Continuing through The Bloody Chamber, we come upon The Tiger’s Bride, a second re-imagining of the Beauty and The Beast fairytale.
Here, we are even further away from the traditional or Disneyfied incarnations of the story and it strikes the reader as a much darker tale than The Courtship of Mr Lyon with which it begs to be compared.
The passage of the young girl from daughter to wife is similar albeit in a first rather than third person narrative. But, here, the transformation is far more clearly a transaction as the opening lines make clear:
“My father lost me to The Beast at cards.”
Unlike Beauty’s father who brings her to the Beast because of his wish to give her a simple gift of a rose, the Bride’s father brings her to La Bestia because of his own avarice and greed. He literally reduces her to a chattel to be traded and gambled.
And, as is the nature of a trade, that attitude is reciprocated: La Bestia treats her as a chattel in his acceptance of her as a gambling stake just as much as her father does in offering her. La Bestia may growl that
“If you are so careless of your treasures, you should expect them to be taken from you”
but that reflects on his more astute ability to value the Bride’s worth rather than any recognition that she is more than a valued “treasure”.
Of course, the objectification of women is a centuries old tradition in which marriage was used to cement alliances and secure fortunes: Juliet is told by her father
“an you are mine, I will give you to my friend,
An you are not, hang, beg, starve in the street”.
Carter here takes this tradition to its most extreme degree: not only is the Bride a piece of property; she is an undervalued piece of property squandered as her father fritters her away in a selfish gamble. Even the Bride accepts that
“my own skin was my sole capital in the world and today I’d make my first investment”
And then we see the most appalling extremity of the objectification of women: the Bride’s “clockwork twin”, the automaton
“soubrette from an operetta, with glossy, nut brown curls, rosy cheeks, blue rolling eyes… and there is a musical box where her heart should be; she tinkles as she rolls towards me on her tiny wheels.
My maid halted, bowed; from a split seam at the side of her bodice protrudes the handle of a key. She is a marvellous machine, the most delicately balanced system of cords and pulleys in the world.”
This soubrette echoes the clothing and mask worn by La Bestia: the too perfect too symmetrical mask behind which he hides his true bestial form. In his he is again very similar to the Beast of The Courtship of Mr Lyon whose leonine appearance is offset by his “smoking jacket of dull red brocade”. The similarities between the two – their restraint of their animal natures, their shame at their animal natures – is unsurprising. Shaved, there is no difference at all between a lion and a tiger save that the tiger’s skin is striped as its fur is.
There is something painfully artificial and repulsive in the image of both the mask and the soubrette: imitations of a socially imposed set of rules and appearances. And doesn’t that apply to us all? No one is ever entirely themselves: the identity we present to the world at anyone time is only ever a mask of the most socially acceptable part of ourselves, or of those aspects of our personalities which we believe will be accepted most readily or be most advantageous to ourselves. And that mask in Carter’s tale does not simply include the physical mask of La Bestia but also the clothes, the make up and even the face and flesh of the Bride.
For that reason, my interpretation of the final transformation as La Bestia licks the flesh from his Bride’s true form is not negative. He is not a predatory or domineering male enforcing his image onto his wife; he is allowing her to escape exactly that fate which society would have imposed upon her. The nudity he wishes from her is not the sexual negotiation that she – and the reader – imagine but the honesty of revealing her true nature beneath her skin; her father’s possessions are returned to him; and the final transformation is given readily and voluntarily.
For me, this makes the final transformation a release.