Hey guys! This is an essay I wrote quite recently for homework, and one that I have to admit, I enjoyed writing (for the most part!), and it received a band 6 mark of 34.
Just a quick note before you get to reading the essay: I went to a really interesting lecture on gothic literature quite recently and it generally focused on how psychoanalytic/Freudian concepts are cohesive with the gothic genre. The lecture really elucidated meanings of some of the more complex aspects of Carter’s stories, such as the role of the gothic double and why we ultimately enjoy reading texts that horrify, shock and disgust us. For this particular question, the knowledge and understanding of Freud’s concept of the uncanny (or if we’re being pedantic, ‘Das Unheimliche’) that I gained at the lecture was absolutely invaluable (and also, brilliant AO3) when exploring the theme of liminality and evaluating a more contextual point on the male gaze. If anybody wants me to share my notes on the lecture or a link to Freud’s essay on the uncanny, then I’d be more than happy, just let me know!
In ‘The Bloody Chamber’ Carter subverts the reader’s expectation by depicting the beasts as more humane than the humans, critiquing the submission of men to their base instincts as a result. However, the use of ambiguous language in the process of characterisation leaves whether this is actually ironic open to debate. Many of the characters in the collection, such as La Bestia in ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ and The Marquis in the eponymous story, are in liminal states and encompass both bestial and human attributes, regardless of whether they are humane or depraved. By blurring the lines between human and animal, Carter is thus able to assess the internal conflict of animalistic and moralistic drives and consequently, what it means to be human. In ‘The Tiger’s Bride,’ Carter contrasts the narrator’s immoral father, ‘a man in the last stages of debauchery’ with the more compassionate Tiger who is ‘[struck to the heart]’ as the narrator misunderstands his request to see her unclothed. In spite of the potential for destruction his ‘great, feline tawny shape’ and ‘savage geometry’ permits, he is indirectly characterised as more thoughtful and contemplative by the ‘introspective’ region in which he lives. The setting echoes his bid for the narrator to see past appearances and look deeper and straight to the ’spongy pith of the lungs’ just as the damp chill does and strip herself of material luxuries. Contrastingly, within the narrative, Carter uses the tedious asyndeton of the father’s ‘[his] gaming, [his] whoring, [his] agonising repentances’ to exemplify the human capacity to be self-serving – continuously and powerlessly yielding to their vices to the extent it is a ‘sickness’. This could certainly be perceived as ironically inhumane compared to the ‘self-imposed restraint’ and control that the beast exhibits, as he remains composed when he would ‘rather drop down on all fours,’ never resorting to such degeneracy. It is perhaps the beasts and not the humans that the reader seeks to identify with.
However, as Carter uses equivocation, referring to the Tiger as a ‘man’ – as having a ‘hand’ and not a paw – ‘La Bestia’ is never addressed clearly as human or beast, putting to question whether or not his benevolence can be considered ironic. As he is anthropomorphised, covering himself in ‘civet’ to mask his natural scent and wearing a ‘mask with a man’s face painted on it,’ the Tiger is characterised as a gothic double, implying his liminality and the guise of civilisation. Here, Carter echoes Freud’s concept of the uncanny through the motif of the mask, where ‘one profile of the mask is the mirror image of the other’ in order to offer the reader an uncomfortable, yet inherently familiar reflection of the more primitive aspects human behaviour, as he is literally a beast behind a mask of civilisation. Therefore, the presentation of the Tiger, who embodies characteristics considered to be typically human, is more indicative of human ability to herald both civilised and animalistic tendencies than it is ‘ironic’. Carter is potentially addressing how humans that strive to be moral, as the Tiger is, are either metaphorically ‘fighting a battle with [themselves],’ ignoring their inevitable, basic instincts, or like Beauty’s father, succumbing to their base ‘perpetual pleasure[s]’. However, the interpretation that the Tiger is not humane in his natural state can be discarded, as the narrator states that in actuality ‘nothing about him reminded me of humanity.’ Therefore, Carter’s message is indeed an ironic criticism directed towards humans and their selfish behaviour.
This perspective is furthered by Carter’s illustration of the human Marquis in the eponymous story of the collection, which counters the view that humans have the ability to be humane. The Marquis exhibits his depravity within the setting of the ‘museum of his perversity’ by displaying his murdered wives – all ’victims’ to his inhumane nature. His deep, internal corruption is also implicit in the text by Carter’s reference to Huysman’s ‘La-Bas’, which he has ‘bound like a missal,’ and treats a fundamentally sacrilegious text as his bible. As the story reaches its climactic point, the Marquis’ ‘monocle,’ arguably, a symbol of civilisation ‘fall[s] from his face’ and he exposes his more ‘disordered’ and animalistic tendencies, hidden behind a guise of civilisation. Perhaps if humans are able to conceal such dark impulses behind a ‘self-sustaining carapace,’ then Carter’s presentation of the beasts of more humane than the humans is not ironic, but instead, sincere. Yet, as reference is also made to his ‘curling mane’ at this stage in the story, it is entirely possible that the Marquis could be regarded as more of a beast than a human. Carter repeatedly utilises zoomorphism throughout the story, citing ‘the leonine shape of his [the Marquis’] head’ and alluding to Dracula as the narrator describes his ‘kiss with tongue and teeth’ to imply his animalistic and predatory qualities. However, though this imagery does somewhat negate any irony and make his oppressive physical presence seem like that beyond normality, the Marquis is essentially human and just a ‘big man’ that displays beastly behaviour. If we assume that it is due to the female perspective of the narrator that we too, perceive the Marquis to be a ‘monster,’ then perhaps this method of characterisation is used to allow the reader to consider a more contemptible facet of male behaviour. As the narrator notes the ‘sheer carnal avarice’ of the Marquis’ regard, Carter criticises the inhumane objectification of women by exposing the sexual power imbalance of the male gaze.
Though Carter envisages humanity as beastly in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ through the characterisation of the Marquis, the juxtaposing character of Jean-Yves completely counters this view. In her relationship with the ‘blind’ piano tuner, the narrator is able to escape the ‘lecherou[s]’ and inhumane hold of the male gaze that the Marquis exerts over her and this is something exemplified by Carter’s manipulation of the motif of eyes. The emphatic prosody of the description of Jean-Yves’ ‘singularly sweet’ eyes acts in stark contrast to the ‘dark, unreflective’ eyes of the Marquis, conveying romance as opposed to degradation. Whilst it could be interpreted that Jean-Yves is merely employed to act as a foil to emphasise the Marquis’ beastliness and a human inclination towards corruption, as he ‘sees [the narrator] clearly with his heart,’ Carter implies a more optimistic and less ironic view that some humans harbour the ‘lovely, blind humanity’ of the piano tuner, rather than the characteristics of a beast.
Ultimately, though the beasts are generally depicted as more humane than the humans, this is not necessarily ‘ironic’. In doing this, Carter is able to exemplify the competition between primary urges and the humane emotions that distinguish us from animals, articulating how humans can revert to their basic or base instincts and as a result, she offers a scathing commentary on civilisation.