The role of mothers / mother figures in Carter's novel "The Magic Toyshop"

“The social order, our culture, want it this way: the mother must remain forbidden, excluded.”

Essay, 2010

10 Pages, Grade: 1,3


“The social order, our culture, want it this way: the mother must remain forbidden, excluded. The father forbids the bodily encounter with the mother,” claims Luce Irigaray at a conference in 1981 (536). The patriarchal order kept women silent and granted them no identity, being dominated by the law of the father who wants to be the sole creator. Women were confined to the function of reproduction and forbidden to create. (533-37) Angela Carter wrote her novel The Magic Toyshop in 1967. This is a time when many riots were about to take place, for instance concerning politics, class, race or gender issues. Women questioned the chains stopping them from experimenting with their reality and pushing them into stereotypical images such as mother or housewife.

This essay investigates what role Angela Carter provides for the mother figure in her novel The Magic Toyshop. It seems to be absent, as Melanie's biological mother disappears even before the beginning of the plot, the nanny Mrs Rundle herself has no husband and children, aunt Margaret cannot get children and Margaret’s mother died long ago. There is a huge abyss where the mother is supposed to be, which Melanie is trying to bridge. Nevertheless, I will come to the conclusion that the mother is not completely absent, but that all characters who could possibly function as a mother are only partly mothers. This creates an impression of the mother being something precious and worth having and being, as long as she is not dominated by the father and trapped in a phallocentric world.

Holmlund (1991) argues that Irigaray is challenging the male system of thought in that she does not agree to the equation of female identity with motherhood. (290) She says that the “Western culture can be said to be founded on the death of the mother.” (Holmlund 291) The image of women caring for children, providing food and pleasing everyone in the family and being economically dependent on a man is a “central element in our culture's sense of what a woman should be,” (DeVault 1991: 1) and a very powerful one. Their biology and the cultural construction of gender determines women to passivity and in the struggle of nature against culture, “culture is given explanatory precedence over nature.” (Leonard 2006: 240) This means that motherhood has precedence over self hood, despite the fact that mothers have always been present, compared to motherhood being an invented term. (Hirsch 1989: 7-14) Motherhood thus is turned into women's destiny. Mothers are given the scapegoat role in the male created and dominated culture, making it a crime against nature and society for a woman not to become a mother. (Pildes 1978: 2-4)

“Woman writers' attempts to imagine lives for their heroines which will be different from their mothers' make it imperative that mothers be silent or absent in their texts, that they remain in the prehistory of plot, fixed both as objects of desires and as examples not to be emulated.” (Hirsch 34) To enable the daughter to become a woman, Irigaray argues that her bond to the mother must be broken. This absence creates space for the heroine's plot to evolve. (Hirsch 43-57) In women's fiction during the twentieth century it was a common feature of many plots that the “daughter 'kills' her mother in order not to have to take her place.” (Gardiner 1978: 146)

Melanie, the heroine of the novel, is a middle class girl of the 1960s. At the beginning of the novel, when she is still living at her parents' house, we observe her discovering her own body, staring “at herself, naked, in the mirror of her wardrobe.” (Carter 1967: 1) At first, Melanie wishes to become married and thus, to become a mother: “Oh, how awful if I don't get married.” (Carter 6) Carter is obviously playing with female roles and how middle class education affects a girl. Women's place at this time in a patriarchal society still used to be in the home, especially mothers having the role of a shadow of men and being non-existent outside of the domestic sphere. (Andersen 1972: 26-27) Marriage was considered “the major goal of women.” (S. Green 1972: 36)

On the other hand, Melanie fears being trapped at home when she wonders whether her sister Victoria is retarded: “Will I have to stay at home and help Mummy look after her and never have a life of my own?” (Carter 7) Also, comparing herself with Juliet who had been married at fourteen and her being one year older, she is feeling old and having “reached [her] peak.” (Carter 9) But “she was still a beautiful girl,” (Carter 16) looking at herself in the mirror. Paradoxically, she is too young for the sky and her mother's wedding dress. She wants to be grown up and still child at the same time, not being able to decide. “When her periods began, she had felt she was pregnant with herself, bearing the slowly ripening embryo of Melanie-grown-up inside herself […].” (Carter 20)

The reader gets to know that “Mummy and Daddy were in America. Mummy was keeping Daddy company.” (Carter 3) In a scene when she investigates her parents' bedroom, it is obvious that they are out of reach and belonging to the past. They do not take part in the action of the novel. Their bed being “generous and luxurious as a film star's” (Carter 9) and the fact that Melanie cannot imagine them making love either indicates that they must have had a superficial relationship or that they have been absent for such a long time that they already start being forgotten. Their “time had stopped at five minutes to three on the day after they left for America.” (Carter 10) When a telegram arrives she immediately knows that her parents are dead and feels it is her fault because she has worn and damaged her mother's wedding dress. She believes she had killed her mother, and from then on there is only the wood of the wardrobe behind her mirror. She sees herself as the girl who killed her mother in it and destroys it. With destroying the photograph and wrecking the bedroom she eliminates the last thing reminding her of her parents and thus makes her murder complete. She is shocked when she discovers the same photograph of her parents in uncle Philips house after beginning to feel that she belongs to Margaret's family more than her own and has no emotions left for her biological parents.


Excerpt out of 10 pages


The role of mothers / mother figures in Carter's novel "The Magic Toyshop"
“The social order, our culture, want it this way: the mother must remain forbidden, excluded.”
University of Warwick
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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462 KB
angela carter, magic toyshop, women
Quote paper
Annemarie Kunz (Author), 2010, The role of mothers / mother figures in Carter's novel "The Magic Toyshop", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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