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La rhétorique – Rhetoricity

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Jean-Paul Regis

'Seeing is Believing': The Rhetoric of looking in Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus and Fay Weldon's Life and Loves of a She-devil

Silvia Mergenthal

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  • 1 Carter Angela, Nights at the Circus, London: Chatto and Windus, 1984; I shall be quoting from the (...)
  • 2 Weldon Fay, Life and Loves of a She-Devil, London: Hodder and Stenghton, 1983; quotes are from the (...)
  • 3 Kenyon Olga, Women Novelists Today. A Survey of English Writing in the Seventies and Eighties, Bri (...)

1At first glance, the two novels I shall be discussing in this paper could not be more dissimilar: Carter's Nights at the Circus1, which was published in 1984, is a stylistically and structurally complex text, with numerous intertextual references and a proliferation of subplots. The action of the novel takes us back to the last three months of the nineteenth century, and we follow the journey of the female protagonist from London to St Petersburg, and finally to Siberia. Fay Weldon's language in Life and. Loves of a She-Devil2, published in 1983, is deceptively simple: "Mary Fisher lives in a high tower, on the edge of the sea; she writes a great deal about the nature of love. She tells lies" (Life, p. 5). The plot of Life and Loves is broken down into a number of scenes reminiscent of soap operas, or even commercials.3 These scenes could take place anywhere in contemporary Western metroland.

2If one examines the two novels more closely, however, one discovers a striking parallel between the two texts: both novels evolve from central metaphors; these metaphors illustrate complementary ways of representing women, "woman-as-angel" in Carter's case, "woman-as-thedevil" in the case of Life and Loves. In my paper I shall try to show how the central metaphor informs various aspects of each text. I shall start with the protagonists of the two novels, move on to structure and narrative perspective, and then describe some intertextual strategies.

  • 4 Kirwan James, Literature, Rhetoric, Metaphysics. Literary Theory and Literary Aesthetics., London (...)

3A metaphor is a way of seeing;4 in our metaphors, the subsidiary subjects, angel or devil, influence the way in which we look at the principal subject, woman. If the metaphors are indeed at the centre of each novel, we shall first of all expect the protagonists to be established as the objects of other people's gaze; they will be, or become, "angels" or "devils" in the eyes of their beholders. The two protagonists, Fevvers in Nights at the Circus, Ruth in Life and Loves, do not correspond to conventional notions of feminine beauty: they are monstrosities, freaks. For one thing, they are much larger than the fictional life that surrounds them. Both are six feet and two inches tall, "which is fine for a man but not for a woman", as Ruth puts it (Life, p. 9). In addition, both, to an extent, embody the metaphor that categorizes them: We are led to believe, as are the characters in Nights at the Circus, that Fevvers, the "angel", really has wings, which she puts to good use in a variety of jobs, most spectacularly as an aerialiste. Ruth has four moles, "and from three of them hairs grow" (Life, p. 9); these three hairs, her glittering eyes, her "cold slow blood" (Life, p. 56, and elsewhere), or the colour red with which she is frequently associated are all traditional folkloric attributes of the devil.

  • 5 Cf. Palmer Pauline, "Prom 'Coded Mannequin' to Bird Woman: Angela Carter's Magic Plight", Roe, Sue (...)

4Ruth, in spite of her "diabolic" looks, starts her fictional career as the proverbial "angel in the house", an exemplary wife and mother; in the course of the novel, she begins to behave like a "devil", that is, she wantonly violates accepted codes of feminine behaviour. At the same time, her looks, through cosmetic surgery, become increasingly "angelic". Clearly, a woman can slide from one category into the other, or inhabit both categories at the same time. One might argue that the idealization of women can and does conceal profoundly misogynist tendencies, so that the two categories, "angel" and "devil", or superhuman and subhuman, collapse into one. Thus Fevvers claims, like Helen of Troy, a swan for her father; her very origin, then, is both superhuman and subhuman, divine and bestial, as is her winged appearance.5 The oxymoronic epithets that are most frequently used to describe her, "Cockney Venus" and "Helen of the High Wire", reflect this intrinsic dichotomy.

  • 6 Cf. Maack Annegret, "Angela Carter", Imhof, Rüdiger und Annegret Maack (eds.), Der englische Roman (...)

