The 1960s were a hub of change, revolution manifesting itself in the conception of the “women’s liberation movement”, which, as documented by the BBC Women’s Hour timeline, truly gained momentum in the 1970s. This upheaval of the social norms spawned a canon of literature and media that was influenced by the tumult. The period was also defined by the new literary approach of realism combined with psychological experimentation, which was conceived in the wake of World War II, converse to the positive public atmosphere and rising economic prosperity that was present in society. This experimentation resulted in the distortion of the social boundaries of gender and sexuality, adding scope to the literary world’s endeavour into expressing the human mind and experience.
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Angela Carter harnesses the boundary experimentation of the 1960s in her novel The Magic Toyshop. Influenced by the plight of women at the time, Carter formed her novel with the aim to set up social myths and then expose them to be faulty. This is done through the addition of fantasy to the text as she manipulates a fantastical setting so as to attain her goal which would typically be unrealistic. But most interestingly, Carter takes two routes in order to achieve the demythologisation of collective myths. The first is the inclusion of archetypal or stock characters such as Uncle Phillip and their placement in situations that result in the mockery of the assumed norms in society. The second subtle technique is that of a similar inclusion of normative characters, but who are set up to expose the failings of such fictional codes in the face of reality, rendering the norms as unsuitable for real life and promoting an evolution both in the character and also, the reader.
Even so, in investigating these methods, a clash between the author’s will and the devices used is identifiable in the effect of the variation of the text’s messages. Carter uses the narrative in order to convey the demythologisation of western culture. Parallel to this process, she depicts critical viewpoints, most seeming to stem from a feminist viewpoint and embodied in the “representations of (female) victimhood, sadomasochistic strategies […] and the grotesque” (Hock Soon Ng 413). However, this critical stance is contradicted by the narrative points which serve to catalyse the demythologisation. Thus the ambiguity created over the motives of the author causes the reader to lose sight of the demythologising effects of the text and this produces a capped success rate of Carter’s demythologisation.
The first approach that results in demythologisation is most evident in the character of Uncle Phillip, the embodiment of some of the most traditional masculine traits. Upon his physical arrival into the narrative of The Magic Toyshop, Carter describes the man as “immense” (69); roaring and unidentifiable in the darkness he creates. He is at once a mystery and everything society formerly taught as purely masculine: the breadwinner, lord of the house, imposing and powerful to the extent that he need not be there for his ways to be enforced. Just as Melanie is able to discern his “faceless” presence from just the “full set of false teeth” in the bathroom (Carter 56), she abides to his ceaselessly enforced dictatorship by adhering to “one […] of Uncle Phillip’s ways” and changing from trousers to “a schoolgirl skirt” (Carter 62; 63), albeit his absence. Not only is this evidential of the overwhelming authority Uncle Phillip possesses over the family, it also exhibits the misogynistic attitude that so often accompanies the stereotypical masculine persona, as Melanie is reduced to a state of naivety and immaturity, highlighting the negativity of the outlook.
Yet though Uncle Phillip is depicted as almost a cardboard cut-out of what is thought to be as the ideal of taught social gender mythology – the manliest of men – Carter then illuminates him under the exposing light of feminism. This reveals him to be “too big and wicked to be true” (198), emphasising how these traits lead to his downfall, effectively demythologising the role that has been striven for by countless generations of men and boys. Uncle Phillip enters the story as a tyrant who is economically and sexually dominant in his social microcosm. However, when faced with the burgeoning feminist in his niece, Melanie’s “profound transformations” incite a reflective metamorphosis on “the space she inhabits” (Hock Soon Ng 414), provoking a familial revolution and causing his private sphere that was carefully constructed on a foundation of intense fear, to crumble rapidly. He is left fighting for his life in a burning house just hours after a singular major uprising, exposed as a malicious individual full of “insane glee” whose final documented intent is to “gleefully” watch everyone burn (Carter 198).
