Born on 7 May 1940, Angela Olive Stalker grew up in South London, the daughter of Hugh Stalker, a Scottish-born journalist, and Olive Farthing Stalker, a native of a Yorkshire mining district. Her father introduced her to cinema, and as Marina Warner notes in her introduction to the American edition of The Second Virago Book of Fairy Tales (1992), the glamor of theater architecture and movie stars obviously made a lasting impression, since Carter's fiction frequently relies on movies for imagery and plot elements. She married Paul Carter in 1960, and in 1962 she began studying English at the University of Bristol in Avon, specializing in medieval literature. During this time, she developed an appreciation for medieval romances and fables while also reading the works of Alfred Jarry and the French Surrealists. In a 1992 interview with Olga Kenyon, Carter notes that during this period she "loved . . . a certain kind of non-naturalistic writing that nobody seemed to be reading in the early sixties"; this writing included the works of Isak Dinesen, Jean Cocteau, and Ronald Firbank. Carter remained in Bristol after graduating in 1965, working as a journalist for the Croydon Advertiser, but after publishing her first novel, Shadow Dance (1966), she gave up journalism to pursue fiction writing. From 1966 onward she also wrote occasional reviews for New Society and Guardian, but, by her own estimation, she did not begin to review books seriously until she was thirty-five. After that time her reviews also regularly appeared in the London Review of Books and The New York Times Book Review. Many of these later reviews are collected in Expletives Deleted (1992).
In one of her later interviews, Carter observes that "Fiction can interpret everyday reality through imagery derived from our unconscious, from subterranean areas behind everyday experience." Carter's interest in the unconscious and her tendency to overlay the logic and imagery of the unconscious on everyday events prompts many critics to describe her fiction either as magic realism or fantasy. Such labels are misleading, since fiction that treats ideas and themes relating to the unconscious need not necessarily be fantastic. Carter's fiction, for example, typically shows an awareness of and interest in the unconscious, whether or not the specific work in question involves fantastic--that is, supernatural or science-fictional--events. Thus, Carter's first novels show both gothic and fairy-tale influences without depicting events that could be described as fantastic. Not until after The Magic Toyshop (1967)--a novel characterized by mythological references and an often tenuous distinction between reality, daydream, and hallucination--does Carter's fiction begin to involve not only the atmospherics of the fantastic but its substance as well. Significantly, this shift in Carter's fiction occurred shortly after the summer of 1968, a personal watershed period when, as Carter describes in her 1983 essay "Notes from the Front Line," she developed a heightened awareness of the manner in which society dictates the terms of women's femininity.
At about the same time that she separated from her husband in 1969 (their divorce became final in 1972), Carter visited Japan under the auspices of a Somerset Maugham Travel Award. She returned there in 1970 and remained for two years. Afterward, Carter lived in London and Bath before making London her home in 1976, although in the following years she spent a considerable amount of time away from that city. From 1976 through 1978, she was the Arts Council of Great Britain Fellow in Creative Writing at Sheffield University, and from 1980 through 1981 she was a visiting professor in Brown University's Writing Program. She was a writer in residence at the University of Adelaide in 1984 and a visiting professor at the University of Texas at Austin the following year. During 1983, one of the few years during this period of frequent traveling that Carter was not a visiting professor elsewhere, she had a son, Alexander, with Mark Pearce. Carter died of lung cancer in 1992.
Carter's investigation of what she calls "the social fictions that regulate our lives" coincides with her first experiments with the writing of fantastic fiction, beginning with her novel of a postapocalyptic world, Heroes and Villains. Among the many novels and short-story collections that followed, Carter returned to the fantastic and the science fictional regularly, most significantly in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972), The Passion of New Eve (1977), The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979), and Nights at the Circus (1984)--all of which show a particular concern with gender roles in Western society.
Heroes and Villains takes as its starting point the science-fiction staple of a postapocalyptic world while also immediately showing strong fairy-tale influences. The omniscient narration is strikingly similar to that of a fairy tale. Reinforcing this parallel, various characters in the novel, particularly the focal character's nurse, tell about the supposedly real dangers of the world in ways that recast people from other tribes as the bogeys of nursery tales. In Carter's post-nuclear-war world, humanity has fragmented into three mutually antagonistic groups: the Professors, educated people who live in small, fortress-like settlements; Barbarians, who lead a nomadic existence, preying on the Professors; and the Out People, violent, predatory mutants willing to attack any other group if they believe they can gain something from their efforts. While Carter creates her imagined world and its societies deftly, even taking the time to describe some of the mutations that have altered various animal species, her project relates more to the socially constructed peculiarities of her characters than to the science-fictional attributes of the setting. The story concerns itself with the relationship between Marianne, a Professor's daughter bored with her life, and Jewel, a Barbarian whom Marianne helps escape after his participation in a failed raid on her village-enclave home. As is typical of Carter's fiction, the main interest of the novel is with gender roles, particularly patterns of male aggression toward women, female passivity in the face of that aggression, and the manner by which gender determines character. Marianne is significant because, unlike other characters in the novel, she views existing gender roles critically even though she is not always sure how to resist them.
