Analysis of Angela Carter’s Novels

The search for self and for autonomy is the underlying theme of most of Angela Carter’s ) ( 7 May 1940 – 16 February 1992), fiction. Her protagonists, usually described as bored or in some other way detached from their lives, are thrust into unknown landscapes or embark on picaresque journeys in which they encounter representatives of a vast variety of human experience and suffering. These encountered characters are often grotesques or exaggerated parodies reminiscent of those found in the novels of Charles Dickens or such southern gothic writers as Flannery O’Connor. They also sometimes exhibit the animalistic or supernatural qualities of fairy-tale characters. The protagonists undergo voluntary or, more often, forced submission to their own suppressed desires. By internalizing the insights gained through such submission and vicariously from the experiences of their antagonists and comrades or lovers, the protagonists are then able to garner some control over their own destinies. This narrative structure is borrowed from the classic folktales and fairy tales with which Carter has been closely associated. Carter does not merely retell such tales in modern dress; rather, she probes and twists the ancient stories to illuminate the underlying hierarchical structures of power and dominance, weakness and submission.


In addition to the folkloric influence, Carter draws from a variety of other writers, most notably Lewis Carroll, Jonathan Swift, the Marquis de Sade, and William Blake. The rather literal-minded innocent abroad in a nightmarish wonderland recalls both Alice and Gulliver, and Carter acknowledges, both directly and obliquely, her borrowings from Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). She was also influenced by the Swiftian tool of grotesque parody used in the service of satire. It was through Swiftian glasses that she read Sade. While deploring the depredations on the human condition committed by both the victims and victimizers in Sade’s writings, she interprets these as hyperbolic visions of the actual social situation, and she employs in her novels derivatively descriptive situations for their satiric shock value. Finally, the thematic concerns of Blake’s visionary poetry—the tension between the contrarieties of innocence and experience, rationality and desire—are integral to Carter’s outlook. The energy created by such tension creates the plane on which Carter’s protagonists can live most fully. In Blake’s words and in Carter’s novels, “Energy is Eternal Delight.”

Although Carter’s landscapes range from London in the 1960’s (The Magic Toyshop, Several Perceptions, Love) to a postapocalyptic rural England (Heroes and Villains), a sometime-in-the-future South America (The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman), a United States in which the social fabric is rapidly disintegrating (The Passion of New Eve), and London and Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century (Nights at the Circus), certain symbolic motifs appear regularly in her novels. Carter is particularly intrigued by the possibilities of roses, wedding dresses, swans, wolves, tigers, bears, vampires, mirrors, tears, and vanilla ice cream. Menacing father figures, prostitute mothers, and a kaleidoscope of circus, fair, and Gypsy folk inhabit most of her landscapes. It is unfair, however, to reduce Carter’s novels to a formulaic mode. She juggles traditional and innovative elements with a sometimes dazzling dexterity and is inevitably a strong storyteller.

The Magic Toyshop

At the opening of The Magic Toyshop, fifteen-yearold Melanie is entranced with her budding sexuality. She dresses up in her absent mother’s wedding gown to dance on the lawn in the moonlight. Overwhelmed by her awakening knowledge and the immensities of possibility that the night offers, she is terrified and climbs back into her room by the childhood route of the apple tree—shredding her mother’s gown in the process. Her return to childhood becomes catastrophic when a telegram arrives announcing the death of Melanie’s parents in a plane crash. Melanie, with her younger brother and sister, is thrust from a safe and comfortable existence into the constricted and terrifying London household of her Uncle Philip Flower, a toy maker of exquisite skill and sadistically warped sensibility. He is a domestic tyrant whose Irish wife, Margaret, was inexplicably struck dumb on her wedding day. The household is also inhabited by Margaret’s two younger brothers, Finn and Francie Jowle; the three siblings form a magic “circle of red people” that is alternately seductive and repulsive to Melanie.

Uncle Philip is a creator of the mechanical. He is obsessed by his private puppet theater, his created world to which he enslaves the entire household. In aligning herself with the Jowle siblings, Melanie asserts her affirmation of life but becomes aware of the thwarted and devious avenues of survival open to the oppressed. The growing, but ambivalent, attraction between her and Finn is premature and manipulated by Uncle Philip. Even the love that holds the siblings together is underlined by a current of incest. Finn is driven to inciting his uncle to murder him in order to effect Philip’s damnation. The crisis arises when Uncle Philip casts Melanie as Leda in a puppet extravaganza. Her symbolic rape by the immense mechanical swan and Finn’s subsequent destruction of the puppet release an orgiastic, yet purifying, energy within the “circle of red people.” The ensuing wrath of Uncle Philip results in the conflagration and destruction of the house. Finn and Melanie are driven out, Adam-and-Eve-like, to face a new world “in a wild surmise.”

