Angela Carter Long Fiction Analysis
The search for self and for autonomy is the underlying theme of most of Angela Carter’s fiction. Herprotagonists, usually described as bored or in some other way detached from their lives, are thrust into unknown landscapes or embark on picaresque journeys in which they encounter representatives of a vast variety of human experience and suffering. These encountered characters are often grotesques or exaggerated parodies reminiscent of those found in the novels of Charles Dickens or such southern gothic writers as Flannery O’Connor. They also sometimes exhibit the animalistic or supernatural qualities of fairy-tale characters. The protagonists undergo voluntary or, more often, forced submission to their own suppressed desires. By internalizing the insights gained through such submission and vicariously from the experiences of their antagonists and comrades or lovers, the protagonists are then able to garner some control over their own destinies. This narrative structure is borrowed from the classic folktales and fairy tales with which Carter has been closely associated. Carter does not merely retell such tales in modern dress; rather, she probes and twists the ancient stories to illuminate the underlying hierarchical structures of power and dominance, weakness and submission.
In addition to the folkloric influence, Carter draws from a variety of other writers, most notably Lewis Carroll, Jonathan Swift, the Marquis de Sade, and William Blake. The rather literal-minded innocent abroad in a nightmarish wonderland recalls both Alice and Gulliver, and Carter acknowledges, both directly and obliquely, her borrowings from Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). She was also influenced by the Swiftian tool of grotesque parody used in the service of satire. It was through Swiftian glasses that she read Sade. While deploring the depredations on the human condition committed by both the victims and victimizers in Sade’s writings, she interprets these as hyperbolic visions of the actual social situation, and she employs in her novels derivatively descriptive situations for their satiric shock value. Finally, the thematic concerns of Blake’s visionary poetry—the tension between the contrarieties of innocence and experience, rationality and desire—are integral to Carter’s outlook. The energy created by such tension creates the plane on which Carter’s protagonists can live most fully. In Blake’s words and in Carter’s novels, “Energy is Eternal Delight.”
Although Carter’s landscapes range from London in the 1960’s (The Magic Toyshop, Several Perceptions, Love) to a postapocalyptic rural England (Heroes and Villains), a sometime-in-the-future South America (The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman), a United States in which the social fabric is rapidly disintegrating (The Passion of New Eve), and London and Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century (Nights at the Circus), certain symbolic motifs appear regularly in her novels. Carter is particularly intrigued by the possibilities of roses, wedding dresses, swans, wolves, tigers, bears, vampires, mirrors, tears, and vanilla ice cream. Menacing father figures, prostitute mothers, and a kaleidoscope of circus, fair, and Gypsy folk inhabit most of her landscapes. It is unfair, however, to reduce Carter’s novels to a formulaic mode. She juggles traditional and innovative elements with a sometimes dazzling dexterity and is inevitably a strong storyteller.
The Magic Toyshop
At the opening of The Magic Toyshop, fifteen-year-old Melanie is entranced with her budding sexuality. She dresses up in her absent mother’s wedding gown to dance on the lawn in the moonlight. Overwhelmed by her awakening knowledge and the immensities of possibility that the night offers, she is terrified and climbs back into her room by the childhood route of the apple tree—shredding her mother’s gown in the process. Her return to childhood becomes catastrophic when a telegram arrives announcing the death of Melanie’s parents in a plane crash. Melanie, with her younger brother and sister, is thrust from a safe and comfortable existence into the constricted and terrifying London household of her Uncle Philip Flower, a toy maker of exquisite skill and sadistically warped sensibility. He is a domestic tyrant whose Irish wife, Margaret, was inexplicably struck dumb on her wedding day. The household is also inhabited by Margaret’s two younger brothers, Finn and Francie Jowle; the three siblings form a magic “circle of red people” that is alternately seductive and repulsive to Melanie.
Uncle Philip is a creator of the mechanical. He is obsessed by his private puppet theater, his created world to which he enslaves the entire household. In aligning herself with the Jowle siblings, Melanie asserts her affirmation of life but becomes aware of the thwarted and devious avenues of survival open to the oppressed. The growing, but ambivalent, attraction between her and Finn is premature and manipulated by Uncle Philip. Even the love that holds the siblings together is underlined by a current of incest. Finn is driven to inciting his uncle to murder him in order to effect Philip’s damnation. The crisis arises when Uncle Philip casts Melanie as Leda in a puppet extravaganza. Her symbolic rape by the immense mechanical swan and Finn’s subsequent destruction of the puppet release an orgiastic, yet purifying, energy within the “circle of red people.” The ensuing wrath of Uncle Philip results in the conflagration and destruction of the house. Finn and Melanie are driven out, Adam-and-Eve-like, to face a new world “in a wild surmise.”
In fairy-tale fashion, Melanie is threatened by an evil father figure, protected by the good mother, and rescued by the young hero. Even in this early novel, however, Carter skews and claws at the traditional fabric. The Jowle brothers, grimy, embittered, and twisted by their victimization at the hands of Philip Flower, are as dangerous as they are endangered. They are unable to effect their own freedom. Melanie’s submission to Uncle Philip’s swan catalyzes not only her own rescue but also, indeed, the release of the Jowle siblings. Melanie’s sacrifice breaks the magic spell that held the Jowles imprisoned.
Several Perceptions, Carter’s third novel, depends less on such folkloric structure. In this novel, her evocation of the late 1960’s counterculture is so finely detailed that she manages to illuminate the thin line between the idealism and solipsism of that era, without denigrating the former or disguising the latter. The clarity of observation is achieved by viewing the culture through the eyes of Joseph Harker, a classic dropout....
(The entire section is 2815 words.)