The heroine remembers the train ride as she left Paris with her new husband. She thinks of leaving her mother, a strong, independent woman who had fought pirates and killed a tiger in her youth. The mother asks if the heroine loves her husband, and the heroine admits that she does not, but she is still determined to marry him. The mother accepts that the marriage will lift their family from poverty, as the heroine’s husband is very rich and a Marquis. The mother herself had been “beggared” by love, marrying a poor soldier who died at war.
This first story introduces many of the motifs Carter finds in the fairy tales and emphasizes – here there is a poor, virginal heroine being “rescued” by a wealthy, experienced man. Though many of the stories deal with the objectification of women, Carter also gives her heroines a more sympathetic voice and more agency in their fates. Here she also introduces a strong female character in the heroine’s mother.
The heroine sits on the train and remembers her husband’s raspy beard as he kissed her. She is on the way to a famously luxurious French castle, surrounded by the sea – her new home. The heroine muses on certain things about her husband. He is a very big man, but he moves quietly and used to sneak up on her as she was playing the piano. She could only tell he was coming because of his constant scent of spiced Russian leather.
“The Bloody Chamber” is based on the story of Bluebeard – a rich, ugly man with a blue beard who entrusts his keys to his wife. The wife then discovers a room full of the bodies of Bluebeard’s previous wives. Bluebeard returns and threatens to behead the wife, but her brothers save her and kill Bluebeard.
The Marquis is much older than the heroine, but his face is unlined and seems almost like a mask. The heroine compares his face to an arum lily, pale, unmoving, and “funereal.” He had given her a ring with a fiery opal in it, and the heroine’s old nurse had complained about it, saying that opals were bad luck. The nurse also mentioned the Marquis’ previous three wives, and the last who had recently died.
Carter will repeat the image of a mask-like face in describing the powerful, bestial men of her stories. This helps create the image of the Marquis as a kind of monster, half sophisticated aristocrat, half sadistic murderer (as we will see).
The heroine is only seventeen years old and an inexperienced virgin, and she wonders why the Marquis has chosen her as his fourth wife. Before her he was married to a Romanian countess, who drowned three months before the Marquis met the heroine. Before that the Marquis was married to a famous model who drank herself to death, and his first wife was an opera singer. The heroine had once seen her singing the part of Isolde in the opera Tristan.
Carter emphasizes virginity as an important theme, as most of her heroines are virgins. She will show that virginity has a kind of power “in potential,” despite its inherent innocence. For the heroine here, it is her virginity that lured the Marquis to marry her. “Tristan” is a tale of doomed lovers, associating sexuality with violence.
The heroine describes the Marquis as “rich as Croesus.” The night before their wedding he had taken her (coincidentally) to see Tristan, and everyone in the crowd admired the heroine for being with him. On that night she was wearing a delicate white dress and the Marquis’ wedding gift, a ruby choker, around her neck. It was supposed to look like a slit throat, and was a kind of necklace that came into fashion after the French Revolution was over.
From the start of their relationship, the Marquis is in a position of total power over the heroine – he is rich, she is poor; he is experienced, she is innocent; he is older, she is young. In the French Revolution many aristocrats were beheaded, so the ruby choker mocks this past. It also shows the Marquis’ penchant for violence and beauty, and prefigures the heroine’s eventual fate.
At the opera the heroine saw herself in the mirror and saw the Marquis looking at her with “carnal avarice.” The heroine saw how innocent she herself appeared, and her own “potentiality for corruption.” The next day she had married the Marquis.
Carter introduces a feminist angle to old stories by drawing out their “latent” sexual oppression and objectification of women. She was more radical than most feminists of her time, however, for implying that women can also support and collude in their own objectification – like the heroine being aroused by the Marquis’ cruel lust.
In the present the train stops as the heroine arrives at the Marquis’ castle. He emerges from the train next to her and lights a huge cigar. She feels suddenly apprehensive and afraid, but the Marquis hands her down to a chauffeur. The chauffeur looks at the heroine and she imagines he is contrasting her with the Marquis’ other wives. They get into a car and drive towards the castle as the dawn breaks colorfully around them.
The chauffeur (or valet) of the rich man is another motif Carter will repeat throughout the book. The heroine feels herself objectified, but she is still enthralled enough by the Marquis that she wants to be a worthy object for him – as good as his earlier wives.
The heroine approaches the castle, which is beautiful but lonely, and totally cut off from the mainland at high tide. The Marquis kisses the heroine’s hand and leads her inside. Every room is huge, luxurious, and full of the sounds of the surrounding ocean. The heroine interviews the housekeeper (who was the Marquis’ foster mother) and feels small and silly, remembering her recent poverty. But then she looks around at all the grandeur that is now hers and she imagines herself “Queen of the Sea.”
