May 15, 2012
Folk tales, a combination of campfire story and literature, perhaps as old as human language, are, arguably, one of the first forms of popular culture; and as such intrinsically linked to our depiction of and identification of self and culture. Central to the telling of folk tales are questions of agency, power, knowledge, gender, and sexuality. Today it is granted that these issues are social constructs, to use Michel Foucault’s ideas, part of the discourse that defines our world. To determine the meaning and to locate the context of the discourse, especially, embedded narratives and unequal hegemonic power distribution, one needs knowledge of some of the tools cultural scientists have created in the last 100 years. Combining the literary theories of the post-feminist theoretician Rita Felski with those of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (looking at the signified and the signifier as building components for signs of meaning), Roland Barthe (for semiology: the way in which signs are used to create false ideologies and how to evaluate codes for meaning base on their subject location, historical context, and the cultural values of the author and reader) and Louis Althusser’s Problematic, which notes that which is obvious in its absence, in conjunction with Michel Foucault’s concepts about the ways in which discourse creates meaning, I intend to compare ancient and modern versions of the Little Red Riding Hood tale.
When Charles Perrault collected eleven such folk tales, and published them as Histoires ou contes du temps passé
(Stories of Times Past) in France in the late 17th
Century, he created the genre we know as fairy tales. But Perrault’s tales were hardly the first nor final word, and as such they differ from earlier and later iterations as his culture did. Perrault, erudite, male, and one of the founding members of the Académie Française
, structured his stories to reflect “the mutual interests of a bourgeois-aristocratic elite” (Zipes 11), especially regarding their daughters, who were bartered for economic benefit. In contemporary times, Angela Carter’s “In the Company of Wolves” re-envisioned Red Riding Hood with a frank expression of sexuality and female self-agency reflecting modern social values responsive to second-wave-feminism. The lens of post-structuralism allows the modern investigator to decouple concepts of innate gender, of essentialism, from the story, to examine how modern iterations of the story reflect new ideas about gender, sexuality, and power.
Historically women have been bound by the constraints of unmediated reproduction and their roles deliberately and consciously constrained by the dominant elite to contain them (and their reproductive capacity) within proscribed social bounds. As reproduction came under the control of women, their behaviors, ideas, depictions, narratives, motivations and opportunities changed, and the female authors, especially, had the opportunity to revisit those powerful influential texts .
Little Red Riding Hood is one of the most widely known of the fairy tales, read around the world and translated into the major languages1
. While Perrault often gets credit as father of this tale, it existed long before Le petit chaperon rouge
was published in 16972&3
. In earlier versions the young woman was not naïve: “The ‘peasant girl’ is forthright, brave and shrewd. She knows how to use her wits to escape preying beasts” Jack Zipes informs the reader in The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood
(9). Cannibalism, scatological humor and sexual acts were embedded in the ur-story as reconstructed by Paul Delarue in 1885, which celebrated a young girl’s maturation into womanhood (Zipes 5). Perrault sanitized this tale and turned it into a morality play, to teach young females the forest (a metaphor for the French Court in his version4
) was dangerous, and wolves (a metaphor for rapacious men of the Court and their voracious sexual appetites5
) would destroy them. In Perrault’s version both Granny and child perish while the wolf escapes (Tater 13). He couples his narrative with an explicit warning, a “Moral”, to convince girls that their sexuality has fatal consequences. In the Grimm Brothers’ version, published a few decades later in Germany, the wolf devours Little Red Cap and Granny, but a masculine savior rescues them intact from inside the beast! (Tater 16), reaffirming the protective supremacy of men and re-stipulating the vulnerability of women. Many noted authors have rewritten this tale, not all reflect on Red Riding as a metaphor for the status of women; nor certainly are all the tales invested with the specific authorial subjectivity that a woman author brings to Red Riding Hood’s ambiguous representation. Referring to the work of Swiss linguist and philosopher Ferdinand de Saussure in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture
, John Storey states the symbolism and imagery which allow a reader to make connections is arbitrary: “the relationship between the two is simply the result of convention — of cultural agreement” (111). A sophisticated author can layer alternative suggestive meanings into her tale and a critical reader should assume modern authors do not intend the conventional metaphoric connections. This is especially important when examining the work of women writers: “The true meaning of women’s writing lies beneath the surface, in covert messages and submerged clues. Because this meaning is socially unacceptable and even subversive, it is buried deep within the text” Rita Felski states in Literature After Feminism
(69). When a female author recreates Little Red Riding Hood, she does so with a sense of her time and place and an awareness of the oppressive history of women’s experience of social authority over their sexuality, and the heavy price paid by women who ignore the dominant cultural imperative. While Perrault’s goal was to “civilize” girls into complacent and accommodating members of 17th
Century French society, authors such as Angela Carter, Anne Sexton or Carol Ann Duffy have a different agenda.
