EDIT: It has come to my attention that this has become sort of a resource for people doing work on “The Werewolf”. For all you students out there, go ahead and read it, but if you do find it useful, please include it in your bibliography (if you have one), or leave a comment telling me how you found it useful, anything you found lacking, and where you’re from/what you’re looking at this for. Thanks a bunch!
Q5. The following short story is ‘The Werewolf’ by Angela Carter. Offer a close reading of the text, commenting as you do so on the treatment of its subject and on the effects which the text is working towards and how it achieves them.
In ‘The Werewolf’, Angela Carter embellishes the Little Red Riding Hood story with a dark twist, presenting the reader with a retelling of the traditional fairy tale in order to explore notions of femininity. Carter presents the heroine as independent and competent, the ideal modern woman, but at the same time designs the heroine to retain a degree of ambiguity that deliberately problematizes the straightforward feminist reading of the story.
Carter’s handling of the story subverts the traditional norms of the fairy tale. Modern day readers are familiar with the sanitized and revised version of Little Red Riding Hood, where violence is absent, and the woodsman saves both the girl and her grandmother in the end. By appropriating a line directly out of a Little Red Riding Hood tale (‘go visit grandmother’ is the instruction that sets the entire story into motion), Carter plays on the knowledge of the plot that the reader possesses. By invoking the classic story of Little Red Riding Hood, Carter allows the reader to draw parallels between what is expected to happen in the conventional story and what actually happens within the narrative of ‘The Werewolf’. In subverting the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, Carter invites the reader to pay particular attention to the actions of the titular character – the vehicle through which she delivers both the story and the larger allegorical point.
‘The Werewolf’ begins with a description of the setting in which the story takes place. The scene that Carter paints is one out of a gothic horror novel – one can begin to guess at a hidden monster lurking within the depths of the narrative, waiting to make its frightful appearance later on. The harsh setting, as indicated by the austere homesteads and cold, tempestuous weather, sets the tone for the narrative, clueing the reader to expect a bleak tale of terror. Carter achieves this by introducing the reader to the unnamed ‘northern country’, which within the fantasy genre is traditionally associated with glacial weather, bitter lives, and hardy folk. This impression is compounded by the description of the ‘harsh, brief, poor lives’ of the people in the region. The bitter quality of the lives of the village folk is further brought out by Carter’s deliberately stark prose. By using monosyllabic words coupled with extreme economy of words, Carter reinforces the very basic and unforgiving way of life that the villagers experience. This is seen in her repeated use of commas, in both ‘a bed, a stool, a table’, and ‘harsh, brief, poor lives’. By using commas instead of ‘and’, Carter’s prose places stress on those specific descriptors of the villagers’ life, and forcing a slower, jerkier rhythm of reading the text as compared to a reading that would flow better with the natural iambic tendency of the reader. Carter’s adjectives in describing the grim setting are also intentionally limited to simple words: the skeletal description (with only words like ‘harsh’, ‘crude’, and ‘hard’) provided aids in the creation of the sense of poverty that permeates the mountain village.
By having her tale take place in such a setting, Carter prepares her reader to expect a monster and some sort of violent reaction to it from the villagers. This premise is eventually fulfilled, but not in the expected manner: the little girl is the one who first ‘turns on the beast’, and the violence is first perpetuated by the heroine. This reversal invites the reader to question the deliberate manipulation of this premise – as the reader follows the heroine through the story and is exposed to the ambiguities that follow the heroine, the reader is led to question who the titular werewolf actually is.
The distinct starkness of the prose employed, while contributing to establishing the overall bleakness of the setting, Carter limits her prose to objective description, and does not provide the reader any insight to the emotions of any of the characters within the story. Furthermore, the paragraphs are kept extremely short, visually breaking the text up into distinct chunks, separate from each other, suggesting a lack of emotional build-up within the narrative. The simple narration of the heroine’s actions suggests a blow-by-blow account by an objective observer, distancing the reader from the narrative. The narrator’s objective description then becomes a blank slate of sorts, on which the reader must decide whether what the narrator describes is fact, or simply the perception of the narrator. This deliberate ambiguity on the narrator’s part frames Carter’s exploration on the werewolf-like metamorphic quality of both the heroine and the story itself.
