#64 = Volume 21, Part 3 = November 1994
The Body of the City: Angela Carter’s The
Passion of the New Eve
"that shadowy land between the thinkable and the thing
thought of"—Angela Carter, The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr.
1. Building the body of the city. The
following is an essay on the representation of utopian cities in feminist
science fiction, particularly the way it is exploited, interpreted, reversed,
and reflected in Angela Carter’s PNE. The main character of the story,
a young Englishman called Evelyn, reports his journey through a dark and decayed
New York, his escape to the desert, his arrival in a female community—where he
is to be transformed into the New Eve—and his experiences as a woman in Zero’s
town. Three different urban spaces are described as complex metaphors of the
interior space. For the purposes of this discussion, we will consider both the
urban reality that provides the underlying structure of any utopian city and the
fictional shape of utopia that, being fictional, is bracketed off from the world
As an operational strategy, let us simplify and begin with the
assumption that the passage from reality to the imagination implies a
transcoding process: i.e., the symbols of what can be empirically perceived are
to be translated into the complex web of metaphors that define the literary
imagination. Understandably, the message becomes ambiguous, because ambiguity is
inherent in the polysemy of signs. Cognition, therefore, becomes a complex
process because it flows through fabulation and consequently is filtered through
the perception of reality as a labyrinth, a tangible enigma of imaginative
bricks and mortar which leads towards several conflicting solutions.
In the process of giving a definite—but never conclusive—shape
to our vision of utopian cities, we may posit an analogy and a sort of
contiguity between the physical body of a person and the urban body of a city.
Thus we may read the signs in the urban space as we read wrinkles on the skin.2
The fictional city, in other words, is created through a
process of doubling, with the literary purpose of articulating the psychological
and physical bodies of the people living within its boundaries. An urban
dimension conceived in this way augments the semantic load of the individual
body and organizes it into a new pattern. The signifying system is amplified and
gains imaginative and analogic veracity. An even further and deeper
articulation, however, may obtain when the field of reference is no longer and
not only utopia as such, but sexed utopia, that is, utopia as a genre which is
given a definite gender. This gender is, in our case, female.
"As a woman," writes Marge Piercy, "I
experience a city as a minefield. I am always a potential quarry, or target, or
victim" (210). This perception of the city is a first stab towards
correctly approaching Angela Carter’s PNE. In Piercy’s words, real
cities are defined as dangerous places for women who end up being almost
unavoidably isolated and marginalized however hard they try to react to this
process. To a certain extent, the vision is similar when our reference is no
longer the city defined in gendered terms, but the urban stereotype in modern
Burton Pike describes this stereotype: "During the
nineteenth century, the literary city came more and more to express the
isolation or exclusion of the individual from a community, and in the twentieth
century to express the fragmentation of the very concept of community"
(Pike, xii). Civitas, therefore, is felt to oppose communitas; the
two terms, which used to pertain to the same semantic field, are now definitely
divorced. Human solidarity as a vital link is dissolved and individuals are
connected only through their incidental sharing of the same space. The feminist
imagination, while appropriating this vision, problematizes the issue by
redoubling urban isolation through the depiction of female marginalization in
the city. A gendered space results.
Wendy Martin, quoting Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous and Luce
Irigaray, and referring to the female perspective they adopt in their criticism,
writes: "Women need to think with their bodies and, if possible, to return
to the preoedipal experience, before the patriarchal grid imposed the
bifurcation of mind and body, self and other" (258). In blunt terms, what
is suggested here is that for women the process of rebuilding their original
identity is to be filtered through a female space which is no longer defined as
external to the body, but rather as its offshoot, a spreading of the female self
in the physical world.
Urban spaces created by women to host female, feminist, and
gynocratic societies are often symbolically loaded. Mizora (Mary Bradley Lane, Mizora,
1890), Herland (Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland, 1915), Whileaway
(Joanna Russ, The Female Man, 1975), Mattapoiset (Marge Piercy, Woman
on the Edge of Time, 1976) are different figures springing from the same
female mind. All of these writers give their cities the shape of a female body
which has been excised from history, disfigured, and sacrificed to the
persisting use by and reference to, in concrete reality, patriarchal codes and
signs. Femininity, while excluded from human history, returns to the surface in
utopia and cannibalizes the urban space, absorbing it into a female body.
The utopian future is thus conceived not merely as a possible
time, but as a new space that allows the process of re-tracing female history
and tradition. The city becomes its favorite metaphor: an object which is a
living body expanding and replacing the self of individuals—male and female—living
within its boundaries.
