Angela Carter Carter, Angela (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Angela Carter 1940-1992

(Full name Angela Olive Carter) English novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, scriptwriter, and author of children's books.

The following entry provides criticism on Carter's works from 1988 through 2000. See also Angela Carter Criticism.

Carter is best remembered for writings in which she undertakes a feminist critique of Western history and culture. Combining components of Gothicism, surrealism, eroticism, myth, science fiction, and fairy tales, Carter explores such themes as violence, the distribution of power in contemporary society, and female sexuality. Carter's work is distinguished by its display of unrestrained imagination, colorful imagery, and sensuous prose. Equally notable are the Dickensian eccentricities of her characters and her talent, as one critic noted, for “twining the macabre and unlikely with the possible.” Although alternately praised and faulted for her extravagant Gothic approach, Carter is highly regarded as a writer of unique and imaginative fiction and sharply political and insightful feminist nonfiction.

Biographical Information

Carter was born in London, England, on May 7, 1940, but her journalist father, Hugh Stalker, came from Scotland, and her mother, Olive, from a mining district in South Yorkshire. During World War II, Carter's grandmother evacuated herself and her grandchildren to the village of Wath-upon-Deare. A working-class suffragist and radical, this grandmother may have served as a model for Carter's later narrative and public persona. After leaving school, Carter worked briefly as a junior reporter for a London local newspaper and married. From 1962 to 1965 she attended the University of Bristol, studying the traditional canonical works as well as topics ranging from psychology and anthropology to science fiction and horror comics. After graduating, Carter began writing cultural criticism and observation for New Society and the Guardian. In 1969 Carter visited Japan for the first time; she then went to live there for two years, after divorcing her husband. This marked a turning point for Carter both professionally and personally, as she went on to draw from the experience in her writing and found her voice as a woman and a social radical. In the 1980s Carter moved to South London with her partner and began traveling around the world to teach writing and present public readings of her works, which she came to appreciate as a means of dramatizing the power of the narrator and providing an added dimension to the written word. In 1983 Carter had a son, and for the remainder of her life divided her time between her home in South London and her travels. She served as a judge for contests and literary awards, edited collections, compiled anthologies, and wrote introductions and essays. Carter died of cancer on February 16, 1992.

Major Works

Carter's early novels Shadow Dance (1966), Several Perceptions (1968), and Love (1971) introduce the Gothic elements in her work. Carter's vivid descriptions of Great Britain's counterculture create a surreal atmosphere in which strange incidents are commonplace. The protagonist of Shadow Dance is portrayed as the embodiment of the apathy and amorality of his generation. Acting on impulse, he disfigures his beautiful girlfriend and eventually commits murder. Several Perceptions concerns a suicidal young man and his encounters with various eccentric individuals. Love, a bleak story of the obsessive nature of love, centers on a young man whose suicidal wife and drug-abusing brother are dependent upon him. Carter's feminist and philosophical concerns are woven into her fantasy novels. The Magic Toyshop (1967) depicts the sexual coming-of-age of a young woman who loses her parents and must live in a household of eccentric relatives. Heroes and Villains (1969) is a futuristic tale of Earth a century after atomic devastation has splintered its population into antagonistic factions. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972) recounts the efforts of the protagonist to restore reality in a world where machines give unconscious images concrete form. In The Passion of New Eve (1977), a fervent denunciation of sexism and machismo, a man experiences rape and other brutalizations after being surgically transformed into a beautiful woman. A number of the characters in Nights at the Circus (1984), winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, are archetypes for female oppression and liberation. Here Carter offers a symbolic portrait of the female condition, placing her story amidst the bizarre characters of a traveling circus and focusing on the personal liberation of a six-foot-tall winged woman. Carter's short stories have been collected in three volumes: Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces (1974), The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979), and Black Venus (1985). Each volume contains thematically linked stories, many derived from fables, fairy tales, and mythology. In her nonfiction work The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History (1979) Carter examined the two feminine stereotypes of pornographic literature: the dangerous temptress and the innocent victim. Carter argues that the writing of the Marquis de Sade, whose characters Justine and Juliette embodied these stereotypes, can be read as feminist satire of the sexual roles men create for women. Ultimately, however, Carter finds de Sade's quest for the limits of acceptable behavior a failure, believing that he succumbed to an acceptance of traditional sexual roles. Nothing Sacred (1982) is an anthology of Carter's feminist and political articles, and Come Unto These Yellow Sands (1985) collects various scripts she adapted from her fiction. Carter's final novel, the posthumously published Wise Children (1991), is also considered her most thematically joyful work, recounting the attempts of its narrator Dora—an elderly dance-hall girl writing her memoirs—to reconcile with her father, a famous Shakespearean actor.

