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MAGICAL, INTERTEXTUAL, FEMINIST: Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus as a post-modern novel
This thesis has been written under the guidance of Ewa Panecka, PhD
Submitted in part fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of MASTER OF ARTS At the Institute of Foreign Languages and Literatures Pedagogical University of Cracow
Uniwersytet Pedagogiczny im. Komisji Edukacji Narodowej w Krakowie
Wydział Filologiczny Instytut Neofilologii Kierunek Filologia Angielska
“Nights at the Circus” Angeli Carter jako powieść postmodernistyczna
Praca magisterska napisana pod kierunkiem dr Ewy Paneckiej
Table of content:
Introduction Chapter I: Magical realism Chapter II: Intertextuality Chapter III: Feminism and gender Conclusion Works cited
4 7 28 47 63 65
The aim of the following thesis is to analyse Angela Carter's novel Nights at the Circus from the perspective of post-modern criticism and literary conventions. The conventions explored in the following thesis are magical realism, intertextuality and the subject of feminism and gender. Although post-modernism in literature includes a large variety of themes and techniques, such as pastiche, maximalism, minimalism or hyperreality the following thesis explores only the selected conventions of magical realism, intertextuality and feminism. Nights at the Circus as post-modern novel is a composition of many literary conventions occurring simultaneously. Fragments of the text may seem to belong to various literary genres at the same time. Post-modern literature, like post-modernism as a whole, is hard to define. The modernist authors were on a quest for meaning in a chaotic world through myth, symbol, or formal complexity. Instead, the post-modern authors avoid, often playfully, the possibility of meaning. The post-modern novel is often a parody of this quest characterised by an abundance of disconnected images and styles. It emphasises the role of language, power relations, and motivations, in particular it attacks the use of sharp classifications such as male versus female. It utilises irony, black humour, intertextuality, pastiche, meta-fiction, non-linear narrative, magical realism, and all forms of experimental literature. The method applied in the analysis of Carter's novel is that of deconstruction. The approach helps to uncover internal contradictions and paradoxes, describe the construction of the text and reveal the multitude of possible readings of the novel. In deconstruction language is dynamic, ambiguous, and unstable, and continues to blur the meaning of the text. There is no single, established meaning and it is up to the reader to choose and create a meaning.1 As an approach it demonstrates that a text is not a discrete whole but it contains several contradictory meanings. A text, therefore, has more than one interpretation and the text itself links these interpretations inextricably.
1 Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today. New York: Taylor and Francis Group, 2006, pp 258-259.
The incompatibility of these interpretations cannot be reduced and an interpretative reading cannot go beyond a certain point. Meaning of the text is not an established property prepared for the reader to uncover. Meaning is created by the act of reading by the readers themselves. No interpretation, or “meaning,” is the proper or correct one and none can be considered as such. Literary texts contain multiplicity of various, often conflicting meanings in dynamic relation to one another and the readers. All “obvious” or “common-sense” interpretations of a given text are in fact readings filtered through cultural values and beliefs considered by the readers as natural. Meaning and values in the text are created by the readers themselves. The authors draw upon their own values and beliefs while working upon the texts and readers draw upon their own assumptions when they construct their acts of reading.2 The first chapter analyses Nights at the Circus in the context of the convention of magic realism. It explores aesthetic and Latino-American roots of the genre and establishes magic realism as a literary genre independent of fantasy and science fiction literature. The chapter presents a comparison between the components that constitute the novel and the elements of magic realism. The chapter discusses the issue of dominance of magic realist convention in Carter's text. The second chapter discusses Nights at the Circus in the context of intertextuality as a key feature of post-modernist literature. It tries to produce an answer to the questions regarding the nature and definition of intertextuality. The chapter discusses the theoretical background of the mechanism of intertextuality and points to their application in the novel. It also provides examples of intertextual references and allusions to other works of literature, historical events and personas, and other literary genres, especially the Gothic novel. The third chapter presents Nights at the Circus in the context of feminist theory. It describes historical circumstances behind the beginnings of women suffrage and feminist movement. It provides an outline of feminist and post-feminist thought. The chapter analyses the way of presenting the characters and their views and opinions in the context of gender and feminist theory. The sources are Lies that Tell the Truth: Magic Realism seen through Contemporary Fiction from Britain by Anne C. Hegerfeldt and Magic(al) Realism by
2 Tyson, op. cit., pp 258-259.
Maggie A. Bowers. The books present a model of magic realistic novel used in analysis of the text. Another informative source turned out to be Intertext: A Study Of The Dialogue Between Texts by Rama Kundu. His work brings together the information required to analyse Nights at the Circus as an intertextual novel. No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women by Estelle B. Freedman outlines the history of feminist movement and Sexual/Textual Politics by Toril Moi offers an insight into feminist literature. All quotations from Nights at the Circus come from the edition published in London in 1994 by Random House, and are referred to in the footnotes as Carter, page number. Any alterations in the quotations are introduced in square brackets by the author of the thesis.
CHAPTER I MAGIC REALISM IN NIGHTS AT THE CIRCUS
The aim of the following chapter is to analyse Nights at the Circus in the context of the convention of magic realism. An outline of the characteristic features of the genre is introduced at the beginning of the chapter in order to define the magic realism as a genre independent of fantasy or science fiction literature. A comparison between characteristic components of the magic realism novel and their equivalents in Carter's text is a significant part of the analysis. In particular, the relationships between appearance and reality, order and chaos, and the elements of a Gothic novel are subjected to analysis. Magic realism is not an easy genre to define. It is more an aesthetic style or narrative mode that blends magical elements with a realistic atmosphere. The themes and subjects are often imaginary, fantastic or dream-like. However, these magical elements are explained in the same way as all regular occurrences that are presented in a manner which allows the real and the magical to coexist next to each other and be accepted in the same stream of thought. The very beginning of the novel sets the overall tone of the text presenting the magical interwoven into the real:
"As to my place of birth, why, I first saw light of day right here in smoky old London, didn't I! Not billed the 'Cockney Venus', for nothing, sir, though they could just as well 'ave called me 'Helen of the High Wire', due to the unusual circumstances in which I come ashore -- for I never docked via what you might call the normal channels, sir, oh, dear me, no; but, just like Helen of Troy, was hatched. "Hatched out of a bloody great egg while Bow Bells rang, as ever is!"
[…] But these notorious and much-debated wings, the source of her fame, were stowed away for the night under the soiled quilting of her baby-blue satin dressing-gown, where they made an uncomfortable-looking pair of bulges, shuddering the surface of the taut fabric from time to time as if desirous of breaking loose. ("How does she do that?" pondered the reporter.)3
The term 'magic realism' or 'magical realism' was first used in 1925 by a German art critic Franz Roh in his work Magic Realism: Post-Expressionism, an essay about the visual arts. Roh used the expression as a description of a painterly style also known as the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit), a reaction to expressionism. It had a very different meaning from the one used to describe the works of Latin American writers that dominates contemporary understanding of the term. Roh celebrated the postexpressionistic return to figural representation in visual arts. Utilizing Husserl's an Heidegger's phenomenology he emphasized the fact that "the autonomy of the objective world around us was once more to be enjoyed; the wonder of matter that could crystallize into objects was to be seen anew."4 Roh, in this way, was emphasizing the magic of the normal world, how everyday objects can be perceived as strange and fantastic. The literary school, on the contrary, emphasizes the world of magic, where objects are literally changed into things fantastic. Roh's theory had great influence on European and Latin American literature, for instance on an Italian writer Massimo Bontempelli. Bontempelli tried to present the mysterious and fantastic qualities of reality exactly in the way Roh understood magic realism. Bontempelli wanted the literature to open new mythical and perspectives on reality and therefore create a collective consciousness that would inspire the Italian nation under the Fascist regime. In 1940's Latin American authors combined Roh's and Bontempelli's theories with concepts of the marvellous form the French surrealism and merged them with indigenous mythologies in order to create the original Latin American novel. From the 1960's onwards, there has been a strong current of magic realism within the general movement of British and American post-modern literature.
3 Carter, pp 7-8. 4 Roh, Franz. Magic Realism: Post-Expressionism. [in:] Zamora, Lois Parkinson and Faris, Wendy B., ed. Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1995, p. 16.
Like many modernist moves magic realism rejects the nineteenth-century positivism, the faith in science and empiricism, returning to folklore, mysticism and mythologies. Literary works that can be classified as magic realistic novels may utilise only selection of the characteristic features of the genre. The most common features shared among the magic realistic texts are the supernatural, plenitude, hybridity, ironic distance, authorial reticence and political critique. It has been aptly defined as: a kind of modern fiction in which fabulous and fantastical events are included in a narrative that otherwise maintains the 'reliable' tone of objective realistic report, designating a tendency of the modern novel to reach beyond the confines of realism and draw upon the energies of fable, folk tale, and myth while maintaining a strong contemporary social relevance. characters The in fantastic novels attributes — given to such levitation, flight,
telepathy, telekinesis — are among the means that magic realism adopts in order to encompass the often phantasmagorical century.5 In magic realism the supernatural is not displayed as something questionable. While the reader realises that the rational and irrational are opposite and conflicting polarities, they are not disconcerted because the supernatural is integrated within the norms of perception of the narrator and characters in the fictional world. The readers are expected to willingly suspend their disbelief, therefore suspending their judgement concerning the implausibility of the narrative. What might be otherwise perceived as uncanny and fantastical is natural or at least acceptable within the presented reality. Magic realism lacks emptiness, departs from rules and structures, and contains an extraordinary plenitude of disorienting details. This layering of elements creates a specific, baroque atmosphere. The space in between those layers is where marvellous
5 Baldick, Chris. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, 3rd ed., London: Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 146.
real can be observed, marvellous: not meaning beautiful and pleasant, but extraordinary and strange.6 The hybridity that magic realists utilize means multiple planes of reality taking place in inharmonious arenas of opposites such as urban and rural, or Western and indigenous. The plots of magical realist works very often involve issues of borders, mixing, and change. The authors establish these plots to reveal a crucial purpose of magical realism: a more deep and true reality than conventional realist techniques could illustrate. The writers keep an ironic distance from the magical world view for the realism not to be compromised. Simultaneously, the writer must strongly respect the magic, or else the magic dissolves into simple folk belief or complete fantasy, split from the real instead of synchronized with it. The term "magic" relates to the fact that the point of view that the text depicts explicitly is not adopted according to the implied world view of the author. Authorial reticence refers to the lack of clear opinions about the accuracy of events and the credibility of the world views expressed by the characters in the text. This technique promotes acceptance in magical realism. In magical realism, the simple act of explaining the supernatural would eradicate its position of equality regarding a person’s conventional view of reality. Because it would then be less valid, the supernatural world would be discarded as false testimony.7 Magic realism often contains some degree of political critique in form of implicit criticism of society, particularly the elite. It presents the point of view of the geographically, socially and economically marginalised. Magic realism's alternative world works to correct the reality of established viewpoints, like realism, naturalism, modernism. Magic realism literature is no longer exclusively a Latin American phenomenon. Since 1960's this aesthetics has become popular world-wide, especially in British and American fiction. Other features of magic realism, such as collective consciousness, marvellous reality, sense of mystery and meta-fiction are not explored in the following analysis as being typically Latin American.
6 Carpentier, Alejo. The baroque and the marvellous real. [in:] Zamora, L. and Faris, W. op. cit., pp 102-104. 7 Chanady, Amaryll Beatrice. Magical Realism and the Fantastic: Resolved versus Unresolved Antinomy. New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1985. p. 16.