The city remains an alembic of human time, perhaps of human
nature—an alembic, to be sure, employed less often by master alchemists than
sorcerer’s apprentices. Still, as a frame of choices and possibilities, the
city enacts our sense of the future; not merely abstract, not mutable only, it
fulfills time in utopic and dystopic images. (Hassan, 96)
This is Angela Carter’s urban dimension: an alchemical space
mapping out human nature, both male and female, not only squeezed into a narrow
present reality, but projected towards a possible future, either utopian or
dystopian. As a metaphor, therefore, the city occupies a crucial juncture in
Carter’s imagination and tends to become, as in Nights at the Circus,
"a city built of hybris, imagination and desire, as we are ourselves, as we
ought to be" (12). Within its limina any human being, man or woman,
can see his/her own reflection in an urban structure imitating the architecture
of desire. Its source is not an act, but a wish, a dream of invisible cities.3
In PNE, Carter goes one step further. Having posited
the space/body identity, she proceeds by systematically inverting the
traditional signifying process. The semantics of the body is appropriated by the
object world of space. The latter, therefore, becomes the site of language, that
is, of a code suitable to the city and consequently incomprehensible.
"The City cannot be comprehended," writes Joyce
Carol Oates (30). While subscribing to this assumption, Angela Carter gives
definite fictional plausibility to McLuhan’s description of postmodern urban
space, of the "city as a total field of inclusive awareness" (166).
Since the city endlessly echoes and reflects the self, the typical processes of
the body are coherently transferred to the objects inhabiting the city’s
space. And then the process is reversed. The body becomes a thing, res in
reality, the most suitable object for literature, fictional space, myth.
Ontologically, that is, the body and the city are identical in that they undergo
the same fictionalizing process.4 Understandably, "The
vertiginous nature of [the City’s] threat can be translated into language—a
language necessarily oblique and circumspect" (Oates 30).
The resulting female writing will necessarily be sufficiently
complex, polysemic, multivocal, and ambiguous in order to reproduce the hybrid
grammar of the urban landscape.
2. Writing the Body of Evidence. The
underlying structure of PNE is deeply postmodernist in that it exploits
the basic procedure of adding up heterogeneous structural and functional
elements without pretending to synthesize them. The main thematic units of the
novel lead to a human body—the protagonist’s body—which undergoes a
metamorphosis through the addition/ subtraction of sexual genders. Evelyn, a man
given a woman’s name, uses and abuses Leilah’s female body while living in
New York, the postmodern metropolis.5 Within the borders of the city,
he is a male, and behaves like one. After leaving the city, Evelyn becomes Eve.
The metamorphosis is not the result of a choice, but of a surgical experiment
planned and performed by the women of Beulah against the protagonist’s will.
In blunt terms, the experiment is described as an arithmetic operation: male
attributes are subtracted from the protagonist’s body, while female shapes are
added. Eventually, Evelyn/Eve will succeed in running away only to come back to
a male world. His position in society is now deeply changed: he is a man with a
female body of which he is not yet fully aware. Awareness will spring out of
sorrow and humiliation when Eve/lyn experiences sexual violation and sexual
abuse on his/her own body.
Through the whole process, Eve/lyn shows a double, ambiguous
nature. The surgical operation has been compulsory and therefore no new
awareness is implied in it. A female body has been simply added to a male
identity. The two genders exhibit a contiguity which does not—and could never—become
continuity. No integration is possible. Eve/lyn’s body and mind diverge but,
paradoxically, the resulting chaotic disposition triggers the process of
Literally, Eve/lyn’s body is carnivalized, made grotesque
because it is seen in the process of becoming something else.7 Carter
shows a precise awareness of the disruptive power implied in carnivalization.
The use she makes of this literary device is a function of a systematic analysis
of femininity, which eventually results in the complete deconstruction of both
genders. What emerges from the whole process is simply the admission that the
conflict between genders can by no means be settled. Male and female as
exponents of an irreducible dichotomy may be put side by side, summed up,
deconstructed, agglutinated, but never fused nor composed in a complex figure
including both genders. In other words, sexes could be combined in androgyny,
which is not—and never will be—a stable combination of genders.
Hybridization is the only possible operation and at its best it results in an
enigma that cannot be unraveled.