5The two novels are constructed as sequences of events in which the protagonists become targets of visual assaults. They respond to these assaults in various ways: public images of women and an individual woman's self-image are interdependent. Before she enters on her successful career as a trapeze artist, Fevvers makes a living by exposing herself, or rather her wings, in brothels and freak shows. Other characters in Nights at the Circus gaze into mirrors, and do not recognize themselves. Occasionally, they find themselves reflected in other people's eyes. They quote philosophical platitudes such as "seeing is believing" or Berkeley's esse est percipi, to be is to be perceived.6 They are misled by optical illusions and develop visions of a new and better world. The novel's various preoccupations with seeing and being seen coalesce in a subplot which we will now examine in detail. In the third chapter of the third book, the Countess of P. presides over a penal colony in Siberia where women who have murdered their husbands atone for their crimes. The central building of this colony is modelled on Bentham's Panopticon:

It was a panopticon she forced them to build, a hollow circle of cells shaped like a doughnut, the inwardfacing wall of which was composed of grids of steel and, in the middle of the roofed, central courtyard, there was a room surrounded by windows. In that room [the Countess]'d sit all day and stare and stare and stare at her murderesses and they, in turn, sat all day and stared at her. (Nights, p. 210)

  • 7 Foucault Michel, Surveiller et punir. La naissance de la prison, Paris: Gallimard, 1975.

6The example of Olga Alexandrovna, one of the imprisoned women, shows how this architectural design affects the daily life of the prison inmates. Olga spends her day offering extenuating circumstances to a judge in her mind. At the end of each day, the judge returns a verdict of self-defence, but when Olga wakes up in the morning, she is still under the Countess's gaze, and the devil's advocate in her mind orders a retrial. According to Foucault, who discusses Bentham's Panopticon in the third part of Surveiller et punir7, prisoners who are constantly visible, on display, internalize the instruments of power and employ them against themselves; they play the dual roles of accuser and accused, and thus become the agents of their own subjection.

7However, Nights at the Circus also shows a way out of the prisoners' dilemma. Characteristically, the emancipation from the countess's gaze and the destruction of the penal colony are initiated by another way of looking: Olga manages to exchange a glance with one of the wardens. The Countess's gaze, which establishes control over its object, is replaced by the reciprocal glance, in which the two participants are simultaneously object and subject, and in which they recognize themselves and each other. Visual communication between Olga and Vera Andreyevna, which, incidentally, the Countess fails to notice, is soon followed by other nonverbal and verbal acts, and spreads to the other inmates and wardens. Eventually, they revolt and turn the tables, or rather, the glances, on the countess: "At one accord, the guards threw off their hoods, the prisoners came forth, and all turned towards the Countess in one great, united look of accusation" (Nights, p. 218). The women will move on to found a Utopian community in the Siberian wilderness, a community in which glances will not become instruments of power: "[They] knew that to look is to coerce and, whatever else might lie in store for them, at this moment, they were free to choose" (Nights, p. 223).

8The two ways of looking which are contrasted in the Siberian prisoners' subplot are central to the history of our protagonist Fevvers, to whom we will now return. As we have seen, she makes a living by exhibiting her wings. Her career has been carefully planned by herself and her adoptive mother Liz and is referred to as a "symbolic exchange in the market place" (Nights, p. 185). Fewers has learnt to look at her body objectively, as a commodity which is marketable not only because of its physical anomaly but also because of its embodiment of powerful cultural myths such as "Winged Victory", "the angel of Death", "Venus, or Helen, or Angel of the Apocalypse", "Izrael or Isfahel". Even so, Fevvers claims to possess an inviolate, essential self apart from her body:

My being, my meness, is unique and indivisible. To sell the use of myself for the enjoyment of another is one thing; I might even offer freely, out of gratitude or in the expectation of pleasure [...]. But the essence of myself may not be given or taken, or what would there be left of me? (Nights, pp. 280-1)

  • 8 For the carnivalesque aspects of Carter's novel see Palmer, op. cit., particularly pp. 197-8.
  • 9 The term is used by Carter in an interview with Haffenden in: Haffenden John, Novelists in Intervi (...)

