Lizzie’s Tiger by Angela Carter

Lizzie's Tiger

Have you ever run away from home? I tried at the age of two — so family legend has it. I escaped the house and ran, fast as my chubby legs would carry me, to the main road. I wore nothing but a nappy and bib. (The streaking part is always emphasised in retellings as if this is especially egregious.) When my parents found me they demanded to know where I was headed. So I told them like it was obvious. I was off to see the lions.

After reading Carter’s short story “Lizzie’s Tiger” I’m glad I never made it to the circus. Things might’ve turned out very differently for my parents if I had. Instead, my father built a massive gate between house and road — inaccessible from both sides to a small person. This gate terrified me in a way lions didn’t. A few years later, when I started school, I made it my morning mantra to ask for the gate to be open in time for my return. I was terrified my mother would forget, in which case I’d be locked out forever. Obviously. My mother was good at remembering the gate. She forgot just the once. I screamed and screamed and the entire neighbourhood thought naturally of blue murder. Eileen Austing from across the road came to my rescue. I could not be consoled.

But lions though? I had no problem with them. Lions and tigers are the stuff of fairytales — to a child they may not even be real.

Angela Carter’s fictional characterisation of a young Lizzie Borden felt the same about tigers as I did of lions. Carter’s short story “Lizzie’s Tiger” reads almost like a child’s fairytale — until it suddenly doesn’t:

  • The main characters are two little girls who we meet at the ages of 13 and 4.
  • They’re freshly orphaned, like many fairytale children.
  • The youngest has a childlike desire — to see the circus for herself.
  • The adult in her life — the father — refuses to help her, so like any good child character, she sets out on her own, into the world — her own mythic journey.
  • Angela Carter’s story is almost like the inverse of The Tiger Who Came To Tea — in the picture book, a tiger comes to the house. Tiger and child indulge in a carnivalesque adventure together. In this short story for adults, a child leaves the house to find the tiger, who is not the slightest bit anthropomorphised. This is a proper tiger. Child Lizzie is at an actual carnival, but one of the adult, debauched kind.

STORYWORLD OF LIZZIE’S TIGER

Angela Carter had the gift of turning setting into character.

That cottage on Ferry — very well, it was a slum; but the undertaker lived on unconcerned among the stiff furnishings of his defunct marriage. His bits and pieces would be admired today if they turned up freshly beeswaxed in an antique story, but in those days they were plain old-fashioned, and time would only make them more so in that dreary interior, the tiny house he never mended, eroding clapboard and diseased paint, mildew on the dark wallpaper with a brown pattern like brains, the ominous crimson border round the top of the walls, the sisters sleeping in one room in one thrifty bed.

On Ferry, in the worst part of town, among the dark-skinned Portuguese fresh off the boat with their earrings, flashing teeth and incomprehensible speech, come over the ocean to work the mills whose newly erected chimneys closed in every perspective; every year more chimneys, more smoke, more newcomers, and the peremptory shriek of the whistle that summoned to labour as bells had once summoned to prayer.

— “Lizzie’s Tiger” by Angela Carter

Note various other techniques.

  • First point — a lot of writers advise against using adjectives. But count the adjectives and tell me Carter didn’t deserve to use every single last one.
  • Imagine a camera. Carter starts off with a long shot of the cottage, slowly zooming in from large furniture right down to mildew. Then back out to include the inhabitants of the bed — including our heroine. Why did Carter zoom in on the very small? Because Lizzie herself is very small.
  • ‘Pattern like brains’ and ‘diseased paint’ not only carry the negative connotations of axe murder, foreshadowing an event which is not included in this particular snapshot of Lizzie’s life, but also personify the building itself in classic gothic fashion. In Gothic literature, houses are alive. They will swallow you up, absorb you into the walls, and provide shelter to beasts.
  • In the following paragraph Angela takes the camera high above in an establishing shot — usually, in film, we get the establishing shot first. But in writing the camera is far more fluid. A fictional camera is like an electron, jumping from place to place. This foreshadows Lizzie’s journey from the shelter of her own home — her own bed — into this wider world containing people reminiscent of pirates. Why the focus on the chimneys? Because this is a view from above. Again, with focus on the miniature — a small town containing an even smaller girl, who will do big things.
  • Again we have the personification of the town in the ‘shriek of the whistle’. This phrase is idiomatic so it’s easy to gloss over, but it’s typically people who shriek — not whistles.
  • In the final sentence of this description of setting, Carter reminds us of the fairytale, timelessness of this event. This may be about a particular event in a particular year, but by reminding us that this is a town which has recently transitioned from an early modern town ruled by the church into an industrialised centre of manufacturing. This is the story of a girl in flux; it’s also the story of a town in flux. The most interesting stories happen in times of big change. This is a story set in the stages between 2 and 3.
THE FOUR SOCIAL STAGES
  1. The Wilderness
  2. The Village (civilisation surrounded by wilderness)
  3. The City
  4. The Oppressive City (which includes suburbs)

Why is this connection important to the story? Because Lizzie herself is in transition. This is presumably her first foray  out into the world, from the ‘village’ of the home into the ‘city’ of the circus, which collects a wide variety of characters and shoves them together.