Carnivalization, particularly when referring to genders, is
semantically overloaded. In its complexity it makes for a dialogic novel,
reflecting the features of a highly flexible and multivocal artistic vision (cf
Bakhtin, 12ff). As it mixes up incompatible elements which are never to be fused
in a monologic vision, it produces multiplicity in representation and
multivocality in discourse. The resulting picture is often disturbing because it
is contrary to common sense, disruptive, defamiliarizing, and defamiliarized.
Whatever the purposes of using carnivalization in the artistic creation, the
operations implied tend to be the same: deconstruction, accumulation,
metamorphosis, fragmented and unnatural growth.
Once more, the core and structuring principle emerging in the
urban landscape as well as in the description of the human body is a summing up
procedure, producing a carnivalized space. It is not really an alchemical
operation, since it does not result in a compound of different elements, but
rather a mixture in which every ingredient maintains its own characteristics
even while becoming part of a new whole. This is Angela Carter’s city: the
secular celebration of chaos, the weird place overlooking the impossible
experiment of Baroslav, a Czechoslovak deserter persecuted for political
reasons. Once in New York, he has found a new identity and a new life: he is a
beggar and a magician, an alchemist who, before creating gold from steel before
Evelyn’s eyes, gives a short and very effective description of New York’s
Chaos, the primordial substance.... Chaos, the earliest
state of disorganized creation, blindly impelled toward the creation of a new
order of phenomena of hidden meanings. The fructifying chaos of
anteriority, the state before the beginning of the beginning (14;
In a way, this is also a definition of Carter’s fictional
space: a primordial chaos, whose elements are not melted into a rational and
logical system, but merely summed up in a sequence with no understandable links.
The resulting organism is complex in the etymological sense of the term, i.e.,
in that its constituents stick to their singularity even when combined.
Metropolis, just like personality, is deconstructed. Disassembled units are then
recombined according to principles contradicting any understandable logical
process: a paradigmatic negation of common sense (cf Deleuze, 70ff). Paradox is
the artistic form most suitable for representing this subversive attitude. And
it is disturbing in that it translates, in fiction, into a deliberate rejection
of any conceivable position.
The founding concept of Angela Carter’s artistic vision is
the "female gothic" as defined by Ellen Moers (90 ff). While
appropriating the tools offered by paradox and satire, she provides a feminine
perspective, and by doing so she discovers in sf an unprecedented potential for
rupture. A wholly new order of things is prospected, and it is highly disturbing
because it is not built according to men’s needs. Systematic deconstruction
affecting all the items making up the urban landscape produces what Barbara Ward
defines as the "unintended city" (29): a city with no memories and no
future, a cunning figure of life accepted on its surface, because it is exactly
what it seems—a labyrinth with no exit. Urban space is therefore conceived, in
PNE, as a closed system. Entropy affects not only the physical and social
universe, but also its linguistic translation. The favored metaphor maintaining
this vision is the postmodern city, an ambiguous "paradigm of self-reflexiveness,"
in Maria del Sapio’s words, which "synthesizes contemporary codes’
potential for change obtained through an endless mirroring process" (26).
In depicting Eve/lyn’s journey through gender stereotypes, PNE
therefore combines a postmodernist selection and accumulation of themes and
landscapes with a poststructuralist interpretation of language. In a
multidimensional space conceived in this way, different writings are interwoven
through a combinatorial rule which is incomprehensible and indescribable because
it is always undergoing an endless, everlasting metamorphosis.
Angela Carter does not simply write fiction. She also works on
the body of writing, on the linguistic and semantic formations we conceive to be
the basic background to our human lives. Through an orderly process of
deconstruction and recombination, she defines the issues of urban landscape and
codes in gendered terms. PNE is therefore, literally, a gender novel, in
that gender is the still center of a circular journey through three sexed
utopian spaces that alternately host and reject the protagonist and determine
his/her physical and psychological metamorphosis.
3. New York. Basically, Evelyn is a
traveller. In the first pages of the novel, he moves from London to New York.
His personal experience as a man, therefore, is deeply marked by the awareness
of the body of a European metropolis that, as a literary topos, has
always been considered male.8
When moving overseas, however, Evelyn finds an urban landscape
which he perceives as unfamiliar and about which he says: "Nothing in my
experience had prepared me for the city" (24). In terms of gender, New York
is clearly male, but, when compared to London, it gives the impression of a
further evolution in urban structure. The rational project underlying the city,
while still evident in London, here seems blurred in New York by a progressive
deterioration and decay that affects architecture as well as the social and
individual way of life.
