"The Tiger's Bride" takes place in Italy. As in "The Bloody Chamber," the narrator is also the heroine. She tells us, "My father lost me to The Beast at cards." She then sets the scene of her and her father's journey to Italy. She says that to Russians like her, the South is supposed to feel like a warm Eden; but the winter there is as cold and snowy as in the North. In addition to enduring the cold, the heroine is forced to watch her father feed his gambling addition with countless games of cards with The Beast. Even though she chose to visit this remote part of Italy because it had no casino, she was unaware that every man who stays in the Beasts's territory must play a hand of cards with him.
The Beast is ashamed of his animal appearance and attempts to look as human as possible. He wears a mask with a perfect man's face painted on it so only his yellow eyes are visible. He wears old-fashioned clothing, including a wig, gloves over his uncannily large hands and a scarf to cover his neck. He smells so strongly of cologne that the heroine wonders what sinister smell he is trying to conceal. His actions are awkward because he forces himself to act human; the heroine says he "has an air of self-imposed restraint, as if fighting a battle with himself to remain upright when he would far rather drop down on all fours." Furthermore, he speaks in such an incomprehensible growl that his valet must translate for him.
The heroine is a radiant beauty who was born on Christmas Day. She faults her father's gambling and adultery for her mother's early death. As her father loses at cards, she tears apart a white rose that The Beast gave her when she arrived at his house. When the heroine's father has lost all his money to The Beast, he bets his daughter. As dawn breaks, the narrator's father loses her to The Beast and she must her report to his estate the next day. Suddenly comprehending what he has done, her father sobs, "I have lost my pearl, my pearl beyond price." The beast responds in a roar that his valet translates to mean, "If you are so careless of your treasures, you should expect them to be taken from you."
The valet arrives to take the heroine away, bearing a bouquet of white roses. When her father asks for one as a sign of her forgiveness, she pricks her finger on it by accident and hands it to him "all smeared with blood." She is furious to have to endure such "humiliation." The heroine wonders what kind of creature The Beast is. She recalls her nursemaid's stories of a tiger-man who would "gobble [her] up" if she was naughty and other tales of half-men-half-beasts. She is afraid to be being married to and have sex with such a creature.
When the heroine arrives at The Beast's home, she finds that it is threadbare and dirty; he has "bought solitude, not luxury, with his money." He keeps his horses in the living room and all his furniture, including his chandeliers, under fabric. The portraits he owns are propped against the walls so that their faces do not show. Many windows and doors are broken so that wind blows through the house. The narrator describes the house as "dismantled, as if its owner were about to move house or had never properly moved in."
The Beast summons the heroine to him, and the valet explains that his master's sole wish is to see her virgin body naked. After that, he will return her to her father with all of his property and gifts. The narrator laughs defiantly and tells The Beast that she will concede only to pull up her skirt for him while hiding her head with a sheet. She says it is his choice whether he will pay her or not. To her joy, she sees that she has hurt him; he cries a single tear.
The valet takes the narrator to a room that resembles a prison cell. When she threatens to hang herself he replies, "Oh, no, you will not. You are a woman of honour." When he tries to give her a diamond earring, she throws it into a corner. Then he introduces her to her companion, a wind-up soubrette. It resembles the narrator so much that she calls it her "clockwork twin." In the little mirror the soubrette holds, the narrator sees her own, tear-covered face as it was when she arrived. He explains before locking her in the room that "nothing human lives here." Later, the valet takes the narrator to see The Beast again. Seeing her dread at disrobing before him, The Beast sheds another tear. For hours after that, she can hear him pacing outside her door. Then the valet arrives with a second diamond earring. The narrator throws it into the corner with the other. Then the valet tells her that The Beast has summoned her to come riding..
As the heroine rides with The Beast and his valet, she suddenly feels as though she is more similar to them and the horses they ride than to anyone else she knows. After all, don't men treat her as less than human because she is a girl? As she puts it, "I could see not one single soul in that wilderness of desolation all around me, then the six of us-mounts and riders, both-could boast amongst us not one soul, either, since all the best religious in the world state categorically that not beasts nor women were equipped with the flimsy, insubstantial things..." Men objectify her and treat her as "carelessly" as they do animals and inanimate objects. When they reach a river, the valet explains that if she will not let The Beast see her naked, she must see him naked instead. She consents out of fear. When she sees The Beast as he is, a tiger, she is overcome with emotion. Then, as a gesture of equality, the heroine removes her shirt. The beast is embarrassed, so she goes no further. He and the valet leave her to wander while they hunt. Then all three return to the house. When the heroine peers into the soubrette's mirror, she sees her father sitting amongst his belongings and money. The Beast has kept his word and is sending her home.
The narrator realizes that she does not want to leave. She strips naked, which she finds to be an excruciating task, as if she were "stripping off [her] own underpelt." She dons her diamond earrings, wraps herself in a fur that The Beast gave her, and runs to his chamber. On the way, she meets the valet, who is also naked. He shows himself to be an ape, "a delicate creature, covered with silken moth-grey fur, brown fingers supple as leather, chocolate muzzle, the gentlest creature in the world." The narrator's fur turns into black rats, which flee. She finds The Beast pacing in his urine-tainted, bone-filled room. As she approaches him, she realizes that he is terrified of her. Then, seeing that she accepts him, he lumbers toward her, purring so loudly that the walls shake and windows break from the vibration. He licks her with his rough tongue, stripping off layers of skin to reveal her beautiful pelt.