9The concept of a personal, "essential" identity, however, is in itself problematic, particularly in a novel which, in its plurality of discourses, can be described as carnivalesque;8 it comes as no surprise, then, that Liz answers Fevvers'question ("or what would there be left of me?") as follows: "'Precisely', said Lizzie, with mournful satisfaction" (Nights, p. 281). It becomes increasingly obvious that Fevvers'dependence on others'glances is not only economic but also psychological. Some glances, notably those of the "mad scientists"9 which she encounters, diminish her. Conversely, she is sustained physically and emotionally by the admiring glances of those who watch her perform; during her sojourn in Siberia, where she is temporarily deprived of her gazing and admiring public, she loses her tremendous energy and vitality. Her wings droop, their vivid colour fades. The resulting crisis of identity reaches its climax when Fevvers cannot any longer see her own reflection in her lover's eye; she loses her boasted ability of keeping her "essence" inviolate, and of distinguishing between it and her public image.

10The solution to this crisis of identity is prefigured in the subplot involving the Siberian prisoners. Carter's novel does not privilege Lesbian relationships, but allows for satisfactory heterosexual contacts as well. The male characters in the novel, however, have to undergo a strenuous educational process before they are capable of reciprocal visual communication. We shall now briefly look at the education of Fevvers'lover, Jack Walser. In this context we shall also comment on Carter's narrative technique, particularly on her choice of narrative perspective.

  • 10 Jack is now, metaphorically, "hatched", a process which Fevvers, as we are led to believe, has gon (...)

11In the first part of Nights at the Circus, the American journalist Jack Walser interviews Fevvers for a series of articles with the working title "Great Humbugs of the World". This section of the novel is narrated from Walser's point of view; he (and the reader with him) tries to classify Fevvers according to the apparently stable categories of "fact" or "fiction". However, even in these first chapters Walser's perspective is destabilized in various ways: Fevvers refuses to submit to Walser's categorization and insists on establishing her own identity. Consequently, she is given plenty of room for narrating her own story. She also repeatedly looks at her own reflection in the mirror, or exchanges reciprocal glances with Liz. The two women's strategies prove so successful that Walser, the sceptic, decides to suspend judgement and to investigate further. He joins the circus, and travels to St. Petersburg with Fevvers and her colleagues. In the St. Petersburg section of the novel, an omniscient narrator takes over. The main function of this change of narrative perspective is to mock-authenticate various non-realistic events, that is, to further destabilize Walser's categories of fact and fiction. Like the narrator, Walser becomes more susceptible to the magic atmosphere of the circus, and, for the first time, exchanges a reciprocal glance — with one of the circus animals. From this encounter, he emerges shaken and confused: the price he has to pay for visual communication, it seems, is selfhumiliation, and, eventually, in the third part of the novel, loss of identity. When Jack loses his mind, he is deprived of an attitude which defines male identity through man's dominant position in a patriarchal society. Jack's recovery, which is described in terms of a rebirth,10 enables him to enter into new, equal and reciprocal relationships with women; their sign is the reciprocal glance. In this final section, reciprocity becomes a narrative principle: When Fevvers and Walser are finally reunited in Siberia, their reunion is first shown from Fevvers', then from Walser's point of view (Nights, pp. 250-1 and pp. 267-70, respectively). It is Jack himself who comments on the connection between narrative perspective and identity:

  • 11 Italics mine.

Jack, ever an adventurous boy, ran away with the circus for the sake of a bottle blond in whose hands he was putty since the first moment he saw her. [...] All that seemed to happen to me in the third person as though, most of my life, I watched it but did not live it. But now, hatched out of the shell of unknowing by a combination of a blow on the head and a sharp spasm of erotic ecstasy, I shall have to start all over again. (Nights, p. 294)11

12At the end of the novel, F ewers'real name is restored to her; it is a name which no longer defines her through her physical appearance, through her wings — Fewers is, after all, a Cockney version of 'Feathers' — but perhaps draws attention to her inner qualities, to her "me-ness": Sophie (= Wisdom). Eventually, she and Walser will be close enough for him to call her by this name.