Magic realism is a branch of fiction that, contrary to fantasy or science fiction, is not escapist but engaging and thought-provoking. It conveys and explores the truth about world and people's place in it. Science fiction and fantasy are almost always speculative while magic realism is not. It does not conduct thought experiments, instead, it tells its stories from the perspective of people who experience a different reality from the one called objective. If there is a ghost in a story of magical realism, the ghost is not a fantasy element but a manifestation of the reality of people who believe in and have "real" experiences of ghosts. Magical realist fiction depicts the real world of people whose reality is different. It's not a thought experiment or a speculation. Magical realism endeavours to show the world through other eyes.8 Nights at the Circus is divided into three parts according to geographical locations, and the story becomes more and more fantastic along with the geographical movement from London to Siberia. The principle narrators include Fevvers, a winged woman, and Walser, an American reporter. Other than these two protagonists’ narratives, the novel also contains various stories told by women. The narratives all take place in unordinary places, inclusive of the whorehouse, the museum of female monsters, the circus, the prison and so on. In the first section, the novel starts with Walser’s interview with Fevvers, in which Walser tries to define what Fevvers is. Walser stands for patriarchal thoughts, which tend to classify and to control things. However, during the interview, Fevvers is fully in charge of her narrative as well as her identity. She gives account of her life, in which she delineates the days she had in the brothel and in the museum of female monsters. Her account of her formal life illustrates how women are defined and demarcated according to patriarchal thoughts. Later, in the second section, Fevvers joins the circus, a place of uncommon events. Walser also joins the circus in order to find out whether Fevvers is a fraud or not. The circus is a world in which hierarchy is destroyed and rules are broken. Clowns, performers together with animals form a world in which things are turned upside down. In the third section, a panopticon made for female convicts is mentioned. These female inmates, at last, successfully get out of the panopticon and form a female community. In this section, Fevvers and Walser are apart due to a train accident. The tundra, where Walser stays after the train accident, is a place in which time does not
8 Rogers, Bruce Holland. What is Magical Realism, Really? <http://www.writingworld.com/sf/realism.shtml> (29 Apr 2010)
follow traditional notions. Walser, losing all his memory, becomes totally blank. His preconceptions have all been erased. At last, Fevvers and Walser reunite. Having gone through the life in tundra, Walser has been turned into a New Man, who no longer views Fevvers as an object but as a human being. Their reunion, the integration of New Man and New Woman, signifies the better world for women in the future, in which men no longer take superior position and women do not exist solely as belongings to men. Through the fantastic which discloses the social constructs that regulate people’s lives, Carter calls into question the constructed nature of patriarchal society. One of the most prominent features distinguishing magic realism from fantasy fiction is the use of the antinomy, the simultaneous presence of two mutually incompatible codes. This results in diametrically different treatment of the supernatural. In fantasy literature the supernatural is very often something to which special attention is drawn; the supernatural or magical elements are used as primary elements of plot, theme and setting. In magic realism the presence of the supernatural or magical is accepted. Fevvers, the protagonist of the Nights at the Circus, claims to have been hatched from an egg laid by unknown parents:
for I never docked via what you might call the normal channels, sir, oh, dear me, no; but, just like Helen of Troy, was hatched. Hatched out of a bloody great egg while Bow Bells rang, as ever is!9
The facts are the facts, but they are presented as if they were fables. Fevvers indeed does not know her parents, and was found in a basket along with some broken eggshell. Along with her possessing a pair of wings, these are the facts, no matter how fabulous that lead Fevvers to the conclusion that she was not born like a normal human being. While she pursues the career of an aerialiste the general audience refer to her as “a fabulous bird-woman”10 because of her wings:
Heroine of the hour, object of learned discussion and profane surmise, this Helen launched a thousand quips, mostly on the lewd side. ("Have you heard the one about
9 Carter, p. 7. 10 Ibid., p. 15.
how Fevvers got it up for the travelling salesman. . .") Her name was on the lips of all, from duchess to costermonger: "Have you seen Fevvers?" And then: "How does she do it?" And then: "Do you think she's real?"11
In conversations people react to her supernatural feature with a mixture of awe and disbelief. However, their approach changes dramatically during her performances, where everyone can experience the supernatural first-hand. The supernatural is widely accepted as surprising and extraordinary but authentic and true in the same train of thought: the supernatural is not a simple or obvious matter, but it is an ordinary matter, an everyday occurrence -- admitted, accepted, and integrated into the rationality and materiality of literary realism. Magic is no longer quixotic madness, but normative and normalizing. It is a simple matter of the most complicated sort.12 It shows strong resemblance to Alejo Carpentier's concept of lo real maravilloso (marvellous reality), presented in the prologue to his novel The Kingdom of this World. There the elements of miraculous and supernatural could appear while seeming unforced and natural.13 The fact of Fevvers possessing a pair of fully functional wings is treated as “marvellous reality” but reality nevertheless:
She rose up on tiptoe and slowly twirled round, giving the spectators a comprehensive view of her back: seeing is believing. Then she spread out her superb, heavy arms in a backwards gesture of benediction and, as she did so, her wings spread, too, a polychromatic unfolding fully six feet across, spread of an eagle, a condor, an albatross fed to excess on the same diet that makes flamingoes pink.
11 Ibid., pp 8-9. 12 Zamora, Faris., op. cit., p. 3. 13 Bowers, Maggie A. Magic(al) Realism. New York: Routledge, 2004., p. 2.
Oooooooh! The gasps of the beholders sent a wind of wonder rippling through the theatre.14
On the other hand the second protagonist, a well-travelled American journalist Jack Walser, is very sceptical about both Fevvers and her allegedly possessing wings. In the beginning of the novel he represents the rational point of view and the voice of reason untampered with superstition and magical thinking: “Now, wings without arms
is one impossible thing; but wings with arms is the impossible made doubly unlikely -- the impossible squared.”15 However, with Fevvers relating the events of
her life, Walser starts to see glimpses of marvellous reality around him, and in his case seeing truly is believing. As Fevvers progresses with her story, Walser becomes less and less critical even though the story itself becomes more uncanny and dreamlike. In London, the first section of the book, Fevvers' story creates a feeling of supernatural and magical by presenting extraordinary alongside all-too-ordinary events. The fact that she was left in a basket on the doorstep of a brothel, raised by prostitutes with hearts of gold and never expected to work as one of them but only as a living statue seems almost like a literary cliché. This kind of banality the readers can encounter now and then in romances or fairy tales but rather rarely in the real life, which creates an additional feeling of the plot being detached from reality.16 The readers may start to suspect that Fervvers' account of her life is untrue or comprised of wishful thinking about the past – either way it adds to the overall atmosphere of the marvellous and uncanny. At one point Fevvers gives a description of the madam of the brothel she was raised in:
She had the one peculiarity, sir; due to her soubriquet, or nickname, she always dressed in the full dress uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet. Not that she ever missed a trick, her one eye sharp as a needle, and always used to say, "I keep a tight little ship." Her ship, her ship of battle though sometimes she'd laugh and say, "It was a pirate ship, and went under false colours," her barque of pleasure that was
14 Carter, p. 15. 15 Carter, p. 15. 16 Hsia, Chen-I. Deconstructing Binary Opposition in Angela Carter’s “Nights at the Circus”. Taiwan: National Chengchi University, 2005, pp 11-17.
moored, of all unlikely places, in the sluggish Thames.17
Although Ma Nelson is a believable, realistic character and both Fevvers and Lizzie, her caretaker, call her a proper lady, she seems anything but ordinary and therefore belonging to the realm of supernatural. Still there are some characters in the novel that can be unmistakably described as supernatural or fantastical, such as Toussaint, a mouth-less servant of Madame Schreck, Fanny Four-Eyes or Madame Schreck, the Living Skeleton, the owner of the museum of female monsters, herself. Ma Nelson is a realistic character which seems fantastical, Toussaint on the other hand is her direct opposite. Although he seems even more realistic and believable than her, belongs to the realm of the supernatural. Despite the fact that his condition is seemingly plausible it would be a physical impossibility for such a person to survive beyond infancy:
That self-same fellow with no mouth, poor thing, opens the door to me after a good deal of unbolting from the inside, and bids me come in with eloquent gestures of his hands. I never saw eyes so full of sorrow as his were, sorrow of exile and of abandonment
Yet another impossible creature, and therefore undoubtedly a fantastical one, is Fanny Four-Eyes, who has an additional pair of eyes in the most unlikely of places. Fanny comes to the museum out of her own will because “she saw too much of the
world altogether”19 and therefore “she chooses to rest with all us other dispossessed creatures, for whom there was no earthly use”:20
"And Schreck would say: 'Look at him, Fanny.' So Fanny would take off her blindfold and give him a beaming smile. "Then Madame Schreck would say: 'I said, look at him, Fanny.' At which she'd pull up her shift. "For, where she should have had nipples, she had eyes. Then Madame Schreck would say: 'Look at him properly,
17 18 19 20 Carter, p. 32. Carter, p. 57. Ibid., p. 69. Ibid.
Fanny.' Then those two other eyes of hers would open. They were a shepherd's blue, same as the eyes in her head; not big, but very bright.21
The occurences taking place in the circus in Petersburg, the second part of the novel, “break down the conventional hierarchical order in which man rules over animals.”22 The circus is a place in which pigs and chimps possess higher intelligence than men. Colonel Kearney – the owner of the circus – keeps a pig that functions as both his oracle and a business adviser. Since the Colonel trusts his socalled “partner” wholeheartedly it is revealed that all the major decisions and the whole policy of the circus depends on the pig's choices regarding the cards. In this case a man believes that an animal possesses mystic powers. Colonel trusts the pig to such an extent that the animal makes decision in his stead:
she could spell out your fate and fortune with the aid of the alphabet written out on cards -- yes, indeed! could truffle the future out of four-and-twenty Roman capitals if they were laid out in order before her and that wasn't the half of her talents. Her master called her "Sybil" and took her everywhere with him. (…) Colonel Kearney invited his pig to tell him whether to hire the young man or no.23
Similarly Lamarck's Educated Apes, a group of chimpanzees performing a school routine, seem to be more intelligent than their masters, only pretending to be trained animals, and perfectly capable of taking care of themselves. While pretending to rehearse their school routine in fact the chimpanzees plot against their trainer. Their leader, the Professor, gets rid of Monsieur Lamarck and forces Colonel Kearney to sign a new, more profitable contract with the apes, written by the apes themselves:
The chimps put themselves through their own paces; the trainer's woman was no more than their keeper and Monsieur
21 Ibid. 22 Michael, Magali C., Feminism and the Postmodern Impulse: Post-World War II Fiction. State University of New York Press, 1996, p. 195. 23 Carter, p. 98.
Lamarck, a feckless drunkard, left them to rehearse on their own. (…) The Professor's face, grinning like a Cheshire cat, was not six inches from Walser's own as he popped it on. Their eyes met. (...) Then the Professor, as if acknowledging their meeting across the gulf of strangeness, pressed his tough forefinger down on Walser's painted smile, bidding him be silent.24
The very end of the Petersburg section sees Fevvers escaping from the Grand Duke by means of jumping on the model train, the legend The Trans-Siberian
Express.25 Fevvers' jump blurs the concept of immovable space and creates a break
between reality and fantasy therefore contributing to the element of the supernatural. In this scene her action either transports the girl to the real train at the station or the toy train becomes a real one.26 All the aforementioned elements, supernatural characters, miraculous events and fantastical creatures, function as features strongly embedded in novel's presented reality and contribute to the Carpentierian feeling of real maravilloso marvellous reality. As mentioned in the beginning, magic realism contains an exceptional plenitude of disorienting details. The layering of these details contributes to a specific, baroque atmosphere. The space in between those layers is filled with the extraordinary and strange occurrences and is the place where real maravilloso can be observed: The work that distinguishes the Baroque period is stylistically complex, even contradictory. In general, however, the desire to evoke emotional states by appealing to the senses, often in dramatic ways, underlies its manifestations. Some of the qualities most frequently associated with the Baroque are grandeur, movement,
24 Carter, pp. 107-108. 25 Ibid., p. 191. 26 Hsia., op. cit., p. 28.
a tendency to blur distinctions between the various arts.27 The baroque abundance of details can be observed especially in the vivid descriptions of locations and objects or the portrayal of characters. The narration that is not only comprehensive but also embroidered with emotional commentary, creates lively and engaging pictures. The object may be nothing but ordinary yet the careful description makes it seem magical, such as in the case of the simple staircase leading to the drawing-room of Ma Nelson's house:
As for the drawing-room, in which I played the living statue all my girlhood, it was on the first floor and you reached it by a mighty marble staircase that went up with a flourish like, pardon me, a whore's bum. This staircase had a marvellous banister of wrought iron, all garlands of fruit, flowers and the heads of satyrs, with a wonderfully slippery marble handrail down which, in my light-hearted childhood I was accustomed, pigtails whisking behind me, to slide. Only those games I played before opening time, because nothing put off respectable patrons like those whom Nelson preferred so much as the sight of a child in a whorehouse.28
Paradoxically, the more realistic details the description accumulates, the more magical the object or situation appears. The magical realistic narrative is filled with useless details that serve no function other than to create a sense of the concrete real, of that which is.29 These details establish a realistic narrative that is hitched to a megastory (history, geography), itself valorised, which doubles and illuminates it, creating expectations on the line of least resistance through a text already known, usually as close as possible to the reader’s experience.30 In this manner all the exoticism is reduced to the familiar
27 Baroque period. Encyclopædia Britannica. 2010. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
<http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/53809/Baroque-period> (06 July 2010) 28 Carter, p. 26.
29 Hegerfeldt, Anne C., Lies that Tell the Truth: Magic Realism seen through Contemporary Fiction from Britain. Amsterdam - New York: Rodopi B.V., 2005, p. 73. 30 Brooke-Rose, Christine. A Rhetoric of the Unreal: Studies in Narrative and Structure, Especially in
and the reader starts to accept things less familiar in the same train of thought, provided they are portrayed in a similar, meticulously detailed manner:
the French gilt clock that stood there in a glass case. This clock was, you might say, the sign, or signifier of Ma Nelson's little private realm. It was a figure of Father Time with a scythe in one hand and a skull in the other above a face on which the hands stood always at either midnight or noon, the minute hand and the hour hand folded perpetually together as if in prayer, for Ma Nelson said the clock in her reception room must show the dead centre of the day or night, the shadowless hour, the hour of vision and revelation, the still hour in the centre of the storm of time.31
In achieving the magical realistic effect of plenitude the method of description is more important than the object described. Although the clock, one of the key items of the novel, is an object suspended between the real, physical object, and supernatural, able to manipulate the flow of time, the narrative presents the duality of its features as something completely natural and acceptable as a hard fact within the novel's reality. The plenitude of, often disorienting, details in terms of presenting the characters of the novel results in their portrayal being larger than life. Therefore, some of them seem to be of grotesque nature, such as the occultist Christian Rosencreutz or the owner of the circus, Colonel Kearney. The aforementioned Christian Rosencreutz, a customer of Madame Schreck's museum of female monsters, not only is portrayed in a way resembling presentation of a typical Gothic villain, but he even performs a similar function in London, the first section of the novel. The allusions to and connections with the genre of the Gothic novel will be explored in the second chapter of the thesis:
He always donned the most peculiar costume to venture Down Below, a sort of velvet frock that came down to his knees, plum-coloured and trimmed with grey fur and, on his feet, shiny red leather boots with little bells at the ankles that rang out very sweetly as he walked along. Round his neck, on
the Fantastic. Cambridge: University Press, 1981, p. 243. 31 Carter, p. 29.
a gold chain, hung a big medallion of solid gold (…). "He who sported this quaint jewel was in his later middle years, of long, lean, slightly stooping build, with a complexion veering towards the mauvish and mottled, as if he suffered from the cold, but fine, thin features with a high, crooked nose and very close-shaven cheeks. And a pair of wandering, watery, blue eyes, eyes of a man unhappy with his world. To finish off his outfit he always wore a big, round, beaver hat, like a drum, but with the brim turned up all round, and you could see no hair under it.
