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Literary Analysis Angela Carter’s “The Fall River Axe Murders”
Gluttony is the Sin that Did Them In
Angela Carter’s “The Fall River Axe Murders” is a short story describing the Borden Family’s past and present moments leading up to their historical murders. The story wanders through their shabby home, behind locked doors, and describes some of the crucial moments of their lives on a hot summer day on August 4, 1892. Something did snap in Lizzie Borden “(O)n this burning morning” (Carter 39). Lizzie’s actions have caused a story to continue cycling for almost 117 years and for what reasons? Simple: the question as to why Lizzie murdered her parents is still in dispute. The picture burned in minds of “Lizzie Borden with an axe” would not be the case, if it were not for Abby Borden, Lizzie’s stepmother. The large women “oppressed her like a spell”, leaving Lizzie almost no choice (Carter 55).
Lizzie, along with Abby Borden lived “in a mean house on Second Street in the smoky hills of Fall River” (Carter39). It wasn’t the house that was actually mean, but the tension Lizzie had trapped inside that was beginning to leak out through the routing seams and would eventually poor onto her stepmother. The house was not only overflowing with tension, but did not receive the kind of upkeep, or care it truly needed. One of the rooms was decorated with “mauve, ochre, and cerise flowered wallpaper”, sure to be dated thirty years old (Carter 41). The furniture was drab and bathrooms unclean; it truly needed a mother’s touch. This touch should have come from Abby Borden after she took on the role of wife and mother, but she was a lazy woman who did not put an effort toward her home. The Borden home had stayed the same since the day Abby arrived.
Abby Borden arrived after her marriage to Mr. Borden, only three short years after his first wife’s passing. Lizzie’s natural mother died when she was only the young age of two. As Lizzie grew, so did the contempt for her stepmother. Lizzie went out of her way to make sure no one would mistake Abby to be her biological mother. There was a time when Lizzie “use to call her stepmother “mother” as a duty”, but later referred to her only as Mrs. Borden when forced to speak with her (Carter).
The second Mrs. Borden not only displayed laziness, but also suffered the consequences due to her lack of movement, and became extremely large. Abby Borden only stood less than five feet, but weighed a whopping two hundred pounds. She looked as if she was “a spreading round dough ball” (Carter 47). While growing up Lizzie observed her stepmother failing to apply her care and duties as a wife and mother, but she left no neglect when it came to taking care of her own furious appetite. Abby practiced her fork to mouth skills. This mastered skill was likely the closest to exercise she received all day. Mrs. Borden was “constantly stuffing herself, she was always nibbling away at something” (Carter 47). The “guzzling stepmothers appetite terrified and appalled “Lizzie (Carter 49).
Lizzie was not only terrified of her stepmother’s appetite, but considered it to be evil. She knew Abby was fully aware for her obesity, but she continued daily to commit the first deadly sin in Christianity, gluttony. Lizzie was a devote Christian and practiced their ways and beliefs. To have to sit and watch, knowing Mrs. Borden was “satisfied to stick to simple gluttony and she eschews all overtones of the sensuality of consumption”, made Lizzie furious (Carter 48).
Lizzie was not only overcome by an emotional fury, but also felt physically ill when she witnessed her stepmother eating. The sight of her stepmother shoveling food in her mouth made Lizzie’s stomach turn. Lizzie would eat what she could, and when she could take no more, she would “push her own plate away” (Carter 49). The only reason she would come to dinner night after night and bare witness to her stepmother “almost heroic quality” of habitual gluttony, was the slight hope that her sin would catch up to her (Carter 49).
Abby Borden’s over eating was like playing the Russian roulette. In the 1800’s such luxuries, as refrigerators, where uncommon. Allowing food to go bad almost instantly, especially in the heat, meaning “summer and salmonella came together” (Carter 48). Mrs. Borden’s gluttony made it more likely for a food poisoning incident. So Lizzie would join the family for dinner and wait for Mrs. Borden’s luck to run out.
Besides bearing witness to Mrs. Borden’s demise, Lizzie was expected to be at the dinner table. Dinner times were not done any other way, but together. Seating arrangements where as they would be expected for this time period. Mr. Borden, being the head of the house, would sit at the head of the table. Mrs. Borden would sit directly across from him, leaving only one place for Lizzie, between them both, and worst of all next to her stepmother. For Lizzie this was too close for comfort. Any other time there would be a lengthy distance between the two.