Some reviewers dismissed Heroes and Villains out of hand, mistaking the novel for a failed science-fiction adventure story with literary pretensions. While Stuart Hood of The Listener (1969) suggested--probably incorrectly--that the novel would have teenage admirers among the science-fiction-reading crowd, he failed to detect any feminist themes or to appreciate Carter's achievements as a writer. An anonymous reviewer for TLS: The Times Literary Supplement (1969) did praise Carter's "control of her material" early in the novel but faulted her for pretentiousness later in the story and, like Hood, showed little awareness of the feminist concerns. John S. Phillipson's 1970 review for Best Sellers perhaps best sums up the nature of contemporary response to Heroes and Villains. While noting that he was "willing to call it strikingly different, a kind of tour de force in sustained bizarre narrative," he remained unsure what Carter's project in the novel might be. For Phillipson and many others, Carter's fiction clearly had something to offer. The difficulty for critics was in trying to determine what that something might be.
Most later discussions of the novel have shown a greater awareness of and concern with its depiction of gender relations. In The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day (1980) David Punter places Heroes and Villains in the gothic tradition and identifies Marianne as a figure who, through her experience with patriarchal repression, becomes capable of greater achievements than either the Professors or the Barbarians. Punter suggests that Marianne fully realizes her capabilities at the end of the novel when she becomes the leader of the Barbarian group she has joined. In her essay in Women Reading Women's Writing (1987) Paulina Palmer also notes that the focus of the novel is on the "social differences between the male and female protagonists." Building on Punter's evaluation of the novel, Brooks Landon emphasizes in a 1986 essay the "Edenic resonances of Marianne's situation" in order to show that while Marianne might be, as Jewel once ironically suggests, "Eve at the end of the world," she is an Eve uninterested in what patriarchal mythology might have to tell her. Landon notes that after Jewel's death, Marianne "recognizes the power of her knowledge in a world governed by myth and taboo and muses." If she is to be a postapocalyptic Eve, a possibility exists that she might help to bring about a new order.
In Constructing Postmodernism (1992) Brian McHale considers Heroes and Villains one of the first postmodernist fictions to incorporate science-fiction motifs and materials, although his use of Carter's novel as an example shows just how blurred is the boundary separating works of science fiction from works of postmodernist fiction that rely heavily on science-fiction motifs. It might be that the one way to draw such a distinction relates to the readership for which these different sorts of books are intended. Despite Hood's comment to the contrary, for example, Heroes and Villains was not a science-fiction adventure story meant to appeal to the same readers who would read adventures by such mainstream genre authors as Robert A. Heinlein or Isaac Asimov. Carter's novel lacks sympathetic characters and the typical plot skeleton of commercial science fiction. In addition, on those occasions when the story involves action or violence, Carter presents it in such a way as to make the reader feel dissociated from it. Quite simply, while the motifs in the novel might be typically science fictional, the presentation of those motifs and the style in which the story is written are hardly science fictional at all. It might be more helpful to think of Carter as an author whose novels frequently straddle various genre and stylistic boundaries--a sometimes fantasist whose fiction, as is typical of postmodernism, draws from various traditions, both literary and popular.
Carter's next fantastic novel, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman , is a case in point--a novel that utilizes an even more eclectic mix of fantastic elements and source materials than Heroes and Villains. A picaresque and sometimes surreal tale, the novel presents the narrator Desiderio's account of his youth during the Great War (not to be confused with the real World War I). During this conflict Dr. Hoffman wages a massive campaign against human reason by using a hitherto unknown technology to give physical substance to the things that inhabit the human unconscious. He intends to liberate society by erasing the boundaries between the waking world and the realm of the unconscious. The Minister of Determination--a leader embodying reason, logic, and order--resists Hoffman. Despite Desiderio's infatuation with Hoffman's daughter, Albertina, he accepts a mission from the Minister to find and kill Hoffman, and the story recounts the various episodes of his quest.
Of all Carter's fantastic novels, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman is the one most in the magic- realist tradition, although it draws inspiration from other sorts of postmodernist fiction as well. Stylistically and thematically, it brings to mind the fiction of both William S. Burroughs and Gabriel García Márquez. As with much of Burroughs's fiction, there are points in the story when the reader cannot reliably determine whether the events being described represent the narrator's actual experiences or hallucinations. Thus, the reader is left to wonder whether the laws of physics and causality as Western culture understands them have broken down in the fictional world being described.
Carter's narrative is characterized more by occasional, sudden intrusions of the dream-like rather than the consistent use of such effects typical of a Burroughs novel, with the result that the effect is far less disorienting. In a review of Burroughs's Ah Pook Is Here (1979), Carter praises a particularly relevant technique, noting that Burroughs's fiction will "hit you with an image and let the image act for itself"--a tactic she uses in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, and which she almost certainly also saw practiced in Cien años de soledad (1967; One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1970) by García Márquez--a novel and an author she frequently mentions in essays, reviews, and interviews. The apparently casual presentation of jarring, snapshot-like images, as of the "Green Boys with delicate purple gills who tend chemical gardens" in Burroughs's The Soft Machine (1961) or the brief mention of a passing flying carpet in One Hundred Years of Solitude, have parallels in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. Carter's novel, though, offers more-developed images, often even brief character portraits, among them one of the sideshow freaks Desiderio befriends, the Alligator Man--who, from within his tank, comments that "The freak is the norm"--and characters who are manifestations of the human unconscious, including the Pirates of Death and a racial caricature of a black tribal chieftain with a Machiavellian approach to ruling.
