Analysis of Angela Carter’s review of the Beauty and the Beast: The Courtship of Mr Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride
Profa. M.A. Meyre Ivone Santana da Silva *the text is abridged and cleaned up, as indicated by the brackets.
In an interview [with] Anna Katsavos, [Angela Carter] defines myth as “ideas, images, stories that we tend to take on trust without thinking what they really mean, without trying to work what (they) are really about.”
According to Paulina Palmer, if on the one hand, fairy-tales contribute to perpetuate the patriarchal ideology and status quo by making female subordination an inescapable fate, on the other hand they give Carter the opportunity to explore the theme of psychic transformation, liberating her protagonists from conventional gender roles. “In The Bloody Chamber, Carter succeeds in transcending the ideological limitations which fairy tales generally review.”
Fairy tales generally contain somehow parameters of domination and obedience, women under male dominance and patriarchal system. In these reviews, Carter strongly emphasises the woman desire and sex liberation, playing with the reader’s expectations about the traditional roles of masculine and feminine. For her “writing is playing a game with the reader.” Through those games she brings to light the hidden aspects of female sexuality, fantasies and repressed desires. She also exposes sexist and stereotyped traditional construction of femininity.
In order to analyse Carter’s review of the Beauty and The Beast, it is necessary to understand one of the main aspects of the classic version. The title of the tale itself brings a reflection of the acts of mirroring: while the Beauty is on one side, the Beast is on the other side. The idea is that the two sides must be opposites; that what is beastly cannot be beautiful and what is beautiful cannot be beastly. There’s a binary opposition: […] male and female, tame and wild, prey and predator, innocence and experience, body and soul. […] A strand of feminist research, which influenced woman’s fiction was the deconstruction of those polarities. It exposed a set of some familiar [oppositions such] as man/woman, culture/nature, mind/body. The general association is man-mind-culture, woman- nature-body.
In her reviews of fairy tales as in ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ and ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’, Carter’s characters are always ambiguous, presenting both sides of the pairs. This way Carter deconstructs some familiar polarities using fantasy and grotesque, as in the representation of a metamorphosis of the woman into Beast, or a beast that is transformed into a man but remains with scraps of beast. Somehow, she also deconstructs the famous polarity active/passive postulated by Freud. For Freud, in the act of reproduction [i.e. sex], women were generally passive.
Carter’s ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ is a tale that begins with the desire for financial gain through economic marriage. Beauty means to her father the money he needs to pay his debts: “My father lost me to the Beast at cards.”
The Bride is the reflexive narrator who questions her existence, her lack of place in the patriarchal society. She is the virginal daughter of a wealthy merchant who is playing cards in Italy. During the tale she reflects about her existence in relation to the patriarchy, whether father or husband, noting her [passive] state as a woman: “I watched with the furious cynicism peculiar to women whom circumstances force mutely to witness folly.” The narrator is not naïve. It couldn’t be said that the Bride is only innocence; she’s also experience. This is exposed when she gives her father a white rose “smeared with blood”. While the white rose means virginity, innocence, the blood means defloration, experience: “My tear-beslobbered father wants a rose to show that I forgive him. When I break off a stem, I prick my finger and so he gets his rose all smeared with blood.”
The body and soul polarity is also placed in the tale. The narrator sees the soul not as a separated part from the body. She’s conscious that it’s also a social construction. In the patriarchal society, the soul is viewed as masculine and the body as feminine. The male is associated with reason, intellect; the female is irrational. So women and beasts are on the same level. Using intertextuality, Carter ironically alludes to the Bible and to Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Woman is seen as evil or a beast in the patriarchal religion.
During the whole tale Carter deals with the beastly nature hidden behind the mask of constructed humanity, both in the case of the tiger that uses the mask to hide his animal face and the bride who doesn’t have autonomy and doesn’t know what is hidden behind her mask. The mask here is represented as a jail in which lies a beast that can’t come up because of social conventions.
Carter also uses intertextuality to reveal the ideological content of fairy tales when the bride is driven to her new owner and she remembers the fairy tales of her nurse, perfectly designed with fear and enchantment in order to install in her the code of feminine behaviour. In the nurse’s fairy tales, the tiger man tale ends with the warning that if the young lady is not a good girl then he would, “… yes, my beauty, GOBBLE YOU UP.”(10) The tiger-man described by the nurse can be associated with the girl’s father figure: “…Then the tiger would put on his big black bag travelling cloak lined with fur just like your daddy’s.” In the nurse’s tale can be observed the installation of the fear of the father, a pre- Oedipal necessary construction. It can also be associated with the anticipation of the consumption of marriage night. The tale installs fear of defloration. Defloration is linked with female destruction. It causes abjection and the woman’s sexuality is denied. The nurse’s “gobble you up” suggests the sexual relation as something that causes female annihilation.
