is easier to explain. One can see why Carter, a well-known feminist writer of the 1960s and 1970s, would want to avoid having a group of men rescuing her heroine from her husband’s toxic masculinity.
In giving that role to the heroine’s mother and positing a kind of ‘maternal telepathy’ between two women, Carter shows sisters (or mothers and daughters) doing it for themselves, without the need of a group of brothers defending their sister’s honour (and life).
But Carter’s introduction of Jean-Yves is more curious, and there are several ways in which we might interpret the introduction of such a character. First of all, we could explore the significance and symbolism of his blindness. In Victorian fiction, female novelists often rendered their male protagonists blind – even temporarily so – in order to make them dependent on their wives.
So for instance, at the end of her novel Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë has her Byronic hero, Mr Rochester, injured in a housefire so he becomes blind, and the titular heroine marries him and nurses him back to health.
But in ‘The Bloody Chamber’, Jean-Yves’ blindness serves a different, dual purpose. First, in being unable to see, he cannot help to defend the narrator against her husband when he returns. Indeed, the narrator realises this, sending him away so she can face the Marquis alone. This demonstrates her bravery, but it also reminds us that she is, to all intents and purposes, alone. Jean-Yves does, however, help to unlock the gate to the courtyard so the heroine’s mother can ride in and rescue her daughter.
Second, because he is blind, Jean-Yves cannot judge the heroine by her appearance, nor will he objectify her body the way the Marquis, with his bedroom full of mirrors which multiply the narrator’s figure to a bewildering number, did throughout their relationship. Instead, they bond over something she does, which he, in turn, can hear: her musical talent.
He is also unable to see the mark of ‘shame’ on the narrator’s forehead. She is glad of this, since it means that he will never judge her unfavourably for what happened to her. The only keys they will bond over are piano keys. But this leads us to ponder another question about the ending of the story. Why does she view the mark on her forehead as a reminder of her ‘shame’?
A coming-of-age story?
The key to this question (as it were) is found if regard ‘The Bloody Chamber’ as a coming-of-age story. The tale is about the narrator growing up and, as so often in Carter’s stories in this collection, becoming aware of herself as a woman. Remember that she is only seventeen years old. When her mother turned eighteen, she had killed a tiger that had been terrorising Vietnamese villagers.
The heroine, too, is a teenager, going through a rite of passage and becoming aware of herself as a sexual woman. (As so often in Carter’s stories – see ‘Wolf-Alice’ for another example – the mirror is an important symbol here: it throws back the image of her womanhood to her, only it also multiplies it into a myriad images, as if hinting at all the different paths she might take.)
And ‘shame’ in the story is closely linked to the idea of sexual shame, or that loss of innocence associated with the Book of Genesis and the story of Adam and Eve being exiled from the Garden of Eden. At Eve’s suggestion (egged on by the serpent), she and Adam ate the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, which led them to become aware – and ashamed – of their nakedness. They had lost their innocence and become aware of themselves as sexual beings.
Knowledge in ‘The Bloody Chamber’
The narrator’s conversation with Jean-Yves as she is preparing to face her husband in the courtyard for her ‘martyrdom’ reveals that Carter saw her retelling of the Bluebeard story as a tale inflected, also, by the Adam and Eve story. When he tells her that she disobeyed her husband, and the Marquis would regard her disobedience as grounds enough for killing her, she replies that she only did what he knew she would do. ‘Like Eve,’ Jean-Yves responds.
And like Eve, the narrator could not help letting her curiosity get the better of her, and sampling the one thing which was forbidden. (The Marquis’ instruction that his wife can go anywhere in the castle except for the one forbidden chamber mirrors God’s injunction that Adam and Eve could eat from any three except for the one containing the forbidden fruit.)
Of course, the narrator’s ‘knowledge’ is, among other things, carnal knowledge: after her first night with the Marquis, in which he takes her virginity, she finds herself simultaneously wanting him and disgusted by him. She describes herself as having a ‘dark newborn curiosity’. And it is this curiosity which is the root of her shame.