Chapters:
Part One; Chapters 1 - 3 4 - 5
Part Two: Chapters 1 - 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 - 11
Part Three: Chapters 1 2 - 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Nights at the Circus - Angela Carter

 

Before you even try to work on this book, you should read the notes on Lacan and deconstruction, which I have handed out.

You need to remember that Carter was aware of Lacanian thinking and of the way in which language can be deconstructed and she uses language in a "deconstructive" way. That is to say what you read is intended to give you a "mirror" or a "doorway" into the sub text. The novel can be read "on the surface", to be sure, but to explore its depths you need to suspend your own disbelief and let the images and the narrative work on your subconscious mind. (Not easy) The best example I can give here is the episode in the Grand Duke’s house when Fevvers drops the Faberge egg with the tiny train in it onto the floor and then "ran helter skelter down the platform….and clambered aboard". The way this episode (and indeed much of the novel ) plays with the notion of time and space is uncomfortable. Rationally it makes no sense to us, but subconsciously it becomes a dream like episode and therefore entirely plausible – the real is unreal but not in dreams (and who are we to say what is real or unreal anyway?) In fact that may be a useful key to studying the novel as a whole – the question of reality and unreality – actual and fantasy – which is which?

You may be tempted to say "it couldn’t happen" and let your irritation get in the way of your enjoyment of the absurd characters and situations. If you can start by thinking that it doesn’t matter – discard the need for credibility, then you can begin to appreciate both the absurdities and the fundamental truths of this book. Like the clowns in Buffo’s circus, the make up of the clown conceals the man, BUT the clown is made "real" by the make up. Is there ever a "real" anything? To be sure, this makes for a very uncomfortable reading experience, like opening a Chinese box, or trying to find the centre of a maze, but it also challenges us to question our perceived norms. What is a woman? What is a man? Carter gives us no answers, just enigmas and tantalising glimpses of possibilities. Like the circus itself, life is artificial, tawdry, exciting, dangerous – full of contradictions and absurdities but ultimately compelling. Is Fevvers (Sophia – means wisdom) a freak or a wonder? Is Walser a fool or a hero? We really never find out, but are invited to "watch" and ultimately to make up our own minds. Our own visit to the circus gives us permission to see the show and talk to the performers. What we see and what they say is only what we THINK we see and what we THINK we hear. Truth is not an issue here – merely perception.

There are no "right" answers in this novel because Carter is not in the game of giving answers to anything – she poses questions and plays around with issues. She distorts, quite deliberately, fundamental ideas about gender and relationships. Nothing in her world is what it seems to be, even though it might look familiar. This is why you will find the recurrent imagery of masks, make up, mirrors, eggs and magic. Her strength as a writer is to use language very powerfully, as a two edged sword. Language here does not constrict our perceptions, it liberates them! In the same way you should regard the use of symbols and images as a means by which Carter draws us into an altered world. Our instinct is to try to make it fit our own framework of what a world should be, but this is the "circus" and anything can (and does)happen!

It might be useful to remember that Carter’s previous work draws heavily on the style of the fairy tale. This novel, written late in her career, has been described as "a glorious enchantment" and a "mistress-piece of sustained and weirdly wonderful Gothic". It is not meant to make you feel comfortable, but to disturb you! Try, then, to let the words open doors for you to experience uncertainty and expect to be puzzled and tantalised. You won’t make sense of it easily, because it defies "sensible" interpretation. It will raise more questions than it answers, but it should certainly provoke you to think about some important ideas and issues and there is more than enough superb richness of language to engage your interest. Above all, remember what you see is not always what it seems, but why worry about it! 

Part One

Chapters 1-3

 [Top of Page]

Fevvers, bird-woman and the toast of turn of the century London, is interviewed by Walser, the journalist in her dressing room after a performance. His task is to "puff" her (publicise her) and also to "explode" her – to find out whether she is a hoax or a genuine "bird woman". She is at the peak of her career as a trapeze artiste, and the interview takes place in her dressing room.

Her narrative discloses her life story – how she was "hatched" and how she spent her formative years, as a human Cupid, then later a Winged Victory, in the brothel in Whitechapel on the steps of which she was abandoned and later "adopted" by Lizzie, her dresser. Carter deliberately leaves the details of her parentage vague. The first time we (and Walser) meet Fevvers she is a mature and successful woman, who is confident and assured. In keeping with the metaphor of flight, Fevvers is "flying high" at the very peak of her profession, metaphorically and literally, she has risen to great heights!

