Metamorphoses in and between Charles Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood” and Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves”
- Author: Lee Sun-Jin
- Publish: Feminist Studies in English Literature Volume 20, Issue1, p117~145, 30 Apr 2012
This paper examines the intertextual metamorphoses between Perrault’s version of “Little Red Riding Hood” (1691) and Carter’s version “The Company of Wolves” (1979), and the intratextual metamorphoses of the two main characters, the girl and the wolf, in Carter’s tale. Since its beginning as a warning tale about attacks by animals and human predators in the late Middle Ages, “Little Red Riding Hood” has gone through numerous metamorphoses. Perrault’s version is a transformation of an oral folktale into a literary tale catering to the tastes of an upper-class female audience. Among various reworkings of Perrault’s canonical tale, Carter’s transformation, as a part of her “demythologizing project,” subverts the dominant cultural inscriptions of gender and sexuality that Perrault’s tale upholds and passes down to its following generations. Based on the assumption that textual metamorphosis informs thematic metamorphosis, I argue that Carter’s transformation of Perrault’s version converts repression of female sexuality into its affirmation and transforms Little Red Riding Hood from a passive victim into a “wise” girl with agency to tame the wolf. “The Company of Wolves” counters the ideologies of sexuality and gender roles in patriarchal society where the man as the subject controls and consumes the woman as the object, and suggests an alternative way of looking at sexuality and gender in which both parties’ sexuality and desires can be mutually appreciated and fulfilled.
Angela Carter , Charles Perrault , female sexuality , gender relations , metamorphosis
Metamorphosis, with its stress upon the instability of natural forms, plays a crucial part in fairy tales. Men transforming into women, children changing into birds or beasts, animals interchanging with plants, and magical shifts of shape, size, or color, have constituted one of the primary pleasures of the genre. Fairy tales are filled with characters undergoing metamorphosis either by curses or by their own magical power. The Beast and the Frog Prince are men transformed into animals by curses. Cinderella in a sense is metamorphosed with the help of the godmother, who also metamorphoses a pumpkin and rats into a coach and coachmen, respectively. The queen in “Snow White” has a magic power to transform herself into an old woman. The Little Mermaid asks a witch to transform her into a human girl at the cost of her voice. The genre itself is also susceptible to changes. The fact that the fairy tale as a genre started as a literary adaptation of wonder folklore orally circulated in peasant communities implies considerable transformations during the process of transcriptions and adaptations.1
Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves,” a retelling of Charles Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood,” not only participates in the ever-shifting history of the fairy tale genre itself but also employs metamorphosis as an important motif in her recharacterization of the two main characters of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Based on the assumption that textual metamorphosis informs thematic metamorphosis, this essay aims at examining the metamorphoses occurring in and between Carter’s story and Perrault’s version and the transformational impact of her retelling on Perrault’s sexual and gender ideologies. Since its beginning as a warning tale about attacks by animals as well as by human predators in peasant communities during the late Middle Ages (Zipes, “Texts and Contexts” 339), “Little Red Riding Hood” has gone through numerous metamorphoses. In the 1690s’ France, where aristocratic and bourgeois women and men gathered at salons and played a parlor game in which they demonstrated their eloquence, wit, and individuality by rewriting oral folk tales into tales about manners and social mores, Perrault transformed oral folk tales of “Little Red Riding Hood” into a literary tale catering to the tastes of a largely female audience of the upper class (Zipes, “Fairy Tales” 176-77).2 As the first literary version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” Perrault’s story has enjoyed its canonical status for three centuries since it began to be translated into many different languages, including English in the eighteenth century, and constantly reprinted and circulated in chapbooks, broadsheets, and collections of children’s tales in Europe and America (Zipes, “Texts and Contexts” 341). Perrault’s tale, however, was not free from adaptations and alterations. 3 Among the most experimental, rebellious retellings of “Little Red Riding Hood” that became conspicuous after 1945 is Carter’s version of 1979, “The Company of Wolves.”4 Carter’s tale provides a radical feminist perspective on gender relations and female sexuality in an elaborate and ornate Gothic style.
