Welcome to The Bloody Chamber roundtable; a collection of short stories by speculative author Angela Carter. We’ll be discussing the short stories — their themes, the craft and the feelings they’ve elicited — in a four-parted series for every season starting with cold, frosty winter.
We broke up the collection and have started with wolves: The Werewolves, The Company of Wolves and Wolf-Alice. Join us in our discussion and if you have questions you’d like us to address in the upcoming parts, comment below! We’ll list the next set of stories we’ll be tackling in part two at the end of the roundtable.
Is this your first time reading Angela Carter? What was your first impression? Any of these stories new for you and if not, what was it like reading it/them again?
Ardo Omer: This isn’t my first time reading Angela Carter. I read The Lady of the House of Love in my first year and The Werewolf in my final year of university. After reading The Werewolf again, I was reminded of how fantastic Angela Carter is as a writer. She has a way of crafting a story. The pacing and imagery are spot on.
“And then no wolf at all lay in front of the hunter but the bloody trunk of a man, headless, footless, dying, dead.”
I loved it.
Christa Seeley: I’m a little ashamed to admit it but yes, this is my first time reading Angela Carter. I’ve had multiple people recommend her work to me over the years but never got around to reading it. So this year, I made it one of my reading resolutions to finally become acquainted with her work.
My initial impression from these first three stories is that she’s every bit as good as people said she was. Also, despite repeatedly being warned about how dark her stories are I was still surprised by just how dark they were. They’re not long stories but they don’t waste any time getting to the more…gruesome elements.
Melissa Brinks: This is my third time reading The Bloody Chamber, though I’ve revisited quite a few of these stories multiple times. A friend gave me his copy of the book after finding out that I hadn’t read her before–I’m forever in his debt, in part because I haven’t been able to return the book after several years.
These stories are so layered and heavy with meaning that I feel like I get something new out of them every time. Reading them individually lets you consider them on their own, reading them in order shows you something different, and reading them by theme, as we’re doing here, reveals entire other things I wouldn’t consider. All of her writing is very deliberate, and I think you can really see how true that is when you approach her work from a variety of angles.
Stephanie Tran: This is my second time reading Carter. I borrowed Bloody Chamber from my local library a couple years ago to read during stormy autumn nights because I had an inkling that they would be dark and creepy…and I was right. Devoured the whole book.
Since reading The Bloody Chamber collection the first time, I’ve had my own encounter with a “wolf” and also experienced the most fearful time in my life when I felt most vulnerable and helpless. Those experiences colored my second reading of The Company of Wolves. I admire the young girl for laughing at the wolf even more now and fully understand the need to beware of wolves. In the past, I understood the message theoretically; now I understand from experience and can appreciate it more.
Alenka Figa: This is also my second time reading Carter, although I don’t think I ever finished The Bloody Chamber. My copy was gifted to me by my 12th grade English teacher; I wrote a paper about common themes in fairy tales, so she gave me the book as a graduation present. I really liked her, but in retrospect, I appreciate her even more for giving me a book that I’m sure would be controversial to teach!
Are there any unifying themes between these two stories, particularly related to wolves? Why wolves? Are these wolves different from other wolves?
Ardo: There’s a tragedy inherent in the werewolf. It’s a constant shifting between man and beast which leaves a lot of room for misunderstandings it seems. Whether it’s the werewolf groom who disappears on his wedding night only to return seven years later to a bride who has moved on or the grandmother whose hand has been accidentally hacked off by her granddaughter while transformed, being a werewolf means giving into or being trapped inside of our animal desires. It’s weird because I find the human side of the werewolf just as beastly as the wolf. We just hide it better.
Christa: Like Ardo, I definitely saw a recurring theme of “animal” desire. Throughout the three stories, there are always some characters that act on these desires and others who are affected by their actions. In The Company of Wolves, a woman’s husband runs off and turns into a wolf on their wedding night. For awhile she waits for him, but eventually remarries and has a son. When her first husband returns, he is furious to find his wife has “betrayed” him and attacks even though he was the one who ran off on her to begin with. Later in the same story, a young girl comes across a wolf, who proceeds to rape and kill her grandmother before moving on to her. In the final story, Wolf-Alice, the wolf-like character is actually a young girl who was raised out in the woods. She is a little out of control by societies standards – driving a wedge between herself and the nuns that took her in. It’s only in the household of the murderous Duke that she really comes into her own.