Fevvers tells Walser that she "served her apprenticeship in being looked at", first as Cupid and later, when her wings developed, as the Winged Victory, in the brothel owned by the cross-dressing Madame, Nelson . In this bizarre world, populated by women who all "engaged in intellectual, artistic or political pursuits", Fevvers learns to fly, remains a virgin (for she is never anything other than an exhibit) and enjoys a bizarre and exotic childhood. With the death of Nelson, the women are dispersed (quite successfully taking up individual professions like running a guest house or a typing agency) and performing a last act of defiance on men, by setting fire to the brothel so as to prevent Nelson’s elder brother, a reforming clergyman, from inheriting the house.

The tone from the outset is outrageous. Fevvers is larger than life in all respects. Physically she is a giantess with the grotesque bulges under her stained satin dressing gown both alluring reminders of her wings and tantalising suggestions of her freakishness. She is also emotionally unrestrained. Her approach to Walser is both playful and sinister. She indulges in extremes of behaviour, eating and drinking with a masculine abandon throughout the interview. There is a constant undertone of mystery, which is sustained throughout the novel. Walser will try to "unmask" Fevvers and she will conceal her true self. The mystery for the reader is, of course, whether or not Fevvers IS "real" and what exactly her "true self" is.

She is certainly successful – obviously a skilled performer and equally obviously, despite her vulgarity, she is endearing and very likeable. It is as though Fevvers performs constantly – her audience of two (Walser and Lizzie) are treated to a virtuoso display of self revelation, but how much of the revelation is fact or fiction, we are never sure. Walser, at the outset, is very much the weaker character – Carter tells us that there is "something a little unfinished about him", calling him an "objet trouve" – "Himself he never found, since it was not his self he sought". In the course of the novel, Walser does "find" himself, and Fevvers also undergoes a journey of discovery, although the "selves" which she reveals mean that she remains a multi-dimensional character throughout the course of the narrative. It has been said that Fevvers remains her "own woman", despite all that happens to her and to those around her.

Fevvers describes herself as "waiting for some special fate" and Carter uses sustained symbolism of eggs, hatchings, wings, flight and being "sealed" inside an "artificial egg" throughout the lengthy recounting of her earliest life and indeed throughout the novel. Her earliest years are spent in a world of women, but one, which is very benevolent and supportive. The whores with whom Fevvers is brought up are practical women who have few illusions about their lives and view their clients with a kind of amused tolerance. "It was a wholly female world" in which a "sub-text of fertility underwrote the glittering sterility of the pleasure of the flesh available within the academy". Carter has Fevvers describe her companions as a "sisterhood" and as "poor girls earning a living". Fevvers herself "existed only as an object for men’s eyes".

When the women are dispersed, they throw open the shutters and see the "worn out decay" of the place – the illusion is not sustained in the light of day – like so many other illusions in this novel. Their final act of defiance is to give Nelson "a funeral pyre like the pagan kings of old and cheat the Reverend out of his inheritance". Carter here has an interesting juxtaposition of the profane and the sacred, for it is the clerical brother who wants to "cleanse the temple of the ungodly", and the women who find in the fire an "exhilaration of our new beginnings".

Note how Carter uses the images of mirrors and reflections, and also how she uses the idea of the disguise or mask, (Fevvers’s satin dressing gown, which covers her wings or the wet white to cover herself as the tableau vivant in the whorehouse). Later in the novel the painted clown makeup becomes a dominant image and concealment for Walser too.

 

Chapters 4 – 5

 [Top of Page]

The next episode of Fevvers’ biography, recounted to Walser, concerns her time at Madame Schreck’s Museum of Woman Monsters, another brothel, but this time more sinister and much less conventional than Nelson’s establishment. Madame S. caters for men who are "troubled in their souls".

In this bizarre world Fevvers works alongside a Sleeping Beauty ( a narcoleptic?), the "Wiltshire Wonder" a dwarf who claims to be descended from a fairy; "Fanny Four Eyes", a woman with eyes instead of nipples; "Albert/Albertina" a bipartite and "Cobwebs", a girl with a shrouded face. Their "keeper" Toussaint has no mouth and the Madame is a bag of bones that has made a living in the past as a human skeleton. Fevvers appears as the Angel of Death, standing guard over the Sleeping Beauty. Once more Carter creates a sisterhood of compassionate females, whose energies and time outside their duties are spent ministering to one another’s needs as best they can. Madame Schrenck is not a benevolent keeper, but a shrewish and manipulative cheat, more like a jailer than an employer.

It is worth looking at the symbolic significance of the freaks who inhabit the vault "Down Below". The Sleeping Beauty has "dreams" but only stays awake in the "real" world long enough to eat a coddled egg and pass a small motion before relapsing into her dream state again. The Wonder is a tiny perfection, a child/woman who has never grown up and who is forced to inhabit a world of grotesque giants, feeling that she is "not worth more than a farthing in the world’s exchange". Albert/Albertina is "half of half and neither of either", Cobwebs is a silent "melancholy creature" who "would never so much as smile" and Fanny is a woman with breasts that see.