Quite similarly, Colonel Kearney is presented not as a realistic character, but seems to be more of a person built out of exaggeration of features. He accumulates in himself the attributes that exist in the collective imagination and the media portrayal of people related to this form of entertainment, therefore in mass consciousness these kind of people must be circus freaks themselves. Even though his position requires of him great responsibility, planning and managing the show, he is depicted as more of a harmless clown than a businessman running a humongous, international enterprise:33
A little, fat man, with a sparse pepper-and-salt crop bristling on his round head to match the attempted goatee on his chin -- he'd no great facility for growing hair. A snub nose, and mauvish jowls. A gun-metal buckle, in the shape of a dollar sign, fastened the leather belt just below his pot belly, presumably the dollar-sign to which Fevvers had referred. Even in the relative privacy of his hotel suite, the Colonel sported his "trademark" costume -- a pair of tightly tailored trousers striped in red and white and a blue waistcoast ornamented with stars. (…) he was all for the stars and stripes. His shirtsleeves, rolled to the elbow, were secured with nickel bands. His fulltailed frock-coat of old-fashioned cut hung from the knob of his chair, on which was perched his billycock hat.
32 Ibid., pp 70-71. 33 Hsia, op. cit., p. 46. 34 Carter, p. 99.
The extraordinary plenitude of details in the aforementioned descriptions and portrayals results in an atmosphere of marvellous real. Thanks to flooding the reader with various items quite ordinary things seem stranger, characters become larger than life, and the whole narrative becomes grotesque and magical. This specific, baroque atmosphere is characteristic of magical realistic literature. Magic realism makes use of multiple planes of reality. This hybridity results from juxtaposing inharmonious areas full of opposites: urban and rural, Western and indigenous. The usual issues taken up by the writers involve questions of borders, mixing and change: It is a mixture of two social languages within the limits of a single utterance, an encounter, within the arena of an utterance, between two different one linguistic consciousnesses, separated from
another by an epoch, by social differentiation, or by some other factor.35 The first part of Nights at the Circus, London, juxtaposes the dark, gritty and realistic theatre, in which Walser interviews Fevvers, with Ma Nelson's idyllic whorehouse and Madame Schreck's Gothic museum of female monsters. Fevvers' dressing-room in London theatre is a quite messy, realistically depicted location with nothing supernatural or magical about it. Filled with posters, photographs, and clothes lying around this room could as well belong to a realistic novel. On the other hand, despite a very detailed portrayal of Ma Nelson's whorehouse, it seems more of a literary creation than a real place exactly because of the little-too-idyllic atmosphere surrounding it. The apparent pleasantness of the house and the life in it appears unreal and brings the feeling of the fantastic and magical, especially when compared to the theatre. The second part of the novel, Petersburg, presents two sides of the circus life: the low life of the clowns in the dark Clown Alley and circus commoners and the comparably wealthy life of Fevvers as the star of the show, finishing with a short portrayal of life of the Russian royalty. Colonel Kearney's circus is a dark and
35 Bakhtin, Mikhail Mikhailovich. The Dialogic Imagination. Texas: University of Texas Press, 1981, p. 358.
uninviting place and the circus people are mostly jealous of each other, violent and vengeful. Mignon abandoned by both her husband and lover, the acrobatic family trying to kill Fevvers, the chief clown Buffo the Great going mad and trying to kill Walser, or a tigress getting jealous of Mignon and also trying to kill her are the good examples of the pathological atmosphere of a madhouse. At the same time Fevvers lives in a luxury hotel where all her needs and wishes are catered for, but she does not use her privileged position to help or support anyone in the circus but herself and Lizzie. Contrary to the circus and the Clown Alley, the Grand Duke's palace is an overly extravagant place upon which even Fevvers, accustomed to luxurious life, comments that money is
wasted on the rich.36
The last part, Siberia, juxtaposes Countess P.'s panopticon, as a place of punishment and imprisonment with the vast spaces of Siberia, but also the rationality of the Western civilisation with magic spirituality of the Eastern tribes. This section makes use of 18th century philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham's idea of Panopticon, a prison building designed in a manner allowing an observer to observe all prisoners without the incarcerated being able to tell whether they are being watched: Morals reformed – health preserved – industry invigorated – instruction diffused – public burthens lightened – Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock – the Gordian knot of the poor-law not cut, but untied – all by a simple idea in Architecture!37 The Panopticon was intended to be cheaper than the prisons of Bentham's time, as it required fewer staff. As the watchmen cannot be seen, they need not be on duty at all times, effectively leaving the watching to the watched. An ancient prison has been replaced by a clear and visible one, and through this visibility the modern society exercises its controlling systems of power and knowledge. A carceral continuum runs through modern society, from the maximum security prison, through secure accommodation, probation, social workers, police, and teachers, to everyday working and domestic lives. All are connected by the, witting or unwitting, supervision,
36 Carter, p. 184. 37 Bentham, Jeremy. Panopticon, or the inspection house, Volume 2. London: T. Payne, 1791, p. 139.
surveillance, application of norms of acceptable behaviour, of some humans by others.38 On the other hand the vast, empty and uninhabited spaces of Siberia become a symbolic representation of freedom from control and social restraints. The rationality of the Western civilisation is being substituted with Eastern spirituality within amnesiac Walser, who flees into the Siberian woods and is taken under the wing of a village shaman. The shaman teaches Walser the ways of his people, believing him to be a sort of spiritual guide. As small fragments of Walser's memory and language come back to him, the shaman interprets his visions as signs from the gods: Contemporary magical realist writers self-
consciously depart from the conventions of narrative realism to enter and amplify other (diverted) currents of Western literature that flow from the marvelous Greek pastoral and epic traditions to medieval dream visions to the romance and Gothic fictions of the past century.39 The mixture of multiple planes of reality, juxtaposition of the opposites, results in co-presence of oddities, the interaction between the weird and the ordinary and emphasizes magic realism's reliance on two different cultural traditions and two worldviews, one of which is essentially non-Western.40 The ironic distance of the author allows for two simultaneous readings, a realistic and a fantastic one. The whole body of the narrative is built in a manner suggesting that the events and characters, despite their supernatural features, might have occurred. However, the very factuality that has been so meticulously established is called into question by one of the characters. Walser's initial attitude towards Fevvers is a sceptical one, and as a man well-travelled he recalls himself realising the tricks behind the seemingly magical events he experienced in his trip to India. The rope trick and fakir on a bed of nails were simple illusions. His conclusion however, is that what (…) would
be the point of the illusion if it looked like an illusion? (…) For (…) is not the
38 Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Random House, 1975, p. 297. 39 Zamora, Faris., op. cit., p. 4. 40 Hegerfeldt, pp 70-72.
whole world and illusion? And yet it fools everybody.41 Also, despite the fantastical
characters and supernatural events, the story is infused with underlying political and social messages. The novel alludes to historical development of suffragist movement in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and explores the social issues of patriarchy and individual rights. That allows for both the realistic and symbolic reading of the narrative, similarly to Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children: It is not surprising that the Indian audience perceives Rushdie’s novel as a realistic one, though it is equipped with fantastic characters and supernatural powers. The magical events allude to the recent history of the Indian nation and the underhand politics of its leaders. The characters may seem out of this world on the outside, but they behave and experience life as ordinary people would.42 The ironic distance is strictly connected with authorial reticence. The author deliberately withholds the information and explanations, therefore making the inexplicable even more disturbing, and prevents the narrator from favouring realism over the supernatural, or vice versa. The established world-view is threatened by an event that does not fit into the common ideas of logic or norms of reason. This event represents a world of superstition and myth, which is difficult to accept for the rational man. The author presents two levels of reality, the natural and the supernatural. Authorial reticence integrates the supernatural into the natural framework of magical realism, where the author presents a world-view that is radically different from the reader's as equally valid. By having to explain the supernatural its position as equal to the conventional view of the world would be taken away. In the fantastic, the supernatural world is perceived as different or disturbing, whereas in magical realism this world appears as integrated into the conventional perception of reality. The narrator places no judgement on the supernatural world, which is presented equally to the socalled rational world. In order to resolve the antimony created by the presentation of
41 Carter, p. 16. 42 Burkiewicz, Karolina. Salman Rushdie's “Midnight’s Children” as a Post-modern Novel. MA thesis. Kraków: Uniwersytet Pedagogiczny, 2009, p. 25.
two different worlds, the reader is forced to suspend their judgement of what is perceived as rational and what is perceived as irrational.43 Works of magic realists very often touch upon social issues and contain some degree of political critique in a manner of implicit criticism of society. Magic realist fiction has been accused of escapism in the vein of fantasy literature, that it provides an alternative, utopian world. This claim however, cannot be upheld for the majority of magic realist works, many of which are actually very political. In supernaturalizing certain events, the texts express an astonished disbelief about the state of the world, suggesting that the idea of such things actually happening exceeds, or should exceed, human imagination. Within the text, a fantastic rhetoric is used to characterize the events as almost impossible, and at the same time these passages either refer to historical events or have clear historical parallels. Therefore, far from denying the reality of such events, the fantastic tone conveys a sense of despair over the fact that, tragically, they are possible.44 The women of the novel represent the suffragists and the entire women's suffrage movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Fevvers, Lizzie and the remaining female characters represent the New Woman, a feminist ideal of a woman who pushes against the limits of the male-dominated society with her entirely new way of thinking. Even the innocent and fragile Mignon escapes her abusive and oppressive husband through empowering and life outside of social conventions. However, the fact that women are depicted as strong, independent thinkers that can overcome their restrictive gender roles is more connected to post-feminist thought. In post-feminism women are no longer seen as victims and traditional feminism is no longer applicable in the contemporary society. Many characters defy the conventional social and gender roles of their times and remain true to themselves therefore praising individualism. The women do not follow their nineteenth century gender roles nor do the animals behave in the way that would be expected. Lizzie and the other women in the brothel support the concept of individualism when they remain self-reliant and disapprove of marriage as a socially acceptable form of slavery. Nights at the Circus also raises the issue of social class. Fevvers, Lizzie and Walser function outside of the traditional social structures. The remaining characters, prostitutes, clowns and other circus performers inhabit the lower level of social hierarchy. Wealth brings with itself power Fevvers having lots of opportunities in
43 Chanady, op. cit., pp 16-30. 44 Hegerfeldt, op. cit., p. 61.
London loses all her influences in Siberia, despite her celebrity status. Similarly, Walser falls down the social ladder the very moment he becomes a clown in the circus. Throughout the whole story the ideas of confrontation between appearance and reality are all-pervasive. The truth about Fevvers' wings is the key point of this concept in the novel, although further doubts arise by Fevvers' final, celebratory cry. The reader is left questioning whether the real deception refers to Fevvers' wings or to her glorified virginity. Even though Fevvers looks human, she claims to carry the wings of her avian ancestors. Similarly, although the women in the brothel work as prostitutes, they are simultaneously self-sufficient, forward thinking women. Lizzie even compares them to suffragists. Nothing is as it seems in the novel, and even the animals are given magical features and are taken out of their conventional boxes. Through these magical elements the reader's perception of reality is tested and one is challenged to question their surroundings.45 The story moves back and forth from order to chaos, usually with the narrative voice switching between Fevvers and Walser. While Fevvers remains hypnotizing in her narrative, she is also disorganized and jumps back and forth in time during her tales. Walser is quite the opposite. He is pragmatic and grounds the reader in reality in his journalistic search for the facts. Fevvers represents the chaotic part in life while Walser represents the order. Together, they embody the world and show how order and chaos cannot exist without the other one functioning as a balancing force. Fevvers represents the indulgences that Walser will never allow himself to follow and he is the force that grounds Fevvers, who is trying to escape reality and the social roles and rules. The overall structure of the novel, and at the same time Walser's mental state, seems to drift from organised rationality in the London section, through somewhat confused and erratic episode in the Petersburg circus, to sheer chaos and utter madness of Siberian spirituality and shamanism. Nights at the Circus can be firmly placed in the context of magical realism but on the dark or under-side of the magical realism, which overlaps directly with the Gothic. Moving from the whorehouse in London to Rosencreutz’s Gothic mansion, Clown Alley in St. Petersburg, the Grand Duke’s Palace and then Siberia, the novel becomes more unsettling, even as the characters appear to move towards more expansive territories. Its peculiar and unsettling form of magical realism comes from the way that it shows how
45 Stoddart, Helen. Angela Carter's “Nights at the Circus”. London and New York: Routledge, 2007, pp 64-65.
increasingly fantastic phenomena and characters are found in common and domestic settings (e.g. the trick played on Big Ben’s chime). This tendency is brought together in the novel with more obviously Gothic patterns such as the darker aspects of the circus which are represented by Buffo’s terrifying and grotesque attack of madness. The novel also presents a succession of Gothic spaces, including Ma Nelson’s brothel, Madame Schreck’s museum of female monsters, Rosencreutz’s castle and the panopticon. All of them subject Fevvers to typical forms of Gothic imprisonment and control. In this respect the most crucial is the moment when the Grand Duke shows her the golden egg which contains the framed miniature of Fevvers herself.46 Nights at the Circus utilises numerous features characteristic of the magical realistic literature. It treats the supernatural elements as the established, unquestionable part of the presented world and contains plenitude of details that accumulated create a baroque, semi-oniric atmosphere. It juxtaposes dramatically different settings and planes of reality with resulting hybridity involving the issues of borders and changes, and conveying a much deeper sense of reality than conventional realist techniques could present. In keeping the ironic distance the narrative respects both the magic and realism, and never transgresses from the magical real into the realm of fantasy literature or fairy tale. The credibility of the world and the accuracy of the events are never clearly defined and, accordingly to the authorial reticence technique, no interpretation, neither realistic nor symbolic, is ever imposed on the readers who are to make their own meaning of the novel. Political critique, a common tool in magical realism, takes as its aim subjects of individualism, personal freedom, patriarchy, equality and feminist and post-feminist movements. It also makes a frequent use of the Gothic aesthetics, settings and themes. All the aforementioned features clearly classify Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus as a magical realistic novel, in the strain of Carpentierian real maravilloso, or Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children.
