Worlds in Collision - Angela Carter's Heterotopia

Doctoral Thesis / Dissertation, 2009

331 Pages, Grade: magna cum laudae





2.1.1. THE CASTLE.
2.1.2. THE PRISON.
2.2.1. THE FOREST.
2.2.3. THE CITY







Shadow Dance (1966) - SD

The Magic Toyshop (1967) - TMT

Several Perceptions (1968) - SP

Heroes and Villains (1969) - HV

Love (1971)- L

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972) - IDM

The Passion of New Eve (1977) - PNE

Nights at the Circus (1984) - NC

Wise Children (1991) – WC

‘The Erl-King’- EK

‘The Lady of the House of Love’ –LHL

‘The Loves of Lady Purple’ – LLP

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1996)- BB

The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History (1979)- SW

Nothing Sacred: Selected Writings (1982)- NS

Expletives Deleted (1992)- ED

Shaking A Leg: Collected Journalism and Writings (1997)- SL


Angela Carter’s work is a bewildering welter of discourses that work towards changing our perception regarding such issues as identity construction, marginality, myth as foundation of ideology, fluidity of boundaries. Her playful intertextual allusions to literature, psychology, politics and popular culture are infused with irony and wit, while components of discordant genres glitter in the ensuing narrative layers. Her fiction and non-fiction, as well as her experiments in screen and radio adaptation have been universally acclaimed, but the challenge of finding a critical framework complex and accurate enough by which to study her work has remained, since no classification seems to do her justice.

My solution in this thesis is to move away from the urge to approach her works according to literary frames, to a discussion informed by a different metaphor, denoting enigmatic spaces, conterdiscourses, borders of otherness – heterotopia. The various interpretations given to the term, that I have relied on in my study, are rooted in its designation of otherness in terms of spatial position, provided by Foucault (1966). Displacement gives voice to Angela Carter’s characters, and the spaces they inhabit display melting borders. Heterotopia are shaped by the antagonistic relations operating within these ambiguous spaces, by strategies of resistance, such as performance and telling stories. Space is a language that can be employed to articulate social relationships, with realms of multiple discourses and fluctuating centres mirroring the stages of identity formation (Lefebvre, 1991:132): “Every language is located in a space. Every discourse says something about a space; and every discourse is emitted from a space”.

Previous studies of Carter’s work have made little use of theories of space in relation to her major themes, so my decision to resort to a spatial metaphor has been reinforced by the prospect of a relevant and, most of all, fresh perspective. My growing interest in Angela Carter’s fiction has also been spurred by my nine-year professional involvement in film studies, and the opportunity to approach the two movie adaptations of her writings from an academic perspective. After having read her entire work, I have selected the novels and short stories that best serve my purpose of proving that the complexity of Angela Carter’s narrative and cinematic investigation can be subsumed under an equally fluid concept, appropriated from cultural geography, heterotopia . The works discussed in my study are: The Magic Toyshop (1967), The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972), The Passion of New Eve (1977), Nights at the Circus (1984), Wise Children (1991), ‘The Loves of Lady Purple’ ( Fireworks, 1974), and ‘The Erl-King’, ‘Lady of the House of Love’, ‘The Company of Wolves’ ( The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, 1979).

The two movie adaptations I have also selected for my critical endeavour, one of her novel The Magic Toyshop and one inspired by her short stories ‘The Company of Wolves’ and ‘Wolf-Alice’, will, first of all, help students in media studies better understand the process of page to screen adaptation, and will, secondly, offer avid readers the complete picture of Carter’s cross-cultural approach. Apart from the above mentioned novels and short stories, which form the kernel of my study, there are references to her early novels and other short stories, as they complement the development of my argument. I have also included quotations from her philosophical and journalistic texts, The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History (1979), Nothing Sacred: Selected Writings (1982), Expletives Deleted (1992), Shaking A Leg: Collected Journalism and Writings (1997), since they share the same thematic concerns, and provide clues to the interpretation of her seemingly conflicting fictional statements.

