Role-breaking and role-remaking in Angela Carter’s "The Bloody Chamber"

Term Paper, 2008

23 Pages, Grade: 1



1. Introduction

2. Female gothic writers and female characters

3. Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber
3.1 Charles Perrault’s Bluebeard as literary source
3.2 Bluebeard’s processing in The Bloody Chamber
3.3 Role-reversal in The Bloody Chamber
3.3.1 The two main characters in their marriage The ostensibly innocent protagonist The evil husband Function of mirrors and the male gaze The mother as the saviour The feminized piano-tuner

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

The attainment of female subjectivity in spite of female sexual maturation, the oppression of female sexuality, the passive role of females bound in the confines of marriage, and as accumulated property are some of the issues that Carter addresses in The Bloody Chamber within the framework of the fairytale genre.[1]

Angela Carter adopts Perrault’s fairy-tale Bluebeard in her story The Bloody Chamber and transfers it into a feminist rewriting. She breaks through the prescribed role-understanding of women and men in society.

Society defines women as being passive, men as being active in every domain of the everyday life. Angela Carter draws a picture against this stigmatization. She does not define women as being merely subversive; victims of male authority and simply fulfilling their role. She wants to show that women have the ability to gain independence and a free will by giving male qualities to her female characters or letting them not behave like society expects them to behave.

In society men are said to be powerful and oppressing their wives. They show true qualities of masculinity and exploit their wife’s innocence and naivety. Carter on the one hand portrays men as embodying this prescribed role, but also adds female qualities to their actions and behaviours, or being overpowered by their female counterparts.

This paper shall show in how far Angela Carter adapts constructed role models, changes them or invents new ones.

Therefore the paper is divided into two sections: The first gives a brief overview about the time period as this text is written against the background of the gothic era. The second part concentrates on The Bloody Chamber, which is first of all based on Perrault’s Bluebeard story - to realize the differences to the original and understand their functions with the help of the before described background knowledge. Afterwards, an analysis of each character in the story should make clear the concept of Carter’s role-breaking and role-remaking.

2. Female gothic writers and female characters

“Themes such as the suppression of female desires, females being objectified, confined to a domestic life are all critically challenged in this expose of society then and today.”[2] The man is always portrayed as being the bread-winner, powerful, intelligent, whereas the woman is mostly connected with domestic tasks. Because of this general understanding women are more likely presented as being suppressed, victimized and passive in female literature, including gothic female literature. Female writers construct themselves as being oppressed by men, like men present themselves as manipulating, aggressive forces who want their wives to obey them.[3] Women wanted to express the feelings and fears they experience in a relationship, but could not reveal in public. Therefore they chose the written form to communicate with other women and encourage them.

The gothic novel makes use of this cliché in that it assumes women’s passive and suppressed role within society, but adds the female will in order to destroy the masculine public world.

[…] the female gothic novel represented women who ostensibly appear to be conforming to their acceptable roles within the patriarchy but who actually subvert the father’s power at every possible occasion and them retreat to studied postures of conformity whenever they risk exposure to public censure.[4]

On the one hand women are depicted as being imprisoned by their husbands or male counterparts; on the other hand they gain power over them by their spiritual strength.

Women are always represented as persecuted, deprived of power, and imprisoned, yet the places which confine them often protect them too. The heroine escapes from imprisonment into a natural world that symbolizes her own free nature, the spiritual freedom which she always maintains under physical oppression.[5]

Women create a fantasy world in which they escape their internment and oppression by their husbands and experience their own self. In this imaginative world they are not weak; they do not just accept and survive. Women’s situation is not seen as their destiny; they are not defined through their male partners. In the typical gothic novel the female character struggles against patriarchy. This struggle is of an ideological nature because it takes place between reality and desire in a sexual, psychic, economic, political, social or religious field: Reality symbolizes the power within the political society, whereas desire constitutes the individual urge. Female gothic writers fictively redefine sexuality, family, patrimonialism and patrilineality they are unable to experience in everyday life.

In general the gothic novel pictures the woman as a heroine who is able to obliterate patriarchy because she outsmarts her male oppressive opponent.[6]

3. Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber

3.1 Charles Perrault’s Bluebeard as literary source

The Bluebeard story was created by the French writer Charles Perrault. It was first published in 1697 in his collection Histoires ou contes du temps passé (Stories or Tales of Past Times) and intended to be written as a fairy-tale for adult readers.[7]

A wealthy man named Bluebeard is living on his own in his splendid house and still is searching for a woman to marry him. He had had several women before who always ran away from him because of his physical disfigurement: “a blue beard, which made him look so frightfully ugly that the first impulse of every woman and girl he met was to run away from him.”[8] He wishes to marry one of the lady’s daughters who live in the same place, but none of them can hide their dislike towards him. Therefore he invites the three women and their friends to stay at his house for one week and hopes to convince at least one of the daughters of his qualities. Fatima, the younger daughter, quickly recognizes that Bluebeard’s beard does not make him that ugly as she supposed. She is delightfully impressed by his kindness and does not hesitate to accept his proposal.

