~ 25 minute read
I was embarking on a little journey into literary criticism last month and I figured I ought to try my hand out at applying a couple of them side-by-side to compare differences in theory. In this exercise, I utilized Angela Carter's graphic reinterpretation of the Little Red Riding Hood story, entitled "The Company of Wolves." It's a fantastic story out of a thematically intense collection, and well worth the stop by to read. You can find it here: The Company of Wolves . I suggest reading the story before taking on this article. It's only about a fifteen minute read.
Without further ado...
Comparing New Criticism and Feminism Through Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves”
Angela Carter’s short story “The Company of Wolves,” found in the collection The Bloody Chamber, is a thematically dense Gothic fantasy tale of a metaphorically innocent and fragile young girl taking a trip to her grandmother’s house amidst a hungry forest of wolves and werewolves. Rife with symbology and oppositional metamorphoses, this story allows for multiple theoretical interpretations of its text. This essay will first address the symbolic New Criticism approach which finds organic unity in the binary clash between civilization and the wild, then it will utilize many of the same symbols with new interpretations under the Feminist criticism to support the female triumph over the voracious patriarchal system found in the story.
“The Company of Wolves” a tale of layered metamorphoses culminating in a union between fearful civilization and the bestial tension of the wild. The symbology in the color red, clothing, and traditional values is shed in the binary opposition of the werewolf’s metamorphosis against the coming-of-age metamorphosis of the young woman. The story finds its thematic unity in the shedding of civilized tradition and the bestial union between wolf and its supposed prey, signifying the cathartic nature of permitting the animalistic release of the character’s sexual desires.
At the core of the story lies its thematic dependence on the metamorphosis. Carter begins with the werewolf’s metamorphosis in evil and violence. She writes stories of civilization’s fear of the wolves by describing them as “carnivore incarnate” (Carter line 3), the embodiment of a perfect predator, and by stating “the wolf is worst because it cannot listen to reason” (Carter lines 41-42). Unlike all the other menaces of the uncivilized world, the wolf will devour your body without pause as it has no interest in pity or regard; it is purely a wild creature of natural cruelty. The first story of transformation is that of the hunter’s prey. After the hunter tracks down a particularly menacing wolf and traps it, he cuts off its head and paws only for it to turn back into “the bloody trunk of a man, headless, footless, dying, dead” (Carter lines 90-91). This establishes the transformation of the fear inducing beast into that of the weakness of humankind when it is conquered by other men, giving the hunter the wolfish nature of the predator instead of the actual beast. Carter proceeds then to the tale of the newlywed husband and wife. Her description of the first husband on return from being lost for years to the wolves suggests misery in bestial form, that the wildness of the wolf wasn’t a willful transformation but instead that forced curse on his person. He is described as “in rags and his hair hung down his back and never saw a comb, alive with lice” (Carter lines 141-142). The matted, lice-ridden hair suggest constant misery, a misery that will be seen with the final werewolf in the tale as the fake hunter. He comes making demands of his wife who left him thinking he was dead only to find that civilization moved on without him while he took his animal form. When he is hacked up by the second husband in familial defense, once again the reader sees the wolf’s body transform to that of a man. Carter’s series of indicatively suspect ideas on how the werewolf comes to be tells the reader of civilization’s misunderstanding of what makes a wolf and what makes a man.
Carter writes “Seven years is a werewolf’s natural span but if you burn his human clothing you condemn him to wolfishness for the rest of his life, so old wives hereabouts think it some protection to throw a hat or an apron at the werewolf, as if clothes made the man…Before he can become a wolf, the lycanthrope strips stark naked” (Carter lines 166-171, 175-176). In this quote the reader meets one of the most important symbols in the story: clothing. Clothing as an image represents the civilization’s covering over their bodies. This covers their natural form from others being able to observe their desires and impulses, hiding their metamorphosis into adulthood. The werewolf must strip naked and cast-off civilization because it is a beast of the purely emblematic wild. To see such an event would be death for the observer, as the violent and sexualized distortion of the human body into that of their bestial desire would be too much for the civilized human to endure. This is seen in the overtly sexualized imagery when the hunter werewolf consumes the grandmother with the emphasis on the size of the naked hunter’s genitals. The lack of clothes is a metaphor for the abandoning of society. However, its curse lies in its untamed nature. With the casting off of the society, the werewolf welcomes the insatiable desire for violence, sometimes metaphorically in conjunction with that of a desire for sex. Their nakedness which reveals their animalistic form therefore is a punishment of embodied desire unfulfilled. Carter here also presents her first thematic challenge to the reader when she states, “as if clothes made the man” (Carter line 171). As is seen by the hunter hacking the werewolf apart to reveal a man, or the second husband chopping the first in wolf form until it turns to the wedding night image, the wolf appears to have always been apart of the man under the guise of civilized clothing.
