"The Bloody Chamber's" heroine narrates the story in retrospect. At the time of the story she is a poor, seventeen-year-old Parisian pianist. She begins her tale by describing the night she traveled alone to her new husband, the Marquis's palace. She lies in her train compartment, excited to be leaving her childhood behind and entering into womanhood. She imagines her mother back at her childhood apartment, putting away her girlhood belongings, and is suddenly struck by a sense of loss. She feels as though she has "in some way, ceased to be her [mother's] child in becoming a wife."
The heroine recalls how when her wedding dress arrived, her mother asked whether she was sure she loved her husband-to-be. She replied, "I'm sure I want to marry him." Even though she seemed unconvinced that her daughter was making the right choice, she kept silent out of her wish for financial security. She herself married down in society, and when her husband died at war, she and the narrator were left penniless.
Back in the train compartment, the heroine can hear the Marquis's heavy breathing and smell his scent. He is big, strong and catlike, but also gentle and romantic. He is much older than the heroine and his eyes have an "absolute absence of light." He reminds the narrator of a lily, because he is so quiet and emotionless that he seems to be wearing a mask all the time. Even when he proposed to her, he did not show emotion. These characteristics make the heroine fear the Marquis, and she hopes that once they are at the castle, he will reveal his true self to her.
One explanation for the Marquis's seriousness is that he is still in mourning for his last wife. She died three months into her marriage, supposedly in a boating accident, although her body was never recovered. The wife before that was the model for a famous painting. The Marquis's first wife was a renowned opera diva, whose performance enthralled the narrator as a child. The narrator is bemused that the Marquis would choose her to be his wife after having been with such enchanting women. She describes herself as "the poor widow's child with my mouse-colored hair that still bore the kinks of the braids from which it had so recently been freed, my bony hips, my nervous, pianist's fingers."
The heroine recalls the night before their wedding when the Marquis took her to see the opera Tristan. All eyes were on her, her massive opal wedding ring, and her wedding gift, "a choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat." The necklace belonged to his grandmother, who had it made as an ironic reminder after she escaped the guillotine. At the opera, the narrator notices for the first time that her husband looks at her as though she is "horseflesh." When he looks at her as a sexual object, the heroine is shocked and excited; she recalls, "for the first time in my innocent and confined life, I sensed in myself a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away."
The heroine reaches the castle at dawn. It is cold November by the seaside. She is delighted with her bridal suite, located in a tower overlooking the ocean. It has a music room furnished with a fine piano and a portrait of Saint Cecilia playing an organ. The heroine is touched by the fact that the Marquis compares her to a saint. The bedroom is filled with lilies, which are reflected in twelve mirrors that surround the bed so that the room appears to be an "embalming parlor." The narrator, like the lilies, is reflected in the mirrors so that she becomes "a multitude of girls." She watches her husband undress her-undress his "harem" of girls-in the mirrors. She tells us how the Marquis seems unexcited at the prospect of taking her virginity; "he approached the familiar treat with a weary appetite." She is both aroused and disgusted. Then the Marquis abruptly says he must attend to business and leaves her. The heroine dresses and wanders into his library. There, she finds a book with sexual and violent images including one called "Reproof of Curiosity." Just then, the Marquis enters and mocks her for finding the images. Then he forces her back to the bedroom and makes her put on the ruby choker, "kiss[ing] the rubies before he kiss[es] [her] mouth." Then he takes her virginity. As the narrator describes it, "A dozen husbands impaled a dozen brides."
In the morning, business in New York compels the Marquis to leave the castle for over a month. He and the heroine enjoy a sumptuous dinner before his departure. Then the Marquis gives the narrator her instructions. She is not to take off the choker. He hands her a ring of keys to every lock in the house, all of which she is free to open, explore, and enjoy the contents of save one that leads to a private chamber. He calls it "the key to my enfer." He quips before leaving, "There I can go, you understand, to savour the rare pleasure of imagining myself wifeless."
The next day, the narrator meets the piano tuner, a kindly blind man named Jean-Yves. She promises he can listen to her play occasionally. After a distraught call to her mother, she satisfies her "dark newborn curiosity" by exploring the castle and ordering the staff around like a spoiled child. While exploring the Marquis's office, she finds an envelope filled with remnants from his past marriages. The discovery puts her in a momentary, sober trance that makes her accidentally open the key ring and drop all the keys on the floor. The first key she picks up is the one to the forbidden room.
