In the context of gothic literature, women
are portrayed as one of two personalities: either the predator or the victim.
The predator is more of a powerful, attractive character whereas the victim is
presented as fragile, vulnerable and is often the ‘damsel in distress’.
Moreover, women are presented as objects of desire; a prize given to men as a
Angela Carter challenges the fairytale tradition through the exploration
of different themes within her short stories. She borrows themes from a wide
range of fairytales and legends. The legend of ‘Bluebeard’, ‘Beauty and the
Beast’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ are amongst the
fairytales that serve as inspiration for the gothic adaptations2,
in which she subverts to comment on female representation and stereotypes
within gothic literature. However, although Carter extracts themes from each
fairytale, she incorporates gothic elements within her short stories- such as
the use of supernatural beings and gloomy atmospheres. Above that, she also
challenges themes typically prevalent within gothic literature, specifically
female identity and representation.
In ‘The Bloody Chamber’, Angela Carter uses elements of the gothic genre
throughout her short stories. However, as opposed to adhering to the typical
stereotypes prevalent within gothic literature, Carter challenges certain
elements to confront the idea of femininity through the embodiment of
characteristics within the heroines that, to an extent, defy those of a typical
female within gothic literature.
Specifically regarding the final three short stories in ‘The Bloody
Chamber’, Carter creates three different heroines, each embodying
characteristics and intrinsic qualities that serve to challenge those of a
typical heroine within gothic literature, which will be explored throughout this
essay, which also serves to explore the gothic notion of femininity. In gothic
literature, the perception and portrayal of a woman’s
essence consists of “inferior brain weight, tendency to brain fever if
educated, ubiquitous maternal instinct, and raging hormonal imbalance”3.
This constitutes as part of the gothic notion of femininity, which will be
explored as the defining factors through which women and specifically female
characters are perceived as feminine. Thus, the question used as a lens to explore
this text is, “To what extent does Angela Carter challenge the gothic
notion of femininity through the characterization of the heroines in the
werewolf trilogy in “The Bloody Chamber?”
In the first short story of the werewolf trilogy, “The Werewolf”, Carter
creates an opening and setting up for what seems to be a classic fairytale.
Through this, Carter embeds a sense of irony; as the story unfolds, there are themes
and traits embodied by the female character that mirror those embodied by the
traditional fairytale heroine. In this context, the traditional fairytale
heroine can be viewed as a female character that embodies qualities and
performs actions that adhere to the gothic notion of femininity.
The narrator goes on to introduce new characters, along with the
progression from the introduction to a focused event; a mother instructing her
daughter to deliver oatcakes to her grandmother. Interestingly, instead of
exercising caution, the mother demands that her child go forth with her journey
despite the presence of lurking, dangerous creatures. “Do not leave the path
because of the bears, the wild boars, the starving wolves”.4 This
affirms certain gender stereotypes where men are encouraged to be brave and
face danger whereas women (especially young girls) are portrayed as fragile and
should be protected. ‘The bears’, ‘the wild boars’ and ‘starving wolves’ embody
elements of danger; through avoiding those creatures and staying on the path
due to the presence of these creatures, Carter reinforces the vulnerability
that is perceived to be a part of a woman’s personality, aiding to the
affirming of the gothic notion of femininity.
However, the incorporation of various
elements that embody danger or evil is a feature of gothic literature, used in
this short story to provide a threatening force for the female character in
order to evoke reactions and responses that either adhere to the gothic notion
of femininity or defy it. This is
exemplified in Carter’s gothic retelling of the Grimm’s fairytale “Little
Red-Cap”, otherwise known as “Little Red Riding Hood”. The mother arms the
young girl with her father’s knife. “Here, take your father’s knife; you know
how to use it”5.
Not only does this indicate that the girl was being entrusted with a weapon,
but that she also had experience using it, perhaps through hunting activities
with her father- which is typically an activity that only men partake in. This
subverts certain gendered stereotypes that dictate what activities and hobbies
men and women can or cannot take part in, such as hunting, in this case.
Moreover, through portraying the female character as one who takes charge of
her own protection, Carter challenges the gothic notion of femininity.
Likewise, Carter builds on this
challenging of the gothic notion of femininity by introducing an element of
danger- embodied by the wolf- who serves to provide, as previously mentioned, a
threatening force for the young girl, manifesting as the girl trudges through
the forest on her way to deliver the oatcakes to her grandmother. “When she
heard that freezing howl of a wolf, she dropped her gifts, seized her knife and
turned on the beast”6. Through
this, Carter challenges the defenseless nature of women that is portrayed
within gothic literature by allowing her to take control and giving her the
power to tackle the beast, without the help of a male figure. Moreover, regarding
the human ‘fight or flight’ response, one would expect this girl to take
flight, instead, she responds to the ‘fight’ instinct with no hesitation.
