It may be the shortest story of The Bloody Chamber collection (it’s approximately 500 words), but Angela Carter manages to pack a lot into ‘The Snow Child’. It takes the theme of jealousy from its ‘Snow White’ origins and explores aspects of male power and desire, adding a heavy dose of horror to the fairy tale inspiration as well – though fairy tales are horror stories anyway, aren’t they? Have a read before I go and spoiler it all – you can find it here.
It begins in the present tense, an immediate departure from the ‘once upon a time’ tradition of fairy tales that shows Carter subverting the genre from the outset. It is, however, a technique typical of an oral narrative, which is how such tales were originally told, and though this is soon abandoned the linear plot typical of the genre is retained and the omniscient narrative voice that we expect of a fairy tale is also present. There’s also plenty here to suggest it’s a horror story in the gothic tradition, though. We have a Count, with his aristocratic power, a beautiful Countess taking the role of femme fatale, and a Snow Child as virginal victim, each represented as early as the story’s opening line, “Midwinter – invincible, immaculate.” “Midwinter” prepares us for a story that will be cold, in more than simply a physical sense as it turns out, and as such may represent the Countess, particularly if you consider it representative of her age as well. The “invincible” identifies the thematic importance of power and thus signifies the Count, whereas “immaculate” suggests the purity of the Snow Child. Not bad for a minor sentence of just three words, its elliptical brevity adding to its impact.
“The Count and his wife” is just as revealing as the first line. The syntax highlights the Count’s importance by introducing him first and refers to him respectfully via his title while the possessive pronoun “his” identifies the woman as his possession, reduced to mere marital status. We are told directly of the Count’s thoughts and desires via his sequence of wishes, and his is the first voice we hear in the tale; any wishes the wife may have remain unexpressed. Indeed, to begin with she is little more than a physical description, again marking her as an object, something to be appreciated visually.
This doesn’t mean we are without clues to her character. She wears “pelts of black foxes”, an association suggesting a predatory and cunning nature. She also wears “scarlet heels, and spurs” and it may be that the colour of the heels comes from the actions of the spurs, which adds to this idea of violence. We see this nature when she is threatened by the child regarding the Count’s affections, “wife” becoming “the Countess” in a shift emphasised by finally having her own thoughts and feelings in the narrative; we are told the Countess “hated” the girl and we are granted direct insight into her character with the thought “how shall I be rid of her?” establishing the story’s focus on jealousy.
Traditionally it’s the woman who wishes for the child in ‘Snow White’, so again Carter seems to be subverting the fairy tale genre here. With a woman the temptation is to assume her desire is maternal but with a man we are forced to consider whether his desires are paternal or sexual (or, in this delightful little horror story, a mixture of the two). Either way, it seems to point at some dissatisfaction with his wife and what she is unable to provide.
This is especially noticeable in the use of colours. The girl has “white skin, red mouth, black hair”. The first colour represents her virginal purity, and in appearing “stark naked” she seems all the more vulnerable and innocent. It may be that she’s naked because the Count did not express anything about clothes in his wishes, or it may be because female nudity is such an obvious part of male fantasy that it didn’t need to be mentioned during the wishing process; regardless, there is an obvious eroticism to her lack of clothing. She is a clear contrast to the Countess who was described primarily via her clothing. What’s more, the Countess’s clothing is red and black and not white, denoting a lack of purity, and whilst the Countess wears some of the colours of the Count’s desire, the girl has them all naturally, unadorned; “white skin, red mouth, black hair”.
The “red as blood” simile of the Count’s wish suggests danger and foreshadows the girl’s doomed fate, while the black of a raven’s feather, a bird so often associated with death, emphasises this. The red can also be seen to represent the girl’s sexual maturity, though, and rather than allowing either representation, Carter draws on both to link sex with death, giving the story a shocking climax (if you’ll excuse the pun). Sex and death is not an unusual partnership in horror, of course, and addressing taboo subjects is a typical and effective way to horrify, but here we have it in excess, the Count’s incestuous and paedophilic desire appeased by necrophilia.
The girl’s death is due, in part, to the Countess’s jealousy and in this respect Carter has created a typical evil step mother. Her first attempts to command the girl are thwarted by the Count who dismisses her instructions, showing his power whilst denying the Countess any of her own, and the more she fights against the Count the more she finds herself out of favour. Each attempt to be rid of the girl results in the Snow Child becoming more clothed at the Countess’s expense, the clothing coming directly from the Countess’s own body to emphasise how she is being replaced.
Not that the Count is without feelings for the Countess. At the sight of her new nakedness he “felt sorry for his wife” and her final command of the girl is allowed to go unchallenged: she wants a rose. The girl, though, “picks a rose; pricks her finger on the thorn; bleeds; screams; falls” all in one fast paced present tense sentence, her death isolated as a paragraph on its own for extra impact.
The girl’s death marks a sudden and surprising turn of events in which the mood shifts from one of typical fairy tale surrealism to one which is sexually explicit and disturbing. Though there is a lack of erotic detail here (the Count is “soon finished”) his actions are certainly morally offensive as he “thrust his virile member into the dead girl”. Carter’s intentions go beyond the titillations of pornography to reveal the potentially incestuous desires of a father figure, and to illustrate that a passive woman will find herself victimised.
The active woman is not free from suffering either. The Countess loses her clothing and husband to the girl, albeit momentarily, and even though she’s successful in causing the girl’s death she still has to watch her husband thrusting into her. He may be “weeping” as he uses the girl, but it’s more likely for his own loss than for the girl’s sake and the Countess watches him “narrowly”, an adverb revealing a distaste that seems more like anger than jealousy now that a compromise of sorts has been reached, one in which neither Count or Countess are entirely satisfied. It seems a certain amount of tolerance is needed for a relationship to work.
The girl melts immediately after sex, the Count having no use for her anymore, and all that remains is a feather and bloodstain, reminders of the components that inspired her creation. The simile “like the trace of a fox’s kill” links the bloodstain to the Countess via her earlier association with the animal and marks her as responsible for the girl’s death. With competition for the Count’s affections now out of the way, the Countess is able to become “his wife” once again. To reaffirm this he hands her the rose.
It’s a rather complicated symbol, the rose; a flower with thorns, beautiful and dangerous, it perhaps represents the femme fatale that is the Countess. Or maybe it’s a representation of the Count’s love, in which case perhaps the girl was destroyed by it because it wasn’t hers to take. The Count is able to handle it freely and gives it to his wife but “It bites!” she exclaims. As a final line, this adds a level of complexity to the story’s conclusion, an ambiguity that has us wondering if she is refusing the rose, knowing what it can do, or if she has fallen victim to its teeth herself. One interpretation puts her in a position of power whereas the other does quite the opposite, presenting her as a woman hurt by her husband.
Much has also been said about the presentation of gender in The Bloody Chamber stories, but simply dividing ‘The Snow Child’ into an examination of men and women is far from satisfactory or conclusive. For example, the girl remains voiceless throughout the entire text, but should we really assume this means a passive woman is part of male fantasy? If so, the Count should have been very happy with her corpse… Gender roles are clearly important but you can get into such a thorny tangle with it that you’ll fail to appreciate ‘The Snow Child’ for what it really is: a very good story. A very good horror story, if you ask me.
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