13In Chapter Four of Life and Lives of a She-Devil, the narrator introduces Brenda, the protagonist's mother-in-law. Brenda hides in the garden of Ruth's house and watches her through a window. Again, as in Nights at the Circus, the novel's narrative perspective initially puts the reader into the position of a spectator; as readers, we are invited to share the point of view of those characters who look at the protagonist rather than that of the protagonist herself. Brenda comes to the conclusion that in spite of her unpromising physical appearance, Ruth is a competent mother, wife, and housewife. When Ruth suddenly and inexplicably bursts into tears, Brenda merely comments: "The suburban blues! It affects even the happiest" (Life, p. 18). The chapter ends with Ruth, still in tears, rushing off to her bedroom.

14At the beginning of Chapter Six, again told by an omniscient narrator, Ruth re-emerges, and the whole family sits down to dinner. We already know that her husband Bobbo has a mistress, and the tensions between her and Bobbo now become increasingly obvious. From Bobbo's point of view, Ruth violates the marital contract, which had initially been founded on her domestic abilities and on her cheerful acceptance of Bobbo's extramarital sexual activities. At the end of the chapter, Bobbo accuses her:

You have worked terrible mischief here tonight! You have upset my parents, you have upset your children, and you have upset me. Even the animals were affected. I see you at last as you really are. You are a third-rate person. You are a bad mother, a worse wife, and a dreadful cook. In fact I don't think you are a woman at all. I think you are a she-devil! (Life, p. 42)

15A woman who refuses to play her domestic role of "angel in the house" is not a woman any more. She has fallen from grace and become a devil.

16As we have seen, the end of Chapter Four takes Ruth off the stage, and in Chapter Six she rejoins the family circle. Chapter Five allows the reader a glimpse behind the scenes; the narrative perspective changes, and Ruth becomes a first-person narrator. First of all, she tries to calm herself down by intoning the "Litany of the Good Wife":

I must consent to the principle that those who earn most outside the home deserve most inside the home; for everyone's sake.

I must build up my husband's sexual confidence, I must not express any sexual interest in other men, in private or in public; I must ignore his way of diminishing me, by publicly praising women younger, prettier and more successful than me, and sleeping with them in private, if he can, for everyone's sake. (Life, p. 25)

17A good wife must always hide her real feelings and pretend to be happy. A good wife must be grateful to her husband, and get on well with his parents. Ruth is quick to recognize that she does not any longer fit this description, as, indeed, the next chapter — the disastrous meal with children and in-laws — shows all too clearly. In the following chapters, she will burn down the family home, dispatch the children to her husband's mistress, and embark on an long — and truly diabolic — course of revenge.

18The double change of narrative perspective, from the omniscient to the first-person narrator and back again, dominates the narrative structure of the novel as a whole. There is a gap between the omniscient narrator's perspective on Ruth — which is, of course, shared by the other characters in the novel — and Ruth's self-image. This gap is interpreted by Ruth as the clash between her "diabolic" physical appearance and her "angelic", that is, loving and lovable, soul: "My nature and my looks do not agree" (Life, p. 6). The beautiful soul should be clothed in an "angelic" body, "small and pretty and delicately formed" (Life, p. 6), as is the body of Bobbo's mistress, Mary Fisher. Like a real devil, Ruth defies God and opposes his divine act of creation by re-creating herself-in Mary Fisher's image.

19In order to ruin her rival and her husband, Ruth must assume a series of traditional female roles such as nurse, home-help, secretary. This enables Weldon to present a panorama of female exploitation and humiliation. With each role, Ruth, again like the devil, changes her name, physical appearance, behaviour. In these roles she is presented by the omniscient narrator, while every other chapter re-establishes her own, first-person point of view, thus suggesting that beneath her various roles, Ruth's inner life, and her outlook on life, stay the same. This inner continuity, beneath exterior change, is reinforced by the frequent repetition of certain key phrases and sentences, and by the last two lines of the novel; Ruth, who has now metamorphosed into the tiny Mary Fisher, claims: "I am a lady of six foot two, who had tucks taken in her legs. A comic turn, turned serious" (Life, p. 240). According to her, it is only her body which has changed.

20However, Weldon's text, much like Carter's, seems to undermine the protagonist's confident self-evaluation, and to question her naive concept of personal identity. In the course of her various metamorphoses, Ruth has lost her ability to love, and has been corrupted by her new economic as well as sexual power. Flora Alexander, in her chapter on the novel, comments on this process as follows:

  • 12 Alexander Flora, Contemporary Women Novelists, London: Aenold, 1989, p. 57.

