Before analyzing the way in which Carter created a Gothic story from the tradition fairy-tale of Bluebeard, we must first understand the meaning of ‘latent content’. Freud explains latent content to be ‘the forbidden thoughts and the unconscious desires which appear in the manifest content but are disguised and unrecognizable.’ However, in saying this, the manifest and latent content can sometimes be indistinguishable (referred to as ‘Infantile dreams’); much like in the case of Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. Carter uses a process called ‘dream-work’, whereby she takes the latent content in Bluebeard, and transforms it into manifest content, to create something new and, in this case, Gothic.
In the original tale of Bluebeard, the chamber itself is only described in two brief lines; one describing how it was dark as ‘the windows were shut’, and the other describing the ‘several dead women, ranged against the walls’. Carter saw that this ‘chamber’ had a greater role in the plot of the story than the original showed it to have. In naming her version of the story ‘The Bloody Chamber’ she allowed the setting to hold great importance – and in doing so, she managed to change its form from ‘a background-to-a-plot’, to an actual character; which is required of a setting in a Gothic novel.
Carter even goes as far as giving the chamber emotion-like qualities, “The walls… gleamed as if they were sweating with fright”. This not only personifies the chamber, but also builds a stronger connection between the chamber and the character of the wife, as the emotion of ‘fright’ would have been one the wife would have experienced upon entering the chamber; in allowing a reflection in the two’s personality, it reemphasizes the importance of the chamber, which the original version isn’t able to accomplish.
It is very easy for readers in the present to interpret Bluebeard’s purpose in giving the key to the chamber to his wife and his warning against going into the chamber was to test his wife’s loyalty. The story Bluebeard, is said to share notable plot lines with older works, the most prominent being Arabian Nights, were a Persian King kills his wives because of his lack of faith in their innocence. This is one of part the latent content which Carter decided to make manifest; she plays on the fact that the Marquis chose his wife as he was drawn to her ‘innocence’, claiming that she would have been the first of his wives to give him the choice of showing his ‘interested tenants such a flag’ (referring to the bloody sheets, which were proof of her virginity).
However, Carter realizes that this proof, much like in the tale of Arabian Nights, is not enough to prove innocence to the Marquis, as he tests her anyway because he senses a ‘potential for corruption’ in her. Carter, in some way, also sets a test – a test to the reader to realize that (although we all have a ‘potential for corruption’) in the wife’s case, it’s not her who leads to her own corruption, but it is the Marquis who puts her on the path. This plays on the Gothic genre as, usually in Gothic novels, some of the characters suffer with different complexes. In the case of The Bloody Chamber we see, through this ‘test’, that the antagonist, the Marquis, suffers from paranoia, and can be argued to have Borderline Personality Disorder.
The name ‘Bluebeard’ is one of the things Carter has as part of the latent content in her version of the story, as it was already manifest in the original. By doing the opposite of ‘dream-work’, she is able to add more depth and Gothic elements to the story. Instead of simply naming the Marquis ‘Bluebeard’, she gives him the qualities associated the words ‘blue’ and ‘beard’. Chevalier describes the colour blue as an ‘insubstantial colour’ which ‘seldom occurs in the natural world except as a translucency’, he states that “it evokes the idea of eternity; calm, lofty, superhuman, inhuman even”.
Many of these symbolic qualities of ‘blue’ relate well to the Marquis’s character, which seems to be inhuman with ‘his white, broad face… hovering, disembodied… like a grotesque carnival head’. The word ‘beard’ has many symbolic meanings; it is often connected with magical powers, and hair is ‘the sign of the animal in the human, and all that means in terms of our tradition of associating the beast with the bestial’ . These ideas are subtly put forward by Carter as she understands that in the Gothic genre, it is not the character themselves that we should fear, but their presence.
‘The key… was stained in blood’ is another part of the latent content within the Bluebeard story, which Carter acknowledges in The Bloody Chamber. The key in this story has many symbolic meanings. One being that keys, in folktales, often symbolizes a mystery to be solved; “on the road to enlightenment and revelation” . In this situation the key represents a mystery of the missing wives which the wives solve by entering the chamber; “the secrets of Pandora’s box”. The key is also a phallic symbol, one of many which appear in The Bloody Chamber. The key is stained with blood after she enters the chamber, the chamber in which she losses her innocent view of the Marquis; a ‘stained key’ is an ancient motif which sexual defloration is a possible meaning. The blood cannot be removed from the key – “I scrubbed the stain with my nail brush but still it would not budge” – since defloration is an irreversible event.
Carter realises the religious content in the Bluebeard story; the wife’s repentance, prayers, even the name of her sister – Anne, comes from the Hebrew name Hanani, meaning ‘He (God) has favoured me’ (linking to how Marquis had specially chosen his wives above other potential brides). Carter plays on this latent content as she sees the wife treating Bluebeard as her ultimate judge (a God).
This is made manifest in The Bloody Chamber; “the eye of God – his eye – was upon me”. The wife sees the Marquis as a God in his own right, claiming that he has his own ‘creatures’ and that “Time was his servant too”. This seems to be a feminist criticism of male dominance, and also a comment on religion (which was greatly explored in the Gothic genre). Carter, and to some extent Charles Perrault, tap further into the Gothic genre though the killing of this ‘god-like’ being.
To conclude Carter is able to extract the ‘latent content’ from Bluebeard by looking at the origins of the story and some of the archetypes and motifs that appear in the story. Through this she was able to create a story with strong Gothic elements as she explored character, setting, and symbolism further than the original fairy-tale had.
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Topic: ‘The Bloody Chamber’ by Angela Carter
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