- Moonlit Mirrors, Bloody Chambers, and Tender Wolves: Identity and Sexuality in Angela Carter’s “Wolf-Alice”
“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, Sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”—Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
From One Identity to Another
In her well-known collection of “stories about fairy stories,” The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter revisits and revises traditional folklore; or, rather, she continues the tradition of revision inherent in this originally orally transmitted literary form. The shifting structures inherent to folklore, she claims, made it easier for her “to deal with the shifting structures of reality and sexuality” (“Notes” 25). Carter’s appropriation of the fairy tale form is a conscious infiltration and disruption of western patriarchal ideologies and the binary modes of thinking traditionally embodied therein, an effort to question the “nature” of gendered reality and the extent to which our experiences of self are defined by “the social fictions that regulate our lives”: “I’m in the demythologizing business. I’m interested in myths—though I’m much more interested in folklore—just because they are extraordinary lies designed to make people unfree” (25). Overtly, here, in her revisioning of folklore, and elsewhere, as in her analysis of the Marquis de Sade’s novels in The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, Carter’s agenda is one of dismantling the myths of human sexuality that amount to the oppression of all the sexes, but of women and the feminine in particular. “Myth deals in false universals, to dull the pain of particular circumstances. In no area is this more true than in that of relations between the sexes,” she claims (Sadeian Woman 5–6). In “Women’s Time,” [End Page 89] an essay contemporaneous with The Bloody Chamber, Julia Kristeva argues for a feminism that allows for plurality of identity and individual differences in notions of woman and rejects the dichotomy between masculine and feminine as metaphysical: “the dichotomy between man and woman as an opposition of two rival entities is a problem for metaphysics. What does ‘identity’ and even ‘sexual identity’ mean in a theoretical and scientific space in which the notion of ‘identity’ itself is challenged?” (368). The deconstruction of sexual identity is the “authentically feminist” practice engaged by both Carter and Kristeva, and both rely on the materialism of the body to do so (Moi 12).
Fundamentally, Carter seems to be critiquing the mythology of western philosophy, beginning with that “father of lies” Plato and his subjugation of the body and the material world to the realm of ideal forms (“Notes” 27). Her writing undermines the basis of oppositional logic and the kind of mind/body divide propagated as a love of wisdom. Carter once said in an interview, “I do think that the body comes first, not consciousness … remember there’s a materiality to symbols and a materiality to imaginative life which should be taken quite seriously” (qtd. in Roemer 7). Her emphasis on the materiality of the body and language recalls the work of Julia Kristeva,1 which gives the body a place of primacy in contemporary psychoanalytic theory and reconnects the body and its drives to language. Kristeva, though building on the ideas of Freud and Lacan, emphasizes the undecidable element of language, the semiotic disruption of the symbolic, and thus posits the speaking subject as a heterogeneous, always “questionable subject-in-process.” She not only advocates an analytical theory that searches for “the unsettling process of meaning and subject” rather than for coherence or identity, but she also locates the origins of such a process in the pre-oedipal, pre-linguistic body (Kristeva, Desire 125). In The Bloody Chamber, Carter presents an array of characters whose subjectivity is often quite literally shown to be in process, whose condition is always somewhere in-between. As Anny Crunelle-Vanrigh asserts, “Carter’s stories move toward polymorphousness as a desirable, excitingly perverse end. Pleasure lies in the...