Published: Nov. 1, 2006 By

[1] Angela Carter described herself as being in the “demythologising business” (“Notes”, 38) and in her 1984 novel Nights at the Circus Carter’s interrogative scope is both broad and complex. The wingedaerialisteFevvers and the rag-bag of circus freaks with whom she journeys evoke the Rabelaisian carnivalesque that Bakhtin cites as a powerful challenge to the spatial, temporal, and linguistic fixities of the medieval world. The transformative and regenerative potential of Rabelais’ grotesque is evident in Nights’ temporal setting, which foregrounds the possibilities of birth through death. Set at the “fag end” of the nineteenth century (19), the characters are witness to history on the cusp as [t]he old dying world gives birth to the new one” (Bakhtin, 435). Here Carter has shifted the point of historical regeneration from Rabelais’ subversion of the Neo-Platonic medieval cosmology to, rather hopefully, symbolize the demise or at least the derailment of the Age of Reason, industrial progress, Imperialism, and their respective ideologies of misogyny. For Fevvers and Walser the excess of the carnivalesque prompts a crisis of subjectivity that signals both the redundancy of restrictive ideologies of demarcation and hierarchy, but also the playful possibilities of corporeal fluidity and referential relativism.

[2] In emphasising Fevvers’ and Walser’s “crises” of subjectivity this paper takes Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque rebirth as a means of reading Fevvers’ corporeal excess and the ambivalence of her performativity as a destabilisation of the assumed causality between corporeality and ontology. The hegemonic discourses that are so reliant on ontological stability are unsettled one by one in the novel as Fevvers, the New Woman in (and with) the wings, “hatches” a plan, a new future, and indeed a New Man. Walser’s symbolic “rebirth” sees him abandon his “grounded”, objective and misogynistic narrative voice to become Fevvers’ masochistic lover and the New Man for the New Century. This essay argues that the theoretical conflux of the Bakhtinian carnivalesque and Butler’s performativity foregrounds the eroto-political possibilities of the flesh as well as the counter-hegemonic ambiguities that might be rendered in corporeal performativity. Reading Nights through this lens opens a textual space for the destabilisation of cultural norms regarding the binary anatomical imperative and its associated discourses of rationalism, objectification and sexualised commodification.

[3] The Rabelaisian corporeality of Carter’s novel emphasizes the dual body, the lower bodily stratum, and the iconoclastic ambiguities of language and image in reclamation of the bodily potential that is effaced by discourses of scientific and masculinist rationalism. Fevvers’ excessive embodiment begs a revision of conventional conceptualizations of voyeurism and objectification, particularly in naturalizing the fleshly and open feminine body as the reassuring fetish object for masculinist reason. Nights foregrounds the “ever incompleted character of being” (Bakhtin, 32), indicating traditions of objectification, voyeurism, and labeling strategies as contributing to the production and perception of difference or Otherness. Textually thematised through the extended metaphor of the self as fiction, the novel examines the duplicitous problematics of perception and performativity in a queer interrogation of hegemonically inscribed difference. Carter’s invocation and critique of Bakhtin operates through a textual over-determination of issues regarding masking, performance, spectatorship, and identity, thus providing a representational space for a grotesque performativity that radicalizes understandings not only of gender but the performances of time, space, narrative, and history as well.

[4] An episodic journey of regression and a parody of the search for origins and self, Nights is similarly structured to Carter’s earlier novelsThe Passion of New Eve and The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. Reminiscent of Eve/lyn and Desiderio, Walser’s “habit of suspending belief extended even unto his own being” (10). Walser is “unfinished”, needing to “hear his bones rattle. That was how he knew he was alive” (10). Representative of the crisis of subjectivity, the journalist Walser seeks solace in the masculinist tradition of voyeuristic appropriation by including Fevvers as a subject in his series of stories cynically entitled “Great Humbugs of the World” (11). Contradictory to, and perhaps because of, the existential and ontological insecurity regarding his own self , Walser takes the textual leitmotif “Is she fact or is she fiction” as his personal quest to ascertain the “truth” of Fevvers (7). Framed as journalistic objectivity, Walser’s right to ascertain Fevvers’ fictionality or otherwise functions as a metonymic representation for the masculinist and normative structures and discourses which determine what is authentic, inauthentic, fact or fiction, valuable or otherwise, specifically in the context of Enlightenment thinking. Walser’s overdetermined quest to delineate Fevvers’ physical “truth” parodies the way ontology is “secured” through difference and the demarcation of that which is Other:

In his red-plush press box, watching her through his opera-glasses, he thought of dancers he had seen in Bangkok, presenting with their plumed, gilded, mirrored surfaces and angular, hieratic movements, infinitely more persuasive illusions of the airy creation than this over literal winged barmaid before him. “She tries too damn’ hard,” he scribbled on his pad. (15-16)

Despite the fact that the essence of Fevvers is only ever an illusion, and there can never be an answer to the question “Is she fact, or is she fiction?” the novel operates in such a way as to encourage readers to recognize their complicity with Walser’s voyeuristic quest for the truth. The opening section of the text is alternately focalized through the rational, composed, and objective journalist Walser, and Fevvers’ first-person narration of her life experience. The effect here fosters a disbelief in the authenticity of Fevvers, framed as it is by Walser’s scepticism and the obvious scam in which Father Time stands still with Big Ben chiming midnight three times throughout the course of the interview. Reference points of authenticity and rationalism are dislocated here and metanarratives of history and power slip, with each bottle of champagne rendering events and identities less plausible. Additionally, Walser’s focalization is studded with a number of intimate addresses to the reader with phrases and questions of disbelief and scepticism. While listening to Fevvers’ tales Walser regularly records notes on his pad, pondering to himself “how does she do that?”, “a touch of sham?” (8), or simply making a mental reminder to “check” (14) a particular aspect of her story. Walser’s parenthetical, “objective” and “logical” point-form assumptions regarding Fevvers encourage complicity from the reader, fostering an active interest in the conclusion to the question continually posed, “Is she fact, or is she fiction?” He writes: “First impression: physical ungainliness. Such a lump it seems! But soon, quite soon, an acquired grace asserts itself, probably the result of strenuous exercise. (Check if she trained as a dancer)” (16). Walser interpellates the reader as an accomplice to verify his assumption that “(surely . . . a real bird would have too much sense to think of performing a triple somersault in the first place)” (17).

