You are on page 1of 20

Miller 1

Dara Miller
Dr. Fairhall
ENG 451
Basic Human Stuff: Cultural Mythology and Carnivalesque Subversion in The Magic Toyshop
In a 1986 interview with BOMB Magazine, Angela Carter stated that she saw her
“business, the nature of [her] work, as taking apart mythologies, in order to find out what basic,
human stuff they are made of in the first place,” and despite its almost constant blurring of the
boundaries between fantasy and reality, Carter‟s modern gothic novel The Magic Toyshop
explores, at its core, the nature of this “basic, human stuff.” As a haunting indictment of the
patriarchal structures embedded in British society, The Magic Toyshop explores and explodes
traditional ideas of gender norms and culturally sanctioned sexuality through the microcosmic
caricature of the family unit contained within Uncle Philip‟s toyshop on the south side of
London. Although primarily focused on the female protagonist, Melanie, The Magic Toyshop
uniquely examines the ways in which characters of both genders are systematically silenced
through the perpetuation of cultural myths. These myths, which Carter alludes to, skews, and
reimagines, become tropes reflective of Bahktinian ideas of the carnivalesque, and it is only by
eventually accepting and engaging in the spirit of the carnival that the characters can subvert the
myths that threaten to engulf them. As a novel of this “human stuff,” The Magic Toyshop is
perhaps most intriguing in its ambiguity; Carter‟s work examines oppression and challenges the
mythic structures that uphold it, but does not provide a cure for its evils. Instead, through her
exploration of the carnivalesque, Carter examines the role of cultural mythologies as a means of
oppression and questions whether even the carnivalesque subversion of these mythologies is
enough to create a world free from patriarchy.
Miller 2

Although she avowed that her own father “did not prepare [her] well for patriarchy,”
(“Sugar Daddy” 19) much of Angela Carter‟s work revolves around the damaging effects of
patriarchal culture, particularly as it affects women. According to Carter, her interaction with the
feminist movement enters into her writing as a central reflection of her own identity, and as a
way to ask herself “questions about the nature of reality” (“Notes from the Front Line” 37). This
entrenchment in her personal study of the “social fictions that regulate our lives” (“Notes” 38) is
reflected in Melanie‟s – and subsequently Finn, Francie, and Margaret‟s – struggle to inhabit the
various roles created for them by their society. In the novel, this struggle is depicted through the
characters‟ various relationships to the world of cultural and societal myths. As the
“extraordinary lies designed to make people unfree,” (“Notes” 38) the myths and folktales
readily available in our common cultural knowledge become, in Carter‟s hands, the ideal
vehicles for subversion. By her own admission, she “used bits and pieces from various
mythologies quite casually, because they were at hand,” (“Notes” 38) but within The Magic
Toyshop, this indiscriminate inclusion only amplifies the pervasiveness of oppression in the
everyday: the barrage of myths that threaten to erode individual identity come from antiquity,
religion, poetry, art, bedtime stories, cautionary tales, and family invention. Carter, then,
appropriates the structures and motifs of these myriad mythologies to destabilize common
patriarchal tropes. Her goal, however, is not to create a new mythology, even one which is
theoretically empowering. Rather, she considers herself in “the demythologizing business”
(“Notes” 38) and advocates for “putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the pressure of the
new wine makes the old bottles explode” (“Notes” 37).
The Magic Toyshop opens with just such an explosion, although under an affirmative
guise, as Carter subtly establishes the problems of patriarchy before breaking those problems
Miller 3