“The Company of Wolves,” included in
The Bloody Chamber(1979), the collection of Carter’s rewritings of classic fairy tales such as “Bluebeard” and “Beauty and the Beast,” is part of Carter’s “demythologizing business” (“Notes” 70) to investigate and debunk what she calls “the mythic versions of women” in The Sadeian Woman, the essay collection which she had been working on along with The Bloody Chamber(5). For Carter, “the mythic versions of women” ranging from “the myth of the redeeming purity of the virgin to that of the healing, reconciling mother” are “consolatory nonsenses” that blind women’s real conditions and give them “emotional satisfaction” ( The Sadeian Woman5). The reason why Carter reworks classical fairy tales is that many heroines of classic fairy tales belong to these “mythic versions of women.” Carter’s demythologization of the fairy tale is based upon her conception of the fairy tale as a double-edged sword: it has played a role in producing gender stereotypes, such as passive female victims and active male aggressors or rescuers, and ideologically sustaining the asymmetries of power between the sexes; however, it also has potential to subversive appropriation deriving from its mutability. In her introduction to The Virago Book of Fairy Tales(1991), Carter characterizes the fairy tale as “the great mass of infinitely various . . . stories with no known originators that can be remade again and again by every person who tells them, the perennially refreshed entertainment of the poor” (ix). It is this flexibility of the fairy tale that Carter takes advantage of for her project to challenge the cultural inscription of femininity into weakness, chastity, and submissiveness and to reclaim repressed female sexual agency.
“The Company of Wolves” thus marks a shift in the characterization of Carter’s heroines from “coded mannequins” who are “exploited, mutilated, and victimized,” as shown in her earlier works, such as
Shadow Dance(1966), The Magic Toyshop(1967), and Love(1971), to the figure of the triumphant “bird woman” -- embodied by Fevvers, the fantastic winged protagonist of Nights at the Circus(1984) (Palmer 180) -- who defies the traps of socially sanctioned femininity and the objectifying male gaze and acts upon her reclaimed agency. Furthermore, this story marks Carter’s critical intervention into the tension between victimization and agency within feminist discourses through her provocative study of pornography and the politics of female sexual selfhood. In The Sadeian Woman, Carter proposes that pornography can be used “as a critique of current relations between the sexes” by a “moral pornographer” whose “business would be the total demystification of the flesh and the subsequent revelation, through the infinite modulations of the sexual act, of the real relations of man and his kind” (19-20).5 Although debates surrounding issues of victimization and female agency became more visible as postfeminist discourse set up a binarized distinction between “victim feminism” and “power feminism” in the mid-1990s, 6 Carter’s story problematizes this dichotomy. In transforming Perrault’s tragic tale about the sexual victimization of an innocent girl by a man into a story about a girl’s awakening into her budding sexuality and agency, Carter redraws the relationship between victim feminism and power feminism from an antagonistic one into a complementary one. She recognizes that it is necessary and important to interrogate the ways in which women have been victimized and at the same time to affirm women’s ability to take action against their subjection to male-centered structures of power. By taking Perrault’s tale over from the inside, Carter uncovers oppressive ideologies of female sexuality imbued in the tale and suggests alternative ways of reimagining sexuality and gender relations. Her tale, as a result of reading against the grain, subverts the dominant cultural inscriptions of the value system of gender and sexuality that Perrault’s tale upholds and passes down to the following generations.
I argue that Carter’s transformation of Perrault’s version converts repression of female sexuality into its affirmation and transforms Little Red Riding Hood from a passive victim into a “wise” girl with agency to tame the wolf (Carter, “The Company of Wolves” 219). To do so, I will examine the intertextual metamorphoses between Perrault’s version and Carter’s version, mainly focusing on her re-characterization of Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf. I will then analyze the ways in which the girl recognizes her sexual desire (sexuality and desire) and saves herself from being a victim of male sexual violence. I will also demonstrate that these intertextual metamorphoses result from the two writers’ different ways of treating the intratextual metamorphoses such as the girl’s puberty and the werewolf by looking at how Carter’s depiction of the girl’s puberty, which means the girl’s metamorphosis into a woman, or initiation into her sexuality, and her rendition of the wolf as a werewolf, which implies his liminal identity, contribute to her counter-discourse.