Therefore, this challenges society’s internalized notion that young women tend
to be vulnerable and are easily threatened by danger. The tension rises as the
events quickly escalate, resulting in the girl wielding her knife and cutting
off the wolf’s paw. “The wolf let out a gulp, almost a sob, when it saw what
had happened to it”7.
Through the action of mutilation, the young girl establishes dominance over the
wolf and subverts the power dynamic typically prevalent between a female
character and a larger, more dominant force, such as the wolf in this case.
Moreover, it also subverts the previously mentioned defenseless behavior
associated with women in gothic literature, which by extension, serves to
challenge the gothic notion of femininity.
Moreover, Carter then creates a relationship between the wolf and the
grandmother, which acts as the foreshadowing of what is to come, as it is later
revealed that when the child had shaken out the wolf’s paw from the cloth, a
human hand had been in its place. “There was a wedding ring on the third finger
and a wart on the index finger… she knew it was her grandmother’s hand”8.
This creates a sense of shock within the reader through the use of irony, as it
would not have been expected that the young girl’s grandmother- a member of her
family- would be the one to try and put her in harm’s way. From this, the
reader can perceive that this tale illustrates how women can sometimes
contribute to the downfall and/or harming of other women, as it is discussed
that even though it can be men who contribute to the downfall or harming of
women, there is in a lack of unity that exists amongst women, which is likely
what Carter has aimed to portray through the events of this story. Through
this, she also affirms the gothic notion of femininity by depicting a
supernatural female character as the villain- the predator, essentially- which
is a common representation of some female characters within gothic literature9.
In this short story, much like in ‘The
Werewolf’, the main element of danger that serves to acts as a dominating force
in the young girl’s journey is a wolf, described as a manipulative creature. The author goes on to describe the perils of the
forest in which the “grey, unkind” wolves live, with knives being one’s only
protection against the creatures- the weapon also being a feature in ‘The
Werewolf’. Another comparison that can be drawn from ‘The Werewolf’ is the
morphing of wolf to man when killed, as well as the cutting of the wolf’s paw.
This is significant in that it is an act of dominance against the once superior
wolf. In early Gothic, women
were often portrayed as weak, selfless and innocent10.
In ‘The Company of Wolves’, the female character initially adheres to the
notion of innocence, as she is portrayed as “an unbroken egg…moving within
the invisible pentacle of her own virginity”11.
The theme of ‘virginity’ is associated with innocence, therefore adhering to
the gothic portrayal of the female character as ‘innocent’. Through the description
of the ‘unbroken egg’ and such, Carter adheres to the theme of vulnerability
that is associated with young women and also affirms the gothic notion of
However, the story then shifts to the
general plot implemented in the original Grimm’s fairytale of ‘Little Red-Cap’;
a young girl trudging through the forest in order to deliver food to her
grandmother, despite the dangerous path filled with wolves. In contrast, the
young girl in ‘The Company of Wolves’ is described as strong-minded and
unafraid of any potential danger. She is “quite sure that the wild beasts
cannot harm her”.12
This depicts a certain level of innocence- as she rejects the notion of threat
and danger- adding to the youth of the girl. Much like in ‘The Werewolf’, the girl also carries a knife in her
basket. The recurring theme of self-defense challenges the helplessness
associated with many female characters, as the young girl is taking charge of
her own protection, which challenges the gothic notion of femininity.
other hand, Carter creates somewhat of a vulnerable sexualized image, therefore
painting her as an object of desire, an element generally specific to women
that is prevalent within gothic literature, adhering to the gothic notion of
femininity. Moreover, through saying “she is an unbroken egg; she is a sealed
vessel; she is a closed system”13,
the author portrays her as delicate and of great value; she is untouched, which
enhances her desirable image. “Due to
the political and social uncertainty of the times the Gothic novelists felt
called upon to either seek to protect patriarchal values or use the upheaval to
abandon traditionally restraining concepts of female virtue.”14 The
concept of female virtue is reinforced through the characterization of this
heroine. However, it is later abandoned when there is a depiction of a scene in
which the young girl begins to take off her clothes. This can be interpreted as
a shedding of physical means through which the girl’s innocence is protected,
therefore going against her previous description of being a “closed system”.
Furthermore, the introduction of the howl of a wolf that is then heard within
the forest is a device used to generate a negative response and evoke fear
within the heroine. However, “She saw no sign of a wolf, nor of a naked
man…there sprung onto the path a fully clothed one, a very handsome young one”15.
Unlike ‘The Werewolf’, there is no eminent sign of danger, but rather it is
disguised within the seemingly harmless, attractive male. “He laughed with a
flash of white teeth when he saw her and made a comic yet flattering little
brow; she’d never seen such a fine fellow before”16.