The book is a complex one in which initial sympathy for Ruth is modified or withdrawn when eventually she adopts the same system of values that motivated her husband and his lover, even to the extent of having herself made smaller and prettier by a grotesque process of surgical reconstitution.12

  • 13 Cf. German feminist reviews of the novel, e.g. Gunhild Schöler in TAZ, Sept 24, 1987, and Pflaster (...)
  • 14 Seidelman in Journal für die Frau, 7/90.

21It does not come as a surprise that feminist reviewers deplore the ending of the novel and in particular the fact that, instead of being proud of her "anti-feminine", ugly but powerful body, Weldon's protagonist voluntarily re-makes herself into a conventionally pretty doll13; a she-devil, in this argument, could have been, or been made into, a positive symbol of female power. Accordingly, in Susan Seidelman's screen-version of the novel with Meryl Streep as Mary Fisher and Roseanne Barr as Ruth, Ruth stays ugly, and Bobbo learns to love her as she is; in an interview, Seidelman explained that she opted for this ending because women should not be defined through their bodies.14

22In an analogous attempt at rewriting Weldon's uncomfortable, and uncomforting, text, her American publishers initially removed the episode in which Ruth briefly joins a "commune of separatist feminists" (Life, Ch. 29, pp. 199-210). The women in the commune do not allow any mirrors in their house because only a woman's reflection in another woman's eyes reveals her true identity. Ruth's attitude towards the members of the commune is highly ambivalent: she appreciates their warmth, but recognizes that their relationships with each other are as determined by "lookism" as heterosexual relationships, "and that the best looking would suffer least, and the worst looking most, here as anywhere" (Life, p. 294). As the women's commune is described in one of the authoritative chapters, Ruth's observation is supported and authenticated by the omniscient narrator; it is illustrated by various incidents in the commune.

23As we have seen, Carter's Nights at the Circus ends on an optimistic note: After a series of encounters dominated by the male partner, there is a real possibility of a new, balanced and reciprocal, relationship between the sexes. While the first, conventional, relationship is exemplified by a series of visual assaults on the female body as object, the new relationship is initiated, in the novel, by a reciprocal glance in which the two participants are object and subject at the same time. This reciprocal glance must be preceded by a change of attitude in the male partner. Only then, and only because they no longer define her, can Fevvers'wings be endowed with new meaning: Woman is no longer "a bird in a gilded cage" but can soar up to freedom, as does Fevvers' cosmic laughter at the end of the novel. This laughter precipitates the world into a new, the twentieth, century: Carter's text, which sets out to demythologize the myth of "woman-as-angel", has itself a mythologizing dimension.

  • 15 Liz, Fewers'adoptive mother, is a Marxist and an active participant in revolutionary plots. She su (...)

24However, the transformation of Jack Walser and the new relationship between him and Fevvers/Sophie are located in the carnivalesque context of the circus. It is perhaps only in this context that unconventional relationships are possible; outside it, individual consciousness can only be transformed in the wake of revolutionary political and social changes.15 And as readers at the end of the twentieth century we are asked to recognize, of course, that Fevvers' hopes for her sex have not been fully realized. Hence it is only fitting that the last word of the text should be "confidence", both in the sense of "faith" and as the first component of the collocation "confidence trick".

25Even so, the world of Weldon's Life and. Loves of a She-Devil is altogether bleaker. The novel's various representatives of patriarchal authority, the judge, the priest, and the physician, are only interested in preserving their power; the female characters have to resort to devious and humiliating strategies to survive in a corrupt system. The novel does not inspire any confidence in man's, or indeed woman's, ability, to enter into balanced, reciprocal relationships. In fact, we have seen that Ruth's wish is to become as "angelic" as Mary Fisher. This image of woman is indestructible, and the individual woman's only hope is to match it as closely as possible, which will then give her "power over the hearts and pockets of men" (Life, p. 24).

  • 16 Cf. Boone, Joseph Allen. Tradition Counter Tradition. Love and the Form of Fiction, Chicago and Lo (...)