The snapshot continues:

The hovel on Ferry Road stood , or rather leaned, at a bibulous angle on a narrow street cut across at an oblique angle by another narrow street, all the old wooden homes like an upset cookie jar of broken gingerbread houses lurching this way and that way, and the shutters hanging off their hinges, and windows stuffed with old newspapers, and the snagged picket fence and raised voices in unknown tongues and howling of dogs who, since puppyhood, had known of the world only the circumference of their chain. Outside the parlour were nothing but rows of counterfeit houses that sometimes used to scream.

— “Lizzie’s Tiger” by Angela Carter

  • When writing from a child’s point of view it’s essential to describe the world as a child would see it. Hence the gingerbread, straight out of a fairytale. Later, we’re told ‘a hand came in the night’ to hang up posters advertising the circus. This too is very fairytale-esque — to young Lizzie there is no person attached to actions. She hasn’t learnt to humanise people, and evidence may point to her never learning this skill. Moreover, this depicts Lizzie’s view of the world as full of bugaboos. The phrasing also suggests she’s drawn to these bugaboos rather than driven back into the house.
  • I had to look up bibulous: ‘excessively fond of drinking alcohol’. This is a form of pathetic fallacy. The people inside the houses drink. Not the houses themselves: human attribute transferred to nearby object. Carter makes use of this same technique when she tells us the houses scream. This works because to a small child, it would seem the houses scream. A small child may not think any further.
  • The lean-to houses remind me of an illustrated picture book of The Pied Piper which sits on our shelf. It also reminds me of Tim Burton’s sensibility, but most of all, this is how buildings really were built in the medieval era. Before modern building standards, houses really did lean into each other. The roads between them were narrow, and they often held each other up. They collapsed. This would have felt very precarious, but maybe not to them. As for me, if I could time travel for a day back to the medieval era, I’d be very wary of setting foot inside the buildings!

The buildings of medieval Troyes have been restored to meet modern standards, but I’ve seen old photos in books which show us genuinely medieval buildings leaning into each other. A contemporary snapshot offers a little insight into the leaning nature of medieval streets. Even now, this street seems to lean into itself.

Troyes Champagne Street Scene

 

SYMBOL WEB OF LIZZIE’S TIGER

Of all the stories I’ve studied, I’m reminded most of Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party.

  • Both are about a young female character who leaves her home on a mission
  • To end up in a foreign part of town
  • Coming face-to-face with death.

The similarities might come partly from the details I read about Fall River. At the time of the murders, Fall River was starkly divided into the rich people who live on ‘The Hill’ and the (largely) mill workers who lived down below in a much more culturally diverse mix. This rich/poor divide doesn’t come to the fore — dig down another layer yet — this is about the powerful versus the powerless. Lizzie is powerless because of her size, but her temperament will later compensate. We are told she is not a fearful child.

STORY STRUCTURE OF LIZZIE’S TIGER

“Lizzie’s Tiger”  is a classic mythic structure and I’ve written so often on that I feel I know the main (masculine) variety inside out and back to front. This time I’ll zoom in on the most unusual points.

Like all heroes embarking on a big journey (big mostly because Lizzie’s so small), Lizzie meets a variety of characters — some help her but end up contributing to her downfall. (The group of street kids.) Another sexually abuses her. (The lion tamer.) Another man, this time benevolent, helps Lizzie to achieve her goal of seeing the tiger.

The interesting structural aspect of this story is the self-revelation phase. On the one hand, Carter is really clear that some kind of self-revelation has happened:

Lizzie’s stunned little face was now mottled all over with a curious reddish-purple, with the heat of the tent, with passion, with the sudden access of enlightenment.

— “Lizzie’s Tiger” by Angela Carter

But none of this makes complete sense until the final sentence, when we get a big revelation. (Big revelations are known as ‘reversals’ — we’re encouraged now to see the entire story differently.) Perhaps you know more about the Lizzie Borden case than I did, and you picked it up much earlier. As for me, I had to look this person up online to check she was who I thought she was. Angela Carter seemed fascinated by Lizzie Borden — and I don’t know when she wrote them, but the fascination may have spanned years. Lizzie Borden was the main character in “The Fall River Axe Murders”, included in Black Venus (1985), and this one was included in American Ghosts and Old World Wonders (1993).

In a nutshell, Lizzie Borden entered pop culture as the notorious main suspect in the 1892 axe murders of her father and stepmother. This happened in the beautifully symbolically named Fall River, Massachussetts. She was acquitted, as it happens. In any case, if you know that about Lizzie Borden, you know what the character’s revelation was in this short story: Hypothetical young Lizzie has realised that she contains great power within herself. She is the tiger. In fact, you don’t need to know about Lizzie Borden to have picked that much up. It’s clear from various clues within the text that the tiger is Lizzie’s animal analogue:

  • Lizzie is strangely entranced by it
  • Both she and the tiger are abused by the tamer (though at this point, only the tiger has exacted any sort of revenge, in the form of scars)
  • Lizzie ends up wearing a similar mottled pattern to the tiger.