If London is the romantic style of nostalgia fading in the
irony of memory, New York is grotesque, a hybrid, a postmodern and
self-reflective metropolis forever hiding the ancient rational project instead
of revealing it. Its true identity consists of being able to absorb a whirling
semiotic universe with no logic and no meaning.9
Significantly, New York displays all the colors of decay. When
describing the city, Evelyn’s chromatic vocabulary seems limited to a few
adjectival expressions, all of them with negative connotations:
"black," "acid yellow," "mineral green." Organic
and inorganic deterioration is mirrored everywhere and produces a totally
defamiliarized image of the technological metropolis. The landscape’s colors
reflect the impossibility of any effective cognitive process. Chromatic
contrasts are missing simply because they are unthinkable in an urban space
conceived in this way. The landscape’s tendency toward monochromatism wraps
everything in a dark shade which is physical as well as psychological. Only a
few sequences are perceived in the morning light, livid and defamiliarizing,
that levels all contrasts and complicates comprehension.
To some extent the topography of the city is also
incomprehensible: it is a fragmented, labyrinthine text that is largely
unreadable.10 Urban sites are located according to no apparent
criterion. Seemingly they do not communicate, or meld. The city as a whole has
no center and no depth: it is a web of symbols often with no meaning. The sign
stands and acts for the idea. Knowledge is impossible because it has no object.
Literally there is nothing to know.
In a way, Evelyn can perceive, or rather imagine, the original
project: "a city of visible reason—that had been the intention"
(16). However, the intention has apparently been lost in the urban space the
protagonist describes: a place of liminality, an endless sequence of lurid
suburbs which are the only tangible reality for the protagonist. In Evelyn’s
words, ``it was then an alchemical city. It was chaos, dissolution, nigredo,
The chromatic preference for darkness is functional for the
representation of an urban kaleidoscope devoid of any rational plan/design.
Having been built apparently with no planning, Carter’s city may be
disassembled and re-assembled without running the risk of being unable to trace
the original design. New York is, therefore, pure image, the slide of a city,
endlessly reproducing itself like a modern work of art.11
"Around us, as if cut out of dark paper and stuck against the sky,"
says Evelyn, "were the negative perspectives of the skyscrapers" (30):
a paper city, therefore, the infinitely reproducible, reprintable silhouette of
an urban space. The silhouette, far from showing a simple two-dimensional
profile, proves capable of rendering once more the shape of an entropic universe
that results from the senseless accumulation of disparate objects translating
the accumulation and compression of personal and collective history.
The deconstructive model identifying the disjecta membra
of the city requires that there be a code capable of writing an unwritable text.
The description of the postmodern metropolis is given through syntagmatic
oppositions which trigger conflicting semantic references: "Instead of hard
edges and clean colours, a lurid, Gothic darkness that closed over my head
entirely and became my world" (PNE 10).
Manhattan resembles a medieval city, a place of disorder and
darkness which Evelyn alternately loves and hates, as is often the case with
things that are not understood but whose fascination is undeniable.
Only later will Evelyn realize the impossibility of fully
accepting the "dying city" (37) and consequently leave it.
While looking for freedom, he finally gets to the city of
4. Beulah. Beulah is a gynocratic
society. Carter’s decision to include a utopian space like this in PNE
partly reflects the prophetic tendency that Wendy Martin acknowledges in many
The utopian community of sisters...is a profoundly political
phenomenon which results from an evolution in consciousness from acceptance of
traditional values, or at least the effort to adjust them, to questioning of
these values, to rebellion and finally separation from the dominant culture to
form a new social order. (250)
Therefore Beulah is planned on the prototype of feminist
separatist communities which are the underlying structures of some already
mentioned novels. Mizora (Lane), Herland (Perkins Gilman), The
Female Man (Russ) or Woman on the Edge of Time (Piercy) all exploit
the same structural paradigm, each focusing on different problematic issues. PNE
offers a slightly diverging model, a peculiar semantic and thematic shade so
unusual in feminist fiction that it has in some cases led to misunderstandings
in the critical response to the novel.
Robert Clark, in particular, when referring to Beulah,
maintains that the city is planned and built as "an image of feminine
society which exists only in male chauvinist nightmares" (148). This claim
presumes that Carter wishes to proffer a serious operational model of the
perfect female community. Such a perfect model, according to Clark, can be
discerned in Beulah.