down through the tropes of the carnivalesque. The first few lines appear, initially, to detail a
liberating awakening of a young girl‟s burgeoning sexuality. Melanie discovers that her body,
rather than being an abstract necessity, is instead a thing of miraculous immediacy, “made of
flesh and blood,” and she wonders at the intricacies of “the elegant structure of her rib-cage” and
her “bud-wing shoulderblades” (The Magic Toyshop 1), which, as Catherine Martin points out,
additionally “remind the reader of the breasts that are also emerging on her front” (10).
However, though the “sheer exhilaration” (MT 1) of her self-discovery creates an atmosphere of
innocent and exuberant sensuality, Melanie‟s feelings are subconsciously underscored even from
these opening lines by the introduction of the mythic substructures that Carter, throughout the
novel, will seek to expose and subvert.
By addressing Melanie‟s body as “O, my America, my new found land,” (MT 1) Carter
establishes the basis for her demystification of patriarchal mythology. Although she appropriates
the phrase to express the young girl‟s pleasure at discovery, the allusion to John Donne also
simultaneously integrates the canon of British poetry into the work – a canon that, like Donne‟s
poem, relies heavily on a romanticized and highly constructed view of women and implies that
“her emerging sense of self is already mediated by culture and history” (Gargano 60). This
metaphor extends to entail Melanie‟s vision of herself as an explorer of unknown territories, as a
“physiological Cortez, da Gama or Mungo Park,” (MT 1) and again subtly invites the reader to
consider the darker implications of summoning up these conquerors, each of whose explorations
was followed by violence and subjugation. Although she imagines herself in this exploratory
role, it should be noted that here she has internalized the male gaze; she still views the journey in
terms of male exploration, foreshadowing her dependence on the image of the phantom
bridegroom in future daydreams. Melanie assumes what she believes is the dominant persona,
Miller 4

that of a male adventurer, and therefore her self-exploration is still essentially a man‟s
voyeuristic travelling of her body. She is “tranced,” suggesting that a separate controlling force
ultimately guides her movements and even her vision of “herself, naked, in front of the
wardrobe” (MT 1).
This force continues to manifest in the ways that Melanie “begins to explore her different
potential identities and contradictory roles that make up the female subject in art and society”
(Peach 76). After exploring her body through her own tactile perceptions, Melanie switches to a
fascination with her body as an image in her full-length mirror. In evaluating her body as image,
Melanie explores the outward signs she believes define her gender as she affects attitudes and
poses she believes will make her a woman. However, as Judith Butler aptly claims, “Such acts,
gestures, enactments, generally construed, are performative in the sense that the essence or
identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained
through corporeal signs and other discursive means,” (2548) rather than innate qualities of an
individual. According to Elizabeth Gargano, Melanie‟s recreation of various artworks adds to
this performative element of her supposed self-discovery; although she seeks to “unravel the
boundaries between the realms of nature and artifice,” in the process of recreating herself in the
image of artistic visions of womanhood, her own body transforms into “the ultimate disguise”
that simultaneously prevents her from establishing her own identity and steeps her in the
“historical iconography of the female body” (60-61).
Her reinterpretation of herself through the male artistic lens further complicates her ideas
of selfhood because it plays into, as Simone de Beauvoir terms it, “the myth of woman” (1265).
By mirroring idealized representations of women created by men instead of realizing the
“dispersed, contingent, and multiple existences of actual women,” Melanie attempts to fit herself
Miller 5

into the myth of “the Eternal Feminine, unique and changeless” (de Beauvoir 1265). She
considers herself incomplete without her accouterments to these various imagined identities; she
is “holding things” in her private modeling sessions, and goes so far as to transform herself into
an object for an imagined man, as she presents herself “gift-wrapped” in gauze for the “phantom
bridegroom” she conjures for herself (MT 2). These various props on her miniature stage, which
later expand to include her mother‟s wedding dress, ultimately embody her fantasy of
womanhood; a fantasy based on societal myths, one that will later find echoes in the props that
shake her sense of self when encountered in Uncle Philip‟s shop. This opening depiction of
Melanie also introduces the complex and ever-shifting relationship of the novel to the idea of the
carnival, particularly in light of Bahktin‟s distinctions between the “positive, assertive character”
(19) of grotesque realism and the darker elements of its later cousin, the Romantic grotesque.
Melanie‟s exercises in draping and covering herself in front of the mirror are essentially
exercises in masking, and to her, this masking appears to take on the positive force that Bahktin
ascribes to folk culture. Her dress-up performance seems “connected with the joy of change” and
to “contain the playful element of life…based on a peculiar interrelation of reality and image”
(39-40). However, the allusions to the male-dominated ideologies on which she is basing her
vision of herself prevent the reader from fully accepting Melanie‟s personal perspective. The
interpolation of the narrator, then, simultaneously tears the mask “away from the oneness of the
folk carnival aspect” and strips Melanie‟s self-discoveries of their “regenerating and renewing
element,” forcing the passage to take on a “somber hue” (Bakhtin 40) even before she enters the
traumatic garden.
That Melanie is initially and unknowingly absorbed into the patriarchal order is
suggested in the novel‟s opening chapter not only by what she does, but also by what she
Miller 6