After the stark introduction on the conflicted transformation of the man and the wolf, the reader is met with the metamorphosis of the girl to womanhood. Carter writes of her description as “her the red shawl that, today, has the ominous if brilliant look of blood on snow; her breasts have just begun to swell; her hair is like lint, so fair it hardly makes a shadow on her pale forehead; her cheeks are an emblematic scarlet and white and she has just started her woman’s bleeding” (Carter lines 206-212). Red is the symbol of coming-of-age in Carter’s tale. It contrasts the purity of cleanly white and lightly flaxen colors, which are a metaphor for virginity and innocence. Since she is untouched by man and sheltered by her family from the wild nature of the cruel environment, she is purity embodied visually. Her sheltering has prevented her true fear of the world and her sexuality though because she hasn’t been exposed to it and has no regard for what society says she is supposed to be afraid of. The red on her shoulders is symbolic of her womanhood transition, just as the reshaping of her body from adolescence. Here too, Carter sexualizes the human form, but in the context of a woman. She talks of the swelling of breasts just as she had mentioned the genitalia of the werewolf, providing a gendered opposition between the perfect form of the civilized woman against the wild and haggard form of a ravenous beast man. Yet she is clothed and wears her symbolic transition upon her shawl like a signal in opposition to the purity of the white environment she enters.
In meeting on the road, the girl and the hunter trade false perceptions and deceive one another in attempts to fulfill the final requirements of their metamorphosis. The girl “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; she is a closed system” (Carter lines 215-219) and therefore is desirous to break free of the sexual innocence of her youth. When she meets the hunter, she finds herself attracted sexually to him, allowing his challenge for a kiss if he arrives at her grandmother’s before she does. “She wanted to dawdle on her way to make sure the handsome gentleman would win his wager” (Carter lines 297-299) allowing her a step closer to fulfilling her transition to womanhood.
The hunter, conversely, takes a cruel pleasure in his game of the hunt. He seeks a double meal of devouring the girl and her grandmother to fulfill his violent desires. In his sly tricks and impersonations, he seeks to fulfill his own metamorphosis of desire fulfillment to appease the wolfish hunger of his person and become comfortable in his true wolf skin. He is the predator and the weakness of the old woman, as well as the innocence of the girl, are his prey. His guise is of a civilized nature, wearing the clothes of society to hide his wolfish form. His impersonations give him access to the grandmother’s allowing for him to cast off again the entrapments of their society and embrace his feral form.
The old wives’ tales of what makes the werewolf, or the man, are challenged here with the devouring of the grandmother. Carter writes “you can hurl your Bible at him and your apron after, granny, you thought that was a sure prophylactic against these infernal vermin. . . now call on Christ and his mother and all the angels in heaven to protect you but it won’t do you any good” (Carter lines 336-341). Symbolically, the bible is seen as a prophylactic against the demon spawn, but it does nothing to the werewolf. This was hinted at earlier with “a mad old man who used to live by himself in a hut halfway up the mountain and sing to Jesus all day” (Carter lines 72-75) was eaten by wolves despite his traditional religious affiliation. The wolves aren’t spawns of Devilish intention to be repelled by Christian tradition. She throws clothes at him which do nothing as well, signifying those clothes don’t make the man either as Carter challenged. Instead, he eats her all the same without remorse and without pity. She is emblematic of the society’s faith in tradition to protect them. Therefore, the wolf must devour her and establish the dominance of the uncivilized world. But he is unfulfilled in simply the grandmother for a meal. He must eat the seemingly innocent youth as well.