Carter builds the tension and sets the scene of the heroine’s fate – the castle is just isolated enough to trap her when the time comes. The extreme wealth of the male/monstrous characters adds to the baroque and gothic tone of the stories. The heroine is constantly reminded of her own innocence and powerlessness when facing all this luxury.
The Marquis leads the heroine into the bedroom. The bed is surrounded by many mirrors and white lilies, and the heroine sees herself reflected twelve times over. She watches as her husband approaches and starts to undress her. The heroine feels ashamed and “vulgar,” and soon she stands there naked except for her ruby choker, and her husband is still fully clothed. The Marquis then smiles and leaves. The heroine feels herself aroused but also frightened by her own arousal and her husband’s lily-like face.
Mirrors are another important recurring motif throughout the book. The heroine is able to see herself reflected many times and see what an object she has become. The “funereal” lilies reflect the Marquis’ mask-like face. The “pornographic confrontation,” where the woman is naked and the man is clothed, is another important image of power and objectification.
The heroine wraps a robe around herself and goes to find the piano in the house. She plays a little but it is out of tune because of the constant sea breezes. She is already bored and dreading the hours until the wedding night, so she explores the Marquis’ library. The heroine examines the ornate books and then finds a collection of ancient, sadistic pornography.
Carter had studied and written about the Marquis de Sade, the source of the word “sadism” and the connection between violence and sexual arousal. In Carter’s version of the story, Bluebeard is not only a murderer but is sexually aroused by inflicting pain.
The Marquis appears behind the heroine, calling her his “little nun” and “Baby,” and mocking her innocence. Then he kisses her lustfully and pins her choker back around her neck. He leads her back into the bedroom, and the heroine complains that it is still daylight, but the Marquis says “All the better to see you.” Then they have sex, which the heroine thinks of as being “impaled,” and she watches the act replicated a dozen times in the mirrors around the bed.
The Marquis is clearly aroused by the heroine’s virginity and her “potential for corruption.” “All the better to see you” is a reference to the Little Red Riding Hood stories Carter will deal with later. Part of the “latent content” she draws out of the fairy tales is their similarities in theme and image. The connections between sexuality and violence grow more explicit as the heroine loses her virginity by being “impaled.”
Afterwards the Marquis falls asleep and the heroine thinks about her lost virginity. Then the phone rings and the Marquis answers. He says he must go to New York on urgent business for several weeks. The heroine complains that it is their honeymoon, but the Marquis says a huge amount of money depends on this trip. The heroine feels like a silly girl of no importance, and she realizes that the Marquis has had too many honeymoons to think of them as special occasions anymore. He promises that they will have dinner together before he leaves.
Images of “bloody chambers” reappear throughout the book, and though the principle bloody chamber of this story will be revealed soon, Carter also connects this place of violence to the female anatomy – as the heroine losing her virginity causes her to bleed, and is a kind of “impalement.” The Marquis shows his total power over her by abandoning her on their wedding night.
Soon afterward the heroine joins the Marquis for some wine and coffee, and the Marquis makes her change into the white dress she wore to the opera, and he won’t let her take off her ruby choker. The Marquis references their bloody bedsheets and says that this is the first time his wife has been a virgin. The heroine realizes that it is her innocence and virginity that allured the Marquis to marry her.
The Marquis enjoys the image of the heroine as both innocent (her white dress) and corrupted (the ruby choker suggesting both opulence and violence). The heroine is still supporting her own objectification, and feels that the Marquis’ love for her will protect her from his more sadistic tendencies.
The Marquis then takes out a ring of many heavy iron keys. He gives them to the heroine and says he is entrusting the house to her while he is away. He shows her his picture gallery, where there are portraits like The Sacrificial Victim and The Foolish Virgins. The Marquis then gazes at the heroine’s face and says she is innocent but with a “promise of debauchery.” The heroine blushes, but again feels her own potential for corruption.
The Marquis explicitly states his objectification and lust, showing just how much power he has over the heroine in this situation. Again the heroine is slightly aroused by this – she still has a little agency, but chooses to collude in her own fate.
The Marquis gives her the keys to his office and to his safes full of jewels and share certificates. He lingers over one last key until the heroine has to ask about it. The Marquis says it is the only key forbidden to her, as it leads to a “dull little room” that he likes to keep secret and private, where he can go at times and pretend he is still a bachelor. The Marquis then tells the heroine that he has requested a piano-tuner to join the full-time staff, and then he leaves, driving away towards the mainland.
