The Eye of Profane Pleasures: Fairy Tales, Pornography and the Male Gaze in Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” and “The Erl-King” (Part 3)

Posted by Elizabeth Turner on March 12, 2016 in Blog, Elizabeth Turner tagged with , , , , , , , ,

Part 3: The Erl-King: Scopophilia, Consumption and an Alternative to the Male Gaze

Angela Carter’s tale of “The Erl-King” is different from her other fables, as it is not derived from a fairy tale but instead taken from Goethe’s eighteenth-century ballad, “Der Erlkönig”. The poem tells the story of a wicked elf king, who haunts the Black Forest of Germany luring children to their death. However, in true Angela Carter style, she reworks the narrative to center, not upon the ensnarement of children, but of young maidens. Like “The Bloody Chamber”, “The Erl-King” takes place in an elaborately crafted, Gothic space. She trades the isolation of the Marquis’s castle for that of the spooky forest, where “the wood swallows you up…once you’re inside it, you must stay there until it lets you out again” (Carter 186). The narrator of the story is a young maiden who finds herself lost after idly wandering in the autumn wood. The sense of danger is palpable. The reader can see it through the images of sumptuous red berries “as ripe and delicious as goblin or enchanted fruit” which are surrounded by sharp thorns (187). Here, Carter deliberately references the forbidden fruits of Christina Rossetti’s The Goblin Market, as a means to emphasize the “grievous harm” (187) that will meet the narrator if she does not turn back. Yet despite the overt imagery and the shrill cries of the woodland birds, the maiden continues forth.The Old Woman in the Wood

The Erl-King, like the Marquis in “The Bloody Chamber”, appears before us as the total embodiment of patriarchy. He is tall, thin and bearded, with hair like dead leaves and a cruel smile that shows off his sharp, pointed teeth. There is something particularly uncanny about the Erl-King’s eyes, which appear “quite green, as if from too much looking at the wood” (Carter 187). Unlike the Marquis, whose eyes appear to lack light, the Erl-King’s eyes are of an “incomparable luminosity” (191) and demonstrate the power to hypnotize, transform and devour. The narrator becomes quite fearful of his gaze, as she realizes the influence that it holds over her. She says “The gelid green of your eyes fixes my reflective face…I am afraid I will be trapped in it for ever like the poor little ants and flies that stuck their feet in resin…If I look into it long enough…I will diminish to a point and vanish” (191). Thus, as the recipient of the Erl-King’s gaze, the narrator’s identity is reduced to that of a commodity object, purely existing for the pleasure of the voyeur.

In connection to the gaze, there is a distinct correlation between the act of viewing and that of consuming. We are told, “ some eyes can eat you” (Carter 187), a theme, which curiously repeats itself throughout the narrative. Within the bedroom, the Erl-King becomes the “tender butcher” (189), in which he can act as both lover and destroyer. In a scene reminiscent to that of the Marquis in “The Bloody Chamber”, the Erl-King strips the narrator “to [her] last nakedness…like a skinned rabbit” and then sinks his “teeth into [her] throat…[making her] scream” (190). Their relationship continues with a number of other food-related metaphors. She cries “[e]at me, drink me…swallow me” (190-191) to her lover though she herself remains “thirsty [and] cankered” (191). Because she is a passive female, she lacks the power to consume. Yet under his spell she cannot help but return again and again “to have his fingers strip the tattered skin away again” (191) and devour her once more.

Eventually, she realizes what her lover plans to do with her. She says, “I have seen the cage you are weaving for me; it is a very pretty one and I shall sit, hereafter, in my cage among the other singing birds” (Carter 191). The protagonist knows that if she remains inactive, the Erl-King will use his power to transform her into a fowl, where she will remain his eternal prisoner. Unwilling to join his “whistling congregation” (191) the narrator instead decides to eliminate the threat at its source. As he lies “half dreaming, half-waking” (192) she gently winds his hair into rope and strangles him. Afterwards, she sets free all of the caged birds before carving “off his great mane with the knife he uses to skin the rabbits” (192). Aside from the obvious dismantling of the omnipresent ruler, the narrator performs one final act of rebellion by using his knife, a phallic symbol, to cut off the Erl-King’s mane, thus castrating him. Carter ends the story with a short lyrical note, “Mother, mother, you have murdered me!” (192) This presumably emphasizes the end of patriarchy and sows the seeds for a potential matriarchy.

In the conclusion of “The Bloody Chamber” Carter reveals a similar alternative to the gaze. Which is produced through two distinct modifications of the original fable. The first variation is introduced in the form of Jean-Yves, the blind piano tuner who later becomes the narrator’s husband. Unlike the brutal Marquis, Jean-Yves is characterised as having a sweet demeanor and a “touching ingenuous smile ” (Carter 134). He has “neither the power of the Marquis nor the glamor of a fairy tale prince” (Sheets 654). Though none of this seems to matter to the narrator as his appeal resides in the fact that his blindness strictly “precludes him from any form of scopophilia” (Sivyer 26). As Robin Sheets remarks, Jean-Yves “will never look at the materials in the Marquis’s library; nor will he see the mark of shame on the narrator’s forehead” (654). Thus, his presence enforces privilege upon the narrator’s character, rather than her appearance.

The second variation arrives in the form of her mother. Unlike the Perrault tale, the narrator is rescued not by her brothers, but by her mother. She bursts through the castle gates, her white hair wild and flowing, as she holds “one hand on the reigns of [a] rearing horse while the other clasped…[a] service revolver” (Carter 142). Her courageous, unfettered image temporarily incapacitates him and he stares at her “as if she had been medusa” (142). Circling back to what Andrea Dworkin taught us, the Marquis sees the active, masculinized female as wicked and monstrous. He is both shocked by her presence and fearful by what she might do, castrate. Without hesitation, the mother “shoots the Marquis, frees her daughter, and restores her to a life of emotional and moral integrity” (Sheets 653). In utilizing the presence of the strong and sensitive mother figure, Carter demonstrates that women can act without being evil and achieve happiness without being passive.

In the end, the moral of Carter’s story is clear, “To be the object of desire is to be defined in the passive case. To exist in the passive case is to die in the passive case—that is to be killed. This is the moral of the fairy tale about the perfect woman” (Carter qtd. in Sheets 650). Within both “The Erl-King” and “The Bloody Chamber” the protagonists realize that they are not perfect women and therefore they have the right to act, experience, and learn from their errors of their way. Thus, the use of pornography serves as a catalyst, which demystifies femininity under patriarchy and allows women to move themselves from the position of the objectified to that of empowerment.



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

Dworkin, Andrea. Woman Hating. New York, NY: Plume, 1974. Print.

Rackham, Arthur. The Old Woman in the Wood. 1917. Rackham’s Fairy Tale Illustrations. Ed. Jeff A. Menges. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2002. N. pag. Print.

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.


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