specifically does not do: speak. Although her internal dialogue is rich and varied, Melanie within
the first chapter is decidedly non-vocal until she ventures into the garden in her mother‟s
wedding dress. Aside from her brief conversation on death with Mrs. Rundle – a woman so
defined by her place in the patriarchal society that she “adopted the married form by deed poll on
her fiftieth birthday as her present to herself”– Melanie‟s dialogue is always accompanied by
some variation of the refrain “she thought” or “she wondered” (MT 3). While her thoughts
remain in her domain, her actual voice is noticeably still for a person with so many opinions of
her own; however, instead of giving herself a voice in her fantasies, she merely gives way to her
imaginary bridegroom‟s “voice husking „darling‟” (MT 2).
Melanie does gain a voice when she inhabits the mythical role she views as intended for
her by donning her mother‟s wedding dress, and she boldly invites the night to “Look at me!”
(MT 16) as she ventures out into the garden. However, the voice she finds within that structure is
insufficient, fading almost immediately: “„I never thought the night would be like this,‟ she says
aloud, but “in a tiny voice” (MT 18, emphasis mine). Her voice, for the remainder of the
experience, shifts from confident declarations to gasps, screams, and other semi-verbal
utterances of confusion and fear as the darkness of the outside world begins to close in around
her. In the midst of her trauma, the garden begins to take on primal and mythic undertones,
sinking insidiously into the world of the Romantic grotesque where “all that is ordinary,
commonplace…and recognized…suddenly becomes meaningless, dubious, and hostile” (Bakhtin
39). The tree that was “her own tree, her friend, whose knobby old branches were thick with
fruit,” (MT 19) turns menacing, a symbolic representation of forbidden knowledge, and like Eve,
she is faced with a choice between gaining a fuller understanding of the world (with all its harsh
expectations) and maintaining her childlike innocence. However, as a reflection of her own
Miller 7

mixed emotions regarding her burgeoning sexuality, even the symbolism of the tree begins to
collapse in on itself. In addition to its Edenic overtones, an allusion to Snow White‟s “sinister
poison apples” (MT 20) further threatens her naiveté and reemphasizes the fairy-tale image of the
damsel imposed on her identity. Rather than a silver-tongued snake persuading her to doom, the
monster lying in wait for her within its branches is a cat, more closely associated with a witch‟s
familiar than with any biblical image, and thus her attempted retreat back into her room becomes
an assault of archetypes that she will be forced to confront as a woman. As she begins her
torturous climb up the symbolic apple tree, she pleads for God‟s intervention, but only receives
in reply a realization of her own shame, making her “horribly conscious of her own exposed
nakedness” (MT 21).
The foundations of Melanie‟s world continue to turn upside down after the death of her
parents, and she in essence becomes a part of the dark fairy tale she began imagining the night
she entered the garden. Lindon Peach notes that “the storyline of the novel itself is reminiscent of
a fairy story…Its heroine, Melanie…[is] orphaned…and the children are forced to live with a
relative they hardly know who turns out to be an ogre” (74) and from this point on the structure
of the novel continues to mimic the same structures it works to deconstruct. As “light drain[s]
from the streets,” she observes forebodingly that as they near her Uncle‟s house, “It is beginning
to get dark” (MT 37). She receives Finn‟s dire confirmation that it “will get darker” and imagines
herself on a quest, comparing the “ritual quality” (MT 37)of their exchange to the search for the
Holy Grail. The shop, however, is no Castle of Corbenic – instead, it looms as a “dark cavern,” a
gaping “cave” lurking between the lively South London shops (MT 37).
Although Melanie has already unwittingly experienced the effects of patriarchy, her
direct experience with the oppressive nature of that system begins here, as images of bondage fill
Miller 8

