Carter, Angela (1940 - 1992)
(1940 - 1992)
(Full name Angela Olive Carter) English novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, scriptwriter, and author of children's books.
Carter is best remembered for her science fiction and fantasy writings in which she undertakes a feminist critique of Western history and culture. Combining components of Gothicism, surrealism, eroticism, pornography, myth, and fairy tales, Carter explores such themes as violence, the distribution of power in contemporary society, and female sexuality. Carter's work is distinguished by its display of unrestrained imagination, colorful imagery, and sensuous prose. Equally notable are the Dickensian eccentricities of her characters and her talent, as one critic has noted, for seamlessly infusing realistic narratives with elements of the macabre and fantastic. Although alternately praised and faulted for her extravagant Gothic approach, Carter is highly regarded as a writer of unique and imaginative fiction and sharply political and insightful feminist nonfiction.
Carter was born in London, England, on May 7, 1940. Her journalist father, Hugh Stalker, came from Scotland, and her mother, Olive, from a mining district in South Yorkshire. During World War II, Carter's grandmother took her grandchildren to the village of Wath-upon-Deare. A working-class suffragist and radical, this grandmother may have served as a model for Carter's later narrative and public persona. After leaving school, Carter worked briefly as a junior reporter for a London local newspaper and then married. From 1962 to 1965 she attended the University of Bristol, where she studied traditional canonical works of literature as well as subjects ranging from psychology and anthropology to science fiction and horror comics. After graduating, Carter began writing cultural criticism and observation for New Society and the Guardian. In 1969, after divorcing her husband, she went to live in Japan for two years. This marked a turning point for Carter both professionally and personally, as she went on to draw from the experience in her writing and found her voice as a woman and a social radical. In the 1980s Carter moved to South London with her partner and began traveling around the world to teach writing and present public readings of her works, which she came to appreciate as a means of dramatizing the power of the narrator and providing an added dimension to the written word. In 1983 Carter gave birth to a son, and for the remainder of her life she divided her time between living in South London and traveling. She served as a judge for literary contests, edited collections, compiled anthologies, and wrote introductions and essays. Carter died of cancer on February 16, 1992.
Carter described herself as a Gothic writer, and early on in her works she displayed a fondness for decadent opulence, squalor, darkness, and sexual violence, elements that she intertwined with feminist and philosophical concerns. Carter's vivid descriptions of Britain's counterculture create a surreal atmosphere in which strange incidents are commonplace. The protagonist of Shadow Dance (1966) is portrayed as the embodiment of the apathy and amorality of his generation. Acting on impulse, he disfigures his beautiful girlfriend and eventually commits murder. The Magic Toyshop (1967) depicts the sexual coming-of-age of a young woman who loses her parents and must live in a household of eccentric relatives. Several Perceptions (1968) concerns a suicidal young man and his encounters with various strange individuals. Heroes and Villains (1969) is a futuristic tale of Earth a century after atomic devastation has splintered its population into antagonistic factions. Love (1971), a bleak story of the obsessive nature of love, centers on a young man whose suicidal wife and drug-abusing brother are dependent upon him. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972) recounts the efforts of the protagonist to restore reality in a world where machines give unconscious images concrete form. In The Passion of New Eve (1977), a fervent denunciation of sexism and machismo, a man experiences rape and other brutalizations after being surgically transformed into a beautiful woman. A number of the characters in Nights at the Circus (1984), winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, are archetypes of female oppression and liberation. In this novel Carter offers a symbolic portrait of the female condition, populating her story with the bizarre characters of a traveling circus and focusing on the personal liberation of a six-foot-tall winged woman.
Carter's numerous stories, which, like her novels, are derived from fables, fairy tales, and mythology, have been collected in three volumes: Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces (1974), The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979), and Black Venus (1985). In the oft-cited "Afterword" from Fireworks, which many critics have cited as her literary manifesto, Carter argued that the tale, unlike the short story, "interprets everyday experience through a system of imagery derived from subterranean areas behind everyday experience." In that essay, Carter also defines the gothicism that informs her work, stating that the tradition "grandly ignores the value systems of our institutions; it deals entirely with the profane." She notes too its themes of cannibalism and incest, its exaggeration of reality, its ornate and unnatural style, and black humor—all of which seek to provoke unease. The sense of unease in Carter's tales is derived from her use of violence and eroticism and the startling images she presents of female sexuality. The image of blood, for example, as a symbol of female menstruation and defloration is featured prominently in her short fiction. In a story from The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, Carter describes a necklace as a "bloody bandage of rubies," thus emphasizing the violence of sexual intercourse and the loss of virginity through the image of a slit throat while at the same time pointing out the economic value society attaches to chastity. Carter also wrote a fictionalized reconstruction of parts of the life of Edgar Allan Poe, entitled "The Cabinet of Edgar Allan Poe," which was published in the magazine Interzone in 1982.
In her most often discussed nonfiction work, The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History (1979), Carter examines the two feminine stereo-types of pornographic literature: the dangerous temptress and the innocent victim. Carter argues that the writing of the Marquis de Sade, whose characters Justine and Juliette embodied these stereotypes, can be read as feminist satire of the sexual roles men create for women. Ultimately, however, Carter finds de Sade's quest for the limits of acceptable behavior a failure, believing that he succumbed to an acceptance of traditional sexual roles. Nothing Sacred (1982) is an anthology of Carter's feminist and political articles. Carter's nonfiction illuminates many of the themes and ideas about the dark side of human nature and society that she sets forth in her fiction.
While writers as diverse as Anthony Burgess, Salman Rushdie, and John Hawkes have expressed great admiration for Carter's writing, other reviewers have responded with incomprehension or revulsion. The elements of the fantastic upon which Carter focuses her narratives have been assessed as confusing and unbelievable by many critics. Her extravagant Gothic approach has been alternately praised and faulted by commentators. Additionally, while Carter's revisions of traditional fairy tales have been lauded overall, some commentators have lamented the absence of concrete alternatives for her heroines. Such critics argue that because Carter rewrote the tales within their original structures, she robbed her protagonists of any real sense of choice and actually perpetuated patriarchal precepts. Feminist critics, however, have embraced what they characterize as Carter's unwavering honesty and commitment to her social and political standards in her works.
Today Carter's stories are widely anthologized and she is studied in schools and universities as the most important English fantasist of her generation. Those who admire her works point to their humor, wit, and pathos even in presentations of horrific situations and depictions of disturbing characters. Carter is regarded too as the most subversive and radical proponent of a modern neo-Gothic movement, as she celebrates the imminent collapse of traditional notions of order. Carter uses gothicism to provoke unease in the hopes that misguided patriarchal assumptions about women and sexuality might be overturned. Thus she uses horror, violence, pornography, surrealism, and dark humor to criticize and dismantle patriarchal cultural conventions, offering a uniquely vivid feminist critique of Western history and culture.
Shadow Dance (novel) 1966; also published as Honeybuzzard, 1967
Unicorn (poetry) 1966
The Magic Toyshop (novel) 1967
Several Perceptions (novel) 1968
Heroes and Villains (novel) 1969
The Donkey Prince (juvenilia) 1970
Miss Z, the Dark Young Lady (juvenilia) 1970
Love (novel) 1971; revised edition, 1987
The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (novel) 1972; also published as The War of Dreams, 1974
Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces (short stories) 1974; revised as Fireworks: Nine Stories in Various Disguises, 1981
The Passion of New Eve (novel) 1977
The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (short stories) 1979
The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History (nonfiction) 1979; also published as The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, 1979
Nothing Sacred: Selected Writings (essays) 1982; revised edition, 1992
Nights at the Circus (novel) 1984
Black Venus (short stories) 1985; also published as Saints and Strangers, 1986
Come unto These Yellow Sands: Four Radio Plays (broadcasts) 1985
The Virago Book of Fairy Tales [editor] (fairy tales) 1990; also published as The Old Wives' Tale Book, 1990
Wise Children (novel) 1991
Expletives Deleted: Selected Writings (essays) 1992
The Second Virago Book of Fairy Tales [editor] (fairy tales) 1992; also published as Sometimes Strange Things Still Happen, 1993
American Ghosts and Old World Wonders (short stories) 1993
Burning Your Boats: Collected Short Stories (short stories) 1995
The Curious Room: Plays, Film Scripts and an Opera (plays, scripts, and libretto) 1996
Shaking a Leg: Collected Journalism and Writings (nonfiction) 1997
ANGELA CARTER AND ANNA KATSAVOS (INTERVIEW DATE 1988)
SOURCE: Carter, Angela, and Anna Katsavos. "An Interview with Angela Carter." Review of Contemporary Fiction 14, no. 3 (fall 1994): 11-18.
In the following excerpt from an interview conducted in New York City in 1988, Carter comments on some of her works.
The stories in The Bloody Chamber are very firmly grounded in the Indo-European popular tradition, even in the way they look. A friend of mine has just done a collection of literary fairy tales from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France, things like the original "Beauty and the Beast," which is in fact from the oral tradition. There's this long history in Europe of taking elements from the oral tradition and making them into very elaborate literary conventions, but all the elements in that particular piece, The Bloody Chamber, are very lush.
I was looking at it again last week. I read from it for the first time in ages the other night, and I thought, this is pretty cholesterol-rich because of the fact that they all take place in invented landscapes. Some of the landscapes are reinvented ones. "The Bloody Chamber" story itself is set quite firmly in the Mont Saint Michel, which is this castle on an island off the coast of Brittany; and a lot of the most exotic landscapes in it, the Italian landscapes, were quite legit. "The Tiger's Bride" landscape, admittedly, is touristic, but it's one of the palaces in Mantua that has the most wonderful jewels, and that city is set in the Po Valley, which is very flat and very far out, so in the summer you can imagine the mist rolling over. The landscapes there [The Bloody Chamber ] are quite real. Even the werewolf stories are set in some horror-filled invented landscapes, but there's more a kind of down-to-earthness in those stories...…
I was reading "The Company of Wolves" the other day, and there are a whole lot of verbal games in that that I really enjoy doing, "the deer departed," for example…. There was one thing in the movie The Company of Wolves, when the werewolf-husband says he's just going out to answer a call of nature, and one of the critics wrote to me and said, "I didn't even notice this the first time." That's the sort of thing I like doing. These are sort of private jokes with myself and with whoever notices, and I used to enjoy doing that very much. There are lots of them in Nights at the Circus, which was intended as a comic novel.
I've always thought that my stories were quite loaded with jokes, but the first story that I wrote that was supposed to be really funny, out and out funny, was a "Puss-in-Boots" story in The Bloody Chamber. I mailed that to a radio place, and they censored it. (It was done on what we call Radio Three, an art channel, which uses a lot of material from BBC Radio and World Service that you don't get here.) They cut it! They removed, according to the producer, about half a spool of bed springs!..…
There's a story in The Bloody Chamber called "The Lady and the House of Love," part of which derives from a movie version that I saw of a story by Dostoyevsky. And in the movie, which is very good, the woman, who is a very passive person and is very much in distress, asks herself the question, "Can a bird sing only the song it knows, or can it learn a new song?" Have we got the capacity at all of singing new songs? It's very important that if we haven't, we might as well stop now. Can the marionette in that story behave in a way that she's not programmed to behave? Is it possible?
