A "bloody chamber" is present in some form in each of the ten stories, which is perhaps why Carter chose to name the collection The Bloody Chamber. The bloody chamber takes different forms throughout the book, but serves the same symbolic purpose. It is a room where violence and enlightenment occur simultaneously. It is a place of transformation for the heroine that changes her irrevocably. Bloody chambers are often connected with not only the blood of violence, but also with the blood shed when a woman loses her virginity and when she menstruates. The term "bloody chamber" can also refer to the vagina or womb, and Carter uses this fact to underscore the connection between women's sexuality and the violence they experience.
In "The Bloody Chamber," the bloody chamber is the Marquis's chamber of torture and death. When the heroine finds it, she puts herself in danger of being killed but also gains the knowledge to prevent her death. As Moore states, the key to the bloody chamber is "the key to her selfhood"; seeing her potential fate makes the heroine realize that she has bought in to a life of objectification ans subjugation that will ultimately kill her.
In "The Courtship of Mr. Lyon," the bloody chamber is the Beast's room. Even though the Beast does not hurt anyone in the room, it represents the violent and "bloody" reputation. If the Beast is seen as a being who devours, his room is perceived as a place of terror - a bloody chamber. The Beast's room is also a place of transformation for both himself and the heroine. It is there that she realizes her love for him and that he transforms back into a human.
In "The Tiger's Bride," the bloody chamber is also The Beast's room. It is bloody in the first place because it is there that The Beast devours his prey; the floor is littered with bones. It is also there that the narrator transforms into a tigress and thereby learns her true identity.
In "Puss-in-Boots," the bloody chamber is more comical. It is the heroine's room, where she sheds blood when she loses her virginity, and where Signor Panteleone's corpse is laid after the bloody crime of his murder. As in other stories, the bloody chamber in "Puss-in-Boots" is where the heroine gains a new identity and begins to fulfill her destiny. In "The Erl-King," the Erl-King's hut is a bloody chamber because it is there that he "kills" girls by turning them into tormented caged birds. It is also there that the heroine plans to shed the Erl-King's blood in order to save her life.
In "The Snow Child," the bloody chamber can be considered both the hole in the snow that the Count and Countess ride past and the girl's vagina. The Count sees both these bloody chambers as objects for him to enjoy. It is the Countess, however, and not the heroine who gains knowledge. At the story's end, the Countess realizes that the rose "bites"; that the price of being a man's object is the pain of subservience and loss of identity.
In "The Lady of the House of Love," the bloody chamber is the Countess's room. For the Countess, her room is doubly bloody. There she has sucked the blood of countless victims and there she bleeds for the first time. The Countess dies in her bloody chamber, but only after being enlightened - literally - by experiencing love, turning into a human, and letting light into her chamber for the first time.
In "The Werewolf" and "The Company of Wolves," the bloody chamber is grandmother's house. In "The Werewolf," the girl makes the chamber bloody by disfiguring and then killing her grandmother. By doing this, she is able to live a happy life, yet the story's ending is ominous because we do not know whether she takes her own victims in this bloody chamber. In "The Company of Wolves," grandmother's house is bloody first when the wolf eats her, and again when the girl loses her virginity to the wolf in it. This bloody chamber is a place of enlightenment for both the girl, who realizes that she is "nobody's meat," and the wolf, who lets himself be devoured for the first time.
In "Wolf-Alice," the bloody chamber is the Duke's castle. There, the Duke devours his bloody victims. There also, Wolf-Alice begins to menstruate, which triggers her to become increasingly human. Both Wolf-Alice and the Duke discover themselves in this bloody chamber with the mirror's aid.
Many of the heroines in the book are virgins, and many others are implied to be. In some male characters' eyes, such as the Marquis's, the heroines' virginity is an invitation for corruption. It is also an invitation for violence, because in taking a girl's virginity, a man spills her blood. Indeed, when the Marquis rapes the heroine, he is said to "impale" her.
In many of the stories, the heroine or hero's virginity is a source of protection and strength. In "The Company of Wolves," the heroine's virginity is like a "pentacle" that shields her from harm. In "The Lady of the House of Love," the soldier's virginity protects him in a similar way. Both characters, by virtue of virginity, are innocent enough not to be afraid, and their lack of fear is what saves them from death. They transform from prey into devourer, the girl "eating" the wolf and the soldier tasting the Countess's blood when she meant to taste his. In "The Tiger's Bride," we find that The Beast is actually afraid of the heroine because she is a virgin. He wants nothing more than to glimpse her naked, untouched body, but the sight of it frightens and shames him.