After their marriage, he has to leave her alone because of a journey for at least six weeks. He leaves her a bundle of keys to each room in the house and at the same time forbids her to make use of the small one of polished steel, which belongs to a little room at the end of the corridor. After he left her, her curiosity defeats her husband’s prohibit. She enters the room and comes across the dead bodies of his former wives. Being completely horrified she loses the key which falls onto the bloody ground. She is not able to wipe the blood off and hides the key. Bluebeard returns earlier from his journey and at first asks for the keys he had given to her. Still shaking and terrified she hands him the bundle, hoping that he does not recognize that the key to the forbidden chamber is missing. He notices the loss of the key and after calling upon her to fetch the key, realizes its bloody spot. She disobeyed his command and now has to join his former wives in the forbidden chamber. Bluebeard allows her to say her last prayers before he is going to kill her. She prays that her brothers shall come to rescue her. Fortunately her prayers are answered and one of her brothers kills Bluebeard with his sword.

Perrault’s Bluebeard story can be described as “a gruesome cautionary tale about the dangers of marriage (on the one hand) and the perils of greed and curiosity (on the other)”.[9] In the beginning of the story the husband is represented as being kind, generous and betrayed by his wives because they disobey his commands. In the end he is depicted as being evil, a monster, who is willing to kill his own wife cruelly. Perrault includes two morals in his story, rather casting a positive light on the husband than feeling sympathy for the female counterpart. He emphasizes that the female curiosity in this marriage is a form of transgression and that the husband just acts in response to the provocative actions of his wife.

The topic of disobedience in Perrault’s work was liked to be reprinted and recounted by several writers until it was expanded in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Some authors were of the opinion that Bluebeard’s wife’s disobedience is sexual in nature and that therefore “the blood–stained key symboliz[es] the act of infidelity.”[10] The psychologist Bruno Bettlheim sees the Bluebeard story as “‘a cautionary tale which warns: Women, don't give in to your sexual curiosity; men, don't permit yourself to be carried away by your anger at being sexually betrayed.’"[11] In contradiction, the novelist Lydia Millet states that the husband is in charge because he left his wife the key to the forbidden chamber while going on a trip.[12]

3.2 Bluebeard’s processing in The Bloody Chamber

Angela Carter translated Charles Perrault’s fairy-tales in 1977. She was so much fascinated by the literary genre that she herself published a collection of stories in 1979 which retell the classical fairy-tales.[13] This collection is titled the The Bloody Chamber and can not be seen as a mere rewriting of traditional fairy-tales. The stories are interconnected, whereas every story depicts a certain theme which is represented in another story before and “’comments on a different aspect of it.’”[14] The blood is the element which binds all tales together.

The title story The Bloody Chamber textually concentrates on the Bluebeard story written by Charles Perrault in the seventeenth century. Its contents are similar except that Angela Carter replaces the appearance of the brothers with the coincidental rescue by the heroine’s mother. Carter depicts her as the central figure in the story and attributes man-like qualities to her. Whereas in the Bluebeard story she is portrayed as lady-like and just being the mother of two daughters.


[1] <> (16/07/2007).

[2] <> (16/07/2007).

[3] c.f. Hoeveler, Diana Long: Gothic Feminism. The Professionalization of Gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontës. Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press 1998. p. 4.

[4] ibid. p. 6.

[5] Spencer, Jane: The Rise of the Woman Novelist. From Aphra Behn to Jane Austen. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers 1986. p.194.

[6] c.f. Hoeveler, Diana Long: Gothic Feminism. The Professionalization of Gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontës. p. 6-19.

[7] c.f. <> (16/07/2007).

[8] <> (10/01/2007).

[9] <> (16/07/2007).

[10] <> (16/07/2007).

[11] ibid.

[12] c.f. <> (16/07/2007).

[13] c.f. Makinen, Merja: “Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and the Decolonization of Feminine Sexuality”. In: Feminist Review 42 (autumn 1992):. p. 3.

[14] Gamble, Sarah: Angela Carter. Writing from the frontline. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 1997. p. 132.

Excerpt out of 23 pages


Role-breaking and role-remaking in Angela Carter’s "The Bloody Chamber"
Otto-von-Guericke-University Magdeburg  (Institut für fremdsprachliche Philologien)
Gothic Fiction
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Role-breaking, Angela, Carter’s, Bloody, Chamber
Quote paper
Sabrina Zabel (Author), 2008, Role-breaking and role-remaking in Angela Carter’s "The Bloody Chamber", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • guest on 5/23/2016

    Nice post

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