1According to Jack Zipes, the aristocratic or upper-class writers who adapted the oral wonder tales altered motifs and topoi of the oral tradition to mirror their interests (“Fairy Tales” 176). 2It is also worth noting that women also wrote literary fairy tales -- the English translation of the French term contes de fees, which refers to narratives with fairies as characters (Roemer and Bacchilega 8) -- at that time. Women writers including Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, Catherine Bernard, and Marie-Jeanne Lhéritier wrote and published collections of fairy tales. Their contes were “serious commentaries on court life and cultural struggles . . . in Versailles and Paris” (Zipes, Why Fairy Tales Stick 68). Perrault’s fairy tales were different from those by his female contemporaries in their morals. 3One of its nineteenth-century retellings is the Brothers Grimm version, in which they eliminated Perrault’s sexual innuendos and added a happy ending in which the girl is saved from the wolf by a hunter so that the tale might “ideologically satisfy the morals and ethics of the emerging bourgeoisie in the 19th century” (Zipes, Trials and Tribulations 37). As the fairy tale genre became more tuned for children readers, “Little Red Riding Hood” became more sanitized in ways that its sexual undertones and violence were removed. According to Zipes, this sanitization of the tale continued up until the early twentieth century. Various prose and dramatic adaptations of Perrault’s version emphasized “obedience” as the central moral of the tale: “if she were not gullible and disobedient, she could prevent the rapacious wolf from carrying out his designs” (Zipes, Trials and Tribulations 39). 4Discussing the history of the adaptations and revisions of “Little Red Riding Hood” in The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood, Zipes states that the radical retellings of the tale from 1945 to 1993 are based on the critical ideas of “[pointing to] the necessity for changing our social views of sexuality and domination” (58). He divides the radical Riding Hood tales into three major currents: First, many narratives portray Little Red Riding Hood coming into her own, developing a sense of independence without help from males. Second, certain tales and poems seek to rehabilitate the wolf. Third, there are stories that are unusual aesthetic experiments, debunking traditional narrative forms and seeking to free readers and listeners so that they can question the conventional cultural patterns. All of these radical currents overlap or merge to form critical statements about the way we view sexuality on the basis of the Riding Hood pattern (59). 5Carter’s argument needs to be understood in the context of the pornography debates among feminists in the late 1970s and 1980s. Carter’s falls in line with a libertarianism that goes against the anti-pornography campaigns for the censorship of pornographic material and the legislation of sexual behavior. Anti-pornography scholars (generally labeled as second wave feminists), such as Andrea Dworkin and Katherine MacKinnon, accused pornography of encoding “the ideology of male domination[, which] posits that men are superior to women by virtue of their penises . . . that the use of the female body for sexual or reproductive purposes is a natural right of men” (Dworkin 203). Dworkin condemned The Sadeian Woman as a “pseudo-feminist literary essay” more concerned with celebrating Sade than with tackling the implications of the gendered sado-masochistic relations underpinning pornography (84). Susanne Kappeler likewise criticized Carter for “reinforcing a cult of female victimization” and wantonly elevating Sade “as artist and writing subject” rather than decrying his position as a “multiple rapist and murderer” (134). 6Post-feminism is an elusive category subject to impassioned debates. According to Sarah Gamble, the term “post-feminism” originated from within the media in the early 1980s and has tended to be used as indicative of joyous liberation from the ideological shackles of a hopelessly outdated feminist movement (44). Some uses the term “post-feminism” in referring to a group of mostly young British and American feminists who have attacked feminism in its present form as inadequate to address the concerns and experiences of women today. Among post-feminists are Naomi Wolf, Katie Roiphe, Rene Denfeld, and Camille Paglia. These post-feminist feminists seek for a strategy of empowerment aimed at countering the supposed lack of agency in second wave victim feminism (Munford 143). Generally, they support an individualistic, liberal agenda rather than a collective and political one, on which grounds their detractors frequently attack them for being pawns of a conservative backlash against feminism (Gamble 298).
