I – Carter’s Life and Works: A New Vision
Salman Rushdie, author of The Prophet’s Hair which we read in class, was an ardent fan of Angela Carter’s work, proclaiming, “By turns formal and outrageous, exotic and demotic, exquisite and coarse, precious and raunchy, fabulist and socialist, purple and black. Her works are like nobody else’s” (Lee, 11). She was born Angela Olive Stalker on May 7, 1940, in Sussex, England. In 1960, she married Paul Carter and began her higher education, graduating from the University of Bristol with an English degree specializing in Medieval Literature. Shortly after her graduation, Carter published her fist novel, Shadow Dance, followed closely by her second, The Magic Toyshop, for which she won the John Llewellyn Rhys prize. “Carter [also] worked for several periodicals and newspapers throughout her life, including the New Society, The Guardian, The Independent, and The New Statesman, but she reportedly enjoyed working as a reporter in Tokyo while living there [for three years]” (Peach, 18). After returning in 1972, her marriage had a falling out and she divorced Paul Carter.
She began teaching at Brown University in 1979, simultaneously publishing one of her most famous short story collections, The Bloody Chamber. She then settled down with Mark Pearce and had a son, Alexander, in 1983. Nights at the Circus, another of her highly praised novels, was released a year later. Carter then tried her hand at plays with Come Unto These Yellow Sands in 1985 and continued her prolific career through several relocations and awards. Carter also maintained the identity of “writer in residence” for the University of Sheffield, the University of Adelaide, Brown University, and the University of East Anglia and has received several awards, most notably the Somerset Maugham Award for Literature. In 1991, she published her last novel, Wise Children, after being diagnosed with cancer that same year. She died a year later in 1992, and as Rushdie states, “a writer and woman who died too soon, at the peak of her writing career” (Lee, 9).
II – Carter’s Critical Reception: Feminist?
“Magic Realism, Surrealism, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Gothic, Feminism, Postmodernism – all of these categories apply, and yet all are one-dimensional in their application to Carter; none of them, with the possible exception of Surrealism, encompass the full spectrum of her accomplishments” (Peach, 15). Looking at two reviews of the same stories I will be discussing later, some interesting and innovative ideas are introduced about Carter’s notions with The Company of Wolves and The Erl-King.
Grace Brox, in her review of The Company of Wolves, says that it’s obvious that “the werewolf [stands] as sexual predator, a symbol for both danger and desire, over which a young girl triumphs, employing her new found sexual power and giving in to the symbol of carnal desire” (1). She goes on to comment on how the protagonist of the story is largely fighting fire with fire. This is to say that the driving force of the story is the lusting maleness of the wolf, as animal, at odds with the heroine’s use of her growth into a woman and the sexual power that comes within that. However, she comments that Carter creates a world where everyone in the village fears the wolf so much that children carry knives, so the masculine lusty quality is intertwined with a murderous one. The feel of the wolf conniving around a village originally places the reader in an olden time, yet “the image of a woman straining macaroni brings the reader jarringly into the present day” (Brox, 2). Then, the victims are criticized by this reviewer in saying that all of them were killed for their own thematic reasoning; how the woman straining the macaroni is bit by “sexual desire” within her domesticity, how the old man strives for God in his mortal need but that his “servile faith” cannot save him, and how the woman with the two husbands receives violence upon her because of her “servile domesticity” (Brox, 2).
Harriet Kramer Linkin reviewed The Erl-King specifically, but says, “Carter’s revisionary tales in The Bloody Chamber venture through these woods and houses again and again, demarcating paths that may or may not lead to a new aesthetic theory more enabling to the woman writer” (120). She goes on to say that Carter develops environments that mirror the nature-inspired anthologies of 19th-century lyric poetry from Blake to Wordsworth. Within the environment of The Erl-King, “Carter examines not only the ways in which male desire defines and confines the female, but also the ways in which the female desire colludes in erecting the bars of the golden cage for the Romantic as well as the contemporary writer” (Linkin, 120). Originally a Charles Perrault fairy tale of Goeth ancestry, Carter imagines the fiercest of defenses against the devouring male-dominated canon that stands as the Erl-King. The reviewer goes on to say that Carter pits against and compares with her female protagonist to that of other female narrators in strife such as Wordsworth’s Lucy or Bronte’s Jane Eyre. “In the young girl’s search for a voice, she must kill the Erl-King that symbolizes the male-dominated canon” (Linkin, 124).
