Themes in Bloody Chamber

  • Created by: Jess
  • Created on: 16-04-13 08:59


  • Though the first story in the collection opens with the new bride eagerly looking forward to and travelling excitedly towards her future life in marriage with the Marquis, The Bloody Chamber portrays marriage as a moral and literal equivalent of death.
  • Similiarly in The Courtship of Mr Lyon, the marriage contract is an economomic exchange of a commodity where a woman, owned & controlled by the father, passes into the ownership of another man.
  • This is a historically accurate representation of social conventions in marriage which were disguised, but not fundamentally changed, by later romanitc views of marriage.
  • Men no longer own & control women in marriage, because the old lawas that defined all joint property in marriage as belonging to the husband have now changed.
  • But Carter is sugesting that men behave as if they still have the right to control women, and her stories challenge that expectation of male control.
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Marriage in TB

  • The passing of the female from the care of the father to the care of the husband, symbolically enacted in the civil and religious rituals of the wedding ceremony, is mocked in The Tiger's Bride.
  • The "parlour" where the father gambles away his daughter to "Le Bestia" is a substitute casion that emphasises the role that chance plays in human relationships.
  • Yet she, as "a woman of honour", is bound by the contract or bargain struck over "A queen, a king, an ace".
  • Again, Carter is point out the economic circumstances or financial arrangements that govern the actions of individuals as much as their personalities.
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Marriage in CoML

  • In The Courtship of Mr Lyon the bankrupted father brings "miss lamb" to lie with "Mr Lyon" after a dispute about the limits of hospitality.
  • Her cooperation or compliance with the arrangements made between the men guaranttes "on some magically reciprocal scale, the price of her father's good fortune".
  • The benefits of ecnomoic alliances formed through marriage arrangements, similar across many cultures despite taking different forms, are demonstrated in her "new found prosperity" . Yet she is not committed to a marriage at this point in the story.
  • Beauty & her father enjoy "life... as she had never know it" on "credit" so their status "as good as rich", is a temporary matter & subject to terms & conditions.
  • Her absence from the Beast's home causes his domestic affairs to fall into a state of advanced neglect & "disillusion"
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Marriage in WA

  • Although Wolf-Alice is dressed as a "white bride", her "pitiful" "ministrations" to the wound of the Duke at the transformative end of the story are not conducted through any aspect of civilised behaviour.
  • Marriage is a major aspect of human civilisation, but Wolf-Alice exists outside all such norms. That is why she can lead the Duke into a realisation of his identity beyond the traditional values of patriarchy.
  • Carter is suggesting that any new realignment of male and female relationships can only be "bought into being by her", even though "she lives without a future".
  • This implies a recognition that the idealisation of marriage as a binding contract, or life sentence, is difficult to sustain.
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Marriage in CoW

  • The Company of Wolves shows through its table-turning conclusion that women can have relationships with men on their own terms by taking charge of their own destiny.
  • Carter's "savage marriage ceremony" is a prelude to a montage of images that conveys the idea of future peace and prosperity, the "happily ever after" promised in every fairy tale yet rarely glimpsed n reality.
  • The "blizzard died down" after the violence of the tale to leave the forest "All silent, all still" on "Christmas Day", Carter's words echoing the refrain on the well-known Christian carol "Silent Night", concluding her tale with a hopeful & powerful metaphor or reconciliation.
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  • The tales as a whole offer an impression of sexuality as an equally frigtening and exciting aspect of adult behaviour; Carter does not shrink from portraying the extremes of desire in detailing human behaviour at its most perverse.
  • In The Bloody Chamber the risks involved in allowing another person to define one's sexuality, in being submissive and apssive in a relationship, are given an urgent imperative nature.
  • Carter does flirt with sadmasochistic psychology here, but ultimately rejects masochistic submission as empty and unfulfilling.
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Sexuality in BC

  • In The Bloody Chamber Carter emphasises the appeal of the risk in marrying an older, more experienced man.
  • The attention and prestige the pianist aquires through her assoication with a powerful man are flattering to her.
  • She, who knows "nothing of the world", finds herself caught in conflicting emotional responses that give rise to "a kind fear" at the "strange, impersonal arousal" and "repugnance" she feels when her husband delays the moment of consummation of their marriage.
  • But it is more a fear of her sexual response that is being described.
  • The anticipation of the event is far more pleasureable than the event himself, the Marquis suggests, and that is certainly true for her.
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Sexuality in BC (2)