The most notable intertextual metamorphosis between these two stories is that of the character of Little Red Riding Hood herself. Carter transforms a passive, gullible, obedient, helpless, idle, and careless Little Red Riding Hood into a “strong-minded,” “wise” girl, who “has her knife” and “is afraid of nothing” (215). In this transgressive re-creation, Carter refers back to the elements of oral folklores that Perrault deleted in his literary version. She re-discovers “a hopeful oral tale about the initiation of a young girl” who saves herself from the wolf that Perrault altered into “a tragic one of violence in which the girl is blamed for her own violation” (Zipes,
Trials7). The three elements of the original oral folktale that Perrault’s version does not have are particularly relevant to Carter’s project of reworking “Little Red Riding Hood” into a story about a girl’s self-discovery about sexuality and self-empowerment.7
The first one is the choice of roads offered to the girl by the wolf when they meet: “‘What path are you taking,’ said the werewolf, ‘the path of needles or the path of pins?’” (qtd. in Zipes, “Texts and Contexts” 339). Turning the bourgeois Little Red Riding Hood of Perrault’s version into a peasant girl, as was the case in the oral folklore version, Carter recapitulates the values of rural culture, which are quite different from bourgeois patriarchal culture that Perrault’s “civilized” version represents. In re-setting the story in a peasant community, where attacks of wolves on goats are everyday threats and needlework is one of the main female activities, Carter foregrounds female sexuality and the genealogical relationships between women that were expurgated in Perrault’s version. As Yvonne Verdier argues, the first deleted element of the oral tale indicates that the story originated from the French peasant provinces where the tools of sewing played an important role in the education of girls. The language of pins and needles in these peasant cultures of seamstresses has sexual connotations. Pins signify a girl’s “arrival at maidenhood,” meaning that she is allowed to go dancing and to have sweethearts of which the pin seemed to be the symbol (Verdier 106). Moreover, the properties of pins are in accord with those attributed to menstrual blood, an ingredient in love potions but also an obstacle to any sexual relation (Verdier 106). The needle, threaded through its eye, refers to a sexual symbolism: “the seamstresses who sew ‘run (meaning chase after men)’ have the thread in the needle; ‘seamstress married, needle threaded’ goes the saying” (Verdier 106). Moreover, mentioning one version where the girl says that she will take needles with a big eye to grandmother, for the old woman “no longer sees clearly,” Verdier reads this expression meaning “to no longer menstruate” (105, 107). In this context, these two paths of pins and needles symbolize a phase in Red Riding Hood’s initiation into womanhood. That these paths lead her to her grandmother, as Catherine Orenstein suggests, also alludes to the custom of French peasant culture that sent young girls at the age of 15 or so to live with the village seamstress -- viewed as someone with sexual knowledge - - for a period of time to gain sewing skills and to receive sex education (81). Zipes likewise suggests that the pins and needles not only represent young peasant girls’ apprenticeship in needlework beginning at their puberty but also mark “their initiation into society” (“Texts and Contexts” 340). In a similar vein, the second element of the oral folktale, that is, the girl’s cannibalistic meal, designates another phase in the girl’s rite of passage. When Little Red Riding Hood gets to the grandmother’s house, the wolf offers her the flesh and blood of her grandmother for supper: “Take some of the meat which is inside and the bottle of wine on the shelf” (qtd. in Zipes, “Texts and Contexts” 339). As for the girl’s meal, Verdier regards it as “the girl’s acquisition of the capacity to procreate” (110). The episode is about the feminine reproductive cycle of puberty, motherhood, and menopause, and it tells us the necessity of the female biological transformation by which the young eliminate the old in their own lifetime. By eating her grandmother’s flesh and drinking her blood, the girl symbolically replaces her. This replacement signifies a generational shift that sustains the continuation of a peasant community and culture. The girl’s rite of passage culminates in the third erased episode of the original oral tale, which is Red Riding Hood’s escape by her own wits at the end. In the face of her imminent rape by the wolf, she asks him to “let [her] go outside” in order to defecate, and he lets her do so by tying a woolen rope to her foot (Zipes, “Texts and Contexts” 339). The girl ties the end of the rope to a plum tree and escapes. This ending testifies to the girl’s maturity in that she demonstrates her ability to defend herself from a danger coupled with her awareness of sexual violence. It is this wise, self-reliant girl of the oral version that Carter draws on in constructing a new Red Riding Hood.
Carter reworks the first two elements about the girl’s sexuality of the oral version into her story by highlighting the girl’s puberty, or her entry into the first stage of womanhood. Instead of using the symbols of pins and needles, however, Carter explicitly exposes the girl’s puberty as she puts emphasis on her physical metamorphosis:
Resituating the tale in a “savage country” that requires children to grow up to be strong enough to protect themselves from the “carnivore incarnate” wolf (212), this passage calls attention to an adolescent girl’s transitional period from a girl to a woman, which implies that she is physically ready for reproduction and sexual activities. Carter also offers a description of the girl’s sexualized body in an elaborate style, unlike Perrault’s terse version that has no direct description of her pubescent body. Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood is ignorant of her sexuality and of the sexual threat she can be put into, but Perrault places the accountability for the tragic ending not in the wolf but in the girl by condemning the girl’s carelessness and disobedience to the rule “to stay on guard against” the “sharp teeth” behind the wolf’s “sweet tongue” (344). Perrault uses the sexually suggestive material to teach young girls standards and models of feminine behavior and virtues. As a result, the brave and shrewd peasant girl, who saves herself, is transformed into the pretty, gullible, and helpless bourgeois girl who gets devoured (literally and sexually) by the wolf.8 In Carter’s tale, however, the changes in her body allow the girl to be aware of her sexuality and of both the pleasure and danger her sexuality will bring.
