The Reproof of Curiosity: Carter’s revision of Bluebeard

by Rosemary Moore
Department of English
University of Adelaide

Carter repeatedly declared her interest in the myth of woman and the construction of sexuality. In 1979 her interests coincided in the publication of two different but related works, The Bloody Chamber and The Sadeian Woman. Sade’s attempt to demythologize motherhood and femininity was therefore in her mind as she was revising Perrault’s classic fairy tales and he became the model for Bluebeard. Since pornography and religion have informed men’s phantasies about women his work is integral to Carter’s interrogation of the Western imagination in pursuit of demythologizing woman.

Carter rewrites Bluebeard from the point of view of his fourth wife, an impecunious young pianist with a belief in romance. Instead of becoming victim to her husband’s view that all women are whores who should be punished, her brief marriage causes her to see through the ideology of romance and the idealization of the feminine woman, and thereby to take her place in the world as a fully responsible human being. Carter changes the traditional plot to promote a partnership instead of a marriage. In choosing a story of cultural significance she reveals the influence of inherited cultural ideas on material existence. We see how the stories we inherit influence our identity, our being, and our sense of reality, since reality is what we believe it to be on the basis of the stories we are told. Our freedom as individuals depends on becoming aware of the way in which we can be trapped by the various forms of representation that mask our identity for ourselves. Thus, life, liberty and happiness depend on being independent of the idealized images of selfhood fostered by tradition, in order that we are not subsumed by them.

The Bloody Chamber depends for its interpretation on stories that have shaped Western culture and identity. The Bluebeard story is of particular interest because it prepares children for their roles in adult life. It is the story of a young girl’s sexual initiation in courtship and marriage. It involves her sexual awakening as well as Carter’s deconstruction, by means of Gothic excess, of a marriage based on dominance and submission. The young woman’s maturity is no longer defined by her biological role, in consequence of which she must produce a son and heir for her husband.

As a popular oral art form that gives us access to lives lived in the past, the fairy tale has historical and cultural significance. Because it allows everyone to participate in the cultural domain, regardless of their status or gender, it is a democratic art form that was the preserve of women, who could make stories their own in the manner in which they told them. The work of the men who collected them for publication shows how they made changes to reinforce middle class values. Fairy tales are pre-eminently tales about the politics of experience, but their significance for Carter lies in the way they reflect ‘male phantasies about women and sexuality’ (Zipes, cited by Lappas 116).

The way in which Bluebeard was altered in the process of being written down to meet middle class needs reinforced Christian values because the central protagonist was based on Eve — a woman destined to be punished likewise for the sins of curiosity and disobedience. In Perrault’s version, as translated by Carter, the desire on the part of the younger of two sisters to make a good match is applauded by all her friends, who congratulate her on her good fortune once they perceive her wealth. Any negative consequences that might arise from marriage to an ugly, old, authoritarian man is overlooked. Thus the tale serves to affirm middle class acquisitiveness whilst, at the same time, warning young females that curiosity comes at a price. Just as Eve’s punishment was to bring mortality to mankind as well as pain to herself through disobedience, so Bluebeard’s wives face an early demise as a punishment for disobeying their husband’s decree. It follows that women should know and accept their place and that their sexual proclivities should be in the control of a male authority figure.

Whilst it does not seem right to us that a young woman should be condemned for disobedience when she discovers that her husband is a serial killer who has got away with murder, in the late seventeenth century it was deemed natural that husbands should master their wives. Yet, Perrault’s first moral challenges this assumption. For, he suggests that women’s curiosity is after all an irrepressible female trait and that, in a ‘modern’ context, if a wife showed herself to be boss, her husband would accept it. Yet, the primary moral remains the idea that curiosity is ‘the most fleeting of pleasures,’ that it can never be satisfied, and that it is inevitably ‘very expensive’ (Perrault 41).

