Deconstructing Gothic Fantasy
1st Place in the Spectrum Essay Competition 2011, Saint Mary’s College of California
19th Century Gothic Fiction Class, Sophomore Year, December 2010
In the 19th Century, when writing about sex and sexuality was taboo, some Gothic Fiction writers, such as Bram Stoker and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, used vampirism as a euphemism for the sexual act: a literary device through which they could comment on unmentionable real life issues. But Angela Carter, writing in the late 1970s when the discussion and depiction of sex was no longer considered unacceptable, can write of sex freely. She does not need to use the Gothic genre to disguise her subject matter or opinions. Instead, Carter, unlike her 19th Century predecessors, employs Gothic conventions to comment on the Gothic genre itself in an attempt to expose the Gothic as fantasy, as the fiction that it is. She achieves this in The Lady of the House of Love and The Company of Wolves by recreating Gothic conventions — the archetypal Gothic characters, and the typical Gothic setting — and then thoroughly deconstructing them.
In keeping with Gothic tradition, Carter labels her characters clearly as monsters, evil, inhuman corruptors of innocence, and as victims/virgins, whose innocence and purity makes them easy targets for the monsters. However, it is gradually revealed that each character is “more than he seems” (111). The monsters, for instance, are certainly monstrous in name: they are vampires (Lady of the House of Love) and werewolves (The Company of Wolves). They are even monstrous in action. The vampire queen does lure young men into her bedchamber with the promise of sex, and feed on them. The werewolf, “carnivore incarnate” (110), devours the young girl’s grandmother, and sits waiting for her to arrive so he may feast on her as well. And yet there is something fundamentally human about them on the level of character. When we see the vampire for the first time, she is not an image of bloodlust and fear, but rather a lonely young girl, clad in her mother’s wedding dress (as if she had hopes for love once which were thwarted by her monstrosity, symbolized by the blood from her kills which stains the dress now). She plays with Tarot cards every chance she gets, evidence of her superstitions, her fundamental weakness. But monsters in gothic fiction are not allowed such weakness, for weakness is human. Usually, it is the victims of monsters (e.g. the Transylvanian villagers in Dracula) who are superstitious.
Thus, unlike other monsters in Gothic Fiction, monstrosity of the vampire and the wolf is not a power, but rather “a deformity”, “a disorder”, “a condition” (94). More so than all the men and women and rabbits they prey upon, they are the victims of their monstrosity, of their “irremediable appetites” (112).
What is more, whereas Dracula is unambiguously evil, Carter’s monsters are sympathetic; their morality is in a grey area, like most human beings. This is evidenced by the vampire’s characterization as “both death and the maiden” (93): on one hand, she is a predator, a seductress, steeped in the sin of her actions; on the other, she is a “maiden”, which implies chastity, purity (an idea supported by her wearing a white wedding dress).
Certainly the werewolf and the vampire have consciences, which sets them apart from most other Gothic fiction monsters. They feel regret and remorse at their actions, at their names, at their monstrous identities. The wolf’s song is full of “inherent sadness….as if [the wolf] would love to be less beastly if only [it] knew how” (112). The vampire “loathes the food she eats” (96_, and loathes herself for eating it. She would much prefer to have the rabbits as pets than to feed on them, but she is tormented by her own hunger. She, like the wolf, is simply trying to survive.
The narrator in The Lady of the House of Love sums up the contradiction between name/action and character perfectly: the vampire is the ideal monster, “everything about [her] is as it should be….except her horrible reluctance for the role” (95). In this quote, the label of the “monster” is exposed as a mere role, a part that is simply performed, and that, too, reluctantly. In light of this quote, the actions of the vampire and the werewolf are revealed to be mostly pretences, which belie their true natures. When the wolf is threatening the girl with the well-worn lines from Little Red Riding Hood- “all the better to hug you with”, “all the better to eat you with” (118)- it is as if he is reciting empty phrases (this is supported by the fact that the girl laughs in his face), playing the role of a monster rather than being a monster. Similarly, the vampire puts on a show when she seduces men and lures them into her bedchambers. She puts on a satin negligee (her costume), and “to conceal her inner voices, keeps up a front of inconsequential chatter in French” (103) (her lines). Her role consists of a “system of repetitions”, evinced by the fact that the reactions of her “audience”: the young men whom she preys upon are always grateful for their “luck”. However, when she is in her room alone, the pretence of monstrosity is unnecessary, and then she is reduced to her true form as a lonely young girl, obsessed with her Tarot cards, surrounded by portraits of her “demented and atrocious ancestors”, the true monsters, who have oppressed her into the monstrous role she must eternally play.
This is why when the old crone and the officer enter her room without her having requested it, she is “startled by their entry” (101), and the officer is able to see her at her most vulnerable- a girl with the fragility of the skeleton of a moth, so thin, so frail” (100), a girl who needs to be protected from the light of the lantern by the old crone, lest she crumble, a girl like “a child dressing in her mother’s clothes” (100). He sees her in this moment of vulnerability and innocence, and the impression stays, so even when she attempts to resume the role of the seductress, the predator, the monster, he remains unconvinced, and wants only to protect her, to kiss her wounds well again. The vampire, faced with the officer’s fearlessness, his innocence, “[fumbles] the ritual” (105), forgets the blocking, the lines for her role. And “there is no room in her drama for improvisation” (106). Once the pretence is broken, it remains broken.