The newly-introduced male can be perceived as somewhat manipulative, as he uses
simple gestures to distract the young girl from the suspicious nature of his
emergence directly after a wolf’s howl is heard. The theme of deception (lies,
disguises, etc.) is one of the heavily prevalent gothic themes and motifs17,
which can be embodied by men to sway the opinions or determination of the
heroine. This is demonstrated in the male character’s use of the previously
mentioned actions as a means of deceiving the female character into believing
that he is not dangerous. However, the notion of sensibility within women
vanishing in the presence of physical attraction to a good-looking male is also
a theme applicable to real life. In portraying this in her short story, Carter
reinforces the concept of female vulnerability against patriarchal figures,
adhering to the gothic notion of femininity.
Similarly, the connection formed within this male-female relationship
serves to support the naivety surrounding the female character in the presence
of this patriarchal figure. Moreover, the girl places her trust in him, which
is not uncommon for young girls when approached by a handsome man. “When he
offered to carry her basket, she gave it to him although her knife was in it
because he told her his rifle would protect them”. This goes back to the
previously mentioned theme of lack of sensibility in the presence of
patriarchal figures. “She forgot to be afraid of the beasts, although the moon
The rising of the moon is generally associated with an increase in the
emergence of dangerous creatures- werewolves included. Therefore, this acts as
foreshadowing to signify the threat of danger in the near future. Moreover, the
moon can also be associated with themes of femininity. As it is “often associated with a feminine symbol, the moon represents
the rhythm of time because it embodies the concept of cycles”19. The
presence of this symbol signifies female empowerment and through the rising of
the moon, Carter brings the woman to a position of power and by establishing
this superiority, she subverts the gothic notion of femininity that otherwise
portrays women as weak.
Unlike ‘The Werewolf’, Carter
keeps the character of the wolf and the grandmother as separate individuals,
instead directing the focus to the relationship between the young girl and the
man. Amidst the girl and the man/wolf’s heated reunion- followed by the man
stripping naked and devouring the grandmother- the girl throws the wolf’s
clothes into the fire which, as previously mentioned, condemns a wolf to a
lifetime of being that way. “Seven years is a werewolf’s natural span but if
you burn his human clothing you condemn him to wolfishness for the rest of his
This suggests that this is an act of revenge against the wolf, despite their
seemingly loving relationship, as it condemns him to a life of animalistic
The short story ‘Wolf-Alice’, the final installment of the werewolf
trilogy, appears to depict Alice, who is a woman raised by wolves- and believes
she is one of them. The wolves are, in this case, regarded as family with
humans being the enemy, due to a group of peasants shooting the mother-wolf to
death. “A hyphen joins two or more words together”21.
In this context, the use of the hyphen in the title ‘Wolf-Alice’ morphs
together the identity of Alice(human) and beast into one, similarly
demonstrated in ‘The Werewolf’ in which Carter combines the character of the
grandmother and the wolf into one. Through presenting Alice as beastly, her
physical appearance acts as the stepping stone through which she challenges the
gothic notion of femininity.
‘Wolf-Alice’ allows the reader to explore the reverse-development of a
young girl from beast to human- as opposed to some of Carter’s other short
stories, such as ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, in which the heroine becomes a beast.
Alice is described with the characteristics that pertain to wolves- such as a
heightened sense of smell- but when discovered by ‘them’, she is taken away and
taught things that pertain to her human nature, which she actively resists.
“She always seemed wild, impatient of restraint, capricious in temper… she
arched her back, pawed the floor, retreated to the far corner of the chapel,
crouched, trembled, urinated, defecated- reverted entirely, it would seem, to
her natural state”22. The
subconscious orientation of one’s identity is a theme explored throughout
‘Wolf-Alice’. It is generally assumed that one should act according to their
‘natural state’, as opposed to what one is familiar with, such as in Alice’s
situation. However, Alice subconsciously rejects that notion and behaves the only
way she knows how to. Since Alice does not conform to her natural state, she
becomes a burden upon the people and is therefore sent to ‘the Duke’- described
as a creature who sleeps by day, feasts by night.. “He lives in a gloomy
mansion, all alone but for this child who has as little in common with the rest
of us as he does”23.