46 Stoddart, op. cit., pp 64-65.
CHAPTER II INTERTEXTUALITY IN NIGHTS AT THE CIRCUS
The aim of the following chapter is to analyse Nights at the Circus in the context of intertextuality, one of key features of post-modernist literature. The beginning of the chapter will focus on introducing theoretical background and defining the characteristic features of the term of intertextuality. A comparison between characteristic components of the intertextual work and their equivalents in Carter's text is a significant element of the analysis. In particular, the relation between readerly and writerly texts, the difference between the author and the scriptor, double coding and intertextual irony, usage of topoi and monomyth, literary references and allusions, and also the elements of the Gothic literature are subjected to analysis. Post-modernism is a term that has no single definition. Post-modernity was identified by a several philosophers, social scientists and critical theorists during the mid-1980s as a phase in the development of late capitalism. It was characterized by the acceleration of electronic technologies and media and reducing all aspects of human life and exchange, including art, into easily consumable images and products. In postmodernity, commodification, simulation and performance enter all aspects of human life, leaving no space for rationality, belief or truth. Most importantly, post-modernity involved the erosion of what Jean-François Lyotard labelled the ‘grand narratives’ or ‘metanarratives’ of Western civilization; he saw them as ideologically or institutionally based knowledge systems that authorised paradigms within science, religion and philosophy. And since these narratives worked to explain existence, define rationality and promise progress, their weakness meant that the humanist concept of human as a coherent, rational, knowable self was also now perceived as questionable. In terms of literary practices post-modernism was characterized by narrative discontinuity and fragmentation; subjective, self-reflexive and playful styles of 28
narration; a rejection of resolutions, truths and endings; an emphasis on surface, image and commodification rather than depth, privacy or singularity; a lack of seriousness expressed through pastiche, parody and irony; the blurring of boundaries between high and low art, historical and present time, different genres, and also between individual texts because post-modernist literature often plays host to multiple intertextual references to literary and other – for example, visual – media.47 'Intertextuality' is a term that was coined in 1966 by Julia Kristeva, a BulgarianFrench philosopher, literary critic, psychoanalyst, sociologist, feminist and novelist. Kristeva introduced the term intertextuality to designate various relationships between texts, such as anagram, allusion, adaptation, translation, parody, pastiche, imitation and other forms of transformation. This term is deeply rooted in the assumption that no literary text can be studied in isolation. A book is not isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships.48 Literary theories of structuralism and post-structuralism view the texts as referring to other texts or themselves as texts, rather than the external reality. Text drawing on other texts, a text drawn upon or the relationship between both has been termed intertext:49 The degree and proportion of overt or covert presence of source texts may vary according to the authors intertextual purpose; it depends on how explicitly they state their intertextual purpose in their interpretation or reading of a canonical precursor.50 Tradition and Individual Talent, an essay written by poet and literary theorist T. S. Eliot explores the relationship between tradition and individual input of the poet. He explains how the past and the present are interconnected and influence each other in both past to present and present to past direction. Tradition cannot be inherited but has to be obtained by great labour. First and foremost, it involves the historical sense “nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet
47 Stoddart, op. cit., p. 31. 48 Borges, J. L. A Note on (Towards) Bernard Shaw. [in:] Labyrinths. London: Penguin Books, 2000, p. 248. 49 Baldick, op. cit., p. 128. 50 Kundu, Rama. Intertext: A Study Of The Dialogue Between Texts. New Delhi: Sarup & Sons, 2008, p. 4.
beyond his twenty-fifth year.” The historical sense involves perception of the presence of the past, not only its pastness. This historical sense compels a writer to write not only from the perspective of is own generation but with an awareness that the entirety of European literature, starting with Homer, and and within it the entirety of his or her own country literature exists simultaneously and composes a simultaneous order:51 No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.52 The meaning is not transferred directly from the writer to the reader, but it is carried and filtered by codes conducted to both the writer and the reader by other texts. The meaning does not reside in the work of literature itself but in the viewers. This idea
51 Eliot, Thomas Stearns. Tradition and Individual Talent. [in:] The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. Bartleby.com <http://www.bartleby.com/200/sw4.html> (04 July 2010) 52 Ibid.
is best presented in the work of a French literary theorist, philosopher, critic and semiotician Roland Barthes. In his very influential work S/Z Barthes introduced the terms of readerly and writerly in order to depict two different types of literature and two different ways of reading, positive and negative habits that the modern readers bring into their experience with the text. He also uses terms: author and the scriptor to differentiate between two manners of thinking about the creator of the text. Literary works that are intertextual can be read on different levels, their language – double coding – depends on double understanding, comparable to intertextual irony. Double coding is the practice of creating a work of art that speaks to two different audiences in different ways. It makes the text convey many meanings simultaneously, even the contradictory ones. In this manner the post-modern work can be understood and enjoyed by the general public and yet achieve a critical approval. In an intertextual work the narrative, characters or any other element may be, and usually are constructed out of topoi. Any text is a new tissue of past citations.53 This relationship was the subject of Joseph Campbell's research that resulted in his famous work The Hero with a Thousand Faces and the creation of the concept of monomyth. Any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another.54 In its most popular meaning the term intertextuality encompasses all forms of literary allusions, adaptations, parodies, imitations or references to other works of art, places, people or events. In terms of Night at the Circus those relations of texts referring to other texts, or more generally to the outside world, appear in form of biblical, literary and cultural references; especially to Gothic literature and a socio-cultural commentary on the feminist and post-feminist movement. Nights at the Circus is a complex piece of literary work that can fall under many different categories, and can be seen as an eclectic blend of many styles, philosophies and influences: […] it is a novel that is packed – both formally and thematically – with references to other literatures, philosophies connections and are cultures. European, In but the also main, these the include
53 Young, Robert. ed. Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader. Boston: Routledge, 1981, p. 39. 54 Kristeva, Julia. Towards a Semiology of Paragrams. [in:] The Tel Quel Reader. New York: Routledge, 1998, p. 37.
shamans of Siberia, for whom Western conceptions of history and geography are utterly strange and unknown, though they are shown to have a complex ‘cosmology’ of their own.55 Lisible, the French word for legible, used in a specific sense by Barthes is usually translated as readerly or readable. Barthes applies this term to texts that involve no true participation from the reader other than the consumption of a set meaning. A readerly text can be understood easily in terms of already familiar conventions and expectations, and is therefore reassuringly closed.56 In contrast with the easily readable or readerly text, texte scriptible, usually translated as writerly, does not have a single closed meaning. Instead, it obliges each reader to produce their own meanings from fragmentary or often contradictory hints. Ideally, more a theoretical ideal than a description, the writerly text is challengingly open, giving the reader an active role as co-writer, rather than as passive consumer.57 Jouissance, the French word for enjoyment, often in a sexual sense, employed by Barthes suggests a kind of response to literary works that is different from ordinary plaisir, pleasure. Whereas plaisir is comfortable and reassuring, confirming reader's values and expectations, jouissance is usually translated as bliss to contain and maintain its erotic sense, it is unsettling and destabilizing. The distinction seems parallel with Barthes's preference for those fragmentary or dislocated texts, writerly rather than readerly, those that challenge the reader to participate in creating them rather than just consume them:58 Nights at the Circus as a whole is open to a wide variety of readers prepared to engage with it on different levels and perhaps at different times. Although this character [Mignon] has been carefully articulated with reference to twentieth-century European history, she is also available to readers as a purely melodramatic figure – a victim of constant
55 56 57 58 Stoddart, op. cit., pp 5-6. Baldick, op. cit., p. 140. Ibid., p. 231. Ibid., p. 132.
male abuse – without either mode of reading excluding the other.59 This division is reminiscent of John Keats's concept of negative capability. In Keats's theory it is an ability of poets and great people to accept that not everything can be resolved, they are able to be in mystery and do not need a rational explanation for it. Keats believed that the truths found in imagination that must be employed when reader encounters an uncertainty or doubts, access holy authority that cannot be understood rationally. Negative capability would be then a state of intentional open-mindedness similar to conscious preparedness for communing with the writerly text.60 Author and scriptor are terms Barthes used to describe different ways of thinking about the creators of texts. The author is the traditional concept of the lone genius creating a work of literature by the powers of their original imagination. According to Barthes, such a figure no longer exists. In modern perception, including the thoughts of Surrealism, the term has become obsolete. In place of the author, the modern world presents a figure called by Barthes the scriptor, whose only power is to combine the already existing texts in new ways. Therefore, all writing draws on previous texts, norms, and conventions, and these are the things to which the readers must turn to understand a text. As a way of maintaining the unimportance of the writer's biography compared to textual and generic conventions, the scriptor has no past, but is born with the text. In the absence of the idea of a God-like author to control the meaning of a work, new interpretive horizons open up for the active readers, introducing a form of interactivity. The death of the author is therefore the birth of the reader.61 In his collection of essays On Literature Umberto Eco discusses the idea of double-coding. Double coding refers to the idea that a work of art can simultaneously address a elite minority that favours high art and the general public that favours popular or low art. It is an aspect of art that has been foregrounded by post-modern theories of culture, but has been characteristic of artworks throughout history. In fact, many of the great canonical classics were popular hits during their time of creation and many popular and critically successful works are double coded.62 However, double coding
59 Stoddart, op. cit., p. 5. 60 Baldick, op. cit., p. 167. 61 Barthes, Roland. The Death of the Author. [in:] Image-Music-Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978, p. 148. 62 Eco, Umberto. On Literature. Boston: Mariner Books, 2005, pp 214-217.
might work also as a form of pre-selection of readers for it favours the ones who are already intertextually experienced, possess the necessary awareness and know what to expect of this kind of texts. Otherwise all the literary allusions and references in the work of literature become trivialised change their sense or even pass unnoticed. In the perception of a reader unaware of the allusions and references Nights at the Circus will become a chaotic and fantastical story of a winged woman and a journalist following her first to Petersburg and then to Siberia, filled with uncanny characters, places and adventures. Allusions to Gothic literature, references to the beginnings of feminist movement, opposition towards nineteenth-century patriarchal mindset will be lost on such a reader, who receives literature only literally and therefore superficially. The idea of double coding is linked with the idea of two levels of reading and two models of the reader: semantic and semiotic. The first level of reading, semantic, is the most common, a reader is just following the story and is immersed in the text. The second level of reading, semiotic, involves a far more critical relation to the text. The semiotic reader is also interested in the structure and how the text works. The semiotic level reading is associated with scholarship, something which students of literature need to be taught.63 It is easy to expand this idea of a primary, immersed level and secondary, critical level of reading with other types of texts. The appreciation of modern art, for example, depends for a large part on the ability to read on semiotic, critical level. An interesting feature of intertextual irony is that it invites semiotic readings also from a semantic reader that usually goes through the first level only. The humour frequently is so obvious that all readers are encouraged to reflect upon the construction of the text.64 Intertextual irony depends on the reader's ability to recognize various codes within the text conveying different meanings. Four codes can be distinguished: literal, moral, allegorical and anagogical (mystical). The literal meaning is the story taken at face value, treated as describing material reality. If the reader is unaware of irony or the existence of other codes than literal, they may treat the text as a lie. Moral code demands a turning back to oneself in order to understand and therefore has implications and effects that are moral – they influence people's behaviour. The co-presence of literal and moral codes is clearly visible in crime stories, apart from the story they convey moral meaning: crime does not pay, law and order triumph over chaos, reason explains