The Werewolf, on the other hand, explored this theme in a different way. In it, a young girl is headed through the forest on her way to her grandmother’s house and is approached by a wolf – very similar to the classic fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood. Knowing how to defend herself she attacks the wolf, removing its hand, only to find out later that her grandmother was the wolf the whole time. The villagers rush in, assume the grandmother is a witch, kill her and the young girl moves into her grandmother’s house. The first time I read the story, it felt like the grandmother was the villain, giving into her wolfy-hunger to the extent that she would harm her own granddaughter, making her quite similar to the wolves in The Company of Wolves. But when I read it again, I got stuck on the final line, “Now the child lived in the grandmother’s house; she prospered.” The addition of ‘she prospered’ made it seem like maybe the grandmother wasn’t the villain after all.
Melissa: Werewolves are one of my favorite symbolic creatures, and Angela Carter plays with them in such a unique way, especially when you read all these stories together. There’s always a transformation and a dual nature to them, but what’s so great about these stories, in particular, is that you’re never quite sure which part is the one you’re supposed to fear.
Likewise, there are all kinds of predators. Women are not innocent in these stories; Wolf-Alice is a monster because, as Christa mentioned, she lives outside the rules of society. And in The Werewolf, it’s the grandmother who is the monster all along. Even in The Company of Wolves, there’s something a little off about a young girl who “knew she was nobody’s meat.” These women are unafraid, made monstrous by their rejection of society’s expectations.
Wolves have always stood for danger in fairy tales, and Carter’s fairy tales are her own creation from the tropes and images of classic stories. Here, women and wolves are inextricable; we fear them because they don’t play by our rules. But because she’s conscious of this, it’s an appealing twist of our expectation. Even when they’re hungry and violent, it’s cathartic, not offensive.
Stephanie: As Ardo and Christa discussed, the wolf is a symbol of the beastliness of human nature. We’re used to seeing the wolf as an external threat in fairy tales but it’s not — it’s inside us. Carter’s wolves are also more nuanced than the pure danger or violence the fairy tale wolf stands for. Instead, Carter suggests that the “animal” or “wolfish” desires that the various characters display might not necessarily be terrible, monstrous, or immoral, or rather, they’re only monstrous because they’re actions that are committed outside of the realm of society’s expectations, norms, and values. In other words, the wolfishness of the various characters of the stories aren’t bad or good — they’re amoral just as a wolf, and nature, is.
You could also say that you cannot blame a wolf for his or her nature, that they are what nature intended them to be, and from there perhaps excise societal morality from and judgment of the purely human characters as well. For instance, why does the reader instinctively fear and condemn the grandmother in The Werewolf but pity the werewolf who is caught and killed in the out in The Company of Wolves? Both succumbed to their basic, animal natures and needs (hunger) and there’s no indication that the grandmother specifically targeted her granddaughter. In fact, if we view the entire narrative of The Werewolf with some suspicion (given that we are getting the story from only one character in the story, the girl), perhaps the grandmother too is to be pitied. What if she were already delirious with fever prior to her transformation and didn’t even recognize her granddaughter? Besides, suggesting that the beastliness of the attack lay primarily in the familial relationship between grandmother and girl ignores the strong pack mentality of wolves – they too have their families. And suddenly as we examine how the human becomes wolf, the wolf becomes human.
