December 10, 1995
The first thing one notices in Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus is wings. Sophie Fevvers, aerialist extraordinarre, has wings. Glorious angelic, birdlike wings that she uses to fly. Not in the literal sense of course; but, she does fly nonetheless. It is through her development from a symbol of an angel to a real person that her wings become prominent in her transformation. It is this transformation of the self from an object and to a person with a true personality which critics define as “the heart of the novel” (Turner 39).
Angels are thought to be the messengers of God and the guides of souls to their destination for all eternity (Berefelt 15-16). Usually devoid of sex, or represented as androgenous figures of religion and myth, they are seen throughout the literary tradition as the missing link representative between humans and God. Angels are also thought to be the subordinates to God, as they were his to command (Berefelt 15). Interestingly, it is because of their obedience and subordination that women are most frequently associated to angels and angelic traits. This is also indicative of their traditional roles to men.
In their first depiction, angels didn’t have wings. It was until the 13 and 14th century B.C. when wings were a common association with angels (Berefelt 7). The term angel comes from the Greek word angelos meaning messenger (Hahn and Benes 12). Fallen angels are always linked to teaching men lessons such as astrology, the signs of the Earth, and the signs of the sun and moon’s course. Each lesson, in turn, is also said to have been taught by a different angel (Hahn and Benes 29).
There are four angelic motifs represented in Nights at the Circus. Fevvers is first compared to Cupid, the child cherub of love. In original mythology, Cupid’s arrows are said to invoke passion and love in the hearts of men when shot. At work for Ma Nelson, in a brothel of womanly love and desire, Fevvers is given a “little cotton wreath of roses” and a “baby bow of smoldering guilt and arrows of unfledged desire” (Carter 23). Too young to be tainted by man, it was her “job to sit in the alcove of the drawing-room in which the ladies introduced themselves to the gentlemen” (Carter 23). As Cupid, it is Fevvers’s duty to watch over the men and women of the room and create a sense of love matching and making. Carter draws this comparison because as a traditional belief, women are seen as the signs of feminine love and romance. It is they who spark the arrow of desire into the heart of men. In the story love is prostituted in the brothel where “life within… is governed by a sweet and loving reason” (Carter 39) unlike the harsh and unreasonable world in which man inhabits. Love is also usually depicted in a good sense, within the novel, when the love is shared between women. When love is abused and misunderstood, it is shared with men.
Later, when she and her wings have fully developed to maturity she is compared to the Winged Victory (Carter 25). The very night that she has attained her transformation from child Cupid to adulthood she become the Winged Victory. Instead of the bow and arrow, she is given Ma Nelson’s sword to rest by her side as she stands like a statue made of marble (Carter 32). Traditionally the winged angels of Victory are said to have no halos, this suggesting a more mortal stature (Berefelt 22). But, in Fevvers’s case, she is Victory in the triumph of the female desire to be strong and independent from the constraints which man provides women. Her Victory also comes in her ability to retain her sexuality without giving it away (Carter 32). She is also Victory in the sense that she is protectress of all that defines women and womenness.
In the house of Madame Shreck, Fevvers wears the guise of the Angel of Death (Carter 70). She is the “tombstone angel” who has fallen out of her childhood fantasy and has entered the harsh reality of the man’s world where she is no longer safe and protected in the arms of Ma Nelson and the other women. She resides over the other freaks as the guardian mistress of womanly fantasy and dreams. At Madame Shreck’s she has to play by a whole new set of rules and isn’t allowed to let her wings stretch out and fly. Madame Shreck differs from the loving and motherly Ma Nelson in that she caters “for those who were troubled in their…souls” (Carter 59). This passage also marks Fevvers’s transition or fall from womanly heaven into hell.
Finally she is call “the dark angel” and Gabriel by Mr. Rosencreutz (Carter 75). It was Gabriel who lead the good angels in the War for Heaven in Milton’s Paradise Lost. He is also one of God’s archangels and personal messengers. She becomes the dark angel in that she is mysterious and different from the other women that Mr. Rosencruetz may have dealt with in the past. Once again, unlike most women of her age, Fevvers is bold and is able to handle herself in many situations that women might have defined as uncomfortable. It is this quality that men find dark or unappealing in women, whom are always depicted as weak and small. She is Gabriel, in the sense that Fevvers is the right hand woman to the new Eve ideal (Schmidt 67). Carter draws upon the angelic imagery, here, because of Fevvers’s leadership qualities, and her feminine strengths and ability to stand up to men.
