Colloques & Conferences de l'Universite Lyon 2, "Rewriting / Reprising" - La reprise en litterature


Plundering the Fairy Tale and the Gothic in Patricia Highsmith's Little Tales of Misogyny

Maria VARA

Aristotle University

In: Colloque "Rewriting / Reprising - La reprise en littérature, 13-14 octobre 2006, Lyon, France.

Texte intégral

From the moment of its appearance the Gothic genre has been obsessed with presenting itself as an imitation, a copy of something else and its authors as mere editors. For example, the first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), poses as a translation into English of a fifteenth-century Italian manuscript, though its medieval setting is actually adapted for the eighteenth-century reader. According to Jerrold Hogle, the novel's references to the past are ‘hollowed-out' (15) and thus able to ‘look ahead to marketable recastings of old remnants in modern technologies' (16). Moreover, the frequent modifications and ‘borrowings' between English and French novels that took place in the eighteenth century, as Terry Hale has explained, rendered Gothic a ‘by-product of the translation process' (17), translation implying numerous re-workings, appropriations, alterations and adaptations.

Thus, the notion of rewriting, which implies transgression of boundaries and entails reflecting on issues of re-appropriation of tropes, is actually an inherent quality of the Gothic. In the last decades of the twentieth century this malleability has become all the more conspicuous to theorists who have reconfigured the spectrum of the Gothic by granting it an invasive effect on contemporary fiction, particularly by women authors.

This paper will focus on reading Highsmith's Little Tales of Misogyny (1975) in the light of Angela Carter's ‘exercise in cultural history' The Sadeian Woman and collection of stories The Bloody Chamber, attempting to investigate the aesthetic/narratological and political implications of the fact that, within the common post-war practice of rewriting earlier narratives, Patricia Highsmith's collection of short stories bears a precarious relation to the Gothic and the fairy tale, by both rehearsing and undermining generic imperatives. Contrary to what happens in Carter's afore-mentioned works, Highsmith's text does not advertise in its title an overt engagement with a hypotext; it nevertheless re-turns to the past, by recasting neither a historical period nor a novel but a recurrent motif in both Gothic and fairy-tale tradition, that of the passive heroine.

When, in 1979 with The Sadeian Woman Angela Carter invited us to look back from the viewpoint of 1970s poststructuralist thinking to the 1790s story of de Sade's Justine and Juliette she did not directly connect de Sade with the Gothic. The question of genre appeared when Justine, the passive heroine par excellence, became for Carter ‘a heroine of a black, an inverted fairy tale' (39). At first glance, the possibility of an inter-relational reading of fairy-tale and Gothic mode, may appear strange,[1] because of the ‘reassuring predictability' (231) of the fairy tale (as Cristina Bacchilega has named the genre's affiliation to the formulaic) and the ambivalence of the Gothic. Nevertheless both genres share a familiar machinery of key motifs that are liable to infinite transformations. In short, the persecuted heroine, it could be argued, has her double in the fairy tale: The (Sleeping) Beauty. Actually, the Gothic, from Ann Radcliffe on, is itself originally built on the Bluebeard plot, according to Victor Sage, [2] who implies that Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho, written in 1791 featuring the abduction and incarceration of the heroine in a castle could be read as a variant of Charles Perrault's ‘Bluebeard', written in 1697.

Both Carter's much-celebrated collection of re-writings of well-known fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber, that overtly engages with the Bluebeard plot by holding his ‘bloody chamber' as a title story in the collection, and The Sadeian Woman, are heroine-centred and heavily preoccupied with genre fiction (though the latter from a philosophical and cultural perspective). Their parallel reading, as critics have argued,[3] can provide the reader with a lateral perspective where the two genres, the fairy-tale and the Gothic, merge together.