26While every novel is exemplary in that it points to general patterns underlying the individual fate of its protagonists, both Carter and Weldon emphasize these patterns still further by their use of intertextual strategies. I have argued at the beginning of this paper that the two metaphors, "woman-as-angel" and "woman-as-the-devil", are complementary ways of representing women. We shall now see that our two novels, through their elaborate intertextual strategies, situate their use of metaphor in a dominant ideology of gender; ideology can, after all, be defined as a system of representations.16

27In Nights at the Circus, there are numerous references to fictional subgenres such as the historical novel, the Gothic novel, and the picaresque novel. The techniques of the historical novel, in particular the precise details of time and place and the introduction of numerous historical figures such as Freud, Toulouse-Lautrec or the Russian Czar, mainly serve as mock-authentication of such non-realistic aspects of the novel as Fevvers' wings. On another level, they propose, tentatively, a new concept of historiographical writing; in this concept, which can as yet only be put into practice in a fictional context, the male historiographer becomes a humble amanuensis to whom the women dictate their own version of history. It is difficult to resist the pun "her-story".

'Think of [Jack Walser], not as a lover, but as a scribe, as an amanuensis,' [Fevvers] said to Lizzie. 'And not of my trajectory, alone, but of yours, too, Lizzie. [...] Think of him as the amanuensis of all those tales we've yet to tell him, the histories of those women who would otherwise go down nameless and forgotten, erased from history as if they had never been... (Nights, p. 285)

  • 17 For research on the Gothic novel see in particular: Doody, Margaret Anne, "Deserts, Ruins, and Tro (...)

28This passage, incidentally, immediately precedes one in which Fevvers defines herself as the symbol of a new age. Again her self-image and the public images of women are closely linked: New women need new stories. The "old stories" are exemplified mainly by the Gothic tradition, from which the "mad scientists", notably Mr Rosencreutz and the Grand Duke, are the most obvious borrowings. These borrowings must be seen in the context of recent, particularly feminist, reevaluations of the Gothic subgenre as a projection of female powerlessness and as a map of female anxieties.17 The scientists, and Mme Schreck, the owner of the freak show, exploit the heroine's anomaly for their own, invariably sinister, purposes. The new stories, on the other hand, are modelled, as is Nights at the Circus as a whole, on the structure of the picaresque novel. Carter's novel draws attention to its own reversal of the picaresque convention, a reversal in which it is the female protagonist who travels and has adventures, and is eventually rewarded with a happy ending:

  • 18 Carter's novel is, above all, self-referential; see p. 279 for another example: "Why, you might ha (...)

And so our journeys commenced again, as if they were second nature. Young as I am [says Fevvers], it's been a picaresque life; will there be no end to it? Is it my fate to be a female Quixote, with Liz my Sancho Panza? If so, what of the young American? Will he turn out to be the beautiful illusion, the dulcinea of that sentimentality for which Liz upbraids me, telling me it's but the obverse of my enthusiasm for cash? (Nights, p. 245)18

  • 19 Carter Angela, "Notes from the Front Line", Wandor, Michelene (ed.). On Gender and Writing, London (...)
  • 20 ibid., p. 271.

29The critique of fictional conventions, however, is only one aspect of the intertextual, indeed intermedial, fabric of Carter's novel. Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Yeats, or Joyce, sculpture, painting, music, theatre, film all inhabit what Carter herself calls "the lumber-room of Western civilization"19. According to her, the lumber-room contains "social fictions that regulate our lives". For these social fictions she also uses the term "myth" — we have called them a system of representation — and describes her task as novelist as follows: "I am in the demythologizing business".20

  • 21 Weldon mainly uses the Bible (particularly its creation myth), some fairy-tale characters (Anderse (...)
  • 22 London: Michael Joseph, 1984; quotes are from the 1985 Coronet paperback edition.

30On the whole, intertextual references are less numerous in Life and Loves of a She-Devil than in Carter's novels.21 At the centre, however, is again a critique of fictional conventions. Mary Fisher, Ruth's rival in Life and Loves of a She-Devil, is a novelist who writes pulp romances of the Mills & Boon type: "she tells lies" (Life, p. 5). In her Letters to Alice, on First Reading Jane Austen22 Weldon describes the psychological damage done by this kind of fiction:

  • 23 ibid., pp. 12-3.