GINA WISKER (ESSAY DATE 1993)
SOURCE: Wisker, Gina. "At Home All Was Blood and Feathers: The Werewolf in the Kitchen—Angela Carter and Horror." In Creepers: British Horror and Fantasy in the Twentieth Century, edited by Clive Bloom, pp. 161-75. Boulder, Colo.: Pluto Press, 1993.
In the following essay, Wisker surveys Carter's use of horror, fantasy, and the Gothic.
A house full of locked doors that open only into other rooms with other locked doors, for, upstairs and downstairs, all the rooms lead in and out of one another like a maze in a bad dream.
'The Fall River Axe Murders'1
Angela Carter's sense of horror is based on the grotesque, the bizarre and excessive, a kind of baroquely overlaid nightmare which has uneasy echoes for us. She investigates the stuff of myth and dreams and in doing so unearths rather unpleasant, perverse sexual fantasies, digging further behind the suburban mind to identify the interest in the werewolf tale, the fairytales of Bluebeard and his wives and Beauty and the Beast. In investigating our subconscious horrors, Carter brings a chill to the domestic and the everyday. Opening a kitchen drawer in the Carter kitchens of our minds, we are always like Melanie in The Magic Toyshop likely to meet something horrid:
Melanie hummed to herself as she hung cups from their hooks and propped the plates. She opened the dresser drawer to put away the knives and spoons. In the dresser drawer was a freshly severed hand, all bloody at the roots.
The details are domestic and realistic, the episode and object monstrous, inexplicable, though Uncle Philip is a sort of urban Bluebeard in his own way, and Melanie has been thinking of Poe. In Carter's horror, the mazes of the ordinary mind in the ordinary house are entered to reveal gothic torture chambers and spiral staircases leading down to dungeons.
In 'The Fall River Axe Murders' Carter looks at the catalysts, the events and moments which made murder inevitable in the claustrophobic middle-class normality of the Fall River, Massachusetts Borden household. She does not linger on the blood. Threat permeates the descriptions: of ties which 'garotte' their virtuous wearers and the oppressive constricting clothes the women wear in this sweating, constrained household. Carter investigates. Her probing of details reveals gaps and silences, 'what the girls do on their own is unimaginable to me' and of Emma, Lizzie's sister that, 'she is a blank space'. (Black Venus ) The iron-backed, capital-accumulating father, the repressed, stifled sisters, the air of suppurating normality; these permeate Carter's descriptions of this fated family, our knowledge of whose violent fate lurks and drips over every restrained comment, calm as the clichéd 'still waters' of Lizzie's nature as she drives hatpins into her hat or weighs the axe which slaughtered her pigeons to make a pie for her stepmother.
Horror in much of Angela Carter's writing captures a sense of a potion containing the monstrous and the everyday. Lizzie Borden is a figure for this, and we are reminded that given the right circumstances and the appropriate kind of suburban claustrophobia, we might all erupt and give our family 40 whacks with an axe.
Carter explores those locked rooms. The mazes and corridors and doors of conformity and normality which we use to confuse and hide away our destructive drives, and our nightmares are replicated in the twists and turns of the fiction's realistic artifice, while networks of imagery hint, suggest and occasionally dramatically reveal the sources of the terror, the disgust and the horror. There are blood, feathers and much worse, in all of Angela Carter's kitchens. 'The structure of fantastic narratives is one founded upon contradictions.'2 There are many recognisable realistic details, dates, times, typical clothing and furniture in the text. The places are familiar, and at the same time the surreal and the symbolic provide another layer of meaning. Metaphor combines with metonymy and the oxymoronic mixture is the fabric of her language.
Carter's fiction disinters and utilises the stuff of dreams. The fiction proves dreams palpably 'real', and so shows itself as psychologically based horror which owes much to Freud, Jung and to Melanie Klein. Her dream—and magic-based landscapes are rendered tangible because, she insists, dreams are part of our lives, and related to the myths we use to describe and direct our lives, 'There is certainly confusion about the nature of dreams which are in fact perfectly real: they are real as dreams and they're full of real meaning as dreams.'3
Like Bruno Bettelheim, whose work influenced The Bloody Chamber, Carter uses dream and fantasy material to reflect inner experiences and processes, ways of rendering and coping with the palpable conscious world and the reactions of the unconscious.
The break with the notion of a straightjacket of the real releases energies leading to a fuller understanding of how meanings are created, values constructed and versions of worth and of reality validated over other versions. Fantasy is a useful mode 'Because it is a narrative structured upon contraries, fantasy tells of limits, and it is particularly revealing in pointing to the edge of the "real".'4 And as Jackson says, 'breaking single, reductive "truths", the fantastic traces a space within a society's cognitive frame. It introduces multiple, contradictory "truths": it becomes polysemic.'5
Horror, gothic and the use of fantasy combine in Carter's work. The collapse of boundaries and divisions, between the animate and the inanimate is a regular element of fantasy, while one chief tool of terror is the reduction of man to an object, a machine, a doll or an automaton. This is a frequent characteristic in an Angela Carter story or novel. In her examination of sexual politics and their psychological motivation and their social representations, she repeatedly presents scenarios where women are manipulated as marionettes (The Magic Toyshop ), or preferred as tableaux vivants: disempowered objects of desire, as in the hideous living-sex museum of Madame Schreck in Nights at the Circus, or preferred dead and kept as mementoes in Bluebeard's castle. She allies her examination of the basis of terror and horror with an interest in sexual power and perversion, and so it is that the ones rendered immobile and automated are usually women in the hands of men, manipulated by power or for money; it is a logical enactment of the 'living doll' image.
The most consistently developed example of the recurring automaton, puppet or doll image in Carter's fiction can be found in the early 'The Loves of the Lady Purple' (Fireworks) where the doll who enacts the quiet circus professor's violent erotic fantasies, comes to life and finally repeats them in reality, draining him in an act of vampirism.
The Asiatic professor reminds us of Carter the author.
The puppet master is always dusted with a little darkness. In direct relation to his skill he propagates the most bewildering enigmas for, the more lifelike his marionettes, the more godlike his marionettes and the more radical the symbiosis between inarticulate doll and articulating fingers.
He acts as intermediary between audience and the dolls, the 'undead', here deliberately described in the language used to describe vampires. The puppet master's dolls are a mixture of magic and realism; the stories they enact speak to the audience of a certain repressed and unspeakable reality and the more extreme, bizarre or perverse the incidents in which they are involved, the closer the recognition of those selves and secrets the readership keep behind their own locked doors.
The professor has no language which can be understood and his apprentice is deaf, his other foundling helper dumb, but the Lady Purple blazons her messages in her actions accompanied by the appropriately weird but untranslatable stories of the professor. As Queen of the Night, the Lady Purple, object of all the professor's sexual fantasies, is 'filled with necromantic vigour' with the vitality of the professor passing directly through into her, draining him while she embodies that traditional perverse twinning of sex and pain, the erotic and power. She is 'a distillation of those of a born woman … the quintessence of eroticism'. Nightly she acts out the story invented of her llfe, lusts and eventual reduction to a marionette. The stylised, symbolic puppet characters and sexual scenarios are equally figures 'in a rhetoric' where the abstract essence of erotic woman can be bought, used, manipulated and later shelved. The constant oscillation between the language of artifice and the language of the real, tells the story Lady Purple enacts, as if it were a true record.
Ironically her power is emphasised as one who encourages the acting out of fantasies which then reduce her lovers to objects. 'She, the sole perpetrator of desire, proliferated malign fantasies all around her and used her lovers as the canvas on which she executed boudoir masterpieces of destruction. Skins melted in the electricity she generated.' For those watching the show she embodies the object of their desire as well as their fears, rendering them ultimately safe because of the awareness of artifice. This mimics the activity of horror fiction: embodiment, audience enjoyment, and a sense of release and security. The interest, the drive, the fears do not disappear. Indeed, Carter suggests they return nightly.
Modern horror tales emerged as a genre with the secularisation of society and the leaking away of religious explanations of the odd and inexplicable.6 Science also could not explain all that was unusual and strange, so a space for these expressions was found in the genre of horror which itself was enabled to ask questions about the power of religious controls as well as the dangers of science. Things 'out of control' and objects 'come to life' emerge as the main example of these expressions. As Martin Barker puts it looking at the lobby surrounding the horror comic censorship of the 1950s in A Haunt of Fears.
It is the sense of helplessness in the face of unpredictable objects and processes that make such narratives work as horror. In this … they come closest to film horror, where the classic motifs—dark nights, unknown threats, and ritual incantations to control the forces of evil—are just what leave us deliciously shuddering when they are well manipulated.7
Lady Purple is a thing come to life, and a thing out of control. She is more than that though, for she is the embodiment of the perverse and lustful thoughts and dreams both of her creator the professor and the audiences who enjoy watching a doll act out sado-masochistic fantasies. Her coming to life is ironically the downfall of those who have thus positioned her (the professor and future male victims in the brothel). She also embodies the frighteningly circular and inevitable reenactment of myth. Lady Purple is a vengeful fetishistic object, sado-masochistic and horror fantasy combined.
Fetishism is the stuff on which pornography thrives and Carter takes further into social critique her manipulation of fantasy and horror's technique of confusing the boundaries between animate and inanimate, objects of desire and object to be controlled and destroyed. In The Magic Toyshop is a palimpsest of popular fictional forms, fairytales, myths, girls' own paper stories. Through examination of Melanie's adolescent construction of herself in the semi-pornographic art modes in which woman is represented by great painters and writers, Carter examines how the myths of our femininity, our sexual being come to be fashioned upon us and come to be that part of us with which we willingly collude, blind to their reifying implications. These implications: rape, violation, pregnancy, are indicated in the positioning of Edward Bear 'swollen stomach concealing striped pyjamas' and Lorna Doone, 'splayed out, face down in the dust under the bed'—remnants of childhood. Moreover, we are also presented with the sacrificial tone of the virginally white bridal pictures of Melanie's mother.
Her mother exploded in a pyrotechnic display of satin and lace, dressed as for a medieval banquet…. A wreath of artificial roses was pressed low down on her forehead…. She carried a bunch of white roses in her arms, cradled like a baby.
She is a meal to be devoured, a firework display, and when Melanie tries on her mother's dress it acts as a malevolent object, drowning and capturing her.
Bunty, Judy, Schoolfriend and Girl stories often concentrate on the 'little mother' who stands as a surrogate for her siblings when their parents are, as are Melanie's, killed in a plane crash. Plucky tomboys also abound. Melanie pictures herself in all these roles, and rejects them, but still awaits the kiss of a prince charming to awaken her from herself into a role he designs. In the working-class East London toyshop there is a wicked uncle, no stepmother or wicked aunt, and it is his designs on Melanie which cast her in the role of the traditional female victim, manipulated into a rape victim through his control. Uncle Philip is a child's nightmare figure, a character from a fairytale by the Brothers Grimm.