Convinced that the room holds the key to her husband's identity, the heroine ventures fearlessly there. Her search takes her to a far, dark corner of the castle. When she enters the room, she sees instruments of torture: a rack, a wheel, and an iron maiden. In the middle of the room she finds a bier with candles around it and lights them to the embalmed corpse of the Marquis's first wife, the opera singer. It is clear from the marks on her neck that she was strangled. Behind the bier hangs the skull of the Marquis's second wife, dressed in a bridal veil. Then the heroine finds the corpse of the last wife inside the Iron Maiden, run through with "a hundred spikes." Seeing how the murdered woman's blood is still flowing onto the floor, the heroine wonders how recently the Marquis murdered her. She drops the key into the blood and bursts into tears. Regaining her presence of mind, the narrator decides to escape the Marquis. She covers up all evidence of her snooping and flees the chamber.
The heroine tries to calls her mother, but the phone is dead. She tries to calm herself by playing the piano until the piano-tuner, Jean-Yves, comes to return the keys she dropped. His presence calms her so much that she faints. When she awakes, he is cradling her. She tells him that the Marquis is a murderer and is planning to kill her. He says that the locals' nickname for the castle is "the Castle of Murder" and that villagers have spread tales of murderous Marquises for ages.
In the breaking daylight, the heroine sees the Marquis's car returning to the castle. She and Jean-Yves try to wash the key to the forbidden room, but a bloodstain remains no matter how hard they scrub it. She sends him away, undresses, and awaits the Marquis in bed. Despite her attempts to put on an unaffected air and seduce him, he senses what has happened. The thought fills him with dread and then primal excitement. He commands the narrator to retrieve the key ring. Upon inspection, he finds that the bloodstain on the key has formed a tiny, perfect heart. He orders the narrator to kneel and presses the key against her forehead, leaving an equally perfect mark between her eyes. Then he proclaims, "My virgin of the arpeggios, prepare yourself for martyrdom."
The Marquis tells the heroine he will decapitate her. He orders her to bathe, put on the dress she wore to Tristan and the ruby choker, which he calls "the necklace that prefigures your end." Although the Marquis has sent all the servants away to the mainland, the narrator does not see Jean-Yves leaving amongst their ranks. When the heroine goes downstairs to the music room, she finds him waiting for her. Then she looks out the window and sees her mother riding frantically toward the castle. With newfound hope, she leads Jean-Yves to a courtyard where the Marquis waits by a chopping block, holding a sword. Upon the Marquis's order, she gives him back his ring. He says it "will serve [him] for a dozen more fiancees." Then he commands her to approach the chopping block and swears to kill Jean-Yves after he kills her. The heroinw tries to stall, but the Marquis lays her head on the chopping block and cuts her dress off of her. He raises his sword, but is distracted by her mother's loud arrival. The mother's fury freezes the Marquis in his tracks momentarily, "as in those clockwork tableaux of Bluebeard that you see in glass cases at fairs." Then he charges the Marquis and kills him with a single bullet through the head.
The narrator brings us to the present. She, Jean-Yves, and her mother have converted the castle into a school for the blind. They have given her fortune away to charity, disposed of the corpses of the Marquis's other wives and sealed the door to the "bloody chamber." They all live together on the outskirts of Paris where they run a music school and live modestly. As for how the narrator's mother knew to rescue her-she intuited from her daughter's first phone call that something was terribly amiss. Even though she the heroine escaped the Marquis, no amount of washing or makeup can cover the red mark on her forehead. She says she is glad Jean-Yves cannot see the mark, because it spares her shame.
"The Bloody Chamber" is based on the legend of Bluebeard. Carter preserves the legend's plot, casting the Marquis in the role of Bluebeard, who kills his wives and stores their corpses in a secret chamber. Like Bluebeard, the Marquise entices each new wife to explore the forbidden chamber and then kills her once she has discovered his secret. Carter goes so far as to reference the Bluebeard legend toward the end of "The Bloody Chamber." When the heroine's mother storms the Marquis's palace, he stands still in shock, "the sword still raised over his head as in those clockwork tableaux of Bluebeard that you see in glass cases at fairs." This allusion, rather than likening Carter's story to the legend, has the effect of distinguishing "The Bloody Chamber" from it. By likening the Marquis to Bluebeard, Carter makes it clear that he is not Bluebeard. In doing so, she draws attention to the ways her story is distinct from the legend of Bluebeard and, moreover, from fairy tales in general.