Carter furthers her deconstruction of the sexist ideology of Perrault’s tale about female indulgence in carnal desire as she depicts Red Riding Hood’s virginity:
Such metaphors as “egg,” “vessel,” and “magic space” that Carter is using in this passage are traditional ones to represent a female body from a male perspective. Carter mocks the way in which a female body is conceived of as a passive object (thing) to be broken, unsealed, and opened by men. Carter’s use of the accurate physiological description of the hymen such as a “plug of membrane” also accentuates the conception of a female organ as an empty space whose “membrane” seal needs to be broken by male penetration and then filled with semen. These metaphors imply the power dynamics involved in sexual relationships between men and women. While men are agents who perform their sexual desires, women are the space in which men satisfy their desires. Within this power relation, female sexuality exists as absence or lack that male desire should fill. It is not women but men who control female desires. Carter challenges this objectification of female sexuality by showing how the girl recognizes and manipulates her sexuality when she has to choose to be either a victim or a mutual partner of the wolf’s sexual desire. In so doing, Carter puts into question a contradictory attitude toward virginity in a male-dominant society that not only requires women to be sexually pure but also sexually exploits them and problematizes the ways in which the ideology of virginity has been used to repress and regulate female sexuality. In a patriarchal system in which women are objects of exchange between men through marriage, virginity functions as a measure by which to determine whether a woman has a value as an object of exchange. It is thus improper for women to express their sexual desire and to actively engage themselves with sexual relationships. Women’s sexual freedom could also endanger one of the fundamental building blocks of patriarchal society, the family. By warning young girls of their inherent susceptibility to temptation and advising them to repress their female sexuality, Perrault promotes virginity as one of the most important feminine virtues in a male-dominant society. Thus, the ideal woman that Perrault suggests is a virgin who is obedient, innocent, and self-denying. 9 Perrault’s literary fairy tale has contributed to spreading and reinforcing this fairy-tale type of a woman as a model figure whom women identify themselves with at an early age. The virgin, one of the two female stereotypes along with the whore, functions as a cultural norm that condemns women’s sexual activities transgressing the boundary of marriage.10 For Carter, virginity is a socially forced subject position that keeps the female body “a closed system” (215) with female sexuality repressed.
Carter’s challenge against the sexist ideology of virginity is related to her play with “the red shawl” (215). The red hood in Perrault’s version indicates the girl’s virginity and menstrual blood. In the Christian tradition, in which blood has been associated with Christ’s self-sacrificial blood and Eve’s blood referring to the original sin (Vaz da Silva 125), the girl’s red hood, which symbolizes her femininity, accordingly implies women’s natural inclination to depravity, which reminds of Eve’s sin. This association of red hood with female cyclic blood also ties into the identification of women with nature. Traditionally, nature has been considered an object of domination by technology, upon which civilization is built. If civilization, or the socializing process, can be roughly defined as the process of controlling inner nature, such as sexual instinct and violence as well as outer nature, women -- who represent the natural side of human beings -- are to be controlled and dominated. In this sense, the girl’s red hood is a symbol of the social view of nature, women, and sexuality as the objects of exploitation and regulation. Red color also is used as the mark of a sinner, like the scarlet letter “A” that Hester Prynne wears. Carter’s depiction of “her scarlet shawl, the color of poppies, the color of sacrifices, the color of her menses” (219), illuminates the ideology of female sexuality that redness implies. The girl’s taking off “the red shawl” is an act of refusal to comply with the oppressive ideologies of women and sexuality. Whereas Perrault enhances the cultural norm that female sexuality represented by the red hood should be controlled and repressed by showing how Little Red Riding Hood is eaten up by the wolf, Carter suggests that women should recognize and express their sexuality by having the girl take off “the red shawl” for herself. The girl in “The Company of Wolves” refuses to be a victim of sexual aggression, and she actively builds a sexual relationship with the werewolf based on the recognition of her own sexual/sensual desire. If Perrault’s cautionary tale focuses on the punishment for the transgression of the gender code not to talk to strangers, Carter’s feminist tale, which ends with the girl sleeping “sweet and sound . . . in granny’s bed, between the paws of the tender wolf” (220), celebrates the transgression of the code that denies women their sexual drives and imposes modesty, passivity, and obedience upon women.