In fairy-tale fashion, Melanie is threatened by an evil father figure, protected by the good mother, and rescued by the young hero. Even in this early novel, however, Carter skews and claws at the traditional fabric. The Jowle brothers, grimy, embittered, and twisted by their victimization at the hands of Philip Flower, are as dangerous as they are endangered. They are unable to effect their own freedom. Melanie’s submission to Uncle Philip’s swan catalyzes not only her own rescue but also, indeed, the release of the Jowle siblings. Melanie’s sacrifice breaks the magic spell that held the Jowles imprisoned.


Several Perceptions

Several Perceptions, Carter’s third novel, depends less on such folkloric structure. In this novel, her evocation of the late 1960’s counterculture is so finely detailed that she manages to illuminate the thin line between the idealism and solipsism of that era, without denigrating the former or disguising the latter. The clarity of observation is achieved by viewing the culture through the eyes of Joseph Harker, a classic dropout. He has failed at the university, been dumped by his Jane Austen-reading lover, is disheartened by his job caring for dying old men, despises the contentment of his hippie peers, and, early in the novel, bungles a suicide attempt. Joseph, like his biblical namesake, is a dreamer of dreams: He dreams in the violent images of Vietnam War atrocities, the self-immolation of Buddhist monks, and assassinations. His schizophrenic perceptions are colored by shattered images from the books in his room, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Anne Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake (1863), by memories of his grandfather, visions of his psychiatrist, the purring of his pregnant cat, Anne Blossom’s custard, and the vanilla ice-cream breasts of Mrs. Boulder.

The novel narrates Joseph’s slow crawl back into the world of the living. Despite a tough-minded acknowledgment of the grubby and quite desolate lives of the characters, the novel is written with a gentle touch and ends on an affirmative note. The Christmas party that takes place at the end of the novel, in which Joseph symbolically reenters society, stands as a classic description of a hippie-generation party, just as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description of Gatsby’s party stands as the image for the flapper generation. The connected-disconnected flow, the costumes, the easy sexuality, the simple goodwill, the silliness, and the sometimes inspired personal insights are vividly re-created. Carter wrote the novel as this lifestyle was being played out, and it is much to her credit that she succumbed neither to sentimentality nor to parody. Science-fiction novels

Parody and satire are, however, major elements in Carter’s three novels that are often classified as science fiction or science fantasy. In Heroes and Villains, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, and The Passion of New Eve, Carter’s protagonists dwell in societies that are described in metaphysical iconography. Carter seems to be questioning the nature and values of received reality. Marianne’s world in Heroes and Villains is divided into high-technology enclaves containing Professors, the Soldiers who protect them, and the Workers who serve them. Outside the enclaves, in the semijungle/semicesspool wildernesses, dwell the tribes of nomadic Barbarians and the Out-people, freaks created by nature gone awry. Marianne, the daughter of a Professor, motivated mainly by boredom, escapes from her enclave with Jewel, a young Barbarian chieftain, during a raid.

In The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, the aging Desiderio narrates his heroic exploits as a young man when he saved his City during the Reality War. Doctor Hoffman besieges the City with mirages generated from his Desire Machines. Sent by the Minister of Determination to kill Doctor Hoffman, Desiderio is initiated into the wonders of desires made manifest, Nebulous Time, and the juggled samples of cracked and broken reality. His guide is Hoffman’s daughter, Albertina, who appears to Desiderio as an androgynous ambassador, a black swan, the young valet of a vampiric count, and finally as his one true love, the emanation of his whole desire.

The United States in The Passion of New Eve is torn apart by racial, class, and sexual conflicts. Evelyn, a young British teacher, travels through this landscape and is re-created. The unconsciously exploitative and disinterestedly sadistic narrator suffers a wild revenge when captured by an Amazon-like community of women. He is castrated, resexed, raped, forcibly wed and mated, and ultimately torn from his wife’s love by a gang of murderous Puritanical boys.