I believe Clark’s interpretation is not sufficiently
grounded in an unprejudiced and objective critical analysis of Carter’s novel.
The general structure of PNE seems to me to support Jane Palmer’s less
contradictory theory, that the creation of Beulah is plausibly the result of
Carter’s typical approach in writing fiction, an approach that could correctly
be defined as "satirical on the whole" (22). From this perspective,
Beulah should be perceived and interpreted as a satirical model, an attempt to
reverse the pattern of a rigid, traditional patriarchal tradition, and at the
same time the corresponding feminist utopian responses to it, which in some
cases prove equally rigid. This sort of double satire, which is rather unusual
in feminist fiction, may be the source of Clark’s misreading. Obviously,
Angela Carter does not—and does not mean to—create an ideal city. Rather,
she selects and then adds up some recurring models in order to produce in the
reader the sort of defamiliarizing effect frequently leading to cognition. In
other words, Carter shows a precise awareness of the city as an artistic topos,
an "adapted stereotype" (Gombrich, 68) giving fictional reality and
plausibility to the intention of reversing and/or confirming a traditional
Accordingly, in Carter’s novel highly heterogeneous
influences interweave in the paradigm of the female community and they result in
a contradictory and sometimes paradoxical model of the city of women. In PNE,
even the name of the gynocratic community defines a specific satiric intention.
As a literary topos, Beulah appears for the first time in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s
Progress and is defined as a place "upon the border of Heaven"
through which "pilgrims pass on to eternal life" (155). The
"daughters of Beulah" in William Blake’s works are the Muses
inspiring the poet (420). Both Bunyan and Blake, moreover, seem to suggest that
Beulah is the ideal place for the perfect patriarchal marriage.
In my view, Carter revises the traditional stereotype,
adapting it for her own purposes. When giving her gynocratic community a name
borrowed from a patriarchal tradition, the author of PNE relocates
meanings; in doing so she establishes a semantic contradiction and multiplies
the symbolic associations. Again, what we have here is a reversed stereotype
triggering a cognitive process.
The whole topography of the landscape which Carter describes
apparently supports this critical view. First of all, Beulah can only be reached
by crossing the desert, the traditional metaphor for wilderness and sterility,
with all the associated symbolism.12
Analysis of the shape of the feminist community and
recognition of its main structure reveal that its basic architecture is defined
in gendered terms. Beulah is a rigidly homosexual and separatist female
community, and consequently built on analogy to a womb.13
"Beulah," says Evelyn, "lies in the interior, in the inward part
of the earth" (47). Both from the psychological and the physical point of
view, Beulah is the ideal place for Evelyn’s re-birth. "It will
become," says the protagonist, "the place where I was born" (47).
It becomes the belly of the whale where the rite of death and re-birth will be
Chromatically, Beulah displays the colors of a woman’s womb.
The symbolism of darkness is only superficially similar to the absence of light
we identified in the urban landscape of the metropolis. Semantically, the
"lurid darkness" of New York is diametrically opposed to the damp
absence of light in the female womb, a symbol exemplifying the rejection of the
male rational and monological ethics (cf Deleuze, 12 ff). In other words, New
York still maps out an urban project, however decrepit, while Beulah is
primarily the architectural figure of a womb.
Beulah’s typical atmosphere is not pure darkness, but rather
shadow, the kind of twilight which allows shapes to be seen in outlines, as in
dreams. Evelyn’s frequent reference to the idea of a nightmare when describing
Beulah sets up a criterion according to which the gynocratic community is to be
interpreted. In a place such as this, reality gradually fades away, together
with the patriarchal logic of the male metropolis.
By the same token, the main female figure in this part of the
novel, Mother, is defined as the "focus of darkness" (58). She is
perceived by Evelyn as a nightmarish figure leading him—and compelling him—towards
a new female identity in a voyage au bout de la nuit, a journey from the
old, crumbling city into the dark womb of a new mother.
Besides echoing a tradition supported by other female utopias,
the underground location of Beulah morphologically reproduces the symbolic
meaning of the place for the protagonist. Before the surgical operation, he is
kept there and protected from the dangers of the outside world just like an
unborn child in the womb of its mother. The first phase of his journey towards
female identity is performed inside the body of Beulah mapping out the
topography built on the body of a pregnant woman.