[5] While parts of the second section of the novel are focalized through Walser in much the same way, this section is also interspersed with Fevvers’ experience. The repeated shifts in narrative voice foreground the novel’s preoccupation with the contestation of voices in an explication of Bakhtin’s heteroglossia. In the final section of the novel, when Fevvers has once again regained her narrative voice, readers may assume there will at last be the answer to the question asked from the opening pages of the novel. Anne Fernihough suggests that “[t]he novel sets up expectations that the mask will eventually be stripped away to reveal a hidden self, only to show how, on the contrary, Fevvers’ identity is constituted in and through performance, with Walser as the prime audience” (94). As Fevvers’ hair fades and her feathers molt, “every day, the tropic bird looked more like the London sparrow as which it had started out in life, as if a spell were unravelling” ( Nights, 271). As the spell unravels, the expectation is that the enigma of Fevvers will also unfold. However, as the text ends, with Fevvers’ sights set on the nearest bottles of bleach and dye, the reader recognizes that there is nothing to Fevvers but her performance. The failure of Fevvers to reiterate her “essence” does not provide access to the true Fevvers, but rather constitutes a textual display of the performativity that is “mistaken” as an “essence”. Fevvers’ mirthful laughter at the conclusion of the text parodies the desire to know, and to demarcate and perpetuate notions of truth and artifice: “‘To think I really fooled you!’ she marvelled. ‘It just goes to show there’s nothing like confidence’” (295). Far from an admission of inauthenticity, the ambiguity of Fevvers’ statement indicates both the power that she asserts in producing her own representations of femininity, specifically here as the virginal “feathered intacta”, but also the degree to which Fevvers’ performative, and economic, success is reliant on speculation as to her identity. This curiosity is engineered by Fevvers and this is in fact her confidence trick, as Fernihough suggests:

As aerialiste, Fevvers dramatizes not only the lack of a “ground” to gendered identity and its performing trajectory through time, but also its dependence on repetition, for she performs the same circus-act day after day. For Butler, moreover, it is at those moments when the repetition is disrupted that the “groundlessness” of gender reveals itself. (95)

Dislocating the conventional connection between the masculinist gaze and objectification or possession, Fevvers subverts notions of female object passivity by demanding to be looked at. For Fevvers, the audience perception and reaction to her appearance are necessary to maintain the performance of her identity as winged aerialiste. This is evident towards the end of the novel, when Fevvers loses contact with the audience – both the circus audience and Walser – and she can no longer maintain the performance of her identity. Significantly though, it is Fevvers who determines the conditions of her theatrical display, a part of which is the production of ambiguity. Fevvers capitalizes on spectators’ ontological insecurities by producing promotional materials which foreground her liminal status. The poster above Fevvers’ dressing room mirror boldly asks “Is she fact or is she fiction”? This ambiguous performativity frustrates attempts to secure Fevvers’ identity through the application of a fixed and fixing classificatory term.

[6] The performative and transgressive Fevvers is cast in a series of excessive metaphors, each erasing and rewriting her identity as newly contingent. She is variously described as; “The Cockney Venus” (7), “Winged Victory” (37), “Cupid” (23), “The Angel of Death” (79), “Helen of Troy” (7), “The English Angel” (8), “a rocket” (7), as possessing “a voice that clanged like dustbin lids” (7), “the prow of a ship” (15), “an Iowa cornfield” (18), “a meatdish” (12), “beefsteak red” (13), “Red-Riding Hood’s Grandmother” (18), “a dray mare” (12), and “a hump-backed horse” (19). Rabelaisian in style this excessive string of descriptors evokes the ambiguity of the blazon signifying both praise and abuse in a combination of “the wish of life and death, of sowing and rebirth” (Bakhtin, 420). Most of these descriptions of Fevvers parody the excessive gestures or features that render her performance suspicious, and, significantly, these exacerbate fleshly excess or protuberance. It is Fevvers’ excessive flesh that emerges “gleaming and beefsteak red” and it is her physical development “fore and aft” that is both the source of her allure but also her freakishness (19). For Walser she is “always the cripple” (19). Her body, the protuberance of her flesh, and her inability or refusal to contain the flesh renders her subjectivity questionable. In Bakhtinian terms Fevvers is a figure of the dual body, (she displays face and buttocks equally, and with breasts and wings she is equally “fore and aft”). The ambiguity and excess of Fevvers’ physicality resists appropriation but this also indicates the regenerative principal of the new world. For Bakhtin, the “dual body becomes the dual world, the fusion of the past and future in the single act of the death of one and the birth of another” (435).

[7] In a further Rabelaisian gesture Carter codes those aspects of Fevvers’ performance that do not align with conventional femininity not simply as masculine, but through a disparate range of metaphors both animal, human, animate, and inanimate. Fevvers frustrates more than conventional binaries of masculine/feminine as her metaphorical presence challenges the discretion of the corporeal form as human. Kristeva’s work in the abject indicates that the monstrous feminine is both most human (in that it is most fleshly corporeal), but also the least human as the fetishised feminine flesh object restores the rational, male and cerebral subject to relative ontological security. The satirical narrative of Nightsrepeatedly evokes literary and historically fetishised feminine figures in an attempt to place the enigmatic Fevvers. In a critique of the power that these iconographies wield in forging feminine behaviours Fevvers exploits and discards each conventional appropriation. For Carter’s heroine the new world will not be littered with the injured feminine figures of the past; the regenerative principal here is one of empowerment. As Carol Siegel argues, Fevvers is “a parodic literalization of Apollinaire’s admiring description of Sade’s Juliette, “a figure of whom minds have as yet no conception, who is arising out of mankind, who shall have wings and who shall renew the world” (12). This confluence of sadomasochistic literary allusion and the pseudo-mythological regenerative hopes pinned on the fin de siecle “New Woman” provides a clear indication that Fevvers’ efforts to forge a new future will involve a complex resistance to the literary and linguistic production of the feminine object.

[8] The celebration of Fevvers’ performativity is contextualised by the historical struggle for women to determine, define and articulate not only the means by which they are conceptualised, but also the conditions by which they live. It is Fevvers’ ambiguity which allows her to elude the appropriative gestures of spectators and would be captors. Fevvers is referred to in terms of countless historical, mythological and literary figures and images, each of which she evades in turn. There is no prior mythology or role with which Fevvers’ subjectivity accords; she is not Helen of Troy, Leda, the Angel of Death, nor Cupid. Fevvers’ continual frustration of attempts to constrain her identity in terms of the mythologies of femininity, celestial beings or birds is counterpointed by the suffering of the other female characters at the hands of similar historical and discursive traditions.

[9] “The Ape-Man beat his woman as though she were a carpet” (115). With “marks of fresh bruises on fading bruises on faded bruises” (129), the silent Mignon lacks the voice to challenge her conditions. As Boehm suggests, “Mignon’s history is the history of women without voices to speak themselves; she is entirely an object, to be used by the various men who mistreat her, and it would be impossible for her to tell her own story to Walser or Fevvers” (43-44). Mignon is just one of the women in Carter’s text who suffers according to a tradition of masculinist domination. An explicit comment on the Victorian spectacle of the freakish body, the women in Madame Schreck’s Museum of Women Monsters are daily appropriated by the masculinist gaze which constructs them as the commodified Other. As with Mignon these objectified women exemplify Dale Bauer’s argument that “the silencing of the female voice takes place under the discipline of the [male] gaze” ( Feminist Dialogics xiii). Similarly, there are scores of women imprisoned, silenced and surveilled in the Panopticon of the tundra for murdering their violent and abusive husbands. But far from simply charting the masculinist appropriation of women Nights foregrounds Rabelais’ regenerative principle in abuse, and each of these women forge their own counter-normative subjectivities through a psychic rebirth of sorts. For Mignon, for instance, this is through a friendship and lesbian love attachment to the Princess of Abyssinia. Language can no longer inscribe the materiality of their victimhood as Mignon and the Princess communicate only through music. The women in the “Museum of Women Monsters” are freed when Fevvers kills Madame Schreck, and those imprisoned in the Panopticon escape when they form lesbian relationships with the (similarly imprisoned) guards.