Uncle Philip never talked to his wife except to bark brusque commands. He gave her a necklace that choked her. He beat her younger brother. He chilled the air through which he moved. His towering, blank-eyed presence at the head of the table drew the sayour from the good food she cooked.
His menace is both physical and psychological and the spell he casts over the household renders them mute and powerless.
The moment in which Melanie, reified by her role as Leda in Uncle Philip's puppet version of that high art pornographic favourtte, Leda and the Swan, is overwhelmed by the monstrous wooden and feathered swan, which is both horror and pure farce. In her mixture of the horrific and the humorous, Carter resembles Roald Dahl, whose short stories have similar twists to hers, and who similarly re-writes 'Little Red Riding Hood'. Dahl comments, 'What's horrible is basically funny … in fiction I mean.'8 Angela Carter's delicate mixture of slapstick, irony and the machinations of Sadeian horror typifies her stylistic strategies; an ornate overlay of Western myths and representations, funny, fantastic and frightening. It is deeply revelatory about the forms and intentions of Western art from the National Gallery and Sadlers Wells to the toyshop. Melanie last recalls 'Swan Lake' when her father took her to see it. The embrace of the plywood and feathered swan is a mock up of the many languorous godlike embraces between a loving Leda and an elegant swan found in the world's great art galleries, celebrated in hauntingly beautiful tones by Yeats in 'Leda and the Swan' where phrases such as 'terrified vague fingers' and 'feathered glory' suggest that the aesthetic enjoyment overcomes the sense of the strange and horrific; a version of a grotesque, power myth rape many women readers find bizarre.
Carter's version emphasises the otherness, the disempowering and the horror.
All her laughter was snuffed out. She was hallucinated. She felt herself not herself, wrenched from her own personality, watching this whole fantasy from another place; and in this staged fantasy, anything was possible. Even that the swan, mocked up swan, might assume reality itself and rape this girl in a blizzard of white feathers.
Horror here is a direct effect of the dramatic embodiment of despotic patriarchal power writ large and backed up by the collusion of that other patriarchal power base—high art. Carter's debunking of this high art, patriarchy's dubiously intellectually tarted up sadistic power games, empowers us all to reveal the unpleasantnesses, the potential sick violence, underlying everyday mythic representations of sexual relations.
The dangers are no less real despite the slapstick rendering of events, but Carter's irony and slapstick humour provide themselves with a liberating vehicle to expose and defuse such powers. 'Like fate or the clock, on came the swan, its feet going splat, splat, splat.'
In Nights at the Circus, male fear, horror and fascination at female sexual parts are figured in the geography of Madame Schreck's brothel, where the girls work in the basement.
Madame Schreck organised her museum, thus: downstairs, in what had used to be the wine cellar, she'd had a sort of vault or crypt constructed, with wormy beams overhead and nasty damp flagstones underfoot, and this place was known as 'Down Below', or else, 'The Abyss'. The girls was all made to stand in stone niches cut out of the slimy walls, except for the Sleeping Beauty, who remained prone, since proneness was her speciality. And there were little curtains in front and, in front of the curtains, a little lamp burning. These were her 'profane altars' as she used to call them.
The offhand, everyday Cockney tones of the winged, iconic aerialiste Fevvers renders these traditionally gothic horrors almost domestic, but visions of a visiting judge who ejaculates when black hooded and when a noose is placed round his neck, and of clients who revel in the gothic nightmare of clanking chains, who are turned on only by recumbent, seemingly dead women, and all the trappings of a mixture of Poe and de Sade illuminate the dubious interrelationship between a love of horror and a perverse sexuality: a desire to brutalise women. Women, of course, collude in their own dehumanisation. Fevvers's avarice leads her into the clutches of the determinedly male, sadistic Duke, whose own brand of mastery consists of reducing his objects of desire to just that, a miniaturised, gilded objet d'art. The Grand Duke represents sterile power.
His house was the realm of minerals, of metals of vitrification—of gold, marble and crystal; pale halls and endless mirrors and glittering chandeliers that clanged like wind-bells In the draught from the front door … and a sense of frigidity, of sterility, almost palpable.
It is a gothic horror threat of potential disempowerment and reification since all therein is artifice and glitter.
Murderous histories, sexual mutilations of women, and the frisson of total control of the human by rendering it entirely useless, pure art ornament and entertainment: the Duke's collection embodies his vile proclivities.
Fevvers's earlier encounter with Christian Rosencreutz, whose sexual perversity was related to his wish to gain new powers by sacrificing what he feared, is an echo of a familiar gothic encounter with Rosicrucianism. Carter replicates the seductive powers, the frissons of horror, and exposes a basis of horror in desires to dehumanise, to control, to fix, pin, collect and, perhaps, destroy the adored object. Humour, irony and slapstick undercut and disempower the perpetrators of torture, terror and death in her work and female victims soar above what could destroy them, using for their own ends the very images and forms which could otherwise represent them in a constrained sense.
Fevvers's own canny common sense enables her to turn the Duke's lust against him and she escapes into the Fabergé model of the transSiberian railway: a celebratory moment when magic and realism confusingly and amusingly unite. Fevvers escapes, a feathered intacta, icon of dreams, 'bird' woman and yet her own person. The last laugh is on the loving journalist Walser who wishes to pin her down with facts, and on the readers who want her metaphors explained, but who are left instead realising that the best thing to do with myths and metaphors is to reclaim them for our own variety of interpretations, rather than accepting any fobbed off on us by a patriarchal culture.
Reclamation is the key also for Rosaleen, the Red Riding Hood figure in 'Company of Wolves.' The grotesque horror of being eaten alive by a lascivious wolf is replaced by the turning of the tables, as she celebrates her own sexual powers, burns her own clothing, becomes a werewolf herself and so tames the beast, thus proving her mother's comment, 'if there's a beast in man it meets its match in women too'. It might seem trite, or even dangerous as some have suggested that Carter merely repeats much of the sexist psychology of eroticism, but it is a way of suggesting reversal, using irony and the technique of 'the pulling of the plug' on a socially constructed version of horror based on a pornography which always renders the woman as victim.
Slow mental and physical torture, claustrophobia, a living death … this is the stuff of her horror and recalls Poe as it does the Jacobean. But her vision is more ironic and amused. Her aims are related to reversal, there is a consistent drive towards celebration and carnival. In the midst of being almost eaten by the big bad wolf, Red Riding Hood/Rosaleen is empowered by her awareness of the strength of her own virginity, as well as that of her emergent sexuality. This is a reclamation of the body as a site for woman's empowerment. Virginity in myth 'normally' renders a woman both magically safe and ideally fitted to be a sacrificial victim, in a system which sees virginity as a commodity. Here Rosaleen celebrates, her clothes burned by choice in her granny's fire, a werewolf herself?
Fires such as that in The Magic Toyshop are purgatorial: the evil die, the good are doubtless rescued. This is in the true tone of Shakespearean late Romance which suggests tragedy and horror but ultimately avoids or overcomes it. There are hints of death by drowning, of tragedy entering our living rooms when Tiffany, the Ophelia-like spurned innocent stripper in Wise Children disappears, but she escapes and lives again. Twins are produced from pockets, dead uncles reappear twice as large and filled with largesse. Reunions and unifications replace the open endings of some of the earlier works. Carnival towards which all Carter's work has long leant, triumphs over horror in her most recent work Wise Children.
Carter's best horror writing is more suited to the art of the short story than to longer fiction. Like Poe she goes for 'unity of effect', telling individual, perfectly controlled tales which retell and often revalue a myth or legend, which develop and embody a particular lurking perversity or nightmare, and which explore the horrific sources of real events. As in traditional gothic tales, we are terrified because the atmosphere threatens us, the familiar is our familiar nightmare. Beautifully, fatally, realistic, encyclopedic details combine with the immediate, mythic, nightmarish and surreal. In 'The Company of Wolves,' we are told that,
at night, the eyes of wolves shine like candle flames yellowish, reddish, but that is because the pupils of their eyes fatten on darkness and catch the light from your lantern and flash it back at you—red for danger; if a wolf's eyes reflect only moonlight, then they gleam a cold and unnatural green, a mineral, a piercing colour.
The movement of nightmare is enacted with a rich mixture of visual and psychologically threatening imagery:
If the benighted traveller spies those luminous, terrible sequins stitched suddenly on the black thickets, then he knows he must run, if fear has not struck him stock still.
But those eyes are all you will be able to glimpse of the forest assassins as they cluster inevitably around your smell of meat.
And her language draws the reader in and implicates them as it reproduces a fascinating and compelling mixture of terror and the frisson of joy at such terror.
The title story of The Bloody Chamber is one such perfect gothic tale in which we are seduced and drawn in as slowly as the victim, the virginal wife of this art collecting Bluebeard. The language of food consumption, aesthetic pleasure and avaricious cruelty dominates her descriptions of him, his wooing and her collusion. Threat drips slowly from every crevice. His is 'possessed of that strange, ominous calm of a sentient vegetable life, like one of those cobra-headed funereal lilies whose white sheaths are curled out of a flesh as thick and tensely yielding to the touch as vellum.' His desire she perceives but does not understand though the 'choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily slit throat' presages the total ownership he has in mind while his 'sheer carnal avarice' watching her in gilded mirrors positions her both as consumable meat, and art object. Mirrors, billowing gauze curtains, indecipherable imprecations from (traditional, gothic) menials, huge beds and lilies: these gothic familiars draw in and thrill the reader, who wants yet to cry out a warning.
Carter's intertextuality provides a smile of recognition, 'All the better to see you' says the lupine, leonine, vampirish, art/wife collecting descendant of Browning's Duke who keeps pictures and relics of previously, mysteriously, dead wives. The ravishment is surreal, particularly as he removes all her clothes except the choker, and mirrors reflect every move:
Rapt, he intoned: 'Of her apparel she retains/Only her sonorous jewellery'.
A dozen husbands impaled a dozen brides while the mewing gulls swung on invisible trapezes in the empty air outside.
Carter investigates also the notion of the 'pleasures of the flesh' and here reveals a link between pornography and horror: man as flesh, skin covering meat, the source of the horror of cannibal tales and movies like The Silence of the Lambs. 'The strong abuse, exploit and meatify the weak, says Sade' (The Sadeian Woman ). 'She knew she was nobody's meat' is a challenge Rosaleen holds up to the wolf, though necrophagy (exposition of the meatiness of human flesh) and cannibalism lurk behind Bluebeard's delights at his new wife. 'I saw him watching me in the gilded mirrors with the assessing eye of a connoisseur inspecting horseflesh, or even of a housewife in the market, inspecting cuts on the slab.' This terrifies but attracts her, as she recognises her own potential for corruption. His sexual 'appetite' and then his 'taste' for her she mistakenly feels will protect her when she investigates the locked rooms of his house in his absence. We know versions of the story, know she will find the remains of dead ex wives. As with many gothic horror tales of castles, locked doors, horrid secrets, threatening husbands and marital violence, walled up wives, spiders, jewelled daggers and necklaces, the very familiarity produces a frisson for the reader, and the familiarity here of the old tale captures and captivates us. Languoroushess, inevitability, these entrap the reader as they entrap the bride about to be turned into a 'meal' for her murderous husband who swings a cruel sword, and forces her to dress in white as the sacrificial victim, to his lustful power. The warrior mother rescues the bride with the aid of the new servant. The story becomes a romp, but its horror has a sexual and social basis we won't forget, and which returns in many another of her tales.