  • The pinaist's disturbing realisation that she, like the Marquis, is capable of almost anything is a moment of self-awareness: "I sensed in myself a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away".
  • But it is also a realisation of how very far from corrup she is, having led an "innocent and confied life". As she is stripped in the "formal disrobing of the bride", her responses are ambiguous.
  • The "trembling", blushing and changed breathing pattern could be understood equally as nervousness or sexual arousal, until she confesses: "I was aghast to feel myself stirring".
  • But the complexity of this physical sensation is based on the fat that she has "seen (her) flesh in his eyes"; her desire is aroused by his voyeurism, suggesting exhibitionism on her part.
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Sexuality in BC (3)

  • The Marquis's pleasures are visual; he enjoys looking at her. Her suprise is that she seems to enjoy being looked at by him in this way.
  • This was a controversial sentiment for a feminist writer to give to a female character in the 1970s, particularly as it comes close to confirming a male chauvinist attitude around at the time that women enjoyed being dominated and humiliated.
  • The narrator is entirely passive at this stage and does not anticipate anything by being a recipient of male attention: "my husband beds me".
  • After losing her virginity, she recalls the moment with hints of violence involved. The Marquis seems so exhasusted, he might have been "fighting" with her; his composure was shattered "like a poreclain vase flung against a wall"; she heard him "shriek and blaspheme"; and there was blood.
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Sexuality in BC (4)

  • Carter has assembled in the new wife's recount of the moment of "the ******" a careful construct of images of domestic violence.
  • Her "spent body" has been used up; her virginity consumed by the Marquis as a "connoisseur" and "gourmand".
  • Her unfulfilled desire, which seems to survive the onslaught of the Marquis's attentions, is thwarted by his decision to abandon her on the honeymoon for business. Her frustration is expressed when she has to be "content" with only having dinner with him.
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Sexuality in BC (5)

  • The bride does not mention any personal fear of the Marquis until she is approaching the forbidden chamber itself, and only acknowleges a "dreadful anguish" when she realises she is to join this macabre display of dead wives.
  • When she mistakes the sound of Jean-Yves for her husband returning she finds that "fear gave me strength".
  • Yet the return of her husband does cause genuine fear and she only has sufficient resourcefulness to delay the moment of execution long enough for her mother to secure her rescue.
  • This thrill of risk-taking accompanies all the expeirence of the young women in these tales as they find themselves confronted by strange men who exert power over them of one kind or another.
  • Even Beauty in The Tiger's Bride, beneath her moral indignation, is a little disappointed to discover the Beast has not asked for more than a quick look at her naked: "That she should want so little was the reason why I could not give it up"
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  • Human sexuality is clearly conceived by Carter as something that is dangerous and animalistic - as demonstrated by the violent images in The Bloody Chamber; the voyeurism and exhibitionism in The Tiger's Bride; the comical contrast of the mundane rutting cats and the exuberant coupling of the lovers in Puss-In-Boots; the imprisonment of women in The Erl-King; the intimate moments of transformation in The Tigers Bride; The Company of Wolves and Wolf-Alice - but desire always remains contained within the boundaries of heterosexual behaviour.
  • The various endings of the tales offer different insights into the possibilities of resolving the contradictions Carter percieves in male and female relationships.
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  • The view on sexuality within the stories is exclusively a female view, presented as a challenge to the prevailing attitudes of the 1970s.
  • Male sexuality is represented mostly as agressive and selfish. The men in the stories are not presented with any life-threatening rite of passage or dilemma in pursuing their sexual destinies.
  • The Marquis is a seriel killer who has followed in the footsteps of his ancestors to enter "the kingdom of the unimaginable".
  • Mr Lyon, lying down with Miss Lamb at the end of The Courtship of Mr Lyon, can depend on her self sacrifice to sustain his existence.
  • The advances of the Beast in The Tigers Bride are only rejected, at first, becaues they are so timid.
  • Puss-In-Boots is an insensitive braggart: "what lady in the world can say 'no' to... a fine marmalade cat?".
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  • His master has practical problems to overcome to gain access to the lady who is the object of his desire, but these matters are resolved for him by the female tabby cat.
  • The soldier in The Lady of the House of Love will not take "criminal advantage" of the vampire he believes to be in need of medical treatment for "nervous hysteria".
  • The certainty of all these men, their self-assurance, is their most deadly attribute.
  • The roots of Carter's portrayal of women's fears of sex lie in an awareness of the long history for women of sexual activity being a calculated risk with possibly fatal consequences.
  • The real, physical consequences of desire for women are unavoidably linked with pain.
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  • Sexuality is seen as a kind of portal through which a woman passes towards possible fulfilment, perhaps motherhood, or even death.
  • The sensation of fear, particularly of fear that is proved or known to be unfounded or unreal, is stimulating.
  • It is this thrill that underpins the psychology of the reading experience in the Gothic and horror genres; humans find fear a pleasureable sensation, up to a point.
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  • Changing the forms of things to reveal soem idea of truth is a common theme of folk and fairy tales.
  • In the original "Beauty and the Beast" the creature is rescued from brutality by the goodness of a true woman, who restores him to virtue and his handsome self.
  • Carter's two takes on this offer something quite different.
  • Mr Lyon loses his attractive & powerful animal qualities and ends up looking "unkempt", having aquired "a broken nose, such as the noses of retired boxers".The impression that he is, in fact, not such a handsome beast after all is hard to avoid.
  • The Tiger's Bride dispenses with such tongue-in-cheek tactics & passes the transformation to 'Beauty', who - having dispatched her replica to the real world of her avarious father - is free to shed "all the skins of a life in the world" and become a beast herself. To be beast-like is to be virtuous; to become 'manly' is to be vicious.
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Metamorphosis in SC

