The Company of Wolves is the second of the three wolf stories in Angela Carter’s short-story collection The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979). The story delves into lycanthropy and consists of several mini-stories accompanied by some observations and warnings issued by the narrator, followed by the main story of the text which is a variation of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale.
The Company of Wolves | Summary
The story begins with a fearful description of the wolf. The wolf is ‘as cunning as he is ferocious’ and he pounces upon travelers at night. The narrator then cautions about the wolfsong. In the winter, the wolves do not have much to eat and they grow lean and hungry. The narrator remarks, ‘You are always in danger in the forest, where no people are.’ However cautious the people may be, the wolves find a way in. The narrator now tells a story about a hunter who once tracked down and killed a wolf using a trap. However, as the hunter dismembered the body of the beast, it was found out that the wolf in fact was a man.
Two more mini–stories follow before the main story is told. In the first one, a witch turns an ‘entire wedding party into wolves’ because the husband settles on another girl. In the second mini-story, a husband leaves his wife on their wedding night to go out and relieve himself but never returns. The wife waits for him for a long time but eventually marries another man, having two children with him. Many days later, the first husband is back again and is furious seeing that the woman has moved on. He turns into a wolf and attacks one of the children before he is killed. At this point, the narrator throws some light on the various rumors surrounding the procedure of how one gets the ability to turn oneself into a wolf.
The narrator now starts telling the principal story. It is midwinter and a little girl must journey through the forest and take some food to her granny. The little girl wears a red shawl. She is grappling with the various physical and mental changes brought about by her recent onset of puberty. She carries a knife for protection and is confident. On the way, she comes across a handsome hunter and they get to chatting amiably. They decide to race to the granny’s house; if the hunter reaches there first, the girl will have to kiss him. The girl slows down her pace because she in fact wants to kiss the man.
The hunter reaches granny’s house first. He mimics the girl’s voice and enters the house. He now sheds his human-guise and shows himself as a wolf. He attacks and feeds on the helpless old woman, and then removes all incriminating evidence such as the woman’s body parts. The little girl reaches the house and the wolf takes on the shape of the granny. However, upon interacting, the girl immediately knows what has happened. There are many wolves surrounding the house now and they howl in frightening unison. The little girl senses her impending doom but she does not lose her calm. She gradually strips before the wolf, and calmly approaches him. The clock strikes midnight; it is Christmas. The story ends thus: ‘See! sweet and sound she sleeps in granny’s bed, between the paws of the tender wolf.’
The Company of Wolves | Analysis
Angela Carter translated Charles Perrault around the time she wrote The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. Perrault’s works laid the foundation for studying fairy tales. In Carter’s short-story collection too, many fairy tales are retold with significant twists, and this way of getting her message across shows Perrault’s influence on her. Also, the influence of Marquis de Sade on Carter’s writings, in general, is unmistakable since Carter herself proclaimed the same.
Carter’s open discussion of sexuality in the stories of the collection can be traced back to Sade, and of course, Carter’s radical feminism is evident in the stories. In ‘The Company of Wolves’ also, Carter channels her feminist politics in a highly ambiguous but significant way; she chooses the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood, and ‘revises’ the much-popular story by re-writing the girl as the one having agency at the end. The stories of the collection, including ‘The Company of Wolves’, are set in an ambiguous quasi-mythical time and space. However, they are abundant with commentaries that are ever-relevant.
The Company of Wolves | Themes
The threats and violence against women under patriarchy are symbolically, yet powerfully presented in the story. Given Carter’s feminist politics, and the general motifs and thematic concerns of the story, it is logical to read the wolves as representing men. And wolves, the narrator tells are, are ferocious and cunning, and hungry for human flesh. Even though people are careful, the wolves ‘have ways of arriving at your own hearthside. We try and try but sometimes we cannot keep them out.’ This description is eerily evocative of pictures of abusive men. Tellingly, men and wolves are connected by significant threads in the story, the most glaring of which is the fact that some men have the ability to turn themselves into wolves.
The hardships suffered by women under conditions of unequal gender relations are obvious in the story. Take, for example, the story about the woman whose husband goes into the forest on their wedding night and disappears. The reader sees at the end of that particular story that the first husband comes back and wreaks havoc on the household of his former wife seeing that she has naturally moved on with another man. The significant detail here is not only the fact that the first husband is a wolf but also the fact that the second husband, upon seeing the woman crying over the corpse of her former husband, beats her. One sees how men in the story are potentially always a threat to the women, be it in their usual form or in the form of a wolf. Also to be noted is the fact that unlike the fairy tale of the Little Red Riding Hood, the little girl here does not meet the wolf directly; the latter shows up in the guise of a man. Men are perhaps not to be trusted at any cost in the universe of this story.
