Author Archive

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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Defining the Villain in The Outsider

“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.” This dispassionate utterance, the opening line of Camus’ The Outsider, immediately captures the cool impassiveness that is Meursault.  Meursault’s indifference to the world and to others in it, is what marks him as an ‘outsider’ in society, and is ultimately what leads to his condemnation as a soulless criminal. He has committed murder, incontestably; firing five shots into the chest of an Arab, in broad daylight, can leave no one in doubt of this fact. However, it is his lack of remorse, and perhaps more significantly, his lack of grief over the death of his mother, that has a far greater influence in his sentence. To put it another way, Meursault is sentenced to death because he refuses to exhibit the emotional reactions that society expects of him. In the afterword to the novel, Camus highlights this point, declaring that, “the hero of the book is condemned because he doesn’t play the game.” I certainly agree with the premise here, and yet something struck me as misplaced when I read this sentence: hero?

While I undeniably found Meursault questionable as a villain, the idea of him as a hero seemed to me, to put it mildly, a bit of a stretch. He killed a man at close range and with no remorse, he exhibited no concern for the woman being beaten by his “mate”, he felt no “disgust” towards Salamano’s abusive treatment of his dog, and he didn’t cry at his mother’s funeral. Surely these are no less than the deeds of a bona fide, black-hat-wearing villain? Okay, not quite, when we take the whole picture into account, but a hero?

In the same afterword, Camus describes Meursault as someone who “refuses to lie”, someone with “the passion for absolute and for truth”. While this may, at first sound rather honourable, the defiant actions of a lone man who refuses to bend to society’s warped and imposed demands, in practice, and certainly within this novel, the effect was something quite different. Ordinarily when we think of concepts such as ‘truth’ and ‘honesty’, we may do so with highly moral connotations in mind. Yet, for Meursault, ‘truth’ holds no such connotation; it seems merely to be his default position, almost as if within the chronic apathy of his mind, he just can’t see the point in lying.

When recounting interactions between himself and his girlfriend, Meursault states, “she asked me if I loved her. I told her that it didn’t mean anything but that I didn’t think so.” The straightforward bluntness of this answer demonstrates not only Meursault’s strict and unfrivolous adherence to the truth, but his innate lack of empathy; if he is aware of the emotional effect this statement may have on his girlfriend, then it would apparently seem he just doesn’t care. That Meursault felt it ‘didn’t mean anything’, suggests his indifference towards the idea of love and reflects his somewhat nihilistic and benign attitude towards the value of human experience, towards life in general.

Meursault certainly doesn’t speak his truths from any moral high ground, yet neither does he seem to be acting with immoral intent when his truths are hurtful. It seems most accurate to describe Meurasult’s viewpoint as ‘amoral’, and this is perhaps why his status as a hero, or as a villain, becomes so difficult to define. He is neither black nor white, and a person who dwells in the gray waste land of indifference is arguably unworthy of either praise or condemnation for any of their actions towards other beings. But then, I’d venture he wouldn’t really care what anyone thinks anyway.

Mad Scientist or Altruistic Saviour of the Earth?: Crake as a Villain in Oryx and Crake.

Atwood certainly presents us with an interesting character in Crake. His evil deeds should surely rank him up there with the most evil of villains in literature; wiping out the vast majority of the human population through means of an organ liquefying, eye rupturing, hemorrhagic virus is no saintly deed. And yet he presents us with an unsettlingly redeemable excuse for his actions: the human race was rapidly destroying itself and the planet anyway; his means were severely drastic, yes, but didn’t something have to be done?

And after all, it’s not like he intended to leave the planet completely devoid of human life; well, humanish life anyway. He did create a small group of genetically modified super-humans to inherit the planet. And perhaps these ‘Crakers’ are an improved version of humanity; in them Crake claimed to have eliminated all tendencies towards racism, sexual abuse, social hierarchy and territoriality, along with the need to create weapons, clothing, structures, gods, icons or money; so what if they eat their own faeces and wouldn’t know joke if it slipped on a banana skin?

Caecotrophs aside, it is perhaps possible to view Crake’s intentions as those of an altruistic visionary, willing to do whatever it takes. But this notion is a rather disturbing one. Scientific genius he may be, but Crake’s vision, like his personality, is somewhat flawed in what it is lacking. Along with the negative aspects of humanity, he also claimed to have done away other unnecessary things such as love, art and literature; he swears he’d have done away with dreams too, if he could. Described in the thoughts of Snowman as, “placid… animated statues,” these Crakers seem to be a mere echo of humanity.

Crake himself displays a severe lack of emotion. One notable display of this is his description of his mother, dying from a virus that it is later suggested he may have created: “It was impressive… Froth was coming out.” ‘Impressive’ is hardly the adjective we would expect here, ‘horrific’ would perhaps be more appropriate. ‘Impressive’ suggests an admiration of the virus and, more unnervingly, perhaps even pride in his own success. He makes no utterance of sympathy or regret.

Crake’s lack of emotion, combined with that quiet but assured sense of narcissism, perhaps hints towards a fundamental lack of humanity, and may well put one more in mind of a monster than a man. This is echoed after Crake’s demise with the description of his skull: “Crake’s empty eye sockets look up at Snowman, as his empty eyes, once before. He’s grinning with all the teeth in his head.” In comparing the ‘empty eye sockets’ to Crake’s once ‘empty eyes’, Atwood is perhaps alluding to the void in Crake where compassion and humanity may be found in others. The verb ‘grinning’ suggests Crake as being, at least to Snowman, gleefully triumphant in death; elated that his plan has succeeded. The imagery created here, of this empty grinning skull, has a macabre and demonic effect.

It is Crake’s lack of ability to see the horrors in his actions, the ease with which he justifies mass genocide, that for me make him a true villain. I cannot consider Crake’s actions to be any less than monstrous atrocities. And yet I found myself left with a disturbing question at the end of the novel; is the planet in Atwood’s imagined future in some ways better off because of them?