[10] Fevvers also finds herself several times under the threat of male violence, most particularly at the hands of Rosencruetz and the Duke. Fevvers is continually subject to the masculinist gaze, but she insists that this is not an appropriating gaze, and that her identity is determined on her own terms rather than through the discourses of linguistics, nomenclature or taxonomies of science. Here Fevvers offers a fictional example of what Bauer explores as the “contradiction between the alienated female voice and the interpretive community anxious to incorporate and domesticate the voice in order to silence its threat” (Feminist Dialogics x). The surveillant gaze evident in Madame Schreck’s museum functions to silence disruptive and polyphonic excess. The muted Mignon is an example of this, as indeed is Fevvers when she loses her narrative voice in the latter part of the novel. For Bauer though, the explication of the terms of the dominant offers a means of resistance. Working with Bakhtin’s premise, Bauer argues that the language of the dominant might be resisted if its “conventions are called into dialogic conflict” (Feminist Dialogics xii). Bauer explicates the potential of a feminist dialogics as follows:

For feminists, Bakhtin’s theories of the social nature of the utterance – of both the inner and the outer words – provide a critical language that allows us to pinpoint and foreground the moments when the patriarchal work and the persuasive resistance to it come into conflict. By highlighting these contradictions, a feminist dialogics produces occasions for the disruption and critique of dominant ideologies. (Feminism 3)

[11] In her repeated identification of those strategies that she sees as liable to constrain or silence her, Fevvers foregrounds the clash between patriarchal strategies and her own, more vocal, and more labile efforts of resistance. Embracing the heteroglossia that Bauer sees as an “empowering model” for feminist criticism (Feminist Dialogics 5), Fevvers challenges and eludes strategies of labelling or classification as indicated earlier in this essay. Refusing to be coded in conventional terms, Fevvers effectively resists the conventional apparatus of masculinist and normative regulation. Fevvers repeatedly frustrates the connection between the penis and phallocentrism by refusing to perform the role of victim to phallic power, and indeed by matching it with her own phallic power (Ma Nelson’s sword) or evading it through non-phallic means (flying away, laughter, etc.). Here, and in her laughter at the close of the novel, Fevvers embodies Cixous’ laugh of the Medusa or the regenerative laugh of the Rabelaisian carnivalesque.

[12] While Fevvers’ performativity indicates a wealth of potentiality and ambiguity, the need for the audience to ratify those performances asidentity means that there is also the risk that one aspect of her performance will be discursively reified as a role or mythology to which she must perpetually adhere. As Butler maintains, performativity is not a choice, a wilful play of the subject, but rather, “that which we are forced to negotiate” (237). Using Spivak’s term, Butler discusses the “necessary error of identity” as that which enables the subject (229). Butler reminds us that the dualistic nature of categories of identity regulate the subject in an ongoing sense, but also produce that subject in the first instance. Figuring subject positions as sites “of converging relations of power” as Butler does (229) enables a recognition of the perpetual incompletion of the subject and the inevitable failure of the subject to completely accord with any given discursive label. For any identity category to be figured as a “temporary totalization” ( Butler, 230) allows a recognition of the simultaneous necessity and potentiality of that signification. Here, we might identify a space for momentary performative destabilization of the efficacy by which subjects are produced as discursive totalities. Fevvers, for example, is fully aware of the degree to which the audience is necessary for the simulacrum of identity, perception being vital to the performance, but she is also conscious that this might forever “trap” her according to “what he thinks I am” (290).

[13] Fevvers’ continued awareness of the discursive strategies that produce and delimit her, as well as the confusion that she provokes in others because of her corporeal excess might be read as temporary destabilizations to the efficacy of hegemonic discourse. While acknowledging the material limits of both Fevvers’ flesh and indeed the weight of historically authenticated discourses in producing that which they name, the somatic and semantic slipperiness that Fevvers demonstrates might still offer a compelling model for momentary disruption of the normative. In other words, there may be a counter-hegemonic value in exploring the tension between stasis and flux that sexual subjects must negotiate, or conversely, be negotiated by, every day. The oscillations of Fevvers’ narration exemplify this as she, unsure of her ontological status as winged aerialiste, articulates the tension between the perceptions and performances of her identity and the “essence” or “truth” of that identity:

She felt her outlines waver; she felt herself trapped forever in the reflection in Walser’s eyes. For one moment, just one moment, Fevvers suffered the worst crisis of her life: “Am I fact? Or am I fiction? Am I what I know I am? Or am I what he thinks I am?” (290)

Fevvers’ revision of the Cartesian cogito as gender specific points to Carter’s implicit critique of the mind/body split as specifically gendered, but this also evokes the potential of the subject’s refusal to perform “that which he thinks I am.” The fluidity of carnivalesque performativity resists the regulatory gaze and although Fevvers is highly conscious of how she is perceived, she retains a powerful awareness of her own carnivalesque potential:

I existed only as an object in men’s eyes after the night-time knocking on the door began. Such was my apprenticeship for life, since is it not to the mercies of the eyes of others that we commit ourselves on our voyage through the world? I was closed up in a shell for the wet white would harden on my face and torso like a death mask that covered me over, yet inside this appearance of marble, nothing could have been more vibrant with potentiality than I! Sealed in this artificial egg, this sarcophagus of beauty, I waited, I waited, . . . although I could not have told you for what it was I waited. Except, I assure you, I did not await the kiss of a magic prince, sir! With my two eyes, I nightly saw how such a kiss would seal me up in my appearance for ever! (39)

Framed as a painted and objectified figure of male desire, Fevvers fears being forever appropriated according to gendered narratives of romance, beauty and femininity. Entombment within the “Sarcophagus of beauty” signifies at once a death and a concretisation of the inscription of identity in language and according to codes of heterosexual romance, beauty and desirability. But for Fevvers this is a temporary containment that conceals a subversive energy: for “nothing could have been more vibrant with potential than I”.

[14] In the latter part of the text Fevvers temporarily loses the narrative voice that she powerfully employed earlier in the novel. Without the voice to speak her “self” Fevvers defers to a desire for the security of her inscribed history. “The young American it was who kept the whole story of the old Fevvers in his notebooks; she longed for him to tell her she was true” (273). Far from feeling the loss of Walser in romantic terms, Fevvers longs for his presence only to secure and reflect her own: “She longed to see herself reflected in all her remembered splendour in his grey eyes” (273). Claiming that she has “mislaid some vital something of herself” (273), Fevvers teases the reader with romantic and essentialist tropes. Without an audience to perceive and frame her, Fevvers recognizes the ontological void on which her identity is founded. This is clear as she trudges through the snow, representative of the tabula rasa: “[t]he white world around them looked newly made, a blank sheet of fresh paper on which they could inscribe whatever future they wished” (218). This is framed as both liberating, in terms of the fresh start or primordial space prior to the inscription of identity, but also as threatening, undermining as it does any notion of an essence or locus of identity or individuality. It is here that Fevvers, teasingly, plays out her own crisis of subjectivity.