One distinguishing feature of "The Bloody Chamber" is its narrator. Unlike a traditional fairy-tale narrator, generally an impartial third person, this narrator is the heroine herself. By giving the heroine a voice, Carter challenged the fairy-tale tradition of our seeing, from the outside, events befall an innocent girl. Letting the heroine tell her story empowers the figure of woman by putting her in the traditionally male-dominated roles of storyteller and survivor instead of relegating her to the role of helpless princess. In The Bloody Chamber, the heroine tells us personally about how her suffering became the source of her enlightenment.
Of the heroine's namelessness, Rosemary Moore writes, "Carter acknowledges that in fairy tales characters are generally abstractions and her young bride is nameless because she is defined by her role as Marquise." Indeed, without her title the heroine is of little importance to the Marquis or anyone but her mother and Jean-Yves. However, it is also significant that Carter never actually refers to the heroine as "Marquise." One reason is that the heroine tells the story in hindsight, when she has already settled into a new and modest life far from the castle. She has become wise through her experience and no longer considers herself a Marquise, a title that only implies deference to the Marquis. Secondly, by leaving the heroine nameless, Cater universalizes her triumph so that she represents all women.
Even though Carter empowers the heroine on a literary level, in the story she is forced into a position of subjugation and ignorance. She marries primarily for money and position, because as a peasant woman she has little opportunity or encouragement to earn these for herself. As she tells her mother, she may not be sure that she loves the Marquis but she is "sure [she wants] to marry him." The narrator takes on a gently mocking tone to describe how she viewed love as a young woman. She recalls how the romantic opera Tristan made her feel as though she loved the Marquis, saying, "And, do you know, my heart swelled and ached so during the Liebestod that I thought I must truly love him." The heroine smirks at how she conflated her love of music and romance with love for the Marquis. Then she makes it clear that her desire, while real, was for the wealth and position that the Marquis gives her; she follows the first statement with, "Yes. I did. On his arm, all eyes were upon me." In addition, she refers to her husband as her "purchaser" and herself as "his bargain," and makes a point to tell us that when he takes her virginity, he kisses the rubies around her neck before kissing her mouth. Clearly, the Marquis is more concerned with his wealth than with his wife; in fact, he loves his wives more when they are dead-and truly objects-than when they are alive.
Despite her excitement at being married, the heroine's early statements tell us that she is afraid of her husband and mistrusts him. She describes him as both beast-like and plant-like; he is strong and imposing like a lion but so emotionless that he reminds her of a "funereal lily." With these references to devouring and death, the heroine establishes the Marquis as a destructive force. She also connects his passion explicitly to destruction when she describes her anticipation at losing her virginity: "It was as though the imponderable weight of his desire was a force I might not withstand." The heroine feels instinctively that the Marquis's desire for her is tied with a love of destruction. The heroine also equates her marriage to the Marquis with banishment when she states, "into marriage, into exile." Instead of feeling as though she is escaping poverty, she considers her marriage a forced isolation. With these words, the heroine indicates that by getting married, she is not gaining but surrendering power.
Power in the story is located primarily in sexual interactions. What makes the heroine appear so powerless to the Marquis and perhaps to herself is her virginity. Being a virgin, the heroine has not yet learned to access her sexual power and is submissive to the Marquis, relying on his experience as a non-virgin and a man. Because of her youth and inexperience, "The Bloody Chamber" is for the heroine a story of sexual self-discovery. She delights in her newfound sexual awareness, which Carter brings to life with vivid words such as, "I lay awake in the wagon-lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, my burning cheek pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow and the pounding of my heart mimicking that of the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me through the night, away from Paris, away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother's apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage." Carter's use of the word "bore" compares the heroine's journey to her married life to a rebirth. The comparison emphasizes how the heroine is not just getting married, but being transformed from a girl, "away from girlhood" into a woman.
The heroine's arousal on the train, heightened by sexual verbs such as "pounding," "thrusting" and "burning" comes not so much from her attraction to the Marquis but from her curiosity at the "unguessable" act of sex that she anticipates. Even though the Marquis evaluates her as though she is "horseflesh," his condescension excites her because it makes her realize her own "potential for corruption," for sexuality and desire. She does not find out until later how literally the Marquis makes love and corruption into a single act with the fetish of murdering his wives. He takes his favorite quote, by Baudelaire, literally: "There is a striking resemblance between the act of love and he ministrations of a torturer." For him, the act of love is the act of torture. Because the Marquis's objectifying remarks and actions excite the heroine, we can see that until she realizes the extent of her dilemma, she is somewhat complicit in her own subjugation.