Carter uses the vehicle of the narrator to blend magic and the supernatural into the realistic setting of the tale. The narrator provides the reader with the contextualization of the supernatural into the villagers’ reality – the supernatural is more real to the villagers than the reader, because ‘they have not seen us or even know we exist’. This perspective on reality from the villagers’ point of view leads the reader to see the situation from the point of view of an upland woodsman, because Carter has deliberately drawn the reader into the world of the story. As the reader considers this statement, he has to acknowledge the validity of the presence of the supernatural because of the logical progression that Carter initiates and the reader pursues. The villagers have experienced unexplainable phenomena; the supernatural exists within the story’s reality. Carter continues to reinforce this by demonstrating the practical acknowledgement of the supernatural through the villagers’ acts of ‘votive offerings’ and witch hunts.
As the narrator sets the stage and informs the reader of the context of the tale within the first three paragraphs, the supernatural becomes no longer distinct from reality in the story, and is a concrete concern for the villagers. Carter further establishes the proximity of the everyday threat of the supernatural through the delivery of the line ‘do not leave the path’ by the heroine’s mother. This warning stems from the presence of ‘the bears, the wild boar, the starving wolves’, and other nasty denizens of the woods. Despite knowing the hazards that the road poses, the mother confidently sends her child out, armed with a knife, secure in the knowledge that her child ‘[knows] how to use it’. This suggests that both the heroine and her mother are acutely aware of the perils of the forest, yet accept it as casual everyday happenstance. The villagers understand the supernatural within the framework of their own reality, as mundane events are construed to be of supernatural origins. Warts, blue eyes, and black cats all become representations of the supernatural, whose existence pushes the villagers into action, even though they have no actual experience of the supernatural. The uncertainty of the existence of the supernatural then poses a problem for the reader: perhaps werewolves do not actually exist within the story. This creates the possibility of the heroine having played on the fears of the neighbours in order to cast her grandmother as a werewolf – an unnerving proposition which hints at the darker side of the heroine.
Through the character of the heroine, Carter examines the identity of the modern woman. The evolution of demure, trusting Little Red Riding Hood into a self-sufficient and capable heroine is indicative of how the conceptualization of women has changed with the times. The ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ moniker conjures up an image of a young, innocent girl, carrying a basket of goodies – this is at odds with the knife-wielding heroine of the story. By not giving the heroine a name, Carter begins to alter the reader’s perception of the character by separating her from the preconceived stereotype that the reader would associate with a character named in such a fashion. Instead, by not naming her heroine at all, Carter turns her into a symbol for the modern Everywoman.
Even as Carter replaces the Little Red Riding Hood stereotype of a passive innocent with the her idealization of a heroine who demonstrates herself to be more than capable performing the traditional domestic tasks of a woman, and at the same time able to hold her own in the world, Carter casts a shadow of doubt upon the morality of the heroine and her intentions by deliberately obscuring information from the reader.
The heroine is depicted as someone who is aware of the dangers that the forest contains, and equips herself to deal with these threats. From the onset, the heroine is trusted by her mother (herself an equally self-sufficient upland woodswoman) to wield a hunting knife. By having the ‘good child’ arm herself and being able to employ this weapon, Carter grants the heroine a degree of agency not seen in traditional fairy tales, where the little girl is always the victim. Carter continues to equip the heroine with ‘a scabby coat of sheepskin’, whose very appearance contrasts with that of the red hood. This cosmetic difference is mirrored by the practical application of the aforementioned piece of clothing: the coat keeps the cold out, while the red riding hood is a product of vanity. Carter makes her heroine prepared for the road and ready to combat any trials that come her way: a reflection of what the modern woman must be, instead of conforming to the domestic stereotype whose passivity and lack of agency lead to a victimization of the fairer sex.
The sheepskin coat also has a symbolic function: it identifies the heroine as the sheep – the traditional victim of the wolf. That it is merely a piece of clothing ties in neatly with how the heroine casts off the perception of the little girl as the victim when she faces off with the wolf and wins. However, this figurative removal of the sheepskin also serves to hint at the darker nature of the heroine. The final sentence of the story carries a sinister implication, suggesting that the heroine had orchestrated the neighbours’ stoning of her grandmother so that she could ‘prosper’ in her grandmother’s house. If this were to be the case, the heroine would turn out to be the metaphorical wolf in sheep’s clothing: acting as a victim (of her witch-grandmother) to achieve her predatory aims (acquisition of property). The reader is then presented with the possibility of the heroine being the titular ‘werewolf’, whose predatory nature is hidden by human guise – by omitting any confirmation by the narrator regarding the veracity of such a claim (or the lack thereof), Carter forces the reader to address this issue precisely because of its ambiguity.