Alenka: I was very struck by the variety of wolves in these stories perhaps because wolves are so frequently associated with evil and danger, but, as others have pointed out, that is not always the case. All of Carter’s wolves are “other” in some way, but the theme I see in both the stories and in our responses is that each wolf or “other” faces different consequences, depending on how they express their other-ness, and on how the world views them. For example, the husband wolf in The Company of Wolves loses his chance at a comfortable family life when he gives in to his animal nature and leaves for several years. However, when he returns to his former home, he doesn’t hesitate to exact violence upon his ex-wife’s children; it seems, like the other wolves in that particular tale, the “other” or wolf-ness of his nature was a sign of danger. Similarly, the Little Red Riding Hood character in the same story seems to give in to her own otherness in the end, but in doing so, find a potentially happy if an albeit troubling relationship with another “other,” the wolf who killed her grandmother. Carter’s wolves are different, but not necessarily evil; the worlds Carter creates are very grey.
All three stories have a lot to do with fear. What is the source of fear in each story? Is it what we expect?
Ardo: In The Werewolf, the granddaughter is told to fear the strange wolves when there’s a wolf — her grandmother — closer to home. In The Company of Wolves and I think also in Wolf-Alice, the fear is in the female body specifically when it hits puberty and is menstruating or in the case of Wolf-Alice, when a woman doesn’t fit into the societal idea of acceptable.
Christa: The wolves are definitely an obvious answer to this question but they’re not the only answer. Which relates to my previous answer in that the wolf character can be a bit of a red herring. Specifically in The Werewolf where it may actually be the young girl that people should fear. In The Company of Wolves, it’s not only the wolf-man but the forest to be feared, when Carter describes it as closing around the girl “like a pair of jaws.” But in “Wolf-Alice” the forest is actually where she feels at home, and it is human society that scares her, and tries to force her to become something she’s not.
Melissa: I’d echo everything Ardo and Christa mentioned. For me, these stories are driven by fear in a unique way, especially in The Company of Wolves. Here, the fear is mostly situated in the reader, who is familiar with the Little Red Riding Hood story. We know how that story ends, we know what’s waiting for her at her grandmother’s house, but this little girl is decidedly not afraid. “Her fear did her no good, she ceased to be afraid,” and, again, “The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat.”
When we get to the end and she cuddles up with the wolf, we’re shaken a bit. Our expectations were not only subverted but outright thwarted; we don’t know what to make of a story in which a little girl, who should be afraid, isn’t. I think we’re as much unsettled by a story that refuses to play by the rules as we are a little girl who tames the hunter so easily.
Stephanie: I think the base fear of the wolf is the fear of being consumed and overcome by one’s beastly nature. It’s a theme that Little Red Riding Hood (LRRH), which The Werewolf and The Company of Wolves are influenced by, particularly emphasizes and which Carter plays with in all three stories. The shape that the beastly nature takes, however, varies from story to story. In the original LRRH story, both the grandmother and the young girl are consumed by the wolf. It’s pretty clear that LRRH’s wolf is just a metaphor for male predators. In The Werewolf, The Company of Wolves, and Wolf Alice, however, the young female protagonists survive uneaten by their wolves.
But do they really? You can be consumed by an emotion like lust or a need like hunger just as you can be consumed by an actual wolf. For instance, The Werewolf grandmother could have been “consumed” by her own hunger — paradoxical, yes, but understandable too. What if her granddaughter took advantage of an old, sick woman and lied that her grandmother had wolf-changing powers just to claim her home? In that case, the granddaughter of The Werewolf could be consumed by greed.
Maybe it’s the three years of Catholic school, but you could also say that the girl in The Company of Wolves is consumed by lust and/or pride. That’s a bit harder to argue though — to be consumed by an emotion is to give in to it and be ruled by it and the young girl with the wolf’s head in her lap seems just as in control of her emotions as she is of the wolf. She doesn’t flaunt her power over the wolf either. So perhaps the consuming power is fear itself in the form of the wolf which she conquers.
Meanwhile, society/civilization/humanity, not the wolf, is the enemy in Wolf-Alice and Alice’s fight isn’t for survival (she’s already done that) but to maintain her own identity. In this case then, the consuming power is the civilizing one present in society. This is also very Carter to take mankind’s fear of the wild and change the narrative to see the wild’s fear of mankind. Beastliness, Carter suggests, shouldn’t be necessarily feared.