The openly sexual tone of the story is an interesting feature of the story and Carter uses this to highlight the violence associated with sexual encounters under patriarchy; women often have no say in such encounters and the notion of consent becomes precariously positioned in such instances. This is why the ambiguous ending of the story is both powerful and perplexing. One might argue that in Carter’s version of the Red Riding Hood tale, the girl has the final and complete agency as it is she who chooses to strip before the hunter-turned-into-wolf, rather than getting eaten by him. However, one could equally argue if this decision has any room for a ‘choice’ on the little girl’s part. Let us look at the transformation that happens in the girl from when she is introduced in the story to when we last see her. When she starts on the journey, she is described thus:
‘She stands and moves within the invisible pentacle of her own virginity. She 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; she does not know how to shiver. She has her knife and she is afraid of nothing.’
This passage is frank in revealing the recent sexual awakening of the girl. Her virginity, at the end of the story, is both her key to survival (since the wolf likes ‘immaculate flesh’) as well as her cause of misery (since she naively trusts the hunter in the first place). That the girl is not in a position to express or deny consent to the impending sexual act is made evident by the narrator:
‘She closed the window on the wolves’ threnody … and, since her fear did her no good, she ceased to be afraid … The girl burst out laughing; 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 … She will lay his fearful head on her lap and she will pick out the lice from his pelt and perhaps she will put the lice into her mouth and eat them, as he will bid her, as she would do in a savage marriage ceremony. The blizzard will die down.’
The girl’s claim that she was going to be ‘nobody’s meat’ only feels like a nervous and frail self-assurance in the face of sure sexual violation. Yes, the girl does have some agency here in walking to her doom with her head held high but this agency too ultimately throws light on how men carry out acts of assault and violence on women with impunity. Though it could be argued that the girl’s lying down in the wolf’s ‘tender’ arms at the end is a triumph of the female in ‘taming’ the male, the circumstances that force her to do this should not be dismissed, since this could just be the girl’s way to evade sure death. In other words, the highly ambiguous nature of the ending prevents a straightforward feminist reading that female sexuality is used as a powerful weapon in the story. With this ambiguity, Carter blurs the line between consent and helpless surrender.
The violence embedded in many fairy tales is also highlighted in the story. Carter often wrote macabre retellings of popular fairy tales but it is important to note that the fact that the tales often have violence at the heart of them helps Carter’s treatment greatly.
An assessment of traditional gender roles is evident in the story. The man acts and the woman is acted upon in most narratives. In this story, Carter comes very close to subverting that by making the girl a resourceful clever person who frankly uses her sexuality to her advantage. But as already hinted at above, this might only point towards the impossibility of a free articulation of female sexuality and triumph in a society with unequal gender relations. Furthermore, this short story is also an examination of masculinity and not just of female plight. There are parts of the story that hint that the performance of a violent sort of masculinity weighs heavy on many men too.
The Company of Wolves | Characters
The Little Girl: Carter’s version of the titular Little Red Riding Hood. She has just had sexual awakenings thanks to puberty. In the beginning, she is somewhat innocent and cheerful but at the end, she offers her body to the wolf, either voluntarily or helplessly.
The Hunter: the wolf in the guise of a charming young man. He devours the little girl’s grandmother and is ‘seduced’ by the girl at the end.
The Company of Wolves | Narrative and Literary Techniques
The story is narrated by a third-person omniscient narrator. The narrator freely interacts with the reader. When the wolf is about to devour the old woman, the narrator starts addressing the woman directly. Also, the technique of frame narratives is used in order to narrate several other stories within the main story. Given that this story is a retelling of a popular fairy tale, this story is self-consciously intertextual. The technique of free indirect discourse is used to reveal the girl’s thought processes at the end of the story.
Foreshadowing is prominently used in the story. When the handsome hunter is seen laughing at the girl, ‘gleaming trails of spittle clung to his teeth’, readers acquainted with the fairy tale know that the hunter is actually a wolf in disguise.
Powerful imagery is used to horrific ends in the text. They often highlight the utter viciousness of the wolves and the terror they have spread across the region. The ‘slavering jaws’, ‘lolling tongue’, ‘rime of saliva on the grizzled chops’ of the wolves are vivid images. Many of the images are also sexual in nature, highlighting a key thematic concern of the story.