Another relevant aspect in ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ is the presence of the mechanical maid. Her artificiality is strongly emphasised in terms of her being a mechanical object, “…with glossy, nut-brown curls, rosy cheeks, blue, rolling eyes….her little cap, white stockings, her frilled petticoats. She carries a looking glass in one hand and a powder puff in the other.” She can be seen as a social creation of femininity as something superficial which can be assumed through make-up and clothing, as a standard of woman that the patriarchy has been sculpturing through the centuries. In one hand she carries a mirror that represents her unconscious, her necessity of self-knowledge and definition of identity. In the other hand she has a powder puff, a representation of [the construction of] femininity. Acting mechanically, the maid represents the woman with her subjectivity denied. The mirror she holds reflects not the beauty’s face but her father’s, representing that the bride’s existence is only as an extension of him. In presenting the mechanical maid, Carter presents the female as a creation of the patriarchal society. The female is seen as a social construct, a simulacrum that satisfies the male’s needs. This construct is very convenient. Besides not requesting anything, it is programmed to obey and perform the distinct roles: “We surround ourselves instead, for utility and pleasure, with simulacra and find it no less convenient than do most gentlemen.”
Angela Carter doesn’t only suggest the deconstruction and redefinition of femininity but also of masculinity. At her first sight of the beast, the bride describes him as a simulacrum, a “carnival”, a constructed mixture of several fragments, “…he has an odd air of self-imposed restraint, as if fighting a battle to remain upright…a beautiful face but one with too much formal symmetry to be entirely human, one profile of his mask is the mirror image of the other.” The patriarchy has constructed a perfect man that represents only the empowered side. He is only experience, mind, intellectuality, culture. He represents only one side of the reality, “too perfect”, “too uncanny.” This extreme perfection makes the man no-human; his subjectivity is also to be redefined but the difference from the woman is that he is a social construction but he is the controller, he is empowered: “He is a carnival figure made of papier-mâché and crêpe hair; and yet he has the Devil’s knack at the cards.”
The empowered tiger in an act of voyeurism asks the bride to be naked for him in order to pay her father debts. She refuses to submit herself to his gaze, to be seen as a mere “spectacle”. In feminist theory, this voyeurism is a symbol of the man’s dominance through the gaze. For Palmer, the controlling effect of the male gaze in a patriarchal society can be noted through “the constant circulation of visual representations of femininity that are exploitative and oppressive. It pressures women into a narcissistic preoccupation with self-image and imposes indirect control on their behaviour.” The woman’s body control is deep-rooted in our culture, and “the male gaze controls not only the woman appearance, but also her identity and sense of self-worth.” This controlling can be observed in the constant change of women’s clothing, make-up, hair-style, and excessive preoccupation with the body that has caused some [psychological] diseases as anorexia and bulimia.
In ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, Carter subverts the gaze, and as the bride refuses to be undressed to the tiger, he decides to unveil himself and to be exposed to the female’s gaze, taking off his clothes and mask, being free of the fantasy of humanity, he is revealed as he really is a beast. He lets her see behind the social construction and shows the bride his animal side that was hidden behind it. Surprisingly, the bride identifies herself to his non-human part and she also takes off her clothes and her mask of femininity. The consummation is mutual and her sexuality is liberating: “When I looked at the mirror again, my father had disappeared and I saw a pale, hollow-eyed girl whom I scarcely recognised.” For the first time, she is unveiled to herself. It’s the beginning of the recognition of the self.
In spite of recognising it as a difficult process, the bride gets rid of the artificiality of gender construction: “I was so unused to my own skin that to take off all my clothes involved a kind of flaying.” Her maturation comes with her sexual realisation, her self-knowledge, discovery of her sexuality, her freedom from “the nursery fears”: “his appetite need not to be my extinction.”