  • The Snow Child offers a differnt view on what is real in desire and how what is desired cannot always be realised.
  • The brevity of this tale does not exaggerate the changes that take place here in swift succession, but it is worth considering how the Count's wishes become manifest in the world, and how the Countess's wishes change her situation.
  • The transitory nature of male desire is emphasised by the vanishing and melting away of the child: "Soon there was nothing left of her but a feather ... a bloodstain... and the rose"
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Metaphorphosis in LoHoL

  • The Lady of the House of Love with its beautiful Romanian aristocratic vampire being transformed into a "far older, less beautiful" woman, turns "Sleeping Beauty" upside down.
  • In the original tale, the princess pricks her finger on a poisoned object and is about to die. Saved by the limited magical powers of good fairies, the princess does not die but lies sleeping until magically restored by the kiss of a handsome prince who has fought his way through the undergrowth to rescue her. The moral conveyed celebrates the virtue of patience, and suggests that the endurance of suffering worthy of reward.
  • The vampire cannot sleep (here a euphemism for death) and is only able to find some peace after cutting her finger, an event shifted to a different point in the story.
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Metamorphosis in LoHoL (2)

  • The handsome prince does not kiss her, not in any romantic or sexual sense, and is too dim to understand the change going on around him.
  • Carter makes the Countess become "less beautiful" after he lover tries to "kiss it better", inverting the original tale where Sleeping Beauty is restored to health.
  • Although the Countess and her soldier are separated, unlike Prince Charming and Sleeping Beauty, it becomes clear the Countess will find some kind of union with her love, and many others, in death.
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Metamorphosis in CoW

  • The threat of the werewolf is tamed by his total transformation into a wolf.
  • With his dangerous nature domesticated, unable to return to the form of a man, he is now merely a "tender wolf".
  • Carter here dreaws on another strand of folk atle which gives women credit for having the wit to outsmart the devil himself.
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Beauty and Wealth

  • A recurring theme in the stories is that beauty can but should not be purchased or owned by those who control vast wealth.
  • In The Bloody Chamber the bride is bought with jewles and clothes; elsewhere Beauty is bough through unscrupulous dealing, both financial and at the card table: in each case wealth corrupts beauty.
  • The "tell tale satin" on the pianist's forehead takes "the shape and brilliance of the heart on a playing card"
  • Beauty in The Courtship of Mr Lyon becomes vain; "she smiled at herself in mirrors a little too often".
  • "Beauty" in The Tiger's Bride learns to accept that some truth is contained in her father's cynical axiom "that, if you have enough money, anything is possible." In her clockwork servant's mirror she can only see her father's face reflected as if she had "put on his face."
  • It is evident in their appearance and their emotional state that being groomed for their master's pleasure damages them.
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Beauty and Wealth

  • Unlike standard fairy-tale happy endings where the lovers become rich, marry and live happily ever after, Carter's characters show the escape from the material world as freedom from corruption.
  • The pianist's redistribution of her dead husband's wealth is a limited act of restorative class justice, with Carter's revision of the fairy-tale formula "she became rich and lived happily ever after" ending in a fashion reflects her socialist principles.
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Beauty and Wealth in TB.