These books open a little square window on the world and set the puppets parading outside for you to observe. They bear little resemblance to human beings, to anyone you ever met or are likely to meet. These characters exist for purposes of plot, and the books they appear in do not threaten the reader in any way, they do not suggest that he or she should reflect, let alone change. But then, of course, being so safe, they defeat themselves, they can never enlighten. And because they don't enlighten, they are unimportant. (Unless, of course, they are believed, when they become dangerous. To believe a Mills & Boon novel reflects real life, is to live in perpetual disappointment. You are meant to believe while the reading lasts, and not a moment longer.)23

31In her own novel, Weldon uses various strategies to discredit the romance pattern; it is dangerous for writers and readers alike. Mary Fisher initially leads the life of a fictional heroine, and even talks like one; however, once she is confronted with emotionally disturbed stepchildren, an adulterous husband (Bobbo, of course), and serious financial problems, she is washed over by the "tides of practical detail" (Life, p. 99) and loses her ability of producing romances to formula.

32From Mary Fisher, we move on to one of her readers, Vicky. Vicky is a single mother on social security who lives in a deprived inner city district. Like the heroines of Mary Fisher's novels, Vicky and her female neighbours are in search of true love, which the novels have taught them to expect from life. When this true love fails to materialize, they escape into the world of fiction where they can experience love vicariously. Their men, incidentally, find their emotional release in horror comics and sexand-violence videos, "and all felt temporarily better" (Life, p. 169).

33We are invited to draw parallels between Vicky, or Mary Fisher, and Ruth. Gradually we realize that Ruth is deeply influenced by conventional notions of romantic love, and that she tries, much like Vicky or Mary Fisher, to arrange her life accordingly. In terms of romantic fiction, the plot of Life and Loves of a She-Devil can thus be described as the story of an ugly duckling who miraculously transforms herself into a beautiful swan, and marries the love of her life. What really happens to Ruth and Bobbo is, of course, a cruel perversion of this pattern. As we have seen, the concept of romantic love, and in particular the gender stereotypes it generates, becomes increasingly problematic in the novel. Even in its very title, "true love" has been replaced by "loves", and this multiplication of "loves" is reflected in the inflationary use of the word throughout the text which deprives it of whatever stable meaning it may originally have had. Weldon is, like Carter, in the "demythologizing business".

  • 24 The last two are also referred to as action; see in particular Dieter Breuer, "Die Bedeutung der R (...)
  • 25 In particular Plett, Heinrich F. Textwissenschaft und Textanalyse. Semiotik, Linguistik, Rhetorik.(...)

34Recent German literary theory and literary criticism has focussed on two complementary aspects of rhetoric. First of all, in productionoriented criticism, rhetoric is seen as providing a model of textual production based on the five steps of invention, distribution, elocution, memory, and pronounciation.24 In the second approach, receptionoriented criticism, critics either isolate those strategies of the text which carry the weight of its communication with the reader, or else discuss every rhetorical figure not only in its semantic and syntactic, but also in its pragmatic dimension.25 Both approaches, of course, regard the literary text primarily as an instrument of communication between author and reader.

35In Nights at the Circus and Life and Loves of a She-Devil, the central metaphor links various levels of the text; it is a device which gives coherence to what is often quite disparate fictional material. In my discussion of the two novels, I have tried to describe the semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic aspects of their respective central metaphors: What does the metaphor "mean" when applied to its object, the protagonist? How is the text structured as a series of significant events? How are the readers meant to perceive the protagonist, and how does the text influence their perception through narrative technique? How does the text make its readers aware of their own preconceptions?

Notes

1 Carter Angela, Nights at the Circus, London: Chatto and Windus, 1984; I shall be quoting from the 1985 Picador paperback edition.

2 Weldon Fay, Life and Loves of a She-Devil, London: Hodder and Stenghton, 1983; quotes are from the 1984 Coronet paperback edition.

3 Kenyon Olga, Women Novelists Today. A Survey of English Writing in the Seventies and Eighties, Brighton: Harvester, 1988, p. 123.

4 Kirwan James, Literature, Rhetoric, Metaphysics. Literary Theory and Literary Aesthetics., London and New York: Routledge 1990, p. 56.