Images of rebirth and sexuality make the narrator's entrance into marriage seem full of life. But the moment she arrives at the castle, this feeling is tempered with symbols of death that foreshadow her own near-death. She arrives at dawn, a time of freshness and possibility, but in the month of November in late fall, which traditionally represents a decline into winter and death. The sea has an "amniotic salinity"-the word amniotic referencing birth, but it surrounds the castle when the tide is high, so that for all its majesty the palace resembles a prison. She describes it as, "at home neither on the land nor on the water, a mysterious, amphibious place, contravening the materiality of both earth and the waves ... That lovely, sad, sea-siren of a place!" To the heroine, the castle seems like a place where reality is suspended and strange things happen. When she compares it to a siren or mermaid, who lure sailors and then drown them, she evokes another symbol of death and foreshadows her fate.
The bridal chamber itself is filled with symbols of death and martyrdom. On the wall hangs a painting of Saint Cecilia, who died by decapitation. The Marquis sees the heroine as his own personal Saint Cecilia, whom he plans to kill in a sick bastardization of martyrdom. The heroine's necklace, which the Marquis instructs her not to remove, references the same bloody death. At the time, she does not realize that the necklace symbolizes the death that the Marquis has planned for her. Twelve mirrors surround the bed, the number twelve symbolizing the twelve apostles and therefore referencing Christ. Since Christ is the ultimate martyr, the mirrors comprise another death reference. Finally, the Marquis has filled the narrator's room with so many lilies, which are reflected in the mirrors, that it appears to be a "funereal parlor." The heroine connects sex with death most explicitly when she uses the word "impale" to describe the Marquis's penetrating her.
It is not the bridal chamber, but the Marquis's secret murder room, that lends the story its title, "The Bloody Chamber." However, the bridal chamber is a 'bloody chamber' of sorts because it is there that the Marquis spills the narrator's blood by taking her virginity. Being a place for the consummation of marriage, it also represents the murder that always follows. The events that surround the forbidden chamber echo Eve's temptation and fall in the Garden of Eden, thus connecting each wife's downfall to the idea of original sin. As Jean-Yves explains, the heroine "only did what [The Marquis] knew she would" just as, he implies, God knew that Eve would taste the forbidden apple and be sentenced to pain and (eventual) death. The Marquis sees himself as God because he is a man and a royal figure; therefore, he feels it is his mission to tempt and punish women. But far from being godlike or right, the Marquis's actions are perverted. He is like the man in his engraving, "Reproof of Curiosity," who arouses himself by whipping a naked girl, only he is worse for being a murderer. The allusion to Eve suggests that inasmuch as the "bloody chamber" is a place of suffering and death for the other wives, it is one of learning and rebirth for the heroine. In this way, the term "bloody chamber" can also refer to the womb; it is a physical symbol of birth and of Eve's punishment; pain in childbirth as well as the pain of knowledge.
Like many traditional fairy tales, "The Bloody Chamber" ends 'happily ever after.' But the heroine's happiness does not come from finding a stereotypical prince charming and living out her days in luxury. Rather, she marries a blind piano tuner, gives away her fortune, and lives with her mother and husband on the edge of town. This ending embodies a feminist perspective. The heroine starts out as a naÃ¯ve sexual object, manipulated into submission with the promise of material comfort. The Marquis condemns her to death for refusing to obey him blindly and remain ignorant. Her triumph, as Moore explains, is in recognizing her own intelligence and mettle as a human being, and rejecting the role of submissive child. Having learned from her experience, the heroine rids herself of all remnants of that former identity. She rejects wealth, which is what the Marquis used to win her naÃ¯ve trust. She marries a blind man, who cannot objectify her for her beauty because he cannot see her. She even rejects the traditional household of two in favor of living with her mother as well as her husband. By doing so, Moore says, she "avoids the institution of marriage with its requirement to love, honor, and obey a husband till death. [She] replaces a relationship between power and submission with one of mutual affection and equality." Even though the heroine is married, she does not rely solely on Jean-Yves for money or love, because she earns money giving piano lessons and has her mother's company.
Even though the mark on the heroine's forehead proves her triumph over both death and misogyny, she is ashamed of it. The key that made the mark was, as Moore says, "the key to her selfhood," but she does not consider the mark a badge of success; to the heroine, it is a permanent reminder that she let herself be lured, bought, and mistreated. In rejecting wealth, earning a living, and residing with her mother, the narrator not only fulfills her wish for independence; she does a sort of penance for allowing sexist abuse in her former life. This penance she also does by telling her story, in hopes that other women might not fall prey to a man like the Marquis.