The Fat Man in History

by Peter Carey

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How is feminism portrayed in Peter Carey's Fat Man in History?

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Using the titular story, "The Fat Man in History," and "Chance" as illustrative references for how Carey portrays feminism in the short story collection Fat Man in History (1980), it emerges that a dominant theme of his portrayal is the perception of beauty.

He shows that men are comfortable with women who have grace, beauty and fragility. Finch, in "The Fat Man in History," reminisces about two women formerly in his life as being diminutive and fragile: "diminutive girls, Deidre and Anne, fragile girls with the slender arms of children."

In "Chance," the narrator tries repeatedly to convince Carla to forego the Hup Chance and leave her genetic code for beauty alone. In a comment combining both his need for beauty and his disgust at ugliness, he says of her upcoming Chance appointment (appointments with six month waiting lists), "You could put it off, ... [our love] won't last if you do it." Carla responds by secretly leaving and going through with her Chance appointment. She explains to him in a letter how much his rejection of her due to loss of beauty would hurt her.

'I know your feelings on these things. It would be too much to risk. I couldn't bear the rejection. I love you, I understand you, Carla.'
   [I saw a] fat woman, weeping. [...] Carla stayed by my bed till morning, weeping softly while I lay with my eyes closed, sometimes sleeping, sometimes listening. ("Chance")

Carey also shows contrastingly that women are not uncomfortable with lack of beauty in men: Deidre, Anne and Florence Nightingale love and are not repulsed by Finch in "The Fat Man." As Finch recalls of Deidre and Anne: "both loved him with a total and unreasonable love." Clara is not repulsed by the Dwarf in "Chance." Further, Carey shows that:

  • women are uncomfortable in their gracefulness and beauty because of men's perception of beauty as definitive of self.
  • women logically recognize that gracefulness is counter-productive to truth in men's perception of them.
  • men want women to be without strength, to be frail.
  • women attempt to hide unattractive strength and grace through feigned shyness and awkwardness.

In "The Fat Man," Florence Nightingale is characteristic of many of these perceptions. She is graceful but counters it by being awkward. She has strength but counters by being shy. There is a notable conflict between her "logical force" and her grace.

She is not quite frail enough. There is a strength that she attempts to hide with little girl's shyness. And sometimes there is a strange awkwardness in her movements as if some logical force in her mind is trying to deny the grace of her body ... She sits ..., her long hair falls over one eye. ("The Fat Man in History")

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