All of these women can be seen as metaphors for the female condition. The Sleeping Beauty is either an enchanted princess, eternal virgin, unawakened and chaste, waiting for the kiss from the Prince to bring her back to the "real" world OR she is deliberately retired from reality, preferring to keep herself asleep because the dream world IS her reality. At one point the women say that she is "dreaming the new century" and her dreams are obviously troubled. In this case can we interpret the Beauty as a Sybil? Is her dream state something, which gives her immense power, rather than fragile vulnerability?

Cobwebs is veiled and "melancholy" – a potent symbol here, presented as she is in a very Gothic way, as a mourner, or as a living corpse. Like the Beauty we are never told whether her silence in self imposed, or not.

Fanny is a mother figure whose suckling breasts "see" and cry "salt tears" so that she can never perform her maternal function. The way she is used in the museum is particularly sinister, as she exposes her breasts to look at her clients "properly". A nice touch this! Men look at women’s breasts – what happens when the breasts look back? The defiance of that gesture is balanced by the tragedy of the loss of motherhood’s primary function. "How can you nourish a babby on salt tears?"

Albert/Albertina is rather an obvious androgynous symbol, "half of half and neither", while the Wonder is a neat metaphor for feminine perfection trapped in a world of "giants". Fevvers is at once the guardian angel, the Angel of Death and a kind of monumental figurehead in the group.

In total then, the women of the museum offer to the reader a spectrum of the female condition; dominatrix, Madonna, princess, Sybil, hermaphrodite, fairy, victim, sufferer, mute, housewife and whore.. In addition, we again see the strength of the feminine bond in the way that they help and support one another "off duty".

The climax of the first part of the novel is the story of the attempt on Fevvers’ life by the sinister Mr Rosencreutz. The "great sage" wants to "live forever" by "uniting his body with that of Azrael, the Angel of Death" The account of the attempted seduction/murder is both farcical and sinister. Fevvers, of course, escapes and flies off, returning home to Battersea "among a load of taters".

By the end of the first section, Walser is intrigued and spellbound by Fevvers – deciding to have his "sense of wonder polished up again" by travelling incognito with the circus on its tour of "the world’s most fabulous cities".

The rest of the novel will deal with these adventures, with Walser’s own journey of self discovery, his relationship with Fevvers and with the picaresque episodes which attend Captain Kearney’s troupe of circus performers on their Grand Imperial Tour.

 

Part Two

Chapters 1 – 3

 [Top of Page]

In St Petersburg, the narrative turns to Walser, now hired as a trainee clown and Carter begins to examine his development. Fevvers is part of the troupe – the star of the show, in fact, but she does not make an appearance until Walser is injured by a tigress.

Colonel Kearney, the owner of the circus or "Ludic Game", is a stereotypical caricature of Uncle Sam, a grotesque, brash American showman. His mascot is a pig, called Sybil (a female) and his circus is a collection of bizarre and exotic freaks. The chimpanzees are more human than their keeper, the Ape Man; the tigers are trained and shown by a black Abbyssinian Princess, and the troupe of clowns to which Walser is apprenticed are hideously sinister. Their leader, Buffo the Great, the Clown of Clowns is a hairsbreadth away from complete madness.

Note the way in which Carter uses the metaphor of makeup to emphasise the idea of the loss of "self" (page 103). When Walser puts his make up on for the first time he experiences a "vertiginous sense of freedom" which gives a "freedom to juggle with being and indeed with the language which is vital to our being, that lies at the heart of burlesque". This is a key passage in the novel, which so often examines in various ways, the ideas of the notions of reality and self.

The circus ring, too is called the "expressionist device", with a number of variations on the idea of continuity and Fate, the "O of wonder; O of grief". Within it, Walser meets the "beings whose life ran parallel to his" when he sees the chimpanzees being taught by "The Professor", who "pressed his tough forefinger down on Walser’ s painted smile, bidding him be silent". The "clown" human only sees the "human" apes when he is "hidden" behind his "painted smile". In a parody of a University seminar, Walser is undressed and examined and assessed by the troupe of chimpanzees, wondering if they are "grappling with Darwin’s theory – from the other end." Ironically, the Ape Man’s Woman is engaged in intercourse with the Strong Man as this happens – a neat juxtaposition of human and animal behaviour. In Colonel Keaney’s Ludic Game, anything and everything is possible.