63 Eco, op. cit., p. 220. 64 Ibid., pp 234-235.
mysteries. The allegorical level presents truth disguised by poetic metaphors that can contain meaning different or even contradictory to the literal one. The anagogical or mystical code is the union of the act of perception with what is perceived, union of the literal and the symbolic. Irony creates allusions not only predicted by the author therefore double reading of the text depends on reader's literary knowledge and experience. Multiplicity of senses cannot be avoided and may result in reader recognising different meanings than those intended by the author.65 According to post-modern thought all literary texts, and by extension all works of modern art, are combined from the pre-existing elements. All of this has happened before, and it will happen again.66 The recurring motifs or topoi are situations, incidents, ideas, images or character types found in many literary works, myths or folktales. The basic patterns found in many narratives from around the world were the subject of study of an anthropologist Joseph Campbell. Collectively called the monomyth, term borrowed from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, or the hero's journey, after Campbell's publication, it gathers shared fundamental structures and stages from numerous myths from different times and regions. It is comprised of seventeen stages along the hero's journey however, not many myths contain all of them. The stages might be organised in various ways but a general division into three sections can be observed: Departure, hero's adventure prior to the quest, that comprises of The Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Supernatural Aid, The Crossing of the First Threshold and Belly of The Whale, Initiation, hero's adventures along the way, including The Road of Trials, The Meeting With the Goddess, Woman as Temptress, Atonement with the Father, Apotheosis and The Ultimate Boon, and Return, where hero returns home with knowledge and powers acquired on the journey, with stages such as Refusal of the Return, The Magic Flight, Rescue from Without, The Crossing of the Return Threshold, Master of Two Worlds, Freedom to Live. In a monomyth, the hero begins in the ordinary world, and receives a call to enter an unknown world of strange powers and events. The hero who accepts the call to enter this strange world must face tasks and trials, either alone or with assistance. In the most intense versions of the narrative, the hero must survive a severe challenge, often with help. If the hero survives, the hero may achieve a great gift or boon. The hero must then decide whether to return to the ordinary world with this boon. If the hero does decide to return, he or she often faces challenges
65 Eco, op. cit., pp 237-238. 66 Taylor, Michael (director). Battlestar Galactica: Razor. 2007
on the return journey. If the hero returns successfully, the boon or gift may be used to improve the world.67 The narrative structure of Nights at the Circus follows exactly the same threesections pattern that corresponds to the novel's division into sections. London is the section devoted to Departure, it describes lives of both Walser and Fevvers prior to their adventures, presents the reader with the characters and their personalities and sets the stage for the next step in their journey that is Petersburg. The second section is the Initiation and describes adventures of Fevvers and Walser, showing the development and changes in their personalities. Siberia, the third section that corresponds to Return, shows the final stages of heroes' journey and the personal changes they have undergone. In popular understanding intertextuality means literary allusions and references to any other text in the semiotic sense, be it work of literature, art or even other media. Allusion is a brief reference, explicit or indirect, to a person, place or event, or to another literary work or passage and it is left to the reader to make the connection. It used to link concepts that the reader has already knowledge of. Similarly to intertextual irony and double coding it requires previous literary knowledge and experience, without reader's comprehending the author's intention, an allusion becomes merely a decorative device. Nights at the Circus contains some biblical allusions, references to other works of literature, as well as historical events. One of the biblical allusions refers to the fallen angel, Lucifer in describing Fevvers' first attempt at flight. Like Lucifer, I fell. Down, down, down I tumbled
bang with a bump on the Persian rug below me.68 The reference to Lucifer, often
described as the embodiment of evil in Christian texts, suggests that Fevvers herself is a fallen angel, rebelliously resisting the patriarchal doctrine of the nineteenth century. Like Lucifer who led the revolution against God during the war of the heavens, Fevvers may serve as a symbol for Women’s Suffrage and the fight for women’s rights in general. In addition, Rosencreutz, an obsessive customer of Madame Shreck’s, refers to Fevvers as Azrael, Flora, Venus and Gabriel:
Azrael, Azrail, Ashriel, Azriel, Azarail, Gabriel; dark angel of many names. Welcome to me, from your home in the third
67 Monomyth Website, ORIAS, University of California, Berkeley. <http://orias.berkeley.edu/hero/> (09 July 2010) 68 Carter, p. 30.
heaven. See, I welcome you with roses no less paradoxically vernal that your presence, who like Persephone, comes from the Land of the Dead to herald new life!69 Flora; Azrael; Venus Pandemos! These are but a few of the many names with which I might honour my goddess.70
To Rosencreutz, Fevvers is far beyond any being he has ever come across. He is amazed by her existence, as he considers her neither woman nor bird. To him, she is no longer an entity, but rather a showpiece to be revealed. Rosencreutz believes Fevvers to be the fountain of youth and consequently wishes to offer her as sacrifice. His treatment of Fevvers reflects his overall view of women as only having value for their essence and aesthetics rather than their actual being.71 Literary allusions begin with a brief reference to Ishmael, the protagonist and sole narrator of Herman Melville's 1851 novel, Moby Dick in describing the journalist Jack Walser. The comparison to both the biblical Ishmael and Melville's main character presents Walser as an outsider travelling the Earth. Additionally, like Melville's renowned narrator, Walser believes himself to be the sole narrator, hoping to expose Fevvers for the fake that he initially believes her to be. In a further parallel, Walser soon withdraws into the background and becomes only a commentator while Fevvers and Lizzie take the reins as the narrators of their own mesmerizing tale:
Call him Ishmael; but Ishmael with an expense account, and, besides, a thatch of unruly flaxen hair, a ruddy, pleasant, square-jawed face and eyes the cool grey of scepticism.72
The story of Mignon's poor father killing her mother because she slept around with soldiers references Georg Buchner's play Woyzeck, which contemplated what it meant to be human and the plight of the lowest classes of society. Fevvers continually refers to Walser's need to break out of his shell and into self realization and individuality. This image is borrowed from Herman Hesse's novel Demian which
69 70 71 72 Ibid., p. 75. Ibid., p. 77. Stoddart, p. 142. Carter, p. 10.
presents the conflict between good and evil and its relationship to the individual. Hesse also draws from the philosophies of Nietzsche, Freud, and Jung to present a theory of the subjectivism contained within the individual and man's ability to become human by breaking out of the shell that is the limitations forced upon him by society.73 Many of the remarkable occurrences and exaggerated or absurd characters reflect Lewis Carroll's Alice books (Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass), and the journey of the Hunting of the Snark. Walser himself quotes Alice after realizing that his watch stopped precisely at midnight: Curiouser and curiouser.74 During the interview with Walser, Fevvers seems to shrink, while it seems as if the room had been plucked
out of its everyday, temporal continuum, had been held for a while above the spinning world and was now – dropped back into place.75 At several points in the
novel, characters remark on the strange pace of time: Something’s going on... time
has passed – or else is passing – marvellous swiftly76, says Lizzie . The narrative
includes moments when time moves as if in slow motion (the train explosion and its aftermath) and when a kind of ellipsis occurs. Within the space of three sentences, Fevvers drops a toy train in the Grand Duke’s gallery, runs along a platform to board this train (now suddenly life-size) and finds Lizzie already inside, despite the fact that it has been among the Grand Duke’s collection of miniature eggs .77 Carter also alludes to William Blake's poems from Songs of Experience, particularly to London and Tyger. London's phrase about 'mind forged manacles' is referenced when describing a pregnant woman in Siberia: she will tear off her mind
forg'd manacles78. The description of the abandoned conservatory seems to be almost
an adaptation or reworking of the first stanza of The Tyger. Also the striking choice of visionary language, 'roofed' or 'icicles of fur,' is both vividly conjuring an impossible scene and reminiscent of Blake's own writings of mystic and prophetic nature:
We saw the house was roofed with tigers. Authentic, fearfully symmetrical tigers burning as brightly as those who had been lost . . . [with] tails that dropped down over the
73 74 75 76 77 78
Stoddart, p. 147. Carter, p. 37. Ibid., p. 87. Ibid., p. 272. Ibid., p. 192. Ibid., p. 217.
eaves like icicles of fur .79
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright In the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye Could frame thy fearful symmetry?80 Traditional fairy tales are invoked throughout the story, most of which only briefly resemble their original context. Carter often inverts the sex of the characters typically changing the protagonist to a female. For example, in the Siberia section of the novel, Walser lies unconscious in the presence of Vera and Olga, the escaped women prisoners. Vera responds to Olga’s enquiry about how they will wake him with the suggestion that the old tales diagnose a kiss as the cure for sleeping beauties,81 a line she delivered with irony. Carter evokes the figure of the Sleeping Beauty only to reimagine and distance it from past versions through a double irony. First, the passive sleeping figure is a man and, second, the two women contemplating what to do with him are both in love with each other and so well aware of the conventions of fairy tales that they are in a position to comment ironically on the scene. Also Fevvers often acts as Walser's Prince Charming, rescuing him from several situations where he was hopeless without her. A similar situation happens with the Wilshire Wonder, one of the characters form the museum of the female monsters. According to the tale she told Fevvers, she was the daughter of the King of Fairies:
She [her mother] cradled me in half a walnut shell, covered me with a rose petal, packed my layette in a hazelnut and carried me off to London town where she exhibited herself for a shilling a time as the ‘Fairy’s Nursemaid’ while I clung to her bosom like a burr.82
The readers, after hearing this story, are instantly reminded of fairy tale images
79 Ibid., p. 249. 80 Blake, William. The Tyger. [in:] Songs of Innocence and Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. Charleston, SC: Forgotten Books, 2008, p. 40. 81 Carter, p. 223 82 Ibid., p. 65
and just as the readers begin to fall prey to the beauty of the image of a tiny fairy-child under a rose petal similar to Andersen's fairy tale about Thumbelina, they are brutally brought back into reality with the rest of her story. Immediately followed by: but all
she got she spent on drink and men because she was a flighty piece.83
Also a reference to a myth from Greek mythology is made by Fevvers. She mentions it while talking about a picture at Ma Nelson's house representing Leda and the Swan. Since she does not know anything about her parents Fevvers envisions that the picture might show her conception:
(…) so I always saw, as through a glass, darkly, what might have been my own primal scene, my own conception, the heavenly bird in a white majesty of feathers descending with imperious desire upon the half-stunned and yet herself impassioned girl.84
Some fragments of the novel invoke the imagery of the Gothic novel. Prominent features of Gothic fiction include terror, both psychological and physical, mystery, the supernatural, ghosts, haunted houses and Gothic architecture, castles, darkness, death, decay, madness, secrets, and hereditary curses. The stock characters of Gothic fiction include tyrants, villains, bandits, maniacs, Byronic heroes, persecuted maidens, femmes fatales, monks, nuns, magicians, vampires, werewolves, monsters, demons, angels, fallen angels, ghosts, skeletons and the Devil himself. After Ma Nelson's death in London section Fevvers is put on display at Madame Schreck's museum of female monsters, a combination of a freak show and a brothel among other women of unique, monstrous features. After some time she is sold to an occultist, Christian Rosencreutz, who believes her to be an angel and wants to sacrifice her in order to achieve immortality. In this fragment Fevvers is a typical maiden in distress imprisoned first in the dungeons of a haunted mansion, Madame Schreck's, and later on at a Gothic castle, Rosencreutz's house:
I saw before me a mansion in the Gothic style, all ivied over, and, above the turrets, floated a fingernail moon with
83 Ibid. 84 Carter, p. 34.
a star in its arms. Somewhere, a dog, howling. Around us, a secrecy of wooded hills.85
Later on, in Petersburg section, after Walser is hired by Colonel Kearney to work as a clown in the circus, the novel presents a Gothic description of the Clown Alley, which seems to be a combination of an asylum, dungeon and a village covered in permanent darkness. This kind of imagery is commonly encountered in Gothic works:
Clown Alley, the generic name of all lodgings of all clowns, temporarily located in this city in the rotten wooden tenement where damp fell from the walls like dew, was a place where reigned the lugubrious atmosphere of a prison or a mad-house; amongst themselves, the clowns distilled the same kind of mutilated patience one finds amongst inmates round of closed table, institutions, bathed in a willed acrid and terrible of the suspension of being. At dinner time, the white faces gathered the the steam baboushka's fish soup, possessed the formal lifelessness of death masks, as if, in some essential sense, they themselves were absent from the repast and left untenanted replicas behind.
The Siberia section of the novel includes yet another Gothic location. It is an accumulation of stock features present in a description of a typical dungeon or place of imprisonment. This accumulation in turn results in the exaggerated and larger than life image of Countess P.'s House of Correction, the Panopticon:
(…) a hollow circle of cells shaped like a doughnut, the inward-facing wall of which was composed of grids of steel and, in the middle of the roofed, central courtyard, there was a round room surrounded by windows. In that room she'd sit all day and stare and stare and stare at her murderesses and they, in turn, sat all day and stared at her.
85 Ibid., p. 51. 86 Carter, p. 71. 87 Ibid., p. 138.
The function of Gothic villains is performed by the characters of Madame Schreck, the owner of the museum of female monsters, Christian Rosencreutz, the mad occultist, and Countess P., the creator of the Panopticon. The very description of Madame Schreck's appearance suggests the Gothic setting. It utilises the Gothic aesthetics and imagery:
the strangest old lady that ever I saw, dressed up in the clothes of her youth, that is to say, some fifty years behind the times, a dress of black chiffon that looked like rags hung over such a mass of taffeta petticoats you couldn't see at first how thin she was, that she was a lady all skin and bone. On her head she wore an old-fashioned poke bonnet of dull black satin with jet ornaments at either side and a black spotted veil hanging down in the front, so thick you could not see her face.88 this Madame Schreck, as she called herself, had indeed started out in life as a Living Skeleton, touring the sideshows, and always was a bony woman.