Like the heroine of "The Bloody Chamber," the heroine of "The Tiger's Bride" tells her own tale in retrospect, therefore claiming control of both her life and the literary tradition. The first theme that arises is the objectification of women, with the heroine's father losing her to The Beast at cards. Arguably, we have seen a similar transaction in "The Courtship of Mr. Lyon," where Beauty's father is forced to give her to the Beast because he stole the rose. However in that story, the father agrees to 'trade' his daughter's company out of fear whereas in this story, the father wagers her carelessly, as though she were a mere possession. Carter uses diction to emphasize that this transaction, while seeming outdated and unlikely, is not far from the objectification of women seen in our own society. How often does a woman blush happily to hear herself called "pearl" or "treasure?" These words are considered compliments, but Carter reveals their objectifying overtones by having both the heroine's father and The Beast use them, respectively, in the context of her sale. From the story's beginning, we are aware that the heroine is seen as an object that can be bought, sold, and leveraged for her owner's pleasure and advantage.
The heroine's objectification continues throughout the story, culminating with the surprise ending. When out riding, the heroine contends that men see women as soulless, just as they see animals as soulless; she says, "the six of us, mounts and riders both-could boast amongst us not one soul ... Since all the best religions in the world state categorically that not beasts nor women were equipped with the flimsy, insubstantial things." For this reason, she feels closer to Beast, the valet, and their horses, than she ever has to a man. Instead of wishing for a soul, she denigrates them by calling them "flimsy" and "insubstantial"; after all, the men who claim to possess souls consider her no more than an item of physical worth.
Carter surpasses the heroine's comparison to animals by likening her to the soubrette. Not only is the soubrette a doll, but she powders the heroine's cheeks so that she resembles one. This symbolism is not lost on the heroine, who ponders, "that clockwork girl who powdered my cheeks for me; had I not been allotted only the same kind of imitative life amongst men that the doll-maker had given her?" Moore points out that the soubrette is a "social creation of femininity"; she embodies the vanity and vapidity that characterize society's idea of a woman. The soubrette needs someone to wind her up so that she can perform her maid's tasks; so too, women are thought unable to think and act for themselves. Once the heroine begins to claim her own desires, she says that she no longer resembles the soubrette. Since she can no longer submit to society's female stereotypes, she plans to send the soubrette home in her place: "I will dress her in my own clothes, wind her up, send her back to perform the part of my father's daughter." Carter tells us that this view of women weakens their character and prevents them from fulfilling their potential.
In "The Courtship of Mr. Lyon," Beauty is unspoiled and content when she lives in the country, away from society's influence. But when she moves to the city, she transforms into a petulant young woman obsessed with her looks and belongings. Until the spaniel reminds her of her authentic self, she is content with living as a 'social construct of femininity.' The heroine in "The Tiger's Bride" realizes that men treat her like the soubrette, that no matter how hard she tries to equal them, they will always see her as a poor 'imitation' of a person. Suddenly, she is no different from The Beast, who wears his mask painted with a man's face in order to pretend he is a man. The perfection of this mask "appals" the narrator because it represents the model of perfection, civility and tameness to which she is bound. She does not want to be an object and therefore is disgusted that he looks like one. The heroine again expresses her hatred of objectification when she throws her present of diamond earrings into a corner.
The surprise ending to "The Tiger's Bride" takes Carter's feminist bent farther than the ending to "The Courtship of Mr. Lyon." In the latter story, Beauty must accept the Beast in order for him to become a person, so that they can live happily in the human world. In "The Tiger's Bride", the heroine and The Beast must accept the animal nature in themselves and in each other so that they can be free of the human world with its social constructs and assumptions. Women, Carter conveys through the tale, must break free of their weak, doll-like social identities and embrace the parts of them that are strong, alive with desire, and 'ugly'; "the lamb must learn to run with the tigers." It is not that women are lambs and must learn to be tigers; they are tigers who are made to think they are lambs. After all, the heroine has been a tiger underneath her skin for all her life. Instead of Beauty and Beast being opposites, they are wed into one stronger identity at the end of "The Tiger's Bride."
Sex and sexual desire are the catalysts for the heroine's transformation into a beast. We see this fact foreshadowed by symbols early in the story. The rose that the heroine gives her father when she leaves him represents her virginal self because it is white and beautiful. When she pricks her finger on it and hands it to him "all smeared with blood," she foreshadows her own loss of virginity and her transformation from whiteness, the absence of lust and life, to blood-redness, the embodiment of those things. The heroine also refers to The Beast as a "clawed magus," magus meaning an ancient priest with supernatural powers; even though she fears him, the heroine has some sense that he has the power to transform her. It is not just anything sexual that causes the narrator to transform-it is her desire and willingness to be sexual. When she first refuses to disrobe in front of The Beast, she hurts him. She does not know at the time that his wish to see her is not mere voyeurism; he also deeply wants her to accept him. If The Beast were a mere voyeur, he would accept the heroine's offer to lift up her skirts for him while hiding her face. He is not interested in the heroine's body so much as he is in her true, animal self.
The heroine's transformation into a tiger combines the acts of sex and birth into one. When she takes off her clothes, she can already feel herself changing; she feels as though she is "stripping off [her] own underpelt"; but she needs The Beast's action to help her change. He rips off her skin by licking her, which can be seen as a sexual act, but this gives way to the act of birth; the heroine is reborn as a tigress with "a nascent patina of shining hairs." In this act, The Beast and the heroine reclaim sex as a collaborative act of creation, casting aside the idea of sex as an act of fetish and control wherein the man objectifies and claims the woman. The heroine here, in fact, is claiming herself. Carter makes it clear that coming into one's selfhood is a painful and arduous act that calls for more than the wave of a wand. It requires the heroine to endure the excruciating pain of giving birth (to herself) in order to attain the relief and freshness of being reborn.