The first chapter of my study is divided into two sections, the first providing an overview of Carter’s themes in the context of various stages of her critical international reception, while the second clarifies the concept of heterotopia, from its etymology to its scientific and metaphorical usage, and outlines the theoretical grid of my study. The purpose of the former section is two-fold, as it introduces readers to Angela Carter’s concerns and their literary expression, on the one hand, and justifies the novelty of my argument, that spatiality is a chief dimension of her work, on the other hand. The latter section further underscores the inseparability of spatiality and the major dynamic sites I have subsequently termed heterotopia .

In the second chapter I have turned to public and domestic zones of confinement and to the crevices between them, explored by characters in their struggle to negotiate their subjectivity, via movement or the lack of it. The division I have operated separates areas of the outside from interior topographies and illustrates the formation of heterotopia in The Passion of New Eve, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, Nights at the Circus , ‘The Erl-King’, using Brian McHale’s means of spatial construction, as well as strategies of resistance to confinement inspired by Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, and Mihail Bakhtin.

Multiple masculinities and femininities are unravelled in the third chapter which deals with the negotiation of boundaries and the meaning of heterotopia as conflicting relationships rooted in sites of patriarchal ideology in The Passion of New Eve, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, Wise Children, ‘The Erl-King’, ‘Lady of the House of Love’, ‘The Loves of Lady Purple’. I have employed Rosemary Jackson and Catherine Belsey’s ideas about desire, Foucault’s opinions on violence and Laura Mulvey’s theories on the gaze, to support Hetherington’s definition of heterotopia. The articulation of the subject’s desire requires transgression of myths and symbols, while the experience ranges from arousing to grotesque.

The satirical and sometimes irreverent approach of patriarchy under the guise of performance is the focus of the fourth chapter, in which heterotopia denote sites of performative and theatrical transgressions, following Foucault’s definition. Dona Haraway’s view on the female body, Bakhtin’s theories on the grotesque laughter, Kristeva’s thetic and abject zones are the main components of the theoretical grid of the chapter, while the corpus of analysis is represented by The Passion of New Eve and Wise Children. Gender and sexuality become fluid, as impersonation and monstrosity develop into strategies that may ensure secure zones for the formation of the subject.

The acts and artifice of storytelling form the core of the fifth chapter, in which I follow Carter’s experiments with cinema in textual and visual forms, and her tricks of linguistic and cinematic focalizations in The Magic Toyshop, The Passion of New Eve, Nights at the Circus, Wise Children, ‘The Company of Wolves’. Heterotopia arise as an effect of ambiguity generated by discourse, in accordance with Edward Soja’s opinion, while Bakhtin’s theories on narrative discourse are linked to Grant’s strategy of manipulating time schemes and Mulvey, Judith Mayne and Mary Ann Doane’s debates on power in film studies. I argue that Carter’s politics of appropriation and transformation allows her to confront tradition, leading to heteroglossia and dialogism as means of breaking the narrative frames and paving the reader’s way to other spaces.

With my selection of Angela Carter’s selection of works, filtered through heterotopia as physical, metaphorical or literary spaces, this study invites the reader to follow the lines of one reader's path through a fascinating body of fiction combining fantasy, parody, magical realism, and the angle which shaped them.



Angela Carter’s work is a collage of almost any conceivable genre: nine novels, essays, reviews, lectures, fairy-tales, short stories, poetry, screenplays, radio plays, and a libretto. No wonder that the legacy of a writer who “realised that there were no limitations to what one could do in fiction” (1997:35) defies attempts to an orderly classification, so that hesitancy about using labels in conjunction with her work must be contextualized.

Carter's work addresses as early as the seventies and the beginning of the eighties the specific themes that, in the late eighties and nineties, have become central to mainstream postfeminism. She worked with postmodern conventions before they were widely accepted, at a time when Anglo-American feminism privileged realism. It was not until the mid-to-late eighties that feminist theorists began to consider what had once been an oxymoron, that feminism and postmodernism could be regarded as allies rather than enemies. She is most frequently mentioned in connection to feminism and postmodernism, as long as the border between them is viewed as fluid because she uses both postmodernist techniques and feminist politics in such a way that it is not possible to reduce her to either. Before appropriating the term heterotopia as the overarching label of Carter’s work, I consider it important to point out some defining features her writings share with both literary developments.