In The Sadeian Woman Carter notes, 'Sexuality, stripped of the idea of free exchange, is not in any way humane; it is nothing but pure cruelty. Carnal knowledge is the infernal knowledge of the flesh as meat.' The potential of devouring lurks behind 'The Tiger's Bride' but the proud voyeuristic beast is tamed with the girl's love and her recognition of her own tigerishness. In 'The Lady of the House of Love', a female vampire strikes a familiar terror, her necessary plan involving the capture of male morsels. Her room is funerary, pungent with smoke and elaborate, and in true vampire fashion her seemingly virginal beauty is evidence of her desires as, 'In her white lace negligee stained a little with blood, the Countess climbs up on her catafalque at dawn each morning and lies down in an open coffin.' Metamorphosis takes place as she turns into a nocturnal creature sniffing out lesser prey. Change and the question of what it means to be human, that fearsome ingredient of Victorian horror of the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde type, but with its roots further back in the Jacobean horror of wolfish brothers carrying legs of corpses over their shoulders in The Duchess of Malfi—these crowd many of Carter's short stories. Here the rococo strangely juxtaposes images and descriptions which conjure up a night world of horror.
the voracious margin of huntress's nights in the gloomy garden, crouch and pounce, surrounds her habitual tortured somnambulism, her life or imitation of life. The eyes of this nocturnal creature enlarge and glow. All claws and teeth, she strokes, she gorges; but nothing can console her for the ghastliness of her condition, nothing.
Employing what David Punter calls 'the dialectic of persecution', Carter's gothic investigates the extremes of terror, leading the audience gradually into realms which are nightmarish and horribly familiar.9
Influences on Carter's work include lsak Dinesen, who continued gothic interest in decayed aristocracy, and as a feminist writer, filtered society's problems 'through a pervading and ironic self-consciousness' much as does Fevvers, and the protagonist of The Bloody Chamber. 10 Another main influence is in the nightmarish, surrealist and psychologically fired night wanderings of transvestite characters in Djuna Barnes, particularly the highly Jacobean Nightwood (1937). Nightwood belongs to a tradition of lesbian gothic writing, which highlights the sexuality implicit in such horror figures as vampires, werewolves and zombies. Richard Dyer comments that,
a number of … writers on the horror film have suggested, adapting Freudian ideas, that all 'monsters' in some measure represent the hideous and terrifying form that sexual energies take when they 'return' from being socially and culturally repressed. Yet the vampire seems especially to represent sexuality … s/he bites them, with a bite that is just as often described as a kiss.11
Werewolves are favourites in The Bloody Chamber collection, their sexuality emphasised as handsome young men who leap in front of girls, men with eyebrows meeting suspiciously in the middle; men who want to eat you up and devour you sexually. The main vampire is a woman in 'The Lady of the House of Love' who lures in wandering men who, 'led by the hand to her bedroom … can scarcely believe their luck'.
Investigating her relationship to other post-modernist writers we find many parallels with the American gothic of Purdy, Pynchon and Coover. Recognition of this appears in her epigraph to Heroes and Villains which comes from Leslie Fiedler's exploration of the American gothic, Love and Death in the American Novel.12 The epigraph runs: 'The Gothic mode is essentially a form of parody, a way of assailing clichés by exaggerating them to the limit of grotesqueness.'13
One of Carter's main stated aims is demythologising, unpicking and unpacking the myths and legends (those fictions) which shape and control our lives, whether safely contained in a fairytale or shaped around us in newspaper articles, adverts or television stereotypes. The human mind forces experience into familiar shapes so that it can comprehend it, but in so doing it simplifies into stereotype and myth, which themselves seem then to us to have safely embodied the less pleasant of those experiences, mental or physical, by objectifying and fictionalising them in this way. Stereotypes, myths and fictions are shorthand, but they exercise a control on the expressions and forms of the everyday world. Carter particularly intends to demythologise the fictions related to sexuality, and horror is one of her means. She exposes the relationship between sex and power, the erotic, the perverse; she digs behind the ostensibly comfortable and safe surfaces and shows up oppressions, reification, torture and dehumanisation lurking in the everyday. One way she does this is by re-examining and rewriting fairytales and myths, and another is to explore incidents in which the everyday explodes, revealing the horrors which lurk behind it.
Violence against women has long been a characteristic of much horror writing, as well as pornography. The essential powerlessness of the virginal, entrapped, victimised girl is a stock feature of pornography as it is of gothic horror which deals with taboos: 'Incest, rape, various kinds of transgressions of the boundaries between the natural and the human'.14 Angela Carter is a clever manipulator of the techniques of horror, terror and the gothic. She takes the impetus and the structure of gothic-based romance tales for women and reappropriates them for a sexual politics which demythologises myths of the sexual powerlessness and victim role for women. She uses their structure to turn their usual denouements on their heads. As Tania Modleski argues in Loving with a Vengeance, gothics are 'expressions of the "normal" feminine paranoid personality' which incorporates guilt and fear, 'the paranoid individual faces physical persecution (as in dreams of being attacked by murderous figures)'.15
Moral and more importantly physical persecution predominate, and the reader is encouraged to wallow in the guilt and fear, and to imagine themselves as a victim, while in romantic developments of gothic fiction, persecution is 'experienced as half-pleasurable'. Romantic heroines turn their 'victimization into a triumph'. If we explore the novels which combine the gothic and the romantic there is a (for a feminist reader) tremendous disempowering celebration of this victimisation as satisfying and ultimately productive of reward. Paulina Palmer, examining Margaret Atwood's Bodily Harm makes comments as appropriate for Carter as for Atwood, about the reappropriation of a genre, the gothic romantic, designed very much for women,
the Gothic genre, traditionally noted for its representation of woman as victim, becomes in Atwood's hands the perfect medium for depicting contemporary woman caught unaware in the 'rape culture' which pervades society. Motifs associated with the genre … include: the ingenuous heroine as the victim of male manipulation and attack; an intrigue plot in which the male protagonists compete for power; the collapsing of conventional boundaries between external/internal and animate/inanimate; and the reference to certain socially taboo topics—in this case cancer, and sado-masochistic sexual practice.16
The resurgence in interest in horror writing by women which has produced The Virago Book of Ghost Stories17 and the fiercer, more radical Skin of Our Soul18 enables us to ask questions about where Angela Carter relates to other women horror writers and what might be said to be any specifically female characteristics in the horror genre. The very latest of the popular fictional forms to be reclaimed by feminist critics, investigating the operation of popular fictional characteristics in the work of women writers within the genre, horror writing might very properly be said to have originated with women, with the work of Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho or with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Great women writers throughout the centuries have produced ghost stories and horror stories, but perhaps one of the problems of reclaiming horror as a genre for women is this very equation of the female victim, the edge of the pornographic, with horror.
Lisa Tuttle argues that men and women's perceptions of fear are to some extent similar, but in others different because of their social positioning:
Territory which to a man is emotionally neutral may for a woman be mined with fear, and vice-versa, for example: the short walk home from the bus-stop of an evening. And how to understand the awesome depths of loathing some men feel for the ordinary (female) body? We all understand the language of fear, but men and women are raised speaking different dialects of that language.19
Women's contemporary horror fiction explores sexual license, alternative sexual relationships, and the power in 'normal' relationships. There are many tales which feature fear of Incest, of patriarchal rape, of life-draining mother, hatred of devious, bitchy, beautiful women. There are hidden cruelties in what are 'normally' perceived as loving or nurturing relationships, and there are forbidden fantasies of lesbian partnerships or incestuous partnerships. Taboos are explored.
Angela Carter's gothic horror reappropriates women's powers. The thrills and spills of the romantic gothics are there, but the terroriser turned faithful lover is not. The main gains are self respect, liberty and equal relationships. Red Riding Hood ends up happy with the wolf, Bluebeard's wife is liberated, Fevvers settles for Walser, and retains her secret, her magic. Glittering, contradictory, intertextually familiar and playful, Angela Carter's horror brings into the clear light of the semirealistic domestic kitchen, the nasty thoughts, fears and nightmares lurking in the cellars of our minds. And she gives us something magical too. Hers is not the horror of the abyss: it is not ultimately a black vision, it's too Rabelaisian for that, too funny and celebratory.
1. Books by Angela Carter referred to in the text: The Magic Toyshop (London 1967); Heroes and Villains (London: 1969); Fireworks (London: 1974); The Bloody Chamber (London: 1979); The Sadeian Woman (London: 1979); Nights at the Circus (London: 1984); Black Venus (London: 1985); Wise Children (1991).
2. Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion (London: 1981) p. 41.
3. Angela Carter in conversation with John Haffenden, The Literary Review no. v (1984) p. 37.
4. Iris le Bessiere, Le Récit Fantastique: La Poétique de l'lncertain (Paris: 1974) p. 62.
5. Jackson, p. 23.
6. Lee Daniells, Fear: a History of Horror in the Mass Media (London: 1977).
7. Martin Barker, A Haunt of Fears: the Strange History of the British Horror Comics Campaign (London: 1984) p. 129.
8. Roald Dahl interviewed in Twilight Zone (Jan-Feb. 1983).
9. David Punter, The Literature of Terror: a History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day (London: 1980) p. 130.
10. Ibid., p. 379.
11. Richard Dyer, 'Children of the Night. Vampirism as Homosexuality, Homosexuality as Vampirism' in Susanna Radstone ed., Sweet Dreams: Sexuality, Gender and Popular Fiction (London: 1988) p. 54.
12. Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (New York: 1960).
13. Angela Carter, Heroes and Villains (London: 1981).
14. Punter, p. 19.
15. Tania Modleski, Loving with a Vengeance (New York: 1984) pp. 81 and 83.
16. Paulina Palmer, Contemporary Women's Fiction (Brighton: 1989) p. 91.
17. Richard Dalby ed., The Virago Book of Ghost Stories (London: 1990).
18. Lisa Tuttle ed., The Skin of Our Soul: New Horror Stories by Women (London: 1990) Introduction.
19. Ibid., p. 5.
HEATHER JOHNSON (ESSAY DATE 1994)
SOURCE: Johnson, Heather. "Textualising the Double-Gendered Body: Forms of the Grotesque in The Passion of New Eve." In Angela Carter, edited by Alison Easton, pp. 127-35. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.