“In the Company of Wolves” by Angela Carter, published in the United Kingdom in 1979, was a short story in The Bloody Chamber
, her book of updated fairy tales (published in the U.S. in 1980). It was subsequently turned into a BBC radio-play in 1980, and a film by auteur Neil Jordan in 1984. It is a staple of college-level literature and gender-studies programs. Carter used her version to offer ambiguous perspectives on gender, sexuality and self-agency. She positions feminine sexuality as an important but underrepresented source of innate power, symbolized by the werewolf. While the wolf and its lycanthropic manifestation are typically interpreted as masculine, Carter flips this and uses the symbol to connote overt, feral, female sexuality.
Carter crafts her tale in three sections, each constructed to lead the reader to understand her use of the wolf/werewolf as a symbolic, transformative figure signifying female desire. As the tale begins Carter informs the reader: “The wolf is carnivore incarnate. He’s as cunning as he is ferocious; once he’s had a taste of flesh than nothing else will do” (110). The author returns twice more to this motif before her story ends. Additionally by double stressing the root syllable “carn,” from the Latin “carnis7
,” Carter encourages the reader to polysemically associate the inferred word “carnal,” with the wolf. She reinforces this subliminal association by describing the wolf as “cunning,” homophonically suggesting Latin “cunnus8
,” for female genitalia, and then heightens the association: “once he’s had a taste of flesh, than nothing else will do” (ibid.
). Carter continues like this for six paragraphs with direct and indirect references to sexuality: “the light from your lantern will reflect back on you — red for danger” (ibid.
), red light, the signifier, overt sexuality the signified, the denotation that one’s own carnal desires are reflected; “…then he knows he must run” (111), note the pronoun here is masculine, it is the male who is the fearful prey, not the female; “they cluster invisibly round your smell of meat” (110), inferring olfactory and pheromonal responses to female fertility and identifying the reader as female with the possessive pronoun: “your”; “the rending you will suffer, in itself a murdering” (ibid.
), this active and on-going experience of killing suggests le petite morte
, a euphemism for orgasm. When the author describes the wolf attacking: “Those slavering jaws; the lolling tongue; the rime of saliva on the grizzled chops” (ibid.
), this opulent and salacious description evokes erotic ecstasy as an alternative to death by werewolf. She reminds the reader such hungers do not respond to reason, that even in the sanctity of the home lustful desires are ever evident: “But the wolves have ways of arriving at your own hearthside. We try and try but sometimes we cannot keep them down,” (111). Humorously and anachronistically she adds: “there was a woman once bitten in her own kitchen as she was straining the macaroni” (ibid.
). By these means Carter identifies lust’s thrilling, dangerous demands as contemporary, commonplace and domestic. Of course the inherent ambiguity of metaphor allows a reader to argue a different interpretation: “we need to understand the polysemic nature of signs, that is that they have the potential to signify multiple meanings” (Story 119). It is possible to argue that by these phrases Carter is referring to predatory male sexual threats, even interpreting “he knows he must run” as an un-gendered universal pronoun. But, to paraphrase Roland Barthe: “Which codes are mobilized will largely depend on the triple context of the location of the text, the historical moment, and the cultural formation of the reader” (Story 121). To understand the connotation one must consider the context. Carter, a globally-recognized author6
and feminist is not the standard bearer for conventional sexual stereotypes of reluctant, sexually-victimized women. Her work, including the other fairytales in this collection, embraces overt female sexual desire as a right. As she states in Sadian Woman
: sexually uninhibited behavior is “part of the acceptance of the logic of a world of absolute sexual license for all the genders” (22). Affirming a more aggressive interpretation Carter concludes this section with a warning: “the wolf may be more than he seems” (“Wolves” 111). Recalling Felski, Carter appears to saying her wolf is not the conventional one.
The short middle section of her story is composed of three brief vignettes intended to show the place of the werewolf in this world. The first vignette features a wolf who “pounced on a girl” (ibid.) but was chased away by men with rifles, an example of the rifle as symbol of the phallus being used to protect (and oppress) women.. Then the wolf is tricked, entrapped in a pit, into which the hunter jumps to “slit his throat” (ibid.