[15] Having deviated from the fixed and phallic trajectory that the train cut through the Siberian snow, Fevvers is for the first time without the apparatus used to sustain her performance of the “essence” of Fevvers. Having lost Ma Nelson’s sword and the dye and bleach necessary to maintain the more cosmetic aspects of her performance, Fevvers fails to recreate herself in each performance, each moment, as the likeness of herself. The “essence” of Fevvers fades, for each performance is a reiteration of a diminished copy, due partly to her inability to find the audience necessary to maintain the sustained image of Fevvers. Surrounded only by snow, with a broken wing, and without the Talisman of the Sword, Father Time, or Lizzie’s handbag containing the chemicals necessary for her feathers, Fevvers’ trajectory is uncertain, and it is this which causes her feathers to fade and her “essence” to dim. The necessity to continually reiterate performances of identity is clear, yet Fevvers can no longer reiterate the same performances that have made her unique as the wingedaerialiste. But nor can Fevvers stand still in the Siberian tundra for fear of freezing her identity according to her current appearance and performance (symbolized by the earlier threat of the frozen Fevvers sculpture). Fevvers desires that her grotesque performativity be on her own terms.

[16] Fevvers’ fears about having her identity secured in terms of the way she is perceived indicates the textual thematisation of the regulatory power of the gaze. Her efforts to remain elusive also point to the regulatory power of naming as Fevvers fears the consequences of classificatory terms. When the Sadeian figure Rosencruetz refers to Fevvers by her birth name, she is immediately on edge:

“Queen of ambiguities, goddess of in-between states, being on the borderline of species, manifestation of Arioriph, Venus, Achamatoth, Sophia”. “I can’t tell you what a turn it gave me when he called me “Sophia”. How did he stumble over my christened name? It was as if it put me in his power, that he should know my name, and, though I am not ordinarily superstitious, now I became strangely fearful.” (81)

The myriad names by which Rosencruetz refers to Fevvers indicates her liminal and semantically slippery status, but he also displays a fetishisation of Fevvers’ ambiguity and an intent to harness the libratory power of her potentiality. He poses ambiguous riddles in an effort to restrain Fevvers’ playful excess and to secure her sexual acquiescence. But it is not until he mobilizes the authoritative discourses of biological birthright and Christianity that Fevvers feels his appropriative strategies “ground” her. Fearful of being reduced to the history of her performances, Fevvers recognizes Rosencruetz’s use of her christened name “Sophia” as a performative utterance. Having her identity fixed by perception or naming would mark her unqualifiedly as Other, returning her to the stasis of identity that she suffered in the subterranean prison of Madame Schreck. The imagery in Madame Schreck’s Museum of Woman Monsters thematises the history of the way in which violence, voyeurism and objectification collude in the inscription of difference:

“Who worked for Madame Schreck, sir? Why, prodigies of nature, such as I. Dear old Fanny Four-Eyes; and the Sleeping Beauty; and the Wiltshire Wonder, who was not three foot high; and Albert/Albertina, who was bipartite, that is to say, half and half and neither of either. . . . The girls was all made to stand in stone niches cut out of the slimy walls, except for the Sleeping Beauty, who remained prone, since proneness was her speciality. And there were little curtains in front and, in front of the curtains, a little lamp burning. These were her “profane altars”, as she used to call them”. (59-61)

Enshrined on altars of difference, framed by theatrical curtains and lighting effects, these exemplars of Otherness are an indictment of the hegemonic necessity of objectifying the fetish object in order to shore up the tenuous boundaries of normative ontology. As Michael suggests, “[t]he novel depreciates male dominance with its depiction of men who are so fearful of losing their positions of mastery in the hierarchy of conventional heterosexual relationships that they are reduced to jerking themselves off while looking at women freaks in a damp basement” (511).

[17] By mobilizing the gendered mind/body split and foregrounding the feminine Other as a fetish object the novel interrogates representations of the feminine grotesque as masking deeper and more pervasive masculinist fears about ontological and corporeal stability. Wolfgang Kayser writes that the grotesque opens onto an abyss, with the potential to destabilize discourses of rationality, reason and hierarchy:

the [perceived] order [of the world and of thought] is destroyed and an abyss opened where we thought to rest on firm ground . . . the grotesque totally destroys the order and deprives us of our foothold. (59)

While attempting to inscribe Fevvers’ freakishness once and for all, Walser feels the shifting of temporal and spatial reference points. In the presence of Fevvers’ corporeality Walser experiences a “vertiginous eroticism” teetering on the edge of an abyss represented by the amorphousness of her grotesque femininity. The ever-open orifices of Fevvers’ eyes, mouth, armpits, and cavernous voice represent the greatest threat to Walser’s ontological security. Each of these cavernous spaces represent the symbolic threat of female genitalia, as Barbara Creed writes, the amorphousness of the abject female body functions to incite a crisis of self. “[T]he voracious maw, the mysterious black hole. . . signifies genitalia as a monstrous sign which threatens to give birth to equally horrific offspring as well as threatening to incorporate everything in its path” (63). When looking into the “plurality of worlds” within Fevvers eyes, Walser feels that he stands “on an unknown threshold” (30). Walser’s terror is related to misogynist fears of castration and engulfment, but more than this, he fears that a loss of referentiality will signal the demise of his discursive and appropriative power.

[18] In Carter’s short story “Peter and the Wolf”, Peter also responds with fear when confronted with the infinite displacement and ontological abyss that he associates with his female cousin’s genitalia:

Her lips opened up as she howled so that she offered him, without her own intention or volition, a view of a set of Chinese boxes of whorled flesh that seemed to open upon another into herself, drawing him into an inner, secret place in which destination perpetually receded before him, his first, devastating, vertiginous intimation of infinity. (57)

Here Carter critiques representations of female genitalia as “negative”: “Between her legs lies nothing but zero, the sign for nothing, that only becomes something when the male principle fills it with meaning” (The Sadeian Woman, 4). In the intertextual connection of Walser and Peter, as well as the “wolf-girl” with Fevvers, Carter’s texts parody masculinist fears of phallic castration by the monstrous woman. This fear is parodied also in Heroes and Villains, where Jewel believes that Marianne has teeth in her vagina, and his subsequent rape of her signifies a loss of power for him, and her assumption of power within the relationship (55-56). Mythologies of phallic castration by the “monstrous woman” are parodied extensively in The Passion of New Eve where Mother, “The Castratrix of the Phallocentric Universe,” (67) rapes the misogynist Eve/lyn in a scene of “engulfment” to which he responds with desperate irony; “Oh the dreadful symbolism of that knife! To be castrated by a phallic symbol” (70). Destabilising binary distributions of phallic power Carter’s representations of castrating and phallic women function as a textual display of the ontological void of which not only masculinities but indeed all sexualities are comprised. Each of Carter’s phallic women serves as an object of simultaneous fascination, repulsion and fear. The women of the remote “river people” manipulate the clitoris to form “a splendid quivering growth at the head of the dark red nether lips” (Carter,Infernal Desire Machines 84-85). In this case Desiderio does not realize that the clitoris “as long as my little finger” symbolizes female power, and that he is scheduled to be killed by the phallic blade of his child bride (84). Mamie Buckskin represents “a paradox – a fully phallic female with the bosom of a nursing mother and a gun, death-dealing erectile tissue, perpetually at her thigh” (Carter, The Passion of New Eve 108). Male characters in Carter’s fiction conflate demonstrations of active female sexuality with an intent to castrate, and the vagina dentata, coupled with the phallic woman, symbolizes the disjuncture of the naturalized conflation of the penis and phallic power. Indicative of the “loss of self”, the whorls of flesh represented in the Chinese boxes of female genitalia remind the reader of the degree to which phallocentric notions of sex ensure the misrecognition of identities, particularly male identities, as ontologically stable and physically impermeable.