Carter successfully leaves us with the repulsive image of insanity connoted to the form of the archetypal man and in doing so, demythologises social gender ideology. This demythologisation is emphasised in the character of Finn, who is typified by his near feminine “lyrical” grace (Carter 34). Finn appears as the opposite of Uncle Phillip’s machismo and through his survival as the sole male at the end of the text, Carter implies that the evolution of man bequests more importance to the X chromosome, refuting social norms which wrongly class such attributes as singularly homosexual. This also links back to Carter’s feminist viewpoint, as she supports the promotion of feminine traits and the merge of genders.
Nonetheless, Carter fails to fully engage with the reader in her task, leading to doubt and shadowed credibility in conclusion. Carter’s narrative appears to give a biased portrayal of most characters, resulting in one-dimensional portraits. This can positively lend itself to the fantastical element of her writing as it simulates the theme of puppets indicating the view that society manipulates us to conform to normative myths like “blind-eyed puppets” (Carter 67), as Uncle Phillip manipulates his family in order to realise and enact his own obsession with marionettes. On the other hand, it also negatively impacts the reader’s understanding of Uncle Phillip as he is not elaborated or expanded upon, producing a narrow account of the antagonist that rings false in comparison to other oscillating human portrayals readers may have experienced. “Questions of [the] subjectivity” of Carter’s works (Hock Soon Ng 413), disrupt the impressionable suspension of disbelief that fiction stimulates in a reader, as they are unequipped to form individual views due to the lack of objective information presented.
As well as demythologising the male archetype through Uncle Phillip, Carter also debunks the social myth which heralds economic status as of great importance. Society’s capitalist mindset, which gained momentum through the progression of technology, emphasised the positive acquisition of emotional contentment through personal economic success. Even so, though Uncle Phillip guarantees economic stability for his family, the home is devoid of all optimistic mentality. In fact, the prospective penniless existence that Melanie and Finn face at the end is more hopeful than the entire materially secure existence in the “brown” house (Carter 39). This demythologises existing economic elevating myths as insignificant in the face of the suggested “mode of disturbance” that is felt within the house (Hock Soon Ng 414), proving that “money doesn’t bring enduring happiness for countries, communities, or individuals” (Brooks).
The most prominent theme of The Magic Toyshop is that of femininity and its various manifestations. Subsequently, Carter’s aim is to demythologise the accepted definitions of femininity. Carter observes and processes this in the characters of Melanie and Aunt Margaret, who symbolise the positive evolution of women and the negative encoding previously accepted as femininity, respectively.
In examining the character of Aunt Margaret, it is clear that she is the essence of social feminine norms. She is representative of the “looking-glass” in which Uncle Phillip is reflected as “twice [his] natural size” (Woolf 89). Aunt Margaret appears as the “heirarchized opposition” of Uncle Phillip (Cixous 359); diminished, frail and mute in comparison to his loud imposition into surrounding lives, and as a result, emphasises his dominance. In this, she is the fulfilment of all accepted ideas on female roles in society. She is the residue left in the wake of her husband. Although she performs the role of the domestic wife ideally, Aunt Margaret fails as she is unable to perform the role of a mother thus violating “the maternal function [which] underpins the social order and the order of desire” (Irigaray 533). Carter proves Cixous’ statement that “either the woman is passive; or she doesn’t exist” (360) as Aunt Margaret disappears in the absence of maternity, and it is only when this role is fulfilled through the care of Victoria that she is able to reclaim her voice. This is further proven in the death of Melanie’s mother, whose absence as a mother leads to her absence from the narrative completely.
Alternatively, another reading of Aunt Margaret’s retrieval of her voice observes that it was not the maternal role that actualised her identity but the sexual fulfilment which she experienced with Francie. There can be several interpretations of this sexual encounter. The first supports the understanding that in expressing herself sexually, Aunt Margaret repossesses her body from Uncle Phillip and through this, gains control over her life and recovers her voice. The truth she conveys in the “lover’s embrace” with Francie also represents the truth that has been lost in her role as a wife to an abusive man (Carter 193), and her reclamation of it. Another explanation relates back to the taboo of incest. There is space for reflection over whether Carter supports the act of incest as the ultimate demythologisation of social norms -as a way to break free of society’s laws and constrains. Yet, the inclusion of incest could also be explained as merely a narrative technique used to inspire shock in the reader and increase the entertainment factor of the novel.