What instead occurs in their meeting again, despite the intentions of the wolf in his rapacious hunger, is a union of the civilized and the wild at the completion of their respective metamorphoses. The “Bible lay closed on the table” (Carter 396-397), symbolizing the closing and setting aside of tradition. The wolves sing to them outside in the tune of murdering as was mentioned at the beginning of the story. Carter writes that the girl “took off her scarlet shawl, the colour of poppies, the colour of sacrifices, the colour of her menses, and, since her fear did her no good, she ceased to be afraid. ‘What shall I do with my shawl?’ ‘Throw it on the fire, dear one. You won’t need it again’” (Carter lines 439-444). With the burning of the red shawl, the girl performs a dual act in metamorphosis. Not only is she casting off the symbolic red barrier between her innocent white body and the environment, but she is also casting off her clothes society has made for her to wear. She joins in the renunciation of civilized order for that of natural chaos when she gives up her virginity freely. She begins to strip him of his symbolic barriers as well, and “every wolf in the world now howled a prothalamion outside the window as she freely gave the kiss she owed him” (Carter lines 467-469). They howl a wedding song as they sense the union of the binary oppositions in order. She freely gives the kiss as she easily gives away her innocence to the voracious hunger of the wolf, rather than shying away from it. The bones of the old women below the bed rattle out with a final warning from traditional society to not go through with the union, but the girl and wolf do anyways. In a catharsis of tension between society ideal versus chaotic potency, they join with each other willingly and embrace a unity in fulfilled desires.
The tone changes and “She will lay his fearful head on her lap and she will pick out the lice from his pelt and perhaps she will put die lice into her mouth and eat them, as he will bid her, as she would do in a savage marriage ceremony” (Carter lines 486-490). In their union, she fulfills her metamorphosis with the act of sexual aggression, taking control of the situation driving the intercourse into marriage despite his beastly appearance and violent appetites. And those very same appetites are satiated by the “immaculate flesh [which] appeases him (Carter lines 484-485). Instead of violently devouring her in the endless quest for fulfillment, he embraces her transformation with him. She can assist him with his fears and troubles in bestial form and allow the wolf within to remain out in their union against the traditions of the civilized world. His metamorphosis finds its completion in acceptance of his nature, which tames him and makes him comfortable in his natural form.
Feminism theory, on the other hand, capitalizes on many of these themes and symbols, and utilizes others to conversely attribute the metamorphoses within the story to that of developing the girl into the New Woman that dominates and destroys the wolfish patriarchal system.
Upon the first few paragraphs of Carter’s story, the reader will notice the violence of wolves is related to maleness. The vicious nature of the wolves is described in its unempathetic tone, emphasizing the danger in the wildness of the wolves picking off the weak at the fringes of known civilization. The transformation between man and wolf is first seen as mentioned previously with the hunter’s trap, and again is seen in full view in both transformation directions with the wife with two husbands. The man and the wolf can change between the two, but as Carter notes later in the story “the worst wolves are hairy on the inside” (Carter line 415).
All of the transformations of wolves appear to be related to males, giving the vicious nature of wolves to the lustful or violent metaphorical natures of men. When Carter talks about the internal hair, she writes of the wolves hidden inside powerful men, rooted as controllers in society. In the story of the wife whose first husband disappears to become a werewolf, when he returns, he assumes control over the household despite his years gone. When he sees the children of her new husband, he becomes violent, letting his inner wolf out to destroy what he sees as an illegitimate shot against his own house. But the wife is caught between two wolves. When she sees her first husband’s mutilated corpse in his wedding clothes, “she wept and her second husband beat her” (Carter lines 158-159). This signifies that the wife married another wolf, with hair on the inside. He beats her because of her long past on feelings for her first husband she never got to share a life with. The second husband is a monster in that he requires the full attention of his charge to assume patriarchal control of his household.
