(thank you N for this text)
A feminist appropriation of misogynist and patriarchal texts: Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman and The Bloody Chamber.
By Roxie Drayson, Year 3, Goldsmiths College, University of London
It seems incongruous that a self-avowed feminist concerned with the empowerment of women should find anything of value in the writings of the Marquis de Sade, a misogynist libertine who openly advocated the punishment and control of women through sexual means. It is a challenge Simone de Beauvoir undertook in her essay Must We Burn Sade?, in which she attempted to demonstrate ‘the supreme value of his testimony’. Like Beauvoir, Sade understood the powers of mystification, and his writing also unmasked the fictions of bourgeois gender constructs.
When he writes that ‘every man wants to be a tyrant when he fornicates’, he reveals the reality of male desire and it is in this possibility that his importance for Beauvoir and other feminists partly lies. Beauvoir remarks that for Sade, ‘sexuality was not a biological matter, but a social fact’. He did not believe that sexuality was intended only to satisfy the requirements of procreation, and argued, that under the prohibitive social conditions of bourgeois morality, which undermined individualism in favour of an abstract repressive universality, sexual cruelty and violence could provide a subversive political strategy through which to reestablish individuality and passion. Beauvoir comes to view him as a philosopher of freedom, suggesting that ‘it is as a moralist rather than as a poet that Sade tries to shatter the prison of appearances’ by making of ‘his sexuality an ethic’. His work therefore has an exemplary character to the extent that this ethic provides us with ‘insights of surprising depth into the relation of sexuality to social existence’. Beauvoir is able to appropriate Sade for her own ends, weaving her interpretation of his work into an implicit criticism of the conservative morality and hypocritical bourgeois universalism that were employed to undermine female individualism in her own time.
Twenty-four years later, in The Sadeian Woman, Angela Carter similarly appropriates the writings of Sade to further her own feminist project of ‘demythologising’ hegemonic and essentialist conceptions of female sexuality. Like Beauvoir, she also considers his pornography to be unique in that he used it to reveal rather than conceal the actuality of sexual relations ‘in the context of an unfree society as the expression of pure tyranny’. The source of Carter’s interest in Sade is the exposure of the important role that sexuality plays in maintaining the social status quo: ‘since he is not a religious man but a political man, he treats the facts of female sexuality not as a moral dilemma but as a political reality’. Like Beauvoir, she views him as a philosopher of freedom who ‘urged women to fuck as actively as they were able […] to fuck their way into history and in doing so change it’. However, published during the early development of the anti-pornography debate that was to divide the feminist movement throughout the course of the next decade, contemporaneous and subsequent feminist critical responses to The Sadeian Woman demonstrated a profound unease with the ethics of any appropriation of Sade by feminism, an imaginative leap deemed by some impossible to make.
Several critics, such as Susanne Kappeler, have stated that Carter’s use of Sade’s misogynist works did little other than reinforce degrading patriarchal representations of women. Her accusation that Carter is simply ‘playing in the literary sanctuary’ implies a refusal to acknowledge that some pornographic literature may be open to a subversive re-appropriation which could challenge the political and social status quo. Similarly, Patricia Duncker commented in relation to Carter’s use of the traditional fairy tale in The Bloody Chamber ‘that the infernal trap inherent in the fairy tale, which fits the form to its purpose, to be the carrier of ideology, proves too complex and pervasive to avoid. Carter is rewriting the tales within the strait-jacket of their original structures’. It is indeed not coincidental that The Bloody Chamber was published in the same year as The Sadeian Woman, as Carter’s revisionary fairy tales mark a similar attempt to demonstrate how inherited patriarchal discursive structures are not innately monolithic or resistant to appropriation. Carter connects the two texts herself by arguing that Sade’s ‘straitjacket psychology relates his fiction directly to the black and white ethical world of fairy-tale and fable’. If her discussion of Sade’s work stresses its fairy tale abstractions, then her own revision of the classical fairy tale attempts to emphasise the pornographic nature of the representations of women that it circulated. Both texts, like Beauvoir’s essay, highlight the connection that binds sexual and socio-economic relations within a patriarchal society. In her fairy-tale revisions, Carter attempts, just as Sade did in his black fairy-tales, to expose a reality that those tales sought to disguise: that female virginity operates as a token and guarantor of the ruling classes’ property rights. Carter writes in The Sadeian Woman that ‘sexual relations between men and women always render explicit the nature of social relations in the society in which they take place and if described explicitly will form a critique of those relations’.