This is the traditional scene from the Bluebeard story, but part of the treasure the Marquis entrusts to his wife is his collection of pornographic art. The story is also modernized by historical details and the fact that the Marquis drives a car. The piano tuner (and the heroine as a pianist) is another added detail, one that gives the heroine more of her own character, other than victim.
That night the heroine tosses and turns, both longing for her husband and repulsed by him. She wonders if all her new riches are worth his “mastery” over her. She allows herself a moment of jealousy, imagining he is off to visit a mistress, but then she finally falls asleep. As she dreams she imagines the lilies around the bed are like “dismembered arms.”
The rose is usually the symbolic flower in this book, but in the first story the white lily takes its place as the symbol of both beauty and horror. The heroine begins to question if her objectification is worth it – indicating that she has more agency than just a stereotype.
The heroine wakes up late and is given a luxurious breakfast in bed. Then she goes to the newly-tuned piano and plays for three hours. She calls in the piano-tuner, who is young and blind and comes from the town on the mainland. He asks to hear the heroine play sometimes, as he loves music, and she agrees.
The piano tuner is the opposite of the Marquis – blind, poor, powerless, and kind – yet he is the one the heroine is drawn to more naturally. The piano tuner is one of Carter’s few examples of men that are not bestial and oppressive.
The heroine upsets the routine of the house by refusing her “five o’clock,” and the housekeeper grows annoyed. The heroine then orders an outrageous dinner, delighting in her newfound liberty and wealth, but then she finds herself bored again. She takes a bath and then calls her mother. The heroine starts crying involuntarily as soon as she hears her mother’s voice, but she assures her mother that everything is fine.
The mother replaces the brothers of the original Bluebeard story. Carter changes the story from the typical “damsel-in-distress” situation to also include a strong mother-daughter relationship. The main example of the mother’s strength and independence is that she once killed a tiger – a reference to later stories.
The heroine then decides to explore her new domain, and she uses the keys to go through all the rooms, turning on all the lights. She then decides to discover her husband’s “true nature.” She goes to his office and examines the jewels in his safe. The maid says her dinner is ready, but the heroine refuses it and dismisses the servants. The heroine then searches through the Marquis’ desk, but she finds nothing personal at all except for some possible references to criminal activities in foreign lands. She feels he must have many secrets if he conceals them so well.
The heroine is still intrigued by her husband’s mystery and vague aura of danger. She feels safe because he seems smitten with her, even though it is obvious that he has all the power in their relationship. Like Eve in the Garden of Eden, or the story of Pandora’s Box, Bluebeard is another story where a woman is punished for being too curious.
Finally the heroine finds a file marked “Personal,” and inside is a letter from one of the Marquis’ earlier wives, the Romanian countess. The heroine feels intimidated by her wit and sophistication. As she closes the office door the key ring opens and all the keys clatter to the floor. The heroine happens to pick up the forbidden key first among the pile, and she impulsively decides to explore her husband’s secret room. She is momentarily afraid, but comforted by how much the Marquis seems to like her.
The Romanian countess is another nod to later stories in the book. The heroine decides to visit her husband’s secret room to gain knowledge about him – much like Eve eating the apple or Pandora opening the box. Carter is reimagining these archetypal tales by removing the brunt of the blame from the heroine.
The heroine goes down beneath the west tower and passes through a hallway draped in tapestries depicting some gruesome Medieval rape. There is no electricity in the hall, so the heroine gets some matches and tapers and continues. She comes to a door and unlocks it with the forbidden key.
The heroine seems to go back in time as she approaches the chamber, returning to the setting of the mythical original tale. Every object in the castle seems to contain references to both sex and violence.
In the darkness the heroine starts to see outlines of torture instruments, and she thinks of a quote from Baudelaire, the Marquis’ favorite poet, about the resemblance between “the act of love and the ministrations of a torturer.” The heroine sees a rack, a wheel, and an Iron Maiden, and then her match goes out. She then realizes she has inherited her mother’s courage, as she becomes suddenly determined to discover the full truth.
The “bloody chamber,” like the female body it symbolizes, is a place of both violence and enlightenment. It is here that the heroine learns the truth about her husband, but also where he tortures and kills his wives. The connection between sexuality and violence is made unbearably explicit.
The heroine lights another match and approaches a huge, ornate coffin at the center of the torture chamber. Inside she sees the embalmed body of the opera singer, the Marquis’ first wife. The heroine then sees the skull of his second wife, the model, hanging disembodied in the air. Wondering about the Romanian countess, the heroine opens the Iron Maiden. Inside is the dead woman, pierced by spikes and still bloody, and the shocked heroine accidentally drops the key into her pooling blood. She wonders how recently the countess was killed, and whether she was still being tortured while the Marquis courted the heroine herself.