Little Red Riding Hood’s metamorphosis centers on agency as well as female sexuality. Against Perrault’s characterization of Little Red Riding Hood as a gullible, passive, and careless girl who does what the wolf tells her to do, Carter makes her a knowledgeable, fearless, and independent girl who echoes the girl that saves herself in the oral version. Carter emphasizes how “well-warned” (215) she is against the “ferocious” (212) wolf by giving context to her carefulness and resourcefulness. Carter begins “The Company of Wolves” with a cautionary tale about wolves as everyday threats to the village. In a situation where “the eyes of wolves” are always watching for humans and animals, the village children carry “knives,” which are “half as big as they are, the blades are sharpened daily” (213). The children should learn how to protect themselves from the attack of wolves at their early age. The girl is not an exception: “She has her knife and she is afraid of nothing” (215). Her knife represents the girl’s power to confront the werewolf’s phallic power. Compared to Little Red Riding Hood who “did not know that it is dangerous to stop and listen to a wolf,” in Perrault’s version (343), Carter’s girl is aware that wolves might attack her, and “her practiced hand” is ready for self-defense (215). Furthermore, she is full of self-confidence: it is the girl herself who insists on delivering food to her “reclusive grandmother [who is] so old [that] the burden of her years is crushing her to death” (215), and “she is quite sure the wild beasts cannot harm her” (215). Unlike naive and careless Little Red Riding Hood, the girl is cautious enough to grab “the hand of her knife” even at “the freezing howl of a distant wolf” (215). The first meeting scene with the werewolf disguised as a hunter attests to the girl’s intelligence and independence. Their topic is how to get to the grandmother’s house:
Contrary to Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood, who naively and passively takes “the longer path” (343) as the wolf tells her to do, the girl does not trust what he said about the compass because she already has the knowledge of the path and is always cautious about wolves. In other words, the werewolf fails to trick her. The werewolf’s male authority does not affect her decision to take “the winding path.” She intentionally “dawdle[s] on her way to make sure the handsome gentleman would win his wager,” “[a] kiss” (216). What drives her is not the werewolf’s male authority, but her desire for him. By rewriting the episode of the paths of pins and needles into a scene of “a rustic seduction” between the girl and the hunter/werewolf (216), Carter hints at the mutual attraction between the two as well as the girl’s self-knowledge of her sexuality.
Carter exhibits the girl’s agency much more fully in the second encounter with the werewolf at her grandmother’s house. Carter transforms Perrault’s scene of sexual violation into an eroticized bridal night scene with “a prothalamion” of “the company of wolves” (219, 218). In Perrault’s version, Little Red Riding Hood helplessly follows the wolf’s order to “lie down beside [him]” (344) and becomes a victim of violation, but in Carter’s version, she outfaces the werewolf. The girl decides to put into action her desire for the werewolf and manipulates her sexuality since she knows that “her fear did her no good, [so] she ceases to be afraid” (219). It is the girl who initiates a sexual union with the werewolf by taking an active role. After getting naked by herself, she goes directly “to the man with red eyes . . . and unbuttoned the collar of his shirt” (219). Discarding the passive role of a shy bride, the girl continues to sexually engage herself with the werewolf dauntlessly: “she freely gave him the kiss she owed him . . . . [S]he ripped off his shirt for him and flung it into the fire” (219). As Maggie Anwell points out, the girl discards the role of sacrificial victim along with her shawl and clearly accepts her own sexuality (80). She is confident about the power her sexuality exerts upon the werewolf and leads their “savage marriage ceremony” (219). The girl’s outburst of laughter at the werewolf’s famous threat -- “All the better to eat you with” (219) -- represents her power to break herself away from “a cultural insistence on her vulnerability, her passivity, and her sexual submissiveness” (Hausknecht 37). This scene stages the girl’s metamorphosis into an attractive woman lover whose successful negotiation with the werewolf empowers her to “appease” and transform the “[c]arnivore incarnate” into “the tender wolf” (219, 220).
