Note From the Author:
These essays have yet to be published anywhere but here, so take them for what they're worth.
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Narrative on a Narrative in Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus
Fairy tale, dolled-up lie, myth, or all-out con job, one could call it whatever he'd like, as long as he was confident about it. The carefree playing with the narrative form within Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus lends itself to far-reaching interpretations. Carter has endowed most, and arguably all, of her characters with the spellbinding power of storytelling, with a narrative voice that pulls the reader along by the shirtsleeve. At the same time Fevvers, who critics refer to as the "prototype of the New Woman" (Finney 1) and the body of another "contemporary monster" (Punday 817), is inviting us to "Look, not touch" (Carter 15), Carter is getting the reader to allow himself to be swept away by the unverifiable details and the narrative style of the various characters. Specifically, it is the elusiveness of the facts and the magnetism of the style that allows the narrative to accomplish what it wants.
Her choice to tell Fevvers's story through the stories of the characters gives Carter the ability to do things within her narrative that she otherwise would not have been able to accomplish. If Carter as a fiction writer is afforded some freedom to lie to the reader, the characters she has created have free reign. By embedding the narrative within the stories of the characters, Carter can deceive and even downright lie without initially being perceived as a trickster. Her characters, Fevvers, Lizzie, Walser, Buffo, the Shaman, and the clowns let us know about themselves through their storytelling and performance. The character is able to focus the reader where he wants him to look, sharing some details and withholding others, seemingly forming their identities into what they desire. They are allowed to doubt themselves, such as Fevvers wondering whether she is fact or fiction, which is a right that Carter would not usually be afforded. This puts everything the characters say into question, while still allowing Carter a certain level of anonymity. This distance allows Carter to explore some of the metafictional elements of the narrative, all the while leaving the reader wondering if this is science fact or science fiction.
The entire first third of the novel spotlights Fevvers, accompanied by Lizzie, as she accounts her history to Walser, a London journalist trying to get the scoop on the circus freak with wings. A skeptic when he enters the interview, Walser is soon overcome by Fevvers's clever weaving of unverifiable fact with unquestionable poise. Fevvers begins with what she claims is the only lie she ever tells: "My feathers, sir! I dye them! . . . That's my dreadful secret, and, to tell the truth and nothing but, the only deception which I practice on the public! (25). By laying this foundation at the beginning of the interview, Fevvers subconsciously encourages Walser to set aside any doubts he has and remember that she has promised that she only lies about the color of her feathers. One of the clues that Carter gives to let the reader know that Fevvers might be lying is her vigilant monitoring of which factual evidence she provides to Walser, teaming up with Lizzie for the theatrical additions to the story. When Walser raised his mental eyebrows at Fevvers's mention of the sewing machine maker from Chicago, she immediately "lassoe[s] him with her narrative and drag[s] him along with her before he [has] a chance to ask Lizzie" anything about it (60). After the hours of stories have filled up Walser's notepads, Fevvers shows him the scar on the ball of her foot to back up one of her stories. "Oracular proof," Lizzie calls it, adding that "seeing is believing" (83). Walser weakly retrieves his notebook, which shows his physical as well as mental fatigue. Earlier in the evening, he no doubt would have wondered why the word "oracular" was used in the place of "ocular," oracular proof not being allowed by Walser until his experience with the Shaman in Siberia. The thing that keeps the legend of Fevvers alive is her ability to keep herself a wonder of fiction, one of the unprovables of the world.
In order to keep herself fictional, she must perform, not only from the trapeze in the circus, but also from the chair during the interview. "Her dark, rusty, dripping, swooping voice, imperious as a siren's," is the tool with which she seduces Walser (43). "It was as if Walser had become a prisoner of her voice, her cavernous, sombre voice, a voice made for shouting about the tempest, her voice of a celestial fishwife . . . Yet such a voice could almost have had its source, not within her throat but in some ingenious mechanism or other behind the canvas screen, voice of a fake medium at a séance" (43). She bombards her listeners with the purposeful movements of her body, especially her eyes, the windows to the truth in the soul. She knows, all too well, the limits and capabilities of her body and "is keenly aware of her audience and takes care to construct herself and her stories to suit a media-inspired mythos of beauty, fantasy, and illusion" (Cella 56). Just like all narrators, though, she needs an audience that is willing to watch and listen. In Siberia she loses all that and thus loses herself. It is not until Walser appears again at the end of the novel and asks, "What is your name? Have you a soul? Can you love," that her heart is lifted and sings, excited to begin yet another interview.