In the following essay, originally published in Contemporary Review in 1994, Johnson examines Carter's treatment of "two characters of compound identity in The Passion of New Eve" to illuminate the nature of the grotesque.
The world of Angela Carter's fiction is inhabited by fabulous, monstrous creations: she-wolves, bird women, drag queens. The composite nature of these mythic figures often becomes the point of textual fascination in several of her novels and short stories. In order to examine the treatment of such composite images more closely, this article will focus on two characters of compound identity in The Passion of New Eve : Eve(lyn) and Tristessa. Specifically, I wish to argue that Carter's text reclaims the figure of the double-gendered body through the shifting values of the term grotesque that can be charted in the development of the narrative. This use of the grotesque also intersects and informs the parody of gender norms in the novel. In a reading of these figures as grotesque, one can discover here the two distinctive forms of this term as proposed by Bakhtin and the corresponding values generally associated with the term itself. It is possible to recognise one of these as positive and the other as negative.
A definition of the term grotesque realism is located in Bakhtin's reading of Rabelais and is dependent on a set of images that describe a transgressive body—one which emphasises the lower stratum, which takes pleasure in bodily functions, and which embraces an interrelation of death and birth. He describes this grotesque body as open, protruding, secreting, a body of becoming: 'In grotesque realism … the bodily element is deeply positive.' The material body is shown to be 'festive' and 'utopian'.1 Bakhtin also delineates a second meaning of the term grotesque as 'post-Romantic'. This refers to the grotesque in its modern sense as it furnishes descriptions of alienation, hostility, and inhumanity. To this form it is possible to assign a negative value since its meaning is preoccupied with issues of rejection and revulsion. Its use in common speech is clearly derogatory.
Both these forms of the grotesque are inscribed in the bodies of the two central figures. Carter's protagonist begins the novel as the male Evelyn but is transformed physically and then mentally into a woman—Eve. Captured in the desert by the women of Beulah, Evelyn is taken to meet the self-designed goddess 'Mother', whose body seems to fill the captive's visual frame: 'She was so big she seemed, almost, to fill the round, red-painted, over-heated, red-lit cell.'2 Her arms are 'like girders', her vagina is 'like the crater of a volcano', and Evelyn imagines 'the sun in her mouth' (p. 64). In the manner of Artemis, Mother has required the sacrifice of one breast from each of her followers and has 'flung a patchwork quilt stitched from her daughters' breasts over the cathedral of her interior' (p. 60). Thus she presents an imposing figure of physical amplitude and abundant fertility. Here we can see some aspects of the Rabelaisian grotesque—the bodily form exaggerated to excess, the symbol of fertility, and the focus on the lower stratum. This focus is obviously empha-sised further by the subsequent construction of Eve's womb and the location of Beulah's uterine rooms beneath the desert floor. The image is not without humour, of course—'Her nipples leaped about like the bobbles on the fringe of an old-fashioned, red plush curtain' (p. 64)—and here it coincides, in its celebration of excess, with the notion of carnivalesque laughter, a significant feature of the Rabelaisian mode.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
JAMES BROCKWAY ON CARTER'S "GOTHIC PYROTECHNICS" IN FIREWORKS
It would be possible almost to give an account of the contents and nature of Fireworks by quoting from Angela Carter's own words in these tales. From the magnificent story "The Loves of Lady Purple," to my taste the finest in the book and one which harps back happily to the puppets in "The Magic Toyshop," one could take 'freedom from actuality' and 'immune to the drab world of here and now' and 'bewildering entertainment' and 'Here the grotesque is the order of the day' and 'Everything in the play was entirely exotic' and, best of all, I think: 'a thick, lascivious murmur like fur soaked in honey which sent unwilling shudders of pleasure down the spines of the watchers', except that I also think Angela Carter will find plenty of readers who shudder most willingly.
One could also quote some of her idiosyncratic adjectives to say all: appalling, ghastly, violet, violent, perverse, torrid, desolate, vicious, viscous, cavernous, subaqueous, indecent, lewd, fernal, leprous, lycanthropic, stagnant, demented. But this would be to suggest a gothic orgy, whereas for all the highly deliberate, deliberately ornamental embroidery of this laden prose, it is the intelligence at work beneath it all which raises almost everything here to the level of art. For intelligence is another attribute of genuine art, and intelligence here is both active and unusual.
SOURCE: Brockway, James. "Gothic Pyrotechnics." Books and Bookmen (February 1975): 55-6.
Carter uses the figure of Mother to disrupt patriarchal conceptions of the female body, as the grotesque body irrupts into the conventional presentation of that body. The description of Mother is filtered through the male sensibility of Evelyn as narrator and as such enacts a parody of the conventional maternal image through physical exaggeration, excess, and distortion. Evelyn responds to Mother as a monster: 'the bull-like pillar of her neck,… false beard of crisp, black curls', and the obvious result of the programme of grafting fill him with 'squeamish horror' (p. 59). In the context of Carter's novel this reaction is significant since Evelyn is responding as a male to an exaggerated female body. The figure of Mother can be regarded as pivotal here in accounting for the shift in meaning of the grotesque. Evelyn's interpretation of her body as disgusting rather than life-affirming is soon transferred onto his own new body. Evelyn is castrated and then transformed by two months of plastic surgery into a biological woman. Once completed, the new Eve finds that she is 'as mythic and monstrous as Mother herself' (p. 83). This neatly illustrates Mary Russo's criticism of Bakhtin's definition of the bodily grotesque. Russo notes that he 'fails to acknowledge or incorporate the social relations of gender in his semiotic model of the body politic, and thus his notion of the Female Grotesque remains … repressed and undeveloped'.3 Her point is that the female body is already displaced and marginalised within social relations since it is often a body which must either conform to a set of regulated norms or be dismissed as Other. Therefore, the body which is female and grotesque must be recovered from a place of double exile. The post-Romantic definition of the grotesque as the described experience of alienation, isolation, and marginalised irregularity corresponds to the kind of physical difference featured in Carter's novel.4 This difference is dependent on the composite nature of Eve and her counterpart, Tristessa—both acquire the identity of the hermaphrodite. A hint of Evelyn's future shape comes early in the novel, when he is browsing through the attic of his neighbour the alchemist: 'There was a seventeenth century print, tinted by hand, of a hermaphrodite carrying a golden egg that exercised a curious fascination upon me' (p. 13). Any sense of fascination that might have been occasioned by a real androgynous body is expressed as revulsion and derision when the hermaphroditic nature of Tristessa is brutally revealed. The reclusive film star's glamour is world renowned and based on the construction of her femininity. So when it is discovered that under her gowns and fragile appearance she is actually a man, the very basis of the constitution of femininity is brought into question. The group which captures Tristessa subjects her to various forms of torture, treating her as a grotesque because of her dual nature: 'They made ropes from twisted strips of his own négligé and tied him by his wrists from a steel beam, so there he dangled, naked, revealed' (p. 129). The image of Tristessa's exposed body suggests a reading of the grotesque as wholly negative—this androgyne is a 'freak' to its captors and is spared no form of ridicule or humiliation. When Eve is seen to be sympathetic towards their victim, she is treated with the same cruelty.
This interpretation of the grotesque body is also confirmed by the experience of the abject, which we can read across the bodies of Eve(lyn) and Tristessa. Kristeva's category of the abject locates the source of alienation in the subject's body and in the moment when one being emerges from or merges into another. This corresponds to Evelyn's repulsion at the sight of Mother whose likeness is then stamped onto his own body. In Kristeva's definition of the abject it is possible to comprehend fully its traumatic effects: it is 'what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.'5 In Carter's novel experience of the abject occurs when each body is forced to transgress socially established boundaries of gender as written on the body. We have seen that Evelyn reacts with horror at the moment of her biological transformation, the form of her own body provoking a sense of disgust. When his own transformation into a biological woman is complete, the sense of disgust is articulated through a direct comparison to Mother's: 'I would wince a little at such gross modulation of a flesh that had once been the … twin of my new flesh' (p. 77). The rearrangement of the body's borders means that Evelyn responds to himself as if he had been modelled after a monster as hideously devised as Frankenstein's.
Similarly, a transgressive act is inscribed in the removal of Tristessa's gown. This marks a significant textual shift in meaning that is enacted in the violently forced reconsideration of her sexual status. Made to acknowledge the presence of her hidden genitalia, Tristessa experiences a shift in identity to which he responds with 'wailing [which] echoed round the gallery of glass' (p. 128). Both characters are forced to recognise their own formation, and it is at the moment of change in ontological certainty that they too participate in the abjection of their bodies. Beyond this subjective view of the grotesque body, the image of a composite being, unnatural and constructed out of seemingly disparate parts, is clearly the body experienced as grotesque by the other characters. The Gothic setting of Tristessa's glass house, where she is abused by the intruders, contains bodily images that further accentuate the theme of self-invention and physical reconstitution. In Tristessa's waxwork mausoleum, 'The Hall of the Immortals', exquisitely fashioned corpses are dismembered by Tristessa's attackers, and when they decide that a mock wedding is to take place between Eve and Tristessa, they gather the scattered limbs together in order to construct witnesses for the event. Yet in doing this, 'they put the figures together haphazardly, so Ramon Navarro's head was perched on Jean Harlow's torso and had one arm from John Barrymore Junior, the other from Marilyn Monroe and legs from yet other donors—all assembled in haste, so they looked like picture-puzzles' (p. 134).
This simile of the picture-puzzle brings us to the heart of our understanding of the modern or post-Romantic grotesque. This composite image has the appearance of something that is unresolved and provokes a reaction in the viewer that strives to unify the obvious disparities, thereby rescuing it for the realm of the normal, the familiar. Through ridicule and objectification of the Other, people attempt to reassure themselves of their own normality, their regularity. In his introduction to the memoirs of a nineteenth-century French hermaphrodite, Michel Foucault has shown that from the Middle Ages through to the last century, anyone whose sexual status was open to question was required to choose one sexual identity for life and usually it was a doctor's task to decipher which was the 'true' sex of the body. And now, in the twentieth century, the idea of one sex being close to 'the truth' has not been completely dispelled. It is still widely believed that homosexuality and the swapping of gender characteristics are somehow 'errors'—that is, Foucault says, 'a manner of acting that is not adequate to reality' and, further, that 'sexual irregularity is seen as belonging more or less to the realm of chimera'.6
As we have seen, the image of the chimera, that fabulous mythical creature of mixed forms, is at the centre of Carter's novel. The fantastic element in her fiction is often treated by the narrative voice with the banal tone of acceptance characteristic of writing in the vein of magical realism. And here, any scenario or person that might at first seem unusual, including the figures of Eve, Tristessa, and even Mother, are treated in the text as factual, not as frightening aberrations. And so it is that the central figure of this novel sets out on a journey of discovery and, through the reading of his/her own body, embraces the full spectrum of gender identities, some of which were once alien to him—most notably those of the female. Evelyn, then, begins his trip with this intent:
I would go to the desert, to the waste heart of that vast country, the desert on which they turned their backs for fear it would remind them of emptiness—the desert, the arid zone, there to find, chimera of chimeras, there, in the ocean of sand, among the bleached rocks of the untenanted part of the world, I thought I might find that most elusive of all chimeras, myself.