The escaping tigress precipitates another dramatic moment, which is touched by farce, as the Strong Man flees, and the Ape Man’s Woman trips over her knickers before Walser leaps to her defence – "here comes the clown to kill the tiger". His action brings him to the notice of Fevvers and enables the romantic narrative to develop. To find his "true" self, Walser must undergo a series of humiliations, revelations and initiations. It is Fevvers here who "preserves his disguise for him". She sends him off feeling "diminished" but not revealing to him the jealousy which she feels when she thinks that he is "having it off with the Ape man’s missus".

Chapter 4

 [Top of Page]

An interesting digression on clowns and the nature of burlesque, which is personified in the character of Buffo, "appalling, devastating Buffo", who "wears his insides on his outsides" and is the "centre that does not hold".

In a long monologue, Carter has Buffo expound on the nature of clowning:

"the clown is the very image of Christ"

"The despised and rejected, the scapegoat upon whose stooped shoulders is heaped the fury of the mob"

"We are whores of mirth"

"you have opted to lose your wits in the profession of the clown"

"we can invent our own faces"

"We make ourselves"

"What am I without my Buffo’s face? Why nobody at all."

"the faces exist of themselves, in a disembodied somewhere, waiting for the clown who will wear them, who will bring them to life"

The chapter closes with the "bergomask" when the clowns dance for Walser. Carter describes its climax as a "Dance of disintegration; and of regression; celebration of the primal slime".

Chapter 5

 [Top of Page]

A "set-piece" recounting the story of Mignon, the Ape Man’s woman. This is a lengthy and very harrowing account of an abused and degraded girl, whose story is at once pathetic and tragic. The terrible irony of her singing of Shelley’s "We’ll go no more a-roving" with no understanding of the words, underlines her pathos. She is a woman whose fate has been to be an eternal victim – abused since she was a child and with no knowledge of love, she is "inherited" by Walser when he rescues her from the tiger.

Mignon’s story is one of exploitation. Until she married the ape man at fifteen, she used to "pose for the dead", as assistant to a spiritualist, Herr M. Her short life has been spent either whoring to survive, or drifting, like a ghost, from man to man. Carter describes her "as though she were glass" and she has absolutely no personality at all. Abandoned by her murderous father, she drifts into casual prostitution until she meets HerrM. And becomes his assistant.

Ironically, her longest security is as an impersonator of dead children in Herr M.’s studio. Mignon "could have been any young girl" in her ghostly white gown. But she is "feckless" and has "the febrile gaiety of being without a past, without a present". Carter calls her "the broken blossom of the present tense". She is a ghost, impersonating ghosts.

She is a sexual victim, too, enduring the most atrocious treatment from the Ape man, who beats her black and blue and used by various circus men for casual sex. The love song she sings is unbearably poignant, because she has no idea of the meaning of the words. When Fevvers and Walser hear her singing they weep at the sheer waste and tragedy of such a beautiful young woman who has been so scoured of feeling that she is only an empty shell. Of course Mignon is the unwitting catalyst here, who provides the electric moment of intimacy between Fevvers and Walser as they listen to her.

In her "Madonna of Misericordia" (Mother of Sorrows) role, it is Fevvers who offers the practical help to Mignon, at first believing her to be Walser’s mistress, but later introducing her to the Abyssinian Princess, who is to supply the love and fulfilment which Mignon has never known. Again, we see the woman helping the woman and the men (once more) are (with the exception of Walser) the seducers and the destroyers.

Chapter 6

 [Top of Page]

A short coda, in which Walser reflects on his situation. He is now a "real" clown and has "fallen in love" with Fevvers. He is suffering from a lack of equilibrium, which has "set up a conflict between his own hitherto impregnable sense of self-esteem and the lack of self-esteem with which the woman treats him". Literally and metaphorically he is "wounded" but this is a necessary part of his journey of self-discovery

Chapter 7

 [Top of Page]

Walser’s role with the clowns is defined as the Human Chicken (note the egg motif again) who will "feature on the menu at the clowns’ Christmas Diner". His anger and fury as he "lashes out" at their taunts "were the funniest thing". His humiliation destroys a little more of his "outer shell" and takes him further towards his new "hatching" (my italics there).

The main incident in this chapter is the introduction of Mignon to the Princess as an assistant in the tiger act. Fevvers is again instrumental here in fixing things when she introduces Mignon to the Princess, whose tiger act is described.

The Princess does not speak, but uses the universal language of music, which she plays to the tigers on a grand piano inside their cage, to tame them and make them dance. Her relationship with the beasts is "not a friendly pact". She feels vulnerable when she turns her back on them and wants an "accomplice" in the ring with her. Note here the contrast Carter introduces with the idea of the sentient beasts – the chimpanzees who ignore their drunken keeper, and the tension which exists between the Princess and her animals. Look closely at the symbolism of the tigers and the link with Shakespeare’s idea of "music hath charms to soothe the savage breast". The tigers live in an uneasy harmony with humans. Speech disturbs them and the Princess is "scarred with the clawmarks" of the animals. She has not "tamed" them, but her music does. The tigers are "astonished by the mystery of their obedience" when she plays.

