Space, Mirrors, Subjectivity in Angela Carter’s Fiction

by Jiang Xiaobo (Author)
©2023 Monographs VI, 150 Pages


Angela Carter is known for her style—daring, disturbing, excessive—and her efforts to destroy and demystify every social norm. But she does more than dare. With sharp and subtle sensitivity, Carter disintegrates paradigms of temporality and mind enshrined by western philosophical tradition. She recognizes and illustrates how our modern alienation and disorientation derive more from spatial anxiety than time disorientation. Through her novels and short stories, Carter re-examines the human-space relation, unraveling the power discourses inscribed as the representation of space, and provides broader spatiotemporal imagination and possibilities. Focusing on spatiality in her works, this book explores Carter’s attempts to criticize, resist and rewrite hierarchical, gendered discourse—analyzing it through the lens of confining space, specular space and bodily space. I will show how Carter tries to build a new model of space that transcends the dominant/dominated paradigm and establishes a spatiality-subjectivity totality. Her model overcomes our state of alienation by embracing corporeality and excess, lived experience in everyday interactions with space, and a new construction of subject of becoming. This book is for literary critics, professors and students of literature, readers of Angela Carter, and all those who feel trapped by their bodies and space.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 Confining Space: Space as Palimpsest of Power
  • Chapter 2 Specular Space: Mirror as FaÇade and through the Looking Glass
  • Chapter 3 Bodily Space: From Puppet to Flux Identity of Becoming
  • Conclusion


Angela Carter (1940–92) was an English novelist and journalist, known for her feminism and magical realism elements and her postmodern attempts in her works. When Carter died of cancer in 1992, she had been one of the best known British authors of the twentieth century, whose novels, short stories, reviews and journalism won her both critical acclaim and at the same time aroused controversy. But she never enjoyed massive attention and was never really accepted by the literary circle when she was alive, with the fact, some argue, that her Nights at the Circus did not appear on the Booker Prize list that year. Her posthumous reputation gives people an impression that she is a little ahead of her time, which is somewhat true given that a lot of her writings seemed to predict major intellectual and aesthetic trends: debates over pornography and female desire, poststructuralist theory, magic realism, transgender studies (Bristow and Broughton 14; Gamble, Literary 74, 88; Pitchford 411).

It is obvious that Carter was familiar with most of the literary theories in her time, and even predated several which would be prominent only later. Although she is not a philosopher or a theorist, her partiality to theories is still rare among novelists of her time. Marxism, Feminism, Dadaism and psychoanalysis shed light on Carter’s works. Her fiction is so full of deconstructive efforts in service of her “demythologizing business” even before the heyday of deconstruction. Critics1 find the play of gender as performance in The Passion of New Eve like a fictional version pre-empting Judith Butler’s concept in the 1990s. Moreover, her novels also reflect the great influence of the film industry. She wrote about cinema and stage literally and symbolically in her works, and in fact collaborated with film director Neil Jordan and put her “Company with the Wolves” onto the big screen. Furthermore, her writings bear the techniques of the cinema and coincide with the critique of important film critics such as Laura Mulvey, Christian Metz and Jean-Louis Baudry.

While the present study primarily pursues a reading of space in Carter’s fiction, it necessarily draws on a variety of theoretical concepts, a feminist approach more than anything else. As Julia Simon observes, “Carter’s stay in Japan from 1969 to 1972 heightened her socio-political awareness and radicalized her as a feminist” (1–2). In Nothing Sacred Carter herself admits that “In Japan, I learnt what it was to be a woman and became radicalized” (28). Her work seems to encompass various interrelated feminist projects, ranging from exposing masculine stereotypes and distortion, examining the social forces that repress and shape women’s lives to discovering feminist writing and establishing the new female subject and social models.