7Discussing the oral tradition of “Little Red Riding Hood,” Zipes provides an oral folktale entitled “The Story of Grandmother” collected in 1885 as the version that Perrault most likely adapted. For the whole text, see Zipes, “Texts and Contexts” 339-40. 8Noting that the little cap was worn by bourgeois women and girls of the period, Zipes suggests that Perrault used the girl’s little red cap to identify the girl with the bourgeoisie. See the textual note on how the French word “petit chaperon rouge,” meaning “a little red cap,” was mistranslated into “a little red hood” (343). 9It goes without saying that beauty is the foremost quality of this ideal woman figure. Women characters are acclaimed as virtuous so long as they conform to and enhance the existing order. For example, Perrault describes Cinderella as a beautiful and virtuous woman. Cinderella’s virtue lies in her obedience and patience until the prince comes and rescues her from her evil stepmother and stepsisters. 10Claudia Honegger shows that the ideal of woman disintegrated into the two contrasting images of the unnatural virgin and the naturally potent witch. Witches were associated with untamed nature and potential heresy (qtd. in Zipes, Trials and Tribulations 70).
If the ending implies that the girl joins the “company of wolves,” the “tender wolf” at the ending raises a question about the metamorphosis of the wolf character. Carter transforms Perrault’s wolf into a werewolf, a man-wolf that is able to metamorphose, by drawing on the folk origins of various lycanthrope myths.11 This intertextual metamorphosis undoes Perrault’s transformation of the werewolf of the oral version into a simple wolf. Carter weaves pieces and bits of various versions of werewolf tales that were circulated in Europe so that she can tell the reader the werewolf’s side of the story and give depth to the werewolf character. She spends the first half of the story telling about werewolves, stressing the werewolf’s liminal identity between man and beast so as to explore the unstable and permeable boundaries between culture and nature. In the part of a cautionary tale I mentioned above, Carter first foregrounds the wolf’s animality: “The wolf is carnivore incarnate and he’s as cunning as he is ferocious; once he’s had a taste of flesh then nothing else will do” (212). Employing such elements of a werewolf myth as night, winter, moonlight, and woods, Carter represents the traditional image of the wolf, which has been “the natural symbol of night, winter, death, especially bloodthirsty, swift, lusty, hardy, bold [with a] desire for blood and hunger for the flesh of corpses” (Jones 132). At the beginning of the tale, Carter elaborately depicts wolves’ carnivorous nature: “Those slavering jaws; the lolling tongue; the rime of saliva on the grizzles chops -- of all the teeming perils of the night and the forest, ghosts, hobgoblins, ogres that grill babies upon gridirons, witches that fatten their captives in cages for cannibal tables, the wolf’s is worst for he cannot listen to reason” (212). This ferocious image of the wolf as the ruler of the dark forest signifies the intimidating realm of the primitive, libidinal, and unknown that borders on the realm of the civilized and common. Noting that the original folk version of “Little Red Riding Hood” emanated from a general superstition in France about werewolves, Zipes demonstrates that werewolves and wolves were considered “destructive, bloodthirsty, cunning, and supernatural throughout the Middle Ages (
Trials and Tribulations67-68). Werewolf trials were commonly performed along with witch trials in the sixteenth and the seventeenth century. Since then, werewolves -- considered the devil’s associates -- have referred to heretics and non-conformists whose “untamed nature and dissidence” were dangerous and had to be expelled (Zipes, Trials and Tribulations67-70). By calling attention to the animal side of the werewolf first, Carter emphasizes its otherness that cannot be accepted in a civilized society but is ready to sneak into it.
