Essay: Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber & The Uncanny – An Applied Analysis

bloody-chamber-blogThe stories in Angela Carter’s short-story collection The Bloody Chamber belong to ‘that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar’[1]. These words, however, are not from a critic of Carter’s but from the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud in his essay ‘The Uncanny’; yet how strangely they seem to mirror the figures that cast the ominous shadows of Carter’s stories. Whilst Carter and her champions continue to assert that these are ‘new stories, not retellings’[2], all of the stories interlace and elucidate threads from fairy-tales and folklore, from Beauty and the Beast to Puss in Boots, and they inevitably, as Freud informs us of the Uncanny, lead us back to something once familiar: the fairy-tales of our infanthood. This study will centre on the three werewolf tales that close the collection and ‘work and rework the story of Red Riding Hood’[3], ‘The Werewolf’, ‘The Company of Wolves’, and ‘Wolf-Alice’[4], and apply Freud’s Uncanny as a theory of analysis to illuminate the dark shadows and dangerous spaces of Carter’s stories.

The Uncanny may be strongest in the analysis of the three werewolf tales because, as Butler sets out, the Uncanny is ‘frequently […] invoked by a liminal or hybrid figure, which is neither one thing nor another’[5], and what is the werewolf if not the space between man and beast. The Uncanny aspect of Carter’s werewolves, what was once familiar and wearing ‘a more friendly aspect’[6] now made unfamiliar, is their humanity. The wolves are ‘less brave than they seem’ (p.127), ‘sob[ing]’ (p.127) as their forepaws are ‘slashed off’ (p.127), ‘mourn[ing] their own condition’ (p.131) with ‘wavering howl[s]’ of ‘some inherent sadness’ (p.131), and howling in ‘pain’ (p.148) not only ‘like a wolf with his foot in a trap’ (p.148), but a like a ‘woman in labour’ (p.148). The werewolf in ‘The Company of Wolves’ is as ‘fearful’ (p.138) as he is ‘ferocious’ (p.129), and in a fictitious world inhabited by hybrid figures, the hybrid meaning of ‘fearful’ as both frightened and frightening must also exist.

The liminal lives of the wolves in Carter’s stories may be limited in an Uncanny analysis by the seeming absence of ‘repressed infantile complexes […] revived’[7], but in his article, Freud steers us towards a subtler symbol of repression. ‘The unheimlich is what was once heimlich, homelike, familiar; the prefix “un” is the token of repression’[8], and Carter’s wolves take on this token. ‘By the eyes, those phosphorescent eyes’ (p.132) of the wolves in ‘The Company of Wolves’, ‘you know him in all his shapes; the eyes alone [are] unchanged by metamorphosis’ (p.132). The prefix ‘un’, not only in the ‘unchanged’ (p.132) but also ‘unnatural green’ (p.129) eyes evoke the uncanny at a linguistic level by expressing, not repressing, the existence of hybrid figures: the changed is what once was unchanged; the unnatural is what once was natural. Similarly, the Duke in Wolf-Alice is ‘wolf, not-wolf’ (p.145), with the ‘not’ prefix functioning in the same way as the ‘un’ prefix. With only the addition of a negative prefix, the ‘strange’ metamorphic ‘states’ (p.148) he is ‘locked half and half between’ (p.148) are embodied in a single word: Carter’s werewolves are the Uncanny incarnate.

Werewolves are not the only forms that are metamorphosing in Carter’s werewolf tales. Firstly, despite Simpson deeming ‘The Werewolf’, ‘The Company of Wolves’ and ‘Wolf-Alice’ ‘three disparate werewolf tales’[9], Armitt argues the existence of an ‘ongoing metamorphic structure’[10] and familiarity across the collection. The shadowy suitors and ‘nameless narrator[s]’[11] of the stories lick each other to life, from the Tiger ‘lick[ing] the skin off’ (p.75) his Bride to Wolf-Alice ‘lick[ing] […] the blood and dirt from [the Duke’s] cheeks and forehead’ (p.148). Yet, in the final tale, there is a final metamorphosis, as the narrator is named, and the Duke’s ‘shadowed outline’ (p.149) is ‘brought into being’ (p.149). The unnamed and unidentified is only transformed and titled ‘Wolf-Alice’ (p.145) – although the title is its own hybrid breed – once she has ‘looked at herself’ (p.145) and seen her own identity and double ‘in the mirror’ (p.145). The stories are not so disparate, as each successive heroine seems another metamorphic phase of the former, and, like the hybrid, the metamorphosis is uncanny, at once familiar and unfamiliar.