5 Cf. Palmer Pauline, "Prom 'Coded Mannequin' to Bird Woman: Angela Carter's Magic Plight", Roe, Sue (ed.). Women Reading Women's Writing, New York: St. Martin's Press 1987, pp. 179-205; Palmer draws attention to the carefully established parallels between the female characters and the circus animals in the novel.

6 Cf. Maack Annegret, "Angela Carter", Imhof, Rüdiger und Annegret Maack (eds.), Der englische Roman der Gegenwart, Tübingen: Francke, 1987, UTB 1467, pp. 226-44.

7 Foucault Michel, Surveiller et punir. La naissance de la prison, Paris: Gallimard, 1975.

8 For the carnivalesque aspects of Carter's novel see Palmer, op. cit., particularly pp. 197-8.

9 The term is used by Carter in an interview with Haffenden in: Haffenden John, Novelists in Interview, London and New York: Methuen, 1985, p. 95.

10 Jack is now, metaphorically, "hatched", a process which Fevvers, as we are led to believe, has gone through quite literally: "Hatched; by whom, I do not know. Who laid me is as much a mystery to me, sir, as the nature of my conception, my father and my mother utterly unknown to me, and some would say, unknown to nature, what's more. But hatch out I did. (Fevvers to Walser, Nights, p. 21).

11 Italics mine.

12 Alexander Flora, Contemporary Women Novelists, London: Aenold, 1989, p. 57.

13 Cf. German feminist reviews of the novel, e.g. Gunhild Schöler in TAZ, Sept 24, 1987, and Pflasterstrand 5/87; see also Palmer Paulina, Contemporary Women's Fiction: Narrative Practice and Feminist Theory, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester, 1989, p. 38.

14 Seidelman in Journal für die Frau, 7/90.

15 Liz, Fewers'adoptive mother, is a Marxist and an active participant in revolutionary plots. She subscribes to Marx's dictum (as does perhaps the novel as a whole) that "it is not the consciousness of individuals that determines their being, but on the contrary their social being that determines their consciousness" (in: Preface to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859).

16 Cf. Boone, Joseph Allen. Tradition Counter Tradition. Love and the Form of Fiction, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1987, pp. 7-8; Boone's definition of ideology is, of course, based on Althusser's, particularly in the letter's Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (transi. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971).

17 For research on the Gothic novel see in particular: Doody, Margaret Anne, "Deserts, Ruins, and Troubled Waters: Female Dreams in Fiction and the Development of the Gothic Novel". Genre, Vol. 10 (1977), pp. 529-72; Landon, Brooks, "Eve at the End of the World: Sexuality and the Reversal of Expectations", Palumbo, Donald (ed.). Erotic Universe. Sexuality and Fantastic Literature (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986); Punter, David. The Literature of Terror. A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day. London and New York: Longman, 1980; Wilt, Judith, Ghosts of the Gothic: Austen, Eliot, and Lawrence (Princeton University Press, 1980).

18 Carter's novel is, above all, self-referential; see p. 279 for another example: "Why, you might have said we constituted a microcosm of humanity, each signifying a different proposition in the great syllogism of life."

19 Carter Angela, "Notes from the Front Line", Wandor, Michelene (ed.). On Gender and Writing, London: Pandora, 1983.

20 ibid., p. 271.

21 Weldon mainly uses the Bible (particularly its creation myth), some fairy-tale characters (Andersen's "Little Mermaid"), and, like Carter, the Gothic tradition (Mary Shelley's Frankenstein); see Waugh, Patricia, Feminine Fictions: Revisiting the Postmodern, London and New York: Routledge, 1989

22 London: Michael Joseph, 1984; quotes are from the 1985 Coronet paperback edition.

23 ibid., pp. 12-3.

24 The last two are also referred to as action; see in particular Dieter Breuer, "Die Bedeutung der Rhetorik für die Textinterpretation". Plett, Heinrich F.(ed.). Rhetorik. Kritische Positionen zum Stand der Forschung. München: Fink, 1977; UTB 425.

25 In particular Plett, Heinrich F. Textwissenschaft und Textanalyse. Semiotik, Linguistik, Rhetorik. Heidelberg: Quelle und Meyer, 1975; UTB 328.

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Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1993

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