We do not have access to Bluebeard’s mind in the original story. His actions are arbitrary and he is merely unattractive because his beard is blue. However, as a wealthy man in search of a wife he inevitably succeeds in marrying. To this end he presents himself as a man of pleasure and a generous host. He invites two young sisters with their friends to a country house party. He provides them with extensive pleasures over a period of eight days and nights at the end of which time the younger sister finds that she can no longer remember why she had previously thought him unattractive. He puts her to the test after a month of marriage, at which time he leaves her with the keys to his treasures and his interdiction. Whilst he is away her friends feel free to visit her. Yet, their admiration of her possessions is a spur to her curiosity. She thus discovers the corpses of her husband’s previous wives reflected, each with her throat cut, in pools of clotted blood upon the floor. Since the blood cannot be washed from the key she drops in shock, her disobedience is evident. Thus, upon her husband’s sudden return, she is condemned to die. Prayers and prevarication provide just enough time for her brothers to arrive and dispatch her would-be executioner, thereby saving their sister for a new life with ‘an honest man who made her forget her sorrows as a wife of Bluebeard’ (Perrault 40).

Although Perrault’s story has a positive ending in which his protagonist survives to marry a better man, she is saved accidentally by her brothers who arrive just in time to kill her husband before he kills her. She is not instrumental in her release and she is not given any consciousness beyond that of fearing death. Carter acknowledges that in fairy tales characters are generally abstractions and her young bride is nameless because she is defined by her role as Marquise. Nevertheless, she is endowed with consciousness. She is permitted to tell the story from her own point of view; her awakening to her own sexuality is a spur to self-consciousness; and she chooses her future life based on discovering her own values rather than accepting them as socially given. Thus she is a model for a new way of being which shows that it is possible to be free from the burden of an inherited sexual mythology, which has rendered her forbears the ‘slaves of the history’ (Notes 74). Sexuality cannot be effaced in Carter’s reworking of the classic tale because ‘sexual relations between men and women always render explicit the nature of social relations in the society in which they take place,’ which ‘if described explicitly, will form a critique of those relations’ (Sadeian Woman, 20).

Carter saw the possibilities in Sade as an historical variant of Bluebeard and, in choosing to set her story in nineteenth century France, she gained access to cultural works that reflect the underlying misogyny in Western culture. As the theme of ‘The Reproof of curiosity’ indicates, misogyny goes back to the beginnings of history. For instance, in Pandora’s Box, Eliphas Levi (pseudonym for Alphonse Louis Constant) refers to the well known myth in which Zeus sent Pandora to earth with a vase filled with curses in order to punish unruly men. Zeus calculated on her curiosity because she was unaware of what the vase contained. She was therefore held responsible for bringing all imaginable evils into the world, leaving only hope behind in her fright.

Similarly, an all-knowing God knew that to forbid an act is an incitement to perform it. Satan sought to encourage Eve’s curiosity by inciting her to think she could become a god by eating the forbidden fruit. The problem for actual women is that, being regarded as the daughters of Eve, their sexuality is deemed to be likewise sinful and punishable. The masked man who anticipates whipping the naked girl in Rops’s picture entitled ‘Reproof of curiosity’ chastises her flesh. When Carter’s protagonist faces decapitation she knows she has been tricked by her husband since he knew that, in forbidding it, he was inciting her to open the door of the chamber at the end of the long corridor. Her manifest sinfulness would thus justify her death and the eradication of the sexual sin for which she stands. The Marquis is the paradigmatic Western man whose attitudes to sexuality are feudal and who believes that a woman is his slave. Because he stands at the head of an ancient family of aristocrats who have ruled France for five centuries, his family traditions go back to the beginnings of Western civilization. But, since he lives in a world that allows for modern methods of communication, telephones and cars, he foreshadows the present.

The analogy with Sade allows Carter to endow her Bluebeard with a complex inner life and an actual history. He is a man whose identity is based on powers and privileges bestowed on him by right of inheritance as an aristocrat. He is also an everyman who reveals the extent to which, in the history of sexuality, sexual relations have been power relations. Carter’s youthful bride is politicized by discovering that she is equivalent to a piece of meat on a butcher’s slab. However, this proves to be the route to her self-assertion and her perspective challenges the supposition that the Marquis’s views represent the norm.