her initial entrance into Uncle Philip‟s shop. An angry parakeet held down by the “chain on its
leg,” greets her, and “disconcertingly life-like” stuffed birds in a “large gilt cage” (MT 40)
surround her. The children‟s initiation into this new world is replete with tropes of the
carnivalesque. In the shop, “the borderlines that divide the kingdoms of nature in the usual
picture of the world [are] boldly infringed” and the “usual static presentation of reality” (Bakhtin
32) begins to blur. These images of grotesque realism traditionally reveal “an extreme lightness
and freedom,” (Bakhtin 32) but the images greeting Melanie and her siblings are largely dark and
penitentiary. Melanie, even in her relative naivety, cannot help but compare the caged and
mechanical birds to Aunt Margaret, who she sees as “a black bird with a red crest and no song to
sing” (MT 42). With the exception of Finn, a haunting silence fills the house despite the real and
mechanical chatter of the birds and Aunt Margaret‟s exuberant chalkboard writing.
Carter emphasizes the thin line between animate and inanimate created by patriarchy in
her characterization of Aunt Margaret, a woman literally struck dumb on her wedding day as she
gave her life over to a man who would allow her no voice. Even from her initial introduction,
Aunt Margaret represents the theme of the tragic doll that Bakhtin identifies as one of the
common themes of the dark Romantic grotesque (40). She offers Melanie a “stiff, Dutch-doll
embrace; her arms…two hinged sticks, her mouth cool, dry, and papery, her kiss inhibited, tight-
lipped but somehow desperate, making an anguished plea for affection” (MT 49). This wooden
characterization of Margaret also loosely suggests yet another fairy tale, but whereas in the story
of Pinocchio magic and love allowed a wooden toy to become human, Carter‟s language implies
that in this story confinement and tyranny have succeeded in reversing that transformation. When
Melanie wakes up, she feels trapped, like an unwitting Sleeping Beauty, by “a thick hedge of
crimson roses” with “cruel thorns” (MT 53) that she had failed to notice the night before. The
Miller 9

effusive oppression she feels leads Melanie to feel “a stranger, so alien, and somehow so
insecure in her own personality” (MT 58).
The blurred lines between the concrete and the imaginary shake her sense of reality as
well as her sense of herself; the “constant qui vive” of the painted dog and the “grotesque
inventiveness” (MT 60) of the cuckoo clock disturb her already fragile sense of personal identity.
Again, the disruptive forces of the carnivalesque that should lead to a festive overturning of
hierarchy are repurposed in its service within this strange household, and Melanie feels
“withered and diminished” by the fact that “nothing was ordinary, nothing was expected” (MT
60). This feeling intensifies when Finn reacts “violently” (MT 62) to Melanie‟s appearance in
trousers. She is “bewildered” when he implores her to change into a skirt, because “she was
covered” and “proper,” and at first she thinks “he must be joking” (MT 62) about the extent of
Uncle Philip‟s power. Although Melanie has yet to meet the man himself, Finn‟s initial
description of Uncle Philip serves to further his characterization as “a domestic tyrant, a
patriarchal monster …who insists upon absolute rule of the household and its members” (Sceats
106). His subsequent admonitions to avoid make-up and remain silent emphasize his awareness
of the artificiality of the roles they play within the household; his advice is given
“choreographically,” (MT 63) as he, too, recognizes his own subjugation within the household
hierarchy.
Melanie‟s first encounter with her Uncle‟s puppet workshop echoes her entrance into the
garden, and her uneasiness in this environment of “too much” (MT 18) is even more immediate
than it was in the garden. The “jumping jacks, dancing bears, and leaping Arlecchinos” that
should be enchanting are counteracted by the grotesque work bench filled with “carved and
severed limbs” and the “partially assembled puppets…blind-eyed puppets, some armless, some
Miller 10

legless, some naked, some clothed, all with a strange liveliness as they dangled unfinished from
their hooks” (MT 67). Melanie sees herself in the eerily life-like and dejected sylphide, and as
noted by Gina Wisker, this figure of the “living doll…marks the threshold of horror and
carnivalesque comedy in Carter‟s work” and becomes “a central conceit in The Magic Toyshop,
blurring the boundaries of performance and experience, of effect and affect” (121). The horrific
puppets also evoke the fairy-tale images of Bluebeard‟s wives, hung up in the forbidden
chamber, but Melanie, rather than being caught in the act by the villain, is instead completely
ignored; when “the immense, overwhelming figure of a man” (MT 69) enters, Uncle Philip‟s
introductory violence is aimed entirely at Finn, further defying conventional expectations and
expanding the sphere of patriarchy‟s reach.
Though it does not touch her directly yet, Melanie soon finds herself dragged down by
the influence of Uncle Philip‟s control. As she moves mindlessly through household chores, she
becomes a “wind-up putting-away doll, clicking through its programmed movements. Uncle
Philip might have made her over, already. She was without volition of her own” (MT 76).
Melanie envisions Uncle Philip as “a monster with a voice so loud she was afraid he would bring
the roof down and bury them all,” (MT 77) but despairs of finding any way to combat him. She
identifies both herself and Aunt Margaret as Uncle Philip‟s puppets, but soon comes to
understand how his control extends beyond the female members of the household. As evidenced
in the first puppet show scene, the male members of the household are also forced to submit to
his whims. Although Francie asserts some weak defiance with his “excessive, perhaps derisive”
(MT 129) fiddling, and Jonathan remains bored and oblivious throughout the performance, they
are still forced into cooperation with Philip‟s obsession. The entire family, frozen in their
assigned roles, all bend to Uncle Philip‟s patriarchal puppeteering.
Miller 11