Whereas the “monsters” in Carter’s stories are reluctant to play their roles, the “victims” simply refuse to do so. The young girl in The Company of Wolves reacts to the wolf’s threats with laughter, knowing full well that she is “nobody’s meat” (118). Not only does she refuse to submit to his monstrous dominance, she also usurps the role of the aggressor from him. Where he is supposed to be corrupting her, destroying her, she purifies him, saves him. The officer in The Lady of the House of Love is similarly unfazed by the horror around him, the horror presented before him inthe form of a bloodthirsty vampire. Instead of being afraid, he desires to protect his predator, for he doesn’t conceive of himself as prey. He doesn’t recognize his intended “Gothic” role, and, as a result, there is a clash of scripts, between that which represents conventional Gothic roles, and that which represents characters as they truly are, or as they want to be.
Why do the victims not fear their predators? Carter suggests that it is because there is actually nothing to fear. The officer in The Lady in the House of Love is depicted as the quintessential Englishman, the epitome of reason. Likewise, he lacks imagination. “If [he] were sufficiently imaginative, [he] could almost imagine twisted faces appearing momentarily beneath the crumbling eaves” (98), he could imagine horror where horror does not exist. But he lacks imagination, and this is what gives “heroism to the hero” (104) (one of the many ways Carter deconstructs the typical Gothic “victim”: in Dracula, the skepticism of the Englishmen made them easy prey. Here, it makes the officer impervious to the vampire’s terrible power). So long as he has no capacity for imagination, he is unaffected by the fantasies, the theatricalities, that depend on the imagination to exist. Instead of seeing the role the vampire attempts to play (a role that requires imagination to conceive), he sees the reality behind her pretences, for as a rational creature, reality is all he can perceive.
Just as the monsters are reluctant monsters, and the victims are hardly victims, the Gothic settings in Carter’s stories are not all that Gothic. Usually Gothic fiction stories are set in strange (foreign), isolated areas that are steeped in darkness and the macabre. In The Lady of the House of Love, in addition to the mysterious and the unknown, we are presented with the image of a bicycle (ridden by the officer), a most recognizable and modern object, and, in Carter’s own words, a “product of pure reason applied in motion” (97). The vampire herself is wearing what is tantamount to sunglasses, also a modern, recognizable, unmysterious object.
Even when there is darkness, mystery, morbidity in the setting, it comes across as theatrical and, ultimately, fake. When the old crone unlocks the doors to the vampire’s manor, they swing back on “melodramatically creaking hinges” (99). The bedroom appears, by night, “vile and murderous” (106), just as a Gothic setting should be. But when morning comes, when the vampire is dead, when her pretence is dead, the reader sees the room as it really is:
Now you could see how tawdry it all was, how thin and cheap the satin, the catafalque not ebony at all but black-painted paper stretched on struts of wood, as in the theatre (106).
There is no real darkness in the room, only “black-painted paper”. The setting is attempting to appear Gothic, but in the end, it is no more than a facade, a “theatre” in which people are expected to play the roles of typical Gothic fiction characters.
Thus, through a thorough deconstruction of character and setting, Carter is able to expose the theatricality behind the Gothic genre, and present Gothic terrors for what they truly are: mere fantasy. The characters in her stories are labelled monsters and victims, just as most Gothic fiction characters are labelled, except her characters transcend the limited implications of their names, thereby exposing the labels of “monster” and “victim” as mere roles, repetitive tasks, even pretences. If a distinction is made between terror (the feeling of dread which precedes a horrifying experience) and horror (the revulsion felt after the experience), it is clear that her Gothic monsters and settings may be terrifying (unless of course you lack an imagination, in which case you would not anticipate a horrifying experience at all, and hence feel no dread) for they are able to project a fearful image. However, they are not horrifying (at least from the perspective of the young girl and the officer, who are not personally harmed, for they are able to triumph over fear and are not fooled by image of monstrosity set before them). In a way, Carter is commenting not only on the fantasy behind Gothic fiction, but the fantasy behind all fictional literature: it has the ability to incite emotions of fear and other things, but in the end, it still isn’t reality.
So if Gothic monsters aren’t truly monstrous, and Gothic settings aren’t actually fearsome, then what is? Carter makes this clear in a brief aside about the officer; she says that “he will learn to shudder in the trenches. But this girl [the vampire] cannot make him shudder” (104). The true monster, thus, is present in the real world. It is the monstrosity of war, and of other societal evils. So when the officer leaves the vampire’s manor, joining “his regiment [which embarks] for France” (108) the next day, he has not narrowly escaped a cruel and twisted death: he is, presumably, heading towards it. Perhaps he was safer amidst the exaggerated, theatrical monsters of the Gothic fiction world.
Charter, Angela. The Bloody Chamber: and Other Stories. Harmondsworth [u.a.: Penguin, 1986. Print.