According to Carter's stories as a whole, virginity is a source of strength because it is "power in potentia." Like water pent up behind a dam, it is stronger than water that is not being restrained. When the narrators in all three stories mentioned lose their virginities - either symbolically or literally - they release a transformative power. The girl in "The Company of Wolves" turns herself into a predator and the wolf into prey. The soldier in "The Lady of the House of Love" turns the Countess into a human. The heroine in "The Tiger's Bride" transforms into a tiger.
The Pornographic Image
In several of her stories, Carter explores the idea of pornography and its presence in everyday life through the objectification of women. In the stories, a pornographic image is created when one person is undressed and another one is not. The clothed person, who is in the position of human master, seems to have power over the naked person, who is in the position of animal or slave. Carter uses a specific pornographic image in "The Bloody Chamber" to define this image. It is a picture by Rops of a fully-clothed man sizing up a naked woman as though she is "a lamb chop." The heroine calls this picture "most pornographic of all confrontations," which the Marquis recreates when he undresses her while remaining clothed. Later, when the heroine flips through one of the Marquis's books, she comes across a pornographic engraving called "Reproof of Curiosity" wherein a man masturbates while whipping a naked woman.
While clearly delighting in the excitement of the pornographic image, Carter also gives a clear warning of its consequences, the objectification and consequent subjugation of women. At no time is this clearer than when the heroine discovers the other wives' corpses in the bloody chamber. She realizes that for the Marquis, erotic and violent desires are inextricable. He turns his wives from pornographic displays into elaborately-displayed corpses. In "The Snow Child," the girl is nothing but a pornographic image, a semblance of nude attractiveness that the Count dreams up. As a mere image, the girl is powerless; she does not speak and only knows how to follow commands. She is not even real, as we discover when she turns back into a collection of objects. The Beast's in "The Tiger's Bride" tries to place the heroine in a "pornographic confrontation" when he asks her to strip in front of him. The Beast is not only clothed, but every part of him is covered to hide that he is a tiger.
The Beast reverses his pornographic request, however, when he takes initiative to strip in front of the heroine. In this way, he concedes some of his power over her so that when she undresses for him, it is by choice. The heroine in "The Company of Wolves" also reverses the pornographic image when she takes off her clothes for the werewolf in a sort of striptease and then undresses him. By taking off her own clothing, she takes control over her nakedness and her flesh. Then by undressing the werewolf, she puts them on an equal level. Once neither one of them is totally in control over the other, the danger is gone.
The Liminal Experience
Many of the stories focus on the idea of liminality, of existing on the threshold between two places or states of being. The narrator in the Erl-King describes the sensation of liminality as "vertigo." When the Erl-King, a liminal creature who is half-human, half-woods, draws her into his "gravity" of in-betweenness, she is unpleasantly disoriented.
In literature, liminal spaces traditionally give the occupant both power and torment. By existing in two states or being two things simultaneously, the occupant has qualities of both. At the same time, he or she is condemned never to be fully accepted in either state. The two halves of the liminal being's experience do not seem to make a satisfying whole. Carter explores liminality primarily through half-beings: werewolves, vampires, and the special case of Wolf-Alice, the hyphen in whose name pronounces her liminality most definitively. All of Carter's werewolves: the grandmother, the hunter, and the Duke, do not fit in with either humans or wolves. Humans shun werewolves because they try to eat them. As the narrator in "Wolf-Alice" explains, eating humans makes werewolves cannibals; therefore wolves will not accept them because they go against nature's code by eating their own kind. In order to find a place with humans, werewolves must transform somehow. In "The Company of Wolves," the girl must become more wolfish and he more human in order for them to be together. In "Wolf-Alice," the Duke becomes either more human or more animal - we do not know which - when Wolf-Alice shows him kindness. Before that, the Duke's liminal existence tortures him; he is "an aborted transformation," a "parody" of a wolf, who belongs nowhere but isolated in his castle.
Just like werewolves, the Beasts are tormented by living liminally. They too are trapped between being human and animal, and must isolate themselves because there is no other half-creature to keep them company. Carter's more obvious spotlight is on the half-beings we have mentioned. Her more radical statement, however, is that all women are forced to live life as a liminal experience. The heroine in "The Tiger's Bride" realizes this when she considers that men consider women as soulless and incapable as animals. She is a human who is treated like a beast, and is therefore living as liminal and unfulfilled a life as The Beast. We see this too in "Puss-in-Boots," where the young woman's life can hardly be called living; Signor Panteleone treats her like an object and she has no power of her own until her husband is dead. Just like the werewolves and Beasts, these women must choose one kind of experience in order to be happy. The heroine in "The Tiger's Bride" renounces the human experience in favor of the animal experience, because as a woman she will never be seen as fully human. In "Puss-in-Boots," the heroine must kill the beast in her life - Signor Panteleone - in order to claim her full humanity.