  • The Beast in The Tiger's Bride wears a mask of a painted "beautiful face" but it is "too perfect" to be "entirely human".
  • Carter is playing with the reader's expectations and understanding of the character at this point in the story, deliberately keeping the real identity of The Beast hidden, but subtle suggestions are made that wealth, which enables and requires adoption of the disguise distances humans from each other and from themselves.
  • Carter is influenced here by the Marxist analysis of capitalism and its effects of people. Karl Marx described how people become obsessed with the things they make, buy, sell and use; unable to see themselves in anny meaniful way as part of the world. Marx described this effect as alienation, where people become strangers to themselves.
  • This is clearly represented in the Marquis and his private collections of art & literature; & his conspicuous consumption of the finest things in life without the necessity of working for a living.
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Beauty and Wealth in TB.

  • His personal degradation symbolises the degenerate nature of the idle rich and inherited wealth. Wealth is not, in itself, sorrupting or consoling; it is the product of collective human endeavour.
  • In private hands, hoarded for individual satisfaction, wealth becomes a destructive power.
  • Carter clearly wants us to realise the opposite: that great wealth shared has the power to do more good than harm. But part of the problem for Carter is that, in presenting the world of luxury with such sensuous delight in language - her rich depiction of grandiose buildings, lustrous furnishings, fine clothing and rare works of art - the question of ownership and access to great wealth is displaced by the luxury itself.
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Man, woman and nature

  • It is easy to forget that the generic use of the masculine noun 'man' to indicate humanity as a whole, as an abbreviation of 'mankind', was a common cliche being challenged at the time Carter was writing The Bloody Chamber.
  • Carter makes use of 'types' but does not allow one gender 'type' to misrepresent humanity.
  • Man and nature are depicted as separate entities in these tales, while woman is potentially a creature of nature.
    For Carter, womankind is imbued with the power to heal the rift between man and nature. 
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Man, woman and nature in EK

  • The Erl King shows the spirit of nature as a man, but as a peculiarly isolated and feminised man: "He is an excellent housewife".
  • In the middle of the wild forest, the Erl-King tends to domestic chores, looking after all living & growing things in his garden "where all the flowers were birds and beasts".
  • Carter describes him as a primitive hunter-gatherer type, with much emphasis on his gathering of "unnatural treasures". What Carter means by this is not immediately clear, as the next moment she narrates a long passage devoted to entirely natural things collected by the Erl-King: pigeons' eggs, dandelions, goat's milk, goat's cheese & rabbit stew.
  • It is only at the end of that paragraph that Carter describes the Erl-King's "cruel" habit of keeping "singing birds" in cages.
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Man, woman and nature in EK (2)

  • It is his "green eye" that reduces women to the size of birds, and his "regard" that innocently imprisons them.
  • Carter's intertextual references to Shakespeare's play 'Othello', specifically Iago's ironic warning to Othello that jealousy is "the green-eyes monster which doth mock/ The meat it deeds on", combine with the notions of his regard and being "looked after" by him.
  • Carter seems to be suggesting that men are 'naturally' possessive and jealous, and see the world in ways that women do not. She also suggests that women are not obliged to be limited by this supposed 'human nature' of man. 
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Man, woman and nature

  • The concept that man hides his true nature behind a mask is also presented in The Bloody Chamber and The Tiger's Bride, where the Marquis and The Beast emerge most dangerously when the mask is removed.
  • Elsewhere the power of nature is disfigured or disguised in man, for example the Beast in The Courtship of Mr Lyon or the werewolf in the last three stories.
  • It is the figure of the werewolf which most clearly presents the relationship between man and nature as a perverse and evil trick played upon woman: "Carnivore incarnate, only immaculate flesh appeases him" is a statement that applies to the Marquis in The Bloody Chamber as much as it does to the wolf in The Company of Wolves.
  • In repeatedly returning to transformation of this triangular relationship between man, woman and nature, Carter challenges the notion that there is such a thing as unchanging human nature or a 'natural order' in human society.
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Man, woman and nature in WA

  • The eponymous character in Wolf-Alice clearly expresses the problems of over-identification with the inner animal, as it is obvious that human society demands a more fastidious attention to personal hygiense than nature.
  • Part of being human is being able to communicate in sophisticated language, visual and verbal. Language is a social phenomenon. Children raised in a wild state of nature do not know how to crack the codes of human society.
  • Wolf-Alice cannot anticipate or imagine any other moment of time than "the present tense". For her there is no past and future, only a "continuous" moment of the now. While there is "sensual immediacy" to her feral existence, there is no future.
  • The point here is that we humans can adapt our environment to our needs, and have been better and more successful at doing this than animals, because of our capacity to imagine alternatives, to remember and share the sequences of alternative moments as we create the narratives of our lives.
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Man, woman and nature in WA (2)