The theoretical perspectives in Carter are not the only thing which shows she was ahead of her time. The ambiguity and diversity of the critical responses also reflect the development in the reception of Carter’s works. Earlier academic readings of Carter tend to be very critical of her works. The preoccupation with stylistic excessiveness, the description of sexuality and violence created uneasiness and shock among readers and critics alike. Citing Bristow and Broughton, Linden Peach maintains that Carter “delved in to the most unsettling depths of Western culture, only to transmogrify its myths and unleash its monsters” (7). Gerrard considers her novels “undecorous, overripe and mocking talks in which nothing is sacred and nothing natural” (7). Elaine Jordan admits that she had her “moment of horror and cold feet at what I was letting myself in for…[Carter] started out writing as a male impersonator, with a strong streak of misogyny” (16). Nicole Ward Jouve describes her reading experience of Carter: “I couldn’t but be shocked, offended. It rubbed me up the wrong way” (153). But the reception and understanding of Carter for Jouve, like for many other readers and critics, deepen only gradually. She then tells us a detail during her reading process that helped her understand Carter’s bold and blasphemous style better. She was a bit surprised when her teenage son found The Passion of New Eve terribly clever. He thought “it defeated every pornographic expectation from its male reader” (158).

Despite her radical, unpleasant, offensive style, critics start to shift the emphasis to her cool-minded and insightful diagnosis of the shackles and restraints of society, especially when it comes to gender relations. In her iconoclastic efforts, she exhaustively exposes the slightest trace of myth, making the “demythologizing business” (“Notes” 38) her life-time vocation. However, many critiques before the 1990s of academic readings of Carter focus on her stories as carriers of patriarchal ideology and concord with the violence of pornography. These are among the two most controversial areas especially as far as feminism is concerned. Her support of pornography and her depiction of violence against women in her fiction and non-fiction are criticized the most, for they strengthen and further the image of women as objects of male desire and conspire with patriarchal ideology. Instead of destroying the pattern, her stories replicate patriarchal pornography only, as pornography, no matter who writes it, always “uses the language of male sexuality” (Patricia Duncker 7). And Carter “envisages women’s sensuality simply as a response to male arousal” (7).

And most of those who do not regard Carter’s effort to destroy social norms as actually conspiring with them regard her attempts as only the reversal of patriarchal order. Under patriarchal culture, women are offered a biased portrait of themselves as being weak. But the protagonist in Nights at the Circus, Martin maintains, is a monstrous woman who enjoys power over men (Sara Martin 194). Critics seem to agree that, particularly in Carter’s later works, the female characters are free from being the victims of male desire and become self-determined agents (Paulina Palmer 25). They start to grab their sexuality and fight back (Merja Makinen 3) and ultimately exceed the carnivalesque to constitute a more permanent and profound challenge to the dominant order” (Emma Parker 160). But all of these efforts are simply reversals of patriarchal society with the same operating logic and power structure, barely escapes from the existing order, let alone establishing a new one.

But gradually, readers started to see Carter’s ambiguity as one of her strategies, and her controversy as another of her strengths. Critical responses towards her works changed dramatically after the 1990s. This may not be only due to her early death in 1992, but also to the fact that Carter’s writings anticipate what has come to be called “post-feminism” which, some critics argue, “participates in the discourse of post-modernism, in that both seek to destabilize fixed definitions of gender, and to deconstruct authoritative paradigms and practices” (Gamble, Writing 298).