The political dimension of magic realism present in One Hundred Years of Solitude is also mirrored in Carter's novel. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, for example, shows an interest in history similar to that of García Márquez's novel, particularly in depicting history as a cultural construct subject to the control of those in power. While García Márquez's novel includes a wholesale revision of history that conceals a massacre of civilians by the military, the brutal tribal chieftain Desiderio meets is a projection of the Western unconscious's image of Africa and Africans and a character who controls history by suppressing the very concept. "I have been very careful to suppress history," he says, "for my subjects might learn the lessons of the deaths of kings." Like the chieftain, Dr. Hoffman has designs on history, although his method of controlling it has more in common with the ruling junta of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Hoffman will rewrite history once he has control over the mechanisms of reality, subtly altering the chronicle of Western civilization. In Hoffman's study, Desiderio sees pictures of Leon Trotsky composing the Eroica Symphony, Vincent van Gogh writing Wuthering Heights, and a blind John Milton painting frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Seeing his puzzlement at the subjects of these pictures, Albertina tells Desiderio, "When my father rewrites the history books, these are some of the things that everyone will suddenly perceive to have always been true," a comment that presents Hoffman's plans for history as a sort of mirror image to the manipulations of history that conceal a massacre in García Márquez's novel. While the massacre in One Hundred Years of Solitude is a true event made untrue by history, the untrue achievements of the historical personages pictured in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman will be made true by history.
More generally--despite the flamboyant eccentricity of so many of its characters--The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman shares with magic realism not only an unspecified Latin American setting but also an awareness that social privilege derives not solely from gender but from social class, ethnicity, and race as well. Desiderio, an Indian, discusses at some length his country's history and the impact of colonialism on the native people, speaking of the "ethnic incomprehensibility" that colonization brought to them. In a manner similar to that which occurs in Heroes and Villains, Desiderio also shows how social privilege can create a perspective that allows one group of people to fictionalize and marginalize another. Desiderio relates that it was "perfectly possible . . . to spend all one's life in the capital or the towns of the plain and know little if anything of the Indians. They were bogeymen with which to frighten naughty children; they had become rag-pickers, scrap dealers, refuse collectors, and emptiers of cess-pits--those who performed tasks for which you do not need a face." As a consequence, the Indians--at least in Desiderio's youth--were roughly analogous to the Barbarians and Out People of Heroes and Villains, while Western-oriented, white culture in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman has its Heroes and Villains equivalent in the Professors. Carter presents an interesting spin on this tendency in Heroes and Villains, though, since the Barbarians' tales also reduce the Professors to the status of nursery bogeys. Indeed, in Heroes and Villains it seems that all groups suffer from the same tendency to fictionalize other groups of people rather than understand them.
Contemporary reviews were divided about The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. Some, such as the reviewer who commented that he read the novel "enthralled, fascinated, and bewitched," found it entertaining, well written, and remarkably inventive. Others were less intrigued with Carter's postmodernist experimentation, among them the critic who noted that "the novel has little to offer but a flux of images." Certainly, similar critiques have been directed at other works and at postmodernist fiction in general. By the time this novel was published, however, Carter had begun to find her readership, and there was a greater balance between votes of confidence and condemnation in reviews.
Since its initial appearance, feminist critics have had the most to say about The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, particularly on the subject of sexism. Among those critical of the novel on these grounds, Palmer sees the story as having a "chauvinistically male" viewpoint and lapsing into pornography. Others take a sharply different position. Punter, for instance, reads the novel as an attempt at the subversion of the idea of narrative itself, while Sally Robinson sees the novel as undertaking an even more narrowly defined subversion--one of pornographic narrative. Robinson suggests that Carter, by presenting the unreliable narrator of The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman in an unflattering light, invites the reader to see the narrator's misogynist and sexist behavior as problematic. Feminist critics, however, have had little to say about the novel as a work of fantasy, and on this subject postmodernist critics have offered brief but useful insights that shed light on comments Carter has made about the novel.
In the interview with Kenyon, Carter notes that of all her novels, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman was the one that most relied on science-fiction elements. Others have also observed the similarities of this novel to science fiction. McHale writes that in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman "Carter elaborates the ontological confrontation between this world and the 'world next door' into a literal agonistic struggle, analogous to the science-fiction topos of the 'war of the worlds.'" Certainly, sections of the novel invite comparisons to science fiction. Early in the novel, for example, Desiderio notes that Hoffman was probably the greatest physicist of all time. Given the events of the story, it is easy to view Hoffman as a mad scientist, a point Carter makes explicitly through Albertina. When the Minister comments that he believes malice motivates Hoffman, she replies, "What, the mad scientist who brews up revengeful plagues in his test tubes? Were his motives so simple, he would, by now, I assure you, have utterly destroyed everything." Despite any first impression to the contrary the passage might make, Albertina does not deny that Hoffman is a mad scientist; she merely observes that his motives are not so simple as malice.