According to the critic Betsey Hearne, the original eighteenth-century tale of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont – upon which two of Carter’s stories in The Bloody Chamber are based – can be read as a proto-feminist text. Beaumont lived at a time when the archaic tradition of arranged marriage based on social position and wealth was being challenged by the progressive concept of courtly love. In the classic pattern of courtship, Beauty is represented as having a choice. The Beast repeatedly asks for her hand in marriage which she chooses to refuse on several occasions, suggesting that her final decision to wed is entirely voluntary and therefore indicative of romantic love.
However in truth, when Beaumont’s Beauty first considers the possibility of marrying the Beast, her motivations are primarily those of practicality and gratitude for the generous gifts lavished on her: ‘“Am I not very wicked,” said she, “to act so unkindly to Beast, that has studied, so much to please me in everything? […] It is true, I do not feel the tenderness of affection for him, but I find I have the highest gratitude, esteem and friendship; I will not make him miserable, were I to be so ungrateful I should never forgive myself”’. She is not a woman in love, but someone calmly calculating her prospects and economic obligations. She can therefore be read as a representation of female collusion within the patriarchal exchange system of women.
Mimicking Sade by adopting the role of ‘moral pornographer’ who ‘through the infinite modulations of the sexual act’ reveals ‘the historical fact of the economic dependence of women upon men’, Carter uses her first revision of Beamont’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ to illustrate the system of material exchange upon which the original’s romantic concept of marriage is in fact founded. In the ironically titled ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’, she highlights the construction of the female as a circulating object of exchange by allowing, in a sentence concerning the white rose that Beauty’s father had promised to buy her, a fleeting syntactic ambiguity about what is being bought, Beauty or the rose: ‘not even enough money left over to buy his Beauty, his-girl-child, his pet, the one white rose she said she wanted’. The white rose, signifying Beauty’s status as a commodity, later becomes a token of exchange in a system of private ownership between the male Beast and Beauty’s father. The Beast’s estate bespeaks a materialism reserved for the male patriarch, it is ‘a place of privilege’. Just as Beauty’s father is the proud owner of ‘his girl-child, his pet’, the Beast is similarly accustomed to being the possessor of beautiful and valuable objects. Carter highlights the inexorability of the male-defined economy that structures the original narrative in a sly aside after the Beast’s quid pro quo proposal: ‘and what else was there to be done’. Beauty is represented as aware of, yet powerless to contravene, her position in this system of symbolic exchange: ‘she stayed and smiled, because her father wanted her to do so […] For she knew with a pang of dread that her visit to the Beast must be, on some magically reciprocal scale, the price of her father’s good fortune’.
As a governess, Beaumont was viewed as a progressive thinker in her day who had a ‘reforming zeal for both the status and the education of women in society’. Originally published in a book that tells of a governess reciting different lessons and stories to a group of girls in her charge, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ was designed as a sex-specific tale intended to present a suitable model for little girls. However, as the folklorist Jack Zipes states, the story suggests ‘that the mark of beauty for a female is to be found in her submission, obedience, humility, industry, and patience’. Beauty sacrifices her will to that of two men, her father and the Beast, and seeks for her self-effacement to be praised as a virtuous and courageous act. Carter ironises this position by permitting the derisive description – ‘Miss Lamb, spotless, sacrificial’ – to emanate from Beauty’s own perspective. In her passive submission, Beauty is revealed to be a copy of Sade’s Justine, a character whom Carter described as ‘a good woman according to the rules for women laid down by men and her reward is rape, humiliation and incessant beatings […] the living image of a fairy-tale princess’.
In ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’, Beauty expedites her own domination by offering herself to the Beast in desperation, almost as if she fears not being taken otherwise: ‘if you’ll have me, I’ll never leave you’. Carter is evidently impatient with Beauty’s acceptance of her subordinate status and commented that the original tale is ‘an advertisement for moral blackmail when the Beast says that he is dying because of Beauty, the only morally correct thing for her to have said at that point would be, “Die, then”’. However in her own revision, no such rebellion occurs, instead we are left with Mr. Lyon’s self-regarding, complacent self-satisfaction at the appropriation of his latest acquisition: ‘do you know, I think I might be able to manage a little breakfast today, Beauty, if you eat something with me’.
In an interview with John Haffenden, Carter commented that ‘some of the stories in The Bloody Chamber are the result of furiously quarrelling with Bettelheim’, specifically referring to ‘Beauty and the Beast’ as a tale of which her interpretation differed markedly from that of the psychoanalytic critic. While he viewed the fable as an allegory of the successful maturation of the girl into sexual adulthood, in ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’, she indicates that within patriarchal society autonomous female growth is in effect stunted. Bettelheim framed his reading of the story entirely within the Oedipal narrative, suggesting that Beauty, due to the incest taboo and her desire for her father, has not been able to see the prince correctly and has imagined him as a beast. Once she is able successfully to sever her Oedipal attachment to her father, she can then see the Prince as he is and has always been. In her second revision of the tale, ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, Carter allows Beauty to escape from the Oedipal narrative, offering an alternative model for the development of female sexual desire.
Carter reverses the child’s willingness to sacrifice all for her beloved father into the father’s own willingness to sacrifice all, including his daughter and wife, to his puerile egotism and frenetic pleasure-seeking. The role of women as objects of exchange in classic fairy tales, adumbrated in ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’, is further accented in ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ as Beauty’s father loses her to the Beast in a game of cards. Appropriating the personal voice, this Beauty avatar not only takes control of the narrative, and therefore the patriarchal narrative tradition of the fairy tale itself, but in observing her surroundings from a detached, acrimonious perspective is able to expose the predicament of women within the patriarchal system: ‘I watched with the furious cynicism peculiar to women whose circumstances force mutely to witness folly’. Unlike her twin sister in ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’, she does not construct herself as a delicate ‘pearl’ but as a stronger, more resilient ‘woman of honour’ who refuses to play the role of victimized pawn. The white rose, which referred in the previous story to Beauty’s status as cultural commodity, is disdainfully returned by this Beauty to her father ‘all smeared with blood’.
When the Beast asks her to undress, she refuses to discharge her father’s debt and submit to the Sadeian one-way pornographic gaze which she believes will objectify and other her. However, just as this Beauty does not represent the archetypal Beauty, this Beast does not represent the archetypal Beast. He is no longer a man with the appearance of a lion but a tiger wearing the crafted, ‘beautiful’ mask of a man, suggesting that identity is in itself an artefact. Beauty is fascinated by his otherness, and she is soon able to perceive that beneath the constructed façade of his social appearance, they share an innate commonality: ‘we could boast amongst us not one soul since all the best religions in the world state categorically that not beasts nor women were equipped with souls’. Both excluded from patriarchal society, their relationship can therefore escape androcentric structures in which sexual relations are governed by male discourses of sexuality. It is the tiger who first undresses, revealing his animality behind his human mask, allowing her, asserting herself, to do the same. Rather than othering its object, the tiger’s gaze instead requires the engagement of another subject, acknowledges ‘no pact that is not reciprocal’. Moved by his restrained ferocity and non-differentiating gaze, she exposes herself to him and in doing so finds her perception of the ‘fleshly nature of women’ transformed.