A definite point of merging of the two genres is, I believe, the common predicament of the Gothic and fairy-tale heroine. In the classical Gothic the heroine's fleeing her persecutors is her only agency that serves as a narrative mechanism to propel the story forward. The case is similar in the fairy tale, according to Vladimir Propp's structuralist analysis of Russian folk tales. The narrative agency is with the hero, whereas the heroine is presented as a lack [as Propp puts it: ‘the hero is unmarried and sets out to find a bride' (35)] or as an object of search, a mere narrative device that motivates the hero to act and pushes the story forward. A heroine could also function as a hero's reward when ‘a bride and a kingdom are awarded at once' (Propp 63).

In The Bloody Chamber (1979), the heroine's role as an item of exchange or a hero's reward is compulsively re-written by Carter from a feminist perspective. Beauty, the passive heroine, appears in the collection in many guises,[4] and forms a major intertextual motif used to scrape the surface of the literary fairy tale and expose the elements that constitute its dangerous appeal. In this way Carter has managed to remind us that fairy tales are actually palimpsests, formed by a continuous process of layering, and, simultaneously, she has released their protagonists from the ‘bloody chambers' of institutionalised bourgeois morality. Thus, in The Bloody Chamber, the literary fairy-tale is extended beyond its set (formulaic) shape, with its strait-jacket of tight binary-oppositions - where valorisation always tilts in favour of the good, beautiful, brave, rich, human qualities - rigorously deconstructed.[5] It also becomes a thread for reading cultural history when some of its subversive qualities that survive from the oral tradition re-emerge. The atmosphere in all stories of the collection is also of Gothic intensity due to the presence of much of the salient classic Gothic iconography: the gloomy castle where the heroine is imprisoned, labyrinthine passages, enclosed chambers, themes of murder, blood stains, all kinds of atrocities recur in many stories, but these features are obviously also fairy tale: It is actually the overlap between the two genres that's interesting.

In The Sadeian Woman, Angela Carter invited us to notice a writing of excess that destroys the myth of the blameless, passive woman by focusing on the plot and narrative structure in de Sade's Justine and Juliette – a gesture which, at the time, stirred a strong opposition among feminists because of its pornographic implications. Highsmith's short-story collection also issued threats of heresy, being bizarre, excessive, and problematic in terms of gender politics. In fact, critical responses to the collection are scarce, probably due to the fact that Highsmith is mostly associated with low-brow, crime fiction. (Tom Ripley is her most enduring creation, featuring in five novels including The Talented Mr Ripley and Ripley's Game). It must have also been neglected by critics because this collection is deceiving in the way it disappoints feminist expectations.

It comprises seventeen brief and savage stories, such as: ‘The Hand', ‘The Fully Licensed Whore, or, the Wife', ‘The Breeder', ‘The Mobile Bed-Object', ‘The Perfect Little Lady', ‘The Prude', ‘The Victim', ‘The Perfectionist', an inventory of titles that proclaim the female protagonists' functions in the stories and remind us of Vladimir Propp's own list of the roles held by characters in the folk tale (The Hero, the False Hero, The Helper, The Donor, The Sought-for Person and her Father), but now refracted through a distorting, sardonic lens.

It seems that the sphere of action allowed to the heroine of the literary fairy tale and the Gothic is here drawn to its limits. From the very titles of the stories one can easily discern an attempt to expose the absurdity of clichés, so the reader's hesitation as regards the purpose of the collection's title is momentary. All stories resemble the traditional fairy-tale format, both in brevity of form and in narrative technique. The narrative voice soon introduces the reader to a world of violence, following a third-person, external focalisation that captures ‘only the outward manifestations of the [focalised] object' (76), according to Rimmon-Kenan's explication of the term, akin to that employed in literary fairy tales. Soon, though, the reader discovers that the format of the literary fairy tale is extracted from its set shape.

‘The Hand', the opening story of the collection, is a cruel twist on the traditional custom of asking for someone's hand in marriage and begins as follows: ‘A young man asked a father for his daughter's hand, and received it in a box – her left hand' (13). In this manner the reader encounters the object status of the first of an array of pathological women characters borrowed from the fairy tale and the Gothic that infest the collection. The story's savage beginning, where the daughter is the uncontested property of her father evokes the brothers' Grimm fairy tale ‘The Girl without Hands' where a father decides to chop off his daughters' hands so as to escape from the devil.

