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Literature / The Bloody Chamber

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The Bloody Chamber is a short story anthology by Angela Carter based around the gothic retelling of old fairy tales. It was first published in 1979.

Three of the stories, "The Company of Wolves", "The Werewolf" and "Wolf-Alice", were adapted into the 1984 horror/fantasy film The Company of Wolves.

The Bloody Chamber contains examples of:

  • Acquired Situational Narcissism: After her father regains his wealth, Beauty starts to become vain and conceited, losing the compassion that was her defining trait. However, when she realises the Beast is dying because she broke her promise to him, Beauty's old personality is restored and she rushes at once to his side; she doesn't even notice when she tears her fine dress trying to reach him in time.
  • Adapted Out: In the original "Bluebeard" tale, the heroine is rescued from her evil husband by her brothers. In "The Bloody Chamber", the narrator is an only child and it's her mother who comes to her rescue.
  • Adaptational Mundanity: In "Bluebeard", the murderous husband was known as "Bluebeard" due to the unusual colour of his hair and beard. Here, the Marquis has a far more mundane-looking appearance, described as having a dark hair streaked with grey and a matching beard. Nevertheless, his appearance is still a bit unsettling, but in a more subtle way.
  • Age-Gap Romance: The narrator of "The Bloody Chamber" is much younger than her new husband; the exact difference isn't specified, but the narrator is only seventeen while the Marquis has started to go grey and has been married three times already. The narrator recalls watching her husband's first wife perform at the opera when she herself was a young child.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Puss-in-Boots is well-aware of this trope and suggests that the best way to woo an unattainable woman is to "convince her her orifice will be your salvation, and she's yours!"
  • All Men Are Perverts: A common theme in Carter's stories, but taken to an extreme in "The Snow Child", in which a dead adolescent girl is violently raped by a sobbing man, just because he can.
  • Ambiguous Ending: There are a few hints in "The Werewolf" that the grandmother wasn't truly a werewolf, but was set up by her granddaughter so she could live more comfortably in her the old woman's house once granny was out of the way, taking advantage of the townsfolk's superstitions and paranoia. However, it's not confirmed either way.
  • An Arm and a Leg:
    • In "The Werewolf", the young girl is attacked by a wolf and hacks off its right forepaw with a hunting knife. She later discovers her grandmother is missing a hand and learns the wolf's paw has transformed into a human hand, which she recognises as her grandmother's; thus, she realises her grandmother is the wolf who attacked her.
    • In "The Company of Wolves", a local story says that a werewolf tore off a child's leg before being killed by the child's father.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: In "The Courtship of Mr Lyon", Beauty is both incredibly beautiful and highly compassionate and pure-hearted. Notably, after she starts to become more conceited, it's noted she's no longer beautiful but "merely pretty", suggesting True Beauty Is on the Inside.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: The narrator of "The Bloody Chamber" sneaks into the forbidden chamber in the hopes of uncovering more about her new husband as a person. She learns far more than she bargained for when she discovers what he hides in there.
  • Big Damn Heroes: The heroine's mother in "The Bloody Chamber", showing up and shooting the Marquis just as he is about to decapitate her daughter.
  • Black-and-Grey Morality: None of the characters in "The Snow Child" is particularly sympathetic. The Count is a lecher who neglects his wife's wellbeing (though he at least briefly pities her) to lust after a younger girl; the Countess tries to get said girl killed; and the Snow Child herself is a completely wordless, probably non-human cypher.
  • The Bluebeard: The Marquis in "The Bloody Chamber", unsurprisingly if you know the original story, has killed his three previous wives and is looking for a fourth.
  • Caged Bird Metaphor: Appears a fair bit.
    • 'The Bloody Chamber' has the protagonist live in an opulent but remote castle but it is very clear she's a prisoner there, especially when she learns the truth about her husband.
    • The Erl King imprisons songbirds in cages, many of whom are girls he's captured and raped.
    • The Lady of the House of Love has a bird in a cage and questions whether it must always sing the same song, or whether it can learn a new one.
