Carter’s implicit and explicit portrayals of sex and sexuality in The Bloody Chamber reflect changes in the power dynamic between the heroine and the Marquis throughout the text, develop the identity of the heroine and reveal aspects of the Marquis’ character, and challenge notions of gender. The first incident of an implicit portrayal of sexuality occurs during the narrator’s train ride away from her childhood home towards her new life with her future husband, the Marquis.
No physical act of sex is described, but it is the first time that the reader sees the heroine’s sensual side and departure from innocence through Carter’s use of sexual language. It is as if the train ride away from home symbolizes her departure from innocence and into womanhood. Carter uses words such as “ecstasy”, “burning”, “pistons thrusting”, shuddered”, and “throb” to convey the heroine’s newfound sexual arousal and her thoughts about sex.
Carter’s description of the heroine’s “young girl’s pointed breasts and shoulders” depicts her innocence and virginity (Carter, 8), yet she is consumed with thoughts of sex. This contrast symbolizes the development of the heroine’s identity from childhood to womanhood. Implicit sexuality is also seen on the train ride when the heroine expresses her anticipation of sex. She says: “for the first time in my innocent and confined life, I sensed in myself a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away. (Carter, 11). The heroine feels this way because of the way the Marquis watches her with an “assessing eye of a connoisseur inspecting horseflesh”, and sees for the first time the “carnal avarice” of the way he looks at her. The Marquis views her as a piece of meat; similar to the way a predator would eye his prey. From this scene, it is evident to the reader that the Marquis treats his women as possessions, and has a primal instinct regarding sexuality.
The heroine has lived a sheltered, pure life and is completely new to such concepts as lust and sexual passion, but it is at this moment that she realizes the potential of becoming a woman susceptible to sexual domination and corruption. This scene reflects the power dynamic in the relationship stemming from the Marquis’ obvious desire for sexual possession, corruption, and control, and the heroine’s recognition of her impending sexual exploitation. The scene further develops the heroine’s identity towards becoming a woman.
Despite the Marquis’ obvious misogyny, his actions excite the heroine because they make her feel as if she is a sexual and desirable being. She recounts his marriage proposal, and says: “When I said that I would marry him, not one muscle in his face stirred, but he let out a long, extinguished sigh. I thought: Oh! how he must want me! And it was as though the imponderable weight of his desire was a force I might not withstand, not by virtue of its violence but because of its very gravity. (Carter, 9) This quote shows how the heroine perceives the Marquis’ sigh as a sign that he is in love with her, when the more likely reality is that it is a sigh of victory, as if he has just conquered his latest possession. Regardless of these opposing interpretations, it is evident in the last line of this quote that the heroine senses the combination of sexual desire and violence inherent in the Marquis’ character, and the harm it poses to her. Little does the heroine know how real the Marquis’ penchant for sex and violence is, and how he channels that desire towards the murder of women.
The heroine seems accepting of the submissive role in her relationship with the Marquis, and the thought excites her. This assumption further reflects the power dynamic between the Marquis and his wife, as well as the gender roles that both characters embody. The Marquis fits the description of a power-hungry, domineering male, and the heroine that of a naive, innocent girl who obeys her husband. The heroine’s naivety is reflected when she says she is “bemused that, after those others, he should now have chosen me. She obviously does not understand that the reason he is not still in mourning for his last wife is because he murdered her. Carter’s explicit portrayal of sex occurs when the Marquis first shows the heroine the mirrored room and disrobes her. The heroine narrates the scene as if she is describing a rape, similar to the ones in the Marquis’ collection of pornographic paintings: “And when nothing but my scarlet, palpitating core remained, I saw, in the mirror, the living image of an etching by Rops from the collection he had shown me when our engagement permitted us to be alone together. (Carter, 15). When the Marquis later takes the heroine’s virginity, it is a form of punishment for the heroine’s disobedience in perusing his collection of books. This reveals the power dynamic that will present itself again in the story, of the Marquis setting the heroine up to disobey him, then punishing her. He makes her wear the choker of rubies as if it is a collar, kisses it before he kisses her, and “twines her hair into a rope” as if it is a weapon he could use to hurt her. These actions further exemplify the Marquis’ desire for violence and corruption enveloped in sex.
Once the heroine is no longer a virgin and the Marquis leaves the castle, the heroine takes on the role of woman of the house. The reader sees the development of the heroine’s identity, as her independence is revealed through solitary actions such as playing the piano, her true passion, and directing the staff. The heroine is portrayed as a woman who is in control of her domain, rather than a girl under the control of her husband, even though she is still very much trapped in the castle. Power dynamics shift once the heroine loses her virginity, because that was what defined her corruptibility, innocence and youth.