The Objectification of Women
Women are objectified in every one of Carter's stories. The objectification and subjugation of women is part of the "latent content" of fairy tales that she exposed, as she claimed, simply by virtue of being a woman. The heroine in "The Bloody Chamber" is one of the most obviously objectified. The Marquis makes her into a pornographic image by undressing her while remaining dressed, he dictates that she always wear her collar of rubies like a dog, and most extremely, he plans to turn her into a literal object - a corpse - to display in his bloody chamber. The Marquis does not only kill his wives; he makes elaborate displays of their dead bodies as though they are collectibles.
In "The Courtship of Mr. Lyon," Beauty becomes an object when her father uses her as payment for his debt to the Beast. Even though Beauty lives luxuriously both at the Beast's and in London, like the heroine in "The Bloody Chamber" she is seen as property. In "The Tiger's Bride," the heroine's father considers her one of his belongings, which is why he wagers and then loses her to The Beast. While she is human, the heroine is seen as merely "a pearl" or "a treasure," prized for her beauty and nothing else. She escapes objectification by rejecting the role of woman entirely and turning into a tigress.
The girl in "The Snow Child" is the crystallization of Carter's message about women as objects. The Count simply wishes her into existence based on his ideas of attractiveness. Like the mechanical soubrette in "The Tiger's Bride," she does not speak and does only what she is asked to do. When she dies, the Count rapes her corpse as if he created her only to be a sex toy. When she dies, she disappears into a collection of objects.
The heroines in the Red Riding Hood stories are symbolically sexual objects because the werewolves see them as prey. Like the hereoine to the Marquis, these heroines are of more value to the werewolves dead than alive. The only heroine who manages to objectify a man instead of being objectified herself is the Countess in "The Lady of the House of Love." She is condemned never to be happy with a man because, like a werewolf, her insatiable hunger causes her to kill her potential mates. The Countess's story lets us see the other side of objectification; it harms the objectifier as well as the object. The Countess can never really be happy because she can see men only as objects. All she wants is fulfilling love, yet all she can conceive of is objectifying lust.
Carter does not give men all the blame; she suggests repeatedly that women are complicit with their own objectification. The heroine in "The Bloody Chamber," as well as her mother, see marriage to the Marquis as a transaction to raise them out of poverty. The young woman in "Puss-in-Boots" no doubt married Signor Panteleone for money and status. In "The Erl-King," the narrator is conscious that she is walking into a trap by consorting with the Erl-King, but does so anyway. Carter's heroines all have in common the quest to escape objectification in order to claim power over their own bodies and an authentic existence.
Carter experiments with mirror images as well as actual mirrors throughout the book. In her versions of fairy tales, Carter calls to attention the mirroring in her sources, where good and evil, human and animal, Beauty and Beast, are irreconcilable opposites. She then takes pains to confound these dichotomies in order to suggest that morality is not so clear-cut as we might like to think.
We first see actual mirrors in "The Bloody Chamber," where the Marquis surrounds the bridal chamber with mirrors. He not only turns the heroine into a pornographic image, but one reflected twelve times. It is only when the heroine looks in the mirrors that she realizes how obviously the Marquis is objectifying her. She is also horrified when the sight of herself as pornographic image arouses her; when she understands that she enjoys being objectified, she realizes her complicity in her own destruction. In "The Courtship of Mr. Lyon," we see the Beauty's transformation from unspoiled child into pampered woman by the fact that she looks in the mirror too often. She has become obsessed with her own physical image, when she really prefers the Beast's image of her as someone with whom to have meaningful conversations.
In "The Tiger's Bride," the heroine looks in the soubrette's magical mirror and sees her father's face instead of her own, as if she has "put it on." It is as though she bears the mark of being her father's property by actually wearing his face. Later, the mirror makes the heroine have another realization. She sees her father rejoicing at having his wealth returned and realizes that wealth means nothing to her. Only then can she undress of her own accord and transform into a tigress.
In "The Snow Child," there is no magic mirror as in the story of Snow White. To the Countess, who takes on the role of evil stepmother, the girl herself is the magical mirror that, in the end, shows her her own fate as a woman with no personal power. Nowhere are mirrors more transformative than in "Wolf-Alice." The mirror, so much a silent witness that it is nearly a character, is the object that catalyzes Wolf-Alice's transformation into a human. We know that she is still an animal when she thinks her reflection is another creature. When she realizes that the reflection is her own, that she is capable of casting a reflection, she begins to understand that she is separate from and has power over her surroundings. Just as the looking glass is the portal to self-awareness for Lewis Carroll's Alice, so too is it for Wolf-Alice. Both animals and humans cast shadows, but the Duke does not because he is a liminal creature who does not quite belong in the physical world. We know he is becoming human when, at last, his face appears in the mirror.