  • Conspicuous Gloves: In "The Tiger's Bride", the Beast wears an Uncanny Valley disguise to hide his appearance, which consists of very stylish (but outdated) clothing that is much too large for a normal person along with a handsome (too handsome) paper-mache mask over this face. The outfit includes enormous kid gloves that hide his paws.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: In the village in "The Werewolf", those found guilty of being witches or werewolves are stripped, beaten and stoned to death. This fate befalls the protagonist's grandmother after she's discovered to be a werewolf.
  • Deadly Distant Finale: It is heavily implied that the young soldier in "The Lady of the House of Love" will die in the trenches.
  • Death by Childbirth: In "The Courtship of Mr Lyon", Beauty's mother died giving birth to her long before the events of the story.
  • Disabled Love Interest: The blind piano tuner, who the protagonist bonds with, confides the horrors she discovered, and later marries after the Marquis is killed.
  • Disappeared Dad: The heroine's fondly-remembered father in "The Bloody Chamber" was a soldier who died in war before the start of the story.
  • Fatal Attractor: In a local legend in "The Company of Wolves", a woman's first husband disappears on their wedding night. He returns years later and upon seeing his wife has married another man, he turns into a wolf and attacks her family, tearing off one of her children's legs before her second husband hacks him up with an axe. Then when the poor woman begins sobbing over the incident, her second husband beats her from jealousy.
  • Flower Motifs: The Marquis is associated with white lilies. The narrator compares him to a lily with white, smooth flesh and an unreadable, dignified air. The room where they consummate their marriage is also covered with white lilies. As the narrator herself notes, white lilies are also typically associated with funerals, which is appropriate for a man obsessed with death.
  • Fully-Embraced Fiend: "The Tiger's Bride" ends with the female protagonist willingly transforming into a tiger herself.
  • Gold Digger: The narrator of "The Bloody Chamber" is a more sympathetic example than is typical and her husband is hardly innocent either, with his reasons for marrying her being far less savoury. the narrator admits one of the main reasons she married the Marquis was for his wealth and social status; as an impoverished teenager she was quite dazzled by the rich and sophisticated older man's lavish gifts and promise of a life of comfort. She later feels ashamed of this, as the Marquis' riches blinded her from his true nature, nearly leading to her death.
  • Happily Ever After: Unlike some of the other stories, "The Courtship of Mr Lyon" has a completely happy ending; Beauty reaches the dying Beast in time to confess her love, he is restored to life and turns back into a human, and he and Beauty live happily together. Beauty's father presumably keeps his fortune, too.
  • Humanoid Abomination: The Erl-King could be argued to be this. Appearing as a peculiar green tree-like man that represents the feral side of humanity, he has a tendency to kidnap young girls, rape them and transform them into songbirds, as well as being able to control the forest and its inhabitants. He is also not a nice guy.
  • Improvised Weapon: The protagonist of "The Erl-King" uses the hair of the Erl-King to strangle and kill him.
  • Kneel Before Zod: The Marquis commands his bride to kneel before him before he presses the blood-stained key into her forehead, leaving a heart-shaped mark like the Brand of Cain upon it.
  • Lighter and Softer:
    • "Puss-in-Boots" is a Restoration sex comedy amidst mostly Gothic horror.
    • Compared to all the other stories, "The Courtship of Mr. Lyon" is a far more light-hearted; rather than a horror story it's a fairly straight-forward "Beauty and the Beast" retelling with none of the horrific or grim content of the other tales (the worst that happens is the Beast almost dying of sorrow when he believes Beauty will never return) and it also has an unambiguously happy ending.
  • Lost Him in a Card Game: At the start of "The Tiger's Bride", the protagonist's father, a gambling addict, makes heavy losses when playing a game of cards with The Beast. When he thinks he has a winning hand, he stakes his daughter, thinking he will win back his fortune with no risk of losing her. Naturally, he loses, and his daughter becomes the prisoner of The Beast. As she puts it herself in the narration: her father valued her as highly as a king's ransom, but no higher.
  • Love Redeems: A surrogate-maternal version of this occurs at the end of "Wolf-Alice", wherein Alice's act of kindness toward the Duke heals his soul and allows him to regain his reflection.
  • Mama Bear: The heroine's mother in "The Bloody Chamber" who realises that her daughter is in danger and rushes to the castle, rescuing her at the last moment.