The young woman is rapidly initiated into a world she has never known. In the moments during which the Marquis anticipates her rape, she studies him through his possessions – his library, his objects d’art, and his collection of paintings. For, she needs to know the nature of the man she has married, especially as he hides behind masks and gives nothing of himself away. What she discovers is the price to be paid for having so magnificently fulfilled society’s proscriptions for a good match, having bartered her life for death. However, her escape is not the prelude to another marriage, as she chooses to set up a ménage-a-trois with her mother and a loving partner. Thus she avoids the institution of marriage with its requirement to love, honor, and obey a husband till death.

An abusive husband with conjugal rights is replaced by a kindred spirit and loving companion. Jean-Yves loves her for herself because, being blind, he cannot see her as a sex object. He cannot see the red mark left by the impression of the bloody key on her forehead, with which the Marquis has branded her. However, this is not a sign of guilt. Because it shows that she is capable of good and bad actions, it reveals the young woman’s full humanity. She is not reinserted into the patriarchal system which makes separation from the mother the condition for growth and individuation, and her mother, not her father, is the model for identity, independence and initiative. She finds the same courage in herself and the same wish to take control of her own life as her mother had shown, and their relationship constitutes a model for loving freely within the safety of a secure bond. She and Jean-Yves can each pursue an independent path within a relationship of equality.

In The Sadeian Woman Carter considers the situation of a young woman brought up to believe that her beauty makes her an object of reverence for a man. She is destined to suffer a shock when reality intervenes – ‘when the state of grace in which she believes she exists is abruptly revoked’ (Sadeian Woman, 72). It will then be her humiliation to discover ‘that her value has never resided in herself, but in the values of the open market’ — that ‘Like a common criminal, she has {had} a price on her head’ and can be ‘bought and sold’ like a cake (Sadeian Woman, 74). Initially Bluebeard appears to support his wife’s idealization. For, he thinks of her as a baby, a child, and a nun, though he intends to corrupt and humiliate her in order to prove her a whore. Her initial shock comes when she perceives herself as he sees her ‘with the assessing eye of a connoisseur inspecting horseflesh, or even of a housewife inspecting cuts on the slab,’ when she notices ‘the sheer carnal avarice’ of his look, ‘strangely magnified by the monocle lodged in his left eye’ (12). When she discovers later that his former wives were not virgins, she realizes ‘with a shock of surprise, how it must have been my innocence that captivated him, the silent music of my unknowingness’ (22).

A child-bride of seventeen reared in the sheltered world of music, the young woman is the product of a romantic ideology. Her ‘coming out’ is set against the background of Wagner’s opera celebrating the idealized but tragic love affair between Tristan and Isolde. It epitomizes the cultural forces that encourage a young girl to dream of romance and to imagine that true passion can only be consummated in death. The beauty of ‘the white-hot passion’ (11) of the Liebestod causes a catharsis of emotion that enhances the romantic myth on which the opera is based which, as an artist herself, the young woman fully appreciates. It convinces her that she must truly love the Marquis, especially as the scent of his cigar produces ‘a remembered fragrance’ that recalls the father she loved and lost, ‘how he would hug {her} in a warm fug of Havana, when {she} was a little girl, before he kissed {her} and left {her} and died.’ (14) For, it is the memory of his sympathetic touch when he took her to a performance of Tristan as a child that fuels her expectation that the Marquis will similarly love and protect her.

She is convinced that his desire represents an ‘imponderable weight’ (10) – that it is a force he cannot deny. The transition from poverty to unimaginable wealth, and from nonentity to social status, symbolizes her expectation that love promises personal transformation. For, hers is a fairy tale romance in which she will be placed alongside the world’s celebrities — the beautiful women who have been Bluebeard’s former wives. To her mind they are the incarnation of the Three Graces — goddesses who enhance the life of others through their refinement and gentleness — quite unlike the actual persons gossiped about in the old magazines she reads.

Her story begins as she is borne off by train to a fairy castle of romance at which time excitement sharpens her senses. That her mother ‘defiantly beggared herself for love’ (8) is an added inducement to her to suppose that love is all. However, when her eyes are finally opened, she declares that ‘in my heart I had always known {he} would be the death of me’ (39). At this time she no longer unconsciously follows the romantic scenario of love and death. For, she has learned to separate her identity from the fictions of ideal womanhood that have promoted her passivity, and can no longer be subsumed by her husband’s identity.

