On Angela Carter


Angela Carter was born Angela Olive Stalker on May 7th, 1940, in South London. Her father was a Scottish journalist who shared his love of cinema with his daughter (Yule 145). Her stories, displaying dramatic visual language, reflect her interest in the glamour of theatre, with surreal architecture and dramatic settings. Her protagonists are detached from the reader, much as movie stars are detached from the audience, uncanny and never quite sympathetic. Carter has stated that she relies on movies for imagery and plot elements (Yule 145). Her writing seems to borrow psychological elements of surrealism, science fiction and fantasy, mixed with a believable reality; realism mixes with extravagant fantasy “nightmarish dislocation, and Gothic horror” to produce magical realism (Schlueter 91). Carter experiments with the psychological anxieties that are attached to societal norms. She believed that fiction has the ability to “interpret everyday reality through imagery derived from our unconscious, from subterranean areas behind everyday experiences” (Yule 145).

My first encounter with Carter was reading Nights and the Circus, and then The Magic Toy Shop a few days later. Her language is almost encyclopedic yet sensuous and decadent. Reading her work feels like eating a very rich dessert, a dark bitter chocolate with nuggets of something vaguely familiar and too sweet, both disturbing and captivating. In Nights and the Circus, the boisterous, winged Fevvers entices the narrator. The narrator, a reporter, is male and much weaker both physically and personality-wise than Fevvers, so she becomes a fascinating subversion of all that he knows. The aggressive and physically large Fevvers is seemingly magical, but I wonder if this is because of her “wings” or her distinctly “masculine” characteristics. Carter subverts gender roles so they become defamiliarized for the reader, creating a consciousness of the way that patriarchal roles are imposed in contemporary society.

In The Magic Toy Shop, the protagonist’s uncle dominates over her family, oppressing each member in strange and cruel ways. He is a patriarchal monster, a devil-like presence in the sublime atmosphere of the toy store/ house where the protagonist transforms from indulgent, romantic child to a more pragmatic woman.

Carter’s fairytales deconstruct societal “norms” such as ingrained patriarchal structures within family and politics. Through her writing she “hopes to strip away the artifice and return us to our animal natures” (Shattock 83). In “The Tiger’s Bride” the protagonist is outwardly docile, but her narrative voice reveals her frustration with patriarchal society, and in the end gender roles are subverted when she abandons the restrictive “skin” of her prescribed docile role. As Carter intended, we are forced to strip away our own artifice and confront the idea of ourselves as animals, whose “differences” are often constructed and constraining.

Though Carter’s stories are decadent and dream-like, almost beautiful like intricate jewelry, they are also disturbing because they destabilize comfortable or at least familiar ideologies. (Not to mention her vulgarity!) Readers are defamiliarized with violence Carter describes in sensuous prose, and she uses psychological undertones to emotionally provoke the reader; Carter admires William S. Burroughs for his ability to “hit you with an image and let the image act for itself” (Yule 148). She explores feelings and emotions instead of offering a blunt critique of supposedly objective truths. In an interview, she explains that she wants to figure out what “configurations of imagery in our culture really stand for, underneath the kind of semi-religious coating” (Katsavos 11). Having read some of her work, I feel like her stories do bravely attempt to confront and question narratives that we as a culture trust without questioning what they really mean. Carter’s stories are able to create “alternatives to the stultifying sameness of conventional reality” (Bradfield 90); she allows marginalized protagonists to succeed through the power of the imagination. In my research I came across an interview in which she discusses the vulgarity of British popular art, “the absolute filth of it, the total depravity of the English popular imagination” (Katsavos 11). She is clearly fascinated with contemporary culture’s cloak of morality and ideologies of propriety and is not afraid to introduce this hypocrisy of vulgarity into her work. Her Beauty is bitter and conscious that she is a sexualized commodity, and the quirky older protagonists in Wise Children are grotesque, dressing far too young for their ages, wearing layer upon layer of pancake makeup, belching, and lusting. Her protagonists transform from male to female, or female to male, innocent to guilty, or guilty to innocent.

I found the bibliographic information and catalogue research of her work to be helpful, especially learning about her interest in movie plot and structure, and her interest in mythology and folklore motivated by her time studying medieval literature at Bristol University in the 1960’s.  Most medieval romances are so ideologically bent and immersed in their romanticized fantasies of chivalry and morality that they fail to be critical of their societal flaws. I think Carter, unlike medieval writers, attempts to question popular ideologies, and deconstruct cultural ideals—trying to understand what ideologies contemporary society is immersed in. Carter does not promote a “right” way of thinking, but instead critiques those who claim to know objective truths.

Works Cited

Bradfield, Scott. “Remembering Angela Carter.” Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 1994.

Katsavos, Anna. “An Interview with Angela Carter.” Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall1994.

Schlueter, Paul, and June Schlueter. An Encyclopedia of British women writers. New York: Garland, 1988.

Shattock, Joanne. The Oxford Guide to British Women Writers. Oxford University Press, 1993.

Yule, Jeffrey V. “Angela Carter.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 261 (2002): 144-157.


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