This is the enlightenment that brings about a kind of metamorphosis in the heroine. No longer can she be enthralled by her husband’s wealth, power, and experience. In the chamber she discovers both the depths of his sadism and her own courage and seemingly inevitable fate. Like the Erl-King in a later story, the Marquis lures in women and traps them, making them into pure objects – in his case, objects of lust, torture, and macabre display.
The heroine then closes the Iron Maiden and starts to weep, realizing that she is doomed to die just like these other women. She picks up the key and flees the bloody chamber. She runs through the house, afraid to return to the bedroom and not trusting any of the servants or even the townspeople on the mainland, as the Marquis and his family had ruled this area for centuries. The heroine tries to call her mother for help, but the telephone line is dead.
Like many of the other virginal heroines in Carter’s stories, the heroine here feels herself as a sacrificial lamb, innocent and doomed to be slaughtered by a monstrous man. The Marquis’ wealth means his power extends even beyond his castle, and so it becomes symbolic of the oppressive patriarchy in general.
The heroine tries to comfort herself with the thought that the Marquis is leaving the country for a while, so she will surely have time to escape. She sits down at the piano and plays, hoping to create a “pentacle out of music” to protect herself. Then she hears a crash and fears the Marquis has returned, but it is only Jean-Yves, the blind piano-tuner, who was listening outside the door. He bashfully praises her talent, and she praises the perfect tuning of the piano.
Carter repeats the image of a protecting pentacle several times, but usually it is associated with a character’s virginity. Here the heroine has her own source of power in her music, now that her virginity has been taken. Again the kind piano tuner is contrasted with the Marquis.
The heroine is suddenly overcome by her revelation in the “bloody chamber” and Jean-Yves’ innocent humanity, and she faints. When she awakes Jean-Yves tends to her, and the heroine tells him everything she has learned about the Marquis. She takes out the forbidden key to show him, and Jean-Yves embraces her, describing old legends of an earlier Marquis who had hunted girls for sport. The heroine realizes that though she did not know the extent of the Marquis’ evil, she had always known that he “would be the death of” her.
The heroine acknowledges that she has taken part in her predicament, that she was intrigued by the Marquis’ dark and mysterious desires. She did not know the extent of his evil, but she is still not totally blameless. Ironically, this is another way Carter gives the heroine agency – she is not just a victim, but also contributes in a small way to the sexual violence of the story. The Marquis’ descendants have always abused their power over women.
Suddenly the heroine sees the Marquis’ car approaching the castle. She tries to wipe the blood off of the key, but it remains in the mark of a heart and doesn’t come off even with water. Jean-Yves offers to stay and protect her, but the heroine sends him away. She takes off her clothes and gets into bed and then the Marquis appears, kissing her tenderly and saying that his business deal fell through.
The story takes on a more magical-realist element here as the bloody mark seals itself to the key. This is another reflection of the bloody sheets of the heroine’s lost virginity and other emblems of sex and violence that will appear in the book. Instead of saving the “damsel,” the male hero is powerless and she sends him away.
The heroine realizes he is lying, and that all of this has been part of his plan the whole time. She is like Pandora, destined to open the fatal box. The Marquis starts to undress and then pretends to have misplaced his keys. He exaggeratedly reminds himself that his wife has them, and he asks for them. The heroine tries to distract him, but the Marquis grows suddenly serious and determined.
This has all been a part of the Marquis’ sport – he married the heroine for her innocence, predicting the pleasure he could take in corrupting that innocence. He may have gone through this charade with all of his wives but the first one.
The heroine goes to get the keys from the music room and when she returns the Marquis is sitting with his head in his hands. He seems to emanate despair suddenly, and his sent of Russian leather reverts “to the elements of flayed hide and excrement” that it is made of. The heroine feels a sudden pity for her lonely, monstrous husband, and then she gives him the keys.
Carter deconstructs the Marquis’ smell – a masculine, enticing aroma of Russian leather – to show how his dark glamour is more horrible than romantic. The heroine’s pity for the monster will reoccur in other stories with literal monsters in them. In this way Carter adds empathy even to her bestial antagonist.
The Marquis sees the red mark, and the heroine cannot help sobbing. The Marquis seems almost sad for a moment, but then he orders his wife to kneel. He presses the key to her forehead and the mark transfers itself to her skin. He then says to “prepare yourself for martyrdom,” and announces that he will behead her. He orders the heroine to put on her white dress and ruby choker, and he says he will go sharpen his ancestor’s sword. The heroine asks about the servants, but the Marquis say he has already dismissed them.