DESIGNING PRINCIPLE

Roald Dahl wrote a similar story about Adolf Hitler as a baby. When he reveals the identity of the baby in the story, the writer asks us to examine whether we still have sympathy for this small child. If we saw Adolf Hitler as a baby and knew what he’d turn into, would we save his little life?

Likewise, an episode of Black MIrror asks us to examine our empathy after withholding the culpability of the empathetic main character until the last few minutes of the story.

These imaginings of notorious people as children are always about empathy. Do horrible adults deserve empathy? How much? Are any of us really responsible for the things we do, or do life circumstances send us forth along a path which seems full of choices but is actually more fatalistic?

Some reviewers have complained that Angela Carter treated her characters like specimens for analysis. Lizzie’s Tiger may be a good example of that. Stories like these are inevitably about the role nurture in shaping personality, sometimes attempting to home in on the moment in which a good child turned bad. In reality, there are rarely such defined moments. We like to think there are. We like to see them in fiction.

SEE ALSO

The Tiger’s Bride by Angela Carter

Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter and Mise-en-abyme

Burning Your Boats by Angela Carter

Peter and the Wolf is a Russian fairytale for children, with musical composition by Sergei Prokofiev. This fairytale is much newer than most — it dates from 1936. This makes it far newer than the Grimm tales, which all predated the Grimm Brothers themselves — and newer than the fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen. This one is unusual of its type, because it was written with a specific educational purpose: to introduce children to various instruments of an orchestra.

The copyright history of Peter and the Wolf makes for an interesting and frustrating read. In the middle of the 20th century, schools (and anyone else) were free to use this story and music as they saw fit — either in remixes or as it is. Then in 2012 the American Supreme Court judged that previously copyright free works could, at a later date, become copyrighted. This battle had been going on for some time, at least since 1994.

None of this affected what Angela Carter did in her short story of the same name, regardless of what year she wrote it. Titles are not subject to copyright, and Carter’s is a completely different tale about a different Peter and a different kind of wolf altogether. The title encourages readers to consider that the Sergei Prokofiev story might have been different, but that’s where the analogy ends. The Wikipedia entry for the orchestral original offers a good summary of Prokofiev’s plot, for anyone interested in a closer comparison.

There’s also the 2009 short film which got in before the ruling, directed by Suzie Templeton, written for screen by Marianela Maldonado. In this version, the national enemies of the Russian original have been personified by a gang of street bullies. But the brutality of the duck murder is preserved, making for a story much darker than most Pixar-raised contemporary kids are used to. It disturbs my daughter no end, especially as the murder comes right after a slapstick scene which has a child audience giggling.

STORY STRUCTURE OF PETER AND THE WOLF BY ANGELA CARTER

WEAKNESS/NEED

The clear main character of Angela Carter’s story remains Peter. She hasn’t switched the viewpoint over to the wolf, which would be another fine option for a re-visioning. She does switch our empathy, however — she does something more difficult. Carter helps us to share it between Peter and The Wolf. This is another excellent option for any re-visioning, because the message is always this: Everyone has their reasons for doing what they do.

The original Peter, being a child, has the usual child weaknesses: He is reliant upon his caregiver (the grandfather) to care for him. Angela Carter, who famously translated the Charles Perrault fairytales into English, was undoubtedly influenced by him, even though she used him as a negative example for how to depict women, in particular. Here she goes the Perrault route, and in writing this fairytale she begins a generation beforehand. In order to understand an individual, it was once thought, we must first know who their parents and grandparents were. We no longer think that, culturally. Or, if we do, we keep it on the down-low. We like to think — or to imagine — that we are not held hostage by our genetics and our ancestry. That anyone can become anyone else, so long as they work hard and be good.

Carter does actually start with the Wolf girl, which might trick you into thinking the girl is the main character. I’ve written before that it’s not always easy determining who the main character is in a story. I always come back to this: Who has the revelation at the end? In other words, who gets the character arc? That’s your main character. The Wolf girl is interesting, she is necessary, and big things happen to her in this story, but the revelation belongs clearly to Peter. She aids him in this. Carter’s Peter and the Wolf is technically an example of The Female Maturity Formula, and I point that out because yes, even feminist writers use it — my critique of this arc refers to the canon. Individual stories are absolved.

Peter is introduced in the fifth paragraph — quite a way down, considering this is a short story. Peter is revealed to be smart — good at deduction — but what is his weakness? If in doubt, look at the revelation. HIs weakness is that he has been taught to fear the wilderness, and anything that cannot be tamed. Carter tells us clearly:

When the eldest grandson, Peter, reached his seventh summer, he was old enough to go up the mountain with his father, as the men did every year, to let the goats feed on the young grass. There Peter sat in the new sunlight, plaiting the straw for baskets, until he saw the thing he had been taught most to fear advancing silently along the lea of an outcrop of rock.

Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

Fair enough, we should all be wary of wolves. Maybe. But as the story progresses, and we see Peter’s reaction to the rescue and abduction of the Wolf girl. Fear of life, and of nature in general, far outsizes reason. Guilt and fear paralyse him.

What Angela Carter does so well across all of her stories is link woman to nature. This isn’t Carter’s invention — she is drawing on a long, long history of misogyny, in which men are closer to God and women are closer to the Earth, and can never rise above. This is due to the unmistakable and harrowingly messy process of childbirth and reproductive cycles — cycles which were far more visible until the twentieth century. If women are close to earth, only men can be close to God, and only men can run the entire show. For more on that sorry history, which spans the last 3000 years at least, Marilyn French wrote a comprehensive history of misogyny in her book Beyond Power. Also a feminist, living in the same era as Marilyn French, Angela Carter critiques that same history — that women are to be considered abject because of our strong links to the Earth, and the cycle of life itself. She also makes the link between this view and organised religion, which in earlier times was inextricable from the rest of human thought.

DESIRE

Peter is a fairly passive character — the viewpoint character, in fact. With a character who looks on and observes events, you’ll need the strong, obvious Desire to come from someone else. In this case it’s clearly the Wolf girl, who is captured, but wants to break free from the humans. This desire is so ferocious that she creates a violent battle scene in the house.

Afterwards, Peter is left with a desire of his own, but this desire is far more subtle. Wolf girl’s desire is on the surface; Peter’s is under. He doesn’t know himself what he wants. He wants to assuage his generalised anxieties.

OPPONENT

The opponent is not the Wolf girl. Even in many orchestral versions, the Wolf and the Boy are pitted against each other, presented as equals at one point. In the 2009 short film, this is most clear when wolf and boy are each dangling from different ends of the same rope, eye to eye, each reliant upon the other for escape.

But it is enough to say that Peter is his own worst enemy? This never makes for a satisfying if that’s the only thing you’re doing, but it does work if there are other battles raging. You’re more likely to pull it off in a short story than in a novel, which can’t sustain that level of battle, unless it’s something like Fight Club, in which we are presented with a clear opponent, even if that opponent is revealed to be illusory.

Peter is his own opponent because he clings to a system of rituals which aren’t going to help him break free of his fears. You could say the church itself is his opponent, though it would be more accurate to say it’s the culture. Carter says ‘he had been taught’, passively, suggesting he’s learned this response from all sides. Again, church = culture, and culture = church in a storyworld such as this.

PLAN

Peter and Wolf girl are presented as diametric opposites — consider them different sides of the same personality, in the same way the Winnie the Pooh characters can be considered different aspects of a child’s traits and emotions. Wolf girl models one possibility — you can rage against the machine and take off to live your own life, literally in the wild, in her case. Or you can buckle down and be a good boy, doing everything expected of you and more.

Peter takes the latter route.

The boy became very pious, so much so that his family were startled and impressed.

Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

THE BATTLE PHASE AND MISE-EN-ABYME

The battle scene in which the wolves come to rescue their girl is ‘a battle scene’ (better to call it a ‘fight scene’), but for plot purposes it is not The Battle Scene. This is a crucial distinction, and failure to see it can really muck up a story if you’re trying to write one. Peter’s Battle is far more quiet. The Wolf girl crouches before him, uninhibited by her nakedness.

It exercised an absolute fascination upon him.

Her lips opened up as she howled so that she offered hm, without her own intention or volition, a view of a set of Chinese boxes of whorled flesh that seemed to open one upon another into herself, drawing him into an inner, secret place in which destination perpetually receded before him, his first, devastating, vertiginous intimation of infinity.

Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

The word ‘devastating’ feels like it’s almost cull-able, but it’s not. This is Peter approaching his own kind of spiritual death. ‘Fascination’ is also important. Today, to be fascinated by something is a good thing — we’ve probably achieved a pleasant ‘flow state’. But that’s not where the word comes from, and in re-visioned fairytales, it pays to consider the medieval meanings of contemporary words. In the 1590s ‘to fascinate’ meant to  bewitch or enchant. The word comes from Middle French, Latin and possibly from Greek as well. In any case, you didn’t want to be ‘fascinated’ by anybody in the 1500s, and you didn’t want to be accused of it, either, lest you end up burned for witchcraft.

An understanding of church teachings are necessary before understanding this story, and I think we all know it — sex is sinful. It still is, according to the major religions, outside marriage. Even in (most, I’ll not say ‘dominant’) secular culture, sex is unacceptable outside mutual consent. There’s something icky about the one-sided viewing — this is not consent, exactly. There is a single participant — subject vs object. But Carter inverts the gender of the usual victim in such one-sided experiences. It is Peter who remains affected by it.

The piousness itself is also a near death experience, but literally:

In Lent, he fasted to the bone. On Good Friday, he lashed himself.

Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

If you’d like to drive your point home, make like Angela Carter and include but a psychological AND a literal near death experience, rammed home by the actual death of a few characters close to the main one. (Mother figures and male best friends are common victims.)