The heroine and the reader also witness for the first time a Marquis who has had all the force and power knocked out of him. The narrator says “He lay beside me, felled like an oak, breathing stertorously, as if he had been fighting with me. In the course of that one-sided struggle, I had seen his deathly composure shatter like a porcelain vase flung against a wall; I had heard him shriek and blaspheme at the orgasm. ” (Carter, 18). Prior to this sexual experience, the heroine had never seen the Marquis be emptied of his composure or expose his vulnerability.
She believes that she may have discovered the man underneath the powerful facade when she says “And perhaps I had seen his face without its mask; and perhaps I had not. ” The Marquis is always so in control and holds power over the heroine, but she realizes that if his exterior is removed for a moment, he is not as powerful as he seems. This scene influences the power dynamic within the relationship, since the heroine is no longer convinced that the Marquis holds so much unquestionable authority over her.
This transition in the power dynamic aids the heroine’s decision to disobey the Marquis’ instructions when he leaves. The heroine’s identity is further developed after the she discovers the bloody chamber and the Marquis returns to the castle. Now that she has discovered the truth about her husband and the fate of his previous wives, the narrator admits to herself that she is in true danger. “How could I know, indeed? Except that, in my heart, I’d always known its lord would be the death of me. ” (Carter, 33).
She is no longer an unknowing, innocent, uncorrupted girl, as she now knows who the Marquis truly is and what he plans to do to her, and she realizes there is nothing desirable about him or their relationship. The narrator realizes that she has played directly into the Marquis’ hands, and has “lost at that charade of innocence and vice in which he had engaged me. Lost, as the victim loses to the executioner. ” (Carter, 34). The heroine has fallen for every trap that the Marquis has set for her, right up until her impending death.
The power dynamics of the relationship shift at this moment in the story. The heroine has discovered the Marquis true intentions, so he no longer holds any secrets that she is unaware of. She sees him as the monster he is, and not as the powerful man he pretends to be. The narrator observes as the Marquis “raised his head and stared at me with his blind, shuttered eyes as though he did not recognize me, I felt a terrified pity for him, for this man who lived in such strange, secret places that, if I loved him enough to follow him, I should have to die” (Carter, 35).
The heroine begins to pity the Marquis rather than fear him, and sees his loneliness underneath his powerful disguise. One could argue that the power dynamics truly shift in the heroine’s favor once her mother kills the Marquis, as he is destroyed, but the true shift takes place once the heroine discovers who the Marquis really is, because she no longer has any reason to obey him as a husband. Once the narrator realizes that she is not in a legitimate husband-wife relationship and her husband intends to murder her, there is no reason for her to act like a loving, faithful wife or submit to this man.
The end of the text shows how Carter challenges gender roles throughout the story. At the beginning, the heroine is portrayed as a naive girl who marries a man not because she’s sure she loves him, but because she’s sure she wants to marry him (Carter 8). The reader sees how she fits the notion of the inexperienced, submissive gender willing to obey a man and accept all the riches he offers her. The Marquis fits the notion of a masochistic, domineering male who sees women as objects and seeks to control them and entice them with wealth.
However, by the end of the novel, the heroine outlives the Marquis and is no longer the object of a man’s desire for violence and sexual corruption. She marries a man who is blind and poor, so that he can neither objectify her for her beauty nor buy her love with money and gifts, and she no longer has any desire for these things. This change is seen when the narrator says: “We lead a quiet life, the three of us. I inherited, of course, enormous wealth but we have given most of it away to various charities. (Carter, 40). The Marquis has fallen from his position as a powerful, wealthy, controlling man, and in true feminist fashion, the heroine emerges the victor. Carter’s descriptions of implicit and explicit scenes of sex and sexuality involving the heroine and the Marquis illustrate the development of the two characters’ relationship with each other and the power dynamics involved, as well as their own identity transitions throughout the story.
The reader witnesses the narrator’s journey from girlhood and her desire for sexual corruption, through her torture, submissiveness and sexual self-discovery, all the way until her assumption of power over the Marquis. The heroine defeats the preconceived notions of gender roles as her values and character are completely altered by the end of the story. The Bloody Chamber depicts the lethal combination of sexuality and violence and the desire to be sexually corrupted without comprehending the implications and true nature of the relationship.