Hoffman is definitely in the science-fiction tradition of the mad scientist--one, in fact, who keeps his dead wife in a sitting room--but despite this gothic touch, Hoffman remains a character with affinities toward more-modern, movie versions of the mad scientist. As Carter hints in the Kenyon interview, Hoffman bears a striking resemblance to the mad geniuses whom James Bond earns his living killing. Like them, Hoffman is a larger-than-life genius whose megalomania leads him to the brink of incredible power. The lab where Desiderio kills Hoffman even resembles the sort of technologically advanced base of operations from which a Bond movie villain would operate.
The parallels inevitably invite another comparison--one between Bond and Desiderio. Interestingly, the comparison suggests that Desiderio is a parody of Bond. Unlike Bond, for instance, Desiderio is an indifferent enough hero to abandon his mission when he finds temporary happiness away from it, and, also unlike Bond, Desiderio has no apparent qualifications as a secret agent or an assassin. Desiderio's success in killing Hoffman depends much less on his own abilities than on Hoffman, who mistakenly believes that Desiderio will not kill the father of the woman he loves and, as a consequence, allows Desiderio to get close enough to accomplish his mission.
From the sympathetic critic's standpoint, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman is a novel that successfully uses image stock drawn from a variety of literary and popular sources to draw attention to the sexism and violence that are so central to the Western cultural tradition. Desiderio, like Bond, is not a character one expects to find in a relationship that involves much besides sex, and, like Bond, his noteworthy characteristics do not include a tendency toward compassion, introspection, or even the most rudimentary awareness of feminism. Women in the novel are typically either objects of desire, sources of danger, or both. Female characters have frequently occupied a similarly narrow range of roles in commercial science fiction, which has for the most part been written by men and directed at an audience of teenage boys and young men--an audience profile that tends to match that of James Bond movies. Perhaps the problem many critics have with The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman results from a common difficulty in interpreting parody: sometimes it can be mistaken for the subject being parodied, which, in the case of Carter's novel, might have left some critics unaware of its critique of gender roles. Her next fantastic novel made her exploration of gender roles more obvious than in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman.
In The Passion of New Eve Carter uses the setting of Western culture in breakdown to tell the story of an English hero, Evelyn, and his experiences with patriarchal oppression, first as a perpetrator and then as a victim. After going to the United States to take a faculty position at a New York City college, Evelyn quickly ends up with little reason to stay there. The college where he had planned to teach closes, and his neighbor and only real friend in the city, a Czech alchemist, is killed in a mugging. All that keeps Evelyn in New York is a sexual relationship that highlights his misogynistic tendencies. After being galvanized into action by what appears to be a botched and bloody abortion, he leaves his black lover, Leilah, to travel across the continent, where he experiences a complete gender reversal. In the desert he encounters a technologically advanced matriarchy whose leader, Mother, is a physically gigantic fertility figure and combination mad scientist, surgeon, and revolutionary commander. She surgically transforms Evelyn into a beautiful woman and is planning to impregnate him with his own sperm when Evelyn, now Eve, escapes into the desert and falls under the control of the misogynistic madman-poet Zero, who takes Eve to his cultists' ranch to serve as another of his slave-wives. Zero paranoically blames Eve's old idol, the retired movie actress Tristessa St. Ange, for the sterility that prevents him from impregnating any of his wives; and during Zero's search for the idol's hideaway and a chance to kill her, Eve meets the now elderly star and discovers that Tristessa is a transvestite. After a mock wedding and coupling forced upon them by Zero, Tristessa and Eve kill Zero and his wives, but afterward, lost without supplies in the desert, they are captured by an army of paramilitarist teenagers who follow a fundamentalist doctrine. They shoot and kill Tristessa before Eve again escapes and falls back into the hands of Mother. By this time, Mother's intentions toward Eve have changed. Eve's former lover Leilah, now revealed to be Lilith, a guerrilla soldier and agent of the desert matriarchy, tells Eve that she can have her original gender restored. Eve refuses and embarks from the West Coast in a rowboat, apparently without either a clear plan or destination.
In the Kenyon interview, Carter notes that the United States she envisions in the novel was sparked by a 1969 visit to New York City. The violent and decaying New York that Carter describes in The Passion of New Eve has its basis in things she saw during that visit: violent demonstrations, piles of garbage in the streets, and gay riots in Greenwich Village. Against this backdrop of social breakdown, the novel pays particular attention to gender roles--with the manner in which men such as Evelyn and Zero mistreat women and the ways in which some women, such as Zero's wives, not only allow such mistreatment but also seem to seek it out. In all these cases, gender-determined behavior tends to dehumanize people by making less of them than they might be. The novel follows Evelyn/Eve's course toward self-awareness, a course that depends not only on direct experience but also on Evelyn/Eve's observations of other characters' experiences.
