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Essay: Female roles: Lady Macbeth, Wolf-Alice & the unnamed female in The Bloody Chamber

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  • Subject area(s): Literature essays
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  • Published: June 11, 2021*
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  • Female roles: Lady Macbeth, Wolf-Alice & the unnamed female in The Bloody Chamber
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The most famous female role to review is Lady Macbeth; her lack of innocence is perfectly clear, due to her murderous intent, however many still debate her seductive nature. Some critics ‘depict her as seductive, luring her husband towards crime by playing the part of his ‘dearest chuck’’ This interpretation of her is appealing to some extent as Lady Macbeth’s ‘ambition’ and ‘burn[ing] desire’ to be ‘crowned ’is whispered into Macbeth’s character, as she manipulates and contorts Macbeth’s desires in order to fulfill her own goals. This is translated through the forceful imagery and imperatives within the line ‘pour my spirits in thine ear’, which reflects her power , and links her to supernatural force, and allows her to persuade Macbeth. Lady Macbeth’s manipulative and seductive nature is cleverly exposed through her language, and also through her presence within their relationship as his supporter and encourager into immoral acts. Her feminine side is rarely revealed within the play, yet it appears as she comforts her husband following his first murder, as she encourages him to ‘consider it not so deeply’, to not think of the deeds he commited, and, ‘to wash [such] filthy witness from [his] hands.’ By helping her husband cope with this evil act, that she originally encouraged him to do, it clearly shows the strength of Lady Macbeth’s manipulation and power over her husband, and certainly shapes her as seductive and manipulative, but not a harlot. ‘Macbeth’ is a play centered around female manipulation, as done by the witches and Lady Macbeth in order to fuel Macbeth’s hamartia. Therefore it is necessary for Shakespeare to place the lead female as ‘seductive’ in order to progress the play; despite the fact that this role does not adhere to Coleridge’s classification of women in gothic literature. However, it can be argued that if Lady Macbeth played the role of the ‘shameless harlot’, this may still have encouraged Macbeth to murder his comrades, yet this plot may not have been as entertaining for the original Jacobean audience due to the removal of the witches as a plot device, a supernatural force which many people in Shakespeare’s England had ‘anxiety about’ as the ‘belief in magic and the supernatural [was] not limited.’ Thereby showing the importance of Shakespeare opposing gothic literature stereotypes.
Alternatively, it can be argued that Lady Macbeth is not ‘seductive’ as she possess a lack of femininity, and is instead, a male figure. Her drive to be masculine is insinuated throughout the play as Shakespeare gifted her with typically male characteristics such as strength, ambition, and savagery, and makes her call on the spirits to ‘unsex’ her and ‘take [her] milk’, in order for take on her true masculine form. Thus removing Lady Macbeth from the stereotypes of women in gothic literature as she is presented as predominantly masculine.

Although, it can be argued that by Shakespeare making subtle hints to the audience of Lady Macbeth’s true desires, he is also revealing her seductive nature as, if she picks and chooses her feminine moments, for example, after Macbeth kills the King, this shows the audience that she is manipulating her sexuality and gender for royal gain, and cleverly illustrates her seductive nature. This therefore presents a flaw in Coleridge’s categories of women in gothic literature as he failed to observe the role of the seductive female, one that is extremely important in the progression of the plot.It is clear that Lady Macbeth’s character is paradoxical, making it difficult to slot her into such basic categories, yet it can be instead be argued that due to Shakespeare being proto-gothic, he was able to manipulate the roles of women much more freely due to a lack of genre, and therefore created his own representation of females in gothic literature.

Carter similarly plays with boundaries within her collection and opposes Coleridge’s view of women in gothic texts. In ‘Wolf Alice’, Carter also successfully explores liminal states, similarly to how Lady Macbeth switches between feminine and masculine, Wolf-Alice’s identity in this tale is ambiguous; ‘nothing about her is human except that she is not a wolf’, she is torn between human and inhuman, shown through her hyphenated name, savagery and humanity. This is completed on a much broader scale than Shakespeare’s and with stronger elements of fiction, making the story itself potentially less believable due to the lack of realism, but instead more memorable and hard hitting on the reader. Despite the fact that both authors do not conform with Coleridge’s classification of women in gothic literature, it is important to remember that both texts end negatively. ‘Macbeth’ concludes with L.Macbeth’ descent into madness and apparent suicide, and ‘Wolf-Alice’ ends with the passing of the Duke; potentially presenting a warning from both authors of the implications of opposing the norm, or it may be a technique to heighten the gothic elements and impact on the reader.