Critical Reception

While writers as diverse as Anthony Burgess, Salman Rushdie, and John Hawkes expressed great admiration for Carter's writing, other reviewers were unimpressed, greeting it with incomprehension or revulsion. The elements of the fantastic upon which she focused her narratives were confusing and unbelievable to many critics. Additionally, while Carter's revisions of traditional fairy tales were lauded overall, some commentators have lamented the absence of concrete alternatives for her heroines. Such critics argue that because Carter rewrote the tales within their original structures, she robbed her protagonists of any real sense of choice and actually perpetuated patriarchal precepts. Feminist critics, however, have embraced Carter's unwavering honesty and commitment to her social and political standards in her works.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Shadow Dance (novel) 1966; also published as Honeybuzzard, 1966

Unicorn (poetry) 1966

The Magic Toyshop (novel) 1967

Several Perceptions (novel) 1968

Heroes and Villains (novel) 1969

The Donkey Prince (juvenilia) 1970

Miss Z, the Dark Young Lady (juvenilia) 1970

Love (novel) 1971; revised edition, 1987

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (novel) 1972; also published as The War of Dreams, 1974

Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces (short stories) 1974; revised as Fireworks: Nine Stories in Various Disguises, 1981

The Passion of New Eve (novel) 1977

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (short stories) 1979

The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History (nonfiction) 1979; also published as The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, 1979

Nothing Sacred: Selected Writings (essays) 1982; revised edition, 1992

Nights at the Circus (novel) 1984

Black Venus (short stories) 1985; also published as Saints and Strangers, 1986

Come Unto These Yellow Sands: Four Radio Plays (broadcasts) 1985

The Virago Book of Fairy Tales [editor] (fairy tales) 1990; also published as The Old Wives' Tale Book, 1990

Wise Children (novel) 1991

Expletives Deleted: Selected Writings (essays) 1992

The Second Virago Book of Fairy Tales [editor] (fairy tales) 1992; also published as Sometimes Strange Things Still Happen, 1993

American Ghosts and Old World Wonders (short stories) 1993

Burning Your Boats: Collected Short Stories (short stories) 1995

The Curious Room: Plays, Film Scripts and an Opera (plays) 1996

Shaking a Leg: Collected Journalism and Writings (nonfiction) 1997

Angela Carter and Anna Katsavos (interview date fall 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Carter, Angela, and Anna Katsavos. “An Interview with Angela Carter.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 14, no. 3 (fall 1994): 11-17.

[In the following interview, which was conducted in New York City in 1988, Carter discusses her thoughts on myth, narrative, and modern literary theory.]

Crammed in with all the other gear packed for a ski trip was my copy of Angela Carter's newest novel, Wise Children. Because sheer exhaustion made it difficult for me to stay awake past nine o'clock, I didn't get to finish the book, which in a sad kind of way turned out to be a good thing.

A week later I returned home to a stack of unread newspapers and...

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Joanne M. Gass (essay date fall 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gass, Joanne M. “Panopticism in Nights at the Circus.Review of Contemporary Fiction 14, no. 3 (fall 1994): 71-6.

[In the following essay, Gass explores the image of the panopticon and its relation to the containment of women in Nights at the Circus.]

In her “Polemical Preface” to The Sadeian Woman Angela Carter writes,

All the mythic versions of women, from the myth of the redeeming purity of the virgin to that of the healing, reconciling mother, are consolatory nonsenses; and consolatory nonsense seems to me a fair definition of myth, anyway. Mother goddesses are just as silly a notion as father...

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Christina Britzolakis (essay date winter 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Britzolakis, Christina. “Angela Carter's Fetishism.” Textual Practice 9, no. 3 (winter 1995): 459-75.

[In the following essay, Britzolakis examines Carter's fascination with the performance, or spectacle, of femininity.]

Like so many girls, I passionately wanted to be an actress when I was in my early teens and I turn this (balked, unachieved and now totally unregretted) ambition over in my mind from time to time. Why did it seem so pressing, the need to demonstrate in public a total control and transformation of roles other people had conceived? Rum, that.1

It is...

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Magali Cornier Michael (essay date 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Michael, Magali Cornier. “Fantasy and Carnivalization in Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus.” In Feminism and the Postmodern Impulse: Post-World War II Fiction, pp. 171-208. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Michael examines Carter's utopian feminist vision in Nights at the Circus.]

With extravagant playfulness, Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus (1984) weaves together elements of the carnivalesque and fantastic with those of harsh material realism as vehicles for feminist aims. Carter's novel is the literary heir of Virginia Woolf's Orlando and Djuna Barnes' Nightwood, both of which...