Alenka: I find the fear in Wolf Alice most interesting because this story seems less motivated to make the reader sense some kind of fear, and more so, as Stephanie pointed out, to emphasize who fears Alice (and the Duke) and why. Alice, in all her modes and stages of growth, represents something society fears: wildness/ a lack of civility and, returning to Ardo’s point, female sexuality, after she reaches puberty. I’m very puzzled by this story, but toward the end, Alice seems to shift through stereotypical stages of womanhood. She wears the old wedding dress like a young bride would but at the end, she licks The Duke’s face clean because “she was as pitiful as her gaunt grey mother.” Alice seems unable to properly fill or stay within any of the traditionally accepted roles women are meant to fulfill — innocent child, wife, mother — and perhaps that is why she is a source of fear for the larger world.
Two of the three stories — The Werewolf and The Company of Wolves — seem to be inspired by Little Red Riding Hood. Do you think that’s a fair claim to make and if so, why do you think Carter is drawn to that story?
Stephanie: Definitely. The basics of the tale are in both stories — the young girl walking in the woods to the cottage, the surprise at the cottage, the wolf. Carter may feel drawn to Little Red Riding Hood for the same reason I am – the transformation of the wolf/werewolf from a friendly figure into a threat mirrors the transformation of the child into a woman. Sure there are lots of beastly bridegroom and rites of passage stories, but LRRH is one of the few to compare and contrast the two in the same story. Telling young girls that they’re beasts isn’t exactly what the tellers of fairy tales wanted to do.
Traditionally, female rites of passage are a girl’s first menstrual period as well as her first sexual experience and you can clearly see that in The Company of Wolves. The Werewolf, however, is a bit unclear…until you realize that a girl’s first blood could also be interpreted as her first act of violent resulting in bloodshed. In that case, the girl cutting off the wolf’s paw would definitely qualify. Such a violence, one could argue, would mark a person’s transformation from innocent child to adult with bloodstained hands.
Melissa: Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood are two of my favorite authors, and the latter has a quote that’s really stuck with me years after I read it:
“All stories are about wolves. All worth repeating, that is. Anything else is sentimental drivel.”
There’s more to it (you can read the full quote here) but wolves are powerful symbolism. They’re like dogs (humanity’s best friend), but wild. They’re a haunting symbol of the old world, now unfairly persecuted due to stories like this one. They’re intelligent and community-driven and governed by dynamics we don’t understand.
I think Little Red Riding Hood, and in particular all its derivatives, is a perfect encapsulation of what frightens and fascinates us regarding wolves. Sometimes the heroine triumphs over her enemy and sometimes she fails, but the story always begins with straying from the path. If she sticks to the plan, perhaps nothing happens to her. Carter’s heroines never stick to the path, either because they are women of action or because the story itself wanders away from our expectation and leads us somewhere new and dark and dangerous.
Alenka: Melissa, I love what you said and I agree wholeheartedly: these are stories about women who stray. I’ve always felt Little Red Riding Hood was a story about how men do monstrous things to women (I blame Neil Gaiman and the Cereal Convention story in Sandman) but Carter spends a lot of time with various Red Riding Hoods, imagining how they take steps — sometimes gruesome ones — to be in control of their lives, or at least a certain circumstance. It’s very satisfying.
These three stories — and much of Carter’s work — feature young women as protagonists. What does their age have to do with the story? Do these young women act as we expect?
Stephanie: As mentioned earlier I consider Little Red Riding Hood to be a rite of passage story and I suggest that these three stories are too. It makes sense, then, to feature young girls as protagonists, especially if we continue the theme of budding sexuality over from Red Riding Hood and into all three stories. For instance, both The Company of Wolves and Wolf Alice mention menstrual blood, another connection back to Little Red Riding Hood (whose cape is often interpreted as a girl’s first period), and both at least hint at each girl’s first sexual relations.
Female sexuality and girls’ transition to sexual beings as symbolized in their first periods, of course, is just another way of saying they’ve achieved adulthood (the same child/woman transformation I discuss in my previous answer). Once we’re adults society expects women to act a certain way. Carter’s female protagonists decidedly do not act the way society or the reader expects them to — they commit violence, tame wolves instead of being eaten by them, or are wild and wolfish in their own way.