Madame Schreck's customer, Christian Rosencreutz is a mad occultist that wants to sacrifice Fevvers, in order to gain immortality. Rosencreutz believes Fevvers to be an angel. His appearance, behaviour, fascination with the occult, and the obsessive urge to kill Fevvers make him a typical Gothic villain persecuting a maiden in distress, and therefore refer to stock Gothic characters of maniacs and magicians:
"For one minute, I didn't recognise Mr Rosencreutz without his hat; bald as an egg he surely was, his head gleamed as if the maid had gone over it with the same cloth she used on the silver. He didn't have his plum-coloured frock on, either, but a sort of long, white nightshirt tied with a rope. But when I saw his pendant, I knew my man (...)90
88 Carter, p. 63. 89 Ibid., p. 65. 90 Ibid., pp 74-75.
The Petersburg section includes a reference to Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of carnivalesque. According to his theory, it is a literary mode that subverts and liberates the assumptions of the dominant style or atmosphere through humour and chaos, mingling the sacred with the profane, the sublime with the ridiculous. Literature becomes carnivalised when it takes on the characteristics of popular carnival festivals in narrative form.91 Carnival itself is related to the Feast of Fools, a medieval festival originally of the sub-deacons of the cathedral, in which the humbler cathedral officials parodied the sacred ceremonies. Today, the carnival is primarily associated with Mardi Gras, a time of revelry that immediately precedes the Christian celebration of Lent. During the modern Mardi Gras, ordinary life and its rules and regulations are temporarily suspended and reversed, for example the riot of Carnival is juxtaposed with the control of the Lenten season. For Bakhtin carnival is a powerful creative event. In the carnival social hierarchies of everyday life are profaned and overturned by normally suppressed voices and energies. Therefore, fools become wise, kings become beggars, opposites, fact and fantasy, heaven and hell, are mingled. The episode in the novel which is most carnivalesque in this sense is the clown act, the Feast of Fools, the
Clowns' Christmas Dinner,92 as it is described in Clown Alley.
Clowns' Christmas Dinner", in which Buffo takes up his Christ's place at the table, carving knife in one hand, fork in the other, and some hapless august or other is borne on, with a cockscomb on his head, as the bird.
In this chapter, Buffo is caught up in a perpetual circle of mock life and death. His circus funeral provides the spectators with a violent and elaborate death ritual, a turn called the Clown’s Funeral. This scene stresses the emptiness and impotence of the clowns, even when they are at their most violent behaviours. Their carnivalistic circus act gives them licence to commit the most ferocious piracies and even to detonate
the entire city, but this is allowed precisely because it is only an act, nothing would really change and the exploded buildings will land back on earth again in exactly the same places where they had stood before.94 The carnivalesque in Nights at the
91 92 93 94 Vice, Sue. Introducing Bakhtin. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997, p. 149. Carter, p. 175. Ibid., p. 117. Ibid., p. 151.
Circus, is only a temporary shaking up and release of pressure, it does not change anything in any way. The novel’s narrative structure can be described as episodic and fragmented in that, although Fevvers, Lizzie and Walser are present at different points through the narrative, the story is divided into three clear sections, London, Petersburg and Siberia, something which is reminiscent of three theatrical acts. Within this, the middle section is made up of what becomes close to free-standing chapters, narratively they connect or overlap very little with each other: Highly theatrical in style, content and structure, Nights at the Circus mimics the classic three-act play (including a final ‘Envoi’). It is divided into three sections as the narrative moves from the ‘London’ of Fevvers’ childhood and theatrical fame to ‘Petersburg’ where she joins Colonel Kearney’s circus on its ‘Grand Imperial Tour’ and is then literally and violently derailed in the ‘Siberia’ section when the circus train crashes in an expansive, freezing and threatening wilderness.95 In a three-act play, each act usually has a different tone to it. The most commonly used is the first act having a lot of introductory elements, the second act can usually be the darkest one with the antagonists having a greater encompass, while the third act is the resolution and the protagonists prevailing. In the first act, London, the characters and their backgrounds are introduced. The second act, Petersburg, presents grim reality of the circus artists, full of violence and madness. The third act, Siberia, continues the dark tones with the episode about the Panopticon and Walser's madness but finishes optimistically, with Fevvers finding Walser regaining sanity. Also, in terms of theatrical structure, since Fevvers' and Lizzie's stories are usually in form of extended monologues they may be interpreted as functioning as a form of soliloquies. The novel finishes with an Envoi which in poetry is a short stanza used to
95 Stoddart, op. cit., p. xi.
comment on the preceding poem.96 However, in Nights at the Circus to some extent it is a mockery of its function. It does comment on the preceding three acts serving as an epilogue but it only muddies the clarity by refusing to clarify which of these categories has been faked, the wings or the virginity.
(…) why did you go to such lengths, once upon a time, to convince me you were the 'only fully-feathered intacta in the history of the world'?" She began to laugh. "I fooled you, then!" she said. "Gawd, I fooled you!" She laughed so much the bed shook. "You mustn't believe what you write in the papers!" she assured him, stuttering and hiccupping with mirth. "To think I fooled you!" 97
Nights at the Circus is deeply rooted historically in the time it was written, mainly the nineteen-eighties. Therefore Fevvers, similarly to Margaret Thatcher, is a selfpromoting individualist, emphasising the importance of hard work and self-help, always with an eye on the prise when it comes to national and international money-making opportunities. However, the reference is much more complex because not only is Fevvers often philanthropic in the use of her personal wealth, but also the corset is a sharsh and painful mode of female bodily constraint that dates back beyond the Victorian period to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603), yet another determined and reformist female leader of Britain who gave her corset the nickname of the Iron Lady, also a nickname of Margaret Thatcher. No doubt Fevvers enjoys its historical association with Elizabeth I, known as the Virgin Queen. Still, the corset cantilevered Fevvers’ body into an exaggerated symbol of a woman like one that might appear on
the prow of a ship.98 Although it is by using such mythical images of women that
Fevvers accumulates her fame and fortune, she also learns that the same symbols, like the corset itself, can be painfully imprisoning if they are not controlled and directed in an intelligent way.99 The basis of Thatcher's initial success was not so much the actions or influence of
96 97 98 99 Baldick, op. cit., p. 81. Carter, p. 294. Carter, p. 15. Stoddart, op. cit., p. 7.
others but her own skilfulness in escaping from the wreckage, which in this context means the troubled, outdated, aristocratic and backward-looking Conservative Party of the 1970s, she transformed as she took over the leadership of it. But the parallel with Fevvers here is striking. In Nights at the Circus Fevvers also escapes from the wreckage, in this case literal one, of a train crash in Siberia that is caused by an excessively masculine group of self-destructive outlaws. In the aftermath of this disturbance, she suffers a crisis of identity when she loses the symbols of male power, Fevvers' Victory sword taken from Ma Nelson's brothel and Lizzie's Father Time clock, that have introduced the element of control into her life since leaving the brothel. In the same section, Lizzie's handbag is lost, found and then lost again. When found, the handbag contains only playing cards, symbolizing a game of chance, a crafty reference at the relative weakness of Margaret Thatcher's power that became to be symbolised by the always present bags fixed to her arm and her unshaken monetarist trust in the fortunes of marketplace.100 Another historical reference is to the beginnings of the women's suffrage movement. In 1865, not that many years before 1899 – the year of the action of the novel, John Stuart Mill, who put the matter of women’s suffrage in his election address was elected Member of Parliament for Westminster. From the point of Mill’s election as MP the issue of women’s suffrage became to occupy an important place in parliamentary business in each successive parliament. While Fevvers in Nights at the Circus is self-regardingly and provocatively revolutionary, Lizzie represents her active political counterpart, engaging in clandestine anarchist and suffragette activities in London and distributing revolutionary materials from Siberia. The women in the panopticon also take action in their break-out from imprisonment as performers under the Countess P.’s watchful gaze, and the performing apes achieve freedom through education. The subject of gender, feminism and post-feminism will be explored in the third chapter of the thesis. On the surface Nights at the Circus might be received as a beautifully convoluted carnivalesque with fantastical characters, locations and events. This would be however, only one of the possible readings – the readerly one, performed by a semantic reader unconscious of the existence of and unprepared for perceiving levels of the narrative other than the apparent, explicit one. The novel is then still enjoyable – in the naïve way
100Stoddart, op. cit., p. 9.
– though more complex than the majority of popular literature, mainly because of its episodic, non-linear structure. The writerly reading by the semiotic reader, conscious and aware of both double coding, multiplicity of senses and intertextual irony reveals much more meaning to the plot development and the change in protagonists, both Fevvers and Walser. The now perceived allusions and visible literary techniques force the readers to refer to their general knowledge of literature, art and culture, and depending on its width and range, make them create a unique, personal understanding of the novel.
CHAPTER III FEMINISM AND GENDER IN NIGHTS AT THE CIRCUS
The aim of the following chapter is to analyse Nights at the Circus in the context of the feminist theory. The beginning of the chapter will focus on introducing theoretical background behind women suffrage and feminist movement. It will provide historical outline of development of feminist thought throughout all three waves of feminism and post-feminism. A comparison between characteristic components of the feminist and post-feminist literature and their equivalents in Carter's text is a significant element of the analysis. In particular, it gives a depiction of female and marginalised characters, female identity, the difference between sex and gender, and patriarchal misogynistic attitudes. Feminism is a term used to describe political, cultural, and economic movements that seek greater or equal rights and participation in society for women. These rights and means of participation include legal protection and inclusion in politics, business, and education, and recognising and building of women's cultures and power. Its concepts overlap therefore with women's rights movement. Feminism is controversial for challenging traditions in many fields, especially for supporting changing the political balance toward women. The feminist theory emerged from the feminist movements. Feminist activists have campaigned for women's rights, in contract, property, and voting, and also promoted women's rights to bodily integrity, autonomy and reproductive rights. They have opposed domestic violence, sexual harassment, and sexual assault. In economics, they have advocated equal workplace rights: equal pay and opportunities for careers and to start businesses. The aforementioned utilitarian and classical liberal philosopher Jeremy Bentham choose the career of a reformist because of the placing of women in a legally inferior position. Bentham spoke for a complete equality between sexes including the right to 48
vote and to participate in the government, and opposed the different sexual moral standards to women and men.101 A part of the reasoning of the nineteenth century feminists was not only a reaction to the injustices they saw but the increasingly restrictive Victorian image of the proper role of women and their sphere. This was the feminine ideal as presented in Victorian conduct books.102 The development of feminist movement can be divided into three waves. The first-wave feminism refers to a period of feminist activity during the nineteenth and early twentieth century in the United Kingdom and the United States. It focused on officially authorised inequalities, primarily on gaining women's suffrage, the right to vote. Women's suffrage is the right of women to vote and to run for office. The term is also used for the economic and political reform movement that aims at extending these rights to women without any restrictions or qualifications such as property ownership, payment of tax, or marital status. The suffrage movement was a very broad one and included women and men with a broad range of views.103 The term first-wave was coined post factum in the 1970s. The activists involved in women's movement at that time, focusing on fighting actual inequalities and the legal ones, acknowledged its predecessors and called themselves second-wave feminism. During the early 20th century English women, at least in theory, achieved civil equality. In the period of the World War I women gained the right to sit in parliament, although slowly they were actually elected. Women started working on school boards and local bodies, their numbers increasing after the war. In this period also more women started to become more educated.104 In the chapter Woman: Myth and Reality of The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir claimed that men had made women the Other in society by putting a false aura of mystery around them. She argued that men used this as an excuse not to understand women or their problems and not to help them. According to her it was nowhere more true than with sex where men stereotyped women and used it as an excuse to organize
101Williford, Miriam. Bentham on the Rights of Women. [in:] Journal of the History of Ideas. Vol. 36, No. 1, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975, pp 167-176. 102Abrams, Lynn. Ideals of Womanhood in Victorian Britain. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/trail/victorian_britain/women_home/ideals_womanhood_01.shtml> (06 August 2010) 103Pugh, Frances. The real Mrs Pankhurst. New Statesman 14 July 2008 <http://www.newstatesman.com/society/2008/07/emmeline-pankhurst-women-cause> (12 August 2010) 104Phillips, Melanie. The Ascent of Woman: A History of the Suffragette Movement and the Ideas Behind It. London: Abacus. 2004.
society into a patriarchy.105 As feminism sought to redefine itself, new issues emerged to the surface, one of which was reproductive rights. Even discussing the issue could be dangerous: Annie Besant had been tried in 1877 for publishing Charles Knowlton's Fruits of Philosophy, a work on family planning, under the Obscene Publications Act of 1857. 106 Even more controversial was the establishment of the Abortion Law Reform Association in 1936. The penalty for abortion had been reduced from execution to life imprisonment by the Offences against the Person Act of 1861.107 The Second World War was strongly liberating and empowering for women, since most working-age men were away from their homes and jobs. However, at the end of the war women again found that many of their apparent achievements disappeared or were taken away. Despite the gains of the first half of the twentieth century, the basic problems of discrimination, inequality, and limited opportunities emerged again after the end of the World War II when men returning from combat re-established their previous positions. Consequently, the emergence of a new feminism after World War II was termed second-wave feminism, to reflect the gap the war had created and the new directions taken after women's experiences during and after that war. Second-wave feminism is a period of feminist activity beginning in the early '60s and through the late 1980s. Second Wave Feminism has existed continuously since then, and continues to coexist with Third Wave Feminism. It considers cultural and political inequalities as inextricably linked. The movement encouraged women to understand aspects of their personal lives as deeply politicized, and reflecting a sexist structure of power. First-wave activists focused on absolute rights such as suffrage, while secondwave activists were concerned with other issues of equality, such as the end to discrimination.108 The second wave of feminism helped to educate women and enabled them to see their personal lives as politicized and reflecting the sexist structure of power: One project of second wave feminism was to
105de Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. London: Vintage Books, 1973, pp 301-312. 106 Besant, Annie. The law of population: Its consequences and its bearing upon human conduct and morals. Freethought Publishing: London, 1877. 107 Education for choice: History of UK abortion law. <http://www.efc.org.uk/Foryoungpeople/Factsaboutabortion/HistoryofUKabortionlaw> 14 August 2010. 108 Philips, op. cit., pp 116-118.
