To what extent does Carter’s depiction of the female within her work challenge the notion of women’s passivity within literature and society?

An essay I wrote about Angela Carter (author of The Bloody Chamber). Not primarily focused on the Gothic but has some points that can easily be applied in relation to the stereotypes of women in Gothic literature.

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  • Created on: 12-09-13 18:54
Preview of To what extent does Carter’s depiction of the female within her work challenge the notion of women’s passivity within literature and society?

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To what extent does Carter's depiction of the female within her work challenge the notion of
women's passivity within literature and society?
Published in 1979, the same year as the election of Britain's first female prime minister and amidst
much progress in the cultural empowerment of women, Carter's `The Bloody Chamber' can be seen
as a book which, through the clever re-writing of many fairy tales, turns the stereotypical image of
the submissive and vulnerable woman on it's head. Through her manipulation of traditional tales,
Carter instead allows the women within her work to, as Merja Makinen puts it, `learn a new song and
become new gendered characterisations different from the past but appropriate for the 1970s and
Carter's tale `The Courtship of Mr Lyon', a re-write of the traditional `Beauty and the Beast' fairy
tale, is one which holds clear and important messages regarding the position of women within
society. The title of the story itself is dominated by the experience of the male, with no reference to
the female other than the suggestion of her position within his `courtship', thus highlighting the
construction of the female as a `circulating object of exchange'. This lack of identification of the
female protagonist within the story may be indicative of the female lack of access to modes of
expression within the society at the time in which Carter wrote. Carter herself states within `The
Sadeian Woman'; `Beauty, youth and innocence in a woman give them an artificial ascendency over
a world that allots them love and admiration to precisely the extent a beautiful, young and innocent
woman is deprived of the ability to act in the world.' Similarly, Beauty's own name provides an
important message about women within literature and society, as she is identified through her
physical attractiveness, linking to this `artificial ascendency' ­ whilst her aesthetic beauty is dominant,
it does not provide her with any real power within the society in which she lives and can even be
seen to demean the importance of her character further as she is identified in no way other than
through the acknowledgement of her good looks. Furthermore, this naivety and vulnerability of the
female can also be seen as a typical Gothic convention, which helps to allow the story to be
categorized as Gothic. Considering the fact that the Gothic genre was dominantly read by female
readers, this may have benefitted Cater in her ability to share her feminist views with other women
and inspire them to strive for further empowerment and equality with men.
Furthermore, Beauty is portrayed as physically inferior, with skin that `possesses that same, inner
light so you would have thought she, too, was made of snow'. The association with snow connotes
not only her purity and innocence through the colour connotations, but also her fragile nature ­ she is
vulnerable to the superior power of others, much like snow is vulnerable to the surroundings which
hold the power to melt it. The male Beast, however, is described as overwhelmingly powerful and
animalistic, with `mane and mighty paws of a lion', `great bulk' and `an assertivess, a quality of being
more there than most of us are.' This reference may allude to the more dominant position of males
within society and their greater access to power, with `us' perhaps referring to Carter's association
with other females and the feminist movement through her narration. The theme of oppression is
highlighted, providing another common Gothic element to Carter's work, and in this sense Carter
highlights the image of women's passivity and inferiority but does little to challenge or critique it.
Carter's `The Bloody Chamber', a re-write of `Blue Beard', can however be seen to instead depict an
image of female empowerment through the female protagonist's actions. Carter portrays the act of
sex between the female and her husband as torturous; the twining of her hair `into a rope' which is
then `lifted off' her shoulders holds connotations of a noose and murder through hanging, the ruby

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to Robin Sheets, within the late 1970s `feminists sought to redefine pornography as a form of
violence against women and to classify as pornographic those representations which eroticize male
domination.' Thus, Carter's depiction of the couple's consummation can be interpreted as an indirect
critique of pornography and the damaging supremacy of the male over the female.…read more

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