Bloody Chambers and Labyrinths of Desire: Sexual Violence in Marina Warner's Fairy Tales and Myths

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Introduction: Revisionist Myths and Fairy Tales

In August 2004 Marina Warner read fifteen of her favorite poems at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland. One was a passage from Ovid's Metamorphoses that told the story of the rape of Thetis, the sea nymph. In an interview with me that summer at her home in London, Warner explained that she chose the passage "because it's almost a description of art. She keeps changing shape as Peleas tries to pin her down." Warner's description ascribes two roles to Thetis. She is an art object, taking on different shapes or figuras, the same word that Ovid uses for his images. She is also an artist, effecting her own transformations. Warner emphasizes Thetis's creative power over her violation. In Ovid's narrative Thetis defeats Peleas only temporarily; he returns the next day and binds her so that she cannot escape. Yet Warner focuses on Thetis in motion, transforming herself, rather than constrained by Peleas's ropes. Refusing to define Thetis's rape through the suffering it causes, Warner reads it as provoking Thetis to lay claim to the power of an artist by reshaping herself.

Warner's account of Thetis and Peleas exemplifies her disconcerting approach to sexual violence in fairy tales and myths. Through quite different types of texts, such as her study From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers (1994); her novels, including Indigo; or, Mapping the Waters (1992) and The Leto Bundle (2001); and her short story "Ballerina: The Belled Girl Sends a Tape to an Impresario" (1996), Warner explores the issue of sexual violence in terms of being, paradoxically, a potential catalyst for women's self-empowerment. Rather than depict women as helpless victims of sexual violence, Warner portrays women actively responding to violation through new forms of creativity and selfexpression. In this way, Warner opposes stereotypical associations between female sexuality, victimhood, and passivity. She challenges the assumption, which Sabine Sielke notes is common to much feminist writing, that "the violation of women's bodies [involves] . . . the denial of women's personhood or subject position" (12). Like the rereadings of rape that Sharon Stockton calls for in The Economics of Fantasy: Rape in Twentieth-Century Titerature (2006), Warner explores the subjectivity of violated women in ways that do not focus solely on their ability to refuse or consent to sex.1

Warner's depictions of the potentially positive consequences in fictional cases of sexual violence can appear to condone that violence. In From the Beast to the Blonde, for instance, Warner examines women's longing for beasts in modern versions of "Beauty and the Beast." In her novel Indigo, Warner imagines a Miranda aroused by the Caliban figure who violates her. However, without neglecting the harm that sexual violence can cause women, Warner is more interested in the different ways that women can react to it. She challenges what Tanya Horeck has referred to as the "feminist taboo against rape fantasy" (132), exploring how such fantasies might manifest themselves and what implications they might hold for women. Warner does not claim that all women - or any women - experience what her heroines do. Her imagery hints that she is imagining possibilities rather than offering realistic accounts of assault. This is clear in her rape stories, in which humans become animals and body parts change into inanimate objects. The fantastical events underscore the fictionality of the stories. As she says about fairy tales in From the Beast to the Blonde, her fiction is in the optative mood (xvi). She muses: suppose something happened like this . . .

Warner's readings of mythic and fairy-tale rapes set her apart from several feminist writers whose revisions of old stories address sexual violence in ways that often limit their heroines' possibilities. In Sara Henderson Hay's poem "Syndicated Column" (1961), for instance, Bluebeard's wife is left isolated when an advice columnist tells her to lose a few pounds and stop brooding over her husband's locked room (27). …