MISE-EN-ABYME IN STORYTELLING

Using Angela Carter’s excellent example, I’d like to look into the mise-en-abyme technique which I’ve been noticing for a while in various stories. Only a writer such as Carter would take the vulva and vaginal opening and turn that into a mise-en-abyme metaphor; others have found different analogies.

What is mise-en-abyme, exactly?

mise en abyme

I would describe myself as the kind of person who describes himself as the kind of person who would describe himself.

— @Demetri Martin

  • In Western art history, mise-en-abyme is a formal technique in which an image contains a smaller copy of itself, in a sequence appearing to recur infinitely; “recursive” is another term for this.
  • In graphic art, it might be a painting of a painting, which has another painting inside itself.
  • Stand in a dressing room lined with mirrors and watch the mise en abyme effect. Do you remember the first time you did this? Or maybe you don’t remember the first time, but still recall standing as a child between two mirrors and marvelling at the effect? Did this get you thinking about some pretty bizarre stuff, bigger than yourself? How there might be more than one of you, or how far the little versions of you might extend? Was it this that got you considering the concept of infinity, by any chance? It’s a powerful effect. It distances us from ourself. Which one are we? Are we all?

The song Green & Gold by Lianne La Havas is about that moment of being a little kid, looking in ‘the mirror whirl’ and wondering if it goes on and on forever. As an adult she looks back on her six year old self — she’s since had the revelation that ‘those eyes you gave to me’ let her see where she’s come from — her own heritage. Possible subtext: She sees she’s part of one long chain of peoples, stretching in both directions.

When used in storytelling, mise-en-abyme is regularly linked to a ‘vertiginous’ sensation (quoting Carter directly), which in turn starts this spiral of questioning — the main character will probably see themselves as a very small part of something much larger. (Or they’ll remain blind to it, if you’re writing a tragedy. I wrote this kind of tragedy in our illustrated short story app, Midnight Feast.)

Mise-en-abyme and its link to Death

In No Go the Bogeyman, Marina Warner describes the macabre Medieval tradition of death art on church walls, and actual dead and decaying bodies within abbeys, as mise-en-abyme in nature. An example is The Hours of Simon Vostre, a text printed in Paris in the early sixteenth century. The text contains engraving of the danse macabre (Dance of Death) showing working women in various trades and working men. It was also customary for the spectre to wear a tatterdemalion (deliberately tattered) version of the costume of his prey and to imitate with grotesque exaggeration the victim’s usual activities.

What’s all this for?

To show that Death is a double; each of us has our own death in the mirror. Death is oneself on the other side, beyond reach.  The macabre implicates us in mise-en-abyme, a hall of mirrors. And by means of its use of defamiliarization, it offers the capacity for self-examination. Many of the tombs in which the deceased was shown devoured by worms were actually commissioned and carved during the subject’s lifetime: thus, Archbishop Chichele, founder of All Souls, Oxford, may have contemplated the artistic progress of his own decomposing body not he tomb in Christ Church while he was still alive. These funerary monuments are designed not to engender memory in the narrow sense, nor prayer, but to provoke the pondering of self. John Truby would say that it leads to the Self-revelation phase of a story.

Mise-en-abyme in the Plot Structure

The story-within-a-story is a plot structure rather than a system of imagery, but might equally result in a mise-en-abyme effect for the reader. I’ve found good examples in children’s literature.

In Bye Bye Baby by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, the new mummy reads Baby a sad story with a happy ending, which describes the wrapper story itself. What if there’s another book within the book within the book?

Mise-en-abyme is sometimes used in comedy as a gag. SpongeBob and Patrick try to make money reselling chocolate bars but end up getting duped by a fish who first sells them bags for their chocolate bars, then sells them bags to carry their new bags. This is funny to us partly because the characters are stupid, but also partly because this could go on and on forever — hyperbole, in other words, without needing to go all the way. The SpongeBob example is also an example of character humour — most people can relate — we’ve all noticed that the more things we buy, the more things we need to buy for the bought things (new bookshelves for new books, a bigger garage for a new car). The purpose of this gag is the same as any other example of mise-en-abyme that I’ve seen: Its purpose is to get us to look inwards, stepping back, critiquing our own selves (and in this case, learning to laugh).

MISE EN ABYME AND PSYCHEDELICS

For reasons yet to be fully explored by science, a mise en abyme experience seems fairly common to those who take psychedelic drugs.

John Hayes, the psychotherapist, emerged [from a psychedelic experience] with “his sense of the concrete destabilised,” replaced by a conviction “that there’s a reality beneath the reality of ordinary perceptions. It informed my cosmology–that there is a world beyond this one”.

Another subject from Pollan’s book, Boothy, reminded me very much of Angela Carter’s description of the vulva:

This place in which I seem to find myself, already enormous, suddenly yawns open even further and the shapes that undulate before my eyes appear to explode with new and even more extravagant patterns. Over and over again I had the overwhelming sense of infinity being multiplied by another infinity. I joked to my wife as she drove me home that I felt as if I had been repeatedly sucked into the asshole of God.

