AQA LITB3 PPQ – JANUARY 2012 – ‘Carter explores base instincts rather than subconscious desires’

Probably one of the better essays that I’ve written timed/without the book. I got it marked today and it’s a band 6 response, hope it helps!


In ‘The Bloody Chamber,’ it is true that Carter explores base instincts, such as those of the narrator’s father in ‘The Tiger’s Bride,’ the depraved sexual primacy of the Count in ‘The Snow Child’ and the malign sexual instincts of The Erl-King. Yet, it is debatable that the exploration of base instincts are favoured by Carter. In fact, in the case of the Count, it could be perceived that base instincts arise from the subconscious mind and that the two are intrinsically linked. Furthermore, by considering the benign nature of ‘La Bestia[’s]’ instincts, in addition to the interpretation of ‘The Erl-King’ as an exploration of the narrator’s subconscious desires, it is clear that Carter does not simply wish to explore base instincts. Ultimately, the two concepts are not mutually exclusive – the ambiguity of Carter’s prose allows her to explore the relationship between the two.

In ‘The Tiger’s Bride,’ through the use of parallelism and the motif of the gothic double, Carter explores the base greed of the narrator’s father, which seems to be as instinctive to him as the animalistic ‘ferocity’ of the tiger, in order to convey the innate human tendency to succumb to the psychological id. Within the exposition, the narrator immediately alludes to her father’s base greed through the asyndeton of ‘his gaming, his whoring, his agonising repentances’ that led to the death of her mother. He is characterised as ‘a man in the last stages of debauchery,’ sensually indulging in ‘gambling’ and ‘perpetual pleasure’ and Carter elucidates that such base behaviours are instinctive by utilising the motif of the mask, characterising ‘La Bestia’ as an inverted gothic double, resulting in an ironic caricature of human behaviour. As the tiger wears ‘a mask with a man’s face painted on it,’ where ‘one profile is the mirror image of the other’ Carter echoes Freud’s concept of the uncanny, offering the reader an uncomfortable, yet inherently familiar reflection of uncivilised human instincts, as the tiger is literally a beast behind a guise of civilisation. Perhaps Carter is addressing how humans are either ‘fighting a battle with [themselves]’ as the tiger is, or instinctively succumbing to base and ‘perpetual pleasure’.

However, though Carter does explore some instincts that are base in ‘The Tiger’s Bride,’ she does not present all instincts as such. As the narrator undergoes a metamorphosis in the story’s denouement, as she ‘shrug[s] the drops off [her] beautiful fur’ and assumes an animal form, she learns from the benign and pure instincts of the the beast, who is actually a ‘delicate creature,’ as he offers her an escape from her entrapment and ‘balked simulation of life’ by encouraging her to shed superficial appearances in order to achieve liberation, as foreshadowed in the exposition by the ‘introspective’ setting in which he lives – his desire to see the narrator ‘unclothed’ is clearly not the product of base and sexual instincts, but of instincts altogether more positive and natural. Nudity is depicted in a completely un-sexualised manner, disconnected from any baseness, as the narrator who was once ‘unaccustomed to [her] own flesh’ and ‘unused to [her] own skin’ evades the objectification of a society ‘who take no account of [her] existence’ as she ‘peels down to the cold, white meat of [her] contract.’ She is able to find solace and rebirth in a ‘peaceable kingdom’ in which the oppressive base instincts of men ‘need not be [her] extinction.’

Furthermore, similarly to the way in which the narrator’s father succumbs to his greed in ‘The Tiger’s Bride,’ it could be interpreted that the Count acts on his ‘base’ and sexual instincts by having sex with the young girl in ‘The Snow Child,’ yet, as she is a manifestation of his subconscious desire, it is more likely that Carter does not favour the exploration of base instincts, but sees the two concepts in relation to one another. As the Count ‘thrust his virile member into the dead girl,’ helplessly ‘weeping’ in the process, it could be perceived that such base actions are instinctive and do come naturally to him, yet it would not only be controversial to suggest that engaging in rape, necrophilia and incest is instinctive, but also, inaccurate. Due to the fact that the girl is ‘the child of his desire,’ manifesting as soon as ‘[the Count] completed his description,’ it is a likelier interpretation that she is therefore, a product of male subconscious desire, as suggested by the anaphora as the Count ‘wish[es he] had a girl as white as snow,’ ‘… as red as blood,’ ‘… [and] as black as that bird’s feather.’ Carter explores how the depraved and unsettling desires of the Count interact with his instincts, as he acts on such sexual impulses, as the girl is ‘stark naked,’ serving no other real purpose than for the Count to fulfil the fantasies of his subconscious, as she dissipates, ‘[beginning] to melt’ as soon as he has raped her.

Within ‘The Erl-King,’ through the narrative voice and the setting of the woods, Carter arguably continues to focus on subconscious desires, rather than base instincts, yet this time, those of the female. Though the Erl-King is characterised as an enticing figure, leading the narrator to indulge in her sexual instincts in ‘profane mysteries under the leaves,’ as ‘he came alive from the desire of the woods’ he is ultimately a construct of her subconscious desire. This sentiment is furthered through the narrative voice, as she deems herself an ‘imaginary traveller’ and alludes to the ‘invented distance’ of the woods, she evidently desires the ‘embracements’ of the Erl-King in spite of the ‘grievous harm’ she knows he is able to inflict. The denouement of the story affirms this interpretation as the Erl-King proclaims ‘Mother, Mother, you have murdered me!’ as she figuratively ‘murder[s]’ and suppresses the desires that she has previously been ‘mother’ to.

Yet, it could be considered that whilst Carter does explore the subconscious desires of the narrator, she does this in order to expose how females perceive the base instincts of men. The Erl-King is characterised as a powerful and ‘irrevocable’ figure, able to lead the narrator astray, and Carter alludes to his base intentions by utilising intertextuality from Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ as she equates his actions the ‘…thirsty, cankered..’ ones of the goblins of the poem. However, it is inferred that she will be ‘trapped in her illusion’ and her own subconscious desires, as she is essentially, aware of the Erl-King’s dangerous sexuality. Carter proposes that females metaphorically ‘[lose] themselves in the woods’ – it is their perceptions and toleration of male sexual instincts that are more damaging and thus, she explores both subconscious desires and base instincts in relation to one another.

Ultimately, Carter does not explore base instincts at the cost of subconscious desires, but views them as joint, exploring the relationship between the two. Thus, she shows how subconscious desires can be equally sordid and dangerous, and that baseness need not always arise from instinct.

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