‘My child, if I do not cut off both your hands, the devil will carry me away, and in my terror I have promised to do it. Help me in my need, and forgive me the harm I do to you'. She replied: ‘Dear father, do with me what you will, I am your child.' Thereupon she laid down both her hands, and let them be cut off. (Grimm 161)

The turn of the plot in the Grimm brothers' literary fairy tale soon implies that the daughter's outrageously composed and docile attitude, evident in her reply ‘Dear father, do with me what you will, I am your child' (Grimm 134) is rewarded when a king marries her ‘as she was so beautiful and good' (Grimm 135). The extraordinary phrase of the daughter's unconditional submission to her father's will - which has been brilliantly reworked by Joyce Carol Oates in the novel Do with Me what You Will (1974), another novel of controversy in the seventies, is one of the many indications that the literary fairy tale does not wish to question the status quo as critics, such as Jack Zipes, have suggested. Joyce Carol Oates elaborates on the issue in a critical essay on fairy tales:

[T]he world as it appears is not to be questioned, still less resisted. ‘Progress' in the social-evolutionary sense would be anathema to the fairy-tale atmosphere of fateful resignation and what might be defined as a causeless consequence: your fate is deserved because it happens to you; it doesn't happen to you because it's deserved. All ‘good' heroines accept their fate passively, unquestioningly. To express even normal distress at being viciously mistreated would be in violation of the narrow strictures of fairy-tale ‘goodness'. (Oates 100)

Oates' criticism of fairy tales centres on the implications of the encoded ideology of passivity in fairy tales that equates beauty and goodness with character. There is no space for politically ambivalent positions. Consequently, any potential for transgression that might be contained in the violent acts[6] of Grimms' fairy tale is finally subdued by a very orderly, neat plot line that shuns any disturbingly uncommon turn of events: finally, the daughter's natural hands grow again and ‘King and Queen... lived contentedly to their happy end' (Grimm 138). The characteristic closing formula that mutes horror also sets the tale apart from the common world, reaffirms social order[7] and renders the heroine a stereotypical valuable item of exchange.

Conversely, the harsh opening in Highsmith's story is matched by an equally cruel ending where the young man, the bridegroom, dies in an asylum, feeling ‘insane beyond repair'. Once a month the girl to whom the title metonymically refers visits him ‘like a dutiful wife. And like most wives, she had nothing to say. But she smiled prettily' (14). This is the girl's only contribution to the plot; ‘like a dutiful wife', she occupies a role, a place already there for her; this ambiguous ending lets loose forces that are condensed in the literary fairy. There is a conjunction of genre fiction and the postmodern in the sense that the heroines illustrate ‘the limited possibilities of the surviving subject' (8), being ‘shorn of alternatives' (9), as David Punter has explained. In fact Punter is one of the few critics to make reference to Highsmith's collection where he discerns an attempt to see ‘the world from one of the totally enclosed spaces suggested for us as “women's locations”' (8).

Indeed, Highsmith's collection manages to highlight Punter's argument for ‘a postmodern draining of identity' (5). More examples in the seventies, I would argue, are M. Spark's The Driver's Seat, D. Johnson's The Shadow Knows, or J. C. Oates' Do with Me what You Will. Also, The Bloody Chamber stories exceed the limits of a certain seventies feminist aesthetic by slanting their focus towards the main problematic purported by metafictional literature: to self-consciously expose the mechanics of the text's making, initiating a quest into what it means and what it feels like to have your strings pulled, to realise that you occupy a ‘role' rather than a coherent self.