As a woman, Fevvers is portrayed in a non-stereotypical Victorian motif. Victorian women were adpt to be seen as grossly thin, small and having the manners of an angel. Fevvers is no lady in this sense. Although she has all the biologic markings and outward appearance of a woman that is about all that composes her womanly physique. Unlike the typical portrayal of women in the nineteenth century, physically Fevvers is tall, gawky and slightly overweight. Wasler remarks at this noting that his first impressions of Fevvers is her “physical ugliness” (Carter 16). Yet, it is in her difference as a women that also attracts him, as well as the rest of her adoring fans, to her.
Intellectually, Fevvers is an open-minded, scheming, self determined individual who seems to be in complete control of her life. She dotes on the gifts and attention that people give her. Given a brush and mirror set by the Prince of Wales, Fevvers’ first reaction to it is to pawn it off to a bank, squeezing its total worth from it (Carter 19). “She’s no fool” (Carter 19) describes exactly what Fevvers’s mentality is– sharp and extravagant. Even Wasler remarks that, “it was almost impossible to imagine any gesture of hers that did not have that grand, vulgar, careless generosity about it” (Carter 12).
Fevvers is accepting of her roles as defined by her sex but in many ways she refuses to accept their treatment and position in society. She abuses her sexual powers to gain a higher social status, she feeds off the attention that her position in the circus and her wings gives her , and she doesn’t take any crap from anyone. It is suggested in Turner’s article that in depicting Fevvers as a symbol Carter allows her to be carried out of society and transcend above it (54). Ricarda Schmidt suggests she is “the new symbol of femininity” (67). Furthermore, it is because of her ability to function as a symbol and as a person that makes her “a child of the dream of the future” (Schmidt 68), and that because “Fevvers can function as a freak or as a wonder confirms the non-essentialist character of femininity” (68). Carter’s portrayal of Fevvers, through her size, physique, and intellect, makes Fevvers uncaged in every aspect, unlike what her stage persona insists.
As an aerialist with the circus Fevvers incorporates caged bird imagery into her act. The opening of her act is composed to the song “Only a bird in a gilded cage” (Carter 14) implying she is a object to be admired and not real. This is what Fevvers is in the opening of her act, quite literally- a caged bird sitting high about the audience in her guilded cage platform. But, as her musical selection continues she breaks free from her cage and takes flight. However, her flight isn’t graceful and attractive at all but rather “physical ungainliness in flight caused, perhaps, by the absence of tail, the rudder of the flying bird” (Carter 27). “‘ She tries too damn’ hard'” Wasler exclaims as he watches her, critiquing her every move (Carter 16).
The Victorians enjoyed the idea of a caged bird for it was symbolic of the ideal women to them. Unlike the caged bird Fevvers is free to do and say whatever she wants. Her fantastique life’s story gives testimony to this. However, not being bound by male standards, Fevvers has more of the ability to function as a twentieth century woman, than she would if she were a nineteenth century Victorian. It is in the make-believe realm where her association to the caged bird stops and her open angelesque begins.
Fevvers is born with wings, or so she says. “Her slogan, Is she fact or is she fiction?'” (Carter 7) is in the foreground of the story. There are two ways one can view her wings. Either they are indicative of a bird or an angel. Carter uses the symbolism of the two, interchangeably throughout the novel. In telling her story, Fevvers points out to Wasler that she was hatched and not born as other mammals (Carter 7). “So, if this lovely lady is indeed, as her publicity alleges, a fabulous bird woman, then she, by all the laws of evolution and human reason, ought to possess no arms at all, for it’s her arms that ought to be wings” is the rationale Wasler attributes to her claim to fame (Carter 15). But, whereas a bird-woman might not have any arms, angels do. Therefore, Fevvers is indicative of an angel rather than a fowled person.