Michael Pollan adds:

Boothby had what sounds very much like a classic mystical experience, though he may be the first in the long line of Western mystics to enter the divine realm through that particular aperture.

— How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan

Other Terminology

This terminology isn’t always used by storytelling experts when talking about the same thing. Truby, for example, talks about ‘miniatures‘. But it is the same thing. By presenting the reader with the very large and the very small, you as writer are encouraging The Overview Effect. This will lead directly to a Self-revelation pertinent to the story at hand. What writers need to decide: What is this character going to realise after their near death experience?

SELF-REVELATION

So, Angela Carter’s Peter is basically disturbed by the infinite mise-en-abyme effect of a girl’s vulva/vagina. He doubles down to prove himself a good boy, according to his culture and church. (His Plan.)

Where does this get him? Well, nowhere good. Angela Carter’s ideology regarding church conformity is foreshadowed by imagery:

[The wolves] left behind a riotous stench in the house, and white tracks of flour everywhere.

Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

‘Stench’, or any kind of smell, in a story generally, refers equally to an emotional state. ‘Black sticks of dead wood’ are a pretty obvious clue that Peter has been through some kind of spiritual death. The grandmother’s bitten hand ‘festers’. Infections fester, but we also use the word to refer to inner states which we can’t shake. Then, there is a death. Not Peter’s, but his grandmother’s. Note: Peter loses a female caregiver in a direct reflection — mise-en-abyme reflection — of the Wolf girl, who lost her female wolf caregiver.

Hopefully the reader is undergoing a revelation at this point: Peter and the Wolf girl are different sides of the same wild coin. There’s a bit of wild in all of us, and it cannot be tamed. Peter’s comes next. (Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak is a picture book with a very similar revelation phase… and  therefore ‘theme‘.)

Rivers are often associated with revelations. This has a long history in the churches, and no doubt long, long before. Water literally makes a body clean, so the link between rivers and mental cleanliness is a natural one.

At the end of his first day’s travel, he reached a river that ran from the mountain into the valley. The nights were already chilly; he lit himself a fire, prayed, ate bread and cheese his mother had packed for him and slept as well as he could. In spite of his eagerness to plunge into the white world of penance and devotion that awaited him, he was anxious and troubled for reasons he could not explain to himself.

Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

Sometimes revelations happen while bathing in the river — less obvious is when they come after. The river does nothing for Peter. The ‘liquid’ is described as ‘cloudy’. No, he requires the wild Wolf girl to aid him in his embrace of his baser self — she is his (extreme) model for how to live a good life. So he sees her once more — this is some years later — and again we have the whole mise-en-abyme / reflection imagery going on, because that’s not finished until the Self-revelation phase is finished. (Writing note: If you start a strong system of imagery, take it to its conclusion. Don’t abandon it partway.)

She could never have acknowledged that the reflection beneath her in the river was that of herself. She did not know she had a face; she had never known she had a face and so her face itself was the mirror of a different kind of consciousness than ours is, just as her nakedness without innocence or display, was that of our first parents, before the Fall.

— Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

The Wolf girl is innocent to the extreme, animalistic degree — Peter watches her and realises that he, too, is innocent. By bearing witness to the violent episode of his youth, he has done nothing wrong, and needn’t spend the rest of his life paying penance.

Carter finishes off her system of imagery with this:

For now he knew there was nothing to be afraid of. / He experienced the vertigo of freedom.

— Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

In this particular story, the mise-en-abyme effect = a glimpse into possible freedom.

Related and interesting: Carter’s Peter and the Wolf is basically a Being-toward-death revelation, seen often in young adult stories.

And if we still haven’t got it:

The birds woke up and sang.

— Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

Carter is, of course, satirising fairytale conventions — she uses pathetic fallacy and bombastic onomatopoeia with intent. These birds are a form of pathetic fallacy –a technique in which the environment around a character emulates their own inner state. But it works. When the character arc is a bit under the surface, a bit unusual — when your theme and ideology isn’t the expected one, it’s not a bad idea to go the super obvious, slightly satirical route. Otherwise a huge chunk of readers won’t pick anything up at all.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Angela Carter also finishes off in classic fairytale fashion, with a nudge towards the metafictive:

Then he determinedly set his face towards the town and tramped onwards, into a different story.

— Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

As the Grimm brothers wrote, for instance, the narrator often likes to sign off by reminding the audience that this is a story, separate from the logic of real life. But the word ‘story’ is also used in contemporary English to refer to phases of real life, which is why I call it a tiny and subtle ‘nudge’. Carter does something clever with her final line:

‘If I look back again,’ he thought with a last gasp of superstitious terror, ‘I shall turn into a pillar of salt’.

— Peter and the Wolf, Angela Carter

She thus avoids a melodramatic (exaggerated) character arc, which readers have less time for: People do change after experiences, but a little at a time. Peter has entered the very initial stages of questioning certain ideas conveyed by the church, but there’s no way he’ll shuck it all off and become an actual Wolf man. He must find his own balance.