Carter reveals the flawed underpinning of western culture through the exposure of the female norm as being subordination of the individual, inaccurate in its assumption that a woman is indistinguishable from the role of mother, as argued by Luce Irigaray. Carter also displays how women are sexual beings aside from their domestic roles, exploring the physicality of female needs. In recognising this distinction, the female identity is given back, yet without the tools to distinguish and utilise the freedom, women are unable to become their own people.
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Such is the case with Melanie. Carter introduces Melanie on the cusp of womanhood, exploring her newly sexual “flesh and blood” in association to the objective correlative art images of women such as those created by “Toulouse Lautrec” (Carter 1). The loss of her mother then pushes her into the maternal role, acting as a “little mother” to her younger siblings, to whom she avidly plays up to by “wearing her hair in stiff plaits” (Carter 28), an imitation of practicality and refinement. It is clear from this that Melanie pulls from all the resources available to her in order to act out the role which has been assigned, drawing at her socialisation which was mediated by the patriarchal ideology of art in the absence of a sustained maternal figure. However, once she reaches her new home, this role is hungrily taken over by Aunt Margaret and Melanie is left “insecure in her own personality”, “an alien” without a place in the world (Carter 58), surrounded by “other people’s unknown lives” (Carter 59) . Melanie is abandoned without a role to play and unequipped to survive, divulging how socialisation has failed to provide her with the correct tools to read reality with. Indication of this is seen when she is left balking from words “she had only read […] in cold, aseptic print” (Carter 151), unable to comprehend the contrast between expectations created by detached media and the truth heard in reality. It is only when the thetic alters and Melanie views herself as a unique piece of art, literally shown in Finn’s “asexual […] pin-up” (Carter 154), that she is able to develop and interact with reality again, becoming a subject in her own world rather than inhabiting someone else’s. Carter demythologises women by rendering the norm as inadequate, leading readers to the conclusion that one must defy the norm in order to sufficiently survive in reality.
Yet, this is also contradicted in Carter’s protagonist as she finds purpose only when she is given “a part to play in the running of the home” (Carter 123). Melanie finds solace in performing for Finn, at times taking on the role of “a mother to an inexplicable child” (Carter 151), revisiting the maternal role she previously briefly experienced. In the absence of mirrors, Melanie is unable to connect with her own body and thus, has no “clear expression of herself” (de Beauvoir 98), causing her to style herself purposely to “please Finn” (Carter 125) so as to relieve the feeling of experiencing “herself a stranger” (de Beauvoir 98). She plays at acting “very old, but not mature” (Carter 150), as she states that she does not “know how” to love, but this too seems to have been lifted from the pages of a “woman’s magazine” (Carter 155) revealing the struggle Melanie still has in appropriating herself with reality. Carter provides no real advancement from this state of dependency on patriarchal codes in women, unlike the conclusions of other feminist writers such as Virginia Woolf, who eagerly anticipated the time when “women will have ceased to be the protected sex” (91). This supports the statement that a woman is too “embarrassed to decide what she is”, as she is defined by the roles she occupies and without them, she “is not anything” (de Beauvoir 98).
In her attack on the norms of society, Carter attempts to demythologise one of the cornerstones of literature -the ending. Traditionally, endings are conceived as the conclusion to a story, revelling in the satisfaction of the knowledge that is the result of wrapping up all loose ends in a text. However, Carter subverts this tradition and instead, leaves the reader wondering about the survival of the characters caught up in fire, as well as questioning the future of Finn and Melanie. This lengthens the lasting effect of the novel, ensuring readers continue to think of and analyse the text for any lost conclusions long after the final page has been turned. Resultantly, this causes Carter’s views to be transported beyond the pages of her work and into the public consciousness.
