Friday, May 20, 2011

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

PUBLICATION HISTORY:
Nights at the Circus was published in 1984 and is Carter's penultimate novel. It is generally considered to be her best work and won the James Tait Black Memorial award that year. Carter herself was both a novelist and a journalist.

SUMMARY:
Part I: This section is told through an interview conducted by Jack Walser, an American journalist, of a winged "aerialiste" named "Fevvers" in London, 1899. Fevvers, accompanied by her foster-mother, an old woman named Lizzie, generally get the better of the young American's predictably constructed questions. Fevvers has complete control of her narrative. She was hatched from an egg, found abandoned by Lizzie, and taken to Ma Nelson's brothel, a tight-knit community of sisterhood. Through Fevver's point of view, Carter's depiction of prostitution at Ma Nelson's signals that there is nothing shameful as long as relationships remain reciprocal and the freedom of choice is held up on both sides of the transaction. At Ma Nelson's brothel, Fevvers grew her wings, and slowly learned how to fly. As a young girl, her job would be to pose as Cupid at the brothel, and later, as "Winged Victory," carrying with her a sword. Ma Nelson's death in a terrible accident (she was run over by a carriage) led to the dispersal of the sisterhood. Fevvers tells how the former prostitutes do well, finding opportunities either in business or marrying, totally capable, having been fortified by their time at Ma Nelson's, to find their own way about the world. Fevvers, still an adolescent, goes with Lizzie to live with Lizzie's sister and brother-in-law, who have an ice-cream shop. When the family comes upon hard times, however, Fevvers decides to take up an offer of employment at Madame Schreck's establishment, a macabre place where men satisfy warped desires of their souls. This is a very different place from Ma Nelson's brothel, where men satisfy bodily desires. Madame Schreck's place is a kind of freak museum: its major characters include a Sleeping Beauty, the dwarfish Wiltsire Wonder, the transsexual Albert/Albertina, and Fanny with eyes on her nipples. There is also a black slave named Touissant who doesn't have a mouth but can write. Fevvers joins this crew, and learns all of their sad stories and how they each ended up at Madame Schreck's. One day, Fevvers tries to revolt against the enslavement of Madame Shreck, only to be carried away by a disturbed Rosicrucian man whom Madame has sold her for a high price. This man believes that if he should kill Fevvers in a sacrifice, he will be able to cure his own impotency. Luckily Fevvers escapes him because she has Ma Nelson's sword with her and she gets back to Lizzie and her family. She hears that the rest of the individuals back at Madame Schreck's have also effected their own escapes. Soon, an opportunity to join the circus arises, and Lizzie and Fevvers depart together. This is the end of the interview; exhausted and enchanted, Walser gets the idea that he will join the circus so that he might continue to get his scoop.

Part II: Narrated by a third-person omniscient narrator, this section follows the circus to St. Petersburg. The circus is headed by Colonel Kearney (accompanied always by his clairvoyant pig, Sibyl). Walser has joined as a clown. The circus camp is a lively, carnivalesque place. Its primary characters include apes that can learn in a classroom setting from a professor ape, a waifish girl named Mignon and a brutish Strong Man with whom she frequently has sex with, Buffo the clown (the leader of the clown troupe, who proselytizes about the privilege of how clowns "make [them]selves" and how clowns are even like Christ because they "subject [them]selves to laughter by choice), the Princess of Abyssinia and her tigers, and a host of elephants. Walser witnesses Mignon being brutally beat up by the Strong Man after he sees Walser attempting to save her from an escaped tiger. Mignon's story is given as a side narrative: it is a story of orphanhood, living on the streets, being taken up by the abusive charlatan Herr M. who had her impersonate dead daughters to fool grieving parents, and finally being passed on to the circus as the Strong Man's object of violence and sexual abuse. After being badly beaten up by the Strong Man this time around, Fevvers and Lizzie take her up, cleaning her up and, since she sings (without knowing what she sings, but nevertheless has a lovely voice), encourages the Princess to incorporate her into the act with herself and the tigers. The princess will play the piano, Mignon will sing and dance with the tigers. The women keep the Strong Man away from her. Walser is falling in love, meanwhile, with Fevvers. One night, Walser gets pulled into Mignon and the tiger's singing and dancing act, and afterwards, the Strong Man beats him to a pulp. On another night, Buffo goes crazy and nearly kills Walser. That same night, a tigress is shot to death because it was about to attack Mignon. Colonel Kearney's circus seems to be falling apart. Fevvers is still the most popular act, and she nevertheless pulls off success. Afterwards, the Grand Duke is so impressed with her that he invites her over. Fevvers, lured by his riches, decides to go and leave Lizzie behind. There, the Grand Duke very nearly succeeds in "diminishing" her into an egg and making her his toy (the narrative's use of the word "diminishing" highlights the relationship between his attempt to literally make her smaller and his demeaning her by seeing her as an object for his own use and pleasure). Luckily, she makes an escape, though barely: the Grand Duke manages to break her sword.