Evelyn's girlfriend Leilah/Lilith, even though she is absent for most of the action of the novel, is a character whose experiences are of particular importance. Leilah/Lilith is one of the many empowered women in Carter's fiction who is not what she first appears. Although she is initially presented as a victim of Evelyn's callous treatment, her later appearance in the novel as a trained guerrilla soldier reveals her to be a more complicated figure--perhaps even a character who, in the fashion of a Thomas Pynchon plot, was from the beginning a part of some larger conspiracy to make sure that Mother captured Evelyn. Despite first appearances, then, Carter's novel suggests the possibility that the apparent victim was all along far more in control of her situation than the apparent victimizer--thus emphasizing the fact that Evelyn's victimization of women involved a significant degree of self-victimization as well, since his behavior stunted his human potential without harming Leilah. It is some measure of Evelyn/Eve's evolution as a character that when she recognizes the soldier Lilith to be Leilah, she is not bitter or angry but, rather, pleased to see her. Clearly, late in the novel Eve possesses an understanding of gender roles and relations that Evelyn never had. To achieve that understanding, though, Evelyn/Eve had to endure a great deal.
The nature of Evelyn/Eve's experiences goes a good way toward explaining why reviews of the novel were mixed. Some critics viewed it as a conscious and effective parody of popular movies and science fiction. Among this group was Lorna Sage, who, writing for the New Review (1977), praised the novel for its presentation of a "tacky brilliance thoroughly in keeping with the theme of a culture regressing into dreamy barbarism." Several reviewers not well disposed toward literary postmodernism took a dimmer view of the novel. In his review for the New Statesman (1977) Paddy Beesley took exception to the novel for too often lapsing into an "exuberant zaniness" that led it into "court silliness." Peter Ackroyd, writing for The Spectator (1977), saw the novel as "veering wildly towards the grotesque, the fantastic and the merely silly" and lacking the sentiment and substance to match its fashionably modish, pop-culture- influenced style. To a significant extent, assessments of the novel seemed to depend on how well reviewers were able to accept experiences that are so far from the norm of Western culture--among them transvestism, the rape and castration of a man by a woman, and his subsequent forced sex change.
Carter herself points out that the novel, like The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, is in part a parody of a James Bond movie, but critics have noted its reliance on other cinematic sources as well. Susan Rubin Suleiman, for instance, identifies the Hollywood love story elements of the plot and sees Tristessa's character as being based on Greta Garbo. As is typical of Carter, though, the novel draws from many other sources. Suleiman also traces one incident in the novel to an episode in Surrealist Robert Desnos's novel La Liberté ou l'amour! (1927; translated as Liberty or Love! 1993).
More generally, though, Suleiman sees the novel as accomplishing three things: providing a model for a kind of writing and a kind of eroticism that ought to be imitated; suggesting a direction for postmodernist feminist fiction based on parody and the multiplication of narrative possibilities; and, finally, "expanding our notions of what it is possible to dream in the domain of sexuality, criticizing all dreams that are too narrow." Those of a more critical bent take a view closer to Robert Clark's, that although The Passion of New Eve may aim at satirizing patriarchal conceptions of women, Carter's "fascination with violent eroticism and her failure to find any alternative on which to construct a feminine identity prevent her work from being other than an elaborate trace of women's self-alienation." In the Kenyon interview, Carter makes some observations about the feminist themes of the novel, noting that one of the things The Passion of New Eve shows is that "Only men can successfully embody the ideal of the female they desire, because it doesn't correspond to real women."
Those critics, particularly feminists, who have praised The Passion of New Eve, tend to be those who appreciate the manner in which the novel recognizes the complexity of the issues it confronts by refusing to offer a cast of characters that includes only heroic female role models and male villains. Carter's willingness to depict gender relations as being played out by a complex cast of male and female characters is also apparent in her next book, a collection of short fiction.
The stories collected in The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories retell traditional fairy tales from a feminist perspective. "The Bloody Chamber," for example, reworks "Bluebeard," while "The Courtship of Mr. Lyon" and "The Tiger's Bride" are variants of "Beauty and the Beast." Although all the stories in the collection are fairy tales, only the final six involve the fantastic to a significant extent. "The Erl King," a reworking of a Johann Wolfgang von Goethe ballad, concerns a forest fairy who seduces women and magically imprisons them, although the protagonist realizes the fate she faces and kills the Erl King before he gains control of her. "The Snow Child" is a brief, disturbing, dream-like tale about a count and his wife and a girl of snow that the count wishes into existence. "The Lady of the House of Love" concerns a British soldier soon to fight in World War I who encounters a beautiful female vampire, a descendant of Dracula but nonetheless a reluctant predator who finally dies rather than kill the soldier.
The final three stories in the collection deal with werewolf lore: "The Werewolf," "The Company of Wolves," and "Wolf-Alice." The first, brief story concerns a grandmother/werewolf who, in an unusual twist on "Little Red Riding Hood," menaces her own granddaughter before being killed. In "The Company of Wolves" a young girl of the Little Red Riding Hood type who encounters the werewolf that killed her grandmother manages to tame him by refusing to play the part of a victim. When the wolf answers the girl's comment about the size of his teeth with the well-known "The better to eat you with," Carter writes that "The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody's meat." A gothic oddity, "Wolf-Alice" concerns a girl raised by wolves and a duke who haunts cemeteries and fancies himself a ghoul, although the reader is left unsure whether his condition is supernatural or psychiatric in nature.