). After slaying the creature the hunter discovers no wolf, only “the bloody trunk of a man, headless, footless, dying, dead” (ibid.
). Extending the metaphor of werewolf as female desire, it is possible to interpret this as an example of man’s fear of woman’s carnal appetite. The hunter does not shoot the wolf from the safety of the edge of the pit but jumps into the pit, both to make intimate contact and to destroy the beast. Jumping into the pit, the hunter imagistically enters the vagina (a synecdoche for female desire) where he delivers a deadly, bloody slash to the beast’s throat and removes the wolf’s head and feet. Symbolically, the bloody slit reminds the reader of women’s reproductive role, evoking the imagery of menses and its mysterious (to too many men) place in human regeneration; and by removing the beast’s head the hunter (as man) destroys the both wolf’s identity and self-determination. If the wolf represents womanly desire and lust, this denies women the opportunity to practice their sexuality. By cutting off the beast’s feet, the wolf (as woman) is prohibited release (sexual freedom and freedom of movement), thus woman’s foundational autonomy is undermined. While this may be interpreted as trapping/constraining female sexual expression in a manner similar to Perrault’s tale, Carter suggests that doing so annihilates female sexual expression “dying, dead.” In the second vignette, a wedding party is transformed into miserable werewolves because the groom defied the wishes of a female witch. The wedding party stands as the symbol of sacred human connection, especially in its regenerative, sexual manifestation, and the misery of the werewolves again indicates desire without release. The groom —a man —is to blame for the suffering of all due to his selfish choice. The third and final vignette is a short-short story that returns one of ur-tale’s missing elements, the scatological reference lost when Perrault sanitized it into a literary artifact. Now a new-husband disappears on the wedding night before the new bride has the opportunity to experience socially condoned sexuality. She mourns her loss in the culturally proscribed fashion, then settles for another man and bears him children. Years later her first love, symbolizing long lost desire, returns, a werewolf. The lycanthrope abuses her, calls her a whore, and attempts to destroy her family. The creature is killed and revealed to be the beautiful being she once loved, symbolically representing lost lust. She weeps for her loss, which results in her getting beaten. In each of these vignettes, by viewing the lycanthrope as a metaphor for female sexual desire, the reader discovers profound and symbolic meaning whereas a straight reading of the text remains obtuse, ambiguous and unresolved.
It is in this light that the reader enters the third and most freighted portion of Carter’s retelling of the tale as a girl’s unambiguously sexualized journey into womanhood. “This strong-minded child insists she will go off through the wood” (113), the narrator informs us, setting the child in opposition to traditional constrictions on female autonomy, stressing her intent to ignore these cultural prohibitions symbolized by the woods. Now the tone of the story is foreboding: This “is the worst time in all the year,” “children do not stay young for long in this savage country… they work hard and grow up wise,” the ominous if brilliant look of blood on snow” (ibid.
). Similarly Granny loses her saccharine qualities, now she is “a reclusive grandmother so old the burden of her years is crushing her to death” (ibid.
). Informing us of Red Riding Hood’s changing sexual status, the narrator states her “breasts have just begun to swell… and she has just started her woman’s bleeding, the clock inside her that will strike, henceforward, once a month” (ibid.
). As we read the child transitions into a fertile but virginal woman: “She stands and moves within the invisible pentacle of her own virginity. She is an unbroken egg; she is a sealed vessel; she has inside her a magic space the entrance to which is shut tight with a plug of membrane” (113-114). The redundancy of this passage is not the work of a lazy author but the work of an author who intends for her writing to be unpacked. In the “Polemical Preface” to The Sadeian Woman
, Carter states: “relationships between the sexes are determined by history and the historical fact of the economic dependence of women upon men” (7). After discussing the ways in which men regulate women’s fertility and sexuality, she continues: “The very magical privacy of the bed, the pentacle, may itself only be bought with money” (12). By invoking the “pentacle of her own virginity” in her fairy tale Carter acknowledges the problematic: “According to Althusser… a text is structured as much by what is absent (what is not said) as by what is present (what is said)” (Storey 72). Neglected throughout the “The Company of Wolves” are issues (practices) related to the economic and the political subtexts of the story. This is highlighted when one recalls that Perrault, to please his 17th
Century aristocratic patron, Jean Baptiste Colbert, minister of finance to Louis XIV, “The Sun King” (Orenstein 30), crafted a text which removed all class-related signifiers in the predecessor iteration of the tale (Zipes 2) and his “morals” were informed by the economic benefit his patrons received when they sold off their daughters to highest bidders in state-sanctioned mariages de raison
, “marriages of convenience.” Whether the narrative is located three hundred years ago or the late 20th Century, Carter maintains women depend upon men for their economic well-being and men value women for their sexuality. Carter wants us to understand that as a virgin Red Riding Hood’s worth was at the apex of the pentacle of her value to the parental estate, which is what Perrault espoused and valued in Le Petit Chaperon Rouge
. “Virginity was a requirement of the mariage de raison
in the French Court” (Orenstein 36). Such marriages were political and economic pacts managed by parents for their personal gain, not acts of romance.