create positive images of women, to act as a counterweight to the dominant images circulating in popular culture and to raise women’s consciousness of their oppressions.109 Feminists during the movement viewed popular culture as an another example of gender inequality, and tried to prove the idea that women are shown false images of how they should act and the roles they should play. They believed that the mass media was influencing women to act in certain ways. Artist Helen Reddy’s song I Am Woman played a large role in popular culture and became a feminist anthem and Reddy came to be known as a feminist poster girl or a feminist icon.110 The third-wave of feminism or post-feminism began in the early 1990s. The movement began as a response to perceived failures of the second-wave. It was also a response to the backfire against initiatives and movements of the Second Wave. Thirdwave feminism seeks to challenge or avoid what it perceives the second wave's definitions of femininity that over-emphasized the experiences of upper middle class white women. A post-structuralist interpretation of gender and sexuality is central to much of the third wave's ideology. Third wave feminists often object to the second wave's conviction as to what is, or is not, good for females. Feminist leaders of the 1980s second wave called for a new subjectivity in feminist voice. Emphasizing discursive power and the ambiguity of gender, third-wave theory usually incorporates elements of queer theory, anti-racism and women-of-colour consciousness, womanism, post-colonial theory, critical theory post-modernism, transnationalism, libertarian feminism, new feminist theory, transgender politics and a rejection of the gender binary. Also considered as a part of the third wave is sex-positivity, a celebration of sexuality as a positive aspect of life, with broader definitions of what sex means and what oppression and empowerment may imply in the context of sex. For example, many third-wave feminists have reconsidered opposition to pornography and to sex work of the second wave and challenge existing beliefs that participants in pornography and in sex work cannot be empowered.111 One challenge within second wave feminism was the
109 Arrow. Michelle. It Has Become My Personal Anthem: “I Am Woman.” [in:] Popular Culture and 1970s Feminism. Australian Feminist Studies 22, 2007, pp 213-230. 110 Ibid., pp 213-230. 111 Freedman, Estelle B. No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women. London: Ballantine Books, 2003, pp 374-379.
increasing visibility of lesbianism within and without feminism. The threat to male assumptions they represented turned out to be real in that their presence in the woman's movement became a target of the male backlash. One of the main fields of interest to the feminist activists was in gaining the right to contraception and birth control, which were almost universally restricted until the 1960s. With the development of the first birth control pill feminists hoped to make it widely available as soon as possible. Many hoped that this would free women from the perceived burden of mothering children they did not want; they felt that control of reproduction was necessary for full economic independence from men. Access to abortion was also widely demanded, but this was much more difficult to secure because of the deep societal divisions that existed over the issue. Many feminists also fought to change perceptions of female sexual behaviour. Since it was often considered more acceptable for men to have multiple sexual partners, many feminists encouraged women into sexual liberation and having sex for pleasure with multiple partners.112 Third-wave feminists want women to be seen as intelligent, political beings with intelligent, political minds; some claim that there is a lack of diverse, positive female representatives in pop culture. They also bring attention to alleged unhealthy standards for women in media; the glamorization of eating disorders; the portrayal of women as sexualised objects catering solely to the man's needs, and anti-intellectualism. In the immediate postwar period de Beauvoir stood in opposition to an image of the woman in the home. De Beauvoir provided an existentialist dimension to feminism with the publication of The Second Sex in 1949. The resurgence of feminist activism in the late 1960s was accompanied by an emerging literature of what might be considered female associated issues, such as concerns for the earth and spirituality, and environmental activism. This in turn created an atmosphere conducive to reigniting the study of and debate on matricentricity, as a rejection of determinism.113 The development of feminist theory can be divided into a number of phases. The first one being feminist critique, where the feminist reader examines the ideologies behind literary phenomena. The second, gynocritics, where the woman is producer of textual meaning including the psychodynamics of female creativity,
112 Baumgardner, Jennifer; Richards, Amy. ManifestA: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000, pp 237-243. 113 Showalter, Elaine. Toward a Feminist Poetics: Women's Writing and Writing About Women. [in:] The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature and Theory. London: Random House, 1988, pp 89-93.
linguistics and the problem of a female language, the trajectory of the individual or collective female literary career literary history. The last phase is gender theory, where the ideological inscription and the literary effects of the sex/gender system are explored. This model has been criticized as an essentialist and deterministic model for female subjectivity, and for not taking account of the situation for women outside the west.114 Feminist theory is the extension of feminism into theoretical, or philosophical discourse, it aims to understand the nature of gender inequality. It examines women's social roles and lived experience, and feminist politics in a variety of fields, such as anthropology and sociology, psychoanalysis, economics, literary criticism, and philosophy. While generally providing a critique of social relations, much of feminist theory also focuses on analysing gender inequality and the promotion of women's rights, interests, and issues. Themes explored in feminism include art history and contemporary art, aesthetics, discrimination, stereotyping, objectification, especially sexual, oppression, and patriarchy.115 The distinction between sex and gender is that sex is biological, chromosomal or morphological, while gender is social or cultural, how societies structure relationships. The distinction is strategically important for second-wave feminism, because on it is based the argument that gender is not biological destiny, and that the patriarchal oppression of women is a cultural phenomenon which not necessarily follows from biological sexual differentiation. This distinction allows feminists to accept some form of natural sexual difference while criticizing gender inequality. Since the emergence of more complex conceptions of gender and subjectivity and third-wave feminism, feminist literary criticism has taken many new routes. It has considered gender in the terms of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, as part of the deconstruction of existing relations of power, and as a concrete political investment. It has been closely associated with the birth and growth of queer studies. And the more traditionally central feminist concern with the representation and politics of women's lives has continued to play an active role in criticism. The feminist theory is asking new questions of old texts. The goals of feminist criticism are: to develop and uncover a female tradition of writing, to interpret symbolism of women's writing so that it will not be lost or ignored by the male point of view, to rediscover old texts, to analyse
114 Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics. New York: Routledge, 2002, pp 74-75. 115 Ibid., p. 73.
women writers and their writings from a female perspective, to resist sexism in literature, and to increase awareness of the sexual politics of language and style.116 From the early 1970s feminist practice, in both literature and other fields, began to be characterised by its close relations with critical theory and philosophy. Nights at the Circus is both characteristic and exceptional in this respect, it expresses feminist concerns about female identity, history and the body in a way that clearly demonstrates a knowledge of philosophers and theorists on these subjects. It is a novel that presents this knowledge explicitly and that seems to have gathered the literary theorists, philosophers and critical trends that dominated the literary and cultural debates of the 1980s. What is also important about the novel is the way in which it extends and complicates the understanding of the issues involved instead of simply giving the reader a critical check-list.117 The works of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901–81) frequently use metaphors based on the visual relations between objects, and this makes his work highly adaptable to the language of film. The most influential early essay on the construction of the female body as cinematic spectacle was Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, that references both the work of Lacan and Sigmund Freud. Mulvey’s thesis about the implications of female exhibitionism relate directly to Fevvers: In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote tobe-looked-at-ness.118 Some of Mulvey's most important assumptions clearly resonate through Nights at
116 Tuttle, Lisa. Encyclopedia of feminism. Harlow: Longman, 1986, p. 184. 117 Stoddart, op. cit., p. 21. 118 Mulvey, Laura. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Screen 16(3), 1975, p. 11.
the Circus. Men are the active bearers of the look, while women are the passive objects of it. In the novel Carter refers to Mulvey’s thesis concerning female exhibitionism with Fevvers’ claim:
I was nought but the painted, gilded sign of love and, you might say, that so it was I served my apprenticeship in being looked at – at being the object of the eye of the beholder.119
The emphasis in both statements is on the codification of female display and the suggestion that female exhibitionism is a set of socially acquired gestures, signs and codes which are learnt through apprenticeship. They beautify the female but do not constitute her and therefore are not essential to her. This gives Fevvers an escape route in her early years because in Ma Nelson’s brothel she can occupy the sign of love by enacting many sexually symbolic women without having to give herself over to the sexual act itself.120 Fevvers is also distinct as a literary character, unlike film stars she is a fictional presence through literary language and not images. That is why she is not continuously coded visually and has a more complex relationship to the male gaze than her aforementioned statement suggests. The first chapter of the novel presents an elaborate dynamic of multiple and mutual looks between Fevvers and Walser including the challenging and flirtatious flashing of her indecorous eyes at Walser, his unsuccessful attempt to frame and define her, her impersonal gratification as she looks at herself in the mirror and her wink at Walser through the medium of the mirror.121 It is clear that Carter’s project is to present the varieties of destructive or controlling male fantasy that may be extended on to the passive female object that is caught by and constructed for the active gaze of the male subject.122 Carter’s feminism is not confined to the interests of women, she rejects the idea that fiction that demythologises is only of interest to women, men live by myths as much as women do. This in part can be observed in the fate of many of Carter's male characters, like Walser undergoing a kind of feminist conversion that enables him to
119 Carter, p. 23. 120 Stoddart, op. cit., p. 26. 121 Carter, pp 7-9. 122 Stoddart, op. cit., p. 27.
achieve a non-patriarchal relationship at the novel’s close.123 After the train wreck in Siberia Walser loses his memory completely, and therefore becomes a tabula rasa, free from cultural prejudice and stereotypes. From this state, through a delirious process of re-learning language, he is slowly rebuilt into a New Man fit for an complementary with Fevvers’ New Woman.124 Female characters in Nights at the Circus represent various attitudes, from feminist Lizzie and post-feminist Fevvers, to Mignon, a victim of patriarchal society and male abuse, and therefore an illustration of what both feminists and post-feminists fought against. Sophie Fevvers is the self-defined winged aerialiste who acts as the central point for the circus' success. She is six feet two inches tall, curvaceous, peroxide blonde, and the largest personality within the story. Fevvers’ body is constructed in defiance of social norms in its resistance to models of delicate, responsive femininity and its explicit expressions of need, satisfactions and desire.125 She is a woman of appetite, powerful and sensuously strong she is the antithesis of the delicate and sickly Victorian ideal. She wants her displays of appetite to be witnessed, like one of her circus performances as an aerialiste. Fevvers wants all around her to know the pleasure she takes in satisfying her appetite. The animalistic enjoyment with which she attacks food signifies an earthy sexuality, and clearly her disregard for feminine niceties, from basic etiquette to the Victorian pretending that one does not engage in the act of eating:
She tucked into this earthiest, coarsest cabbies’ fare with gargantuan enthusiasm. She gorged, she stuffed herself, she spilled gravy on herself, she sucked up peas from the knife; she had a gullet to match her size and table manners of the Elizabethan (...) She wiped her lips on her sleeve and belched. She gave him [Walser] another queer look, as if she half hoped the spectacle of her gluttony would drive him away.126
activist/revolutionary who may have occult powers is literally a different story. Lizzie is
123 Ibid., p. 79. 124 Dennis, Abigail. The Spectacle of her Gluttony: The Performance of Female Appetite in Nights at the Circus. Journal of Modern Literature Volume 31, Number 4, p. 120. 125 Stoddart, op. cit., p. 88. 126 Carter, p. 22
the alternative heroine because she is maternal and menopausal without ever having been sexually active.127 She is, sometimes shockingly, pragmatic:
The baker can’t make a loaf out of your privates, duckie, and that’s all you’d have to offer him in exchange for a crust if nature hadn’t made you the kind of spectacle people pay good money to see. All you can do to earn your living is to make a show of yourself.128
On the other hand she depicts life in the brothel in positively utopian terms, and prostitution is described by her as less exploitative than marriage. Tempted by the Shaman’s regard for her, Lizzie wonders whether she should take a little holiday from
rationality and play at being a minor deity129. Her emergence from the Shaman’s hut
shows Lizzie reaching an apotheosis as a prophetic maternal figure, and it is she, who represents Carter’s more successful re-vamping of the Gothic heroine because it is her story, not Fevvers’, which is the more truly radical.130 Lizzie’s commitment to Marxism is never in doubt. It falls to her to point out that history is a continuous process of change, bringing sudden and chaotic upheavals or storms that will continue to emerge in the twentieth century. Even women who imagine they have wings could not escape the wind of these storms, because to avoid the storm would mean being removed from the momentum of historical change and therefore entirely without power. While Fevvers in Nights at the Circus is self-regardingly and provocatively subversive, Lizzie is her active political counterpart, engages in covert anarchist and suffragette activities in London and despatches revolutionary materials from Siberia.131 Because of her traumatic history, Mignon is entirely performance; she can sustain only a present-tense existence, the shortness of her memory saves her from despair, and her core is in suspension. What keeps her from sleepwalking is itself a performance of sorts but of a different kind, singing. Inarticulate and numbed with abuse, she expresses her self in song, an artless performance that reaches out to the voiceless Princess of Abyssinia. Their coupling, first as a circus act with the tigers, later as lovers and
127 Stoddart, op. cit., p. 65. 128 Carter, p. 185. 129 Ibid., p. 293. 130 Stoddart, op. cit., p. 23. 131 Stoddart, op. cit., p. 86.