In Finn‟s role, Uncle Philip‟s power to subject the members of his household is perhaps
most readily apparent. Finn‟s talent is an essential part of the magic Uncle Philip attempts to
create, as his painting helps bring the toys and the puppet characters to life. Uncle Philip may
hold, as he does in the announcement poster, “the ball of the world in his hand,” (MT 126) but
this world is built partly on his control of the resistant Finn. When Finn fails to work the
puppets properly and they collapse to the floor in a tangled mess, the rest of the family freezes in
a “deadly silence” that is “broken by a clear and penetrating, irrepressible gush of Finn‟s
laughter” (MT 131). As an indispensible element of the carnival, laughter is “ambivalent: it is
gay, triumphant, and at the same time mocking, deriding” (Bakhtin 12). Finn‟s laughter is a brief
and defiant attempt to harness this festive power; to divest the situation of its forced gravity and
acknowledge the ridiculous nature of both the accident and the terror it inspires in the family.
Finn‟s laughter, however, almost immediately “modulate[s] into a high-pitched scream” (MT
131) as Uncle Philip throws him from the flies, breaking him as easily as one could a toy. Rather
than showing any concern for his human nephew, Uncle Philip instead “shove[s] Finn‟s body off
Bothwell with the casual brutality of Nazis soldiers moving corpses” (MT 132) so that he can
instead tend to his beloved puppet. In this setting, his control over the family is complete. When
he decides to incorporate Melanie into his next production, he invalidates the voices of the
protest from Francie, Finn, and (silently) Aunt Margaret, claiming that it is “settled” with no
acknowledgement of their objections (MT 133).
Uncle Philip‟s violent exertion of his patriarchal power, which had previously been
established primarily through his belligerence, marks a noticeable shift in the Flowers household.
Finn is “empty,” and the “circle of red people was broken;” although he paints them together as
martyrs to Uncle Philip‟s tyranny, “each a St. Sebastian full of arrows,” (MT 132) the familial
Miller 12

unity has been shattered, and they can no longer ignore the effect of his power on their lives.
Melanie finds herself once again draping herself in white, but now all her romantic imaginings
about a phantom bridegroom‟s gaze are replaced with Uncle Philip‟s leer as she is forced to
embody “the way he sees [her]” (MT 140). In Uncle Philip‟s vision, however, Melanie becomes
a distorted figure; her “tits are too big” and he “resent[s] her because she was not a puppet” (MT
143-4). Despite her submission to his demands, no amount of costuming or grease-paint make-up
can make her quite wooden enough for him without her spirit being broken.
To make her an acceptable puppet, Uncle Philip uses the ultimate tool of patriarchy: rape.
By framing his performance within the scheme of myth with his idea of “Leda and the Swan,”
Uncle Philip casts himself in the role of Jove. His lust, however, extends beyond Jove‟s physical
desire for Leda; by attempting to use Finn as his initial instrument of rape, Uncle Philip desires
the complete annihilation of both of their individualities. When Finn instigates the so-called
“rehearsal” of the Melanie‟s performance on Uncle Philip‟s command, Melanie attempts to bring
in the carnivalesque through her laughter, still attempting to evade the darkness of Uncle
Phillip‟s plot. Finn, however, realizes the extent to which Uncle Philip truly desires their mutual
destruction:
….he wanted me to fuck you…Suddenly I saw it all, when we were lying there.
He‟s pulled our strings as if we were his puppets, and there I was, all ready to
touch you up just as he wanted. He told me to rehearse Leda and the swan with
you. Somewhere private. Like in your room, he said. Go up and rehearse a rape
with Melanie in your bedroom. Christ. He wanted me to do you and he set the
scene. Ah, he‟s evil! (MT 152)
Miller 13