Two stories in this collection, "The Company of Wolves" and "Puss in Boots," were later adapted--or, in Carter's words, "reformulated"--for radio, while Carter and Neil Jordan adapted "The Company of Wolves" into a screenplay. The relationship between the stories in this volume and their radio incarnations, however, is not one way. "The Lady of the House of Love" is derived from a similar but more involved radio script, "Vampirella." In the introduction to Come Unto These Yellow Sands (1985) Carter calls the short story a "Gothic tale about a reluctant vampire" and the radio play a story "about vampirism as a metaphor." In "The Lady of the House of Love" Carter carefully counterpoints the danger that the vampire represents and the soldier's lack of fear when he is with her against the fear he will soon feel in the trenches of France, where the narrator indicates that he "will learn to shudder." Significantly, his rational mind does not allow him to fear a vampire because he cannot believe that such a creature could exist. Logical and well-meaning, the unnamed soldier plans to bring the girl to Zurich, where she can see a psychiatrist for treatment of her nervous hysteria, to an eye specialist where she can be treated for photophobia, to a dentist to "put her teeth in better shape," and to a manicurist to have her claw-like fingernails made more presentable. Carter's fairy tale is as concerned with the tragic vampire as it is with notions of rationality and irrationality as they relate to historical events; for the British soldier, the idea that vampires might exist is irrational despite the available evidence, but any irrational aspects of the coming war are overwhelmed by the hard evidence of trench warfare. In this story the vampire only appears to be the monster; the real monsters lurk in the background, in the guise of those who allow World War I to be fought by men like the British soldier.
In addition to stories such as "The Lady in the House of Love," the historicity of which distinguishes them from traditional fairy tales set in intentionally nonspecific times and places, Carter's fairy tales also set themselves apart from their models by presenting female characters as capable. Some, like the young girl in "The Werewolf," actively defend themselves from danger; others, like the protagonist of "The Company of Wolves," avoid the need to defend themselves by refusing to play the role of victim in the first place. When the female protagonist of "The Bloody Chamber" finds herself in need of rescuing, the only man near at hand is, although a good person, incapable of doing the job. Instead, the young woman's mother comes to her aid. As "Wolf-Alice" closes, Alice attempts to aid the wounded duke, rather than needing his assistance. Despite the regularity with which its stories recast women as characters who do not need to be saved by princes or knights, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories does more than offer feminist revisions of existing fairy tales. The stories in the collection also explore human sexuality and psychology, often with humor and always with a willingness to challenge assumptions, whether patriarchal or feminist. Carter's female characters in this volume are by no means all role models of the sort that feminist critics could unanimously accept as positive. The protagonist of "The Bloody Chamber," for example, is aroused when her husband objectifies her--a distinctly incorrect response for a feminist role model.
Published shortly after fairy tales began to attract serious scrutiny from literary critics, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories achieved generally favorable notices for recasting its source materials without relying on the sexist molds that shaped previous fairy tales. However, Alan Friedman, writing for The New York Times Book Review (1980), found the collection unsatisfactory and hinted that its concern with "sadistic power and masochistic sacrifice" might have hurt it nearly as much as its "cutesy mannerisms and comical overwriting." Although few reviewers agreed with Friedman that "Most of these stories have the kind of cloying cleverness we associate with precocious writers," other commentators, particularly feminist critics, later expressed a similar concern about the depictions of sadistic and masochistic behavior. Less frequently, the collection also garnered attention from critics of postmodernist fiction.
In a brief prefatory comment to his reading of "The Lady of the House of Love" as a work of postmodernist fiction, Robert Rawdon Wilson notes that the stories in The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories "retell traditional European folktales from a feminist perspective imbued with psychoanalytic insights. All the tales . . . are artful, resonant with the allusive interplay of other texts, perhaps 'wan' in their affects; all, powerful in their historicity, in their awareness of human temporality within its socio-cultural chains." Such positive assessments of the collection are typical of postmodernist commentaries. In-depth analyses of any of the stories from this perspective are uncommon, however. For the most part, treatments of either individual stories or the collection as a whole tend to be more detailed when commentators either take a critical view of Carter's fiction or seek to refute the views of critics who have taken such stances.
Carter comments that Jordan's movie version of "The Company of Wolves" effectively illustrates her view that wolves can represent awakening sexuality in pubescent girls as well as in boys--a comment that presents a useful means of approaching these stories and the roles played in them by wolves, werewolves, and young women. For Carter, the awakening sexuality of young men is neither more nor less significant or subject to taboo than the awakening sexuality of young women, a consideration of some importance given the tendency of Western culture to celebrate or at least accept the sexual maturation of boys while seeking to control, commodify, or forestall the sexual awakening of girls. Carter's willingness to explore the other possibilities inherent to female characters in fairy tales suggests in an obvious way that these women need not be limited to playing the role of victims in need of rescue. The characters in Carter's next fantastic novel seem to proceed from a similar interest.