But Carter’s woman-child, with her incipient sexuality, is neither naïve nor sequestered. Carter’s Red Riding Hood makes her own sexual choices. When she encounters the “very handsome young one,” unlike the “rustic clowns of her native village … soon they were laughing and joking like old friends” (“Wolves” 114). Comparing the stranger to the pool of undesirable mates she knows, Red Riding Hood chooses the stranger. When he tells her “his rifle would protect them” (ibid.
), she surrenders her knife to the potent promise of his phallic weapon. There was neither knife nor rifle in Delarue’s ur-tale or Perrault’s version, thus Carter allows the reader to invest these symbols with meaning, and she makes that meaning obvious when the werewolf asks Red Riding Hood to wager. “What would you like? she asked disingenuously. … Commonplace of a rustic seduction; she lowered her eyes and blushed” (115). With this pantomime of femininity Red Riding Hood chooses the beast.
In contradiction to the lustful negotiations between the virgin and the beast, Granny symbolizes the restraints of a culture in decline. “Aged and frail, granny is three-quarters succumbed to the mortality the ache in her bones promises … the grandfather clock ticks away her time” (ibid.
). Even while still living, she is already dead, withdrawn from the daily intercourse of the social, carnal world. Clutching her Bible, calling on her Christ and his mother, and all the angels in her heaven won’t stop the inevitability of a changing social order (116). Representative of the Ancien Régime
, Granny must die to make way for the revolution. In this sense Granny’s death represents the end to historic restrictions on women and the end to Charles Perrault and his misogynistic narrative. “The last thing the old lady saw in all this world was a young man, eyes like cinders, naked as a stone, approaching her bed” (ibid.
). The lycanthrope, with “His genitals, huge. Ah! huge” (ibid.
), sexually and intellectually symbolizes the cycle of renewal and simultaneously is an ironic acknowledgment of Granny’s original nature as a sexual actor. Heralding this explicitly coupling of death and sexuality Carter resurrects the paean she used to introduce her story: “The wolf is carnivore incarnate” (ibid.
). Devouring the flesh, embodying the flesh, the beast asserts the triumph of the flesh.
The tale’s dénouement
is inevitable. It is neither a chaste story, nor is it a false morality play. Whether Red Riding Hood is devoured by the wolf or not, the reader knows Carter does not intend to chastise the young woman for her sexual impulses. Instead the author uses this opportunity to revisit Delarue’s folk tale reinsert some of the explicit sexuality Perrault excised. When Red Riding Hood recognizes the werewolf in Granny’s bed, she acknowledges “the blood she must spill” (117). Here Carter redirects the signifier: blood, from its historic signified: destruction of the flesh, to create a new oppositional sign; blood resulting from her soon-to-be torn hymen representing sexuality, fertility and the flesh reborn. The old signifier and the new signified unite to create a sign that celebrates carnal rights. Similarly the beasts’ howls, originally terror inducing, are re-contextualized: “(They are) howling as if their hearts would break… poor things” (ibid.
), says Red Riding Hood. The wolves suffer, like women suffer, and so they, too, cry at their unfair fate. In an act of self-agency Red Riding Hood removes “her scarlet shawl… the color of sacrifices, the color of her menses, and since her fear did her no good, she ceased to be afraid” (ibid.
). Like any number of initiates throughout history, Red Riding Hood simultaneously fears and embraces the imminent change in her life. “What shall I do with my shawl? Throw it on the fire, dear one. You won’t need it anymore” the wolf replies (ibid.
). This action is repeated until the young woman is naked. While the reader might think this was a baroque literary element Carter added to sexualize her story, the language comes verbatim from Delarue’s ur-tale. Similarly, in both tales Red Riding Hood willing climbs into the wolf’s bed where “she freely gave him the kiss she owed him” (118), and is initiated into her fully sexual self. “Carnivore incarnate, only immaculate flesh appeases him” (ibid.