In our reading of the bodies of this central character and its companion, it is possible to discover more than one meaning of the grotesque. When Eve and Tristeassa embrace, once they are alone, Eve is aware that 'we had made the great Platonic hermaphrodite together' (p. 148). In Plato the hermaphrodite is the original human form which was then split into two, thus accounting for the two sexes and the human desire to rejoin with an original mate. In The Passion of New Eve, the reaction to the hermaphroditic subject first appears to belong to a reading of the grotesque similar to the image of the grotesque often found in southern American writing—Carson McCullers, for example, has used this image to explore the lives of those regarded as freakish and marginalised by society. However, if we return to Rabelais, we may discover an interesting connection between that bodily grotesque of carnival, which Bakhtin finds in his work, and the post-Romantic grotesque in which the irregular body reflects a modern condition of alienation. These two possible renderings of the grotesque meet in the central character of Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel. For here is the description of the emblem on the hat that Gargantua wears: 'Against a base of gold weighing over forty pounds was an enamel figure very much in keeping. It portrayed a man's body with two heads facing one another, four arms, four feet, a pair of arses and a brace of sexual organs male and female. Such, according to Plato's Symposium, was human nature in its mystical origins' (qtd in Bakhtin, p. 323).
So what do we make of this image of the epitomic form of the positive grotesque wearing an emblem of the negative grotesque? They are both situated outside the official culture, but the first is celebratory, disruptive, redemptive. The grotesque of the modern period, as our use of the word as a term of derision attests, represents rejection, exile, and abnormality. When Gargantua champions the hermaphrodite as the symbol of the grotesque, he celebrates the fact that all humans once had that form, that we all share the origins of the grotesque. The fact that the hermaphroditic figure is rejected as alien in modern times suggests a denial of this condition, not out of respect for scientific fact but due to the social pressures towards visual conformity. And this sense of denial is applied to any body which displays chimerical characteristics.
Thus it is significant that New Eve is ultimately reconciled to her changed body. New Eve's body has been designed by Mother to reflect an ideal of perfect femininity as determined by social norms. Yet it is clear that Eve herself regards the process by which this appearance of normality has been achieved as grotesque in itself. She cannot forget that her present body is a manufactured one: 'I had been born out of discarded flesh, induced to a new life by means of cunning hypodermics,… my pretty face had been constructed out of a painful fabric of skin from my old inner thighs' (p. 143). When Eve looks into the face of Tristessa she is instantly reminded that they are 'mysteriously twinned by [their] synthetic life' (p. 125).
In transcending this view of her body, overcoming the resistant feelings about her condition, Eve(lyn) participates in a celebration of her chimerical nature when she is united with Tristessa after the destruction of the glass house. The moment of sexual congress between the two hermaphroditic figures may be dismissed by some as a heterosexual fantasy of recaptured unity. Yet the celebration of the body and its transgression of gender boundaries is, I think, intended to espouse a positive reading of this image.
The relocation of the chimerical, the hermaphroditic, within the realm of possibility, as a source of origin and a site for pleasure, is written in the bodies of these two characters. Carter playfully recentres the figure of chimerical form in this novel. In her use of the grotesque Carter parodies those characters, such as Mother and Zero, who impose a myopic perspective on the constitution of gender identity, while challenging traditional perspectives on gender and its boundaries. As Eve(lyn) and Tristessa embrace, they form a single bodily image in which these boundaries are temporarily lost. It is tempting to read this image as an example of Bakhtin's positive grotesque in which the death of one and the birth of another can be seen in the one body: 'two bodies in one, the budding and the division of the cell' (Bakhtin, p. 52). As Eve begins to grow into her newly grafted identity and Tristessa enters into the final hours of his life, they share this climactic dissolution of identity, making the shape of this one fabulous, mythic creature together.
[Heather Johnson's essay is the first of three essays included in this collection (Angela Carter, edited by Alison Easton. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994) which draw on aspects of Mikhail Bakhtin's work on carnival and the grotesque to explore relations of social power and their historical contexts in Carter's work. (Carter herself did not read Bakhtin's work until after the publication of Nights at the Circus, a novel for which his ideas also provide a useful lens.) The Passion of New Eve, the subject of Johnson's essay, charts the journey of the male, English narrator, Evelyn, through a futuristic United States where by surgical means he is forced to become female (his/her body made the patriarchal idealisation of woman). Renamed Eve, she eventually meets with and makes love with the ageing film star, Tristessa, revealed to be biologically male. These two transgressive bodies thus demonstrate, indeed recognise the constructiveness of the gendered body; normality in Eve is made to seem grotesque. Bakhtin's ideas of the grotesque, based on his reading on Rabelais, are central to an understanding of the literature of the body in political terms—the grotesque body is excessive, monstrous and revolting, with the power to disrupt limits fixed by present powers. Mary Russo reads the grotesque specifically as a female form—woman's existence, and in particular her body, as monstrous in patriarchal eyes. Johnson also refers to Foucault (whose work on sexuality and the power of social institutions was important to Carter) to establish how normality and abnormality in gender roles are constructed by those who police sexuality in society. Kristeva's psychoanalytic but politically charged ideas of abjection—a horror at and attempted expulsion of things which disturb established identity, system, order—are also used to describe the characters' subjectitivity in recognising their own formation. The essay finally asks whether the grotesque can still be read positively. Ed.]
1. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (Bloomington, 1984), p. 19; hereafter cited parenthetically.
2. Angela Carter, The Passion of New Eve (London, 1986), p. 63; hereafter cited parenthetically.
3. Mary Russo, 'Female Grotesques: Carnival and Theory', in Feminist Studies/Critical Studies, ed. Teresa de Lauretis (Basingstoke, 1988), p. 219.
4. My use of the term post-Romantic is taken from Bakhtin who has chosen it to distinguish between a modern understanding of the term grotesque and the much earlier meaning grounded in the social reality of the Middle Ages. I realise that this distinction is by no means an absolute one and exceptions do exist in the post-Romantic period.
5. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York, 1982), p. 4.
6. Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-Century French Hermaphrodite, trans. Richard McDougall, introd. Michel Foucault (Brighton, 1980), p. x.
BEATE NEUMEIER (ESSAY DATE 1996)
SOURCE: Neumeier, Beate. "Postmodern Gothic: Desire and Reality in Angela Carter's Writing." In Modern Gothic: A Reader, edited and with an introduction by Victor Sage and Allan Lloyd Smith, pp. 141-51. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996.
In the following essay, Neumeier explains how Carter employs the Gothic in her fiction to explore "the nature of desire and of reality."
According to Angela Carter 'we live in Gothic times',1 where the marginalised subgenres of the past have necessarily become the appropriate and dominant modes of our present discourse. This view corresponds with the more general recent discussions of the development of the literary fantastic from the emergence of the Gothic mode in the eighteenth century to the contemporary practice of postmodernism. Neil Cornwell, among others, claims that 'the fantastic has itself become the dominant mode in the modern novel'. It is part of what he terms the '"portmanteau novel" … to designate the complex, multilevelled or multi-layered novel', characterised by irony, parody, intertextuality, and metafiction.2 Leslie Fiedler, quoted by Angela Carter in an epigraph to her novel Heroes and Villains, sees the Gothic mode as 'a form of parody, assailing clichés by exaggerating them to the limit of grotesqueness'.3 Emphasising the importance of this tradition for her own writing, Angela Carter characterises Gothicism as a genre ignoring 'the value systems of our institutions', and dealing 'entirely with the profane'. Its 'characters and events are exaggerated beyond reality, to become symbols, ideas, passions … style will tend to be ornate, unnatural—and thus operate against the perennial human desire to believe the word as fact … [The Gothic] retains a singular moral function—that of provoking unease.'4 Gothicism in this sense is placed in opposition to mimetic art, to realism, and situated within the realm of nonmimetic art, of fantasy and the fantastic, areas which have always been associated with imagination and desire.
Images and symbols of 'infernal desire' which trace the forbidden paths of cultural taboos are the particular domain of fantastic literature, the acknowledged literature of the unreal, in which the questions discussed in this essay by necessity arise: namely the questions of the nature of desire and of reality. Angela Carter's novels and tales provide superb examples of a literary and theoretical exploration of these features.5
Eros and Thanatos: the subject as battle-ground
In her novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman, Angela Carter engages the hero/narrator and her readers in what she makes him call a veritable 'Reality War' (27). In this war reality is linked to order, reason, and rationality as opposed to fantasy, imagination, chaos, and desire. The unnamed Minister of State and Dr Hoffman respectively figure as representatives of Super Ego and Id, reality principle and pleasure principle, as the narrator informs us. So we are presented with what seems to be a paradigmatic Freudian drama by its own definition, a text which writes its own interpretation as it goes along. Whereas earlier Gothic/fantastic texts had to be interpreted in psychoanalytic terms by readers and critics, this text provides its own reading.
But, of course, there is more to it than meets the eye/I of the hero/narrator whose vision is questioned and whose I-dentity is at stake. First of all, the figurehead of reality and rationality, the Minister, remains conspicuously absent throughout the novel (apart from a recorded conversation between the Minister and Dr Hoffman's ambassador at the outset of the novel). Likewise, his counterpart Dr Hoffman, the representative of infernal desire, appears only at the very end, although he (and possibly the Minister?) seems to have been present throughout the novel in various disguises (e.g. as peep show proprietor, as Sadeian Count). Hence Carter's 'Reality War' seems to be displaced onto the level of actions involving the narrator/hero, Desiderio, and Hoffman's daughter, Albertina. Desiderio, working for the Minister, is sent on a quest to save mankind, a mission which can only be accomplished by destroying Dr Hoffman. Appointed to the position of an 'Inspector of Veracity' (40) Desiderio visits a town fair, meets a peep show proprietor in whose tent he is supposed to marvel at wax models of the 'Seven Wonders of the World' (42)—a veritable catalogue of the fragmented human body (womb, eyes, breasts, head, penis, mutilated body, culminating in the representation of copulating bodies) and its interpretation in images of desire (and fear). Another tent reveals a series of pictures of 'A Young Girl's Most Significant Experience' (58), which turns out to be the proverbial Sleeping Beauty being kissed by a Prince who is transformed into Death. These images (wax models, pictures) bear strange resemblances to persons and events in Desiderio's past and future: one of the women depicted in the 'Seven Wonders of the World' resembles the beautiful and enigmatic Albertina, who had earlier appeared in the shapes of a black swan and that of Dr Hoffman's male ambassador. The castle represented inside the wax model womb reappears at the end of the novel as Hoffman's Gothic abode. The paintings of the Sleeping Beauty resemble Desiderio's past amorous encounter with the town mayor's daughter Mary Anne (the night before) and her future death (the next morning). After this fatal event Desiderio has to flee from the Police who charge him with seduction, murder, and necrophily performed on a minor as well as with impersonation of a government inspector (62). During the course of the novel he lives as an Indian among the River People, travels as nephew of the peep show proprietor from fair to fair, accompanies a Sadeian Count to the perversions of the 'House of Anonymity' (128), falls into the hands of a cannibalistic tribe, is received in the land of the Centaurs, until he finally reaches the castle of his opponent Dr Hoffman.