In ‘The Lady of the House of Love', one of the stories in Carter's The Bloody Chamber collection, where the Countess of the gloomy castle holds the male officer in the British Army hostage as a sacrificial victim, the literary fairy tale roles are on a surface level inverted, with the man taking up the passive heroine's part. But the story also points towards self-reflexivity by initiating a quest into the fabricated nature of truth, in a world where certainties are breaking down. This happens when it is revealed, in a familiar Carteresque plot motif, that the Countess does not act of her own free will when she exterminates her victims; her own strings are being pulled by her predecessors who have allotted this place to her, as each one, ‘through her, projects a baleful posthumous existence' (93). She is presented as ‘both death and the maiden' and as ‘a system of repetitions, she is a closed circuit' (93). The story removes all mystery from the woman as seductress who, like Ryan in Borges' ‘Theme of The Traitor and the Hero', is exposed as engulfed in just another role prescribed for her.

When the attempt to match everything into a coherent hermeneutic pattern proves chimerical, Ryan finally acquires insight into his condition of being not a great investigator of his great-grandfather, Fergus Kilpatrick's death, but a mere puppet at the hands of Nolan, who has orchestrated Kilpatrick's death and prefigured Ryan's own detective role nearly a century before. Similarly, in Carter's story there is nothing mythical about the status of the Countess as a vampire, as ‘everything about this beautiful and ghastly lady is as it should be - queen of night, queen of terror - except her horrible reluctance for the role'. Her own story of seducing victims is within the story of being manipulated by her ancestors, whose role might be, one may suppose, prescribed by others, ad infinitum.

Women characters that are heralded as the central axis of all seventeen stories in Highsmith's collection are too deprived of agency to such an extent that the reading practice becomes focused less on plot and more on the realisation that, written in 1975, these stories are more disturbingly political than the feminism of their time allowed for. The wry tone of narration discourages the reader from getting emotionally involved with the characters who are thin, transparent, depthless. There is a feeling of unfreedom, a painful realisation that the opening of ‘The Mobile Bed-Object', for example, describes a contemporary issue:

There are lots of girls like Mildred, homeless, yet never without a roof – most of the time the ceiling of a hotel room, sometimes that of a bachelor digs, of a yacht's cabin if they are lucky, a tent or a caravan. Such girls are bed-objects, the kind of thing one acquires like a hot water bottle, a travelling iron, an electric shoe-shiner, any little luxury of life. It is an advantage to them if they can cook a bit, but they certainly don't have to talk, in any language. Also they are interchangeable, like unblocked currency or international postal reply coupons. Their value can go up or down, depending on their age and the man currently in possession. (69)

Towards the end of the story Mildred is dumped into a canal and drowned: ‘She had been thrown away, as one might throw away a Cricket Lighter when it is used up, like a paperback one has read and which has become excess baggage' (74). It is obvious here that the passive case used unites Mildred with the other women in the collection, but most importantly with De Sade's Justine whose stubborn adherence to virtue is neither meaningful nor rewarding. The more Justine foolishly turns to the social and legal institutions for aid, the more abused she is, by the villains that infest the novel, which results in a reluctance on the part of the de Sade's novel to offer a solid sense of identity or to restore the morality and social order that would have sustained 18th- century enlightenment ethics.

Similarly, Highsmith eschews any prism of essentialism or morality. It would have been an anti-feminist collection, had it offered a climactic point and a kind of resolution that would have confined the central heroines within an ethical frame, within an economy of crime and retribution. In fact, they enact to the utmost degree the roles already assigned to them, a pose which is not compensated for by any convention of respect or reward, which is largely false as Angela Carter illustrated in The Sadeian Woman. All ‘mythic versions of women' are suspect for Carter, even that of the blameless and morally superior victim, which is the version, she believes, the notorious Marquis exposed as another ‘consolatory nonsense' for women's ‘lack of access to the historic world' (5) Thus, in Little Tales of Misogyny that detest the consumption of tragedy, the passive heroine is reprocessed and emptied out of her tragic dignity as a woman in terror, just as it happens in the Bloody Chamber.