At the end of the tale the narrator describes the sexual consummation as a metaphor of her freedom of artificial femininity construction. “… each stroke of his tongue ripped off skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world, and left behind a nascent patina of shinning hairs.” Finally, she is transformed into a tigress. Her transformation into a beast can be seen as a revelation of the possibilities for alternative models of gender and sexuality. The bride gets rid of the several artificial skins that had been ‘constructed’ through the years. Carter’s goal is the elimination of gender differences, proposing the model of androgyny, with men and women adopting a combination of masculine and feminine attributes.
The Courtship of Mr Lyon Carter once more deals with the recurrent themes of self-knowledge, sexual liberation and gender construction. In this tale, a ruined father has a lovely girl and as in Beaumont’s version, finds the beast’s castle at the right moment: he is in a road, hungry, thirsty and with no money to buy petrol to return. After eating and drinking at the Lyon’s castle, he tries to steal a rose to his daughter. A white rose that is a symbol of Beauty’s virginity. When he is confronted by the beast, he implicitly offers her daughter to the beast, in exchange for his favours, showing him a beautiful photograph of his daughter. It seems that the father wants to make a bargain “… The beast rudely snatched the photograph her father drew for his wallet and inspected it, first brusquely, then with a strange kind of wander…”
In the courtship of Mr Lyon when the daughter was going to the beast’s castle, she felt herself as “ Mr Lamb, spotless, sacrificial.” The daughter fears sex and sees defloration as something dirty. She also fears separation from her father: the oedipal complex is still evident in her.
The daughter is conscious of her annihilation in the patriarchal society but she doesn’t have autonomy to overcome it: “it would be so and her visit to the beast must be, on some magically reciprocal scale, the price of her father’s fortune.” In this passage, Carter puts into question the daughter’s marriage for convenience. And the narrator adds, “Do not think she had no will of her own; she was possessed by a sense of obligation to an unusual degree.” Carter also brings to light the woman’s “sense of obligation,” a necessity to respond the patriarchal society exigencies. The daughter is presented as an ambiguous character that is between knowledge and purity. When she sees the spaniel wearing a choker of turquoises, it represents to her somehow a feeling of impotence: she feels a victim, a prey, being in a suffocating situation.
In The Courtship of Mr Lyon, as in most of her works, Carter strongly uses intertextuality: “ In The Bloody Chamber, Carter shows an acute awareness of the changes that result from an oral to written transposition and calls attention to them by heightening the intertextuality of her narratives, making them into allegories.” A good example in this tale is when the narrator makes a reference to a collection of French tales the daughter found in the bookcase: “She had found in the rosewood revolving bookcase, a collection of courtly and elegant French fairy tales about white cats who were transformed princess and fairies who were birds.” Here there’s an allusion to the fairy tales from the oral tradition that generally don’t have the ideological content the classic fairy tales have. Carter argues that the oral fairy tales that have come from folklore, “the old wives tales”, were transformed into masculine tales. For her, some of the compilers such as Charles Perrault, Grimm Brothers and others converted those tales in some kind of bourgeois art.
Language is also a relevant aspect that is treated in Carter’s reviews of fairy tales and also in The Courtship Mr Lyon. She argues that patriarchal language doesn’t communicate. It has failed: “The voice that seemed to issue from a cave full of echoes, his dark, soft rumbling growl;…how she could converse with the possessor of a voice that seemed an instrument created to inspire terror.” Language is seen as an ideological construction that empowers man and inspires dominance and control. Carter proposes a reformulation of it: “She has acted on her assumption that a woman writer has a mission to other to redeem the language.” There is a necessity of another language that could set people free from conventions.
At the end of the tale, the metamorphosis of beast into human appears to signify the evolution of the protagonist: her acceptance of the validity of sexual desire, her female repression overcome: “Her face was acquiring, instead of beauty a lacquer of the invincible prettiness that characterises certain pampered exquisite, expensive cats.” It’s the beginning of the female construction of subjectivity. The daughter’s socially constructed mask is taken off as she liberates her bestial instincts, her desires. On the other hand, Mr Lyon is also transformed into a man, not the socially constructed man, but a man with scraps of the beast: “And then it was no longer a lion in her arms but a man, a man with an unkempt mane of hair and, how strange, a broken nose, such as the noses of the retired boxers, that gave him a distant heroic resemblance to the handsomest of all beasts.”
In both The Courtship of Mr Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride, Carter proposes the deconstruction of masculine and feminine as social gender construction, and a fusion of the opposites; male/female, human/no-human, nature culture. She suggests a new kind of gender free from social constructions, a creation of an androgynous being who could transpose gender and sex construction.