Each of the protagonists of these novels experiences love but seems to be able to achieve wholeness only through the destruction of the loved one. Symbolically, the protagonists seem to consume the otherness of the loved ones, reincorporating these manifest desires back into their whole beings. Each, however, is left alone at the end of the novel.

Symbolic imagery of a harshly violent though rollicking nature threatens to overwhelm these three novels. The parody is at times wildly exaggerated and at times cuts very close to reality (for example, in The Passion of New Eve, the new Eve is incorporated into a polygamous group that closely resembles the so-called Manson family). Although some critics have decried Carter’s heavy reliance on fantasies, visions, and zany exuberance, it is probably these qualities that have appealed to a widening audience. It must also be acknowledged that Carter continued, within her magical realms, to probe and mock the repressive nature of institutionalized relationships and sexual politics.

Nights at the Circus

With Nights at the Circus, Carter wove the diverse threads of her earlier novels into brilliantly realized tapestry. This novel has two protagonists—Fevvers, the Cockney Venus, a winged, six-foot, peroxide-blond aerialist who was found “hatched out of a bloody great egg” on the steps of a benevolent whorehouse (her real name is Sophia), and Jack Walser, an American journalist compiling a series of interviews titled “Great Humbugs of the World,” who joins Colonel Kearney’s circus, the Ludic Game, in order to follow Fevvers and who is “not hatched out, yet . . . his own shell don’t break, yet.” It is 1899, and a New World is about to break forth. The ambivalent, tenuous attraction between Fevvers and Walser is reminiscent of that between Melanie and Finn in The Magic Toyshop or Marianne and Jewel in Heroes and Villains, but it is now mature and more subtly complex. The picaresque journeyings from London to St. Petersburg and across the steppes of Russia recall the travels in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman and The Passion of New Eve but are more firmly grounded in historical landscapes. The magic in this novel comes in the blurring between fact and fiction, the intense unbelievability of actual reality and the seductive possibilities of imaginative and dreamlike visions. Are Fevvers’s wings real or contrived? Do the clowns hide behind their makeup and wigs or only become actualized when they don their disguises? As in most Magical Realist fiction, Carter is probing the lines between art and artifice, creation and generation, in a raucous and lush style.

Here, after a long hiatus from the rather bleak apocalyptic visions of her 1970’s novels, in which autonomous selfhood is achieved only through a kind of selfcannibalization of destroyed love, Angela Carter envisions a route to self-affirmation that allows sexual love to exist. With shifting narrative focuses, Carter unfolds the rebirths of Walser and Fevvers through their own and each other’s eyes. Walser’s shells of consciousness are cracked as he becomes a “first-of-May” clown, the waltzing partner to a tigress, the Human Chicken, and, in losing consciousness, an apprentice shaman to a primitive Finno-Urgic tribe. As star of Kearney’s circus, Fevvers is the toast of European capitals: an impregnable, seductive freak, secure in and exploitative of her own singularity. On the interminable train trek through Siberia, she seems to mislay her magnificence and invulnerability. She becomes less a freak and more a woman, but she remains determined to hatch Walser into her New Man. As he had to forgo his socially conditioned consciousness in order to recognize Sophia, however, so she has to allow him to hatch himself. It is as confident seers that Sophia/Fevvers and Jack Walser love at the close of the novel.

Angela Carter, 1976; photograph by Fay Godwin

Wise Children

The fact that Carter produced only one novel during the last eight years of her life has more to do with the claims made on her time and attention by her son Alexander than the depredations of the cancer that killed her. This was a sore point—her much younger partner, Alexander’s father, did not keep promises he made to take primary responsibility for child care—and some of that soreness is evident in the pages of the satiric comedy Wise Children, in which disowned and abandoned children are extravagantly featured. The story comprises a century-spanning memoir written by Dora Chance, one of the “lucky Chance” twins fathered—but swiftly disowned— by the Shakespearean actor Melchior Hazard in advance of the first of his three marriages.

Dora recalls that the identical Chance twins are indeed lucky, first by virtue of being informally adopted by Melchior’s more colorful but less successful fraternal twin Peregrine, and second by virtue of developing a career as dancers in music halls. (Music halls were Britain’s primary form of vulgar popular entertainment from the late nineteenth century to the end of World War II.) It subsequently transpires that Peregrine is the biological father of Melchior’s supposedly legitimate identical twin daughters by his first marriage, Saskia and Imogen. The paternity of the fraternal twins of Melchior’s third marriage, Gareth and Tristan, is never formally disputed, although Dora and her sister Nora cannot help but wonder why it is that one bears a far stronger physical resemblance to Peregrine.