Postmodernism can be defined easily in relation to the ideologies of the Enlightenment and Modernity. Postmodern thinkers reject the idea of the unity of reason, which leads to hostility towards such concepts as the autonomy of the individual or the use of Reason in pursuit of happiness. Metanarratives are held in contempt and the monolithic discourses of Western civilizations are superseded by multiple local narratives. These seem to represent a point of intersection between postmodernism and feminism, with the latter’s emphasis on women’s voices. The similarity is superficial, however, if we consider that feminism does not reject the values and goals modernity has inherited from the Enlightenment, such as truth, justice or equality. As a result, feminism remains a revisionist movement within modernity, attempting to accomplish its goals here and now, while competing with the postmodern vision of the death of universal values. Feminists have constantly searched for female stereotypes in fiction, and the critical categories used to shape them. Carter shares the feminist view that the whole patriarchal culture on all its levels, from mythology to narrative fiction, is overloaded with false images of women. She lets the stereotypes explode, and reassembles them into seductive, comic or grotesque forms. She also aims at turning the existing social order upside down, attracted perhaps by the Enlightenment promise that arbitrary authority would cease to exist.

Postmodern literature advocates the impossibility of grasping and re-forming ‘objective reality’. It is built on the conviction that literature and criticism are dead, and exposes its own weakness and artificiality at every step, by recycling motifs and techniques. Thus, a postmodern text exists in relation to other texts imitated or parodied, as a vanity fair where uninitiated readers are lost. Carter also uses symbols of Western culture, combines them at will, in order to expose their petrified meanings and lack of depth. Her feminist aims to alter our way of thinking about gender roles are reached through postmodern strategies of writing, playing with myth, deconstructing fairy-tales. She remains in intimate relationship with the discourses she attempts to overthrow, both by assuming the form of accepted literary genres and by apparently revitalizing archetypes, symbols or topoi.

According to Margaret Atwood (1992:61), Carter was “born subversive”, while the title of Carter's own collection of essays, Nothing Sacred (1982), describes her attitude towards everything—literature, culture, society, sexuality, religion, philosophy, and feminism—nothing is exempt, including those things she loves. This ironical mode is described by Carter herself as “to think on my feet” ( SL 24). She likes to “present a number of propositions in a variety of different ways,” thereby leaving the reader “to construct her own fiction for herself from the elements of my fictions” ( SL 24). As a result, it is often difficult to determine where, ultimately, Carter stands, and this is what can be so troubling for many readers, especially for feminists who want to read her work as prescriptive or consider the protagonists in her stories as role models. This has led to different and sometimes contradictory interpretations of her work, especially in terms of its potential subversiveness and also in terms of her positioning within both postmodernism and feminism.

Her narrative works as a site of mediation, a mode of inquiry, a place to negotiate a number of poststructuralist theories and to combine them imaginatively in a fictional narrative, giving them a new life of their own.

A brief survey of the critical work on Carter reveals a continual attempt to address the subversiveness of her forms, her intentions and their ultimate execution. The congregation of themes that have occupied critics include her place within both postmodernism and feminism, her use of various genres, and her representations of women, concentrating on female agency, sexuality, femininity and most problematic of all, pornography.

It is possible to consider four different periods of criticism with regard to her work: the first two, which exhibit some overlap, existed during her lifetime, in an engagement and response to the work as it was published, with a tremendous increase following the publishing of Nights at the Circus (1984), marking the line between the first two periods; the third took shape in 1992 immediately after her death, when it became possible to assess her work as a whole; and then a fourth period has emerged in the late nineties, allowing for a little more historical and critical distance.

Early criticism was concerned with the limitations and patriarchal nature of the genres Carter employed—especially the fairy tale—and her work's pornographic elements, throwing her subversive style and feminism into question. For example, Robert Clark (1987) disparages ‘The Company of Wolves’, a rewriting of the Little Red Riding Hood story, as “old chauvinism in new clothing” while Andrea Dworkin (1981) criticizes Carter for not adequately revising the form of fairy-tales. Patricia Duncker (1984) goes even further in her assessment of the genre itself as hopelessly patriarchal, and reinforcing the pornographic situation of woman as a willing victim. A clear line is drawn between her early and late fiction, where the early novels are considered to contain the seeds for what is developed later into more fully formed incarnations, usually with the assumption that the earlier work is inferior.