[19] Looking into her eyes, the “window of the soul”, Walser expects to find the unmediated “truth” of Fevvers. Instead he finds himself in an ever-spiralling, ever-increasing void, a void that threatens the security of his own identity. For Lacan the loss of self is represented as an abyss. “This illusion of unity, in which a human being is always looking forward to self-mastery, entails a constant danger of sliding back again into the chaos from which he started; it hangs over the abyss of a dizzy Assent in which one can perhaps see the very essence of Anxiety” (Lacan, 15). Nights represents the crisis of subjectivity as a void, with images of open mouths, open genitals, the nebulous threat of corporeal leakage and odour, and the precipice to flight. In a parodic critique of Freud’s unheimlich and Lacan’s abyss, Walser fears a loss of his own self at the sight of Fevvers’ eyes and flesh which are representative of her sexuality or genitalia:

she turned her immense eyes upon him, those eyes “made for the stage” whose messages could be read from standing room in the gods. Night had darkened their colour; their irises were now purple matching the Parma violets in front of her mirror, and the pupils had grown so fat on darkness that the entire dressing-room and all those within it could have vanished without trace inside those compelling voids. Walser felt the strangest sensation, as if these eyes of theaerialiste were a pair of sets of Chinese boxes, as if each one opened into a world into a world into a world, an infinite plurality of worlds, and these unguessable depths exercised the strongest possible attraction, so that he felt himself trembling as if he, too, stood on an unknown threshold. (29-30)

Walser’s fear in looking into Fevvers eyes is not unfounded. He does in fact suffer an identity crisis; losing his memory, his mind, his language, his masculinity, and at times even his ascendancy as human. As with Desiderio in Infernal Desire Machines and Eve/lyn inThe Passion of New Eve, Walser forms another of Carter’s young men cast adrift in a barren landscape, on a quest for security of identity and reason, but kidnapped (often by women) and forced to suffer a re-birth and the resultant realisation that the quest for ontological security is an illusory one. Buried under the wreck of the phallic trajectory of the train is the Eurocentric, masculinist, reasoned, objective, and objectifying Walser, and buried with him are the tools with which he (as a representation of normative structures) had regulated the potentiality of Fevvers’ performativity. Without his “eyes the cool grey of scepticism” and the language used to inscribe difference (10), Walser is cast adrift in the timeless, directionless Siberian snow, and in a Rabelaisian turn he emerges re-born, child-like and an embodiment of hope for the future. This state represents the regenerative principle of the carnivalesque, embodying both death and birth as Walser’s previous self is buried under the train. The derailment of the train symbolizes the derailment of Imperialist, masculinist and teleological ideals. The redundancies of the past are buried and the regenerative fire points to a new hope at a turning point in history.

[20] The end of Walser’s previous self is marked by his loss of language, “that which is vital to our being” (103). Following the train derailment Walser reverts to the status of a child and requires re-entry into the system of signification in which he is professionally trained and which he had previously mastered as a means of bolstering his own sense of self. While trapped in the barren landscape of the Siberian tundra, and prior to language, Walser functions as a representation of the primordial and pre-symbolic self, open to re-signification and prior to the establishment of the reiterative trajectory of identity performances: “Like the landscape, he was a perfect blank” (222). The regenerative principle, as it is illustrated by Walser, is characterised by a new language, that which Bakhtin refers to as “special forms of marketplace speech and gesture, frank and free, permitting no distance between those who came into contact with each other and liberating from norms of etiquette and decency” (10).

[21] Bakhtin’s utopian and transgressive approach to the carnivalesque comprises several aspects. Carnival signifies “ritual spectacles such as fairs, popular feasts and wakes, processions and competitions . . . parodies, travesties and vulgar farce” (Stallybrass and White, 8). Expressed in such events, however, is the celebration of those aspects often denied or repressed, signified by the carnival embrace of laughter, the language of the marketplace and those aspects of the corporeal which signify the “grotesque body”. Characterised by an inversion of hierarchy, carnival celebrates bodily excess and a corruption of classicism: “in the marketplace pure and simple categories of thought find themselves perplexed and one-sided” (Stallybrass and White, 27). Stallybrass and White argue that the concept of the grotesque has a transformative power, in that it unsettles the concepts through which our thinking and way of approaching the world is structured:

the grotesque tends to operate as a critique of dominant ideology which has already set the terms, designating what is high and low. . . . This logic could unsettle “given” social positions and interrogate the rules of inclusion, exclusion and domination which structured the social ensemble. In the fair, the place of high and low, inside and outside, was never a simple given. (43)

Bakhtin also suggests that “the essential principle of grotesque realism is degradation, that is, the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract; it is a transfer to the material level, to the sphere of earth and body” (19-20). “To degrade also means to concern oneself with the lower stratum of the body, the life of the belly, the reproductive organs; it therefore relates to acts of defecation and copulation, pregnancy and birth” (Bakhtin, 21). Those images Bakhtin refers to as belonging to “the material bodily principle” are also “images of the human body with its food, drink, defecation, and sexual life” (18). However, Bakhtin tends to reify the body as “something universal, representing the people” (18), thus allowing the body to be figured only as an abstraction of a larger materiality and unifying cosmic principle. I would critique the universalisation of the corporeal and, in particular, the attribution of the corporeal with potential to unify by way of a “cosmic and at the same time an all-people’s character” (19). Rather than figuring the corporeal as a means of representing or gaining access to the locus of truth, unity and materiality, I would contend that a reclamation of corporeality proves useful in destabilising conventional and essentialist notions of truth and identity.

[22] Engaging in postmodern parody, Nights continually juxtaposes classicism and corporeality as a means of critiquing the means by which sexes, bodies and modes of behaviour are regulated. The text critiques the conventional appropriation of whores through its incorporation of the Bakhtinian elements of grotesque into the representations not only of their lifestyle but also of the whorehouse itself. In a grotesque parody of the demarcation of the high and low, the whorehouse takes its place among culturally ratified institutions, discourses and traditions. Michael suggests “Fevvers’ outrageous depiction of the house as having an ‘air of rectitude and propriety’, as being ‘a place of privilege’ in which ‘rational desires might be rationally gratified’ . . . further challenges the status quo by deploying adjectives generally reserved for officially sanctioned institutions” (507). When not working, the prostitutes in Ma Nelson’s whorehouse engage in pursuits more commonly coded as classical. “Grace practised her stenography” and Esmeralda the flute, “upon which [she] was proving to be something of a virtuoso” (39). Within the walls of the whorehouse that was built by the “Age of Reason” (26), the classical clashes with the bodily grotesque. Akin to the Bakhtinian emphasis on the “lower bodily stratum”, the house has a staircase that “went up with a flourish like . . . a whore’s bum”, yet the top of the staircase is adorned with the classical imagery of “garlands of fruit, flowers and the heads of satyrs” (26). The philosophical Ma Nelson, the spiritual Lizzie, and the prostitutes with their classical pursuits confound the conventional conceptualisations of prostitution, ensuring that a site usually coded in terms of the grotesque becomes a Bakhtinian juxtaposition of the classical and the grotesque, the spiritual, and the bodily. The very house itself is coded in such terms of contradiction and ambivalence, with the white blinds like eyes, “as if the house were dreaming . . . turning a blind eye to the horrors outside”, and the mantelpiece supported by “smiling goddesses” (26) in juxtaposition to the staircase reminiscent of a “whore’s bum”, and the fire lit so that the drawing room was as “snug as a groin” (27).