  • Mature Work, Child Protagonists: The book is an anthology of dark, adult-oriented fairytale retellings (although author Angela Carter pointed out that many of the original tales were already pretty dark to begin with) and the protagonists of some stories are quite young: "The Werewolf" features a young girl travelling through a forest alone to visit her grandmother, the protagonist of "The Company of Wolves" is another girl visiting her grandmother and is barely in her teens, and "Wolf-Alice" follows the titular character's life from childhood to young adulthood. None of the stories, including the ones starring children, are kid-friendly, featuring graphic violence, explicit sexual references and disturbing situations.
  • Nameless Narrative: In "The Bloody Chamber", none of the major characters are named. The heroine is the first-person narrator, and her mother and husband are only referred to as "Mother" and "the Marquis" respectively.
  • Out-of-Character Alert: In "The Bloody Chamber" the Mother of the main character knows something is wrong when she quickly talks about the taps in her bathroom and rushes to her aid.
  • Psychosexual Horror: Many of the stories (including the title story, which is based upon "Bluebeard") explore themes of sexual awakening, intimate relationships and predatory behaviour via Gothic fairytale retellings. The stories usually focus on a female perspective, with girls and women having to outwit predatory men, although some stories play around with this (for example, "The Lady in the House of Love" has an innocent, idealistic young man preyed upon by a female vampire, who struggles to overcome her monstrous nature to obtain her dreams of love).
  • Rags to Riches: The protagonist of the title story works as a piano teacher to support herself and her mother in meagre circumstances before she is discovered and wooed by a fabulously wealthy Marquis. Of course, this being a retelling of Bluebeard, that's not the end of her troubles.
  • Raised by Wolves: The titular character of "Wolf-Alice" was raised by a wolf after her human mother abandoned her in the mountains. She was found in the wolf's den after the wolf was killed and she was returned to human society, though she never truly managed to fit in as she still thinks of herself as a wolf more than a human.
  • Retired Badass: The heroine's mother in "The Bloody Chamber". She had already dealt with pirates, nursed back to health a plague ravaged village, and singlehandedly shot and killed a man-eating tiger, all before she was even 18. She comes out of retirement at the very end of the story.
  • Riches to Rags: The narrator's mother in "The Bloody Chamber" was the daughter of a wealthy tea planter, but gave up her lavish life to marry a poor soldier. She and her daughter fell deeper into poverty after the woman's husband was killed in action.
  • Sadist: The Marquis from "The Bloody Chamber" derives pleasure from physically and psychologically torturing women, then killing them. One of the earliest clues is that he has violent pornographic literature in his library, though upon seeing this the narrator doesn't realise just how depraved her husband truly is.
  • Serial Spouse: In "The Bloody Chamber", the Marquis has already been married and widowed thrice by the time he marries the narrator. His third wife has only been dead three months when he begins courting the narrator, which raises some eyebrows at their relationship. The narrator learns the hard way that her husband's unfortunate love life isn't merely the result of a tragic misfortune.
  • Setting Update: The original "Bluebeard" tale tends to be set in the Renaissance (it was first published in 1697). in "The Bloody Chamber" the story is implied t be set in the early 20th century, based on several details: there are landline telephones, motorcars and steam trains, and it's mentioned the Marquis' grandmother was an aristocrat who survived the French Revolution (1789 - 1799).
  • Uncanny Valley: In-Universe, the Beast in "The Tiger's Bride" is described as this: he is ungainly, moves like he's not used to standing upright, and wears a mask that, while depicting a handsome man, is too perfect, being completely symmetrical. Underneath the disguise, his true form is that of a tiger.
  • Virgin Power: The young soldier in the "The Lady of the House of Love" is not afraid of the lady herself, despite her vampirism and the decay of her house, because he's a virgin. This is also why he's able to Mercy Kill her.
  • Woman Scorned: In a local legend in "The Company of Wolves", a woman whose lover abandoned her to marry another venegfully turned him and the wedding guests into wolves; she then had them serenade her each night.
  • Would Harm a Senior:
    • The red riding hood protagonist of "The Werewolf" reports her grandma to the villagers upon spotting warning signs of her being a witch/werewolf, who proceed to kill her.
    • In "The Company of Wolves", the werewolf kills and eats the girl's grandma after reaching her house first.