The intricate comparisons and contrasts drawn between the fortunes and pretensions of the legitimate Hazards and the illegitimate Chances mirror and embody the fortunes and pretensions of “legitimate” theater and the music-hall tradition, as both are swallowed up by new media—first by Hollywood films (the most hilarious chapter describes the brief reunion of the Chances with their father on the set of a chaotic film version of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and then by television. The contemporary events that surround Dora’s recollections involve the effects of television game-show host Tristan’s simultaneous sexual involvement with his much older half sister Saskia and the Chances’ protégé Tiffany (significantly nicknamed Our Tiff). The paradoxes of Melchior’s theatrical career are summed up by the juxtaposition of his eventual knighthood with his attachment to the cardboard crown that was the chief legacy he received from his father, also a redoubtable Shakespearean actor.

Although Wise Children is far more sentimental than the bleakly dark fantasies Carter penned while her own marriage was failing in the early 1970’s, it is to some extent a revisitation of their themes. (The revised version of Love, which she prepared while struggling to find the time to write Wise Children, also softens the selfmutilatory aspects of the original, but only slightly.) What Carter’s final novel adds to her jaundiced view of family life, however, is the legacy of her midperiod preoccupation with the processes by which the substance of childhood dreams and unfathomable experiences can be transmuted into high and low art. Beneath the surface of its comic exuberance, Wise Children achieves considerable intensity in its celebration of theatrical magic and its accounts of the redemption of wounded personalities by spirited performances.


Other major works
Short fiction: Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces, 1974; The Bloody Chamber, and Other Stories, 1979; Black Venus, 1985 (also known as Saints and Strangers, 1986); American Ghosts and Old World Wonders, 1993; Burning Your Boats, 1995.
Screenplays: The Company of Wolves, 1984 (with Neil Jordan; adaptation of her short story); The Magic Toyshop, 1987 (adaptation of her novel).
Radio plays: Vampirella, 1976; Come unto These Yellow Sands, 1979; The Company of Wolves, 1980; Puss in Boots, 1982; Come unto These Yellow Sands: Four Radio Plays, 1985 (includes previous 4 plays).
Nonfiction: The Sadeian Woman: And the Ideology of Pornography, 1978; Nothing Sacred: Selected Writings, 1982; Expletives Deleted: Selected Writings, 1992; Shaking a Leg: Journalism and Writings, 1997 (also known as Shaking a Leg: Collected Writings, 1998).
Translations: The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, 1977; Sleeping Beauty, and Other Favourite Fairy Tales, 1982.
Children’s literature: The Donkey Prince, 1970; Miss Z, the Dark Young Lady, 1970; Moonshadow, 1982; Sea-Cat and Dragon King, 2000. edited texts: Wayward Girls and Wicked Women, 1986; The Virago Book of Fairy Tales, 1990 (also known as The Old Wives’ Fairy Tale Book). miscellaneous: The Curious Room: Plays, Film Scripts, and an Opera, 1996.

Day, Aidan. Angela Carter: The Rational Glass. New York: Manchester University Press, 1998.
Gamble, Sarah. Angela Carter: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
_______. Angela Carter: Writing from the Front Line. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997.
Landon, Brooks. “Eve at the End of the World: Sexuality and the Reversal of Expectations in Novels by Joanna Russ, Angela Carter, and Thomas Berger.” In Erotic Universe: Sexuality and Fantastic Literature, edited by Donald Palumbo. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986.
Lee, Alison. Angela Carter. New York: G. K. Hall, 1997. Munford, Rebecca, ed. Re-visiting Angela Carter: Texts, Contexts, Intertexts. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
Peach, Linden. Angela Carter. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
Rubinson, Gregory J. The Fiction of Rushdie, Barnes, Winterson, and Carter: Breaking Cultural and Literary Boundaries in the Work of Four Postmodernists. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2005.
Sage, Lorna, ed. Flesh and the Mirror: Essays on the Art of Angela Carter. London: Chatto & Windus, 1994.
Smith, Joan. Introduction to Shaking a Leg: Journalism and Writings, by Angela Carter. London: Chatto & Windus, 1997.

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