[23] This contradictory symbolism underscores the clash between Walser’s rational, masculinist objectivity and the excesses of Fevvers’ corporeality; the result being a sustained interrogation of the conventional gender demarcation of the mind/body split. At once a parody of classicism, mysticism and the spiritual, the bawdy and brash Fevvers is repeatedly described in terms of her physicality and, in particular, the lower stratum of her body. Depicted “bums aloft” (7), the flatulent, foetid expanse of Fevvers’ flesh continually reminds the reader, and the alarmed Walser, that it is incomplete, in flux and resistive to containment or inscription. Excessive even in stature, the buxom “giant” Fevvers is described in terms of her bodily functions (farting, feasting, and bodily smells). A malodorous miasma surrounds Fevvers, blurring the boundaries of her corporeality and an “outside”. Overwhelmed by the residues that her fleshy, fishy, feminine self have impressed upon her surroundings, Walser expresses his distaste at the indecorous quality of Fevvers’ dressing room:

ice that must have come from a fishmonger’s for a shiny scale or two stayed trapped within the chunks. And this twice-used ice must surely be the source of the marine aroma – something fishy about the Cockney Venus – that underlay the hot, solid composite of perfume, sweat, greasepaint and raw, leaking gas that made you feel you breathed the air in Fevvers’ dressing room in lumps. (8)

For Walser, the presence of “elaborately intimate garments, wormy with ribbons, carious with lace, redolent of use” results in his description of the room as a “mistresspiece of exquisitely feminine squalor” (9). Clearly linking the feminine with decay and the foetid are the consistent use of marine allusions to describe the odour of the room and the personification of the underwear. This fishy embodiment is evident in the image of the corset “like the pink husk of a giant prawn emerging from its den, trailing long laces like several sets of legs” (9). This excessively fleshly and specifically feminine grotesquerie evokes images of the abject; the monstrous and marine feminine physicality which cannot be contained.

[24] Walser, by contrast, is described only in terms of his professional and objective status as a well-travelled journalist. As the generic “hero” of formula fiction, personal descriptions of his character exclude all fleshly manifestations. The brief physical description provided of Walser reinforces his restraint, self-control and objectivity: “His avocation suited him right down to the ground on which he took good care to keep his feet” (10). As the (sometimes airborne) aerialiste, Fevvers is completely contrasted with the “grounded” Walser. Sitting throughout the entire interview, Walser’s only acknowledgment of his own body comes at the bidding of the corporeal Fevvers, as her presence arouses him, and he feigns a need to use the toilet in the hope of escaping the room for just a few minutes. Making it clear that the fleshly presence of Fevvers affects the physicality of Walser, if not also his objectivity and reason, this opening section also provides ample scope for reading Fevvers as the “grotesque body, the body in the act of becoming” (Palmer, 198).

[25] Bakhtin claims that the classical image of the closed and completed body, “cleansed, as it were of all the scoriae of birth and development,” (25) is challenged by the grotesque and the material bodily principle. Conceptualisations of the body as closed draw on an essentialist paradigm that marks bodies in terms of difference and perpetuates a faith in individualism. According to this view, apertures and orifices are closed and non-existent, denied or covered over both as sites of pleasure or function. Carter’s use of the grotesque serves as a reminder that that subjectivity itself is an aperture that refuses to close, and that the body as a source of pleasure and function, decay and regeneration, is infinite in its possibilities.

[26] In a parody of classicism, and perhaps also spiritual appropriations of femininity associated with a virginity and purity devoid of corporeality, the giant Fevvers performs as an angelic cupid in Ma Nelson’s whorehouse until the onset of her menses shifts the representation to the grotesque emphasis on orifices, excretion, genitalia and reproduction. The emphasis on apertures and orifices of all kinds opens a site for the diffraction and multiplication of erogenous zones. Emphasis on the orifices of men as well as women dislocates the means by which female bodies are associated with lack and void as the representation of the permeability of male bodies confounds the conflation of the penis with the phallus, and the corollary, the conflation of penetrative acts with acts of power. Additionally, the grotesque concern with leaking and seeping orifices acknowledges the materiality of bodily fluids and functions in both male and female bodies. Grosz suggests that the ontological status of women has been constructed “as a leaking, uncontrollable, seeping liquid; as formless flow; as viscosity, entrapping . . . a formlessness that engulfs all form, a disorder that threatens all order” (203). The conventional means by which a body is framed and regulated, orifices understood, used and fetishised is destabilized by the abject; the viscosity and amorphousness of that which cannot be contained. As Grosz suggests:

Body fluids attest to the permeability of the body, its necessary dependence on an outside, its liability to collapse into this outside (this is what death implies), to the perilous divisions between the body’s inside and its outside. They affront a subject’s aspiration toward autonomy and self-identity. (193-194)

[27] The Bakhtinian carnivalesque facilitates a celebratory reading of the amorphous, leaking and engulfing body as a means by which the boundaries of the body are rendered permeable and slippery. This permeability amounts to a destabilization of normative subject/object ideology, but also opens up a site for the reclamation of bodily pleasure precisely because of the transgression of limits. What this amounts to, then, is a destabilisation of at least some of the means by which difference is inscribed on bodies. To deny a final body as either male or female is to disavow the essentialism that posits a prior identity, gendered as either male or female. By embracing the leaking, open and incomplete body, the grotesque displaces the conventional fetishisation of male and female genitalia. This makes way for a diffraction of erogenous zones, and a displacement of the binary structures of phallus/lack, and power/powerlessness, as these adhere to and are inscribed in traditional conceptualisations of male and female bodies. The open and excessive corporeality of the carnivalesque resists the classificatory and regulatory limits inscribed on the pleasures, functions and symbolic significances of bodies.

[28] The discretion of the human body and the naturalised impermeability of its boundaries are problematised by bodily functions as “all of these acts are performed on the confines of another world” (Bakhtin, 317). With ontology secured largely through exclusion, and corporeal stability figured in similar terms, the Bakhtinian grotesque exacerbates the interface between the body as it is figured, and the world or space which it occupies and within which it is formed. As Bakhtin suggests, “[t]he unfinished and open body (dying, bringing forth and being born) is not separated from the world by clearly defined boundaries; it is blended with the world, with animals, with objects” (26). Nights foregrounds excretory functions as a potent reminder of the degree to which the body blends with the world.