Mignon, the singer who does not understand the words of the song, is to be the "accomplice". Fevvers knows that "to sing is not to speak" and "singing is to speech what dancing is to walking". She recognises that two "half people", one playing music and not speaking, and the other singing, not speaking, can unite to make a "whole" person. Mignon and the Princess are twinned opposites who share a "quality of exile" but as the result of their partnership in the ring, they are able to discover their true selves, as lovers. Note, though, that the tension and danger which is part of the act, is never absent from their lives either.

Chapter 8

 [Top of Page]

The two women are now a couple, having "found the way to one another" through the "music that was their language". The dance with the tigers is symbolic of both their newfound harmony and its instability. Walser has to be co-opted as a dancing partner for the tigress when she is jealous of her mate dancing with Mignon, a very subtle illustration of the eternal fragility of male/female interaction. Note, though, that he dances in his clown costume.

Carter also describes the beginning of the "re-birth" of the Strong Man, whom she describes as a "spiritual weakling". Despite his size and his sexual insensitivity, he has fallen in love with Mignon, but out of the "fracture" of his broken heart, caused by her affair with the Princess, some "sensibility might poke a moist, new-born head". Her husband, though, remains a drunken nonentity.

In a very clever parody, the chapter ends with the Professor re-negotiating the apes’ contract with Colonel Kearney, aided and abetted by Sybil the pig. Note throughout this section the way in which Carter shows us the paradox of the nobility of the "beasts", whether they are apes or tigers, compared to the naivety, stupidity and brutality of the humans. Not surprisingly, the male of the species comes in for most of the implied contempt!

Chapter 9

 [Top of Page]

Another short chapter which sees Fevvers easily avoiding the unwelcome attentions of Colonel Kearney, whose attempt at seduction is ruined by his own greed and drunkenness. The arrival of a mysterious gift of diamonds will later figure in the bizarre episode with the Grand Duke. Carter moves the narrative of Walser and Fevvers’ growing attraction for one another onwards. Lizzie, mentor and witch, cautions her and points out that "his own shell don’t break yet", because he is not "hatched out".

Much of the final section of the novel is devoted to the account of Walser’s "hatching" and the breaking of his "shell".

Chapters 10 – 11

 [Top of Page]

The end of part two of the novel is a series of bizarre set pieces, with several dramatic climaxes.

In a catastrophic final performance, Buffo the Clown goes mad. A drunken binge tips him into an unstable and dangerous frame of mind and when he enters the ring he is "possessed" by the "spirits in the bottle". Walser, as the Human Chicken, is in real danger of being murdered when he sees "the great clown’s mind snap". In a grotesque parody of clowning, the troupe creates the "illusions of intentional bedlam" as they try to cover up what is really happening, for the audience. Eventually he is flattened by a jet of water from the Princess’s hosepipe and carted off to the asylum, as the clowns are "laughing laughing laughing to hide their broken hearts". Walser misses his dance with the tigress and in his absence the Princess has to shoot the beast, which attacks Mignon, presumably in a fit of bestial jealousy. Fevvers saves the day, and the performance before she goes off to dine with the Grand Duke, in a "filthy mood".

The pace of this section is very fast, and Carter writes with great skill, weaving several layers of symbolism into a credible and tense narrative sequence. Passions run high, with jealousy, madness, death and tragedy overlaid by farce, "but the relentless jollity of the orchestra did not drown the baying of the crowd."

The mood of reckless hysteria infects even the usually imperturbable Fevvers, who storms off to her rendezvous heedless of Lizzie’s warnings that "you can’t trust fucking aristos". Her arrogant belief in her own power "flushed and resplendent with the way she’d just snatched victory from disaster" makes her feel "supernatural". Note the sinister symbolism of the tigress carcass being pitched into the van from the knacker’s yard, as Fevvers steps into the Grand Duke’s coach.

The only "reasonable" behaviour, ironically, is shown by the Professor, who leads his band of chimpanzees onto the night train to Helsinki, in a final surreal parody of the Colonel’s own ill fated circus train of artistes.

