‘The Werewolf’ is one of the shortest stories in Angela Carter’s 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber. This collection is notable for its feminist take on traditional fairy tales, and ‘The Werewolf’ is no exception. The story tells of a young girl who injures a wolf on the way to visit her grandmother in the forest, and contains a grisly twist at the end of the tale.
You can read ‘The Werewolf’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis below.
‘The Werewolf’: plot summary
The story takes place in a cold country where the people are cold-hearted and lead hard, brutal lives. They persecute witches – often on the flimsiest of evidence – and believe in the Devil as a real person. They place garlic on their doors to keep out vampires.
The short narrative which follows this preamble is a variation on the story of Little Red Riding Hood: a young girl, travelling in the forest to visit her grandmother, is attacked by a wolf. The quick-thinking girl pulls out her father’s knife and cuts off one of the wolf’s paws. It lopes off into the trees, leaving a trail of blood in its wake. The girl picks up the wolf’s paw and wraps it in a piece of cloth before continuing on her journey.
When the girl gets to her grandmother’s cottage, she finds that the old woman has a fever. She drops the wolf’s paw and watches as it turns into a human hand. When she pulls back the bedsheets, she discovers her grandmother has a fever because one of her hands has been cut off and is festering from the recent wound. She spots a wart on the old woman’s hand and realises it is a witch’s nipple and her grandmother is, in fact, a witch.
The girl cries out so loudly that the neighbours come running, and realising the grandmother is a werewolf, they chase her out of the forest until she drops down dead. The little girl inherits the cottage and lives there, thriving on her own.
‘The Werewolf’: analysis
In The Bloody Chamber, Carter’s collection of stories inspired by classic fairy tales and folktales, ‘The Werewolf’ precedes another tale of lycanthropy or werewolves: ‘The Company of Wolves’. However, whereas the latter story uses the trope of the werewolf, and the Little Red Riding Hood tale, to explore male-female relationships and sexual power dynamics, ‘The Werewolf’ does not contain these elements.
Nevertheless, the little girl in ‘The Werewolf’ shows herself as steely and resourceful as the heroines in Carter’s other stories in the collection. As the final word of the story has it, she ends up prospering: a verb which aligns her with a decidedly male world of trade and the mercantile, the world of money, which was – in the medieval or early modern peasant society described in the story – usually reserved for men. (Indeed, one of the ironies of the end of this story which taps into the hysteria surrounding witches is that the granddaughter ends up in exactly the kind of position which might arouse suspicion or envy from the wrong neighbours: a woman, independent and presumably unmarried, with money to her name.)
The little girl shows courage and pluck at two crucial moments in the story, and these two moments are designed to dovetail with each other, one mirroring or complementing the other one. First, when she is attacked by the wolf (which lunges at her throat in a grim echo of the vampiric Erl-King’s neck-biting in another Bloody Chamber story), she turns to face it and succeeds in wounding it. The knife she uses, symbolically, is her father’s: this little girl can handle a man’s knife and defend herself with it.
Second, when she realises her grandmother has some connection to the wolf’s ‘hand’, and suspects she is a witch with the ability to change her form into that of a wolf, she pins down the woman in order to examine her. The narrator tells us that she is ‘strong’ and thus able to do this easily; she also has her father’s hunting knife, as we are reminded, so she can use this to threaten her grandmother into keeping still.
And yet we would do well to observe that, unlike in ‘The Company of Wolves’ where the girl tames the male werewolf by herself, this little girl relies on the forest community, with their moblike suspicion of witches, to oust the woman from the woods. Indeed, the girl utters a loud cry – which is much more what we expect a little girl to do in such a situation – which brings the neighbours to the house.
In other words, what Carter presents us with in ‘The Werewolf’ is two women who both present themselves to the outer community as fairly conventional types of womanhood (grandmother, little girl), but who turn out to be, in effect, wolves in sheep’s clothing. The grandmother is quite literally a werewolf, while the granddaughter, clad symbolically in ‘sheepskin’ as she makes her way through the cold landscape, harbours a steely courage and determination to prosper which are more aligned with ideas of masculinity in the world Carter depicts.