The metamorphic structure does not stop at the sequence of the stories, but extends to the fairy-tale form. Makinen remarks that ‘The Company of Wolves’ ‘is not read as a story read for the first time, […] it is read, with the original story encoded within it, so that one reads of both texts, aware of how the new one refers back to and implicitly critiques the old’[12], and the same is true of all three werewolf tales. Just as Makinen ‘read[s] “the girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat” as referring to the earlier Little Red Riding Hood’s passive terror of being eaten’[13], the grandmother-wolf with the ‘bloody stump’ (p.128) where her ‘wolf’s paw’ (p.127) should be in ‘The Werewolf’ recalls the wolf dressed in grandmother’s clothing, and Wolf-Alice, the girl ‘suckled by wolves’ (p.140), growing up to be a woman ‘pitiful as her gaunt, grey mother’ (p.148) returns her to her own origins, only now she is the nurturer and not the nurtured.

However, the metamorphic mode of the fairy-tale in Carter’s werewolf works may reveal the major weakness in using the Uncanny as the model for analysis. Freud is straightforward, ‘[he] cannot think of any genuine fairy-story which has anything uncanny about it’; they ‘contradict [his] hypothesis’ as they herald ‘from the realm of fiction’[14]. Carter is equally as unequivocal, making clear her ‘intention was not to do “versions” […] of […] fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories and to use it as the beginnings of new stories’[15]. Carter’s process, pulling the dormant, latent content free from its fairy-tale tradition to elucidate its meaning then manifesting it in a fresher form mirrors another Freudian theory: the dream-work.

As Freud theorises in ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’, latent content is a ‘class of psychical material between the manifest content of dreams’[16] and their meaning, and it is from this that we are to ‘disentangle […] meaning’[17], by ‘tracing out the processes by which the [latent dream-thoughts] have been changed into the [manifest content of dreams]’[18]. In light of this, one can look upon Carter’s process as taking the tropes of traditional Little Red Riding Hood tales – their manifest content – and extracting their latent content in order to transform them into something new. The final result, interestingly, is something that was once familiar.

Perhaps the most recognisable of these transformations is the eponymous Red Riding Hood. Acknowledged in the opening pages of Orenstein’s oracle on the original, Uncloaked, it is an oft-interpreted and accepted reading that ‘her red cape stands for menstrual blood’[19], and Carter capitalises on this in at least two of her tales. In both ‘The Company of Wolves’ and ‘Wolf-Alice’, the heroines are explicitly host to their menstruation: the former has ‘just started her woman’s bleeding’ (p.133), with the ‘scarlet shawl’ (p.138) characterised as ‘the colour of her menses’ (p.138), and Wolf-Alice, once she has ‘beg[u]n to bleed’ (p.144), is ‘transformed’ (p.145) by it, ‘discover[ing] the very action of time by means of this returning cycle’ (p.146). Furthermore, in ‘The Werewolf’, it is only once ‘the child lived in her grandmother’s house’ (p.128), the domain of the ultimate matriarch, dependent on menses to maintain her lineage, that ‘she prospered’ (p.128).

Another of Carter’s re-workings comes from the ‘rhyming moral at the end [of the earliest written versions that] warns young women to watch out, because a man can be a “wolf”’[20]; in other words, the wolf is a manifestation of man. The wolves in ‘The Company of Wolves’ are metamorphosing ‘naked [men] among the pines’ (p.132), but rather than heed the warnings and ‘watch out’ for him, this Little Red ‘laugh[s] at him full in the face’ (p.138), ‘rip[s] off his shirt’ (p.138), ‘pick[s] out the lice from his pelt’ (p.138), and ‘sleeps […] between [his] paws’ (p.139). The closing description of this ‘tender wolf’ (p.139) makes it seem that he is the one that’s ‘all the better to [be] eat[en]’ (p.138), rather that the other way around. The wolf in ‘The Werewolf’ is the child’s grandmother; the warning here is that ‘wolves are less brave than they seem’ (p.127).

However, where Carter really challenges the tropes of traditional tales, and where the latent content and the Uncanny can interlace, is in the representation of the Little Red-type as the wolf herself in ‘Wolf-Alice’. Wolf-Alice lives a liminal existence: she is ‘not a wolf herself, although suckled by wolves’ (p.140), and ‘nothing about her is human except that she is not a wolf’ (p.141), but Wolf-Alice does not learn who she is until she sees for herself. The dual familiar-yet-unfamiliar dynamic of the Uncanny can be found in the Doppelgänger[21], or double, and Freud references fellow psychoanalyst Otto Rank for ‘the connections the “double” has with reflections in mirrors’[22].

