The Eye of Profane Pleasures: Fairy Tales, Pornography and the Male Gaze in Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” and “The Erl-King” (Part 2)

Posted by Elizabeth Turner on March 03, 2016 in Blog, Elizabeth Turner tagged with , , , , , , , ,

Part 2: The Bloody Chamber as a Scopophilic Fairy Tale

 

The basis for Angela Carter’s short story “The Bloody Chamber” is derived from the seventeenth-century fable by Charles Perrault entitled, “Bluebeard”, the premise of which revolves around the marriage of a young girl to a wealthy aristocrat, who, as she later discovers has a nasty penchant for murdering his wives. Within “The Bloody Chamber” Carter utilizes the original Gothic iconography of Perrault’s text such as the isolated castle, the naive virgin girl, the tyrannical male, confined spaces, and horrific secrets. In Anne Williams Art of Darkness, she confirms that the use of these Gothic conventions is critical in understanding the “other” (19). Though the perception of “otherness” appears rather mysterious, she concedes that it can represent anything outside the socially accepted norm. For example, the castle in “The Bloody Chamber” and also, as I will later discuss, the forest in “The Erl-King”, are direct signifiers of the “other”. This realization is manifested not only by the foreignness of location to the narrators, but also by the “otherness” of females who enter into the male realm. Thus, while the Erl-King and the Marquis stand as emblems of patriarchy, their domains function as mere extensions of their oppressive rule.

Fatima at the closet door. Simultaneously, Carter introduces several pervading themes of pornography, including, voyeurism, possession and domination–all of which actively suppress the female identity and ascribe full authority to the male. In “The Bloody Chamber” this power is explicated through what Laura Mulvey calls the male gaze. In her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Mulvey explains the function of the gaze, as the way in which visual content is structured around the desires of the male viewer. This is most common through the observation of erotic material, such as pornography. The subject derives sexual pleasure from objectifying individuals, through a “controlling and curious gaze” (Mulvey 835). Indeed, Carter draws a considerable amount of attention to the Marquis’s penetrating stare.

The Marquis’s eyes are characterized as being heavily lidded, appearing quite unnatural “by their absolute absence of light” (Carter 112). His gaze is omniscient, predatory and unfeeling. This connection becomes apparent when the Marquis escorts his future bride to the opera. She is startled to discover the voracity of his gaze, which surveyed her with the “assessing eye of a connoisseur inspecting horseflesh…[or] cuts on the slab” (115). She concedes, “I had never seen, or else had never acknowledged, that regard of his before, the sheer carnal avarice of it; and it was strangely magnified by the monocle lodged in his left eye” (115). Facets of this scene are repeated during the marital disrobing. The Marquis strips his bride as though he were “stripping the leaves off an artichoke” (118), his gestures “deliberately coarse, vulgar” (118) . Throughout the duration of this exchange, the Marquis remains fully clothed. It is evident that his enjoyment is not drawn from physical interaction, but rather from observing his wife’s humiliation.  His monocle once again becomes an object of interest as it magnifies his inspection of her, “limb by limb” as if she were “a lamb chop” (119). Though the Marquis can certainly be classified as a sadist “in terms of his sexual practices and in terms of his control of the narrative” (Sheets 647), more compelling is his relationship to the narrator as her owner. As both animal and food, the narrator’s identity is reduced to that of a commodity object. Thus, as her “purchaser” (119), a role that he assumed through their marriage, the Marquis is free to “unwrap [and consume] his bargain” at will (119).

Curiously, during the encounter the Marquis never consummates the marriage, but instead leaves his trembling bride alone and with a “strange [and] impersonal [feeling of] arousal” (Carter 119). Critic Patricia Duncker interprets the narrator’s sexual stirrings as a masochistic desire for sexual corruption (10). However, I believe that this is an incorrect reading, given the context of the male gaze. Rather, because the narrator is:

 

Assigned the place of the object (since she lacks the phallus, the symbol of the signifier), she is the recipient of male desire, the passive recipient of his gaze. If she is to have sexual pleasure, it can only be constructed around her objectification. …Women…have learned to associate their sexuality with domination by the male gaze, a position involving a degree of masochism in finding their objectification erotic. (Qtd. in Sheets 651)

 

Considering the narrator is a virgin and therefore lacks knowledge about sex and sexuality, it seems perfectly reasonable that she could feel aroused during her first sexual encounter. After all, the only examples of sex that she has come upon are ones that involve the objectification of women, such as the Félicien Rops pornographic etchings, or more directly through her husband’s scopophilic gaze.