Understandably, this topography shows a complex physical and
psychological pattern and is therefore far from being linear. Beulah is a
labyrinth, fragmentary, complex, self-reflexive, and multivocal like the city
but built on the basis of diverging principles. In the same way as New York, the
gynocratic community offers Evelyn interweaving routes. However, Beulah differs
from the labyrinthine metropolis in that the former has been built on the basis
of a project. The structuring principle of the gynocratic community, however
meaningless it may be to Evelyn, functions throughout the part of the novel
dedicated to Beulah. Rationality, in the male sense of the word, is not its
guiding thread: indeed the project of Beulah is conceived to be a radical
reversal not only of the structure but also of the meaning of patriarchy.
Significantly, an ambiguous relationship to technology as a mainly male concept
emerges in the definition of what Mother is: "Beneath this stone sits the
Mother in a complicated mix of mythology and technology" (48;
italics mine). Beulah, therefore, is not anti-technological but perceives
technology differently, by considering it similar to mythology.
Once more the striking collusion of conflicting elements is
revealed as the most suitable key for interpreting PNE. In New York,
contradiction is a consequence of the deterioration of rationality, while in
Beulah it is the structuring principle of the utopian space: "There is a
place where contrarieties are equally true. This place is called Beulah"
Juxtaposition is confirmed as a method of disrupting and
subverting traditional semantic borders and the conflict is made more evident by
the intrinsic nature of the terms placed side by side: technology and mythology
stand for male and female, respectively. The assumed compatibility, the truth,
of both dichotomic terms is actually an illusion because it is based on a vague
and undefined principle of no-contradiction: series of phenomena belonging to
two different orders can not be compared. Myth is neither more nor less reliable
than technology. The two terms can however be placed side by side to produce a
In the structure of Beulah, this procedure produces an
extremely heterogeneous dramatic configuration complicating the rules of
mimesis. It is thus that the grammar of landscape is obtained through a
combination of myth and technology. On the other hand, while the protagonist
approaches the throbbing heart of darkness—and his own metamorphosis—the
mythic and symbolic element tends to dominate and to be intensely reflected in
the novel’s landscape. Technology is not forgotten as a reference, but it
becomes more and more similar to a sort of magic.
Metaphors of the body and of human physical processes define
an urban space that is openly gendered. Referring to the ritual of cannibalism,
the female principle has swallowed male reality in the bowels of the Earth to
suggest the image of a female body as large as the city itself. And from this
body, Eve, physically a woman and psychologically a man, will make a clean start
on another journey.
5. Zero’s town. When leaving
Beulah, the protagonist is perfectly aware that his/her body has undergone an
impossible change. The women of the female community have relocated its gender
through a sort of mythical vengeance, a nemesis reproducing the modalities of
the slaughter of Dionysus, the greedy child who, cut into seven pieces, boiled
and roasted, is to become the main course in the Titans’ banquet. His heart is
spared, however, just like Orpheus’s head in a similar cannibalistic myth.
Evelyn’s sacrifice, though similar to its mythical
references, tends to respond to a more complex configuration. Evelyn’s body is
not literally gobbled up after having been cooked. The object of the women’s
ritual meal is not the protagonist’s flesh and blood, but his male identity
which is deprived of its anatomical support. His gender no longer coincides with
his sex. Eve/lyn perceives him/herself—and is perceived by people belonging to
the opposite sex—as an empty body promising endless pleasures. "I have
not yet become a woman, though I possess a woman’s shape," says the
narrating voice. "Eve remains willfully in the state of innocence that
precedes the fall" (83). The awareness of a terminally decentered life
leads the protagonist towards a new ritual death perceived as the only possible
way to recover a lost sexual identity.
In his/her frantic quest for a true self, Eve/lyn returns to
the desert. Once more, wilderness and the absence of any possible fertility
serves as a metaphor for the protagonist’s condition of being a hybrid
creature with no memories and no shared experiences: "a tabula erasa, a
blank sheet of paper" (83). Lost, deeply unable to identify herself/himself
in a paradoxical anatomic disguise which does not overlap with a corresponding
psychological change, Evelyn is no longer a man but not yet a woman. Being a
hybrid, he/she does not belong to any community: he/she has no history, no
tradition, no shared life and finally no gender.