Another example is Elaine, the central figure in ‘The Breeder', who is not able to become pregnant for some time, which would have fulfilled her role as a perfect wife, because her fertilised eggs seem to travel upward instead of downward, ‘in apparent defiance of gravity' (59). She gradually becomes desperate enough to follow an extraordinary piece of advice by a friend of her husband, Douglas: ‘Around midnight, Elaine jumped out of bed and stood on her head, feet against the wall. Her face became bright pink. Douglas was alarmed, but Elain stuck out like a Spartan, collapsing finally after nearly ten minutes in a rosy heap on the floor' (59). This seems to work as a fertilising technique, so a son is born, followed by twins a year later, an initiation into ‘breeding' that acquires horrifying proportions:

Three rooms of their flat now had nothing but cribs in them, plus a single bed in each, in which at least two children slept. If their ages only varied more, Douglas thought, it would somehow be more tolerable, but most of them were still crawling around on the floor, and to open the apartment door was to believe that one had come upon a day nursery by mistake. But no. All these seventeen were his own doing. The new triplets swung in an ingenious suspended playpen, there being absolutely no room on the floor for them. They were fed, and their nappies changed, through bars of the pen, which made Douglas think of a zoo. (63)

Despite its lightness of voice, this extract invokes a disturbingly Gothic atmosphere when Elaine and Douglas' home is metamorphosed into ‘their own monstrous space' (Punter 8). ‘The Breeder' gradually loses its fairy-tale patina to become infested by the Gothic, through this situation of excessive procreation which finally drives Douglas crazy.

After a fit of hysteria, and having lost his memory and ability to count his children, Douglas is put into prison where Elaine goes to visit him, seeming to him distant and ‘fulfilled' (65). Her effort to conform to the ‘right' behaviour against all odds is pushed to such an excessive degree that it transgresses the boundaries of her set-role as mere procreation-device, to become ‘Gothicised', or, in other words, too much for the other characters in the story and for the reader to cope with. The reader is shocked by the way the collection that does not reject the fairy-tale form repetitively gives way to an excessive focus on the grotesque materiality of the heroines. Unlike what happens in the literary fairy-tale, (where there is denial of the body's materiality, as we only have narrative functions), in this collection the body of the victim is, at times, scandalously corporeal. The stories tip over the edge from fairy tale into Gothic excess when the freakish female body infests the narrative. In other words, what, in the literary fairy tale has been seen as a device to push the story forward, is provided in the collection with an excessively material, somatic substance. The customary division between genres is blurred which asserts the importance of recycling and crossing of boundaries in shaping the world and in rethinking the roots of subjectivity. One could venture the claim that Little Tales of Misogyny anticipates the plea of Elizabeth Grosz for an anti-essentialist configuration of the body ‘that moves from the periphery to the centre of analysis, so that it can now be understood as the very “stuff” of subjectivity' (ix).

Each story of Highsmith's collection holds its hypotexts not as fixed points of origin but as signifiers of an ongoing, fascinating process of layering reaching back to the 1790s Gothic or the oral fairy-tale tradition. This may help us rethink the seemingly contradictory spatiality between the fairy tale and the Gothic and grant genre the elasticity it always entailed. Also, it is evident that genre, in its postmodern reconfiguration, plunders in a more self-reflexive/explanatory way than it did in the past, tropes and images that are surviving accounts from other narratives. It doesn't have to pretend its something else anymore. Consequently, the experience of reading has become very different from that of reading, for example, Walpole, and very similar to what Borges has prefigured: In Borges' ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote', an author, Pierre Menard, attempts to compose the first part of Cervantes' Quixote itself, not another version, or a rewrite. What happens is that the ‘text of Cervantes and that of Menard are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer' (Borges 69). This seemingly paradoxical conclusion is actually a metaphor for the fact that no one can claim originality in literature and that each act of reading is actually an individual projection on a text and thus a rewriting, which shrugs off the reader's shoulders the anxiety of influence.

The slippery hybrid narrative pattern in Highsmith's collection which could easily stand for much postwar fiction lacks the ability to enchant the reader or to overwhelm the mind. The reader is compensated for, though, with an invitation to ponder on the force of repetition and intertextuality as a tool for re-writing and re-reading cultural history. There may be no original story to tell, but, at the same time, whenever a story is told it becomes a different story; the passive heroine motif will surely be returning for further rewriting/reprising.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. ‘Running with the Tigers' in Flesh and the Mirror. Essays on the Art of Angela Carter. Ed. Lorna Sage. London: Virago, 1994.