Initially, she constructs her new home as a place of ‘faery solitude’ (15), because it is set in ‘a landscape with all the deliquescent harmonies of Debussy’ (14). Since it is ‘a mysterious, amphibious place, contravening the materiality of both earth and the waves’ she is encouraged to think of herself as ‘the Queen of the sea’ (16), as the mysterious woman of male fantasy. However, her awakening reveals that she possesses a body which is the product of history and which, like everything else, arises out of the constructions and representations of the past.

Carter aims to understand what particular configurations of imagery in Western culture actually mean, how ideas influence individual lives. Thus her analysis of Bluebeard in relation to historical reality makes clear why her protagonist is disillusioned with idealized womanhood and romantic love and determined to embrace an ordinary life. Having been born into a privileged position in a society in which power was a social category available only to those born to rule, Sade is a prototypical patriarchal figure. It is natural to him to use other human beings for his own ends. For, in his view, nature supports men’s right to abuse women by having given them the strength necessary to make women submit to their desires.

A distinguishing feature of Sade for Beauvoir, was his understanding that ‘the pleasure of the senses was always regulated in accordance with the imagination’ (Marquis, 33). Thus, in conceiving of eroticism as the mainspring of human behaviour, he anticipated Freud. As she noted, he criticized conventional beliefs precisely because he wanted ‘to free the individual from the ideals to which society {had} bound him’ (Marquis 41). For Carter, his extraordinary fantasies about women led him to demystify ‘the most sanctified aspects of woman’ related to ‘the mothering function’ (Sadeian Woman, 36) and a belief in women’s purity and goodness. Indeed, his hatred of his own mother is considered by Klossowski to be ‘the key to his work’ (Marquis 6). In his novel, Justine, or Good Conduct Well Chastised (1792), Sade set out to show that virtue is a source of man’s unhappiness, that goodness leads to suffering, and that a bad woman may use her reason to rid herself of the more crippling aspects of femininity. For Carter, the good woman is woman in the context of the historical past, ‘enslaved, miserable and less than human,’ and the bad woman is the woman of the future, the one ‘who will have wings and who will renew the world.’ (SW 79). Yet, she anticipates their synthesis in a woman like Bluebeard’s wife, who is ‘neither submissive nor aggressive,’ but is ‘capable of both thought and feeling’ (Sadeian Woman 79).

Carter’s Bluebeard is not liberatory by intention. Yet, he is a catalyst to his wife’s liberation because he makes her aware of the cultural ideology behind her mistaken choice. Like Sade, he is a man of absolute power whose wealth and rank allow him to purchase a woman like a commodity, and he treats his own foster mother, now his housekeeper, as an item of utility. He demands of her a feudal relationship in consequence of which she forfeits all individuality. He is an omnipotent master who keeps his wife under observation, like an all-seeing God whose decrees may not be evaded. Being her superior in age, sex, wealth and rank, he shows that ‘the sexes are determined …by the historical fact of the economic dependence of women upon men.’ (SW, 6-7). His extreme carnality links him to the satyr of Greek mythology, half-man, half-beast, and having an evil intent behind a seductive appearance links him to Satan. Yet, finally he is a mere mortal, subject to the corruption of the flesh, and his death subverts his mythological status, thus bringing to an end an ancestral line which stems from the Bluebeard of oral history.

As Beauvoir pointed out, though writing in a predominantly religious age, Sade denounced Christianity as ‘a religion of victims.’ (Marquis, 41), he also knew that ‘pleasure’ arises ‘from sacrilege’ – ‘from the profanation of objects offered us for worship’ (Marquis, 28). For, as Carter also noted, an act of defilement relies upon the concept of ‘the holiness of the temple’ for its meaning (Sadeian Woman, 72). Carter surprises us by juxtaposing the language of religion with the language of pornography, because both promote women’s passivity and victimization by promising power through submission. It is therefore important to her critique of sexual ideology that Bluebeard’s consumerism of art is like his sexual appetite and cannot be satisfied. He has an obsessive and sadistic desire to consume everything with which he comes into contact. That his castle is a treasure trove filled with the collections of ‘five centuries of avid collectors’ (23) indicates that his forbears were the same.

