The Bloody Chamber

by Angela Carter

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How does audience perception of Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber reflect historical patriarchy?

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The perception of the global issue of patriarchy and gender inequality might change depending on when a work is being evaluated and even perhaps where it is being evaluated. For instance, in The Bloody Chamber, the opening lines tell us about some of the themes the author will explore. She describes the natural changes that take place for the narrator, as she moves from being an innocent child living with an adult parent to being a wife involved in an adult sexual partnership with a husband. She describes marriage as “unguessable” because the narrator is uncertain of what it will hold for her.

For women, the author seems to say, the uncertainty is great because women do not have agency over their lives. Until modern times, control over how women would spend their time passed to their husbands upon marriage. For this reason, the exploration of these issues could change significantly if reading stories through a modern twenty-first-century lens compared to reading it as a Victorian reader. A Victorian or even early twentieth-century reader would take it for granted that a wife heeded and obeyed her husband's wishes. To do otherwise was almost unheard of for many reasons, including that once she married, her assets all became her husband’s property. She retained little direction over them. A Victorian woman of means was not expected to work other than domestic activities such as overseeing her household. There were few to no career options available to her and it would have been nearly unthinkable for a Victorian wife of means to work. A Victorian woman from a working class background also had few options. She could become a domestic servant or, if she were educated, a governess. If she had no path to attain these jobs and could not marry, many young women were forced to become sex workers.

Today, even if there remains significant gender inequality in terms of careers, a modern woman understands the broad variety of economic and career paths open to her. Therefore, reading literature through a modern lens yields extremely different conclusions compared to reading it through the eyes of someone living earlier in time. For instance, in Jane Austen's Emma, Jane Fairfax decries the only economic opportunity available to her of becoming a governess and compares it to slavery. In Jane Eyre, Jane refuses to be forced into an illicit relationship with Rochester and shockingly takes agency, knowing that she has the skills to acquire another job as a governess or teacher. While a modern reader likely would not take issue with Jane’s choices, Jane Eyre was considered extremely controversial at the time of its publication. Margaret Hale takes control of her life in North And South and she is depicted as being extremely different from the other women in the novel.

In The Bloody Chamber, the author derives the story from the story of "Bluebeard," which was a cautionary tale about a man who killed his many wives. This can be read metaphorically in a husband having the ability to stifle his wife so dramatically in pre-Modern times because a man could control his wife with almost no impunity. Even in Jane Eyre, Bronte shows us how Rochester controls his wife Bertha and locks her away in the attic. Bronte punishes him for this, and other actions towards Jane, by having him endure a horrific accident that cripples his arm and blinds him. Over the course of the novel as Rochester’s behavior as a husband to Jane shows him to have changed, Bronte allows him to regain some of his sight as her literary reward for his reformed behavior.

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What is significant about the differences in audience perception of "The Bloody Chamber" between the time of production and now? How might the exploration of patriarchy and gender inequality change depending on time period and setting?

Angela Carter's story “The Bloody Chamber” was published in 1979 in England, and there is certainly going to be a different audience response to the story now than there was at the time of the story's publication. Let's explore this in more detail.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the “second-wave” of feminism was growing rapidly, and women were protesting and rallying for equal opportunities across the board from jobs to sports. “The Bloody Chamber” reflects this movement in some ways as it is a story about women overcoming the Marquis, a rich but oppressive man who threatens the heroine's very life. The heroine marries the Marquis to get her family out of poverty even though she does not love him.

The heroine soon finds herself in deep danger when she discovers what the Marquis has done to his previous wives. When the Marquis learns of her discovery, he tries to kill the heroine. She is rescued not by another man but by her own mother, wielding a revolver and not hesitating to use it.

This story, then, focuses on the power of women to defend themselves, and we might say that the story symbolically shows the overthrow of the patriarchy. We can understand how that would resonate with the second-wave feminism of the 1970s. Yet it also resonates with modern readers, albeit in a different way since the situation of women is quite different. The passing of time has given women many more opportunities and has changed feminism in many ways. But since oppression still exists for women in many situations, the story of women who have overcome oppression is still inspiring.

Just like all global issues, the issue of patriarchy and gender inequality is not static. It varies from time to time and place to place as advances occur, setbacks happen, and as women keep working to improve their lives and expand their horizons.

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