Bacchilega, Cristina. ‘Fairy Tale', in The Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing in English. Ed. Lorna Sage. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.

Borges, J. L. Labyrinths. London: Penguin, 1970.

Carter, Angela. The Sadeian Woman. An Exercise in Cultural History. London: Virago, 1979.
---. The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. London: Vintage, 1979.

de Sade, D.A.F. Three Complete Novels: Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom and Other Writings. London: Arrow Books, 1991.

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. The Complete Illustrated Fairy Tales. Wordsworth Editions, 1997.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Volatile Bodies. Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994.

Hogle, Jerrold, ed. ‘Introduction' Gothic Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002.

Hale, Terry. ‘Translation in Distress: Cultural Misappropriations and the Costruction of the Gothic' in European Gothic: A spirited exchange 1760-1960. Ed Avril Horner. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2002.

Highsmith, Patricia. Little Tales of Misogyny. (1975). New York: Norton, 2002.

Mulvey-Roberts, Marie, ed. The Handbook to Gothic Literature. Houndmills: Macmillan, 1998.

Murphy, G. Ronald. The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove: The Religious Meaning of the Grimms' Magic Fairy Tales. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Oates, Joyce Carol. ‘In older times, when wishing was having...: Classic and contemporary fairy tales', The Kenyon Review V. 19 Issue 3-4, (1997), pp. 98-110.

Propp, Vladimir. Morphology of the Folktale. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968.

Punter, David. ‘Postmodern Gothic: The Moment beneath the Moment', Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines, 23 (2002), pp. 1-17.

Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. London: Methuen, 1983.

Zipes, Jack, ed. The Great Fairy Tale Tradition. From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm. New York: Norton, 2001.
---, ed. The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales. The Western Fairy Tale Tradition from Medieval to the Modern. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.

Sage, Victor. Le Fanu's Gothic. The Rhetoric of Darkness. Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.


[1] See Lucie Armitt's entry on ‘Gothic Fairy Tale' in Mulvey-Robert's The Handbook to Gothic Literature, for a fuller investigation of this issue.

[2] Victor Sage, Le Fanu's Gothic. The Rhetoric of Darkness, p. 18.

[3] Margaret Atwood, in ‘Running with the Tigers' has argued that The Bloody Chamber can be best understood as a kind of fictional companion text to The Sadeian Woman. She actually reads the Bloody Chamber as a ‘“writing against” de Sade, a talking back to him' (120).

[4] In The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales edited by Zipes, Cristina Bacchilega correctly argues that all ten stories in The Bloody Chamber explore thematically the ‘Beauty and the Beast' tale (89).

[5] This happens within the spirit of the seventies feminist revision of traditional fairy-tales, when a bulk of publications of fairy-tale re-writings by women authors (for example Anne Sexton, Emma Donogue, Olga Broumas, Fay Weldon, Margaret Atwood) emerged.

[6] The brothers' Grimm literary fairy tales are crowded by violent incidents: In ‘Rapunzel' the homonymous protagonist is thrown from her tower by a witch. Both ‘Fowler's Fowl' and ‘The Robber Bridegroom' are early versions of the Bluebeard legend, where an aristocratic gentleman kills and hides the corpses of former wives in his bloody chamber. Also, in ‘Little Snow White' the wicked stepmother is forced to put on red-hot shoes and dance until she dies and in ‘Cinderella' the protagonist's two step-sisters suffer from horrendous mutilations.

[7] The stories collected, re-written and edited by the Brothers Grimm have come from a long tradition of oral story-telling. The religious content is explicit - God helps the virtuous and punishes the wicked, the Devil tricks and tempts people into doing evil - but no real religious doctrine is ever discussed. See Murphy for an elaborate discussion on how the Grimms, Wilhelm in particular, reworked the fairy tales throughout their lives in order to do them literary, cultural, and Christian moral justice.