The castle is a repository of cultural artifacts that illuminate the statement by the Marquis’s favourite poet, that ‘there is a striking resemblance between the act of love and the ministrations of a torturer’ (p.33). His Bible, Huysmans’ novel Là-Bas, records a quest to understand the world of a Medieval Satanist, Gilles de Rais, the kidnapper, torturer, and killer of children. Research into his predations by the narrator and author-surrogate reveals the presence of living men who resemble him in profaning the sacred, such as an ex-priest he meets who has murdered a child he fathered with a nun on the altar after mass. The rape of a child bride in the name of marriage is likewise a violation of the sacred.

The Marquis’s taste for the Symbolist painters is revealing. ‘There was Moreau’s great portrait of his first wife, the famous Sacrificial Victim with the imprint of the lacelike chains on her pellucid skin’ (23) — an innocent whose naked flesh reveals her true nature. Like his tapestries which depict the rape of the Sabines, his paintings represent mythological scenes in which women are punished for their sex – Ensor’s ‘monolithic canvas, The Foolish Virgins,’ ‘The Adventures of Eulalie at the Harem of the Grand Turk,’ and Immolation of the wives of the Sultan’ (19). What unites the painters to whom Carter refers — Rops, Moreau, Ensor, Gaugin, Fragonard, and Watteau — is the representation of women in mystical and religious settings concerned with the dichotomy between good and evil, spirituality and physicality, light and darkness. Redon and Rops also adopted Baudelaire’s ideas about woman as the incarnation of evil, the corrupter of man, who transformes love-making into an evil act.

Thus, because Eve disobeyed God’s decree, artists have berated a fallen world and their place in it. Yet, the fact that the second mother of the race, Mary, brought about the redemption through her son, Jesus, provides the Marquise with a positive role model, together with the patron saint of music, St. Cecelia. Nevertheless, the division of women into pure and impure types has fatal consequences for her life. To discover her humanity through her sexuality she must discard this fiction. Yet, being self concerned, the Marquis is unaware of her sexual awakening, and he regards any expression of independent desire on her part as corrupt. He deflowers his child bride in the same way as Sade’s heroes ‘amuse themselves by deflowering little girls’ (Marquis 24). For the Sadean hero ‘male aggression…is never softened by the usual transformation of the body into flesh. He never for an instant loses himself in his animal nature; he remains so lucid, so cerebral, that philosophic discourse, far from dampening his ardor, acts as an aphrodisiac’ (Marquis 21). The Marquis therefore anticipates the pleasure of rape and the pleasure of seeing his image multiplied many times over in strategically arranged mirrors in the act of raping ‘a dozen vulnerable, appealing girls’ (38). His bride is dressed in the ruby necklace —her inheritance as a wounded creature that bleeds and must die. For her, the reflections in the mirror reveal ‘a dozen husbands impaling a dozen brides.’ Following her violation she has a fractured sense of self in which she is divided from her body as if a part of herself was with the ‘mewing gulls’ whom she observes swinging ‘on invisible trapezes in the empty air outside’ (20).

Love and death are inevitable bedfellows. The Marquis twines his bride’s hair into a rope to reveal her lovely neck as he prepares to sever it. He fills the rooms with funereal lilies which bloom out of their natural season. However, instead of conveying the mystery whereby God’s semen entered Mary’s ear through the lily in Gabriel’s hand, these lilies have stamens that stain and stems that resemble dismembered limbs. As symbols of mortality they are associated with the Marquis’s scent, which seems ‘to revert to the elements of flayed hide and excrement of which it was composed’ (35). The fact that the ‘grand, hereditary, matrimonial bed’ is an heirloom on which generations of the Marquis’s family have been born, made love, and died, reveals the trajectory of women’s lives. That it is ‘made of ebony…sliced from the heart of trees’ speaks of violated nature in both cases.