Alenka: Something that I struggled with in The Company of Wolves is that the young girls seem very young. Girls hit puberty at a variety of ages, and since these are set in older eras we can perhaps assume that she’s older than the average age for puberty now, but because her story opens by explaining that children don’t stay young for long, I was thinking of her as about twelve. Her boldness, confidence, and even willingness to be in bed with a wolf all shocked me. However, our society underestimates and devalues girls, when in fact they are intelligent and quite capable. I think Carter is purposefully elevating and celebrating them.
Melissa: Maybe (maybe) there’s some projection happening here on my part, but many of Carter’s stories seem to be interested in liminal spaces and transitions. Her heroines are part of that too — they’re girls, usually having their first or first few periods, and, as much as this seems like an odd time to invoke Britney Spears, they’re not yet women. They have potential. The world hasn’t yet shaped them into one thing or another, and, tying back into the repeated references to Little Red Riding Hood, they stray. They don’t do what we expect at all, and, in doing so, they buck fairy tale and societal tradition.
What’s the significance of mirrors in Wolf-Alice?
Alenka: In Wolf-Alice, Alice first finds companionship in the mirror, but when she realizes what the mirror actually does, she finds herself crying because “her relation with the mirror was now far more intimate since she knew she saw herself within in.” Identity development is a huge part of being a teenager, and while it can make teens vulnerable, it also gives them incredible power. They are realizing who they are, what they value, and what they believe in; they may find themselves standing up for those beliefs for the first time. At least for Alice, the mirror represents a shift toward a self-awareness that can only empower her to do great things.
Stephanie: Obviously, I’m a big proponent of the internal beastliness interpretation of the wolves in all three stories and I think the mirrors in Wolf-Alice reflect (pun unintended) that. Mirrors show your outward appearance (and, as every girl knows, criticism of that appearance), but also prompts a sort of introspection. Is that really what you look like? That’s how other people see you? Is that really you? As Alenka said, mirrors also highlight self-awareness and the slow transformation into an adult identity — animals and very young children think their reflection is another entity or creature. It isn’t until they’re about 2 years old that children realize that they’re seeing a reflection of themselves.
Melissa: I think Stephanie and Alenka have both answered this pretty thoroughly. The only thing I would add is that one of my favorite lines from this story is, “The moon and mirrors have this much in common; you cannot see behind them.” It feels like a much prettier way of saying that appearances are only skin deep; neither of this story’s main characters are what they appear, and what they don’t show the world is a bit darker than what they do.
Do you have a favourite out of the three stories we’ve read?
Ardo: The Company of Wolves! I really enjoyed it. I just liked how it focused on these mini stories within the short story before dedicating a large chunk of it to the girl, the wolf and her grandmother. It was handled brilliantly.
Christa: It’s a tough choice…I liked all three stories but for different reasons. If I had to choose, though, I think I would go with Wolf-Alice. I just like the idea of this girl doing her own thing, making her pads out of old ballgowns and wandering around town in a wedding dress.
Stephanie: I like them all for different reasons but I particularly like The Company of Wolves. There’s just something about having that story start with folktales and hearsay before you get to the actual narrative. It makes you feel like you’re being told the story by Carter right there. And as I said before, I also admire and wish to emulate the female protagonist of Company.
Alenka: I really like Wolf-Alice because, as I mentioned earlier, it confuses me! I know I’ll have to go back and reread, and then reread it again, to keep puzzling it together.
Melissa: My instinct was The Company of Wolves but I’m going with The Werewolf because Ardo and Stephanie did a good job of talking about what’s great about the first already. The Werewolf is succinct, brutal, and biting, a bit of a step away from the close narration of Company. There are some lovely lines in this story that have stuck with me since first reading–“they have cold weather, they have cold hearts,” and “Now the child lived in her grandmother’s house; she prospered.” The whole thing is very ominous, but that last line gives me this sort of sly, triumphant smirk every time I read it, like I, too, could be a sort of threatening, potentially evil little girl if I just put my mind to it.