While showing that the animal side represents what should be repressed, exploited, and dominated in the process of civilization, Carter provides small episodes about werewolves in order to bring their human side into light and to complicate the binary between nature and culture that also operates in gender relations. Unlike Perrault’s wolf, a merciless predator that belongs to sheer instinct, Carter’s werewolf is “more than he seems” (213), implying that werewolves are both bestial and human and thus cannot fit neatly into either categories. Carter first tells a story about a hunter who finds out that the wolf he killed turned into a dead man. This surprising discovery undermines the representation of the wolf as the “carnivore incarnate” that the village people must “fear and flee” (212, 213) since it turns out that the hunter kills a man, not a wolf. This, on the one hand, makes the werewolf more frightening and threatening because it is highly likely that he can easily enter the village and hunt under the disguise of a man. On the other hand, the presence of the werewolf -- or, abject otherness that has been expelled -- within the village suggests that it is difficult to draw the line between man and beast. The werewolf also complicates the predator-prey relationship between the wolf and the man by having other forms of relationship with human beings. For example, Carter inserts a story about a marriage between a werewolf and a woman. On a wedding night, the man/werewolf goes out “to relieve himself” and does not come back for years (213). One day, the man returns home all of a sudden and discovers that his wife has married another man and given birth to two children while he was gone. Enraged by her betrayal, he turns into a wolf and attacks one of her children, but her second husband kills the werewolf. In this story, the werewolf is a lawful husband who chastises his impatient and unfaithful wife. This werewolf does not fit into the traditional representation of the wolf as a (sexual) predator with a beastly nature. The story about how werewolves came into being further unsettles the dichotomy between man and beast: “A witch from up the valley once turned an entire wedding party into wolves because the groom had settled on another girl. She used to order them to visit her, at night, from spite, and they would sit and howl around her cottage for her, serenading her with their misery” (213). By making werewolves as a form of curse or punishment, Carter suggests that werewolves’ animality is an imposed one, which means male sexuality as aggression is another gender ideology like the view of women as victims or objects. Carter attempts to undermine the cultural system that place women in the role of a victim or an object and men in the role of an aggressive violator by employing a witch who punishes male infidelity.
To challenge the value systems based on the dichotomy between men and women -- presence/absence, culture/nature, reason/passion, order/chaos, and so on -- and the process of privileging men over women, Carter deploys the werewolf character, who, as Hans Peter Duerr describes, can “dissolve the boundary between civilization and wilderness in himself and is capable of crossing over the fence which separates his civilized side from his wild side” (qtd. in Zipes,
Trials and Tribulations68). Carter’s description of the werewolves’ howl illustrates their contradictory existence between human and beast: “That long-drawn, wavering howl has . . . some inherent sadness in it, as if the beasts would love to be less beastly if only they knew how and never cease to mourn their own condition” (213). What the narrator reads in the werewolves’ howl are human emotions such as “sadness” and “melancholy” (213) rather than savage instinct. These feelings stem from their animality, which was imposed upon them as a punishment. They can do nothing about it because it has become a part of their nature. However, they want “some external mediator” to redeem them from their “irremediable appetites . . . so that, sometimes, the beast[s] will look as if [they] half welcome the knife that dispatches [the]m” (214). Through this conflict between uncontrollable nature and cultural consciousness, Carter not only saves the werewolf from being an utterly “beastly” being but also suggests a possibility of integrating both the wild and cultural elements. The possibility is realized in the last scene that shows both the girl’s and the werewolf’s metamorphosis. Exactly as she undresses herself and throws her red shawl into the fire without hesitation, she undresses the werewolf. Recognizing her sexuality and agency, the girl becomes an “external mediator” who transforms the werewolf from an aggressive predator into a gentle lover (214). While in many classic fairy tales a prince rescues a beautiful heroine, in Carter’s story the girl redeems the werewolf. The girl reconceives what she had been taught to fear into an object of her erotic desire as well as her partner (Moss 191). If the girl accepts the animalness of her desire, the werewolf confirms his cultural side without repressing his sexuality. According to Aidan Day, the sexual union between the girl and the werewolf transcends the oppositions of subject versus object and active versus passive that each individual in the encounter may be at once both (149).
By transforming the story of the sexual victimization of a woman into that of an empowerment through unrepressed female sexuality, Carter challenges the victim narrative typical of the fairy tale in which the heroine waits for the rescuer -- often the prince charming, or the hunter in case of “Little Red Riding Hood” -- to save her from danger. Carter critiques the mythologization of the classic fairy tale that represents an innocent, self-denying, dependent woman as the embodiment of virtuous femininity. Carter instead recreates Little Red Riding Hood as a tough, “wise child” with (sexual) agency who takes matters into her own hands, enabling her to end the story sleeping “sweet and sound . . . in granny’s bed, between the paws of the tender wolf” (219, 220). Carter’s recharacterization of Perrault’s wolf into a werewolf also counters the ideology of sexuality and gender roles in patriarchal society where the man as the subject controls and consumes the woman as the object and moves beyond the binary between aggressive masculinity and passive femininity that naturalizes power asymmetries between the sexes. Carter suggests an alternative way of looking at sexuality and gender in which both parties’ sexuality and desires can be mutually appreciated and fulfilled.
11“Were-” means etymologically “man (manly character).”