An example of a character conforming to such categorisations is in the first story in Angela Carter’s collection:‘The Bloody Chamber’, which is ‘more than twice the length of any other story in the collection’, proving its importance. On a surface level, the unnamed female conforms to both stereotypes of the traditional representation of femininity in gothic literature as a ‘trembling innocent’, due to her naive and virginal nature, and a ‘shameless harlot’ as a result of her desire for sex. This pressing excitement for sex is first shown through the line; she ‘felt [herself] stir’ in his presence. However, upon delving further into the text, it becomes obvious that the marquis is a predator, and she the prey, shown initially through Carter constantly referring to him as a lion/ ‘leonine’ with a ‘mane.’ This lion like imagery presents him as a dominant, untameable and extremely powerful beast, providing a stark contrast to the female’s body, which is compared to a ‘lamb chop’, thus quickly depicting her as powerless in this situation and over her sexuality. This imagery also insinuates the idea of a lion devouring a lamb, particularly since the phrase is cleverly placed after a reference to a ‘Rops’ etching, who was infamous for his erotic and borderline satanic themed artwork, which potentially foreshadows the sex between the two characters as predatorial, raw and objectifying. The visual imagery here enhances the girl’s vulnerability and proves the marquis’ control over her and her sexual appetite, as he ‘closed her legs like a book.’ From the female’s perspective, there is a crescendo to the moment in which they have sex, however, once they do it is clear the naive girl’s actions were fuelled by a fantasy, as a result of the society forcing young girls to believe that sex is a magical experience, predominantly to impregnate the bride and pleasure the man. Yet, Carter, exploring the ideas of second wave feminism, has no issue with illustrating the reality of the moment, comparing it to being ‘impaled, a term that alludes being wounded and hurt. Furthermore, Carter cleverly abuses the setting to further this attack on the patriarchy with the feature of the mirrors, a symbol for the male gaze, as ‘a dozen husbands impaled a dozen brides.’ Feminist writers use the symbol of the mirror to enhance the idea that whenever a female looks at herself in a mirror, she does so with masculine eyes, looking at things he would and altering her appearance for his pleasure; this makes it clear that her having sex with him is merely for his pleasure, not for hers. Moreover, the lack of name for the female character and the use of ‘dozen’ makes it obvious that this same situation happens to many girls, all the time, which is Carter directly criticising society and, more subtly, the patriarchy. Therefore showing that the female character is not a ‘shameless harlot’, but instead has a duty to please her husband.

The female within this short story is a clear victim, predominantly due to her naivety. Her innocence is first portrayed at the start of the story in which she labels herself ‘seventeen [and] knew nothing of the world’, which contrasts to the marquis’ ‘streaks of pure silver in his dark mane.’ This contrast heightens the innocence of the girl, however as she encounters the bloody chamber itself, it becomes obvious that ‘each time [she] struck a match… that innocence of [hers] which he had lusted fell away.’ This line is not only a reflection of her wiser self reflecting on her naive nature, shown through the use of past tense, but also highlights that a trembling innocent is necessary within this story, it is what the Marquis feeds on. Just as it is necessary to have an innocent victim within a gothic story, it is also compulsory to have a saviour within a fairytale story, Carter has managed to contain these elements whilst implementing a feminist twist, with the character of the Mother. One may argue that it is in fact necessary to have a character who completely conforms to the stereotype, much like Lady McDuff in Macbeth, so that when one presents a contemporary, defiant character, the Mother, it is much more obvious and shocking to the reader. Carter makes the mother the true heroine of the story as she ‘put a single, irreproachable bullet’ through the Marquis’ head, yet even before this abnormal act of a female riding in to save the day on a horse, the mother is shaped to be brave and courageous through the story of her 18th birthday in which she ‘disposed of a man-eating tiger.’ The reference to the ‘tiger’ in ‘Hanoi’ potentially places the mother from the 1970s, when this collection was written, as this was after the Vietnam War, which involved Hanoi. Subsequently allowing Carter to place a modern day character, from a generation who believed in free love, and equality within a classic fairytale, insinuated by the setting of the story featuring ‘wagons’, and a ‘fairy castle’, alongside a traditional ‘damsel in distress.’ This is an impeccable technique, used successfully to juxtapose a typical, submissive, trembling innocent gothic female against a modern-day pro-feminist character.

However, one may argue that Carter does not execute this feminist twist successfully as she simply places a female into the masculine, ‘knight in shining armour’, fairytale cliché. Instead of Carter creating a new character, and altering the stereotypical female roles of gothic literature, she copies the pre-existing male role. Meaning that Carter remains within the lines of traditional gothic literature roles, which is majorly disappointing for a third wave feminist reader.

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