  • Carter is pointing out in her stories that our success in adapting the natural environment has created a social environment that does not allow all our human needs to be adequately fulfilled; and this is particularly ture for women because the social environment that has evolved is, she would argue, so often a patriarchal one.
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Man, woman and nature

  • With few exceptions, nature in the stories is a cold and unwelcoming place that exists at the point at which human civilisation stops.
  • Nature in Carter's stories can be interpreted as the physical world itself, as the physical world used as a symbol or sign, and also as the inner or instinctive nature that breaks the social codes of civilised behaviour.
  • The climate is as much a feature of the natural world as the landscape in these stories, and most are set in the coldest parts of the world in the coldest season.
  • The Courtship of Mr Lyon unfolds in a hazardous "winter landscape" that is slow to leave Mr Lyon's home, though with the image of "a drift of fallen petals" spring asserts itself at the conclusion as a more hopeful ending.
  • The aristocrats fleeing the Russian winter in The Tiger's Bride find no comfort in the "treacherous South" where parlours can be "cold as hell."
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Man, woman and nature

  • The Erl-King takes place in an autumnal world with "Introspective weather."
  • The Snow Child is set in midwinter, as are The Company of Wolves and The Werewolf.
  • The depressive effect of cold weather in each story in succession is mitigated by settings for other stories which are a contrast to the dominant mood.
  • Puss-In-Boots reveals itself to be anticipating the arrival of the first "vernal hint of spring" as the cats and lovers mate so enthusiastically.
  • The Lady of the House of Love has its main action taking place in "hot, ripe summer" and the events of Wolf-Alice span a longer period that is not tied to one season.
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Man, woman and nature

  • The way human behaviour is shaped by a harsh and bleak environment is a theme Carter uses frequently. 
  • It forms part of the introductory preamble to the main story in both The Werewolf and The Company of Wolves.
  • The equation of "cold weather" and "cold hearts" in The Werewolf is more concretely related to a very practical fear of hungry wolves, "grey as famine" (COW), made dangerous in wintertime when food is scarce.
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Man, woman and nature

  • The distance from civilisation, or how far society is from being truly civilised, is symbolised by the emtiness of the landscape that surrounds the fortresses of the patriarchs.
  • The "amphibious" isolation of the Marquis's castle in The Bloody Chamber is echoed in the "bereft landscape" that is the setting for The Beast's palace in The Tiger's Bride, "a burned-out planet" dominated by the "sad browns and sepias of winter"
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Man, woman and nature

  • The sea in The Bloody Chamber is linked to the matriarch and by extension to ideas of the earth mother or 'Mother Earth'.
  • The narrator describes the "amniotic salinity of the ocean" as the first sensation recorded on arrival at her destination. This compares the sea to the amniotic fluid that surrounds a baby in the womb during pregnancy, the most intimate protective layed for the developing child.
  • The watery connection between mother and child is followed through the "melting" landscape, and formed in the tears that flow over "gold bath taps" while they talk on the telephone.
  • The pianist's "avenging angel" emerges from the sea as the personification of the protective maternail instinct, reshaping the pattern of the earlier connections between mother, sea and child.
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Man, woman and nature

  • The forest is a paradoxical symbol in the stories that feature that setting or employ a variation on that image of a world that is not within human control.
  • The rose bushes proliferating in The Lady of the House of Love" represent the idea of the fairy-tale forest just as much as the setting of The Werewolf, The Company of Wolves or The Snow Child.
  • The fairy-tale forest is physically unwelcoming and alluring at the same time. This is most obvious in The Erl-King, where the narrator enjoys the "delicious loneliness" at the same time as there is aware of the fact that "there is no clue to guide you through in perfect safety".
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Man, woman and nature

  • There is something almost pagan about Carter's reiteration of themes and images of the forest as a place of discovery, sacrifice and redemption.
  • Her complex imagery - where trees of the forest become the strands of "cat's cradle", intricately weaving nets or traps, or the grass and the undergrowth grow over the track leaving a "subtle labyrinth" that makes it almost impossible to follow such good advice as "do not leave the path" (The Werewolf) - seems to be advancing an agenda for a simpler life, less cluttered with the imperatives of acquisition and exchange, and more honest self-knowledge for men & women about their place in nature.
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