Deconstruction remains the majority of critical approaches in Carter scholarship after the publication of Anna Katsavos’s interview with Carter. Sarah Gamble contends that the deconstruction of the binary pattern of our thoughts is one of the cores of Carter’s artistic agenda. She is a writer who is especially conscious of her life-long project of writing, especially after her return from Japan. Her non-fictional works include The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History (1979) (reprinted in America as The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, 1979); Nothing Sacred: Selected Writings (1982) and Expletives Deleted: Selected Writings (1992). The former is a critique by Carter on Sade and feminism, which is often taken as a reference for the appreciation of Carter’s novels. The latter is her autobiography. But it is nonetheless schematic and correspondent to her authorial agenda as a whole. Even the interviews of her fall on this well-wrought agenda of hers. In an interview by John Haffenden with her in 1984, Carter claimed that “all attempts at autobiography are fraught with self-deceit and narcissism” (34). In fact, the periods she chose to elaborate on are focused on her childhood and her two years’ stay in Japan. “It appears that she chose what she wished to make public with care, creating a carefully contrived story to which she did not add spontaneously, in interview or anywhere else” (Gamble, Literary 13). This makes her autobiographical writings “as textually self-conscious as her fiction” (2), and she is “no more and no less definitively ‘present’ in her supposedly ‘autobiographical’ writings than she is anywhere else in her fiction” (2). Carter believes that “our selves are neither false nor true, but merely roles we either master or are mastered by” (Edmund Gordon xiii). The characters in her fictions are wearing their identities like costumes, and her life story is also composed of “boundless self-invention” (xiii). Her closest friend Lorna Sage from the mid-1970s once wrote “by the end, her life fitted her more or less like a glove,” but that is because “she had put it together, by trial and error, bricolage, all in the wrong order” (xiii). Sage also finds Roland Barthes’ “Death of the Author” attractive to Carter as it renders anonymity to the author. Same as her work of critique, Carter’s autobiographical writings are more designed to better understand her fictional works and her feminist agenda as a whole. As Carter wrote in The Sadeian Woman, “the notion of a universality of female experience is a clever confidence trick” (12). Suspicious of this universal, undifferentiated female identity, she consistently puts herself in a position in the cultural margins, her gender identity as a woman, and in the case of Japan, the double marginalization of both gender and race, in The Sadeian Woman and in Nothing Sacred. Furthermore, this conscious and careful design of her autobiographical writings appears to blur the boundary between life and art, the real and the imagined, which, as Gamble argues, “dedicated to destabilizing both authorial identity and her place within a stable, discernible, reality” (Writing 14). “Is she fact or is she fiction?”, echoing the ending of her novel, Nights at the Circus, the question raised with regard to the main character Fevvers can also be asked about Carter as the author in her non-fictional works. It is not only appropriate to her fiction, but also contributes, as a consistent part of her effort, to blurring the boundaries and defying the authorities.

With the demythologizing, destroying and deconstructing purpose of Carter in the background, critics explore the richness of her works in form, themes, symbols, techniques, and the influence of European literature and cinema.2 Characters in Carter’s earlier fictions are criticized as being two-dimensional and symbolic, while there is a gradual development in the construction of the characters as fully-rounded, distinctive and humorous. Her deconstructive efforts, along with her playfulness and the impulse of storytelling, have been a main strategy throughout Carter’s novels in the 1970s. And a mainstream study on Carter falls into the category of feminism. Most of Chinese critics’ interests are focused on Carter’s use of feminist approaches to challenge and overturn patriarchal ideology.3 They talk about Carter’s narrative of fairy tale adaptations, her carnivalesque elements and her use of postmodern strategies.4 Few essays analyze spatiality and mirror in Carter’s fiction.5 Another school of Carter criticism is particularly worth noticing and directly linked to the last chapter of this book, which is critics’ attention and emphasis on the corporeality in Carter’s works. This trend is due to the materialist feminist criticism, the images of femininity in Western mass media, as well as the philosophical shift after the twentieth century. Drawing on Foucauldian power relations and Butler’s concept of performance, this trend traces a progression in the body politics of Carter’s fiction, and argues that “both a deconstructive questioning of essences and a materialist commitment to feminism are continually present in Carter’s work” (Simon 5). With the background of spatial turn in modern and postmodern period and the dual nature of body as both cultural construct effacing the materiality of the body and corporeality representing the site of resistance. Simon contends that

Carter’s fiction of the 70s neglects lived corporeality in favor of a poststructuralist concept of the body. In most of Carter’s fiction, however, the ‘lived body’ is absent. A phenomenological perspective is at odds with Carter’s materialism and historicism: the phenomenological body that organizes experience is a conspicuously ahistorical body. (13)

This body is stripped of its materiality, corporeality and energy, and becomes the site of power inscription. But a new concept of the “lived body” emerges in Carter’s last novel. “In Wise Children, bodies are ‘real,’ three-dimensional and alive to a degree unprecedented in Carter’s work” (189).

