Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus
Reading with Literary Theory
Gender and Sexuality * Postmodernism * Cultural Studies
Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus (1984) frames questions of Gender and Sexuality in the context of the marginal world of circus performers in 1899. The protagonist, Sophia Fevvers, is an aerialiste whose talents are advertised by the slogan, “Is she fact or is she fiction?” This coy question refers to Fevvers' wings: are they real or not? Fevvers herself informs us in the first paragraph that she was “never docked via what you might call the normal channels, sir, oh, dear me, no; but, just like Helen of Troy, was hatched’’ (7). Carter's winged protagonist is an allegory of female AUTONOMY and self-reliance. For example, Ma Nelson, the Madame of a bordello where Fevvers spent her childhood, regards her young charge as a “pure child of the century that just now is waiting in the wings, the New Age in which no women will be bound down to the ground” (25). Fevvers blithely ignores socially-sanctioned gender roles and sexual IDENTITIES. Though she “served [her] apprenticeship in being looked at - at being the object of the eye of the beholder” (23), she was never quite the object upon which men thought they were fixing their gaze. They thought they were seeing a young girl disguised as the goddess “Winged Victory,” when in fact she was the “real thing.” “We were all suffragists in that house,” Fevvers recalls, during an interview with a young newsman, Jack Walser (38). The point is reinforced by the ambience of her room, “a mistresspiece of exquisitely feminine squalor” (9). Fevvers moves from one “wholly female world” to another (38). Her longest sojourn is with colonel Kearney's circus as it crosses Russia on the way to Japan. Though strongly dominated by male figures, the circus soon takes on a feminist identity: Mignon, a street waif, and the “Princess of Abyssinia” soothe tigers with song, thus appropriating a masculine orphic tradition; Samson, the strong man, breaks down and decries his own masculinity. As for Walser, “ ’I'll sit on him, I'll hatch him out,'” Fevvers says, “’I'll make a new man of him. I'll make him into the New Man' ” (281). As Simone de Beauvoir wrote, “one is not born, but becomes a woman.” carter's response is, yes, of course, and men must be reborn in order to be become men.
Carter's Postmodernist fiction uses the fantastic to undermine conventions of perception and MIMETIC representation. Fevvers learns early on that reality is a fantasy, that what we typically regard as “real” is nothing more than a SIMULATION of the real. “ ’[O]h, indeed!' ” she exclaims, speaking of the bordello, “ ’we knew we only sold the simulacra' ” (39). Fevvers is herself caught up in the Postmodern condition of being unclearly distinguishable from a simulacrum of herself. Walser meditates on her “reality” while watching her perform, and notes that “in a secular age, an authentic miracle must purport to be a hoax, in order to gain credit in the world” (17). He reconsiders this paradox later and concludes that if she were a “prodigy” than she would no longer be a “wonder,” an exceptional woman. Walser believes she should continue to be a “symbolic woman,” rather than reveal her “real” self and be nothing but a “freak.” “But what would she become, if she continued to be a woman?” (161). Walser himself, once he loses his memory, becomes bound up in the uncanny realm of simulation. He becomes a circus clown and experiences “the freedom that lies behind the mask, within dissimulation, the freedom to juggle with being, and, indeed, with the language which is vital to our being, that lies at the heart of burlesque” (103). Walser's distance from “reality” is dramatized when he is rescued in the Siberian wilderness, after the circus train is derailed, by a “forest dweller,” a shaman, who finds Walser in a “permanent state of sanctified delirium” (254). The forest dwellers “shared a common dream, which was their world”; but this dream “did not, could not, take into account any other interpretation of the world, or dream, which was not their own one. Their dream was foolproof. An engine-turned fabrication. A closed system” (253). The same could be said for Ma Nelson's bordello or the circus. The Postmodern world is one of multiple and overlapping, in the end mutually exclusive, simulations of a reality that no one can know in an unmediated fashion.
From a Cultural Studies perspective, Nights at the Circus is a meditation on popular spectacles and the journalism that supports them. Walser is, in some ways, no different from Colonel Kearney. In Carter's view, newspapers and circuses appeal in the same way to the same audience. Walser, hoping to follow Fevvers to St. Petersburg, proposes to his editor that he join the circus incognito and write “a series of inside stories of the exotic, of the marvellous, of laughter and tears and thrills and all” (90). He knows just the sort of sentimental, gullible reader that would “thrill” to his account. Colonel Kearney, for his part, is a quintessential American huckster, whose pet pig once taught him a valuable lesson: “Never give a sucker an even break!” (175). His “Ludic Game” is a kind of adventurous, extravagant form of global capitalism, Barnum and Bailey style: “High-wire walkers, earth-shaking elephants - no end to the marvels the Colonel intended to transport about the globe, joined together in amity at the sight of the dollar bill” (99). Like Djuna Barnes in Nightwood, Carter situates her marginal figures in an exorbitant demimonde, where the barriers between man and woman, beast and human break down. Carter's depiction of the circus deconstructs our sense of culture by forcing us to rethink our idea of nature. Walser has a confrontation with one of “Lamarck's Educated Apes,” an “inhabitant of the magic circle of difference, unreachable … but not unknowable.” The chimp, “as if acknowledging their meeting across the gulf of strangeness, pressed his tough forefinger down on Walser's painted smile, bidding him be silent” (108). If Walser can reach across the species divide and connect with an ape, then perhaps he can become the New Man Fevver's desires. In Carter's phantasmagoria, the conventional distinctions between high and low cultural values are easily upended. In Nights at the Circus, popular culture is no longer marginal. Bordellos, circuses, penitentiaries, forest dwellers - all present their own simulations, their own dreams of the world, as if there were no “normative” standard. or, more accurately, as if their simulations were the standard. As Fevvers says, in her send off, “ ’To think I really fooled you… . It just goes to show there's nothing like confidence' ” (295).
Carter, Angela. Nights at the Circus. New York: Penguin, 1985.