In Nights at the Circus American journalist Jack Walser follows the story of a Cockney aerialist who goes by the name Fevvers. Walser's original goal in taking on Fevvers's story is simple: to determine whether she is the winged wonder of nature she presents herself to be or merely a clever fraud. To research his story, Walser finds work as a clown with the traveling circus with which Fevvers is touring. As Robinson observes, the story plays off the traditional plot structure of the classic "seek and destroy" Hollywood movies, in which the male lead tries to "solve the enigma" the female lead presents. But Carter's novel parodies the Hollywood formula, reversing the typical arrangement of such stories. As Walser comes to know Fevvers, he, like the reader, comes to appreciate the manner in which she manages her life--refusing to relinquish her independence or play the part of a victim.
In an interview with Amanda Smith that preceded the American publication of Nights at the Circus, Carter was reluctant to describe the novel as a work of fantasy, calling it instead social satire. While it is certainly possible for satire to be fantastic and fantasy to be satirical, Carter's observation about Nights at the Circus offers a useful means of examining the nature of the fantasy it offers. Unlike earlier novels that draw from science fiction, magic realism, or fairy-tale sources, Nights at the Circus offers fantasy of a more equivocal nature. Incidents in the novel generally tend toward the bizarre and the surreal rather than the fantastic. The fact that one of the central characters may have functional wings, however, has prompted many commentators to treat the novel as a work of fantasy. With few exceptions, critics have accepted that Fevvers is a winged woman with the power of flight. In accepting her at face value in this respect, they also accept as true the embedded stories Fevvers narrates, since it is only during these episodes that she flies. Only Punter, in his article "Essential Imaginings: The Novels of Angela Carter and Russell Hoban" (1991), points out that the reader never actually finds out whether or not Fevvers has real wings; in making this observation Punter is also the only critic to question Fevvers's narrative reliability, although he never raises the issue explicitly.
Strictly speaking, though, even the uncertainty about Fevvers's reliability as a narrator or her status as a winged woman does not make problematic the status of the novel as a work of fantasy. Other aspects of the novel are too clearly unnatural. For example, the chimpanzees who travel with the circus--particularly their nominal leader, the Professor--display an intelligence that places them on an intellectual par with the artificially evolved chimpanzees who inhabit such science-fiction novels as David Brin's Startide Rising (1983) and The Uplift War (1987)--although Carter's intelligent animals have far more in common with their counterparts in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) than with their cousins in contemporary science fiction. Another unusual incident is of particular interest as well. During a cross-Siberian train trip to the troupe's next engagement, the circus tigers and the mirrors of the ornately decorated wagon car merge after the train engine explodes. Fevvers sees that the tigers "had frozen into their own reflections and been shattered, too, when the mirrors broke" and, more specifically, describes "On one broken fragment of mirror, a paw with the claws out; on another, a snarl." In this sequence the narrative takes on a dream-like quality. The story deals more in the bizarre than the fantastic, however, and Carter's decision to describe the novel as social satire makes at least as much sense as would any decision to label it a work of fantasy. Indeed, allegorical incidents and characters such as Mignon, whom Carter describes as a "frail orphan" symbolizing Europe after the War, are in much greater evidence than fantastic incidents, so it might be helpful to think of the novel as a work of social satire that makes use of various fantastic elements.
Most discussions of the novel focus on Fevvers. In Constructing Postmodernism McHale reads Fevvers as a parody of an angel, a sort of hollow angel. Feminist readings of the novel tend to view her quite differently: as a triumphant and empowered woman who soars above the conditions of her world. Using Carter's terminology from The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography (1978), Robinson describes Fevvers as a Mae West figure, "a woman who practices a masquerade of femininity, playing on male fears of the predatory woman"; in the same analytical framework, Mignon functions as a Marilyn Monroe figure, a martyr to be used by "connoisseurs of the poetry of masochism." Fevvers manages her own affairs in such a way as to avoid being financially dependent on anyone else--whether male or female--but, unlike Mignon, she also manages to avoid involvement in any relationship that would either circumscribe her freedom or subject her to physical abuse.
Typically, Carter's novel draws from a wide range of models and sources. In addition to relying on Hollywood movies and eighteenth-century allegorical fiction, she also draws from more-recent sources separate from the popular-culture tradition. Suleiman, for instance, notes that Carter presents an element of André Breton's multipart Surrealist Manifesto through the illiterate Siberian shaman Walser meets after the circus train explodes. The narrator tells how the shaman could, while sleeping, be called a "man working" since he is exploring his unconscious and thereby undertaking a poet's work. Suleiman describes how Carter's phrasing in this section closely parallels Breton's discussion of the same idea. For the most part, though, feminist critics have most thoroughly discussed the novel, and their interest has been mainly with Fevvers rather than possible source materials for the novel or its use of fantastic elements. Nonetheless, although Nights at the Circus is in many respects more peripherally fantastic than other Carter fictions, it shares a good deal of thematic common ground with these other works--particularly in its consideration of female characters who refuse to play submissive roles in patriarchal society. Carter suggests that such behavior has much to offer, not only to women but also to men. Walser, like Evelyn in The Passion of New Eve, matures considerably as a consequence of his experiences in dealing with and relating to empowered women.