Melanie, however, still does not grasp the full significance of Finn‟s analysis, and her
inexperience compounds the trauma of the puppet show. Despite Uncle Philip‟s intentions, she is
“under-rehearsed” (MT 164) and ill-prepared to woodenly accept the bestial ravishment of his
puppet. According to Carter, “the fear of rape…is a fear of psychic disintegration…a fear of loss
or dismemberment of the self,” (The Sadeian Woman) but Melanie cannot initially recognize this
fear, even though it was foreshadowed by her hallucination of the dismembered hand (MT 118).
As the show begins, her fear blurs the boundaries between reality and myth, and she imagines
that Uncle Philip will transform into “Jove as a bull and, all myths awry, carry her off as Europa”
(MT 163). Like in her experience in the garden, this conflation of mythologies signals a period
of trauma for Melanie, and her fear grows stronger as she enacts her performance. Momentarily
thrown by the absurdity of “grotesque parody of a swan,” which she can clearly identify as
“dumpy and homely and eccentric” (MT 165), Melanie reacts to Uncle Philip‟s narrative, rather
than the farcical actuality, and loses her grip on reality as she succumbs to her scripted role. In a
perversion of grotesque realism‟s ability to “turn [its] subject into flesh,” (Bakhtin 20) the swan
morphs into a symbol of Uncle Philip‟s patriarchal power, and as Melanie realizes her
insignificance and disposability within his world, she fears “that the swan, the mocked up swan,
might assume reality itself and rape [her] in a blizzard of white feathers” (MT 166). As a
symbolic and psychological rape, Uncle Philip‟s violent swan effectively accomplishes his goal,
and all of Melanie‟s ability to laugh at the situation is “snuffed out” (MT 166). Melanie is
separated from herself, and while her body screams in protest, her mind is overwhelmed to the
point of unconsciousness; her trauma is only amplified by the horrifying “patter of applause”
(MT 167)signifying approval – albeit forced – of her personal degradation. This degradation
again echoes the carnival version of the grotesque, but again twists it. While Bakhtin defines it as
Miller 14

the power to “bury, to sow, and to kill simultaneously, in order to bring forth something more
and better,” (21) the degradation planted in her instead transforms her into something less and
worse.
In the aftermath of her performance, Melanie remains “detached, apart,” (MT 168) and
morbidly fixates on the intricacies of Uncle Philip‟s power. She feels herself losing her
humanity, slowly succumbing to the role he has created for her; even taking on, as Jean Wyatt
notes, “the consciousness of an object” as “reality hemorrhages from the things she perceives,
flowing toward the subject who now organizes her as an object in his world” (67). Uncle Philip‟s
silence, in contrast to the powerless silence felt by the Jowles siblings, and now also Melanie,
“had bulk, a height and weight. It filled the room…[an] elemental silence which could crush you
to nothing” (MT 168). Without him providing the voice-over to guide her actions, Melanie
remains silent and inert, passively allowing the evening to pass her by.
While the swan serves to propel Melanie further into patriarchal subjection, it also serves
as the impetus for Finn to break free from it, and because Melanie feels that “somehow their
experience ran parallel,” (MT 173) she is also able to take part in Finn‟s victory and even bolster
him up when the enormity of what he has done sinks in. As Finn recounts his drunken
destruction of Uncle Philip‟s swan, the carnivalesque elements that have up to this point
contributed to the darkness of the text begin to revert to their essential, empowering meanings.
Finn enters Melanie‟s bedroom “covered in earth” (MT 170) but now this trope of degradation is
one of regeneration. Like Melanie, Finn had “walked into the forests of the night where nothing
was safe” (MT 173) and experienced a world where ordinary sights transformed, but unlike
Melanie, his night ended with the regenerative “pleasure” (MT 173) he felt in destroying the
swan.
Miller 15