The dialectic and reversibility of the pattern of flight and persecution, of the figures of victim and persecutor as known from classical Gothic/fantastic novels like Frankenstein and Dracula is thematised throughout in association with the quest motif. Desiderio's mission is death: the destruction of Dr Hoffman. Yet almost from the start this mortal mission is accompanied and sometimes replaced by the quest for love of Albertina, Hoffman's daughter, an unmistakable hint at the Freudian tenet of the inseparability of Eros and Thanatos. Desiderio pursues and saves Albertina who in turn rescues him and in fact is his constant companion, most significantly in the disguise of Lafleur, the servant of the notorious Sadeian Count. Here the link between the ambivalence of the structural pattern and the figural pattern in Gothic/fantastic literature is made obvious. The technique of using various disguises, of changing identities, of splitting/multiplying personalities is taken to an ironic extreme. It seems only logical that after having been presented consecutively as a government inspector, an Indian, a nephew of a peepshow proprietor, and a guest of a Sadeian count, Desiderio finally realises himself in a mirror in Hoffman's castle as 'entirely Albertina in the male aspect' (199). If Albertina, as she claims, has been 'maintained in [her] various appearances only by the power of [Desiderio's] desire' (204), then the identification of the Minister and Dr Hoffman with rationality and desire respectively, also has to be questioned. All 'the roles are interchangeable' (39), as the doctor's ambassador explicitly points out. The neat borderline between reality and pleasure principle has become more and more blurred.
The described pattern of similarities between the images presented at the travelling fair and the experiences of the hero recurs throughout the novel. Image and experience constantly reflect each other, or rather appear as inseparable. Aptly, the peep show proprietor lectures the hero that the models and slides shown at the fair once belonged to Hoffman's museum of 'symbolic constituents of representations of the basic constituents of the universe' from which all possible situations of the world can be deduced. Consequently the symbols can be interpreted as 'patterns from which real events may be evolved' (95). So the novel identifies this set of samples as what could be called the constituents of a grammar of desire 'derived from Freud' (108). Furthermore, the constituents of this grammar, as they are translated into Desiderio's experiences, can be directly connected to Todorov's distinction between themes of perception (e.g. metamorphoses) and themes of discourse (desire) in fantastic literature: in Carter's novel themes of perception appear as metamorphoses between the human and the animal aspect (Centaurs), between animate and inanimate (animal furniture in the 'House of Anonymity'), between object and subject (acrobats dissolving, transformations of personalities). Among the catalogue of themes of desire figure allusions to necrophily (Sleeping Beauty, embalmed Mrs Hoffman) and incest (River People), homosexual rape (Acrobats of Desire), rape by Centaurs (Albertina), torture (tattooing), sadism and blasphemy ('House of Anonymity'), and cannibalism (River people, Black tribe, Centaurs). Moreover the ancestry of the Doctor himself is firmly rooted in the Gothic tradition of Dracula, whereas the Count is explicitly linked to de Sade: names representing perceptions of the world governed by infernal desires.
Throughout the novel Desiderio is confronted with Gothic transformations of self and desire without ever reaching the consummation of his own single desire, Albertina. When their union finally is about to take place, he kills her in order to escape from being literally reduced to a—in Deleuze's and Guattari's terms—'desiring machine'.6 For the fate prepared for him and Albertina by the Doctor is to permanently become part of 'a pictorial lexicon of all the things a man and a woman might do together within the confines of a bed of wire six feet long by three feet wide' (214). In recent criticism this murder has received diverse readings. On the one hand, David Punter reads it as an example of 'the defeat of the political aspirations of the 1960s, and in particular of the father-figures of liberation, Reich and Marcuse' as well as a result of Desiderio's having been 'formed by the Minister's society, by the society of apparent institutional order and totalitarian conformism'.7 On the other hand, Ricarda Schmidt sees it as a result of Carter's attempt to show 'that the absolute rule of desire would make life just as repressive, sterile and static as the absolute rule of reason', and argues that the author supposedly 'examines the promise of desire completely and always fulfilled and finds that it does not guarantee happiness and freedom'.8 Both readings seem to presuppose the attainability of a realm of desire without its vocabulary and grammar, presenting desire mostly in the Gothic forms of the return of the repressed, mixed with pain. The course of the whole novel, however, reveals the inseparability of desire from the projectionist's sample of images. Images, symbols, and myths are structuring the unconscious as much as the conscious. Pleasure principle and reality principle cannot be kept apart. In this sense Carter's novel can also be read as a parody on psychoanalytic attempts to pen 'desire in a cage' (208), to define it as the Other of rationality and reason. Carter's Dr Hoffman thus aptly appears to combine aspects of the father-figures of psychoanalysis (Freud) and of Gothicism (namely E. T. A. Hoffmann, E. A. Poe, and de Sade) respectively, thus reminding the reader in various ways of the inseparability of the fantastic and its Freudian interpretations: first, the reader, of course, remembers the fact that Freud developed his theory of the uncanny in relation to a story by E. T. A. Hoffmann. Secondly, the appearance of the doctor in the novel is presented as a mock analytic situation, where the doctor is sitting on a stool holding the hand of a woman on a couch, who, however, in a Poe-like Gothic twist of the scene, turns out to be the embalmed corpse of the doctor's dead wife. Desire remains a zero unit, a pure absence like death. So Desiderio's erotic quest necessarily implies at the same time an entropic pull. Desire as a vacant term, defined as a lack, has to be given an object and thereby filled with meaning. Death by necessity remains an imaginary space, a space of non-reality, which gains its meaning solely in relation to reality as difference, as other, as realm after life. In that respect the (nondescript) space of death and the (non-directional) movement of desire both point towards a void or an absolute zero point. But because absence cannot be represented, we are ironically left with embalmed corpses and the futile killing of desire (as represented by Albertina's death) and its inevitable return as a narrative of memory—in yet another kind of representation.
Reality and fantasy: the confusion of image and object
This notion of the inseparability of desire (and death) from its representations, its cultural constructions (images, symbols, myths), has decisive consequences for the notions of reality and fantasy/the fantastic with regard to their fictional representations. Most definitions of the fantastic and its related areas have centred on its correlative opposition to the real. This implies a definition of the real as governed by the principles of order and rationality. The fantastic then—as its counterpart—is viewed as an expression of reality's constraints, giving space to the unreal, the unseen, and unsaid. The representational forms of the fantastic are by necessity historically bound and thus vary according to the changing value systems (and thus reality concepts) of the society to which they relate. Following Todorov's familiar and often applied terminology,9 the unreal or the Other is explained as supernatural within religious societies and is thus contained within the realm of the marvellous, the unhistoric; within secular societies the unreal is naturalised, e.g. in terms of a subjective perception, and thus can be contained as uncanny within the realm of the mimetic. The historical development of naming the unaccountable other as evil has consequently been traced as a gradual process of internalisation ranging from the devil (Lewis, The Monk; Maturin, Melmoth), to demons (villain/heroes of Ann Radcliffe and the Brontës) to the self as Other (Stevenson, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; Hitchcock, Psycho). Today, critics like Rosemary Jackson see the fantastic as 'confounding the marvellous and the mimetic', as an aspect of instability and uncertainty, as that which lies beyond interpretation. Thus the fantastic in her words fundamentally 'traces the limits of [culture's] epistemological and ontological frame' by problematising vision (eye) and language (I) as reliable constituents of reality.10 The fantastic, Rosemary Jackson goes on to explain, 'plays upon difficulties of interpreting events/things as objects or as images, thus disorienting the reader's categorisation of the "real" to such an extent that reason and reality appear as arbitrary shifting constructs'.11 Applying these ideas to the tradition of Gothic literature, the decisive difference between earlier examples and contemporary texts of the fantastic becomes clear. While Frankenstein's monster and Stoker's vampires materialise as product of self and invasion of self respectively and become real, Angela Carter's creatures never become real in that sense. Angela Carter actualises images as objects and events, just as Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker did in the nineteenth century, but she insists on the process of actualisation rather than on the actualisation itself, creating a constant limbo between object as image, and image as object. Her fictions express Rosemary Jackson's theoretical persuasion that 'things slide away from the powerful eye/I which seeks to possess them'.12 The travelling heroes of several of her novels, particularly those of The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman and Nights at the Circus, are confronted with recurring clusters of images commonly identified as representations of the relational/oppositional other: namely, the unknown country, the travelling fair or circus, and—of course—the Gothic mansion and its inhabitants.
The unknown country recalls the fictional tradition of Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels respectively as two complementary ways of naturalisation (familiarisation as appropriation) of the unknown on the one hand and estrangement (defamiliarisation as satire) of the known on the other hand. Carter explicitly and ironically takes up both traditions by referring to Yahoos and Houyhnhnms in The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman and in Nights at the Circus, and to Friday in the story 'Master' in Fireworks. Her heroes' experiences in unknown countries among unknown people provide ample opportunities to ridicule Western civilisation and its attempts at defining the Other in its own terms. Thus their wonder at the absurd nature of unknown mores, magic rituals, and languages only refers back to their/our own societies: in Nights at the Circus Jack Walser's explanation of the way the Siberian natives deal with foreigners can thus be related directly to the above-mentioned explanation of the history of Gothic/fantastic literature: 'Since they did not have a word for "foreigner", they used the word for "devil" instead and began to get used to it' (253). Similarly Walser's observation of the natives' tendency to confound object and image only reflects his and our own: 'The Siberian natives cannot distinguish between a bear as a household pet and as a "minor deity," "a transcendental kind of meta-bear" in the narrator's diction' (257). Furthermore, Walser himself (and the reader) cannot distinguish between the heroine Fevvers as a bird woman and Fevvers as a symbol of Victory, Death, Freedom or whatever other associations are evoked throughout the novel. In comparison and contrast to Swiftian satire Angela Carter not only uses the motif of the unknown country to criticise contemporary society, but eventually rather to represent ironically the process of signification and its arbitrariness and thus unreliability, a process which is all-encompassing and thus without conceivable alternative.