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Jean Wyatt (essay date 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: 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.” Women's Studies 25, no. 6 (1996): 549-70.

[In the following essay, Wyatt argues that Carter rewrites Freud's theories on female sexuality in The Magic Toyshop, The Passion of New Eve, and “Peter and the Wolf.”]

In an essay on life in the '60s, Angela Carter describes how she became committed to “demythologising” “the social fictions that regulate our lives”: “I began to question … the nature of my reality as a woman. How that social fiction of my ‘femininity’ was...

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Christine Berni (essay date fall 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Berni, Christine. “Taking an Axe to History: The Historical Lizzie Borden and the Postmodern Historiography of Angela Carter.” CLIO: A Journal of Literature, History, and the Philosophy of History 27, no. 1 (fall 1997): 29-55.

[In the following essay, Berni reads Carter's short story “The Fall River Axe Murders” as a commentary on traditional literary and historical representations of the past.]

Immortalized in the grisly economy of a children's rhyme, Lizzie Borden's legend continues to fascinate. Since the axe murders occurred in 1892, Borden's story has been dramatized on stage and screen, in novels, short stories, and poems. She has achieved the...

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Brian H. Finney (essay date spring 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Finney, Brian H. “Tall Tales and Brief Lives: Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus.Journal of Narrative Technique 28, no. 2 (spring 1998): 161-85.

[In the following essay, Finney discusses Carter's assertion that Nights at the Circus is about the nature of narrative.]

Nights at the Circus (1984), Angela Carter's penultimate novel, epitomizes her wildly inventive, highly idiosyncratic mode of fiction, centered as it is on Fevvers, a Cockney artiste who claims to have grown wings. Most critics and reviewers have seen the main thrust of the novel to reside in the portrayal of Fevvers as a prototype of the New Woman whose wings help her...

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Stephen Benson (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Benson, Stephen. “Angela Carter and the Literary Märchen: A Review Essay.” Marvels and Tales: Journal of Fairy Tale Studies 12, no. 1 (1998): 23-51.

[In the following essay, Benson explores the perception in literary criticism of Carter's use of fairy tales.]


It is perhaps fitting, given Angela Carter's interest in all aspects of folklore, that her work has itself become the subject of a modern legend, albeit one whose truth is very much ascertainable. This is the legend of the “Carter effect,” identified by The British Academy Humanities Research Board, which...

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Jack Zipes (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Zipes, Jack. “Crossing Boundaries with Wise Girls: Angela Carter's Fairy Tales for Children.” Marvels and Tales: Journal of Fairy Tale Studies 12, no. 1 (1998): 147-54.

[In the following essay, Zipes examines Carter's early fairy tales for children for elements she would use later in her postmodern revisionist tales.]

Long before Angela Carter had conceived the tales for her remarkable collection The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979), she had begun experimenting with the fairy-tale genre in two highly sophisticated picture books for children, Miss Z, the Dark Young Lady (1970) and The Donkey Prince (1970), both illustrated by Eros...

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Betty Moss (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Moss, Betty. “Desire and the Female Grotesque in Angela Carter's ‘Peter and the Wolf’.” Marvels and Tales: Journal of Fairy Tale Studies 12, no. 1 (1998): 175-91.

[In the following essay, Moss analyzes female desire in Carter's wolf tales.]

Angela Carter's artistic evolution moves toward the realization of an alternative vision of creative desire as positive and productive rather than driven by Lack—as in the dominant traditions of Western thought since Plato; Carter develops a fictional idiom adequate to the expression of such desire. This distinctly Carterian idiom participates in the aesthetic of the grotesque and inflects the grotesque in a...

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Janet L. Langlois (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Langlois, Janet L. “Andrew Borden's Little Girl: Fairy-Tale Fragments in Angela Carter's ‘The Fall River Axe Murders’ and ‘Lizzie's Tiger.’ Marvels and Tales: Journal of Fairy Tale Studies 12, no. 1 (1998): 192-212.

[In the following essay, Langlois discusses narrative similarities in Carter's stories about Lizzie Borden.]


Angela Carter's works are new to me.1 Although I had seen the 1984 film, The Company of Wolves, I had not read her “Little Red Riding Hood” rewrite on which it was based until recently. Although I have used Robert Coover's and Ann Sexton's revisions of literary...

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Peter G. Christensen (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Christensen, Peter G. “Farewell to the Femme Fatale: Angela Carter's Rewriting of Frank Wedekind's Lulu Plays.” Marvels and Tales: Journal of Fairy Tale Studies 12, no. 1 (1998): 319-36.

[In the following essay, Christensen examines Carter's “demythologizing” of the Lulu character in her revisions of the Lulu plays.]