Once they have accepted the fact that his actions have presented a concrete challenge to
the patriarchal order of Uncle Philip‟s household, the rest of the family are free to begin further
subverting the traditional structure, which they accomplish by embracing the medieval origins of
the carnival. The swan‟s destruction ushers in a “moment of crisis,” but also a “breaking point”
(9) in their microcosmic society that echoes the conditions Bakhtin outlines for producing the
earliest and most regenerative forms of the carnival. Uncle Philip‟s absence leads to universal
festivity in the house; the “very bacon bounced and crackled in the pan for joy,” and even the
toast catching fire with a “merry flame” becomes “a joke” (MT 183). Aunt Margaret‟s
movements lose their doll-like stiffness, and Finn instigates a desecration of Uncle Philip‟s
symbols of tyranny by sitting in his chair “like the Lord of Misrule” (MT 183). What begins as
breakfast soon turns into a feast and festival, as they pile up food and close the shop to “have a
party…a wake for the swan” (MT 184). The images blur into “a typical grotesque carnival” and
turn “kitchen and banquet into a battle” (Bakhtin 22) for the happiness of the family. Finally, the
pervasive silence that has defined the majority of their interactions breaks into true festival
laughter, a laughter that frees and renews and allows even Aunt Margaret to consider “the
possibility of her own tomorrow, where she could come and go as she pleased and wear what
clothes she wanted and maybe even part her lips and speak” (MT 184), and as they continue to
sink into a liberating destruction of household object Melanie observes that she “had never seen
the brothers laugh so much” (MT 185). As time stops with the destruction of the cuckoo clock,
the grotesque upheaval “discloses the possibility of an entirely different world, of another order,
another way of life,” (Bakhtin 48) a possibility they symbolically embrace by changing into
clothes Uncle Philip would never have permitted them to wear.
Miller 16

As the circle of red people knits back together, Melanie discovers that she “wanted all
their past, every bit of it, to share…she felt she would die if she could not know everything” (MT
190-1), and as their wild abandonment begins to settle down, Melanie is finally initiated into the
Jowles family by witnessing the secret of their family. As Francie and Aunt Margaret embrace,
Carter surrounds them in both pagan and Christian imagery, again harkening back to the origins
of medieval carnivals, which, while connected to the church, also contained a “genetic
link…with ancient pagan festivities” (Bakhtin 8). Their love sweeps them away to a place “at
midnight on the crest of a hill, with a tearing wind beating the branches above them,” and yet
they kneel together as if in a Catholic wedding ceremony; in the midst of this ultimate taboo, the
reality of the room seems to blur as Melanie‟s preconceptions about their family “shimmered and
dissolved” (MT 194) along with the cigarette smoke. In the spirit of the carnival, their love
appears as a reversal of expected norms, but not a transgression; rather, this enacted secret serves
to “consecrate…freedom, to permit the combination of…different elements, to liberate from the
prevailing point of view of the world, from conventions and established truths, from clichés,
from all that is humdrum and universally accepted” (Bakhtin 36). As another element of the
carnival spirit that had been previously stifled and silenced under Uncle Philip‟s reign, Francie
and Margaret‟s love “offers the chance” for the whole family to have “a new outlook on the
world, to realize the relative nature of all that exists, and to enter into a completely new order of
things” (Bakhtin 36).
In Melanie‟s acceptance of Aunt Margaret and Francie‟s love, “the secret filled up all the
space between them and around them” and in her acknowledgement and acceptance of the
“incest, invoked downstairs on the woven rug,” she melds into the family, turning her connection
to Finn into a similar incest “invoked upstairs in the quiet bedroom” (MT 195). Melanie wishes
Miller 17

for some magical rite that could explain to her “of past and present and future and a grand
concept of them all as a whole in which incest had an explicable place;” (MT 196) however, her
identity is already tied to the Jowles, overriding any desire for explanation.
Although Aunt Margaret and Francie “have always been lovers,” (MT 194) it is only now
that they feel free enough to make that love known – as they make no attempt at privacy, they
must expect that Uncle Philip will come home to witness their intimacy. This deliberate act,
invoked on the dining room floor and made possible by Finn‟s choice to destroy the
representation of Uncle Philip‟s power, breaks the spell of silence on Aunt Margaret and creates
her anew as a living, speaking “goddess of fire,” and unlike the doll-like timidity of her former
self, this empowered reincarnation, reminiscent of the Gaelic goddess Brigid, brings “a storm
into the room” (MT 197) with her that threatens to sweep away the last remnants of Uncle
Philip‟s power. Although the enraged Uncle Philip gleefully plots to “Trap them like rats and
burn them out!” (MT 197) he seems to be the one most susceptible to the flames; Aunt Margaret,
with her eyes burning and her hair flickering, and Francie, heading fearlessly back into the
flames carrying a crowbar, seem impervious when contrasted against the gruesome vision of
Uncle Philip, struggling to overcome his own barricade (MT 198).
As Finn and Melanie escape hand in hand into a new world outside the toy shop, Melanie
realizes their identities are inextricably intertwined; that they have “only each other, now” (MT
199). Their escape seems dismal, but they begin their new life on an equal level; the
carnivalesque nature of their last moments in the house effectively “[suspended] all hierarchical
precedence” (Bakhtin 10) and created them anew as equals. Rising like phoenixes from the
ashes of their old life, they are free to create a world not based on dark fantasy, but on the “wild
surmise” of their own creating (MT 200). As Wyatt observes, this final allusion to Keats‟ version
Miller 18