Much of the same manly wolfishness is seen in the hunter who trapped the first werewolf of the story. He exhibits the same violent nature upon the werewolf when it is trapped, cutting away until all was left was the bloody torso of a man. That same wolfman attacked a girl earlier, but didn’t immediately consume her, as he was scared off early. That suggests a sort of dominance play in the possible form of rape on the wolf’s part as it had “pounced on a girl looking after the sheep” (Carter line 75), looking to mount her but not kill her, giving possibility of it being in a sexualized manner as is suggested later in the story as well. With these examples, it appears that the transformation between man and wolf appears to be one integrated in their patriarchal nature. With their male dominance at play, they must not only control the women through fear and strength, but also each other. The wolf comes out when the viscous indifference of violent nature becomes a necessary tool for the man. Carter therefore sets the adversity in the hands of the male wolves before introducing her solution for the oppression of women.
Almost identically to New Criticism, Feminist theory accepts the symbolic nature of red and the coming-of-age description the reader meets the protagonist at. The unpenetrated virgin girl whose “breasts have just begun to swell; her hair is like lint, so fair it hardly makes a shadow on her pale forehead; her cheeks are an emblematic scarlet and white and she has just started her woman’s bleeding” (Carter lines 207-212) is the pinnacle of the unadulterated female form in her respective civilized world. Carter sets up the heroine with her menstrual state literally on her sleeve, embracing the incoming sexual exploration and conquest the reader will experience later in the story. But unlike the society in which has sheltered her from the viscous world she lives in, she shows a sort of deviancy from lack of fear of it.
Carter illustrates the protagonist’s fearlessness in her virginity when she writes “she has inside her a magic space the entrance to which is shut tight with a plug of membrane; she is a closed system; she does not know how to shiver. She has her knife, and she is afraid of nothing” (Carter lines 216-221). The girl is a closed system, meaning that she hasn’t been taught to fear the patriarchal system she is supposed to be under. Instead, the girl has the phallic symbol of the knife in her possession, and she is afraid of nothing. The girl is allowed to have the symbol of penetration and her hymen is unbroken, showing that she is unpenetrated. Her deviancy and self-reliance are also uncharacteristic of one living within the traditions of a patriarchal society. She insists on going to her grandmother’s for the delivery on her own, despite this being “the worst time in all the year for wolves… Her father might forbid her, if he were home, but he is away in the forest, gathering wood, and her mother cannot deny her” (Carter lines 181-182, 222-224). Her father is interestingly missing from scene, possibly contending with his own wolfish appetites, while her mother is viewed as a secondary sex who has no control over the girl. The girl is thereby left on her own to fend for herself, exactly as she pleases.
The girl allows herself to be swallowed up by the woods when Carter writes “The forest closed upon her like a pair of jaws” (Carter line 225). Following the theme of sexual independence, she is consumed by the dangerous woods in which she must conquer in her sexual transformation into womanhood. With the entrance of the hunter, she finds room to experiment in her newfound independence, giving her penetrative weapon to him and allowing his guidance along the trail. The girl plays into his challenge as well, allowing for him to win the bet of a kiss by hanging back and losing on purpose, thereby controlling the outcome.
The description of the grandmother opposes the exploratory nature of young girl on her way there. She is fearful and old, hiding behind the blind faith she has in her traditional Christian religion to protect her from evil. Carter describes her as “Aged and frail, granny is three-quarters succumbed to the mortality the ache in her bones promises her and almost ready to give in entirely” (Carter lines 311-314). Like in New Historicism, she is representative of the old traditions aging and breaking down. She is barely holding together, and bed ridden. Dependence for her survival and her inevitable death rests in patriarchal diction. She depends on the boy from town to come build her hearth fire, and “The grandfather clock ticks away her eroding time” (Carter lines 326-327). Unlike her granddaughter who is coming into her own strength of character, signifying a shift in traditions, she is instead fading away. She is the old woman who has no place in the new world.
When the hunter tricks the old woman into letting him in, deflecting the expected prophylactics for evil as prescribed in the old traditions, he devours her. In his naked glory, he dominates her physically and mentally, establishing a patriarchal control over her which she succumbs to violently under the weak protection of her faith in the traditional life. He quickly dresses again to prepare to track and devour the young girl and thus perpetuate the fear and dominance of men. However, this end he will not find with the newfound independence in sexual exploration and lack of fear she exhibits.