There is another thing about the wings that identifies Fevvers with the real and the fantastique. For capturing the dramatic in her aerialist act, she dyes her wings in grotesque shades of colors. She dyes them “in order to simulate more perfectly the tropic bird” (Carter 25). Originally they are blond, almost the color that traditional wings of angels are painted. In classical times “wings were a symbol of speed, as the attribute of a being occupying an intermediate position between mortals and gods and as a symbol of spirituality [wings] lies at the root of the investment of Christian angels with wings” (Berefelt 17).
Fevvers paints her wings extragavant colors because she desires to draw attention to them. She wants everybody to see them and make some comment as to the mystery behind her true nature. Even at the end of the novel, as the dye fades from the wings Carter keeps the mystery of the “fact or fiction” open. “‘To really think I fooled you!’ She marvelled. It just goes to show there’s nothing like confidence.'” (Carter 295). Here, Fevvers is attributing the mystery of her self and true identity in the guise of self-confidence.
But what did she fool him about? The fact that she isn’t a virgin as she depicts herself to be? That she admits to (Carter 294). But to the mystery of the wings she doesn’t prove to us either way. Unlike Wasler who experiences Fevvers on personal level in the end of the novel, we are left to guess the truth behind the misfit. If she does have wings, in the real physical and tangible sense, then all that she has said in her falsified history is true. But, if her wings are fake, just some nicely created stage effects, does she still have wings? Yes, except her true wings are on the inside where she carries them in her personality. For it is through her wings does her personality become hatched.
The idea of a personal journey, within the novel, occurs on two levels. The first level deals with the transition between the world of reality to the world of fantastique. This transition occurs slowly throughout the three places the novel is set. The story opens up in what appears to be a normal, nineteenth turn of the century London. Wasler is interviewing Fevvers and trying to get the scoop on her story. Only it is in this interview-not-an-interview where reality slowly begins to slip through the grasp of normalcy.
Certain features alert Wasler that Fevvers and Lizzie aren’t operating within the normal constraints of society. Unlike a real interview, where the reporter asks all the questions, Fevvers takes command and dictates the way of her interview. Wasler has no chance of getting a word in edgewise. Then, there is the question of time. During this first part the two women play tricks of time warping on Wasler. The bell of Big Ben is heard to ring midnight three times during this first section, a phenomenon that the ladies attribute to “the shadowless hour, the hour of vision and revelation, the still hour in the centre of the storm of time” in which Lizzie’s father time clock displays (Carter 29). It is also this notion of time which marks the journey from the real to fantastique in the novel. From this point onwards nothing will be as it seems.
Part two takes place in Petersburg, the glorious “city that does not exist anymore” (Carter 96). Here marks the further disintegration of reality and time. From the normal constraints of society, we and Wasler are lead into the world of the circus where “it functions as a symbol” and stage “of life” (Schmidt 68). Here, Wasler learns how to play by Fevvers and the other performers rules or be caught up and literally lost in the moment. He cannot understand what is happening around him in his scientific and logical sense for things operate on a different level here in the circus. In this realm the aerialist is the Queen of all she surveys, and the clowns represent a mock clergy and religion (Carter 166-125), where they “dance of disintegration; and of regression; celebration of the primal slime” (Carter 125). This transformation is then completed in the barren wastelands of Siberia, the third and final part of the book.
Part three opens with the whole system of time and order completely breaking out into chaos. The circus train is literally overturned in the middle of all the chaos. What better way to have it overturned than by incorporating some terrorist action group in the novel? Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Angela Carter’s novel has it all. From rampaging tigers to dead elephants and panopticon prison break-outs, this third section destroys and defies all common bounds of reality and rationality. It is here where the fantastique takes over as the norms (disnorms?) of the world; and, what better place for all this to occur but in the frozen wastelands of Siberia!
It is in this realm of the fantastique where Fevvers discovers her true identity and purpose for being, or the second transformation Carter weaves into her fairytale story. Her act in the circus is symbolic of her transformation within the novel. For at the beginning she is a caged bird in the sense that her identities are given on to her and not the true Fevvers inside the body. Later, in the novel she is set free, when she discovers what it means to be her. In the real world she is depicted as an object and nothing more. From caged bird identity to angelesque stature, she is nothing more than what is inflicted upon her, until she learns what it truly means to be a woman.
