‘Wolf-Alice’ is a short story from The Bloody Chamber, the 1979 collection of modern fairy tales written by the British author Angela Carter (1940-92). The story tells of a girl raised by wolves who goes to live with a Duke who is a werewolf.
You can read ‘Wolf-Alice’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of the story below.
‘Wolf-Alice’: plot summary
The protagonist of the story, Wolf-Alice, is a girl who has been raised by wolves: she runs on all fours and she cannot speak, instead issuing a noise similar to a wolf’s howl. She acts like a wolf, always using her nose to scent potential food or prey.
She is taken from her wolf-mother (who is killed by peasants who shoot her) and raised by nuns in a convent. However, the nuns are frustrated that they cannot civilise her, so they send her to live with the Duke, a werewolf who lives in his own castle. At night, the Duke goes out of his castle and feasts on human meat, occasionally killing people in order to get it, but sometimes scavenging from the local churchyard. He doesn’t, however, eat Wolf-Alice, perhaps because she is more wolf-like than she is human in character. She becomes his maid.
Then one day, adulthood arrives and Wolf-Alice starts to menstruate and grow breasts and pubic hair. Unlike the Duke, Wolf-Alice can see her reflection in the mirror, and when she catches sight of herself for the first time, she becomes intrigued by her appearance. The Duke has stashed a white wedding dress behind the mirror, and when Wolf-Alice finds it, she puts it on and walks out of the castle.
A bridegroom whose bride-to-be was killed and eaten by the Duke waits in the church with a whole ‘arsenal’ of charms and weapons to use in avenging his beloved’s death. These include bells, books, candles, holy water, and silver bullets. When the Duke appears, the townsfolk attack him, and he runs back to his castle. He is shot in the shoulder and the townsfolk think that Wolf-Alice, who leaps out from behind the tombstones and run after him, is the ghost of the murdered bride, come to taunt her killer. They flee, screaming.
Wolf-Alice licks the Duke’s wounds back in his castle, and his reflection gradually appears in the mirror, suggesting that she has cured him of his lycanthropy.
‘Wolf-Alice’ concludes The Bloody Chamber and also concludes a trilogy of werewolf-themed tales which come at the end of Carter’s collection. In the previous story, ‘The Company of Wolves’, the female protagonist saved her own skin and tamed the male werewolf by having sex with him. In this story, the girl, who is not fully werewolf herself but who nevertheless possesses many character traits associated with wolves, forms an unlikely alliance with a male werewolf, and ends up ‘restoring’ him to full manhood at the end of the story.
This story is also different from the two earlier wolf-stories in the collection in that it is the only one to have a female protagonist who is herself beastlike. This lends a different dynamic to the male-female relationship at the centre of ‘Wolf-Alice’: both Wolf-Alice and the Duke have been shunned by the wider community for their wolflike habits. The ending of the story suggests, in a way that just about avoids twee sentimentality, that all the Duke really needed to ‘cure’ him of his condition was some care and compassion from someone who understood him. Wolf-Alice is well-placed to do so, although one feels that Carter is inviting us to judge the townsfolk for being too quick to distance themselves from the Duke and give him up as a lost cause.
Both Wolf-Alice and the Duke find themselves alone, without either animal or human company. Wolf-Alice’s mother is dead, and Carter’s third-person narrator tells us that the Duke would have been expelled from any wolf-pack he tried to join. The story is, on one level, about society’s treatment of outsiders, especially outsiders who have the potential (or are perceived to have the potential) to bring harm to others within a community: for ‘werewolf’ we might substitute ‘mentally unwell’ or ‘schizophrenic’ or some other condition.
But if ‘Wolf-Alice’ is in part a story about the treatment of outsiders, it is also – like most of the stories in The Bloody Chamber – about female sexuality and coming-of-age, the dawning of a girl’s awareness of her body and herself as a sexual being. Indeed, in the Neil Jordan film The Company of Wolves, which adapted these three werewolf tales for the big screen, Carter stated that the wolves in these stories represent ‘libido’.
It is difficult to avoid a psychoanalytic interpretation of the story, which views the young Wolf-Alice as all id: desire and gratification, hunger and base needs, with no overarching regulation or control. The description of her crawling on all fours mimics not only a wolf’s movements but also that of a baby crawling around on its hands and knees before it has learned to walk bipedally.
Indeed, the moment where Wolf-Alice first sees and recognises herself in the mirror can be linked to Jacques Lacan’s idea of the ‘mirror-stage’, in which the subject (usually an infant of around one year old) falls in love with their own image, in a precursor to learning to love another. Wolf-Alice’s subsequent caring of the Duke thus represents the transference of this self-love onto another, with the result that he has his own sense of self restored.
Of course, in freeing him, Wolf-Alice is also imprisoning the Duke in another sense. (The stories in The Bloody Chamber are full of metaphors of imprisonment.) The final paragraph contains the telling image of prey caught in its own fishing net, thus suggesting that, like the protagonist of ‘The Company of Wolves’, Wolf-Alice has tamed the Duke so that she can have control over him (as, presumably, the one remaining feral person in their partnership). She will be able to use her powers to run his castle and rule as his duchess.
This ending thus inverts the message of ‘The Erl-King’, another tale from The Bloody Chamber, which suggests that ‘marriage’, or at least giving oneself to a man, is a form of imprisonment for women. The parody of a wedding ceremony which the Duke and Wolf-Alice experience – with a crowd of people, a church, the ‘bride’ in a wedding dress, and the couple leaving together – instead ends up bringing Wolf-Alice new power, although she is also able to help her ‘bridegroom’ and restore him to full manhood.