The travelling fair and the circus recall literary traditions associated with aspects of inversion and/or imitation of the known world. The world of the fair and the circus is the everyday world upside down: the abnormal becomes the norm within its confines, yet it always remains exotic with regard to the outside world. Angela Carter is interested in precisely this ambivalence: the other as a norm and as a monstrosity on display. In The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman the observer/hero is tempted to explain the art of the Acrobats of Desire, such as juggling their own eyes or dismembering themselves, as that of tricksters who play with the human perception (perhaps using mirrors to create their effects). But this reassuring interpretation of the unreal as real (uncanny) is destroyed later on: the acrobats clearly do transcend the possible; (thus they seem to belong to the realm of the marvellous). But at the same time, the narrator reminds us of the fact that 'often, the whole fair seemed only another kind of set of samples' (110), of images displayed in the tent of the peep show proprietor. The fantastic double vision or rather oscillation between the different interpretations remains unresolved. In Nights at the Circus the heroine Fevvers, the bird woman, is celebrated as the world's 'Greatest Aerialiste'. But eventually her admirer and biographer Walser hits upon the paradox of meaning when he ponders: 'if she were indeed a lusus naturae, a prodigy, then—she was no longer a wonder … but—a freak … As a symbolic woman, she has a meaning, as an anomaly, none' (161). This not only applies to the attitude of others towards her, but also to her vision of self. The threat of being 'no Venus, or Helen, or Angel of the Apocalypse, not Izrael or Isfahel … [but] only a poor freak', throws her into a crisis which, however, is prevented by the gaze of her onlookers: 'the eyes fixed upon her with astonishment, with awe, the eyes that told her who she was' (290). In order to signify the birdwoman has to believe in herself as an image and a symbol. Meaning and representation are by necessity symbolic constructions, artefacts.
The issue of gender: ontology v. iconography
The analysis so far has shown that Angela Carter's fictional exercises in Gothicism are very effective renditions of her theoretical statements on the nature of the genre which deals in exaggeration, distortion, in cliché images and symbols. An additional attraction of the Gothic genre for Carter is its potential of integration insofar as it allows her to link fairy tale and pornography in her novels and many of her short stories. Since, according to Carter, both are derived from myth, both exhibit 'a fantasy relation to reality', depicting wo/man as 'invariable' and denying his/her 'social context'.13 Thus in The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman the vampiric Sadeian Count is described in utterly theatrical terms as 'connoisseur of catastrophe' (122) whose 'rigorous discipline of stylisation' (123) forces him to remain 'iconoclast, even when the icons were already cast down': 'As if from habit he pissed on the altar [of a ruined chapel] while the valet set out the meal' (125). During their visit to the 'House of Anonymity' the Count and Desiderio change into hooded costumes which according to the narrator 'were unaesthetic, priapic and totally obliterated our faces and our self-respect; the garb grossly emphasised our manhoods while utterly denying our humanity. And the costumes were of no time or place' (130). Consequently they are confronted not with women, but with variations of 'ideational femaleness', which turn out to be 'sinister, abominable, inverted mutations, part clockwork, part vegetable and part brute' (132). In a climactic scene the Count as 'the Pope of the Profane, officiating at an ultimate sacrament … snatched a candle … and used it to ignite the rosy plumage of a winged girl' (133), who, however,—as the reader is informed subsequently—far from being real 'had only been a life-like construction of papier mâché on a wicker frame' (134). In Nights at the Circus the winged girl has materialised, and after having been displayed in Mme Schreck's museum of woman monsters, has to escape first from being bled to death by the quasivampiric Christian Rosencreutz and later from being diminished to a miniature artefact by a demonic collector of toys and other rarities. The airs of omnipotence displayed by these Gothic villains are, however, counteracted not only by their theatricality, but also by their 'quivering pusillanimity' (Infernal Desire Machines, 145) which shows itself as soon as they are faced with resistance.
The artificiality of Gothicism and its machinery is further revealed in Angela Carter's short story 'The Lady of the House of Love' (from her collection The Bloody Chamber ),14 where the vampire queen is likened by the hero to a doll, to a clockwork wound up years ago, to an automaton (102), and her mythical midnight mansion is stripped of all horror and fascination by the morning light: 'now you could see how tawdry it all was, how thin and cheap the satin, the catafalque not ebony at all but blackpainted paper stretched on ruts of wood, as in the theatre' (106). Similarly, when Desiderio reaches Dr Hoffman's castle, he realises: 'I was not in the domain of the marvellous at all. I had gone far beyond that and at last I had reached the power house of the marvellous, where all its clanking, dull, stage machinery was kept' (Infernal Desire Machines, 201).
A final twist in Carter's use of Gothicism is thus related to the idea of gender. Whereas earlier Gothic fiction shows the materialisation of ideas (Frankenstein's monster, Dracula), Angela Carter uses Gothicism to reveal the process of transformation of human beings, particularly women into symbols and ideas by the process of gender construction. Gothicism as a blend of fairy tale and pornography most obviously shows the replacement of the ontological by the iconographic. In her analysis of de Sade, The Sadeian Woman, Angela Carter links pornography to the stylisation of graffiti:
In the stylisation of graffiti, the prick is always presented as erect, in an alert attitude of enquiry or curiosity or affirmation; it points upwards, it asserts. The hole is open, an inert space, like a mouth waiting to be filled. From this elementary iconography may be derived the whole metaphysic of sexual differences—man aspires; woman has no other function but to exist, waiting. The male is positive, an exclamation mark. Woman is negative. Between her legs lies nothing but zero, the sign for nothing, that only becomes something when the male principle fills it with meaning.15
In her novel The Passion of New Eve Angela Carter uses Gothicism (among other genres) in this sense to reveal the process of gender construction as a process which places the hero turned heroine Eve/lyn 'outside history' (125), because it is a process of being transformed by 'the false universals of myth' (136). But how can wo/man be situated in history, in the real world, if this world, too, is a symbolic construction? The answer to this question given by the narrator/hero(ine) of the novel, 'a critique of these symbols is a critique of our lives' (6), indicates that Carter intends to move from the symbolic level of her texts to the symbolic representation of our reality.
As pointed out above, Angela Carter's fantastic creatures never become real in the way Frankenstein's monster or Dracula do. They necessarily must stop short, because the real only exists as absence, as vanishing zero point in a world constructed by images, symbols, and myths. If the fantastic is defined as tracing the limits of our cultural frame, as that which lies beyond interpretation, then the real as that which cannot be represented has become the 'real' topic of the post-modern fantastic. Yet this topic can never be grasped but can only be encircled (via parody, intertextuality, metafiction, and irony) in an endless process of de-mystification which, however, always acknowledges its own futility. The fantastic has not been replaced by Freud's psychoanalysis, as Todorov suggested, but has rather been reinvigorated by Lacan's revision of Freud. Rather than rendering the reader/critic unnecessary, Angela Carter provides him with the concrete textual illustrations of current literary theory.
1. A. Carter, Afterword to Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces (London: Quartet Books, 1974), p. 122.
2. N. Cornwell, The Literary Fantastic: From Gothic to Postmodernism (Hempstead: Harvester, 1990), pp. 145, 154.
3. A. Carter, Heroes and Villains (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books (1969) 1981).
4. Afterword to Fireworks.
5. The following texts are used: The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books (1972) 1982); Nights at the Circus (London: Picador (1984) 1984); The Bloody Chamber (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books (1979) 1987); The Passion of New Eve (London: Virago Press (1977) 1982).
6. G. Deleuze and F. Guattari, Anti-Oedipus (New York: Viking, (1972) 1977), Chapter 1.
7. D. Punter, 'Angela Carter: Supersessions of the Masculine', Critique 25:4 (1984), pp. 209-22; 211, 213.
8. R. Schmidt, 'The Journey of the Subject in Angela Carter's Fiction', Textual Practice 3:1 (1989), pp. 56-7; 61.
9. See Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. Richard Howard (Ittace, NY: Cronell University Press (1970) 1973).
10. R. Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London: Methuen, 1981), pp. 12, 30.
11. Ibid., pp. 20, 21.
12. Ibid., p. 46.
13. A. Carter, The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History (London: Virago Press, 1979), pp. 6, 16.
14. On Gothicism in Angela Carter's tales see Patricia Duncker, 'Re-Imagining the Fairy Tales: Angela Carter's Bloody Chambers', Literature and History 10:1 (spring 1984), pp. 3-14.
15. The Sadeian Woman, p. 4.
Ducornet, Rikki. "A Scatological and Cannibal Clock: Angela Carter's 'The Fall River Axe Murders.'" Review of Contemporary Fiction 14, no. 3 (fall 1994): 37-43.
Shows how Carter uses the symbolism of clocks and time to transform the story of Lizzie Borden's murder of her father and stepmother into what the critic sees as an overblown representation of human tragedy in her novel The Fall River Axe Murders.
Duncker, Patricia. "Queer Gothic: Angela Carter and the Lost Narratives of Sexual Subversion." Critical Survey 8, no. 1 (January 1996): 58-68.
Examines gothicism, homosexuality, and heterosexuality in Carter's fiction.
Fowl, Melinda G. "Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber Revisited." Critical Survey 3, no. 1 (January 1991): 71-9.
Traces the sources of tales in The Bloody Chamber.
Lee, Alison. Angela Carter. New York: Twayne, 1997, 146 p.
Book-length study of Carter's life and works.
Lokke, Kari E. "Bluebeard and The Bloody Chamber: The Grotesque of Self-Parody and Self-Assertion." Frontiers 10, no. 1 (1988): 7-12.
Compares Carter's version of the Bluebeard legend with Max Frisch's, noting that both authors use the grotesque as a method for exposing the brutality that informs traditional patriarchal views of women.
McLaughlin, Becky. "Perverse Pleasure and Fetishized Text: The Deathly Erotics of Carter's 'The Bloody Chamber.'" Style 29, no. 3 (1995): 404-22.
Shows how Carter's story "The Bloody Chamber" explores the connection between the eroticism of life and the sensuality of death.
Peach, Linden. "Euro-American Gothic and the 1960s: Shadow Dance (1966), Several Perceptions (1968) and Love (1970)." In Angela Carter, pp. 26-70. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.
Traces Carter's indebtedness to the Euro-American Gothic tradition; notes how through a combination of Gothic and psychological fantasy Carter pursues themes and motifs from nineteenth-century American writers, notably Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville.
Sceats, Sarah. "Oral Sex: Vampiric Transgression and the Writing of Angela Carter." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 20, no. 1 (2001): 107-21.
Examines Carter's use of vampire tropes to explore gendered behavior and heterosexual power relations.
Stoddart, Helen. "The Passion of New Eve and the Cinema: Hysteria, Spectacle, Masquerade." In The Gothic, edited by Fred Botting, pp. 111-31. Suffolk, England, and Rochester, N.Y.: D. S. Brewer, 2001.
Discusses questions about the depiction—in Gothic terms—of Tristessa in The Passion of New Eve and explores notions of spectacle, gender identity, and psychoanalysis.
OTHER SOURCES FROM GALE:
Additional coverage of Carter's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: British Writers Supplement, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56, 136; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 12, 36, 61, 106; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 5, 41, 76; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 14, 207, 261; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Short Stories; Feminist Writers; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Major 21st-Century Writers; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers; St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, Ed. 4; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 4, 12; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 13; Something about the Author, Vols. 66, 70; Supernatural Fiction Writers; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 139; and World Literature and Its Times.