Wolf-Alice has her own connections with reflections in mirrors. At first, she ‘looked at herself in the mirror and wondered whether there she saw the beast who came to bite her in the night’ (p.145), and both ‘rejoic[es]’ and ‘retreat[s]’ (p.145)in response in an echo of Gina Wisker’s ‘fear and fascination’[23] dichotomy that characterises both the Uncanny and Carter’s writings. After seeing her reflection, Wolf-Alice ‘perceive[s] an essential difference between herself and her surroundings’ (p.146), understanding for the first time that identity is distinct from the outside world, and ‘the trees and grass of the meadows outside no longer seemed the emanation of her questing nose and erect ears’ (p.146). Here, her double draws out of the subconscious that uncanny ‘regression to a time when the ego was not yet sharply differentiated from the external world and from other persons’[24].

Wolf-Alice’s ‘intima[cy]’ (p.147) with the mirror, ‘far more […] since she knew she saw herself within it’ (p.147), comes only once she realises that ‘you cannot see behind [it]’ (p.145), much like the ‘moon’ (p.147), and, in that it is impossible to go beyond its limits, much like life. Yet, this realisation is married with another that ‘transformed her vague grip on time’ (p.145): her menses, that abject aspect that reminds her of her own mortality, for ‘blood’ (p.144), much like the double, is both the herald of life, and in Freud’s words, the ‘harbinger of death’[25].

As those original fairy-tales warn, a man can be a wolf, but, in Wolf-Alice, so can a woman, if only she look and see for herself. Thus, perhaps Freud’s theorising that fairy-tales have nothing uncanny about them does not affect the analysis of Carter’s wolf tales, because Carter’s wolf tales are not fairy-tales, but fantasies of identity, where what was once very familiar, be it Red Riding Hood or the Wolf, now wears a more frightening aspect, and the wolf may even be found in Little Red’s reflection.

Finally, to reflect upon the merits of employing the Uncanny as a model of analysis for Carter’s three werewolf tales in The Bloody Chamber collection, this study has found that Freud’s affirmation that there is nothing uncanny about fairy-stories is unfounded when fairy-tales and their tropes metamorphose into new forms. Carter’s tales are at once familiar and unfamiliar, filled with the changed and unchanged, the ‘wolf, not-wolf’ (p.145), the unidentified identified and the unnamed finally named. The Uncanny mode of analysis takes the ‘unwary traveller’ (p.130) by the hand and helps to find a path amongst the ‘portals of the great pines’ (p.130) of Carter’s tales, even if one finds a few wolves along the way.

[1] Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny’, trans. by Alix Strachey [1919], pp.2-3
[2] Helen Simpson, ‘Introduction’, in Carter, Angela, The Bloody Chamber (London: Vintage, 2006 [1979]), pp.vii-xix, p.vii
[3] Helen Simpson, ‘Introduction’, p.xvii
[4] Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber (London: Vintage, 2006 [1979])
Subsequent references are taken from this edition and will be given in page references in parentheses in the body of the text.
[5] Andrew M. Butler, ‘Psychoanalysis’, in The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, ed. by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp.91-101, p.95
[6] Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny’, p.20
[7] Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny’, p.34
[8] Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny’, p.30
[9] Helen Simpson, ‘Introduction’, in Carter, Angela, p.xvii
[10] Lucie Armitt,‘The fragile frames of The Bloody Chamber’ in The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter: Fiction, Femininity, Feminism, ed. by Joseph Bristow and Trev Lynn Broughton (London: Longman, 1997), pp.88-99, p.96
[11] Avril Horner, and Sue Zlosnik, ‘Gothic Configurations of Gender’ in The Cambridge Companion to the Modern Gothic, ed. by Jerrold E. Hogle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp.55-70, p.57
[12] Merja Makinen, ‘Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and the Decolonisation of Feminine Sexuality’ in Angela Carter, ed. by Alison Easton (London: Macmillan, 2000), pp.20-36, p.24
[13] Merja Makinen, ‘Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and the Decolonisation of Feminine Sexuality’, p.24
[14] Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny’, p.31-2
[15] Helen Simpson, ‘Introduction’, p.vii-viii
[16] Sigmund Freud, ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’, in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism Second Edition, ed. by Vincent B. Leitch (United States of America: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001), pp. 814-824, p.818
[17] Sigmund Freud, ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’, p.818
[18] Sigmund Freud, ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’, p.818
[19] Catherine Orenstein, Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale (New York: Basic Books, 2002), p.4
[20] Catherine Orenstein, Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality, and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale, p.4
[21] Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny’, p.18
[22] Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny’, p.18
[23] Gina Wisker, ‘Revenge of the living doll: Angela Carter’s horror writing’, in The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter: Fiction, Femininity, Feminism, ed. by Joseph Bristow and Trev Lynn Broughton (London: Longman, 1997), pp.116-31, p.125
[24] Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny’, p.20
[25] Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny’, p.18
Written for university (2016) but edited and added to.

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