Before entering the controversial ending of Carter’s version of what is obviously the classic Red Riding Hood story, the reader must pay special attention to the original and the popularized second rendition of the story which Carter’s version directly opposes. In the brothers Grimm’s original publication, “Little Red Cap,” both the grandmother and the granddaughter are saved by a male hunter who cuts them out of the wolf and kills it. In another expositional phrase, Little Red Cap thinks “As long as I live, I will never leave the path and run off into the woods by myself if mother tells me not to” (Grimm), which thematically tells the reader that a girl must not leave the designated path by herself or without explicit direction from supervision. The Grimm tale perpetuates the male savior trope with both the women in the story requiring the assistance of a male hero figure to rescue them and also suggests that traditional direction by the experienced, and not the exploratory freedom of individuality, should be followed explicitly. The Charles Perrault version, “Little Red Riding Hood,” accentuates this moral message by having the wolf devour both the grandmother and the child without escape. His moral is posted at the end of the story stating “Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say "wolf," but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all” (Perrault). Being more heavy-handed even than the brothers Grimm, Perrault exemplifies the weakness of women to an even lower state and metaphorically suggests that the wolves come in the form of kind and compelling sort of attractive male.
Carter’s story, oppositely, rejects both of these morals as perpetuations of the patriarchal system. Instead, the girl on the cusp of transformation into a woman takes charge of the situation to meet her sexual desire. The wolfman believes he has the upper hand, as he previously had in his other predatory experiences, when she is trapped within, and she shows the nervous anticipation of his violence, but she doesn’t know fear of repercussions under a patriarchal system like other women do. She is a New Woman, a woman able to claim her own identity and make her own decisions. She willingly takes off her clothes, symbolically casting off her former civilized society as the New Criticism interpretation saw, but more along the lines of disavowing the gendered repression of eras past. In front of the werewolf, she stands as his equal. All the power and fearful visage he exhibits amount to nothing, and when he states his signature line found in all red riding hood stories “All the better to eat you with” (Carter line 475), she laughs at him. Carter writes “she knew she was nobody’s meat. She laughed at him full in the face, she ripped off his shirt for him and flung it into the fire, in the fiery wake of her own discarded clothing” (Carter lines 476-480). The girl took control over the wolfish sex and matched him at his own game, taking his dominant sexual activities and making them her own. His wolfish body became the conquest to fulfill her carnal appetites, which overrode the formerly intimating desires he pressured onto others.
The storms of the night calm after the culmination of her sexual exploration is complete. She has fulfilled her role as the New Woman that cast away the wrappings of the traditional patriarchy for that of “the paws of the tender wolf” (Carter line 505), sleeping in the same bed in which the embodiment of tradition was devoured. She eats the lice off the fearful wolf’s pelt and becomes mother to a pack in the chaotic order of natural freedom. She tames the untamable beasts that her society fears worst of all and becomes their superior.
Comparing a New Criticism interpretation to a Feminist interpretation of Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves” presents a lot of structural similarities, but with different end goals in mind. The New Criticism approach focuses on the culminating thematic elements in the fulfillment of metamorphoses, finding organic unity in the catharsis of the thematic tension between civilization and the wild. The Feminist approach utilized many of same symbols, but under the goal of identifying the patriarchal nature of tradition and devouring it to enable the New Woman to take control over the patriarchy. Both approaches culminate in the end to an unsettling sexual tension of desire, violence, fear, and transformation. The beast of the wild, whether man or wolf at heart, is tamed by casting off tradition.
Carter, Angela. “Angela Carter, ‘The Company of Wolves.’” UniBG, 2014, www00.unibg.it/dati/corsi/93109/67504-The%20Company%20of%20Wolves.pdf.
Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. “Little Red Cap.” Little Red Cinder, 2011, core.ecu.edu/engl/parillek/littleredcinder.pdf.
Perrault, Charles. “Little Red Riding Hood.” Little Red Cinder, 2011, core.ecu.edu/engl/parillek/littleredcinder.pdf.