The Duke can therefore be regarded as an ally to Alice, as he too is considered
vicious and unnatural- although, traditionally, he would be regarded as the
enemy. Through the alienation of both the male and female character from the
rest of society, a bond is formed and the societal divide between the two sexes
is demolished. “Although still represented by
archetypes, such as the persecuted maiden, femme fatale and the virtuous mother
figure, the character’s resolve and identity is often determined by the type of
male tyranny inflicted upon them.” 24This
notion is subverted, as the development of Alice’s character is not defined by
the Duke, but is rather a process that Alice goes through on her own. By
abstaining from the dependence on a male figure to catalyse the process of
Alice’s development, she challenges the gothic notion of femininity by
maintaining independence; as opposed to the way in which women are portrayed
within gothic literature as relying on a male figure to aid to their
Moreover, Carter incorporates
themes within ‘Wolf-Alice’ that are also prevalent within ‘The Werewolf’. Menstruation
is among those themes, however , it does not serve to act as a symbol of sexual
maturity, but rather is the catalyst for Alice’s character development from
beast to human. “She learned to expect these bleedings, to prepare her rags
against them, and afterwards, neatly to bury the dirtied things”25.
Carter uses an aspect of Alice’s own self in order to allow for her
development, rather than it being defined by the influence of a patriarchal
figure. It is through her own means that Alice discovers and explores different
aspects of her environment to aid to her own growth. This is significant, as it
creates a strong female character, whereas traditionally within gothic
literature, as previously mentioned, it is the role of the male figure that
dictates the progression of the young woman’s life. Moreover, along with
menstruation, Carter also emphasizes traditional notions of femininity in order
to effectively portray Alice as a woman. “On those white nights when she was
left alone in the house, she dragged out his grandmother’s ball dresses and
rolled on suave velvet and abrasive lace because to do so delighted her
adolescent skin”26. The stereotype of
‘dresses’ and ‘lace’ forming the basis what is deemed ‘feminine’ is reinforced
here. This allows the reader to be able to clearly identify Alice as female,
which also exposes the inherent gender stereotypes internalized by society.
Furthermore, suspense begins to build
through the introduction of conflict- the attempted hunting of the Duke. When
wounded, Alice reverts back to her wolfish behavior and responds to the
situation as any animal would. “She leapt upon his bed to lick, without
hesitation, without disgust, with a quick, tender gravity, the blood and dirt
from his cheeks and forehead27”.
This not only suggests that, although one may physically pertain to the
qualities of a certain category, one’s natural state is rather intrinsic, it
also subverts the previously mentioned notion of femininity; femininity is not
usually placed alongside animalistic qualities, as it is more internalized by
male figures, aiding to their dominance.
In conclusion, it is apparent that Angela
Carter does in fact challenge stereotypes and gender roles typically common within
society through her work. However, she does not seem to fully subvert the
gothic notion of femininity or blatantly affirm it through the representation
of these female characters, but rather she makes a statement about the complex
nature of femininity. She begins by building the female’s character in a way
that presents her as a typical gothic female and then allows her to present
qualities that are not associated with the typical female – or reverse that
development, as seen in Wolf-Alice. Perhaps Carter is communicating that while
it is important for a woman to break free of society’s conceptions about
femininity and create a persona of her own, it is the common traits that exist
amongst women that serve to unify and universalize their experience; to abandon
these traits entirely introduces an alienation amongst them. By using her
platform to put out work that serves to expose the different aspects of a
woman’s personality, Carter celebrates what it means to be a woman and by
attributing courage, strength and individuality to the female characters that
are otherwise considered ‘unfeminine’, she aims to redefine and portray the
diversity of women and incorporates the qualities that are under-represented
within different novels- considering the one-dimensional nature of female
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‘Wolf-Alice’). 2016. Article.
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Rachel. “The Significance of Female Identity Within Gothic
Literature.” LetterPile (2016).
First. English Grammar Guide. n.d. Article. October 2017.
Engine of Oracles, Word Press. 29 December 2011. Article
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Farah. “In Gothic writing women are presented as either innocent victims
or sinister predators or significantly absent.’ Consider the place of women
in gothic writing in light of this comment.” London News (2016).
Charts. Humor, the Gothic and the Supernatural Theme Analysis. n.d.
Article. September 2017.
Merja. “Angela Carters “The Bloody Chamber” and the
Decolonization of Feminine Sexuality.” Feminist Review (1992).
Alison. “Gothic fiction tells us the truth about our divided
nature.” Guardian News and Media (2011). Article.
Donna. “The Monstrous Feminine: A Portrait of Female Sexuality in Irish
Gothic Literature.” Sibéal (n.d.).
Claire. jweel.com. 2015. Blog. October 2017.
“Women are often portrayed as selfless, innocent, and virtuous in gothic
literature.” The Write Pass Journal (2013).
Ellen Handler. “The Irresistible Psychology of Fairy Tales.” New
Republic (2015). Article.
Pen and The Pad. Diverging Roles of Men and Women in Gothic Literature .
n.d. Article. August 2017.
(Engine of Oracles, Word Press)
21 (Education First)
24 (The Pen and The Pad)