[29] For Kristeva, bodily boundaries and excretory functions are taboo because they serve as constant reminders of mortality. “These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly, and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being” (3). Buffo ridicules the symbolic value of the closed and complete body as a talisman to ward off death and decay. In irreverent grotesque style, Carter’s representation of Buffo conforms to the emphasis on the “lower bodily stratum”, however, this representation also moves out of the symbolic realm of inversion, and into that of “hybridization”, as Buffo’s bladder hat represents not only “the world upside down”, but also that which Bakhtin describes as the parodic “world inside out” (11):

mockery of mockeries, under his roguishly cocked, white, conical cap, he wears a wig that does not simulate hair. It is, in fact, a bladder. Think of that. He wears his insides on his outside, and a portion of his most obscene and intimate insides, at that; so that you might think he is bald, he stores his brains in the organ which, conventionally, stores piss. (116)

With “mockery of mockeries” foregrounding the parody, Buffo’s excretory hat interrogates the boundaries of the body and the ontological boundaries of the self. In a parody of the mind/body split, the boundaries between Buffo’s brains and his bodily excretions are not only inverted, but also made indeterminable. Buffo’s excretory hat also problematises the terms through which such distinctions are made, securing this textual representation as one of Bakhtinian “hybridization”. Stallybrass and White suggest that “Hybridization . . . generates the possibility of shifting the very terms of the system itself,by erasing and interrogating the relationships which constitute it” (57-58).

[30] “One of the main attributes of the medieval clown was precisely the transfer of every high ceremonial gesture or ritual to the material sphere” (Bakhtin, 20). This is represented through Buffo’s irreverent parody of the Last Supper, the rebirth of Jesus Christ, and the subsequent dance of disintegration that results in a celebration of anality. This imagery is clearly Rabelaisian, as “in the comic banquet there are nearly always elements parodying and travestying The Last Supper” (Stallybrass and White, 296). The banquet in Nights is referred to as the “Clowns’ Christmas Dinner”: “Buffo takes up his Christ’s place at the table” which is complete with fishes and loaves, although copious quantities of vodka are substituted for the wine (117). This is followed by Buffo’s dance of disintegration:

At the climax of his turn, everything having collapsed about him as if a grenade exploded it, he starts to deconstruct himself. His face becomes contorted by the most hideous grimaces, as if he were trying to shake off the very wet white with which it is coated: shake! shake! shake out his teeth, shake off his nose, shake away his eyeballs, let all go flying off in a convulsive self-dismemberment. (117)

While framed as a parody of the Last Supper, this scene also serves as a textual representation of the tenuous and hierarchical links and connections of the anatomical features that constitute corporeality. When Buffo dies, and fails to fit in the coffin, the other clowns wish to “hack bits off him, to cut him down to coffin-size” (118), emphasizing a disrespect for the culturally endorsed boundaries of the corporeal form. Subsequent to Buffo’s resurrection, a clear parody of the death and resurrection of Christ, the clowns castrate and juggle a number of polka dotted and star-spangled penises. Combining an iconoclastic parody of the Christian tale of resurrection and the grotesque notion of symbolic rebirth, this imagery utilizes anality and various references to the “lower bodily stratum” to invoke a critique of the limits of corporeality and the Western masculinist traditions which inflect them with hierarchised and binarised power relations. Representing at once the grotesque emphasis on death and rebirth, the “clown [who] is the very image of Christ” (119), engages in the “dance of disintegration; and of regression; celebration of the primal slime” (125). Inverting the classic and the corporeal, that which begins by invoking Christ’s Last Supper ends in true grotesque – and Carteresque – style through a celebration of shit and anality. This narrative sequence is firmly coded in terms of hybridization as binary understandings of the corporeal are not just inverted, rather, as with the acrobatic juggling of body parts inInfernal Desire Machines, are entirely disjoined through dismemberment, juggling and excretion.

[31] The pervasive assumption that anatomy is destiny is instrumental to the maintenance of heteronormative sexuality and its myriad regulatory effects. Yet the grotesque offers a reminder that there is no corporeal finality and there is no pre-discursive or anatomically authentic locus of identity. The quest for anatomical or genital proof of identity is a false one, and endlessly deferred as the body, always “in the act of becoming,” is an open, leaking and fleshly betrayal of our subjectivity. Bakhtin’s notion of the grotesque body, the “body in the act of becoming”, facilitates a reading of Fevvers and sexuality in terms of an endless displacement of the authentic. This signifies a persistent disruption of the simulated causality of the connection between anatomy and identity that is hegemonically produced to regulate identities as either/or.

[32] In the text’s displacement of an ultimate signifier of identity or sexuality Nights makes a similar point to that in The Passion of New Eve. Just as Evelyn’s male born genitalia no more secures an “authentic” identity than his surgically rendered femaleness, so Walser’s identity is no less performed than that of the obviously constructed Fevvers. Further, the problematisation of identity in Carter’s fiction provides a space in which the reader’s own ontology is cast in doubt. To figure all subjects as bodily “performers”, then, displaces conventional notions of performance and spectatorship. Britzolakis writes that “[c]arnivalesque is Carter’s way of puncturing the commodifying link between the spectator and the specular female object” (55). A re-reading of Bakhtin’s utopian conceptualisation of performance and spectatorship provides a means of destabilising the power conventionally attached to subjects or groups thought to be spectators. A cognizance that all identities are performances and that all subjects are at once performers and spectators destabilises the means by which certain sexualities are produced as Other and the object of the gaze or figures for the visual pleasure for others. Of the elision of the boundary between performers and spectators in the carnivalesque Bakhtin writes:

carnival does not know footlights, in the sense that it does not acknowledge any distinction between actors and spectators. Footlights would destroy a carnival, as the absence of footlights would destroy a theatrical performance. Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people, they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people. (7)

While Bakhtin’s notion of carnival as “embrac[ing] all the people” seems utopian it is useful to consider the carnivalesque as a destabilisation of the binary oppositions through which difference is defined and maintained. To view performance in terms other than those of actors and spectators unravels the binaries of active/passive, subject/object as they are conventionally framed in terms of theatrical spectatorship. As Stallybrass and White suggest, “the observer at the fair is also a participant and so the relation between observer and observed is never fixed” (42). This fluidity in terms of conventional spectatorship positions has implications for the way the gaze is figured. This is thematised in Carter’s novel through the resonance with Foucault’s Panopticon, in which the prison wardress is no less imprisoned than the incarcerated because no less subject to observation: “In that room she’d sit all day and stare and stare and stare at her murderesses and they, in turn, sat all day and stared at her” (210). This circularity of observation frustrates the intent of the Countess’ gaze: “not a single one of the objects of her gaze had shown the slightest quiver of remorse” (213). The murderesses resist the appropriation of the gaze via their refusal to accept the fixed terms of observer and observed, subject and object.