), like the chorus of a song, Carter uses this phrase to reaffirm the essential carnality of the human condition. In the historic tale, after her sexual awakening, Red Riding Hood escapes by going outside to defecate and then running away. In Carter’s retelling, she needs no such subterfuge, with full self-agency and full awareness she has arrived at her journey’s destination: “sweet and sound she sleeps in granny’s bed, between the paws of the tender wolf” (ibid.
Thus the modern fairy tale can resolve with Red Riding Hood embracing her womanly right to exercise her sexual choices while the real wolf, the avaricious actors of class and sexual domination are dispatched, not through sharp, pointy weapons nor mortal state apparatus, but through a protagonist’s self-agency. Similarly, if we are to accept Felski’s essentialist position, authors like Carter utilize women’s writing style to uproot the oppressive texts of folk tales used historically to limit gender and class options, and such authors expand both the options and the tools we have to argue new meaning when confronting the hegemonic authority of the elite. To access the deeper meanings Felski tells us are embedded in the text, one can use the ideas of Saussure to look at ambiguity for meanings in the signifiers and signified authors chose to use. A werewolf need not only represent oppressive male sexual domination. If the reader looks closely enough it can represent a woman’s innate sexuality instead. With these tools a reader can again reevaluate the signs in the text to find both the denoted and the connoted meanings, ad infinitum. To see the class issues fairy tales have deliberately glossed over, concepts like Althusser’s problematic give us the necessary lens to reexamine what’s missing. When the actions of a character in a tale seem to veer into sexual parody, Judith Butler reminds us that all of this is a masquerade, that gender is a social construct rather than a predetermined and inflexible fact, and when we wonder what it is that we are, Foucault reminds us that in the act of asking we are still changing and redefining the answers to these questions. It is even possible, as we confront sexual, gender, class and racial stereotypes as the social constructs they are that a new literature, a new manifestation of popular culture can evolve that no longer depends on disparaging and objectifying others to elevate one’s spirits. Perhaps someday all readers, male and female, will discover Eros without the limitations of sexuality or gender, without destructive power dynamics. One can dream.
1 “‘Little Red Riding Hood’ is told on every continent, in every major language” (Orenstein 3)
2 “In the eleventh century, the scholar Egbert de Liège published the tale La petitie fille épargnée par les louveteaux
[The Little Girl Spared By The Wolf Cubs], which presents the central and indispensable event of Little Red Riding Hood” (Velay-Vallantin 310)
3 “Sources: From Histoires ou contes du temps passé
(Tales of times past with morals), also called Contes de Ma Mere L’Oye
( Mother Goose tales), published by Claude Barbin, 1697” (Orenstein 20)
4 “Perrault’s audience would have readily recognized he setting of these tales. Sleeping Beauty passes through a hall of mirrors that is like the famous one at Court. … Cinderella wears dresses that recall Madame de Sévigné’s specific, detailed descriptions of the wardrobe of the King’s official mistress” (Orenstein 34)
5 “Monsieur Le Duc d’Orleans, the King’s bisexual brother, was so promiscuous that, according to one author, every Roman Catholic royal family of Europe can claim him among its ancestors” (Orenstein 24)
6 Carter ranks tenth on the UK Times
list “The 50 greatest British Writers since 1945” 5 January 2008. The Times
. Retrieved 10 May, 2012. http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/arts/books/article/2452094
7 "carnis." Online Etymology Dictionary
. Douglas Harper, Historian. 09 May. 2012. < http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=carnal>.
8 "cunnilingus." Online Etymology Dictionary
. Douglas Harper, Historian. 09 May. 2012. .
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Carter, Angela. 2012 (1979). “Polemical Preface: Pornography in the service of women,” in The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History. London: Virago Press. Pp 3-42. Print.
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Tatar, Maria, ed. 1999. “Introduction,” “Introduction: Little Red Riding Hood,” The Classic Fairy Tales: A Norton Critical Edition. New York: WW Norton, 1999. pp ix-xviii, Print.
Velay-Vallantin, Catherine. 1997. “Little Red Riding Hood as Fairy Tale, Fait-divers, and Children’s Literature: The Invention of Traditional Heritage” in Out of the Woods, ed.. Canepa, Nancy L. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. pp 306-351.
Zipes, Jack. The Trials & Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood: Versions of the Tale in Sociocultural Context. South Hadley MA: Bergin & Garvey Publishers. 1983. Print.