Coming to realization that traditional fairy tales contain ideologies inherent to a patriarchal society, modern writers attempt to rewrite them according to contemporary understanding of social roles and identities. Among such authors is Angela Carter who addressed long-present stereotypes in her takes on classic fairy tales in the collection of short stories The Bloody Chamber. In the time of arranged marriages, the world-wide famous fairy tale about Beauty and the Beast aimed to teach young girls to prefer “virtue to looks and intelligence”. In de Beaumont’s version, a very beautiful girl of many merits eventually falls for an ugly and unintelligent beast, who magically turns into a handsome prince. Carter makes the turnover upside down and, in The Tiger’s Bride, the Bride morphs into a beast. By expressing her sexuality and sexual freedom, the Bride fulfilled her quest for identity and turned into a tigress. By questioning a system of male-female binary sets Carter helps the characters forge their new identity.
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For women, the main impediment to their self-identification was their subjectification in the patriarchal society vividly visible in fairy tales. Carter makes it pronounced through the language and imagery. The story begins with the Bride reporting, “My father lost me to the Beast at cards”. Inasmuch as the Bride’s mother had a similar fate being “bartered for her dowry to a feckless sprig,” the Bride is aware of her submissive fate in male-domineering society and talks about it with sarcasm. Not having any leverage against her father who determines her fate, the Bride is “force[d] mutely to witness folly”. Once a rich Russian, the girl’s father lost his fortune in cards and left her to the Beast as a last payment. The act of reducing a person to an object that can be sold and traded is highlighted by the fact that her father calls her “my pearl,” while the Tiger responds with “your treasure”. The Bride repeatedly shows her understanding of her lot referring to her being “bought and sold, passed from hand to hand” (Carter 63). The scene when the Beast offered her freedom as a reward of revealing her nakedness the Bride sums up saying sarcastically, “he proposed to pack me up [in a sabre cloak] and send me off”. The word choice intensifies the way male-oriented world used to treat women as commodities.
The enforced gender role and attributed characteristics prevent the Bride from self-realization. The patriarchal system had an ideal of a true woman, and Carter mocks it in the image of a clockwork maiden given to the Bride to keep her company: “out glides a soubrette from an operetta, with glossy, nut-brown curls, rosy cheeks, blue, rolling eyes … in her little cap, her white stockings, her frilled petticoats”. The patriarchal vision of femininity was limited by a set of features every woman was supposed to have. The objects the mechanical servant-girl carries around represent social constructs forced on women. A mirror is a psychoanalytical symbol of subconscious which is also governed by society and its constrains. The fact that the Bride does not see her reflection in the mirrow but her father’s indicates that she is governed by others. A powder puff symbolizes the demand for women correspond to some visual standards enforced by society. Through the words of the Beast’s servant Carter explains that it is a simulacra which is kept “for utility and pleasure… and [they] find it no less convenient than most gentlemen”. The Bride does not see herself outside of the patriarchal hierarchy and instantly recognizes the doll as her mechanical copy calling her “clockwork twin” and “double”. Later, the Bride says that she can send her to her father to “perform the part of my father’s daughter” implying that father will not know the difference. If women are reduced to commodities, the substitution of one for another will not be noticeable.
The Bride clearly understands that she lives in a male society and she needs to play by its rule. When women are seen as commodities, the best they can do is to upsell themselves. Saying “my own skin was my sole capital” the Bride’s initial intention was to “make [her] first investment,” that is to begin relationship of some kind with the Tiger. However, after the Tiger expresses a modest desire of seeing her naked – modest as opposed to, say, getting married – in return of going back to her father, the Bride balks at the very idea of humiliating herself like a cheap common girl. Nakedness has always been a sign of submission and obedience (remember about naked slaves at the slave markets around fully clothed gents). Seeing that she is being obstinate and is not going to satisfy his request, the Tiger decides to reveal his beastly body. At that moment the Bride realizes that they are on par. In the patriarchal society, women, animals, and children were not considered equal to men. Analogous to the ancient scholastic dispute of whether a woman is human, the Bride sees herself, as much as the Beast, in opposition to real humans – men. Seeing the Beast naked was the first step to the Bride’s liberation.
The patriarchal system managed to keep women in submission through constant drumming of the binary oppositions into people’s heads. Males oppose females as much as strong is in opposition to weak, active to passive, dominant to obedient, mind/soul to body, and innocence to experience. Here classical fairy tales came in handy as Beauty and the Beast, for example, ingrains guilt in women for rejecting a rich man’s hand, no matter how ugly and thick he is. With a woman having her share of features according to the standard dichotomy, Beaumont’s heroine is innocent, passive, obedient to her father’s will, and falls prey to the ugly predator who is experienced, active, wild, and domineering. To the contrast, Carter’s task is to make her characters androgynous and ambiguous. Unlike the widely accepted opinion that males are active by nature while females have innate passivity, Carter’s Beast stays quite passive throughout the story waiting for the Bride’s decision. Then he offers her his nakedness which can be read as a sign of weakness. Meanwhile the Bride acts in her rebellion. Additionally, the Bride’s cynical musings about her fate are in stark contrast to placid reasoning of Beaumont’s Beauty. Thus, Carter liberates both the Bride and the Tiger from the confines of traditional gender roles.
Under the influence of feminist literary work there might have been an assumption that only women were in need of liberation and redefinition. However, the restrains were laid on males as well, and Carter makes an attempt to redefine masculinity as well as femininity. Inasmuch as men were supposed to be always powerful and strong, the Tiger has “an odd air of self-imposed restraint, as if fighting a battle to remain upright...”. He is so much perfect that it is “uncanny”. Such perfectness makes men simulacra as well. Thus, artificial gender roles of the traditional society rob people of their subjectivity and true self and enforce masks on them. The only difference between males and females in this case is power that belongs to men. In The Tiger’s Bride, the Beast is self-aware of his true self. He came to term with his beastliness and is able to resemble a human at will. The Tiger wears clothes and a wig to correspond to social norms, if need be. Thanks to knowing his true self, the Tiger is able to help the Bride find her identity.
The Bride is not aware of her other side and does not know how to get in touch with it until the communication with the Beast. She comes to the full realization of her wild nature upon the sexual consummation in the last scene. Earlier, the Bride mentioned that she was so uncomfortable in her own skin that “to take off all my clothes involved a kind of flaying”. Demanding “the abominable” the Beast in fact wanted the girl to take off her social constrains. Risking her life the Bride received her female realization and self-knowledge in return. In return she received freedom. After getting naked for the Tiger the Brides says, “I felt I was at liberty for the first time in my life”. The ruining of artificial restriction is symbolized by the demolition of the castle around the couple clenched in an erotic embrace, “The reverberations of his purring rocked the foundations of the house, the walls began to dance”. Combating her childhood fears imposed by the patriarchal system the Bride braces herself thinking “his appetite need not to be my extinction” and plunges into the exploration of her newly found side of her personality. The Tiger licks out her true self and her female transformation into a beast is complete.
Among many possible realizations of male and female identities for The Tiger’s Bride Carter chooses the one where a woman is transformed into a beast. There can be other variants, though, such as a woman and a man having both parts of beastliness and humanness. Carter takes pains to show through the lens of fairy tales how oppositions are mixed in human nature. In this way, Carter attempts to redefine masculinity and femininity liberating it from artificial constrains of the past gender stereotypes. Self-identification is crucial for every person, and Carter demonstrates that only the awareness of one’s own nature and desires brings happiness and satisfaction.