55 Miles To The Gas Pump by Annie Proulx

“55 Miles To The Gas Pump” by Annie Proulx is a concise retelling of “Bluebeard in a remote, rural American setting.

Angela Carter also wrote a feminist re-visioning of Bluebeard in “The Bloody Chamber“. Proulx’s re-visioning is not feminist but grimly humorous.

55 Miles To The Gas Pump

The opening paragraph describes Rancher Croom in one long sentence, repeating his name as if this is an epic poem. Because this is just two paragraphs and one short one to finish, Proulx can get away with sentence fragments and present tense.

NARRATION IN 55 MILES TO THE GAS PUMP

In “55 Miles To The Gas Pump'”, on Mrs Croom’s reviling discovery in the attic of her husband’s “paramours,” whose corpses she recognizes “from their photographs in the paper. MISSING WOMAN,” the narrator dryly concludes: “When you live a long way out you make your own fun.” Since Annie Proulx herself live[d] on a rather secluded ranch in deep Wyoming, this grotesque and cynical intrusion from the narrator may be read as a metadiegetic* comment from the implied author, ironically referring to the playful quality of her writing and to her art of recycling via the short story form.

— Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literatureedited by Stéphanie Durrans

*If you’re wondering what the holy hell ‘metadiegetic’ means, I wrote a post about that. Believe it or not, it’s a useful and necessary concept.

STORY STRUCTURE OF 55 MILES TO THE GAS PUMP

According to author and senior lecturer of creative writing at Kingston University James Miller, “a short story is almost always a distillation of the elements we find in a novel: it intensifies character, location and event; it compresses time and narrative arc.”

Blarb

This is more vignette than story. A vignette with a punch line. At least, that’s how it feels at first glance. But brief as it is, does this ‘vignette’ actually have a full story structure? Sure enough, it does.

WEAKNESS/NEED

This is a story about Mrs Croom. Her weakness is that she has a husband who is up to things she knows nothing about. Presumably she is able to turn a blind eye, somewhat. Annie Proulx doesn’t go into any of this — Mrs Croom’s weaknesses are assumed. We can only imagine what sort of life a woman must lead if she sort-of-kind-of knows her husband is the local mass murderer. Good at burying her head in the sand, I’d say.

DESIRE

After her husband flings himself to his death over a cliff and into the surf below, Mrs Croom ‘whets to her desire’ to know what’s behind the padlocked doors in her own house.

OPPONENT

Mr Croom, her husband, the mass murderer

PLAN

She will cut a hole in the attic with a saw, because she can’t get through the padlocks. When this doesn’t do the job she changes to a chisel and hammer.

Note that even in the most simple of stories, the initial plan usually doesn’t work. I believe this is for reasons of verisimilitude. While plans sometimes do work first time in real life, when they work without trouble in narrative, the audience feels it’s a little too convenient.

BATTLE

Rather than a battle this story gives us the aftermath of a battle, with enough detail for us to fill in the gaps. An implied battle scene.

SELF-REVELATION

Sure enough, Mrs Croom has been exactly right about her husband all along. The detail of one of the women with remnants of blue paint on her — the same blue paint used on the shutters years ago — highlights just how close to home and domesticity these gruesome acts are. Mrs Croom has lived here, in this house, with those blue shutters, and now she cannot extricate herself from the crimes.

I wonder if the colour blue is an allusion to Bluebeard.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Rather than outrage, fainting or paralysing fear, Mrs Croom shows herself to be complicit, telling herself that her husband’s crimes are somewhat understandable given where they live and how there’s nothing much to do anyway. This explains the title of the story — the distance to the nearest gas station is indicative of how remote they are from civilisation (and also from civilised behaviour).

So although there was a revelation, the New Equilibrium phase of this short story tells us there was no real character arc. This is in line with Proulx’s grim view of humanity, shared by writers such as Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), who break story convention to remind us that in fact people rarely change. And if they do, not easily.

Bluebeard as told by Charles Perrault

I never encountered the story of Bluebeard growing up, as it was left out of my childhood fairytale anthologies.

illustration by Beauge Bertall
With horrific images like this, I’m not surprised. (illustration by Beauge Bertall)

As a mental mouthwash, I suggest you read Angela Carter’s feminist version of Bluebeard after reading this much earlier one by the misogynist Perrault. Carter’s story is called The Bloody Chamber.

The French title of Perrault’s retelling is La Barbe bleue.

DEATH BY ENGULFMENT STORIES

Disturbing as it is, the Bluebeard story has an influence on many modern stories, so is worth a read for that reason. This is a tale that many women will find triggering. That said, it is a female story at its heart. Marina Warner has written that Bluebeard is a story about a woman’s fear of death via childbirth.

The cannibal is a subject in a gendered plot in which cunning and high spirits win the day, and the boy’s own variety has eclipsed the girl’s in such stories’ transmission since the seventeenth century. Tales of the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ cycle menace their heroines with death by engulfment, and this obliteration, where a woman’s body is in question, often means sex or childbirth.