Roses appear throughout the book to represent the women who give or receive them. The rose or any flower is often used as a symbol of the vagina as well as one of idealized femininity. The white roses in "The Courtship of Mr. Lyon" and "The Tiger's Bride" represent a "mythologized" idea of a woman. Beauty's rose grows unnaturally in the middle of winter, yet it is still perfect; it represents her unspoiled, gentle, virgin self. Beauty and her father both want the rose, so they both subscribe to an idealized idea of who she is. She is objectified into a rose. When Beauty's father steals the rose, expressing his desire to keep her virginal and perfect, the result is that Beauty becomes a literal object - the payment of her father's debt. When she sends the Beast roses, she is sending him reminders of her idealized self, which he cherishes. At the story's end, Beauty takes charge of her own desires and returns to the Beast. The roses have wilted, as has her identity as the perfect object of a woman.
In "The Tiger's Bride" and "The Snow Child," the heroines prick their fingers on roses. The first hands her father a rose covered in blood, which symbolizes the fact that his objectification of her causes her suffering. The second heroine dies when she pricks her finger in an even more extreme show of the way that objectification harms her. The Countess does not learn this by example, and must prick her own finger on the rose to find out that being treated like an object hurts or as she says, "bites."
Carter uses roses most extensively in "The Lady of the House of Love." Instead of an idealized representation of the Countess, the roses represent her desire for love as well as her immortality. A thicket of rose bushes protects the Countess's castle as one of solely thorns protected Sleeping Beauty from rescue. The Countess's roses are unnaturally red, beautiful, and fragrant. Like her, they are "obscenely" beautiful because they come from a supernatural source. If the roses represent the Countess's immortality, then they also reflect the torment it causes her. The Countess's tortured station as vampire, like her roses, prevents her from rescue, "awakening," and experiencing love until the soldier comes along. When the Countess transforms and then dies, she leaves behind "as a souvenir the dark, fanged rose" that she says she "plucked from between [her] thighs, like a flower laid on a grave. On a grave." The word "souvenir" recalls the rose's connection with objectification from other stories. The fact that it is "fanged" reflects the fact that the Countess's experience of human love has killed her. The Countess implies that the rose is an embodiment of her vagina, her desire. When the soldier is able to "resurrect" the "monstrous" rose at the story's end, he symbolically restores the Countess - with her sexual and romantic desires - to immortal life. Even though the Countess herself cannot love when immortal and cannot live when mortal, her fulfilled desire still lives on in the rose.
Violence and Sex/Love
In her stories, Carter poses the idea that sex/love and violence are inextricable. We see this clearly in the title story, "The Bloody Chamber," in the Marquis's favorite quote: "There is a striking resemblance between the act of love and he ministrations of a torturer" (Baudelaire). To the Marquis, the sex act is inseparable from the act of murder, which we see reflected in the heroine's diction when she describes the loss of her virginity as "impalement." He marries women only to have sex with them and then kill them, seeing those two actions as part of a single action. In "The Tiger's Bride," the heroine's act of transformation is both a sexual and violent event. The Beast licks her, which is a sexual action, but in doing so, he is stripping off her skin, which is an act of violence. The heroine's revelation and release from the prison of her human body is connected with her sexual freedom, but the price of both these freedoms is pain.
In "Puss-in-Boots," violence against Signor Panteleone is necessary to secure the opportunity for sex and love for the young woman. The connection between sex and violence in this story is made especially clear when the young woman and Puss's master have sex on the floor while the corpse occupies the bed. The sex act and the violent act are just feet away from one another. "The Company of Wolves" equates the acts of sex and devouring. The werewolf intends to eat the girl, but she ends up seducing him and "consuming" him in a sexual way. For these characters, the acts of sex and violence are easily interchangeable. Again, the sex act takes place feet away from a corpse, this time the grandmother's.
In other stories, sex and violence collide in an act of transformation. In "The Erl-King," the transformation is negative; sex with the Erl-King precedes enslavement. But the heroine manages to avoid violence against herself by wreaking violence upon the Erl-King. Even in "The Bloody Chamber," the heroine escapes her death sentence. "The Lady of the House of Love" and "The Snow Child," sexuality literally destroys the heroines. The Countess dies when the soldier presses his mouth to her wound, an act that encapsulates the sex/violence connection and is a possible symbol of cunnilingus. The Snow Child dies before the Count can have sex with her, but it is only when he rapes her corpse that it disappears. These characters die and disappear because of sex, suggesting that revelation comes at a high price.
The Bloody Chamber Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Bloody Chamber is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
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