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Writing Sample 1 - Sample Literary Analysis in MLA style
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Jana Reardon
Professor Mark Cushing
English 1100
February 15, 2006

Mother power in Angela Carter's "The Bloody Chamber"

     In the eulogy for Angela Carter that he published in The New York Times, Salman Rushdie said remembered his friend as both a "wizard" and "a thumber of noses, a defiler of sacred cows." In "The Bloody Chamber," she thumbs her nose at the traditional fairy tale about Bluebeard and turns it into a feminist rescue drama. Although the narrator and protagonist of the story is a young woman, the real heroine is her mother, who swoops in at the last minute to save her daughter from execution.

     As Marcia Lieberman has demonstrated, most traditional fairy tales "acculturate women to traditional social roles" (383). There are few heroines who have the power to change their difficult circumstances or choose their own husbands. Instead, they must wait patiently by to be rescued and wed.

     Lieberman calls the bride of the Bluebeard story a "prime example of the helpless damsel-victim, desperately waiting for a rescuer" (390). Carter's version differs from the traditional tale in that the narrator is led into her hazardous marriage partly through her own desire. Once in Bluebeard's ornate castle, however, she seems to lose any ability to act on her own will. She is manipulated into visiting the forbidden chamber and becomes completely passive when her husband states his murderous intentions.

     The narrator's mother, though, is a dramatic invention that radically alters the meaning of the traditional fairy tale recorded by the Brothers Grimm. In the Grimm story, there is not any mention of the bride's mother. We're simply told, "There was once a man who lived in a forest with his three sons and a beautiful daughter" (660). Whether the mother is dead or just inconspicuous we don't know. Either way, she is invisible. Bluebeard's bride is eventually rescued by her three brothers, who hear her prayers for help and storm the castle.

     In contrast, the action of "The Bloody Chamber" is framed by descriptions of the bride's powerful mother. At the beginning of the story, in her railway berth on the way to Bluebeard's castle, the narrator reflects on how she is journeying away from her childhood and feels that she has "in some way ceased to her [mother's] child in becoming his wife" (7). In one sense, this statement is very true; once in the castle, the daughter will show little of the mother's remarkable, iconoclastic energy.

     Drifting towards her fateful honeymoon, the narrator muses on how her mother resisted the stereotype of a passive maiden who lets herself be sold to the highest bidder. Instead, the mother chose her own husband and "gladly, scandalously, defiantly beggared herself for love" (7-8). The daughter also recalls the mother's pre-marital adventures, which are even more astonishing. As a young woman, she single-handedly conquered a tiger, a pirate ship, and an epidemic. After her husband's death, the narrator's mother continues to shatter conventional female roles by keeping her husband's revolver in her purse.

     The mother's masculine forcefulness gives her a face that is "eagle-featured" (7). The bird imagery emphasizes how fantastic a creature she is. Raised in exotic Indo-China, her untamable courage and her independence make her so unusual in so-called civilized society that, in the rescue scene, she appears to her daughter to be a "wild thing" (39).

     Galloping to the rescue with her hair flying behind her like a "mane" and her skirts tucked up like pantaloons, the mother appears to be part lion and part man. She's so fabulous that she's the kind of being we might expect to encounter in a myth rather than a fairy tale. In fact, the narrator compares her mother's effect on the Marquis to Medusa's power to turn men to stone. The comparison has deep significance, given the way the story emphasizes acts of seeing. Whereas the Marquis, with his taste for mirrored walls and pornography, represents the power of the male gaze to control women, Medusa transfixes men with a single glance.

     While she wields power as extraordinary as a man's, the narrator's mother remains, however, essentially female. It's her womanly intuition, the "maternal telepathy" (40) between her and daughter, that prompts her to rush to the castle. She has no rational, masculine explanation for her actions, but only the vague sense that it wasn't right for her daughter to be crying over gold bathroom taps. She embodies a distinctly feminine power.

     Like a wizard, Carter uses the narrator's forceful mother to transform both the ending and the moral of the traditional Bluebeard tale. Whereas the conventional story has often been interpreted as a warning against female curiosity, Carter's version condemns the use of fairy tales as patriarchal parables. She compares the Marquis's shock at the mother's sudden arrival to the dismay of a puppeteer seeing "his dolls break free of their strings, abandon the rituals he had ordained for them since time began and start to live for themselves" (39).

     Through this remark, Carter seems to illustrate Lieberman's assertion that fairy tales serve as "primary channels of acculturation" for female audiences (385) whose ritual retelling perpetuates social limitations of women's autonomy. In "The Bloody Chamber," the extraordinary figure of the narrator's mother boldly seizes back female power, as Carter defies both conventional stereotypes of female behaviour and the fairy tale form through which they've been historically transmitted.

Works Cited

Carter, Angela. The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. New York: Penguin, 1979.
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. "Bluebeard." The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm.
     Ed. and trans. Jack Zipes. 660-62.
Lieberman, Marcia. "'Some Day My Prince Will Come': Female Acculturation Through the
     Fairy Tale." College English 34.3 (1972): 383-95.
Rushdie, Salman. "Angela Carter, 1940-92: A Very Good Wizard, a Very Dear Friend." New
     York Times 8 Mar. 1992. 12 Feb. 2006

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