However, it also brought up that the Erl-King performs an astonishing number of domestic tasks that include weaving baskets and cleaning spotlessly. The reviewer, as well as myself, don’t know what to make of that circumstance. It would seem that Carter is creating a little bit of controversy within the Feminist community in her protagonist’s killing of a largely androgynous figure; that in her search for a feminist grounding, Carter poses the underlying question of what kind of “self” should women strive to preserve?
III – My Analysis: Canonization and Feminist Theory
The Erl-King and The Company of Wolves stand as much together as they do apart. Where both have female protagonists striving to gain ground against a masculine force and equally challenge and fortify feminist theory, The Company of Wolves paints a questionable protagonist and The Erl-King’s didactic quality is lost within its Romantic aestheticism. Carter’s retelling of Red Riding Hood ultimately fails because the protagonist gives the male figure what he wants. Many critics can say that the protagonist is “growing into her sexual prowess and holding that over the wolf”, but that doesn’t do it for me. If you preach against objectification, yet create a sexual prowess fallback when objectification flourishes, there’s no preservation of feminist theory or didactic quality. While it is obvious that Carter seems to be simultaneously satirizing the protagonist as well as showing her “coming of age” quality, the wolf still holds her naked in his victim’s bed. I’m hard-pressed to see the “overcoming” quality within that.
Where The Company of Wolves fails in showing the overcoming quality of women over men, The Erl-King at least attempts that strategy and Carter achieves it well, but places too much concern on imagery. While she is spinning a tale that symbolizes an achieved freedom for all women from men, she loses the effect of her intention within her far too expansive dive into Romantic aestheticism. There are several examples of this throughout the text, the greatest for me being the scene following the semi-climactic scene of seduction, where Carter randomly addresses the Erl-King as a tree. “When he combs his hair that is the colour of dead leaves, dead leaves fall out of it; they rustle and drift to the ground as though he were a tree and he can stand as still as a tree, when he wants the doves to flutter softly, crooning as they come, down upon his shoulders…” (Carter, 3). It’s those tangents, where Carter tries to begin twirling Wordsworthian nature sentiment with a Charlotte Smith melodramatic quality, that I often stray from the author’s intentions. While Carter claims herself as feminist, it is very easily misread for her to be working against such literary movements. However, her writing is very good and I think she should be canonized, if for no other reason than there are much worse within the canon. In my opinion, she’s innovative in challenging the notions of these classic fairy tales and interestingly places a female protagonist in both, and I think I’d like to study her within the canon, rather than it excluding her.
While Lillian Robinson seems to be trying to heighten the awareness and sensibility of both current and future female writers, Angela Carter seems to walk a weary fine line between accusation and satire in The Company of Wolves. I’m not so sure that Robinson would be willing to place Carter in her “counter-canon” or even attempt to get her into the existing “flawed” canon. Her dramatic language and frequently ridiculous character movements within this re-telling of Red Riding Hood, even though that I view them as a movement toward satire and intentional absurdity, still project the objectification of women on the surface. From the subtle jabs at the “place of a woman”, “a woman once bitten in her own kitchen as she was straining the macaroni” (Carter, 1), to the more heightened and obvious last line, “sweet and sound she sleeps in [her] granny’s bed, between the paws of the tender wolf” (Carter, 8), it’s apparent that Carter likes to play with her audience’s original notions. For example, a strongly feminist critic – as ignorant of intentional absurdity as she may be – would say that the pristine granddaughter (protagonist) gives herself to the polar-masculine figure of the wolf in the bed of her grandmother, which he murdered. Not only that, the critic would mention, but the carnal act was committed over the corpse: “the old bones under the bed set up a terrible clattering, but she did not pay them any heed” (Carter, 8). The primarily pornographic reformation would be dishonorable and disgusting to an average feminist critic.