One critical practice that emerged in the second period, after the publication of Nights at the Circus, was the tendency to employ a hermeneutic of progression with regard to her fiction. Critics dissatisfied with the representation of women in Carter’s earlier works were happier with the later ones; they considered those women strong personalities rather than victims, they appreciated Carter’s treatment of heterosexual taboos, and the general opinion was that Carter’s cynical pessimism is eased by laughter and the comedic (Palmer [1987], Jordan [1990], Duncker [1984]). In the third and fourth periods, there has been an increasing tendency to use the non-fictional work The Sadeian Woman as a focal point to explain not only aspects in The Bloody Chamber but also problematic representations in the later works, especially in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman and Nights at the Circus.

Between 1997 and 1998, three full-length studies of Carter’s work were published, Aidan Day’s (1998), Sarah Gamble’s (1997), Linden Peach’s (1998), and a collection of essays edited by Lindsay Tucker (1998), displaying a lack of consensus about where to place Carter. Day reads Carter as a rationalist; Gamble as a feminist interested in dramatizing the liminal, Peach as an English writer strongly influenced by American culture, while Tucker's volume comprises a series of challenging and sometimes conflicting interpretations, with an inconclusive overview. The approaches are either chronological or thematic, providing a general basis for further study. Elaine Jordan (1992), an important critic in Carter studies, has argued that the fairy-tales, along with the rest of Carter's work, represent an exploration of the complex nature of what it is to be a heterosexual woman in a patriarchal society. Meanwhile, Merja Makinen (1992) joins with Jordan and counters Duncker, pointing out that when writers employ ironic strategies of rewriting, as Carter and postcolonial writers do, genres are able to carry new sets of assumptions. Other critics at that time have taken their cue from this more positive reading of her work and have begun to assess her employment of a number of genres. The volume Flesh and the Mirror, edited by Carter's friend Lorna Sage (1994), an important critic as regards the biographical aspects of her work, is an excellent example of this trend, as it explores the influence of media, surrealism and science fiction on Carter's writing.

The most recent criticism situates her use of genres within various theories of intertextuality. However, the best analyses demonstrate an awareness of the reading process itself. For example, Lucie Armitt (1997) effectively foregrounds the pleasure involved in the interpretative act itself in her observation that The Bloody Chamber holds a great fascination for critics. Further, Armitt indicates that although she agrees with Jordan and Makinen, they do not analyze how Carter rewrites the tale, and she herself begins such work by a brief consideration of the tales in terms of interlocking frames.

It is therefore evident that criticism has evolved as a result of dialogue, but it is also a reflection of changing interests in the general critical climate. For instance, in the early nineties, John Bayley (1992) accused Carter of “political correctness”, but it is important to note large critical consideration of Carter's use of postmodernism as subversive. Sally Robinson (1991:78) has also explored how Carter's texts “strategically engage with the theoretical concerns of postmodernism” and she focuses on the preoccupation with the “place of 'woman' in the deconstruction of culture's master narratives”.

Criticism continues to focus on what might be labelled postmodern aspects, issues of gender and other related themes of interest to contemporary feminist analyses, such as the body, spectacle, and violence. As Bristow and Broughton (1997:14) note, the most insistent feature in Carter studies is that of “theatricality, spectacle and play-acting”, associated with the notion of theory and politics of gender as performance. Despite the fact that Carter did not read Bakhtin's theories until after she had written Nights at the Circus, criticism constantly points to these carnival elements to explain her subversion.

Carter is often mentioned in the context of the symbiosis of feminist themes and postmodernist techniques in the essays included in Sage’s Flesh and the Mirror (1994), or the collection of feminist essays edited by Alison Easton (2000) and Sarah Gamble (2001). Nights at the Circus is used as magnifying lens for Carter’s array of themes and discourses in Helen Stoddart’s book (2007), fairy-tales come under scrutiny in the collection edited by Cristina Bacchilega and Danielle M. Roemer (2001), while countless essays on her work complete anthologies on contemporary British writers (Nicola Pitchford [2002], Sarah Sceats [2005], Julia Simon [2005]).

