“I was a young girl, a virgin, and therefore men denied me rationality just as they denied it to all those who were not exactly like themselves, in all their unreason.” (Carter 63)
Angela Carter was one of the most inventive feminist thinkers of the late twentieth century. Though she was primarily known for her fiction, her writing spanned many genres. Her most celebrated work is a book of short stories title The Bloody Chamber (1979), which is a book of feminist retellings of classic fairy and folk tales. However, it is important to note that Carter goes far beyond the standard inversion of gender norms that one might expect from such a volume. She steers clear of “strong, independent woman” feminism and instead ventures into much darker waters, thereby creating evocative critiques of the mythologies and knowledge systems that are foundational to Western society.
In this post, I’m going to be looking specifically at “The Tiger’s Bride”, which is based on the classic “Beauty and the Beast”, originally penned by the eighteenth-century French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. In this particular story, Carter is critiquing the animal/human divide that is supported by Western patriarchal idea of reason. As Val Plumwood reminds us, the backbone of Western philosophy is the all-powerful binary—male/female, human/animal, culture/nature, and so on. And within these binaries, there is always a privileged term, often that which is aligned with the “rational” (male, human, culture) (3). Aristotle, arguably the father of Western philosophy, defined man as “rational animal”, positioning humans above non-human animals by virtue of our powers of reason (Keil and Kreft).
The story, told from Beauty’s point of view, begins with an arresting opening sentence: “My father lost me to The Beast at cards” (51). It then chronicles Beauty’s experience with the strange beast-man, his peculiar demands of her, and his desolate estate populated only by animals and woman-shaped automatons. At first, Beauty fiercely resists the Beast, desperately trying to fit him into a human-shaped mold so that she may judge him according to the standards that she’s used to. Then, there is a turning point during a horseback ride when she recognizes their shared subjugation:
“If I could see not one single soul in that wilderness of desolation all around me, then the six of us—mounts and riders, both—could boast amongst us not one soul, either, since all the best religions in the world state categorically that not beasts nor women were equipped with the flimsy, insubstantial things when the good Lord opened the gates of Eden and let Eve and her familiars tumble out.” (Carter 63)
The narrator, or Beauty, makes the choice to remain with the Beast at the end of the story despite being free to return home to her father. However, it is not because she’s in love or otherwise coerced—it is the sense of freedom that she feels around the similarly soulless: “I felt I was at liberty for the first time in my life” (Carter 64). She stays because it’s her escape from the wicked game she was born into, wherein she is only a pawn subjected to the whimsies of men. Helen Hopcroft and Caroline Webb analyse the text as such: “By foregrounding the role that rationality plays in such binaries, Carter produces a profound critique of the postagrarian culture following the Enlightenment in which men perceived women, as well as animals, as not merely objects of dominance and consumption but as objects of exchange,” (315).
When read through this lens, “The Tiger’s Bride” anticipates the fields of ecofeminism and animal studies. Additionally, the ideas presented in this story can be extended to any non-male, non-white “Other”, or those who are considered to be without true rational capacities. Angela Carter was a writer with incredible range who produced endlessly rich texts, and I contend that we revisit her often as we move forward with the ever-pressing work of ecofeminist organizing.
Michaela Ashton Hayes is a master’s student in Literature and Modernity at The University of Edinburgh. She holds two B.A.s in Philosophy and English Literature from Colorado State University and originally hails from the prairies of Kansas. She has a number of research topics at the moment, but they broadly fit under the umbrella of knowledge systems, power, and 20th century feminist fiction.
Carter, Angela. The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. Vintage Classics, 1995.
Keil, Geert, and Nora Kreft. “Human Beings as Rational Animals.” Aristotle’s Anthropology, Cambridge University Press, 2019, pp. 23–96.
Plumwood, Val. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. Routledge, 1994, doi:10.4324/9780203006757.Webb, Caroline, and Helen Hopcroft. “‘A Different Logic’: Animals, Transformation, and Rationality in Angela Carter’s ‘the Tiger’s Bride.’” Marvels & Tales, vol. 31, no. 2, 2017, p. 314, doi:10.13110/marvelstales.31.2.0314.