Note From the Author:
These essays have yet to be published anywhere but here, so take them for what they're worth.
If you ever happen to cite them in a paper or something, I'd love to hear about it, so drop me an email at: js @ jonathanstephens . com.
Science Fact or Science Fiction: Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus
"Am I fact? Or am I fiction?" (Carter 290). These questions lie at the heart of Angela Carter's penultimate novel, Nights at the Circus , as well as at the center of her career. Carter was most known for the magic realism that she poured into her novels, short stories, and children's books. Her writing modeled her belief that "a good writer can make you believe time stands still." Her 1979 non-fiction piece, The Sadeian Woman , is arguably the best example of her views on sexuality, feminism, sadism, masochism, and pornography, all of which sneak their way into her various works of fiction. In addition to displaying her various beliefs, The Bloody Chamber , her creative anthology of popular fairy tales, showcases the fantastic nature of her writing while highlighting her fetish with stories in the borderlands of science fiction, a term she would never have used to describe her work.
Whether Nights at the Circus has its feet in science fiction or in mythology depends on which way you spin it, toward fact or fiction, both of which are woven as threads into the fabric of the novel. The cleverness with which Carter tucks the answer away embedded within the layers of narrative renders a definite answer impossible. Nearly the entire story is told by storytellers, adding a layer of doubt to any facts, scientific or otherwise. Carter uses the suspect nature of narrative to play with the concrete limits of time and space and to comment on the socially constructed spectacle of the monster.
A basic understanding of the physical universe carries with it an acceptance of the rules it follows. Time is beyond our realm of control and continues on regardless of any efforts to stop it. At least that is what time is supposed to do. "London," the first third of the novel, is comprised almost entirely of a recorded conversation between Walser, a well-known American journalist living in London, and Fevvers, a winged trapeze artist. Carter's "narrative temporality usually involves a duality or opposition between story time and narrative time," meaning that while the characters are telling their respective stories the time element is suspiciously affected (Finney 2). Time seems to stand still in Fevvers' room at the same time that the narrative storyline hurries along at full speed, punctuated every hour by Big Ben's twelve chimes, signaling midnight. How is it possible that Big Ben rings midnight over and over? Walser asks the same question on multiple occasions, each time receiving a satisfactory explanation from Fevvers and Lizzie. Later, Walser learns that they used Ma Nelson's clock to trick him. This helps him understand how he could lose track of time so badly while listening to their stories, but it does not explain what caused Big Ben to get stuck at midnight, leaping suddenly back into reality at six in the morning when Fevvers was finished with the interview. Fevvers and Lizzie, through the power of the narrative voice, seem to have the power to stall or remove themselves from time completely and insert themselves back into it at their own whim.
This time motif carries similar significance in the third part of the novel entitled "Siberia." After what to them feels like a week, Fevvers and Lizzie see Walser again, only now his beard has grown incredibly long. Carter muddies the water by making the characters question themselves, whether more than a week has passed and whether they have been keeping accurate time (272). It is not until a few days later, in the middle of the Siberian wilderness, that Fevvers realizes that New Year's Eve has arrived, that she's "been keeping count" and that they are on the cusp of a new century and another time-scheme (284). How can Fevvers know she has been counting correctly when she was so uncertain earlier? What will this new time-scheme be? Here, reality seems to adhere to the rules while at the same time adding doubt to those same conclusions. All of this supplies the illusion, or perhaps the truth, that "time coexists in our consciousness with measured time. Neither is more real and each has its turn at preeminence" (Finney 3). To Carter, time may, in fact, be just as real in our minds as it is in the real world.
Time is not the only attribute of the physical world that Carter manipulates. By making Walser a journalist, she sets him up as a skeptic, a professional skilled in the art of sniffing out hoaxes. Anything not provable by empirical observation and science had better be announced as such, or he will unmask the fraud as just another of the "Great Humbugs of the World" (Carter 11). However, it is Walser, the symbol of everything rational, that comes to believe in Fevvers, not because he has seen undeniable evidence, but because he has succumbed to the power and the hypnotic nature of the myth. Walser's journey away from reality starts with believing in Fevvers, continues with him forgetting he was once a journalist and making himself a clown in the circus, and leads him ultimately to amnesia and training to be a shaman in Siberia.
So much of what is purported reality is difficult to dichotomize as either fact or fiction, natural or unnatural, and Carter creates numerous characters that one's instinct refuses to believe possible but that the narrative is able to convince otherwise (61). Wonder, one of the other "freaks" at Toussaint's, was "cradled...in half a walnut shell [and] covered...with a rose petal" after she was born (65). Fanny has four eyes, two in the normal location and two where her nipples should be. The reader, along with the rest of the circus crew, is led to believe that the gorillas are learning to speak and to teach each other how to better perform their acts in the ring. The tigers from the circus end up trapped, as it seems, in the shattered glass of a mirror after the train wreck, their physical essence dead, apparently, but their reflections living on like a photo (206). And Fevvers herself, while living with Madam Toussaint during her childhood, doubts whether her wings are real, only believing the truth about them when she jumps off the mantle of the fireplace and tries to fly.
Thus, the novel's central question, what is fact and what is fiction, centers chiefly around the social legend surrounding Fevvers and her wings. Her character, combined with the reactions of all the other characters, paints the image of an alluring monster, a body onto which society can place all its fears and inner doubts. She, much like Stoker's Dracula, Shelley's Frankenstein, Golding's Beast, and Rushdie's Chamcha, becomes a spectacle eliciting a common wonder in the other characters of their respective novels. Fevvers, typical of the symbolic monster figure common to science fiction, is gawked at and feared by those around her and denied some of the individual rights afforded to common people (Punday 817). Her wings, like the masks the clowns are forced to wear, keep her imprisoned within society; however, Carter explores the idea that it is because of their ascribed masks that these despised monsters who, more than anyone else in society, can feel the most free to invent who their identity. This is what Walser says fuels "the mass hysteria and delusion of the crowds," that "a little primitive technology and a big dose of the will to believe" is all it takes for the monster to gain its power within our society (Carter 16).
It is not difficult to see, then, how Carter is not distressed by her fiction announcing its fictional, mythological, and fantastic nature. She seems to play with the scientific features of her fiction, not allowing the reader to stand on the ground he is used to, but instead having to rely on the empirical evidence supplied by the narrative world, however true that evidence may be. By bending the accepted rules of science, she is able to get her characters and her readers to question what is actually true, not simply accepting the standards exerted by society. Nights at the Circus accomplishes this through the use of the monster figure Fevvers, who at the end of the novel laughs loud enough for the entire world to hear. Fevvers leaves the reader with a hearty "To think I really fooled you!", a closing line which should convince all who will listen that fact may not always be fact.
Carter, Angela. Nights at the Circus. New York: Penguin, 1986.
Finney, Brian. "Tall Tales and Brief Lives: Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus ." "Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus ." 24 October 2005. <http://www.csulb.edu/~bhfinney/AngelaCarter.html>
Punday, Daniel. "Narrative Performance in the Contemporary Monster Story." The Modern Language Review 97, no.4 (2002 Oct): 803-820.
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