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Essay: Angela Carter’s ‘Nights at the Circus’

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  • Published: 26 July 2022*
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Angela Carter’s ‘Nights at the Circus’ is a novel about Fevvers, the ‘Cockney Venus’, an aerealiste who claims to have wings. She regales journalist Jack Walser, with her life story; how she was hatched from an egg, was left on the doorstep of a brothel, grew up a ‘virgin among whores’, was forced to join a Museum of Women Monsters, then sold to a sinister cultist, managed to escaped, then joined the circus. It’s a fantastical tale, one that falls into the realm of magic realism – but is it also a Surrealist work? In this essay I will use two critical texts – Andre Breton’s Manifestos of Surrealism and Cynthia Masson’s dissertation about The Alchemical Hermaphrodite – to analyse Carter’s novel through a Surrealist lens and determine whether or not Nights at the Circus could fall under the category of Surrealism. Does she celebrate their ideas or does she critique them?

About Surrealism and its relationship with Alchemy

Surrealism was an avant-garde art movement in the 20th century that aimed to capture the creative potential of the unconscious mind. André Breton, the first Surrealist philosopher, wrote in his 2nd Manifesto of Surrealism that there is a ‘remarkable analogy insofar as their goals are concerned between the Surrealist efforts and those of the alchemist’. The alchemical goal of creating gold from base matter could be used as a metaphor for the Surrealist desire to affect a kind of psychological transformation in themselves; Surrealists believed that by merging opposites and playing with the binary nature of truth, they could transcend reality to achieve an ideal dream-state. In Nights at the Circus Carter questions whether this transcendent state is achievable, or even favourable, and she does this through two central characters; the antagonist Mr Rosencreutz, and the protagonist Sophie Fevvers.

Part 1: Rosencreutz as the Surrealist, using Breton’s manifesto

The Surrealists believed that the world was composed of one godly essence and that an artist had the power to manipulate matter to reconcile opposites and bring about fundamental change (“I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality – a surreality, if one may so speak.”) In Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter explores these same boundaries between genders, truths and realities. The Surrealist/alchemist in this novel is represented by the character of Mr Rosencreutz, a rich religious maniac who buys Fevvers from her employer with the deluded belief that she is a fallen angel and that having her in his possession will give him eternal life. “Lady of the hub of the celestial wheel, creature half of earth and half of air, virgin and whore, reconciler of fundament and firmament, reconciler of opposing states through the mediation of your ambivalent body, reconciler of the grand opposites of death and life, you who come to me neither clothed nor naked, wait with me for the hour when it is neither dark nor light, that of dawn before daybreak, when you shall give yourself to me but I shall not possess you…” He evidently objectifies her as a showcase – a ‘resolution of two states’ and a means to his alchemical end – and we realise that he means to offer her as a sacrifice. He clearly values Fevvers for her symbolic and aesthetic value, but ultimately sees her as a useful tool to enhance his own spiritual gain. In a similar way it has been argued that the Surrealists viewed women as a means to their own ends. Their society was an esoteric men’s club with token women members who conformed to whimsical notions of womanhood, the femme-enfant so celebrated at the time (irrational, impulsive, ethereal). Fevvers, however, is more than a frozen idea or an ethereal symbol. She is brazen, willful, grotesque and heavily grounded. She refuses to take her place in any structure – not least Rosencreutz’s vampirical alchemical idealism – and so she flies on out of there as quick as soon as she realises his deadly intentions.

“[Surrealism] believes, and will never believe more wholeheartedly, in reproducing artificially a moment where man […] is seized by something stronger than himself which projects him, in self-defense, into immortality.” This idea of the redemption of humanity through transcending reality entirely reflects Rosencreutz’s aim of achieving wealth and immortality by seizing (and sacrificing) something greater than himself, which in this case is Fevvers. We discover alongside Fevvers that although Rosencreutz’s ideology seems harmless and batty at first, it’s actually dangerous – it demands female sacrifice. In the same way Surrealist ideology seems harmless, but can be dangerous as it seeks lofty ideals with no empathy or regard for the wellbeing of material society and the earth-bound nature of humanity. Rosencreutz uses the idea of a quest for transcendental unity as a means to facilitate a selfish transformation, and so in many ways did the Surrealists. When Breton was asked if he believed that artistic output was a purely individual phenomenon (as opposed to a reflection of society) he replied that he did: “as for any intellectual phenomenon, the only question one can rightly raise concerning [art] is that of the sovereignty of thought”. The Surrealists often created art for their own purposes, their own transformative experiences, as opposed to creating for the growth of society as a whole.