In addition to Carter's fantasy novels, shorter works appear in several collections. Although they have received limited critical attention, several of these bear mention. "Come Unto These Yellow Sands" and "Overture and Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night's Dream" are both fantasies framed within existing works. The first of these, collected in Come Unto These Yellow Sands, is a radio play about Richard Dadd, a Victorian painter whose subjects were frequently fairies. Among the characters are some of the fairies Dadd painted. "Overture and Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night's Dream" is a prologue in fiction to William Shakespeare's comedy, concerning the various fairies in his play. The posthumous collection American Ghosts and Old World Wonders (1993) includes "Ashputtle or The Mother's Ghost," a story that presents three versions of the Ashputtle fairy tale, and "Gun for the Devil," an unfinished screenplay that sets forth in spare prose a revenge story involving a supernatural figure who supplies a gun that fires a bullet that cannot miss its target. The collection also includes "The Ghost Ships," a story about Christmas in America, which involves no overtly fantastic events but draws heavily from folklore in offering its cultural commentary and critique. These and similar shorter works emphasize that folkloric sources and models exerted a significant influence on Carter throughout her career.
Like many authors of postmodernist fictions, Carter draws from traditional folklore, blending her source materials with more-recent forms, subjects, and themes. As an author, though, Carter is in part noteworthy for reflecting so exceptional a knowledge of her sources. Her writing clearly reflects a dedicated study of fairy tales, as evident not only in The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, which casts fairy tales in feminist molds for an adult audience, but also in the two collections of fairy tales she edited, The Virago Book of Fairy Tales (1990) and The Second Virago Book of Fairy Tales. Carter also put her fairy-tale scholarship to direct use in writing a children's fairy tale, The Donkey Prince (1970), which scholar Jack Zipes reprinted in his collection of contemporary, English-language feminist fairy tales, Don't Bet on the Prince (1986).
Carter is also in part a literary descendant of the nineteenth-century German authors who wrote what Zipes, in Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales (1979), calls "radical romantic fairy tales." Carter's connection to this tradition is clearly discernible in The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, where she challenges the long-standing gender biases for which critics such as Zipes have criticized fairy tales in both their traditional versions and modern Hollywood incarnations. More generally, Carter's connection to the literary tradition of Romanticism is visible in her use of science-fiction themes, a genre that developed in English when writers replaced the magic that was so often central to traditional Romantic fiction with what might be thought of and what certainly functioned as a new magic: science. What is perhaps most significant about Carter's work within the tradition of the radical romantic fairy tale is her recombination of themes and motifs that were to a large extent used in different fictional categories. Thus, Heroes and Villains combines fairy-tale logic and stylistic cadences with science-fiction settings and motifs; The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman takes the occasion of fiction written in the magic-realist mode to allow a character to comment on the science-fiction tradition of the mad scientist; and The Passion of New Eve locates an alchemist in a New York City set in a near dystopia of a world tottering on the precipice of social breakdown.
Carter's fantastic fiction consistently concerns itself with gender roles and their construction. Her fantastic landscapes, situations, and characters highlight feminist concerns in ways that challenge and disturb readers with set expectations about what fiction, people, or feminists can and should do. In re-rendering traditional fairy tales, she challenges gender stereotypes and recasts female characters as competent individuals rather than victims in need of male assistance. Her postapocalyptic novels Heroes and Villains and The Passion of New Eve frequently blend science-fiction situations and motifs with fairy-tale atmospherics, presenting fictions in which readers can explore the reality of their own situations by examining the distorted reflections of the real world that the characters inhabit. Carter's fiction confronts readers with the unpleasant and the erotic--sometimes simultaneously, a fact that has been of concern to many reviewers and critics--but her fiction also asks the reader to consider not only why women and men relate the way they do but also, indirectly, to consider whether gender relations should be different and, more generally, whether the conventional wisdom and well-known "facts" that people rely on in their dealings with others are either wise or factual. Carter's fantastic fiction thus presents artful thought experiments of the sort that make full use of the possibilities inherent to science fiction and fantasy.
As science-fiction critic Damon Knight is quoted by James Gunn as having said, "science fiction" ultimately refers to those stories people point to when they use the term, and whether or not critics point to Carter's fiction when they use the term science fiction--or, for that matter, the term fantasy--they have described her as an important author, and not only for the quality of her prose and the themes it so provocatively treats. In addition to these considerations, Marina Warner rightly notes that the influence of Carter's writing reaches from Salman Rushdie to Jeanette Winterson and Robert Coover. Carter's fiction will no doubt continue to influence not only authors but also the critics and theorists who find her subject matters, themes, and techniques intriguing.
From: Yule, Jeffrey V. "Angela Olive Carter." British Fantasy and Science-Fiction Writers Since 1960, edited by Darren Harris-Fain, Gale, 2002. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 261.