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Feminine freakishness : carnivalesque bodies in Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus
journal contributionposted on 2017-12-06, 00:00 authored by Wendy O'BrienWendy O'Brien
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 winged aerialiste Fevvers 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.