- Erotic Infidelities: Love and Enchantment in Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” by Kimberly J. Lau
While Angela Carter’s short story collection The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979) has never really been out of the critical debate regarding its fairy tale genre, Kimberly J. Lau’s complex, scholarly exploration of Carter’s preoccupation with sexuality and desire is a welcome addition to the discussion. The Bloody Chamber, as an acknowledged major literary text, repays such a lengthy focus on its content and context. As Lau argues, despite the collection’s patriarchal baggage, Carter never gives up on her exploratory and challenging renditions of heterosexual love. The utilization of the animal and the monstrous allows for alternate “marvelous sexual couplings and imaginative hybridities,” which enable Carter to escape not only phallocentric but also, more controversially, feminist expectations in a textual recuperation of heterosexual desire, love, and companionship (p. 11). (The “feminists” here refer to a narrow range of early radical readings that refuted Carter’s assertion that she was a feminist writer, albeit of a more postmodern persuasion.)
Erotic Infidelities: Love and Enchantment in Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” delights in the short stories’ eclectic intertextuality and multiplicity of meaning:
Although “The Bloody Chamber” seems to promise an exit (if only one could track all the references, map the connections among them, and navigate their allusive, and elusive, meanings), it quickly becomes evident that the paths Carter has set cross and cross again; her labyrinth is as complex and confusing as the social constructions of gender, sexuality, and power that similarly foil most attempts at escape.(pp. 17-18)
Lau’s critique is overly fond of the term “labyrinthine” to convey an inability of interpretation. It is certainly crucial to acknowledge the complexities of cultural power and oppression that infuse these representations of desire, and it is certainly valuable to encompass Carter’s pyrotechnics [End Page 296] of allusion, but Carter’s stories still convey meanings to their plurality of readers. Luckily, each of Lau’s chapters proffers just such an “escape” in a more satisfying analysis than the quote above suggests, fueled by a scholarly tracing and elucidation of the allusions, alongside detailed close readings, to articulate the richness of the stories.
Charles Perrault, Marquis de Sade, Charles Baudelaire, J. K. Huysmans, Jean Cocteau, Bram Stoker, Sheridan LeFanu, and all the usual names are present in Erotic Infidelities and appropriately dealt with, but Lau’s special focus is on unpicking Carter’s critique of Sigmund Freud’s and Jacques Lacan’s inadequacy around feminine sexuality. She argues:
Carter’s implicit critique of Lacan’s theory of subjectivity in relation to the mirror stage, her exceedingly clever invocation of Irigaray’s “nothing-to-see” (itself a condemnation of the very premise upon which Freud develops his theory of sexual difference), and her differently figured “marvellous wound” all begin to destabilize the primacy of the phallus, the primacy of the Law of the Father, and to suggest an outside to the Symbolic Order.(p. 58)
Lau’s conclusion is that nonhuman metamorphosis, a Derridean “continuous becoming-Other,” in the tales points to an “alternate erotic” and “autonomous subjectivity” (both feminine and masculine) (p. 72). As those who are familiar with the critical debates surrounding Carter’s The Bloody Chamber will note, there is little innovation in this analysis of the social constructedness of feminine sexuality and alternate possibilities available through fabulation and metanarrative. Even the claim that the reading of the wolf tales is radical, in her section entitled “The Phallus Reconsidered: ‘The Werewolf,’” does not quite bear fruit, although Lau does shift the Irigarayan “touch” to licking, a “symbolic” that creates “a world outside of language though still shaped by the tongue” (p. 141). However, while the claim for a fresh take on the fairy tales was unsupported, the book is enjoyable; it rehearses exactly why the tales are so rich in their textuality, incorporates the latest ecocriticism...