In ‘The Bloody Chamber’, Angela Carter uses the blurring of boundaries between animal and human qualities, usually through characters which are ‘liminal beings’, to overtly direct readers towards a destination concerning identity. In many of the individual stories, the concept of liminality is used to show how tortured and unsure creatures (be they animals or women) come to embrace their identity. In addition to these journeys of self-discovery in individual stories, the balance and degrees of liminality shift as the whole collection progresses, again leading to an overarching destination concerning identity, as the collection goes from a simple and negative liminality to more affirming and complex liminality.
The ‘simple and negative’ liminality occurs in the very first story of the collection: ‘The Bloody Chamber’. Here, the Marquis de Sade is portrayed as a sadistic animal (as his name suggests) parading as a connoisseur, a man of sophistication. Indeed, the female narrator identifies his bestiality before she discovers his violent sadism, with constant references to his lion-like physique (“dark leonine shape of his head”, “as if all his shoes had soles of velvet”, “There were pure streaks of silver in his dark mane”). The Marquis’ animalism is a constant in the story; it does not change or develop, as in other stories. This liminality, then, serves only to highlight Carter’s view of powerful men as vicious brutes who objectify and humiliate women, which she extracts from the “latent content” of the eponymous character of the traditional fairy tale ‘Bluebeard’. The first instance of liminality in the collection, then, is a relatively two dimensional affair, with the capacity for animalism in men being exposed and, ultimately, triumphed over through the strength of maternal instincts. Henceforth, however, Carter approaches the blurring of boundaries between humans and animals in a much less straightforward and more positive way, starting with the next two stories in the collection, ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’ and ‘The Tiger’s Bride’.
In these stories (which are based loosely around ‘The Beauty and the Beast’), identity in animalism is dynamic (it changes as the story progresses), rather than the static animalism portrayed by the Marquis in ‘The Bloody Chamber’. ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’, which many feel to be the weakest story in the collection, details the transformation of the Beast into a human with leonine features (“It was no longer a lion in her arms but a man, a man with an unkempt mane of hair…”), but also of Beauty from a spoilt and passive girl to a strong and loving woman. In this way, both of the main characters undergo transformations, even if only one of them is physical. The main problem found with this story is that Beauty only seems satisfied with the Beast when he turns into a man, shunning him when he was an animal, which is seemingly out of step with the remainder of the story. However, ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, which could be considered the second part of ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’, certainly banishes any sense of convention which may have existed within its predecessor. Here, the girl, after enduring objectification from her father for her whole life, accepts her own animal nature, transforming into a tiger, and the beast Milord accepts his own animalism by relinquishing his pretensions at humanness.
In accepting their respective roles as beasts, they free themselves from the constraints of society, from labels and skin-deep judgement. So, where ‘Courtship’ appears to show that appearances are the most important aspect of happiness, ‘Bride’ suggests that acknowledgement of true identity is more important. At this juncture in the collection, then, Carter is suggesting (through the incorporation of liminality), that women are liminal beings, tormented by their lack of separate identity and objectification, and that true contentedness can only be achieved through the acknowledgement one’s true identity. This juncture shows progression from the static liminality of ‘The Bloody Chamber’, and in doing so Carter develops her overall destination, as the collection moves from an unchanged animalistic man, to a woman helping a man to find his true identity, to a woman finally breaking free of the constraints of patriarchal society.
However, even in the conclusion of ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, Carter seems to posit that finding one’s identity is a case of deciding between the two different states (so here, between the animal and the human). This notion is continued in the stories which follow ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, including ‘The Lady of the House of Love’. It is in the last three ‘Werewolf’ stories that the ultimate destination of the collection concerning identity is revealed. As with the ‘Beast’ stories, the three stories are meant to be taken together, with the stereotypes presented in ‘The Werewolf’, with the same static liminality encountered in the very first story of the collection, being presented only for Carter to destroy them in ‘The Company of Wolves’ and ‘Wolf-Alice’. In ‘The Werewolf’, the grandmother’s liminal status is not developed; she remains an alien in society and is dealt with remorselessly by society. This story, while dealing with another destination concerning the friction between older and younger women in society, appears to hark back to the superficiality and stereotyping of ‘The Bloody Chamber’ and ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’. However, in ‘The Company of Wolves’, Carter takes a stance more similar to that shown in ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, developing the same sense that one must cast one’s false identity away in order to live contentedly, “sweet and sound”.
In this case, however, ‘Company’ goes one step further than ‘Bride’, in that happiness is achieved by the wolf accepting his animal nature and the girl remaining as a girl, an inter-species happiness, in contrast to the single-species happiness portrayed in ‘Courtship’ and ‘Bride’. This shows Carter challenging societal norms even further; however, it is still the case that liminal status is equated to unhappiness, that deciding one’s identity is a question specifics and cut-offs. It is in ‘Wolf-Alice’ where Carter finally flings all convention away and reveals the ultimate destination in terms of identity. “Nothing about (Wolf-Alice) is human except that she is not a wolf”; her status as a feral child means she is in a physical state of liminality as well as a psychological state of liminality, a complete outsider, as is the Duke (“poor wounded thing… locked half and half between such strange states, an aborted transformation, an incomplete mystery…”). Wolf-Alice is different from the stories that precede it in that there is no transformation, no physical manifestation of discovery; they are able to find happiness in their liminal states. This is the final point that Carter makes in the collection, and it is this point which allows for the realisation of the ultimate destination. She has shown how the cultural stereotypes which pervade fairy tales have created gender barriers and societal constraints (most notably in ‘Courtship and ‘The Werewolf’) and sets about destroying them as the collection progresses (‘The Tiger’s Bride’, ‘Wolf-Alice’).
In ‘The Bloody Chamber’, then, Carter employs liminality to show that the boundaries which society imposes on women and humans in general are senseless, allowing a transition to occur as the collection progresses in order to highlight this destination amongst others.