Part III: While on a train going through Siberia, there is a big explosion. Fevvers frantically searches for Walser but cannot find him. All of the other circus characters, minus the tigers and elephants, seem to have survived the explosion. Nearby the site of the explosion is a penitentiary started by one Countess P., who had murdered her husband. The aim of her panopticon-shaped penitentiary was to gather together all female murderesses and to try to make them penitent and reformed--her logic was that somehow that would transfer to her own reformation. Despite the extensive disciplinary system which she puts in place, one inmate, Olga Alexandrovna, finds a way to initiate contact with another inmate via a squeeze of the hand. Eventually, secret exchanges of glances and messages written in blood and excrement lead to a large scale revolution and the prisoners escape. They pass by the train wreck and see Walser amidst the rubble, still alive. They decide to continue on their way, intending to form an all-female Utopian community. Fevvers and the others soon find out that the terrorists who blew up their train were a group of peasant men who had heard a rumor circulated by the Colonel that Fevvers was marrying the Prince of Wales. The peasants thought that she might help them curry favor with the English royal family, who might then help them curry favor with the Tsar. The Colonel's rumor was just a publicity stunt, unfortunately; by now, the Colonel was already thinking about how to turn the train incident into good publicity for the circus. One of the peasant convicts decides to tell the party that the rest of his men will probably go on a shooting spree so the circus members decide to send in the clowns to entertain the men and to try to make them desist from violence. During a storm which hits as the clowns are performing, the circus members make their escape. They find an old music maestro in an abandoned conservatory who joins their party. Walser, meanwhile, has been caught up by a Shaman-led tribe and has lost his memory of who he is. The Shaman makes him drink his urine, and Walser has hallucinations. Though Walser remembers snippets of his past life--a song fragment, an epithet, for example--he is unable to piece together the whole. The tribe's mode of living is described as a kind of living in the present with no sense of history, and one of its central practice is the sacrifice of a bear. Walser becomes fully integrated into the tribe, and the Shaman even begins to think of him as a potential successor. Fevvers decides to go after Walser (Lizzie goes with her, but the Princess, Mignon, and the old maestro stay behind to form a musical group together) arriving on the scene of a sacrifice, however, interrupting the ritual and making quite an impression by spreading her wings (except one of them is broken, so she only spreads one of them). In the end, Fevvers and Walser consummate their love, with Fevvers on top smothering Walser below. Walser doesn't really recover his old self the American journalist, but this is a good thing: he now asks actually important questions of Fevvers like "What is your name? Have you a soul? Can you love?" There consummation then, is the true "interview." The novel ends with Fevvers's unrestrained laughter seeping out and infecting all the inhabitants across Siberia.

CRITICAL APPROACH/ANALYSIS:
Female sexuality and desire: At the heart of Carter's novel is a strong, female character who is importantly erotically charged, unafraid of expressing her own desire (sexual or otherwise), yet not at all conventionally "feminine" about this eroticism and desire. Fevvers's eroticism is an overpowering one which makes Walser feel "vertigo"; their final consummation underscores her dominant position. She is big in stature, and comfortable as such. Her sexuality is also a much more expansive one than one which focuses on romantic attachment. I would describe it as closer to a maternal sexuality, which asserts its overwhelming power to comfort, to nurture, and to love all creatures, male or female.  
Gender performativity: The notion of gender performativity is strongly suggested in Carter's text (even if before Butler's formalization of this concept in Gender Trouble, 1990). The circus more generally suggests the importance of masks and therefore the constructedness and performance of identity. For the female characters in the novel, gender performance is an important means through which they may expand and/or question traditional constructions of femininity. Standing as "Winged Victory" in the brothel, Fevvers suggests the association of stalwart strength with the female body. Her trapeze routine proclaims a freedom of movement and being which ignores and is completely unfazed and unaffected by the gaze of the audience, whether male or female. The expansive, maternal actions of Fevvers, Lizzie, or Ma Nelson are also all gender performances which suggest that to be female is actually something which might contain male sexuality: it isn't a maternity that is confined to the small space of the domestic sphere, it actually can bring about the re-making of the world. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is Fevvers, Lizzie, and the Princess working together to make Mignon's soul/self and in doing so, also remaking the Strong Man's soul, who as a result of Mignon's transformation, himself becomes more compassionate and expansively loving.
Postmodernism: Like Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, Nights at the Circus ascribes to the fluidity and instability a levity and playfulness (which also often verges on the gothic; "carvinalesque" might encompass both levity and gothicism). The process of Walser's "deconstruction" from the young American male journalist out for a bold adventure, to Walser the clown hiding behind a mask which becomes more and more real as time goes by, and finally his amnesia in joining the Shaman's tribe is fairly humorous. The ease with which Fevvers whittles down his "masculine" journalistic confidence in the categories of fact versus fiction, and cows any notion he might have of virility as stronger than the female not only deconstructs him, but belittles and diminishes him in such a way that makes his initial confidence seem comedic and absurd. In the end, however, Fevvers gives him back a measure of control (since now he is a postmodern subject capable of taking charge of constructing his own identities, having realized identity to be fluid): "We told you no other lies nor in any way strayed from the honest truth. Believe it or not, all that I told you as real happenings were so, in fact; and as to questions of whether I am fact or fiction, you must answer that for yourself!"
Female socialism: There is a strong thread of female socialism in Carter's text, which jives historically with the late nineteenth century/early twentieth-century associations of the New Woman with leftist socialist reform. Ma Nelson's brothel, the female prisoner's going off to form their own utopia and less obviously, the community to springs up around Mignon, are each examples of all-female societies which are based on love, cooperation, and shared visions of effecting social progress through shared and mutual burdens.

1 comment:

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