Robinson’s three ideals are broken within The Company of Wolves. Other than my view of Carter showing the female reader an underlying theme of what not to do in their lives with men, a conspiratorial effort to connect with a female audience is far from obvious and is even opposed on the textual surface. Woman’s culture certainly isn’t predominant in the story considering that everyone, especially women, fear the wolves within that literary world. However, I guess you could say that the theme of power is still conveyed, although it’s debatable. The main character is a “heroine” in the sense that she overcomes fear to express physical passion with a “devilish” creature, yet she fails in the feminist sense with that submission and surrender. Robinson also says that female writers shouldn’t disregard race and class, but I think Carter does disregard them in both of these stories.
Patrocinio Schweickart, on the other hand, would look at Angela Carter’s style and smile in its originality and magically imaginative qualities. She would appreciate the violent climax against the male figure in The Erl-King, claiming a “Bravo!” at Carter’s underlying address of immasculation. Men among the literary world are the enemy according to Schweickart. The female writer is always subject to the men because the majority of authors in the canon are males; male content and male technique “reign”. She comments on how the people who choose what goes into the canon are male, and are furthermore judging the “submissions” in comparing them with the currently male-dominated canon. This dual hermeneutic enforces immasculation of the female author in achieving the techniques and content of men, essentially making them men, in the literary sense. Schweickart would ultimately praise Carter for creating a world where, if nothing else, the female has the last say and generally “wins” in some way over the male. She would defend my criticism of Carter’s aestheticism by saying that I should weigh her cultural influence in with my critique, as she liked and read many Romantic-era works; how Carter simply places the styles she likes into the text. (In itself that would be a contradiction, because Carter would then be moderately “mimicking” a male influence, giving in to the “inevitable” dual hermeneutic.)
The author we studied that Carter resembles the most, although it’s difficult to compare them to say the least, is Alice Munro. Munro also uses female protagonists in her works and exposes a “dual hermeneutic” in her work. This is to say that both writers create a male-figure that can both be loved and hated. In The Erl-King, Carter creates a man who both keeps women captive for their beauty as well as pursues countless domestic tasks in his liking of them. He even goes as far as to embrace a feminine nature and “makes salads of the dandelion and flavours them with a few leaves of wild strawberry” (Carter, 3). Carter’s protagonist furthermore disposes of this androgynous creature, which creates controversy. Munro, in her story Walker Brothers Cowboy, creates a rather quirky, nostalgia-like father figure that really gains much of the audience’s support. She works with this idea of the dual hermeneutic even in the few songs that the father sings; at one moment singing thankfully of the expansion of his profession “And have all liniments and oils, For everything from corns to boils” to another shortly after where he darkly jokes of his predecessor’s death “Old Ned Fields, he now is dead, So I am ridin’ the route instead” (Munro, 2781). All in all, Munro presents a father, and husband, that is shown celebrating and drinking with a possible ex-love interest of his with his children present, achieving this rather androgynous movement both for and against feminism. While both these writers are drastically different in style, Munro being rather plot-driven and formal and Carter being rather aesthetic in an informal address of “the fairy tale”, they both seem to be trying to achieve the same themes.
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Munro, Alice. “Walker Brothers Cowboy”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Major Authors. 8 Ed. Stephen Greenblat, Gen Ed. Pg 2778-2788. W.W. Norton & Co. New York, NY. 2006.
Peach, Linden. Macmillan Modern Novelists: Angela Carter.
St. Martin’s Press. New York, NY. 1998
Robinson, Lillian S. “Treason Our Text: Feminist Challenge to the Literary Canon” Falling Into Theory. Ed. David Richter. Pg 152-164. St. Martins Publishing. New York, NY. 1999.
Schweickart, Patrocinio. “Reading Ourselves Toward a Feminist Theory of Reading” Falling Into Thoery. Ed. David Richter. Pg 269-279. St. Martins Publishing. New York, NY. 1999.