This prolonged attention also reveals certain aspects of the ending that challenge the views we assume to be at the core of Carter’s novel. Melanie is left standing in an “alley” with Finn, having “lost everything” (Carter 199). Yet she is barely tormented by the possible deaths of everyone she loves, willing to let Finn have the last word, consoling her with vague explanations hinged on the retention of “old […] tricks” (Carter 200). This leads to the opinion that Melanie is yet another example of a dependant female who ultimately relies on the dominant male to guide her through tough times. Melanie disowns all previous connections in favour of her new partner, accepting the inevitability of her “prophetic vision” (Carter 177). Carter’s use of the word “prophetic” directs the reader to the understanding that this vision of marriage to Finn and “squalor and dirt and mess and shabbiness” is predestined (177). It also evokes religious connotations, consequently alluding to the Church’s promotion of traditional marriage and how this endorsement has filtered into society, becoming one of its regulations. This is also supported by the Melanie’s earlier comment concluding that Aunt Margaret and Uncle Phillip slept in “the same bed […] for they were married” (Carter 77), displaying the conservative views that were taken are the truth, regardless. This may also explain Melanie’s own conviction that she would marry Finn after sleeping in the same bed as him.
Carter writes from a feminist angle throughout the novel, elaborating on the female form and psychological patterns, implicitly supporting the endeavours of independent femininity, like that which Melanie strives for. The repetition of “forever” in “always, forever and forever” after the prophecy leads to revolt in both Melanie and the reader (Carter 177) at the prospect of eternal settlement. However, this is all disputed by the notion of a life devoid of “any glamour or romance or charm”, everything Melanie desires for (Carter 177), as we are provided with the answer that fighting against the norm is futile and that resistance is only short-lived, deeming Melanie’s struggle as against the inescapable. She soon slumps with the “depressed sense of the inevitability of it all”, barren of any “surprise or appreciation” (Carter 178). This paradox of unwillingness and willingness is also seen from the very beginning of the relationship with Finn and throughout, when Melanie states her “horror” (Carter 106) at his filth and “animal reek” (Carter 36). Melanie continues to show this disgust even while imagining a future with him, noting his “yellowed teeth” and “dirty hand” (Carter 177). This repulsion which she ignores throughout the novel may hint at the repulsion Carter means to bestow on all men, and the sacrifices women make in order to conform to the norm. It reaffirms the concept that Melanie must marry “the shadows” (Carter 77) as she did when she wore her mother’s dress.
This demythologises the romance and idealisation of marriage, presented to be a forced social act that disillusions and crushes the female participant. Carter depicts Melanie’s resignation to be the outcome of all of society’s pressures on its subjects; her fight dies out long before any real combat. Nonetheless, the ambiguity of Carter’s messages of unavoidability contrasted with that of feminism blurs the identification of this demythologisation for the reader, causing its presentation to be less successful.
Carter states that she is in the “demythologisation business”. This proclamation in itself consciously refers back to the popular term of ‘show business’, relating her literary business with one which is typically regarded as superficial and ostentatious. Carter diminishes the severity and revolutionary impact of demythologisation with this statement but also aligns her work to an art which is both accepted and celebrated at the heart of conventional society, glamorising experimental literature and introducing it to a wider audience. However, the use of the word “business” also connotes demythologisation with as aspect of authority and this is advantageous as it lends weight to the process that could be labelled as wholly subjective and radical.
This coupling is the culmination of Carter’s whole approach to demythologisation in literature. While her work can stand in itself as a fictional text with entertainment value due to the simplistic language, it is also a highly critical piece which hits back at society from a number of angles. It not only promotes feminism but also touches upon themes that vary from religious to gothic, all whilst striving to demythologise the ignored norms which govern our lives. Whilst this demythologisation is evident in her work and can be uncovered through examination, her multiple motives -themes and criticisms- often collide, causing confusion for the reader. This hinders the success of the process so that much of the impact of Carter’s demythologising is lost. Nonetheless, Carter is successful to the extent that she is able to demythologise western culture in numerous ways and through this, rouse revolution in her readers by provoking prolonged thought, and eventually perhaps influencing their view of society.
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