of Cortez‟s discovery “encourages reader to hope that the destruction of Philip‟s factory of
patriarchal fantasies opens up before Finn and Melanie an uncharted space” free of patriarchal
oppression and “old gender demarcations,” yet simultaneously gives the reader pause, as “the
opening page‟s metaphors of global exploration have taught us to be skeptical about the
possibilities of brave new worlds” (75).
The hope for a brighter future remains ambiguous; Finn and Melanie “only hope” (MT
200) that their loved ones have survived, but likewise the dread of Uncle Philip‟s survival is also
a possibility. In this final tableau, Melanie again visits a distorted garden, though this time with
Finn as Adam by her side. As a modern embodiment of the first couple, however, Melanie and
Finn have never tasted paradise, and their romance is not traditional love story. As Madeline
Monson-Rosen demonstrates, Finn and Melanie‟s love is instead “born out of mutual alliance,
out of familiarity,” (235) and even, following Francie and Margaret‟s example, out of a sibling
bond. Carter‟s work, then, is hardly an answer to the problem of patriarchal oppression; however,
as an exploration of the “human stuff” involved in that problem, it offers a sympathetic
understanding to those who do struggle with the gray areas involved in overcoming oppression.
By attempting to demythologize the fictions that structure our world, Carter treads the fine line
between the destructive and regenerative power of the carnivalesque; although laughter has
returned, it is a “choked half laugh, half sob” (MT 200).




Works Cited
Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana UP,
Miller 19

1984. Print.
Butler, Judith. “Subversive Bodily Acts.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2
nd
ed.
Ed. Vincent D. Leitch. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 2542-2552. Print.
Carter, Angela. Interview with Rosemary Carroll. BOMBSITE. BOMB Magazine,1986. Web. 14
Nov 2012.
-- “Sugar Daddy” and “Notes from the Frontline.” Shaking a Leg: Collected Journalism
and Writings. New York: Penguin, 1997. Print.
-- The Magic Toyshop. New York: Penguin, 1967. Print.
-- The Sadeian Woman. New York: Penguin, 2001. Print.
De Beauvoir, Simone. “Myth and Reality.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2
nd

ed. Ed. Vincent D. Leitch. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 2542-2552. Print.
Gargano, Elizabeth. "The Masquerader in the Garden: Gender and the Body in Angela Carter‟s
The Magic Toyshop." Women's Studies: An Inter-disciplinary Journal 36 (2007): 57-78.
JSTOR. Web. 25 Oct. 2013.
Martin, Catherine. “Speech, Silence and Female Adolescence in Carson McCullers‟ The Heart is
a Lonely Hunter and Angela Carter‟s The Magic Toyshop.” Journal of International
Women’s Studies. 11.3 (2009): 4-18. Print.
Peach, Linden. “Pain and Exclusion: The Magic Toyshop (1967) and Heroes and Villians
(1969).” Angela Carter. New York: St. Martin‟s, 1998. 71-98. Print.
Monson-Rosen, Madeline. “„The most primeval of passions”: Incest in the Service of Women in
Angela Carter‟s The Magic Toyshop.” Straight Writ Queer: Non-Normative Expression
of Heterosexuality in Literature. Ed. Richard Fantina. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland & Co.,
2006. 232-243. Print.
Miller 20

Sceats, Sarah. “The infernal appetites of Angela Carter.” The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter:
Fiction, Femininity, Feminism. Ed. Joseph Bristow and Trev Lynn Broughton. New
York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1997. Print.
Wisker, Gina. “Revenge of the living doll: Angela Carter‟s horror writing.” The Infernal Desires
of Angela Carter: Fiction, Femininity, Feminism. Ed. Joseph Bristow and Trev Lynn
Broughton. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1997. 116-131. Print.
Wyatt, Jean. “The Violence of Gendering: Castration Images in Angela Carter‟s The Magic
Toyshop, The Passion of New Eve, and „Peter and the Wolf.‟” Critical Essays on Angela
Carter. Ed. Lindsey tucker. New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1998. 60-82. Print.

Related Interests