But, it is through being represented as an object she gains the necessary traits that define her as the new femininity. She learns how to operate as a main attraction in a world dominated by man. It is suggested by Turner that women who are presented as objects “tend to transpire as movements from one conditional role in relation to men to another, from daughter to wife or mistress” (42). However, this is only partially true in Fevvers’s case for while she is seen both as an object of desire and wonder, she is not defined in terms of a male associated role.
In London, we learn and see the conditions that Fevvers has grown up and defined herself with. She grows up in a house full of women and the only contact with men is either depicted in the novel as disastrous or through sexual contact (not direct with her, until the end). Rather, in the beginning of the novel she claims her sexuality to be hers alone and not for any man. Also, in being an object Fevvers is given into her personalities. It is from being one persona to the next, that helps Fevvers bring her true personality to the surface. And it does surface, only in the place of the fantastique, her command position at the circus, and later in Siberia.
Part three of Night at the Circus describes the massive transformation of Fevvers from an object of desire and wonder to a real person. In Siberia, she is stripped of everything she once held to be true and thought as part of her identity. The circus life has been upturned and she is now freely forced to live her own life. “Fevvers is [now] confronted with these manifestations of belief in false hopes, she undergoes a crisis of her own. When she lost her sword, she had lost some of that sense of her own trajectory. As soon as her feeling of invulernability was gone, what happened? Why, she broke her wing. Now she was a crippled wonder’ (p.273)” (Schmidt 70). She is now left to decide what she wants, what she desires to be.
Throughout this section she is seen constantly questioning her role of society and what it is to be Fevvers. “As soon as I’m out of sight of the abodes of humanity, my heart gives way beneath me like rotten floorboards, my courage fails” (Carter 197) is indicative of Fevvers’s questioning mind. It is in this removal from society where Fevvers is able to discover her true voice and identity. Only in the end does she become a real person, finally stripped of the physical wings that served throughout the book as her guide to the “special fate” for which she has envisioned her life to have (Carter 39).
Carter gives Fevvers wings because this is her vision of the ultimate woman. Fevvers is everything the modern world of women will and already has become. In her development of her personality, Fevvers has learned the tools and traits that make it necessary for a woman to have the ability to compete in a man’s world without losing any of the qualities that make her fictious. We cannot separate Fevvers from her wings because to do so would take away all differences that separate her from a traditional Victorian representative. Would Fevvers be a different woman without her wings? The answer would inevitably be yes.
Without wings, Fevvers would have been treated as a common and ordinary woman, when in fact she is quite the opposite- uncommon and extrodinary. Carter invokes the idea of time as a fantasy quality because reality is no fun. It has none of the dreamlike qualities that make possible angels as aerialists or painted bird wings, and circus clown religions. It is only when fantasy becomes real where these things can happen. Magic realism is Cater’s playground and while we are there, reading, and learning we have to play by her rules. It is being “placed at the turn of the century, on the brink of this colossal error, [where] Nights at the Circus seems to be reaching back to recapture what might have been, had the female body spoken itself as uncontainable power and had the object of man’s most rebellious desire not been defined as an “idol of perversity'”” (Siegel 13).
Berefelt, Gunnar. A Study on the Winged Angel. Trans. Patrick Hort, M.A. Stockholm : Almqvist and Wiksell, 1968. 7- 17.
Hahn, Emily and Barton Lidice Benes. Breath of God, A Book About Angels,Demons,Familiars, Elementals, and Spirits. New York : Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1971.
Schmidt, Ricarda. “The Journey of the Subject in Angela Carter’s Fiction.” Textual Practice. 3.1 (1989): 56-75.
Siegel, Carol. “Postmodern Women Novelists Review Victorian Male Masochism.” Genders. Boulder : n.p. 11 (1991) : 1-16.
Turner, Rory P.B. “Subjects and Symbols : Transformations of Identity in Nights at the Circus.” Folklore Forum. 20.1-2. (1987) : 39-60.