Fevvers sees "no death in the snow" as she goes to the Grand Duke’s house. Her immense self-confidence, underlaid as it is by greed for the diamonds he has used to lure her there, makes her reckless. Carter shows us here a side of Fevvers, which is predatory and also rather distasteful. She is as cold and calculating as the ice statue, which stands in the study, thinking that her sword and her wiles will protect her. She is also greedy for the diamonds which hang round the statue’s neck and it is only when she realises that the Grand Duke is a formidable adversary that she begins to lose her composure and feel a "shudder as a cowboy does when he sees a blond scalp on an Indian’s belt".

In a house full of automata and trickery, she is to be added to his collection of "objets d’art". Again Carter uses the egg symbol, but the Grand Duke’s Faberge eggs are not alive. They are sterile and artificial. No life is contained in them, but all are beautiful and very precious representations of reality. The irony is, of course, that all of them are representations of Fevvers herself and we have never known whether or not she is "real". As the ice statue melts and the Duke’s sexual excitement becomes more intense, Fevvers begins to feel herself becoming "more and more vague". Instinctively she uses the only weapon she has left, after the Grand Duke finds her sword and breaks it – that of her own sexuality. She "manipulates" him "as though her life depended on it" and, of course, it does! She chooses the egg with the train inside it, the only one with the means of escape, instead of the one with the empty cage, while she contemplates "life as a toy". As the ice statue shatters she brings the Grand Duke to a climax and escapes.

As the real train rolls out of the city, the diamonds and the runaway Little Ivan are dumped outside into the snow and Fevvers "raddled with tears" begins her journey of discovery. For in the wastes of the Siberian steppe, at the turn of the century, both she and Walser will complete their own odysseys and finally discover, as Mignon and the Princess have already done, their own "truth" as a couple.

Part Three

 [Top of Page]

The final part of the novel is set in the most remote depths of the Siberian steppe. The time is close to New Year’s Eve at the turn of the century and it is fitting that Carter chooses such a primitive and savage setting to bring the novel to a close. It is a wilderness, populated mainly by outcasts and native tribesmen who are stubbornly clinging to the remnants of a culture which is threatened by "progress" and the relentless invasion of "civilisation".

When the train is blown up in a ludicrous attempt to persuade Fevvers to free some political prisoners who think she is Queen Victoria’s daughter in law, Walser is left for dead in the wreckage. His amnesia and his adoption by a native shaman (medicine man) force him to regress into almost a foetal stage. He becomes a baby and has to re-learn many things. Fevvers, too, is injured when she breaks one of her wings and she becomes "half the girl she was". The other characters in the Colonel’s depleted circus also undergo the final stages of their "transformations", some becoming stronger in the process and some, like the Colonel himself, not changing at all.

Chapter 1

 [Top of Page]

In a shifting third and first person narrative, the circus train begins its journey across Siberia towards Japan. Alternating between anger, frustration and boredom, Fevvers is irritated and tearful, "grinding through Limbo". It is a claustrophobic atmosphere and an interesting use of imagery – a train journey where ill-assorted passengers are trapped in a "state of passive acquiescence". The mood is tense and mistrustful. The tigers and the Princess no longer trust one another, Lizzie and Fevvers are at odds, the clowns are silent and restless without their leader and only the Colonel pretends an optimism he does not feel as he watches the elephants begin to sicken.

The Strong Man, though, "looked already less than a hulk" and "nourished his sensibility" by guarding Mignon and the Princess.

The stasis is shattered by the bomb, which blows up the train and begins the final stage of the novel. In the explosion the tigers "go into the mirrors" and nothing is as it was before. The train seems to Fevvers to have been "a kind of gauntlet flung down in the face of Nature" and Nature has tossed it "disdainfully back upon the heaving earth, shattering it to fragments". This image characterises the rest of the narrative, for from this point nothing is predictable or entirely credible. Perhaps Carter intends to create somehow in her narrative a sense of what Lacan calls "la Reelle" (reality). Certainly there is a sense in this final section of the hugeness of the Natural world and its disregard for the puny attempts of man to tame it. (Later on the tigers of the steppe listen to the only "real" language of music from Mignon and the Princess, but they are still wild and only "tame" while the music plays.) The whole landscape and all the characters in it from this point are presented in a kind of "Through the Looking Glass" setting.

Chapters 2 & 3

 [Top of Page]

Walser is rescued by a "murderess" who is the mother of Little Ivan, the child who joined the clowns in St Petersburg, but was left behind when the train left (with Fevvers’s diamonds).

The strange digression of Chapter three concerns the "panopticon" prison, which exists in the Siberian wilderness, inhabited by female prisoners and built by Countess P to "save" intelligent women who have killed their husbands. Its cells are like a wheel, within which is the observatory where the Countess sits and gazes at the prisoners. All the cells are "lit up like small theatres" at night and the place is a machine designed to promote penitence. The Countess – the jailer – is as much a prisoner as the inmates and the wardresses too are trapped. In this exclusively female world, Carter explores the Freudian idea of socophilia (the gaze) as punishment or oppression.