As Carter highlights the heroine’s agency and self-sufficiency, two qualities which are normally associated with the masculine hero who will eventually save the day, she also draws the reader’s attention to the heroine’s competence in the domestic tasks which fall within the conventional female domain. The heroine is shown to be capable of fulfilling the natural role of caregiver, as she diagnoses her grandmother with fever and proceeds to attempt to provide a remedy. Also, her actions such as wiping a knife and wrapping items up in cloth reveal a familiarity with the domestic routine of daily life. By doing so, Carter demonstrates the dual roles that a woman can and should fulfil – the independent woman who still retains an inherent feminine domesticity. Lest this domesticity detract from the heroine’s identity as a capable independent woman, Carter blends the two aspects together through what the heroine does. By wiping blood on her apron and bundling up a wolf’s paw, Carter juxtaposes grim reality with domestic action. The customary ease of the heroine’s actions, despite the decidedly extraordinary elements of blood and a wolf’s paw, is indicative of the modern woman’s ability to not just juggle her dual roles, but to integrate them into a new identity.
This image of the heroine handling the wolf paw as if it were an everyday object, however, is particularly unnerving. The nonchalant ease with which the heroine bundles the bloody wolf paw together with the oatcakes and butter is highlighted by Carter’s stark prose – the lack of any description of emotional involvement by the heroine, while suggesting the effortlessness with which she switches between two roles, also hints at a certain dispassionate indifference within her character. This ‘cold heart’ which the heroine exhibits suggests that in exchange for independence and self-agency, the modern woman has lost a certain emotional vitality.
Having established the position and identity of the heroine as the modern woman, Carter turns to address the manner in which the heroine deals with and is shaped by her environment. The lack of description of the heroine’s emotions as she progresses through the story characterizes her as a clinical automaton, a far cry from the innocent young girl which she is supposed to be. The heroine is extremely practical, to the point where she is willing to use her knife in order to find out the cause of her grandmother’s fever. This practicality is carried by the narrator’s lack of insight into the heroine’s emotional state to the point of callousness: the heroine has no qualms about using the threat of a weapon on her own kin. Carter uses this to suggest that while the implacable practicality of the independent modern woman does enable a degree of self-agency, it is not the all-empowering virtue that feminism makes it out to be, and that to take this to an extreme would translate into the sacrifice of fundamental ties to one’s own blood relations.
The manner in which Carter designs her prose contributes to the way in which the reader understands the story. Noticeably, there is no dialogue within the story. While speech is implied by the heroine’s mother, Carter removes the speech marks that would normally signal dialogue. This abstention from speech deliberately removes from the reader one angle from which to form impressions of the characters. Only the actions of the characters are left available to guide the reader’s comprehension and response to the entire tale. The reader is then forced to make sense of the tale through the lens of his own understanding. This invitation to shape his own response renders the reader a more active participant in the reading of the story, rather than a passive recipient of a fairy tale moral. By putting the reader in such a position, Carter provides the reader with a platform to consider the issues which the story is dealing with, and alerts the reader to the various unsettling possibilities presented in the story by allowing the reader’s imagination to create his own dialogue.
The omission of speech also allows Carter to hide her characters behind a veil of uncertainty, which contributes to the ambiguity of both the heroine’s intentions, and the grandmother’s identity. In the confrontation between the heroine and her grandmother, the lack of dialogue prevents the reader from coming to any conclusions regarding the two. The ‘what big teeth you have, grandma’ line in the conventional Little Red Riding Hood narrative serves as a confirmation of Little Red Riding Hood’s innocence and the wolf’s predatory nature – in contrast, the absence of dialogue in ‘The Werewolf’ creates a layer of ambiguity by removing the platform upon which a reader would normally build the logical identification of the wolf in the grandmother’s guise upon.
Carter’s calculated obscuration of the heroine’s intentions and the grandmother’s identity falls in line with how the veracity of the entire narrative (its supernatural element, and how the narrator conveys this) is muddied. Because of this ambiguity, the entire text can be viewed through opposing perspectives. ‘The Werewolf’ can be interpreted to hold on to an uncompromising feminist stance, but at the same time a commentary on the value and sacrifice necessary in the empowerment of the modern woman. In this movement along the interpretative spectrum, the text itself takes on the metamorphic quality of a werewolf, shifting between two forms. Carter’s title lends itself very aptly to both the text and characters within it.
As Carter revisits the story of Little Red Riding Hood and provides the reader with a new interpretation of the tale, she shades the story with layers of ambiguity. At a broad allegorical level, this ambiguity serves to make a statement on the condition of the modern woman, and how she (as represented by the heroine) should embrace her own independence and self-agency. At the same time, it allows for an exploration of the darker, more sinister implications that such a perspective might engender.