Eventually, the authority of the male gaze becomes so overwhelming that it becomes internalized. In this way, the narrator can feel him watching her even when she cannot see his eyes. She first experiences this sensation while en route to the Marquis’s castle. Through the darkness of the train car, she feels the intensity of her husband’s gaze upon her. Though she hears “no change in his breathing [her] heightened and excited senses told [her] that he was awake and gazing at [her]” (Carter 116). This impression rises again when, after entering the forbidden chamber, she notices that “[t]he light caught the fire opal on [her] hand so that it flashed, once with a baleful light, as if to tell [her] the eye of God—his eye—was upon [her]” (132). This means is that, no longer is his gaze merely connected with his eyes, but also can manifest “its power and presence in objects associated with him” (Sivyer 14). Jean-Paul Sartre refers to this association as ‘the look’. He argues, “the feeling of being looked at is not necessarily tied to the eyes of another person, but can be triggered by any number of phenomena…[in essence] we cannot see the look, but we can feel [the magnitude of] its force” (qtd. in Sivyer 14).

In addition to the unmistakable signs of voyeurism, the Marquis can also be associated with fetishistic scopophilia. What this means, is that the subject works to “build up the physical beauty of the object, transforming it into something satisfying in itself” (Mulvey 840). For example, one might center their erotic desires on feet or breasts. In the case of the Marquis he fetishizes his wives bodies as objects of exhibition. This is evident in his choice of women: his first wife was a “sumptuous diva” who sang passionately in the opera, the second was an artist’s model and the third was a Romanian countess and a distinguished “lady of high fashion” (Carter 113-114). Indeed, the Marquis’s selection of wives seems to suggest that he is a collector of women, as though they are pieces of art to fill his gallery of hedonistic desires. When he invites the narrator to “join his gallery of beautiful women” (114) she is quite surprised. Compared to his lavish array of past wives she cannot understand why he has chosen her, “I, the poor widow’s child with my mouse-coloured hair…bony hips, [and] my nervous pianist fingers” (114). What she cannot yet identify is that the Marquis only desires her, in her representation of virgin innocence.

This is plainly demonstrated in the way that the Marquis dresses his young bride, both before and after their marriage. The narrator is adorned with luxurious, designer dresses by Poiret and given two priceless family heirlooms, a fire opal engagement ring—once owned by Catherine de Medici—and a choker of red rubies, “two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat” (Carter 114). Her husband requires her to wear each of these pieces at all times, so that they are clearly visible to others. The ring over top of her gloves “as though it was proof positive that [she] was [the] master’s wife” (116) and the ruby choker, to be worn like a collar, as if to further signify his ownership of her. Furthermore, the Marquis seems particularly fond of his bride in sheer, white muslin dresses. Not only does this emphasize her innocence, but also sexually objectifies her by reducing her identity to her breasts, a common object of male fetishism.

Tune in next week for the final installment of my blog series, where I will discuss “The Erl-King”, scopophilia, consumption, and an alternative to the male gaze.

References

Carter, Angela. Burning Your Boats: Collected Short Stories. London: Vintage, 1996. Print.

Duncker, Patricia. “RE-IMAGINING THE FAIRY TALES: ANGELA CARTER’S BLOODY CHAMBERS.” Literature and History 10.1 (1984): 3. ProQuest. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833-44. Print.

Rackham, Arthur. Fatima at the Closet Door. N.d. Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. Digitalcollections.nypl.org. 2013. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.

Sheets, Robin Ann. “Pornography, Fairy Tales, and Feminism: Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber”.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 1.4 (1991): 633-57. JSTOR. University of Texas Press. Web. 8 Nov. 2015.

Sivyer, Caleb. “A Scopophiliac Fairy Tale: Deconstructing Normative Gender in Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber”.” Gender Forum: An Internet Journal for Gender Studies 44 (2013): n. page. Web. 7 Nov. 2015.

Williams, Anne. “Introduction” and “The House of Bluebeard: Gothic Engineering.” Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1995. 1+. Print.

 

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