It is the "electricity" of the lesbian attraction between Olga Alexandrovna and the wardress Vera Andreyevna, which eventually liberates the prisoners as a "army of lovers", into the wilderness. Forbidden to speak or to write, the women in the House of Correction communicate with one another through looks and by writing with their bodies to one another. The women are set free through love and desire. The oppressive gaze of the Countess is no match for the unifying gaze of true love, it would seem.

Chapter 4

 [Top of Page]

Olga and Vera find Walser in the wreckage of the train and Olga feeds him with bread and milk, like a baby, and kisses him goodbye. In doing so she also "kissed goodbye to her own son and all the past", before going off to build a new life with her lover. Note here how the women find the figure of Father Time from Lizzie’s clock and decide "we’ll need no more fathers". Significantly, of course, "time" has also stopped (or has been "lost") for Fevvers, Lizzie, Walser and the rest of the circus troupe. Walser in particular has regressed to babyhood, and is ready to "hatch" or rather first to "incubate" into a "New" man. For him there is no time, place, past or memory. He is only able to make his crowing noise and to react in a primitive and foetal way to his surroundings.

Chapter 5

 [Top of Page]

The survivors assess their position with the outlaws who have taken them prisoner. Fevvers and Lizzie, have lost their "defences" (the sword, the handbag and the clock) all symbolic of their past lives. Now they must rely on themselves. Fevvers has a broken wing and a "broken heart", but still retains her fighting spirit. She (as always) remains the focus of the group. Note the way in which it is made clear that the men (with the exception of the Strong Man) are much less resilient than the women. Note also how pathetic the outlaws seem when they reveal the reason they have taken Fevvers prisoner and also the way in which Carter introduces yet again an element of low farce into the confrontation between the leader of the outlaws and Fevvers. Ironically, Lizzie is a much more successful political activist than any of the exiled Russians.

Chapter 6

 [Top of Page]

The narrative moves back to Walser and his meeting with the Shaman. Walser is "sentient but no longer rational" (as he has to be to experience his re-birth into the new man) and Carter’s use of the Shaman is a clever device which makes his transformation possible. The Shaman’s "reality" is the spirit world and note that he does not use language, but uses a drum which "speaks to the wilderness". Despite the absurdity of the situation, it remains quite credible because of Carter’s consistent use of humour. Walser is accepted quite naturally as an apprentice Shaman who has wandered off the track in a trance state, during an "ill planned trip", and when the Shaman offers him a glass of "hallucinogenic urine", Walser complains that it has "no sugar and no lemons" but drinks it anyway.

Chapter 7

 [Top of Page]

Lizzie’s discourse on the reality of politics is a neat sermon on the nature of postmodernism. Note particularly her closing remark (page 240) "It’s not the human soul that must e forged on the anvil of history, but the anvil itself must be changed in order to change humanity".

At Lizzie’s suggestion, to distract the outlaws, the clowns dance the "dance of death"

Which Carter describes as "the deadly dance of the past perfect which fixes everything fast so it can’t move again". Ironically, the dance is performed by men, for men, while the women and three "neutral" men (the Strong Man the escapee and the Colonel) manage to survive the storm, which follows. Like the tigers, the men are "blown away" and disappear.

The small band of survivors reach the Conservatoire of Transbalalaika, inhabited by another strange exile, a musician, and here Mignon and the Princess find their haven. In a bizarre "menage a trois", the Princess and her lover find a "father" (the Maestro) and a piano. Their new music sung by Mignon, now a "woman" who "seized hold of the song in the supple lassoo of her voice", attracts the Siberian tigers, which come and sit on the roof of the house to listen. These beasts "had never known either confinement or coercion" and Fevvers knows that the girls will have to "invent new unprecedented tunes for them to dance to". There is symmetry about this episode and a great deal of powerful beauty in the idea of the harmony between man and beast, which was so artificial in the circus, but is so natural in the wilderness. Note again how Carter suggests that it is lesbian love, which provides the base for the communion between the species. There can be (and is, in the end with the union between Fevvers and Walser) true equality and presumably "real" love between man and woman, but Carter clearly implies that love between women is more powerful and ultimately more equal, than that between male and female.

Interesting here, too, is the idea of the exile? The young man who guides Fevvers and the survivors to the railway; the outlaws, the clowns (exiled metaphorically from "normality" and separated from their leader, Buffo) and the Maestro are all characters who are separated in some way from their former existences. Mignon and the Princess choose to become exiles, as do the women from the panopticon prison. Their choice to remain in the wilderness ironically gives the Maestro a new beginning. Again it is the women who have the choice and the men who seem to be driven, coerced or oppressed.