The Marquis has a ritual for his murder, and it is clear that the heroine’s outfit he likes most – the white dress of innocence and the ruby choker of violence – was foreshadowing the whole time, and he knew from the start how he would kill the heroine. She was an innocent “lamb” that the bestial Marquis has been readying for slaughter.
The heroine looks out the window and sees the exodus of servants leaving for the mainland, but she does not see Jean-Yves among them. The Marquis sends her to bathe herself and wait for him in the music room, warning her that the phone only works inside the castle, not for calls outside of it. The heroine leaves to bathe, and though she scrubs at it the red mark won’t come off of her forehead. She gets dressed and watches herself in the twelve mirrors.
The red mark acts like a “scarlet letter” of shame, a blemish on the heroine’s innocence, as the sheets were bloodied when she lost her virginity. The Marquis is so confident in his power over her that he assumes she will come when he calls and kneel before his sword.
The heroine then descends to the music room and finds Jean-Yves there. They look out at the ocean and Jean-Yves says that though the heroine disobeyed the Marquis, she was only doing what the Marquis knew she would – like Eve disobeying God in Eden. The phone rings and the Marquis summons the heroine to the courtyard. Jean-Yves, who the heroine now calls her “lover,” kisses her and offers to come with her.
The heroine, like Eve, committed a small sin – the “sin” of seeking forbidden knowledge – but is being inordinately punished. With this comparison Carter also disturbs the archetypal character of Eve, making us sympathize with her as we do with the heroine.
They suddenly hear hoofbeats, and the heroine looks out the window and sees her mother riding madly towards the castle. The Marquis calls again, impatient, and then a third time as the heroine delays. Finally she goes down to the courtyard, leading Jean-Yves behind her. The Marquis is waiting with a sword, and he mocks Jean-Yves, saying that the heroine knew what she was getting into when she married him.
In the original Bluebeard story the heroine is saved by her brothers, but Carter makes her mother the rescuer instead. This adds an element of female agency to the story and combines with Carter’s added character of Jean-Yves, who should be a traditional hero saving the damsel, but instead is totally helpless and unable to protect the heroine.
The Marquis calls the heroine “whore” and demands his opal ring back from her, saying it will serve for “a dozen more fiancées.” He promises to kill Jean-Yves afterwards, in a less noble manner. The Marquis makes the heroine kneel and lay her head against a stone, though she keeps trying to delay. He comments on her pretty neck and kisses it, and then he cuts off her dress.
Now that the heroine has lost her virginity and innocence, her appeal for the Marquis is gone and she is just another object for him to use and discard. The Marquis disrobes the heroine as he prepares to kill her, creating the ultimate pornographic and sadistic situation where she is totally powerless.
The Marquis lifts his sword but at that moment the heroine’s mother arrives at the gate. The Marquis hesitates and the heroine jumps up to open the gate with Jean-Yves. The Marquis stands transfixed in shock, watching his puppets “start to live for themselves,” and the heroine’s mother comes in looking fierce and wild, carrying her husband’s revolver. The Marquis recovers and charges the three with his sword, but the mother, who had once killed a tiger in China, shoots the Marquis in the head.
Everything before this has all gone according the Marquis’ plan, as the heroine acted as he expected she would. The mother interrupts his manipulations with her agency and independence. The Marquis is a “Beast” (like the Beasts of the later stories), and the mother already has experience killing a tiger – she is like one of Carter’s young heroines grown up.
The story jumps to the future, where the heroine has inherited all the Marquis’ wealth but gave most of it to charity. The castle is now a school for the blind, and the bloody chamber has been sealed and buried. The heroine has started a music school outside Paris, and she lives with her mother and Jean-Yves.
Many of the stories end with the heroine inheriting wealth and basically living “happily ever after.” The heroine has given up all the power and manipulation inherent in the Marquis’ world.
The heroine still doesn’t know how her mother knew to come to the castle, except that it was some kind of “maternal telepathy.” Her mother had rushed out immediately after the heroine’s first phone call, despite the indignant warnings of the old nurse. The nurse had died soon afterward, after the heroine came home. The red mark still remains on the heroine’s forehead, and she is glad Jean-Yves can’t see it, as she is still ashamed.
The mother’s protective instincts add a surprising element to the old story, and this is one of the few successful parent-child relationships in the book. The heroine is perhaps ashamed that she ever became involved with the Marquis, and went along with her own objectification and manipulation.