When the young woman leaves home she declares, ‘my cup runneth over’ (11-12). Yet, from the moment of arrival at the castle she discovers that her marriage condemns her to imprisonment, loneliness, and obedience to the laws that govern rank, which makes her a slave to her husband. She is forbidden to gossip with servants and is exiled from the world of chatter, warmth and human love which she glimpsed through the train window on the journey – ‘those rectangles of domestic lamplight that promised warmth, company, {and} a supper of sausages hissing in a pan on the stove for the station master, his children tucked up in bed asleep in the brick house with the painted shutters’ (13). Then her head was filled with the romance of her situation. It is not until she is given the keys of the castle that she realizes what the practical aspects of marriage to a great man might mean, that she has responsibilities as the castle’s mistress, as its châtelaine, the keeper of the keys. However, her child-like lack of forethought and tastes lead indirectly to her preservation. For, when she bursts into tears on the phone whilst proclaiming that she is happy, her mother knows that she is in trouble.

Once Blubeard has gone on his ostensible business trip, she has a strong motive to discover the key to his nature. Clearly he has something to hide. Maybe she will find his heart, pressed flat as a flower, crimson and thin as tissue paper,’ laid ‘in a file marked Personal’?’ (30) Perhaps his soul is visible in the secrets of the Forbidden Chamber? What she does find there is the meaning of the idea that ‘there is a striking resemblance between the act of love and the ministrations of a torturer’ (33). The Marquis’s previous wives were tortured to death and embalmed so that they look alive. He therefore retains power over them for all time. Tricked into her own betrayal, the young woman realizes her actions have been scripted for her. Reason tells her that there is no way to avert her fate. Yet, music provides a way out — not romantic music, but the formal, rational, balanced music of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. It brings Jean-Yves to her side and their shared confidences prepare them to face the Marquis’s return with courage.

Carter challenges the plot laid down for nineteenth heroines, which decrees that any young woman who marries for love against a father’s wishes must die. When she was abandoned in her teens with a child, adversity inspired her mother to acts of heroic courage. She divested herself of all romantic notions, and sold her wedding ring to give her daughter an education and thereby the means to earn her freedom from dependence on a husband. Having grown ‘magnificently eccentric in hardship,’ the mother has retained her husband’s ‘antique service revolver’ (8) for an emergency.

The ending replaces the quest for romantic intensity in love and death with an agenda for life and happiness. It replaces a relationship between power and submission with one of mutual affection and equality. Widowed at seventeen by her mother’s hand, the young marquise is not a penny richer than before, but she is rich in her primary relationships, and able to pursue her chosen profession with a loving partner. In dedicating the Marquis’s fortune to a school for the blind she reverses the traditions of the Castle of Murder and no longer has a need to be the perfect woman for a man.

Carter’s aim has been to demythologize the traditional story of woman’s place and to create a new one. Whilst she has offered a critique of Western culture, she has also retained a sense of continuity with the female storytellers of old. She has told the story in her own way for her own time. She has given legitimacy to the young to create a home based on the clarity of the heart’s vision. Mutuality, equality, and individuality can thus be celebrated as the basis of the social good. This disposes of Sade’s view that "Any enjoyment is weakened when shared."’(Marquis 22). The historical context gives depth to Carter’s analysis of gender relations, and the path to maturity is redefined through the young woman’s confrontation with sexual and cultural ideology. The demystification of femininity ensures that female maturity it is no longer the product of a biological aim, but is related instead to a world of independent selfhood in which a young woman can achieve her heart’s desire personally and professionally.

Works Cited

Carter, Angela. The Bloody Chamber and other stories. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1979.
The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History. London: Virago, 1979, rpt. 1992.
‘Notes from the Front Line.’ In Wandor, Michelene, ed. On Gender and Writing. London: Pandora Press, 1983.
Trans. and forward. The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1977.
Lappas, Catherine. ‘Seeing is Believing, but touching is the truth: Female Spectatorship and Sexuality in The Company of Wolves.’ Women’s Studies, 25 (1996), 115-135.
The Marquis de Sade: The 120 Days of Sodom and other writings, compiled and translated by Austryn Wainhouse and Richard Seaver, with introductions by Simone de Beauvoir and Pierre Klossowski. New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1966.
Sage, Lorna. ‘Death of the Author.’ Granta 4: Biography. New York: Granta Publications, 1992.