A less explored aspect of her writing, irony, is vital to understanding her possible subversion and her position regarding both postmodernism and feminism. Linda Hutcheon (1989:l60) is well-known for making the link between irony and the feminist postmodern. In The Politics of Postmodernism, she argues that parody especially but also the extremely close trope of irony are common postmodern tools that are attractive for many feminists: “I also think postmodernist parody would be among the 'practical strategies' that have become 'strategic practices' in feminist artists' attempt to present new kinds of female pleasure, new articulations of female desire, by offering tactics for deconstruction”. However, as Hutcheon herself notes in Irony's Edge (1994), there are numerous ways of understanding this trope. Carter's work is extremely allegorical. These allegorical elements, as well as postmodern techniques help to create the multi-layered meanings, the open-endedness and the ground to the irony in her work. I believe that this description is an apt way to describe the particular combination of both the cynical and utopic tendencies in Carter's work, the extreme critique to which she subjects everything, combined with the desire for change. It is the kind of irony Carter herself describes when she talks about presenting “a number of propositions in a variety of different ways” ( SL 24).

Carter's reference to the role of the reader in relation to her open-ended fictions emphasizes her desire to present positive, creative positions rather than negative, destructive ones. In an attempt to explain her contrasting attitude to some postmodernist issues, she describes her work As belonging to the nineteenth-century because it invites the reader “to take one further step into the fictionality of the narrative, instead of coming out of it and looking at it as though it were an artefact” (Haffenden, 1985:91).

Some have found her work troubling, especially because she has been known to attack particular forms of feminism; for example, either by portraying one character as a mouthpiece for a certain kind of feminism in a gentle caricaturization (Ma Nelson, or Lizzie in Nights at the Circus) or in a scathing manner (Mother in The Passion of New Eve), a style which is taken by many as a biting critique of the radical feminism of the 1970s. Today, however, she is recognized for anticipating central debates in feminism in the late 1980s and 1990s, for instance, viewing pornography as potentially liberatory and gender as performative.

It is her unique sense of both postmodernism and feminism—and their combination—which largely makes Carter into a kind of chimera. For just as Carter is evasive regarding feminism, so too she expresses resistance to the term postmodernism. In an interview with Haffenden, she equates postmodernism with Borges' metafictional idea of “books about books” (1985:70). In this exchange, she admits to having been interested in this idea in the past, but by the time of the interview, she has reconsidered that this kind of practice is best described as “fun but frivolous” (Haffenden, 1985:79).

There are evidently many reasons why we should hesitate in calling Carter a postmodernist. Yet it is also difficult not to use such a term because it does refer to a certain tradition that engages with concerns and techniques also evident in the work of Carter for which there is no other appropriate label. For instance, many critics cite the overlap between her work and postmodern concerns in terms of her critique of Western patriarchy and representation, the production of "truth" through myth, her use of intertextuality, hybridization and parody, her experimentation with narrative structures, including open-endedness, or her employment of fiction as literary criticism.

One label that Carter has more readily accepted, although with some qualifications, has been ‘magic realist’. As Helen Carr (1989:7) has noted, Carter's novels became more acceptable after the discovery of South American magic realism because she could be assigned to an actual genre. This use of the term to describe her continual blurring of the line between realism and fantasy certainly seems appropriate, yet once again, it is the case that she used the genre's techniques before it became popular. Further, although Salman Rushdie is credited with the distinction of being the pioneer of this tradition in the English novel, his friend Carter predated him. Yet, as Peach cautions, the term is more appropriate to Carter's later works than to her earlier ones. As Carter herself points out, the context in which she was involved, “more intellectual than folk”, was very different from that of Marquez (Haffenden, 1985: 81).