— No Go the Bogeyman, Marina Warner

This suggests that Bluebeard stories were told for women, by women — with childbirth being a peculiarly female fear. There are other tales which threaten death to female characters (and readers) with ‘death by engulfment’. Warner includes the Beauty and the Beast tales in this category.

When it comes to death by engulfment stories, we can go back further in the history of storytelling, to the tale of Psyche. Psyche’s sisters explicitly warn that her mysterious bridegroom is probably a monster who wants to eat her, especially if hse becomes pregnant, as such tender meat delights beasts.

These feminine ‘death by engulfment tales’ contrast with the male analogue, in which a male character sets out to defeat an ogre and always wins by fighting his own battle against it. The ogre’s appetite exists to test the hero’s mettle — strength and cunning. These are about social betterment, not of psychosexual anxieties. Sex and marriage has always been more risky — and therefore more scary — for women.

Pixar’s film Brave is a modern, bowdlerised version of the ‘death by engulfment’ story. In that story, Merida is afraid of becoming her mother. She is afraid of being consumed by her mother, too, should the mother turn fully into a bear. This is a different take on the fear of childbirth story and is better tailored to a cohort of girls who will have some (though not full) autonomy over their own reproduction.

Continue reading “Bluebeard as told by Charles Perrault”

The Tiger’s Bride by Angela Carter

“The Tiger’s Bride” is a short story in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber collection.

Marina Warner writes of stories in The Bloody Chamber, published during the post-war feminist movement which largely denounced fairytales and everything they stood for:

[Carter] refused to join in rejecting or denouncing fairy tales, but instead embraced the whole stigmatised genre, its stock characters and well-known plots, and with wonderful verve and invention, perverse grace and wicked fun, soaked them in a new fiery liquor that brought them leaping back to life.

Continue reading “The Tiger’s Bride by Angela Carter”

The Company Of Wolves by Angela Carter

Even if you’ve not heard much of Angela Carter, “The Company of Wolves” and other subversive stories have probably influenced some of your other favourite authors.

When I ask Gaiman who his favourite fairy tale character is, he says he fell in love with Red Riding Hood when reading Carter. … in order to interpret Gaiman’s taste, you need to know that Carter’s take on the tale was “The Company of Wolves”, an ornately told story in which the heroine makes a relatively late appearance in a savage, sexual world, not a small child skipping along a path but a daring pubescent girl who strips naked, laughs in the face of danger and sleeps with the wolf – rendering him post–coitally “tender” – in her dead grandmother’s bed.

Interview between Gaby Wood and Neil Gaiman, The Telegraph

The Company Of Wolves, found in The Bloody Chamber and Other Adult Tales

The queen of sexual subversiveness…must be the late Angela Carter. Like [Edna] O’Brien, Carter can write a very convincing sex scene. And also like her, she almost never lets it be only about sex. Carter nearly always intends to upset the patriarchal apple cart. To call her writing women’s liberation is to largely miss her point; Carter attempts to discover paths by which women can attain the standing in the world that male-dominated society has largely denied them, and in so doing she would liberate all of us, men and women alike. In her world, sex can be wildly disruptive.

How To Read Literature Like A Professor, Thomas C. Foster

Continue reading “The Company Of Wolves by Angela Carter”

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

“The Bloody Chamber” is a feminist-leftie re-visioning of Bluebeard, written in the gothic tradition, set in a French castle with clear-cut goodies and baddies.

The Bloody Chamber and Other Adult Tales

 

 

The title story of The Bloody Chamber, first published in 1979, was directly inspired by Charles Perrault’s fairy tales of 1697: his “Barbebleue” (Bluebeard) shapes Angela Carter’s retelling, as she lingers voluptuously on its sexual inferences, and springs a happy surprise in a masterly comic twist on the traditional happy ending. Within a spirited exposé of marriage as sadistic ritual, she shapes a bright parable of maternal love.

Marina Warner

 

The tale of Bluebeard’s Wife–the story of a young woman who discovers that her mysterious blue-bearded husband has murdered his former spouses–no longer squares with what most parents consider good bedtime reading for their children. But the story has remained alive for adults, allowing it to lead a rich subterranean existence in novels ranging from Jane Eyre to Lolita and in films as diverse as Hitchcock’s Notorious and Jane Campion’s The Piano.

— description of a different book, Secrets Beyond the Door : The Story of Bluebeard and His Wives

The descriptions of setting are evocative and eerie; the reader knows something terrible is about to happen — it’s almost given away in the title, after all — what we don’t know is how the girl is going to escape. This is a fairytale for adults, utilising the contrivances and coincidences of the fairytale tradition to tell a story which is otherwise modern in resolution: There is no white knight in shining armour. Who is really the most likely to save a girl from harm?

In the 1970s, Angela Carter was translating Charles Perrault from French, and she compiled two volumes of fairy tales from all over the world for Virago. So there you have it: French language, fairy tale and feminist expertise in one writer, which is all evident in this story…

Continue reading “The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter”