The Treatment of Fear in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Ian McEwan’s Atonement

Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber: And Other Storiesis a postmodern work, in which the various stories revise existing fairy tales, using this intertextuality as a mechanism for revealing, parodying and challenging the cultural norms which are embedded in the original texts. In a similar vein, Ian McEwan’s novel Atonementreflects upon the very nature of both reading and writing, while also delivering social commentary. The theme of fear is used in both of these texts as a means of highlighting social inequality. Fear, or the lack thereof effects an emotional response in the reader while also raising questions about the very nature of our reading and writing practice, and how it relates to society at large.

In The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, Angela Carter provides a multi-faceted view of gender relations, often using fear to demonstrate the power imbalance between men and women, but with a range of outcomes from one story to the next that reflects the complexity of these issues. In “The Bloody Chamber”, marriage is an “unguessable country” (1) something to be entered into with fear, in order to “banish the spectre of poverty” (2). The reader experiences these fears through the first person intradiagetic narrator’s description of the Marquis. His kiss has “tongue and teeth in it” (2), and his eyes are darkly disturbing due to their “absolute absence of light” (3). The ruby red choker around the protagonist’s throat is a symbol of her entrapment in bondage to her husband.

As the plot progresses, this fear is transferred from the protagonist to the reader. The fairy tale castle setting is made ominous by its isolation and its “spiked gate” (8), establishing an aura of fear while also symbolically representing the isolation and entrapment of an unequal marriage. Meanwhile the heroine feels “no fear, no intimation of dread” (27) as she proceeds towards the Marquis’ secret dungeon, placing her in stark contract with the passive female characters in fairy tales, who need to be rescued by men. Carter subverts the traditional intertext of Bluebeard by having the heroine’s mother come to her rescue, rather than her brothers. In her other stories, such as “The Werewolf”, fear is also used to generate meaning, but in a way that doesn’t forge such a close empathy between reader and heroine.

In “The Werewolf”, Carter again subverts a traditional fairy tale, this time Little Red Riding Hood. The story begins with a stark evocation of setting, with short sentences and rough words: “cold; tempest; wild beasts in the forest” (126). Carter writes that the people lead “harsh, brief, poor lives” (126), creating a sense of uneasy fear and also mentions the Devil, invoking supernatural elements. The story has an extradiagetic narrator, whose external first person voice creates a sense of distance from the villagers and from the protagonist in particular. The narrator portrays the supernatural elements as a threat to the villagers, yet the girl is unafraid; she knows how to use her father’s hunting knife. The girl’s lack of fear in this menacing environment gives her an agency that a traditional fairy tale would deny her. Yet despite this, the narrative voice presents each character from an objective distance, so that the reader judges them only by their actions, without access to their thoughts. Through this narrative technique, the reader does not identify closely with any particular character, so that they are each portrayed equally. While the girl becomes an independent woman, it comes at the sacrifice of her own grandmother, and we don’t sympathise with either character over the other. The atmosphere of fear in this story, in addition to the plot, give the sense that prosperity as an independent woman can come at the cost of other women and traditional family ties, if care is not taken.

The breakdown of family ties is also an important element in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, and this breakdown is driven by fear. After Briony has read the letter from Robbie to Cecilia, she thinks of “the scene by the fountain” with “its air of ugly threat” (113). She sees Robbie as a threat to her family, thinking that “something irreducibly human, or male, threatened the order of their household” and that “unless she helped her sister, they would all suffer” (114). As in Carter’s stories, fear of men and a gender power imbalance are issues here, but McEwan also seems to be writing about the upper class fear of the lower class.

Robbie is first introduced from Cecilia’s perspective, “on his knees, weeding” (19), emphasising his subservient position, coming from a lower social class and relying on her father to support his education. Cecilia is ostensibly the focaliser in this chapter, but it’s eventually revealed that Briony is in fact the omniscient god-like third person narrator who has written this version of events from various perspectives. Robbie’s idea of pursuing a medical degree is described as “presumptuous” (19), which is actually Briony’s characterisation of Cecilia’s thoughts. The scene between Robbie and Cecilia is “entirely a realisation of her worst fears” (123). This fear of a lower class man intruding into her privileged family, lowering their status and harming her sister is representative of the general class fear extant in Britain at the time.

Robbie also feels fear and is “seized by horror” (94) after realising that he has sent the wrong letter to Cecilia. On a symbolic level, this represents the fear of exposure that many writers feel when publishing their work, and is an early hint at the broader metafictional themes of Atonement. At the novel’s conclusion, Briony reflects “how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?” (371). Her careful narration of multiple perspectives in Part One is a means of controlling people’s perceptions as she faces her own fear of being judged and of dying before she achieves atonement.

Fear is an important psychological factor underlying people’s actions, and both The Bloody Chamber and Atonement utilise fear in this way to drive the plot forward, but also as a symbolic element that conveys a deeper level of meaning. The fear in Angela Carter’s stories exposes the power imbalance in society’s gender roles, and at key points the fairy tale intertexts are subverted by the lack of fear felt by their strong female protagonists. McEwan also comments upon social inequality, with Briony’s fear representing not just a fear of men, but also a general class fear. The metafictional elements in McEwan’s work provide a deep insight into Briony’s own authorial thoughts, fears and motivations, causing the reader to reflect upon the very nature and purpose of reading and writing.

Works Cited

Carter, Angela. The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. London: Vintage, 2006. Print.

McEwan, Ian. Atonement. London: Vintage, 2011. Print.

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