musicians, paradoxically becomes less a performed connection and more a lived and expressed relationship.132 Many critical inquiries of Nights at the Circus refer to the carnivalesque qualities. In using this term, they are referring the work of the aforementioned Russian structuralist critic Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975). He used the term in a study of the Russian novelist Feodor Dostoevsky to define the way in which popular carnival festivals become textualised in distinctive narrative forms. Novels present what he calls a carnival sense of the world, and Bakhtin gives a clear list of four connected features that may contribute to this sense. First is the suspension of distance between individuals that leads to a free and familiar contact among people, especially between people who normally would be separated by social status and class divisions. Second is the emergence of a new mode of interrelationship between individuals through physical and concretely sensual and eccentric forms that are half-real and half-play-acted. Third, the carnival results in carnivalistic mésalliances meaning that not only people, but also values, thoughts, phenomena, and things, the sacred and the profane the wise and the stupid that would otherwise be self-enclosed, disunified, distanced from one another, are brought together. Fourth, the carnival alliances are supported by an impulse of profanation that results in a whole system of carnivalistic debasings, and bringings down to earth, carnivalistic obscenities linked with the reproductive power of the earth and the body and carnivalistic parodies on sacred texts.133 In Nights at the Circus Bakhtin’s gendering of grotesque realism is overturned. On the one hand, Fevvers’ body certainly has grotesque aspects to it, Carter continually emphasizes her earthiness (Such a lump it seems134), through reference to her immense frame and weight, her body dressed in rancid silk135, her messy, gargantuan appetite, lips smeared with grease136 and feminine squalor137. On the other hand, fertility and conception are not twinned with this earthy, downward-weighted body. On the contrary, Fevvers’ publicity declares her to be the only fully feathered intacta in
132 Ibid., p. 91. 133 Bakhtin, op. cit., pp 122-123. 134 Carter, p. 16. 135 Ibid., p. 19. 136 Ibid., p. 53. 137 Ibid., p. 9.
the history of the world138. She may have spent her early years in a brothel where a sub-text of fertility underwrote the glittering sterility of the pleasure of the flesh available, but in this place she exists only as an object in men’s eyes139. Fevvers is
disassociated with conception to such an extent that her own conception is doubly obscure with her father and mother, both utterly unknown and being, of course, hatched. Fevvers’ weightiness connects her to the Earth, but the creativity that would make this regenerative in Bakhtinian terms is more symbolic than actual. With Jack Walser as her partner and stenographer, she plans to give birth retrospectively to the histories of
those woman who would otherwise go down nameless and forgotten 140. Fevvers’
specific combination of weight, flight and symbolism, the conception of ideas and history, mean that all the time she is linked both to Earth and regeneration and to the upward, heavenward movement that Bakhtin locates with males and masculinity. Carter’s personal and literary affinity with the genre of the fantastic is related to her feminism. She employed the fantastic to subvert patriarchal society. Even in the 1980s there were critics who dismissed fantastic or magical realist novels as selfindulgent and decadent in their extravagance, but in Carter’s case, this ignored her political and intellectual drive. Towards the end of the novel, she reflects on the subject jokily. When Fevvers wonders how Lizzie, from a family of anarchist bomb-makers, can reconcile her politics with her hanky-panky141, Carter puts in place a metafictional joke about her own kind of magical realism, a combination of unbelievable, time-stretching narrative hanky-panky and political engagement. Using magical realism enables Carter to make observations about society, gender and the power of myth, and she is exceptionally sceptical about any construct naturalized and accepted without question.142 Nights at the Circus is remarkable for the way in which it predicts radical intervention into philosophical debate about the relationship between the categories of sex and gender. The gender identities are performative, they are performed on and through the surfaces of the body and are neither inherent nor interior to it: Acts, gestures, and desire produce the effect of an internal core or substance, but produce this on the
138 Ibid., p. 294. 139 Ibid., p. 39. 140 Carter, p. 285. 141 Ibid., p. 225. 142 Stoddart, op. cit., p. 36.
surface of the body, through the play of signifying absences gestures, that they that suggest, but never reveal, the are are organizing principle of identity as a cause. Such acts, enactments, otherwise generally purport construed, to express
performative in the sense that the essence or identity fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and discursive means.
The idea of a gendered body is exactly that, only an idea that exists through the acts and performances that give it meaning. The idea that an interior essence or core of gender might exist is an illusion discursively maintained for the purposes of the regulation of sexuality within the obligatory frame of reproductive heterosexuality.144 Once gender is understood as a psychological core, then its fabricated and political nature is hidden from analysis and from change. Similarly, an understanding of gender as performative and gestural, provisional and political, makes gender identities available for revision and subversion.145 New possibilities for understanding gender identity are presented in Nights at the Circus because Carter produces a new formula for her magical realism. One that energizes her work with a greater sense of delight and the marvellous. Paulina Palmer’s critique of the novel depends on the positive use of Bakhtinian ideas on the carnivalesque in literature to highlight the importance and complexity of the themes of liberation and transformation. The most potent figure in this respect is: Fevvers herself and her magnificent wings. The image of the winged bird-woman which she represents is, however, more complex in significance than it appears. It is ‘transparent’ in the sense that a number of contradictory meanings are constructed on it. Though it is predominantly an image of liberation,
143 Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge, 1990, p. 136. 144 Ibid., p. 136. 145 Stoddart, op. cit., p. 37.
the male protagonists impose upon it stereotypical interpretations of femininity, invented by a patriarchal culture. ‘Angel of death’, ‘queen of ambiguities’, ‘spectacle’ and ‘freak’ are some of the conventional female roles which they attribute to Fevvers in the novel. The egg from which she claims to have been hatched is an image which is similarly ambiguous. On the one hand, it represents psychic rebirth. On the other, it provides a vehicle for Lizzie to theorize about and Fevvers the of oppressive under becoming nature of in reproduction Suspecting child-care patriarchy.
marriage and domesticity, she rebukes with her words “I’ve raised you to fly up to the heavens, not to brood
over a clutch of eggs”146.147
The stress on ambiguity and contradiction throughout this analysis and the possibility of dual or multiple meaning shows identification of a certain mobility and possibility in the writing. Since this mobility is mostly focused on female figures, it is regarded as a feminist usage of a carnivalesque literary impulse. Carter is exceptional as a writer in that she frames her use of the carnivalesque within a feminist critique of it. She depicts carnivalesque of the playful exuberance of the circus clowns, that are used to represent the violence which is prevailing in male dominated society, and circus as a place is dominated by male performers and driven by a drive for profits and a callousness towards women and animals.148 Carter also provides a critical voice against patriarchy in the access it gives readers to aspects of European social and economical history of the nineteenth century that belong to the underground aspects of Victorian Britain: Through, for example, Fevvers’ description of her
146 Carter, p. 282. 147 Palmer, Paulina. From Coded Mannequin to Bird Woman, [in:] Roe, Sue (ed.), Women Reading Women’s Writing. Brighton: Harvester, 1987, p. 199. 148 Stoddart, op. cit., p. 47.
experiences in a London brothel, Nights at the Circus explores how the development of a sophisticated life of the emotions which is our cultural heritage has relegated certain aspects of sexuality to the social underground. In this respect, the location of the narrative at the end of the nineteenth century is especially significant for it is during this period, as Steven Marcus . . . points out, ‘that pornography and especially pornographic writing became an industry’ . . . However, it was also a time when fantasy – perceived as the illegitimate in cultural terms – came up against science, perceived as part of legitimate culture . . . Prostitution itself is seen in the novel as challenging traditional demarcations of reality and illusion. Afterall [sic], the women assume a role and the men pay not for sex but for the simulacra of sex. Hence, Nights at the Circus takes us through many positions of debasement, evidenced in worlds assembled and contained for the pleasure of men.149 The presence of a social critique in the Nights at the Circus can easily be detected. The carnivalesque impulse of the novel is partially present in its promotion of the debased and the marginalised. Carter might have reclaimed the Victorian brothel as a place of sexual and social power in Nights at the Circus, but she is never ambivalent about whose pleasures were served by the sex on offer there. Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque offers a way of addressing the attractiveness of socially dishonourable spaces like the circus and the brothel. It is structurally and intellectually reserved about resolutions and definitive statements.150 From Nights at the Circus emerges a conclusion that it is possible for women to escape being defined and confined by patriarchal representations by creating new, playful figures. They would have to reveal how women have been defined through
149 Peach, Linden. Angela Carter. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998, p. 149. 150 Peach, op. cit., p. 151.
representation and also indicate that there are identities beyond these familiar versions. Fevvers mobilizes and parodies the images of womanhood present in the nineteenthcentury culture, assuming at different periods of her life the roles of a music-hall artist, femme fatale and proto-feminist. To underline the oppressive nature of the misogynistic stereotypes that Fevvers has to oppose, Carter shows the attempts made by her male admirers to confine her within conventional definitions. Angel of death, queen of ambiguities, spectacle and freak are some of the titles imposed on her by men. However, typecasting her in these roles does not prevent Fevvers from achieving a strong degree of activeness and self-determination. In her performances, off stage and on it, she strives to avoid male control, and remains triumphantly in charge of herself. Feminism and its symbolism are present through elements of the novel. Fevvers' wings are be a symbol of liberation, enabling her to escape an oppressive patriarchal society and progress into a twentieth century of feminist freedom. The women in the novel represent suffragists and the entire Women's suffrage movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Fevvers, Lizzie and the rest of the female characters represent the idea of the New Woman and a new way of thinking. Even the innocent and vulnerable Mignon is able to escape her abusive husband and past life of oppression for an empowering existence outside of social norms. The fact that women are depicted as strong, forward thinkers that can remain outside of restrictive gender roles is reflective of post-feminist thought, in which women are not perceived as victims and traditional feminism is no longer relevant within a modern society. This claim is backed by the fact that Carter's novel was penned and published during the 1980s, when post-feminism was really beginning to emerge. The turn-of-the-century setting dictates much of the novel's content and its personas. The female characters, in particular, encompass a transition between one century and the next and from one time period's ideals to another's. Specifically, Lizzie's character is not only a protector of the aerialiste, Fevvers, but of women's rights. She considers marriage as a personal and social impediment and takes it upon herself to ensure that Fevvers does not fall into the traps of a patriarchal society. Lizzie herself is a symbol of the nineteenth century's suffrage movement. The women of Ma Nelson's brothel similarly defy the female mould of previous centuries as Lizzie refers to them as suffragists in Chapter Two of Book One. The duality of prostitutes and suffragists is an interesting image and again depicts the females as novel forward thinking women. 63
Nights at the Circus can fall under many different categories of fiction such as post-modern, magical realism, or post-feminist but like its protagonist it is an artful blend of many different philosophies and styles. The novel is not only about the plot. It is about the extravagant and celebratory atmosphere, about the fascinating cast of characters, misfits with a story to tell, and Angela Carter’s lush language. Her language is rich and playful. The tone and the rhythm celebrate language in a luxuriant but never excessive way. The story is composed of many sub-stories, episodes, and characters. Nights at the Circus celebrates storytelling just as much as it celebrates language. It is a carnivalesque late-Victorian fairy tale, a sparkling story about freedom, gender, the modern world, and love. It is a story that celebrates and exemplifies the hold that stories have on people. Most writers would discard the idea of a winged woman, unless they could justify her existence in some way. Carter conjures up Fevvers, makes her flesh-and-blood, and then dares the reader to disbelieve. The reader is free to disbelieve the wings, but can never disbelieve Fevvers as a woman. She is very real, whether in the brothel, in the freak show of Madame Schreck, where she is only an embodiment of perverse fantasy, or in the circus itself. Most of the female characters in the novel enjoy more freedom than real women would have at the time. It does not mean, however, that the story denies that injustice and oppression do exist. The fact that the freedom these women have is never taken for granted is clearly expressed. Carter delights in paralleling the act of flight with the mental flight of freedom. Fevvers escapes the burning whorehouse, Madame Schreck's museum of female monsters, and finally the occultist who hopes to sacrifice her in return for immortality. However, she escapes back to Lizzie and finally into fame, where people still gaze upon her, but now more with admiration than fear and hatred. If she is spectacle, then it is to her profit and on her own terms. And yet this is also a trap she eventually escapes. Fevvers is real enough to be a three-dimensional character. Walser, on the other 65
hand, seems to be two-dimensional, because of his own narrow definition of himself. When Fevvers is fully complete in her identity, Walser is half-formed. While Fevvers can love him at first sight, she cannot see in him as an equal companion until he becomes a New Man. Walser, when found in Siberia, is remarkably changed in nature, he is ready to love Fevvers on her terms. There will be no marriage because there is no need for it. Walser can still be a weak person, but Carter does not marginalise him as a character only because men have marginalised women. She points to the stupidities, cruelties, and ignorance of men, but she does not deny the individual his right to vision. Nights at the Circus is Carter's high-water mark. She manages to be both comedic and serious and keep a high level of the fantastical with well-rounded, believable characters, densely plotted structure, and didactic discussion of issues personally close and important to her. Using the circus language of the novel, she pulls off a series of difficult stunts impossibly well.
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