Critics also note how Carter, along with several other contemporary feminist writers, appropriates Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque body and creates the female grotesque and monstrosity as a symbol of female transgression. However, instead of taking the carnivalesque as only an escape and temporal release from the high pressure and strict repression of everyday life under a hierarchical order, Carter uses carnivalesque as a strategy of her resistance, mocking, demystifying everything that has been held sacred, natural and unexamined, and finally deconstructs the hierarchical order. After the laughter, nothing goes back and remains unchanged. In starting with the emphasis on Fevvers’ and Walser’s “crises” of subjectivity, Wendy O’Brien takes both Bakhtinian carnivalesque and Butler’s performativity and deems

the carnivalesque rebirth as a means of reading Fevvers’ corporeal excess and the ambivalence of her performativity as a destabilisation of the assumed causality between corporeality and ontology. The hegemonic discourses that are so reliant on ontological stability are unsettled one by one in the novel as Fevvers, the New Woman in (and with) the wings, “hatches” a plan, a new future, and indeed a New Man. (2)

For Carter, exposing the binary oppositions and unraveling the repression is never the final purpose, nor is the subversion of the system. A cultural saboteur she may be, she also tries to find a way out of this either/or logic of reality for people who are suffering from the angst associated with the postmodern condition. Critics adopting a feminist approach believe that Carter tries to establish a female subject through her unwriting and rewriting female identity (Dimovitz 2), or by acquiring a kind of corporeal fluidity and unfixed identity (Simon 12).

From regarding her fiction as the carrier of patriarchal ideology which concord with the violence of pornography, to detailed analysis of the resistant and subversive attempts, and the description of fluid body and identity as a counter-narrative to restore female subjectivity, the current studies of Carter have put her works in a postmodern context. However, there is another feature in Carter’s novels that has not gained much critical attention, which is her use of space against traditional time as well as her re-inscription of gendered space to revolt against patriarchal society and the construction of the fluid subjectivity of her characters. Nicoletta Vallorani in her “Body of the City” talks about the representation of utopian cities in Carter’s The Passion of New Eve. She compares the three different utopian cities to the antagonists’ bodies, and posits “an analogy and a sort of contiguity between the physical body of a person and an urban body of a city” (365). By studying spatiality in her works, this book explores Carter’s attempts to uncover and resist hierarchical gendered binary oppositions carried by traditional patriarchal time and space. On the one hand, space confines and inscribes the body; on the other hand, it is body in space that overcomes the objectification and alienation. Carter tries to establish a new model of space of equality which transcends the dominant/dominated space and a spatiality-subjectivity paradigm, which embraces different possibilities of gender roles, and answers to real-life interactions with the space the characters live in by emphasizing their authentic bodily experiences. The new subject she advocates is based on mutual understanding, equality and love in the interrelationship with space and people, forever changing and in the process of becoming. While siding with the poststructuralist group of critiques, my argument emphasizes space in Carter’s works. Three aspects are examined in this book: confining space, which deals with the interaction between the inhabitants and the space they live in; specular space, which is the imaginary space of reflection; and bodily space, which analyzes body as space. Four novels and two short work collections that particularly crystallize my argument are the focus of my analysis: The Magic Toyshop, The Passion of New Eve, Nights at the Circus, Wise Children, a fairy tale adaptation collection The Bloody Chamber and Fireworks, a short story collection.


VI, 150
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2023 (July)
Space, Speculum and the Self—A Study on Spatiality and Subjectivity in Angela Carter’s Fiction Flux identity Subjectivity Angela Carter Representations of space Palimpsest of power Mirror Gaze Body Spatial literacy and literary cartography
New York, Berlin, Bruxelles, Chennai, Lausanne, Oxford, 2023. VI, 150 pp.

Biographical notes

Jiang Xiaobo (Author)

Xiaobo Jiang earned her Ph.D. in English Literature from Beijing Foreign Studies University. She is currently teaching at Beijing International Studies University. Among her major interests are twentieth-century British novels and literary theories.


Title: Space, Mirrors, Subjectivity in Angela Carter’s Fiction