Other tags she has been given include ‘speculative’ and ‘fantasist’, with many critics dividing her work into an early-sixties fusion of realist Gothic and fantasy, and a later post-sixties magic realist, speculative and philosophical phase. One intriguing label that has been used for Carter is that of ‘science fiction’ writer. In ‘New New World Dreams’ (1994) Roz Kaveney sheds some light on this designation in her observation that Angela Carter freely made use of tropes derived from this genre.

Like the mainstream postfeminists of the nineties, Carter's work is interested in the themes and limits of female desire and sexuality, in sado-masochism and pornography and their relationship to violence; she is countering the very powerful stereotype of ‘woman as victim’ by considering masculinity as much as femininity, delighting in popular culture, especially in film, and making humour integral to feminism. Grounded in the carnivalesque and the body, Carter's is the humour of Shakespeare's tragic fools described by Kate Webb (1994:5) as “seriously funny” and by Salman Rushdie (1992) as having a “deadly cheeriness”.

Just as postfeminism makes the subject of men and masculinity an important focus, so too, we find these themes in Carter's work. At a time when feminist fiction was interested in promoting strong female characters and the expression of both the female voice and women's experience, much of Carter's work, particularly her early novels, features male protagonists and investigates issues of masculinity. In fact, Sally Robinson's experience of reading The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman is that there is “no place for a woman reader in this text” (1991:105). But Carter's interest is in investigating the structure of desire itself, along with its implications, both for men and for women. She is one of the first to challenge and to explore what has come to be known as the stereotype of ‘the woman as victim’, yet her investigation of this theme is more complex. While it remains a focus throughout her novels and short stories, her most sustained analysis appears in the non-fictional The Sadeian Woman (1979). This controversial work is known for its challenge to the widespread complicity of women who identify with images of themselves as victims of patriarchal oppression. The book examines the myths surrounding three identities women have in our culture—the virgin, the whore and the mother—and demonstrates the dangers of each, while indicating their similar singular basis; namely, that these identities “have been defined exclusively by men” ( SW 77). Contrary to the interpretation of a number of critics, Carter does not simply debase the role of the victim and elevate that of the whore; instead, she sees them as two sides of the same coin: “they mutually reflect and compliment one another, like a pair of mirrors” ( SW 78).

In most of her earlier work, her investigation of desire causes her to create protagonists who are largely female masochists or male sadists. This has been an issue for feminists. Some have addressed this problem by dividing her work into early and late years: Paulina Palmer (1987) considers the later more liberatory than the earlier; Christina Britzolakis defines the early heroines as “puppets of male-controlled scripts” (1995:51) and the later ones as using “theatricality and masquerade to invent and advance themselves” (1995:51); Elaine Jordan considers that “she started out writing as a kind of male impersonator” but later started “writing radically as a woman” (1990:31). There is no question that she does portray strong women, especially in her last two novels, Nights at the Circus and Wise Children. She confesses that she spent ten years writing Nights at the Circus because she had to be “big enough, strong enough, to write about a winged woman”(qtd. in Gamble, 1997:157).

Her love of popular culture and film is demonstrated in the intertextual references throughout her work and her journalism. She was particularly interested in the bad girls of cinema. Unlike postfeminists who seem to privilege this medium above all others, Carter's work is also replete with references from a range of sources—opera, Renaissance drama, philosophy, literature, myth and fairy tales as well as film and television. Thus, rather than understanding the blurring of boundaries between high and low culture in terms of the inclusion of the latter into the former, she turns this postmodern tendency inside out and reads Shakespeare as popular culture, turning high culture into popular culture. For instance, she claims: “I tend to use other people's books, European literature, as though it were that kind of folklore. Our literary heritage as a kind of folklore” (Haffenden, 1985:82). For Carter, then, popular culture is not confined to an understanding of texts that are produced by the mass media, but includes our entire cultural heritage. Performance, looking, and artifice are central to her work, and her work is replete with spaces of theatricality. Her use of carnival allows for transgression and intersects with an underlying examination of gender.


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Worlds in Collision - Angela Carter's Heterotopia
English Literature, Film Studies
magna cum laudae
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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worlds, collision, angela, carter, heterotopia
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Eliza Claudia Filimon (Author), 2009, Worlds in Collision - Angela Carter's Heterotopia, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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