During dinner Abby took each bit as if it where her last, loading clumps of food on her fork, and shoveling it into her mouth profusely. She can almost be illustrated as a hungry dog, snorting and growling as she ate. Abby was hypnotized by how much she consumed, neglecting simple etiquette such as wiping her mouth. Food would drip down her chins and then disappear in the creases of her neck. Lizzie could already see her “munching through the greenbacks in her fathers safe for salad. For dessert she will polish off the gingerbread house they live in” (Cater 49). Lizzie knew stepmother would never stop, leaving everyone else in the house homeless and hungry.
Dining was fairly routine, night after night; very quiet, allowing Mrs. Borden’s chewing to echo throughout the kitchen. Few questions where asked, only at the force of wanting the meal salted or bread buttered where words spoken. One evening, the Borden’s routine silence was abruptly broken. Lizzie spoke, not by a forced question, but an explosion of frustration. “ (I) won’t eat with her, I refuse to sit at the trough with this sow” (Carter 50). The explosion changed the Borden’s routine dining from that point on. After the outburst there were two dinners served. The first dinner was served for Mr. and Mrs. Borden as usual, and then a second dinner would be re-warmed for Lizzie.
Lizzie had won, escaping the forced contact she had been subjected to at dinner. She would never allow her stepmother to win, or scare her off with the use of her sloppy and disgusting habits. Lizzie would never even leave the home where her father and stepmother lay. Lizzie was there first, and planned to stay at any cost. Women her age usually left long before to marry and start families of their own. Lizzie seemed as if she was sacrificing the commitment to another. She was in her early thirties and “remained in a fictive, protracted childhood” (Carter 42), always dwelling in the past and present, never able to move on with her future.
Even though Lizzie chose to stay at the home on Second Street permanently, she would often leave temporarily. Lizzie took vacations and trips often, escaping her oppressing stepmother. However the trips would always have to end, sending her back to the house on Second Street where her evil stepmother would be “sitting in the middle of her spider web” waiting to drain any enjoyment Lizzie had consumed while traveling (Carter 55).
When Lizzie was unable to travel, she found several activities to occupy her time. Creating as much distance possible between her and her stepmother, Lizzie participated in church functions and charities. Her favorite hobby was taking care of some “white powdered pigeons” that had taken residence in a stable loft (Carter 56). Lizzie took such good care of her pigeons; they became her beloved pets. Lizzie supplied her pigeon’s with clean water daily, and made sure their home was tidy. She would even hand feed them grain. Lizzie enjoyed the warmth and tenderness she received from the pigeon’s. Lizzie cared more for the wild birds than her stepmother had ever cared for her. How could Lizzie enjoy taking care of her wild birds so much, and a woman could have no interest in taking care of her family? Lizzie knew it was not all women, but Abby her stepmother, the one her father choose to bring home to her. Lizzie knew “(I)f her real mother had just lived, everything would have been different” (Carter 51). A void would have never been left for a mother’s love.
The love and tenderness she received from her pigeons was short lived. One evening after a mission function, Lizzie headed to the loft to care for her pigeons. Instead of being greeted by their happy coos, she was greeted with blood and feathers. The pigeon’s “vroo-croo” reached the house and struck a nerve with Mr. Borden, who ended the cooing with an axe. As if the death of her beloved pigeons was not enough, her horrible stepmother “fancied the slaughtered pigeons for a pie” (Cater 57), not once thinking of the pain it would cause her stepdaughter.
Lizzie didn’t cry, but bottled her emotions, leaving them there to swish back and forth rapidly. She imagined her stepmother chewing, “each bite the women takes seems to go “vroo-croo” (Carter 58). With her blood boiling and emotions held in tight, she went to the cellar and picked up the axe and “weighed it in her hands” for the first time (Carter 58). The next time she holds the axe “Lizzie Borden will murder her parents” (Carter 39).
In the end the spell was broken. Her evil stepmother would no longer be able to cast a spell and hold a deep oppression over her. Lizzie would no longer be tortured with the disgust she witnessed from her sinful stepmother’s gluttony. Lizzie’s tension, hate, and disgust for her stepmother, mixed with a large void for a mother figure, consumed her. Only able to take so much, she finally snapped. If only Abby Borden would have though of Lizzie as her own, treated her like a daughter, or just simply cared, it wouldn’t have led to “their day, the Borden’s fatal day” or created this deeply hurt, and love starved child (Carter 39).
Angela Carter “The Fall River Axe Murders” World Views:
Classic and Contemporary Reading 3rd ed. Eds Viking Penguin
Boston: Plearon Custom Publishing 2004. 38-58