[33] In a reversal of the conventional masculinist appropriation of the spectacle of femininity, a number of the male characters in Carter’s fiction are ultimately subjected to a female gaze. In The Magic Toyshop, Finn’s spying on a naked Melanie through a peephole is subverted when she peers through to see him walking on his hands (109). In The Passion of New Eve Evelyn’s physical mistreatment of Leilah includes an abject fascination with the spectacle of her appearance. He “made her lie on her back and parted her legs like a doctor in order to examine more closely the exquisite negative of her sex” (27). Following the physical and psycho sex reassignment surgery inflicted upon him by Mother, Evelyn is subjected to similar scrutiny when the symbolically castrated and significantly-named “Zero” uses his “jeweller’s eye” to inspect Evelyn’s new genitals for flaws (106). In Heroes and Villains it is Jewel who is objectified as Other and as a Barbarian by Marianne’s “sharp, cold eyes” when she leans from the tower window of her home (5). In Nights the tables are turned on Walser whose masculinist objectification of Fevvers is reversed as he takes his place centre stage in Colonel Kearney’s circus. Upon joining the circus it is Walser who must become “dressed meat” as a human chicken, the object of ridicule and objectification in the circus performance (102).

[34] Walser’s apparent debasement, his loss of language, and his willing and childlike embrace of his new objectified status point to the novel’s preoccupation with the intersections between masochism and romantic love. Siegel identifies “a long literary tradition of representing men’s masochistic acts of showy self-abasement as natural behaviours intrinsic to passionate love and courtship” (9). In the case of Carter’s work though, Siegel identifies the masochistic activity as a means of “unsettling . . . the concept of biologically determined gender differences (10):

To Carter, the placement of woman in the power position in the masochistic drama need not be a displacement, it can be replacement. The free circulation of socially gendered objects, like clothes, can “truly suggest an anarchy of the sexes.” (11)

Siegel suggests that we can see “the figure of the male masochist as a model of transgression, whose willing inversion of patriarchal values, including a jubilant offering up of the self, could unsettle the dominant discourse on masculinity” (2). In her excessive stature, embodiment and vocality Fevvers is coded throughout as dominatrix, and Walser, whose desire for Fevvers results in the loss of his patriarchal grip early in the novel, embodies Silverman’s description of the masochist:

He acts out in an insistent and exaggerated way the basic conditions of cultural subjectivity . . . that are normally disavowed; he loudly proclaims that his meaning comes to him from the Other, prostrates himself before the Gaze even as he solicits it, exhibits his castration for all to see, and revels in the sacrificial basis of the social contract. (Kaja Silverman, qtd in Siegel 3)

[35] For Siegel, Carter’s novels often elude Freudian conceptualisations of masochism by reviewing the “male masochist as the New Woman’s knight and his own saviour in the battle against patriarchy” (10). The process of Fevvers’ emergence as the New Woman is a complex one though, involving a sustained project of resisting the means by which literary, linguistic, and historical discourses work to position her as Other. For Walser too, the masochistic contract with Fevvers indicates that his former patriarchal self must be shed before he can achieve his romantic goal and rebirth as the New Man. Toward the close of the novel Fevvers expresses her own expectations regarding the masochistic contract with Walser:

‘Oh, but Liz – think of his malleable look. As if a girl could mould him any way she wanted. Surely he’ll have the decency to give himself to me, when we meet again, and not expect the vice versa! Let him hand himself over into my safekeeping, and I will transform him. You said yourself he was unhatched, Lizzie; very well – I’ll sit on him, I’ll hatch him out, I’ll make a new man of him. I’ll make him into the New Man, in fact, fitting mate for the New Woman, and onward we’ll march hand in hand into the New Century –’ (281)

Fevvers’ hopeful scenario indicates the potential of the masochistic love contract to elude the discursive limitations of the past and provide the means for the rewriting, and indeed the rebirthing, of their romance free of gender constraints. This jubilance though is not one that can be shared by the reader.

[36] Although the lovers’ reunification is hopeful in tone and the novel closes with Fevvers and Walser looking forward to a new future in the new century, Lizzie offers a dour, but necessary tempering of the lovers’ hopeful vision. In response to Fevvers’ pre-emptive celebration above Lizzie quips ‘Perhaps so, perhaps not. . . . Perhaps safer not to plan ahead’ (281). And, when Fevvers offers a final and specifically literary feminist view of the new century Lizzie once again interjects with a firm reminder that there is work yet to be done:

‘And once the old world has turned on its axle so that the new dawn can dawn, then, ah, then! All the women will have wings, the same as I. This young woman in my arms, whom we found tied hand and foot with the grisly bonds of ritual, will suffer no more of it; she will tear off her mind forg’d manacles, will rise up and fly away. The dolls’ house doors will open, the brothels will spill forth their prisoners, the cages, gilded or otherwise, all over the world, in every land, will let forth their inmates singing together the dawn chorus of the new, the transformed –’

‘It’s going to be more complicated than that,’ interpolated Lizzie. ‘This old witch sees storms ahead, my girl.’ (285-6)

Without, then, offering an overly celebratory account of either the flesh, or the means by which it might be mobilised in resistance to hegemonic discourses, Nights does constitute a complex convergence of representations of embodied subjects mobilising their own eroto-politics in resistance to the dominant.

[37] Framed more broadly, the Bakhtinian destabilisation of actor/spectator relations of Carnival also problematises conventional aspects of literary consumption, appropriation, and objectification. As has been mentioned there are a number of textual devices that encourage an association, if not identification, of the reader with the objectivity and reason of Walser as a metonymic representation of masculinist structures of appropriation. Moreover, there is the displacement of the reader’s security in this position, as the grotesque body of Fevvers casts doubt on the traditional apparatus of appropriation, measurement, and labelling. Dislocated from Father Time, the Symbolic Order of language and the comfort of the observer’s chair with opera glasses to frame the spectacle, both Walser and the reader are subject to the interrogation not only of Fevvers’ identity but also of their own. The result of this ontological investigation is that the actor/spectator relationship is broken down in the usual postmodern terms, through reading (the body, the novel, the performance) as a process of production rather than of consumption. Fevvers serves as the prompt for an investigation into the performativity of all identities, encouraging a recognition that the reader’s identity is no less constructed, performed, or metaphorically inscribed than hers. Displaced from the conventional site of literary consumption and objectification, the journey through the Siberian tundra prompts readers to recognize that their own identities are reiterative performances rather than manifestations of a prior or pre-symbolic essence. As the Charlatan asks “Is not this whole world an illusion? And yet it fools everybody” (16).

[38] Extending Carter’s cultural critique, then, Nights can be read as a textual displacement of the means by which corporeality is assumed to secure ontology. Notions of difference attached to, and inscribed on and in bodies are interrogated via the intertextual invocation of Bakhtin’s theory of the grotesque body and the destabilising potential of the carnival. The foetid, fleshy and feminine representation of Fevvers undermines notions of classic closure of corporeality and masculinist ontological security, as both Walser and the reader experience the abyss that represents the illusory status of identity. Distrustful of naming strategies and the power of language to regulate, Nights also frustrates conventional romance narratives, interrogates masculinist structures of objectification, phallic power and the reification of women according to ideologies of the virgin/whore dichotomy. Explicitly thematised by this novel then is the recognition of identity as a series of performances, imageries, and sustained trickeries. The fluidity of identity performance operates as an effective means of eluding conventional regulatory practices, including sexual objectification and violence. Rather than lamenting the loss of pre-ordained identity, the novel suggests there is a power in the potentialities offered by labile and performative subjectivities. As Fevvers’ carnivalesque laughter resounds long after the text, so do the significance of her words: “To think I really fooled you! . . . It just goes to show there’s nothing like confidence” (295).

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