In her book The Sexual Circus: Wedekind's Theatre of Subversion (32-35, 60-65), Elizabeth Boa notes the importance of fairy-tale motifs in Wedekind's major plays, Spring Awakening (Frühlingserwachen, 1891), and the Lulu plays, Earth Spirit (Erdgeist, 1895) and Pandora's Box (Die Büchse der...

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Linden Peach (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Peach, Linden. “Pain and Exclusion: The Magic Toyshop (1967) and Heroes and Villains (1969).” In Angela Carter, pp. 71-98. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

[In the following excerpt, Peach examines similarities between The Magic Toyshop and Heroes and Villains.]


As I pointed out at the beginning of the previous chapter, The Magic Toyshop (1967) and Heroes and Villains (1969) were Carter's second and fourth novels respectively. In some respects, they recall the Bristol trilogy. For example, Lorna Sage (1994b) has pointed out that Heroes and Villains mocks the cultural landscape of the...

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Sarah M. Henstra (essay date spring 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Henstra, Sarah M. “The Pressure of New Wine: Performative Reading in Angela Carter's The Sadeian Woman.Textual Practice 13, no. 1 (spring 1999): 97-117.

[In the following essay, Henstra analyzes the acts of reading and revision in The Sadeian Woman.]

Angela Carter's critical essay on the Marquis de Sade entitled The Sadeian Woman is the most notorious of her non-fiction endeavours.1 Its ambivalent attitude towards the pornographic writings of the ‘old monster’ who gave sadism its name—an attitude poised between praise and censure, curiosity and indignance—guaranteed the essay a mixed reception amidst the neophyte feminist...

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Robbie B. H. Goh (essay date July 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Goh, Robbie B. H. “Supernatural Interactions, Eastern Ghosts, and Postmodern Narrative: Angela Carter's Fireworks.” Ariel 30, no. 3 (July 1999): 63-85.

[In the following essay, Goh discusses Eastern, orientalist themes in Carter's essays.]

The work of deconstructing and dismantling “orientalist” discourses by such scholars as Edward Said and Chris Bongie reaches an impasse at the borders of the postmodern narrative. Said's key work, Orientalism, in the first place, is essentially a historiography concerned with “a Western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient” (3). This historiography encounters—and sets...

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Emma Parker (essay date July 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Parker, Emma. “The Consumption of Angela Carter: Women, Food, and Power.” Ariel 31, no. 3 (July 2000): 141-69.

[In the following essay, Parker interprets Carter's literature of consumption as a rebellion against patriarchy.]

A great writer and a great critic, V. S. Pritchett, used to say that he swallowed Dickens whole, at the risk of indigestion. I swallow Angela Carter whole, and then I rush to buy Alka Seltzer. The “minimalist” nouvelle cuisine alone cannot satisfy my appetite for fiction. I need a “maximalist” writer who tries to tell us many things, with grandiose happenings to amuse me, extreme emotions to stir my...

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Mary S. Pollock (essay date July 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pollock, Mary S. “Angela Carter's Animal Tales: Constructing the Non-Human.” Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory 11, no. 1 (July 2000): 35-57.

[In the following essay, Pollock discusses Carter's representation of animals in her works.]

When she died in 1992, Angela Carter's close friend Salman Rushdie wrote that “English literature has lost its high sorceress, its benevolent witchqueen, a burlesque artist of genius and antic grace” (5). Carter disliked serious references to goddesses, sorcerers, and magic, and would have perhaps rejected the first two encomia, but she would have accepted the others.1 Sometimes, she admitted ruefully that...

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Dee Goertz (essay date 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Goertz, Dee. “To Pose or Not to Pose: The Interplay of Object and Subject in the Works of Angela Carter.” In British Women Writing Fiction, edited by Abby H. P. Werlock, pp. 213-25. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Goertz addresses the dangers for women of being objects of desire rather than active sexual subjects in Carter's writings.]

Vampires and sleeping beauties, winged trapeze artists and puppets, werewolves and showgirls—the female characters of Angela Carter's exuberant fiction assume a variety of roles, some from the conventions of realistic fiction but most from fairy tale and fantasy. By using magical...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Bacchilega, Cristina. “In the Eye of the Fairy Tale: Corinna Sargood and David Wheatley Talk about Working with Angela Carter.” Marvels and Tales: Journal of Fairy Tale Studies 12, no. 1 (1998): 213-28.

Discussion among Bacchilega, Sargood (an illustrator of Carter's works) and Wheatley (director of a production of The Magic Toyshop) about working with Carter.

Bradfield, Scott. “Remembering Angela Carter.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 14, no. 3 (fall 1994): 90-3.

Memorial of Carter, with an interview conducted in 1991.

Clark, Robert. “Angela Carter's Desire...

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