The chapter ends as Fevvers "spreads" when she sees Walser, only to lose sight of him as she crashes into a snowdrift because of her broken wing. Time is not yet right for a reunion. Both characters need more "hatching".

Chapter 8

 [Top of Page]

A long digression about Walser’s progress as a trainee Shaman and the people he lives with makes up this part of the narrative. Again, Carter explores the ideas of history, civilisation and progress. The primitive tribesmen "conspire" to ignore the approach of the railway, bringing with it encroachment and the threat of the end of their simple existence. Walser is alien to the tribesmen and they to him, and yet there is a shared collective understanding simply because their beliefs and traditions are so simply rooted in basic nature. At the same time there is an unbridgeable gulf between them, because of their different cultural backgrounds. Remind yourselves of the ideas of different worldviews and cultural truths and you will make more sense of what she is considering here.

As Walser regains his memory, he appears even more of a "true" Shaman to his tutor, but of course we, the readers, know that Walser’s progress will separate him from the tribesmen completely. The customs and beliefs of the tribe are alien to us, but perfectly rational to them! The outcome will be separation.

We need though, to ask ourselves constantly, which cultural truth IS true? Does a belief in the supernatural or the keeping of a bear as a familiar make people savage? To the Shaman it is perfectly ordinary and through the innocence of Walser, a "tabula rasa" at this point, it is also acceptable. It becomes unacceptable only as his perceptions of his own past gradually creep back into his memory. He becomes more "civilised", but does that mean that everyone in the tribe is uncivilised? Not as long as they can "ignore" the outside world. Carter, of course, cannot resist the temptation to point out that the "outside" world is ready to roll over the simplicity of the tribesmen and leave chaos in its wake as the new century dawns. Remind yourselves of the comment on page 265 "These Siberian tribespeople knew they were not alone."

The final revelation of Walser’s "new" self happens through music, when he hears Mignon and the Princess singing in the Conservatoire. The music has for him "the familiarity of a remembered dream", but as yet he is not able to recognise Fevvers except as an apparition.

Chapter 9

 [Top of Page]

Loose ends are tied up as the Princess and Mignon and the Maestro find their "happy ending, squared" and the Colonel prepares to "return again, with more and bigger elephants", having decided to take on the Escapee as a business manager. Carter describes Kearney as "one of those round-bottomed dolls that you cannot knock over". He is a caricature of the brash, persistent entrepreneur, remaining untouched and unchanged.

The Strong Man, though, is transformed! He grows "stronger in spirit the more I serve", and decides to remain with the girls and the maestro as a servant and guardian, hoping that they will "cherish me as a brother".

It is Fevvers and, to a lesser extent, Lizzie, who seem to diminish in this final section of the novel. Fevvers is "tarnished" and her blonde hair is going back to its normal colour. Her wing is broken and she no longer flies. She is no longer "remarkable" and has no one to look at her. In a way, she exists through her audience and at this point her audience is almost non existent. "She was so shabby she looked like a fraud." Despite this, though, and despite the fact that Lizzie has lost her ability to "wreak domestic havoc" by losing her handbag, the pair still retain an abundance of spirit and set off together to try to find Walser.

Chapter 10

 [Top of Page]

As Lizzie points out to her foster child "True lovers’ reunions always end in marriage". Fevvers, though, refuses to be conventional (and why should she be, for she is unique!) She decides to "transform him" to "make a new man of him", a man who will be a "fitting mate for the new Woman". Lizzie’s role as mentor, mother and protectress is significant here as she points out to Fevvers the dangers inherent in "turning from a freak to a woman".

The most significant passage here is on page 285 "think of him not as a lover, but as a scribe….to…"Think of him as one who carries the evidence". Walser will be allocated a specific role when he is united with Fevvers.

In a farcical ending, in a hut in the middle of the Siberian wilderness, during Walser’s initiation ceremony, the lovers are reunited. Fevvers, only half the girl she once was "only a poor freak down on her luck", spreads her wing and finds out "who she was". Walser, too "was not the man he had been or would ever be again" and in the "god hut", surrounded by assorted tribesmen Fevvers "looked big enough to crack the roof……..all wild hair and feathers and triumphant breasts and blue eyes the size of dinner plates".

In the final "Envoi" section, some of the gaps are filled in – Fevvers and Walser prepare to start a life together. Walser contemplates "as in a mirror" the "self he was so busily reconstructing" and Fevvers begins to be "transformed back into her old self again".

The novel ends with a celebration of joy in Fevvers laughter as the old year ends and a new century begins their new life together.

 [Top of Page]

Copyrightę 2000 Val Pope