Part 2: Fevvers as the androgyne, using ‘A reading of Chaucer in relation to the alchemical hermaphrodite’ by Cythia Masson

Fevvers herself is an embodiment of Surrealist fascination for alchemical mythology. When we are first introduced to her we share in the journalist Walser’s confusion about her ambiguous gender. This ambiguity takes root in the alchemical notion of the hermaphrodite. Alchemy, as defined by Cynthia Masson in her dissertation about hermaphroditism, involves “a series of stages in which compounds are transmuted from one form to another […] this transformational work leads to the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone, able to manifest gold and immortal life”. She goes on to assert that “a key stage in the formation of the philosopher’s stone is the union of male and female principles that results in the creation of the alchemical hermaphrodite, which is one of the most famous symbols in alchemy […] and the much-coveted goal of the opus alchymicum”. An androgynous figure is seen to combine the female/male, passive/active, subject/object and volatile/fixed elements of alchemical practice. Alchemical philosophy expressed its aims and truths in terms of binary opposites that they aimed to combine in a “final unit of completion”. The androgyne was seen as an unattainable symbol of immortality and transcendence, just as Rosencreutz sees Fevvers. It also supposedly stood for the ‘merging of the selves’ and the ‘triumph over mind, ego and duality’, but Carter offers a critique of this when she helps us understand that the alchemical philosophy is a paradox itself. While alchemy insists that there exists a truth beyond dualism, it defines everything it meets in terms of binary gender roles and opposites, trapping itself in the very binary mindset it attempts to eliminate in the first place. Carter challenges this philosophy through the character of Fevvers. During the course of the story we see Fevvers actively create her own narrative, which is received and transcribed passively by a man (this is an interesting critique of Surrealist ‘automatic writing’ where a female secretary documents a man’s dreams). But instead of simply reversing gender roles and maintaining a dichotomy of subject/object, Carter shows us a figure who is a fragmented version of all facets of gender and subjectivity. Fevvers explains to Walser her “apprenticeship at being looked at – as being the object of the eye.” In her earlier life she poses as a statue of the Winged Victory, participating in the role of an objectified woman; but that objectification is of her own construction, and her own control. “Look at me! With a grand, proud, ironic grace, she exhibited herself before the eyes of the audience as if she were a present too good to be played with. Look, don’t touch!”. Her status as the creation (object) is bound to her status as the creator (subject). Walser, with his ingrained binary thinking, cannot understand this; he doesn’t understand that she has no puppet master, that she is both subject and object, that she is her own creation.

Carter relishes the chaos she creates in Circus; she plays with dichotomies but rather than presenting us with an absolute transcendent truth she instead leaves everything on the spectrum of truth, asking us to come up with meaning inside a multiplicity of characters and stories. The novel begins with a description of Fevvers’ performance and her poster asking ‘Is She Fact Or Is She Fiction?’ – and we never get an answer. Does she really have wings? We never find out. Is she actually a woman? It’s up to us to decide. The novel ends with Fevvers saying to Walser “‘To think I really fooled you! It just goes to show there’s nothing like confidence'” (295). Fevvers’ gender, her status as fact or fiction, is her own confidence act. Everything turns out to be created, after all, by a story. Gender and truth are shown by Carter to be cultural understandings rather than biological or physical dualities. Carter was asked what Fevvers meant by this quote, to which she replied that “it’s actually a statement about the nature of fiction, about the nature of narrative” (John Haffenden). Clearly, as the Surrealists and Alchemists showed us, a story can hold power over even the most rebellious mind. But by exposing the materiality of fiction (Fevvers’ stinky stockings in a fantastical setting) and the fictionality of the real world (exposing the roles we play for others) we are invited to be masters of the old stories in a different way. We take “one further step into the fictionality of the narrative” – like an audience in a pantomime, we can collaborate with the male/female Dame and participate in retelling the stories that we’ve heard one time too many. Male/female,dream/reality, winner/loser – Carter confidently fools all of us into forgetting our binary mindset as we follow Fevvers’ story on her pluralistic and chaotic journey.

Conclusion

After analysing Nights at the Circus using two texts that explain the Surrealist and alchemical theories of identity and reality, I have concluded that Carter both acknowledges and critiques them.

I believe that the text offers more of a revisionist approach to Surrealism and alchemy, and their representations of gender roles and absolute truth. Carter critiques the idea of transcendence (as defined in Breton’s Manifestos) by using Rosencreutz as a warning against pursuing an absolute truth for selfish gain, implying that the Surrealists were similarly driven by their own egoistic purpose. They were idealistic; they floated into a dreamstate where nothing mattered, where the aim was to enter a higher plane of reality, where humanity’s issues didn’t require exploration. Carter shows us the danger of this kind of selfishness.

She critiques the Surrealist idea of a perfect androgyne by establishing Fevvers as a grounded realist who forms her own truth and whose gender and identity are fragmented. Although she has wings, she is in no way denied a corporeal presence by Carter. Her high-wire act is not perceived as utopian, ethereal, or transcendent above reality in the way that the Surrealists would have idealised; it is more representative of a precarious balancing act, a feat of bravery. Carter celebrates a more pluralistic – and therefore more empathetic – understanding of gender, and identity, and truth. Her text works to sustain rather than resolve contradiction. While Surrealism and alchemy sought one single truth within the confines of duality, Carter, through the playfulness of her writing and the ambiguity of her protagonist, shows us there are many truths and chooses the freedom of multiplicity.

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