Reading The Bloody Chamber alongside The Sadeian Woman, Patricia Duncker comments, in reference to ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ , that ‘all we are watching, beautifully packaged and unveiled, is the ritual disrobing of the willing victim of pornography’, believing that Carter has absorbed Sade’s misogyny and can therefore have ‘no conception of women’s sexuality as autonomous desire’. This interpretation undermines the agency that Beauty displays in refusing to allow the Beast to cover himself and in stripping herself. Not to do so would have confirmed the patriarchal view that she has no animal self to expose. In the story’s final moments, the Beast licks away Beauty’s skin, revealing the beautiful tiger beneath. Instead of the male animalistic libido devouring the sexually unmotivated female, Beauty is in fact revealed to possess an autonomous sexual libido of her own. Her transformation from object of exchange into independent subject is solidified when she dispatches her mechanical twin, a clock-work doll, back to her father: ‘I will dress her in my own clothes, wind her up, send her back to perform the part of my father’s daughter’.
Like Duncker, Avis Lewallen similarly suggests that the tale is trapped in ‘the Sadean framework, fuck or be fucked, both in the literal and in the metaphorical sense’. It is an interpretation rooted in Lewallen’s misreading of Carter’s critique of Sade’s dualistic Juliette/Justine paradigm in The Sadeian Woman. While Lewallen believes that ‘Carter is attempting to promote an active sexuality for women within Sadean boundaries’, Carter’s analysis of Juliette/Justine, the female libertine and the sacrificial victim, stresses that ultimately ‘Juliette’s triumph is just as ambivalent as Justine’s disaster’; she believes that ‘the Sadeian woman does not subvert her society, except incidentally, as a storm trooper of the individual consciousness. She remains in the area of privilege created by her class just as Sade remains in the philosophic framework of his time’. In ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, Beauty is not based on Sade’s Juliette. Moving from clothes to skin to fur, she represents the multiplicity of female identity. Whereas Beaumont’s story emphasises the potential danger of the polymorphousness latent in each individual and tries to castrate and channel it in accordance with the requirements of a fixed social structure, Carter celebrates indeterminacy and liminality as a desirable and excitingly perverse state. In her revisionary tale, Beauty and the Beast are not trapped within the Sadean fuck or be fucked mentality, they are subverting it as neither can be read as predator or victim. Their relationship is modelled on Carter’s concept of reciprocal love in The Sadeian Woman which ‘will not admit of conqueror and conquered’. It is a model which Carter states Sade explicitly controverted as he ‘preserves his ego from the singular confrontation with the object of reciprocal desire which is, in itself, both passive object and active subject. […] It is in this holy terror of love that we find, the source of all opposition to the emancipation of women’. Beauvoir, similarly admonishes Sade for ‘never for an instant losing himself in his animal nature’, and for refusing in his misogyny to acknowledge the way in which the ambiguity of his fleshed subjectivity could open him reciprocally to the female other. Both women situate Sade’s solipsistic ethic of the erotic against their own feminist erotic, one which ‘allows one to grasp existence in one’s self and the other, as both subjectivity and passivity. The two partners merge in this ambiguous unity; each one is freed of his own presence and achieves immediate communication with the other’.
Carter’s dual revisions of the traditional fairy tale ‘Beauty and the Beast’ act as intratextual companion pieces within The Bloody Chamber and exemplify the collection’s textual tactics as a whole. The first version deconstructs the original story by exposing the contrived gender differences and positionalities which inform it. The second reconstructs by permitting the feminine subject to exceed the projected desire prohibited by the patriarchal forces of the classic fairy tale that insist on restricting female sexuality to that of an economic commodity. Employing Sade’s liberatory philosophy strategically, Carter exposes the patriarchal framework that structures such narratives, and reformulates it into a feminist tale of erotic experience. As Marina Warner states: ‘Carter snatches out of the jaws of misogyny itself ‘useful stories’ for women. There she found Sade a liberating teacher of the male-female status quo and made him illuminate the far reaches of women’s polymorphous desires. The effect is to lift Beauty […] out of the pastel nursery into the labyrinth of female desire’. By insisting on understanding Sade, by giving themselves over, through a method of critical sympathy, to the logic of his philosophy, while exposing his misogyny, both Beauvoir and Carter are able to make Sade work for them.
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