As Fevvers tries to keep her myth alive, Walser is watching the circus while waiting to interview Fevvers "for a series of interviews tentatively entitled 'Great Humbugs of the World'" (Carter 11). Walser's talent with words and ability to suspend belief make him and "connoisseur of the tall tale" (11) and a reporter primed and ready to debunk any seducing narrative. Carter paints him as a man aware of the fact that all it takes to accomplish "mass hysteria and the delusion of the crowds" is "a little primitive technology and a big dose of the will to believe" (16). However, before he is even done watching her performance, he has almost lost his ability to hold onto his skepticism, "astonished to discover that it was the limitations of her act in themselves" - the invisible wire, the trapeze, her false nakedness and lack of a tail - "that made him briefly contemplate the unimaginable - that is, the absolute suspension of disbelief" (17). Carter uses Walser as an example of what the power of narrative can do to the listener, that even the most vigilant and prepared individual can be deceived and mystified. At the end of the interview, Walser seems to gather his wits about him, wondering "just how the two women [had] pulled off that piece of sleight-of-hand, or ear, rather, with the clocks"; however, he neglects to consider whether Fevvers's personal stories are true or not, deciding to believe the limited factual evidence that Fevvers and Lizzie have chosen to offer him.
Buffo and the rest of the clowns more their narrative forward in a different manner than Fevvers, although, because Fevvers does have to perform her story in order for the mesmerized public to believe what everyone says about her, the narrative styles cannot be separated so easily. The clowns tell their story mostly through performance, not speech, with the sole exception being Buffo's speech. It is this silence of the clown profession that becomes an integral part of Walser's transforming journey, as he spends the Petersburg section of the novel living the life of a clown. The story told by the clowns, Walser included, would not work without the proper face, which to them is their "one privilege, one rare privilege, that makes of [their] outcast and disregarded state something wonderful, something precious. [They] can invent [their] own faces! [They] make [them]selves" (121). The clowns, as all circus clowns do, have the power to entertain the masses. Their faces, actions, exaggerations, violence, and humor are the reasons people love to watch them. However, the nature of their power is stripped away and left impotent when Walser realizes that everything he does in the ring as a clown will be seen by the masses as comical. Even after he sees the possibility of Buffo plunging his carving knife into the Human Chicken, "[Walser] remains convinced that [the clowns] are confidence tricksters, so that would be no more than part of the story" (145), that the masses would point and laugh, that "nobody in that vast gathering of merry folk would ever have been permitted to believe it was real manslaughter. It would have seemed, instead, the cream of the jest" (177).
The Shaman considered himself a confidence tricksters in much the same way as the clowns did. Whether or not he believed the stories he told, his vitality was locked into the tradition of his religious storytelling. For the Shaman, "even when his eyes were open, you might have said [he] 'lived in a dream.' But so did [all the people of the village]. They shared a common dream, which was their world, and it should rather be called an 'idea' than a 'dream,' since it constituted their entire sense of lived reality, which impinged on real reality only inadvertently" (253). His job was necessary to society because it had been necessary for so long. One of the great tricks the narrative tool is able to pull is to convince the reader that it is true and that it has always been that way. The Shaman enjoys his seductive power because it gives him stability and purpose within the community. "The Shaman was most certainly not a humbug. He was the supreme form of the confidence trick - others had confidence in him because of his own utter confidence in his own integrity" (263). The previous quote applies not just to the Shaman, but to rest of our narrators as well, whose confidence in the purity of their work is what allows them to convince the masses.
However, their confidence is faulty. All of Carter's embedded narrators doubt themselves and their stories. Their confidence trick works on their audiences, but it also seems to unsuspectingly work its magic on themselves as well. Fevvers wonders whether she is fact or fiction and leaves it up to the reader to decide. The Shaman fears the day when the people find out what his job really entails. Walser's confidence begins to wane back in London when he realizes he cannot even keep track of time while under the spell of the narrative. But even though the characters question their own validity, the embedded narrative allows Carter's readers to maintain complete confidence in her ability to command the narrative as a whole. Never does the reader begin to think that Carter has lost trust in herself or her storyline, which continues on until Fevvers and Walser get their confidence back and resume the interview.
Fevvers, Lizzie, Walser, the clowns, and the Shaman are all slaves to their narrative, even though in it lies their vitality and false hope for liberation. The facts cannot be challenged, and the delivery is expected to be flawless. That is the nature of the spectacle. The audience, the newspaper readers, the crowds, the masks, the religious townspeople, and ultimately their physical surroundings are the fabric of the invisible walls and bars of their prisons. This explains, to some degree, the meaning of Fevver's lines at the end of the novel: "'I fooled you, then!' . . . 'Gawd, I fooled you!' . . . 'You mustn't believe what you write in the papers!' . . . 'To think I fooled you!'" (294). The various storytellers have fooled us all, not just with their stories, but also with the concealment of their pain. "Once upon a time," Fevvers had to explain her story to Walser the way she did. Like the rest of the characters, her performance was the only way she could continue to live, which, in fact, is not really living unless she is heralded as the New Woman, which is another essay entirely.
Carter, Angela. Nights at the Circus . New York: Penguin, 1984.
Cella, Laurie J. "Narrative 'Confidence Games'." Frontiers 25, no.3 (2004): 47-62.
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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