Masculine Evil and Villainy in “The Bloody Chamber”

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Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” features as the first of a collection of tales in a book of the same title. Each of the tales in this book has roots in one fairy tale or another and “The Bloody Chamber” takes its premise from Perrault’s French fairy tale “Bluebeard”. The villainous male in Carter’s rewrite, however, sports no blue beard (though he does have a beard); he is referred to as merely ‘the Marquis’ and is suggested to have been based upon the Marquis de Sade.

A few of the posts on this blog have dealt with ‘questionable’ villains: those characters who may act atrociously whilst eliciting a reader’s sympathy or understanding; I felt nothing ‘questionable’ as to the Marquis’ status as villain. In true fairy tale manner, the villain of this tale is rooted firmly on the side of evil. It would surely be difficult to feel sympathy for a man who luxuriates within the opulent yet perversely decorated walls of a castle filled with violently sadistic pornography; a man with a private chamber filled with his own grandly presented collection of torture instruments and flesh. This Castle, for me, acquired the sense of being extension of the Marquis himself, so that even when he had left the unnamed heroine of the tale alone there for the night, still he seemed to surround her on every side. The torture chamber, his ‘enfer’, his hell, became the realised projection of his most depraved and destructive sexual desires. The heroine had hoped to ‘find a little of his soul’ in this room as she turned the key; she was granted her wish.

And yet, on top of all this, what makes the Marquis potentially even more horrifying, and certainly more disturbing as a character, is the caricatural yet tangible form Carter gives him, the strikingly vivid and resonant qualities he retains within the mysticism of this genre. “The Bloody Chamber” is a tale painted with rich and vibrant imagery, with a heavy focus on both sensory and sensual detail. The heroine and narrator, whilst newly the Marquis’ bride, and still somewhat naive as to her husband’s true nature, describes, “his white, heavy flesh that had too much in common with the armfuls of arum lilies that filled my bedroom […] undertakers’ lilies […] The lilies I always associate with him; that are white. And stain you.” The imagery of his ‘white, heavy flesh’ creates a strong sense of his physical presence and bearing; an unpleasant one; a blank imposing and unreadable carnal mass. The link between the Marquis and the imagery of the lilies is something that is repeated throughout the tale. The direct referral to ‘undertakers’ lilies’ makes explicit the association being drawn between the Marquis and death. That the lilies are ‘white’, like his flesh, again suggests a blank facade, a mask; that they ‘stain’ suggests his ability to irrevocably affect, to leave the heroine to some degree marked by him, with the loss of her virginity and her exposure to the perversity of his world.

The Marquis, the villainous wealthy noble, seducing women to be his wives only to defile and torture them in his private chamber of horrors, becomes the caricatured embodiment of the potential for masculine cruelty and perversity within heterosexual relationships (though it should not be ignored that the heroine discovers a similar potential lying dormant within herself). For the villain of this tale, there is more than “a striking resemblance between the act of love and the ministrations of a torturer”; for him the two combine, are one and the same.

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