In other words, the protagonist is literally outside the polis,
in the realm where, as Aristotle says, you cannot be truly human, but either
a god or a beast. Therefore the new Eve, in his/her search for identity, will
have to become integrated in a new urban reality and undergo a third, painful
The ideal site for this new change appears to be Zero’s
town. Both physically and psychologically, the place is built to reproduce the
symbolic meaning of a patriarchal autocratic community. All the features of the
landscape are borrowed from De Sade’s novels and exacerbated with the obvious
aim of producing a strong grotesque effect. The final result has an
unprecedented potential for rupture: while maintaining some of the features of a
model that Clark defines as "a patriarchal type not infrequent in
history" (148), Carter appropriates the paradigm and deconstructs it for
feminist use. The minimal units are reassembled through a clearly ironic
stylistic procedure. The assumed rigidity of the patriarchal model is
purposefully highlighted in order to provide a highly concentrated version of a
woman’s life in a harem.
By the same token, Zero, the father and owner of all the women
living in the town, assembles all the negative features of patriarchal power.
Poet and magician, master of words and dissipation, he is the uxoricidal tyrant
forever performing the role of a wicked fool celebrating any form of perversion.
His wives seem affected by what Joanna Russ defines as "idiocy," that
is "what happens to those who have been told that it is their godgiven
mission to mend socks, clean toilets and work in the fields; and nobody will let
you make the real decision anyway" (255).
Decisions, actually, are up to Zero. His behavior is entirely
defined by a precise theocratic will, determined not by rational design but by
the wish to preserve a dogmatic attitude, made clear by the tendency to
reproduce the masculine perception of linearity and univocality.
Significantly, Zero is a figure of totalitarian sexuality,
opposite but similar to Mother. And just like Mother, he projects onto the urban
landscape the dominant features of his Weltanschauung. Beulah is built on
analogy to a womb and is, literally and figuratively, Mother’s body. It shows
the disquieting darkness and the incomprehensible but irresistible fascination
of a female pregnant body. Similarly, the town in the desert is plunged in
dazzling sunlight. The topological pattern underlying this choice is evident:
the unfading brightness of the desert does not allow for any shadow in the same
way as the rigidity of male rationality does not allow for any doubt. Once more,
this makes a case for Deleuze’s theory that dazzling light is a metaphor for
what is obvious, self-evident, monologic, and linear: in short, what is male (cf
The landscape is therefore used with the precise purpose of
exposing the contradictory nature of male ethics. Dogmatism is the structuring
principle and the still center of both the physical and the psychological scene.
Urban and imaginative space show their mutual solidarity and prove to be deeply
interwoven, producing a topographical pattern where no object occupies a neutral
position: the semantic area covered by each element of the landscape tends to be
modified according to the nature of the light that strikes it. The unrelenting
sunlight typical of the desert should consequently shine upon the realm of
absolute, unbending rationality.
Which is obviously not the case in Zero’s town. While
appropriating the stereotype, Carter succeeds in subverting it. In depicting the
patriarchal community, she undermines the founding principles of male ethics not
through an overtly feminist discourse, but by polarizing contradictions in the
reproduction of the model which is inherently irrational, illogical,
self-contradictory. This amounts to the creation of a city whose textual
identity is programmatically reversed. The desert sun shines on an urban
topography that is anything but rational. Far from giving a more concrete shape
to the city, the dazzling light flooding the whole landscape seems to add a
ghostlike shade to the old, rotting village: "The miner’s town...looked,
in the analytic light of the desert, far older than the rocks on which it was
built" (PNE 93).
Zero’s town, therefore, proves to be a mere juxtaposition of
crumbling houses, a built-up area with no center and no history, a town which is
old without being ancient. Appropriately, Zero lives in a "ranch house in
the ghost town" (85), a building reflecting the psychological identity of
the person inhabiting it. A figure of an essential evil whose ideological
reason has been lost, the ghost town disclaims and betrays the rational
intention of its planner.
Semantically, an urban space conceived in this way reveals an
underlying texture built on analogy with dream imagery. The frequent repetition
of reference to nightmare marks the ultimate breakdown of borders between
reality and imagination, which are placed side by side and given exactly the
same sort of fictional existence. Reality is neither deeper nor more superficial
than imagination. The two terms belong to the same level of perception. Words
and their meanings are divorced, and the logical link between them is disrupted.
Signs are legitimized as existing in their own right, apart from any connections
with the objects normally designated by them. Language itself is rewritten in
order to make it suitable for narrating the endless instability of
representation: "Yet Zero’s rhetoric transformed this world. The ranch
house was Solomon’s temple; the ghost town was the New Jerusalem" (100).
Reality and imagination are posed as conflicting—and yet
coexisting— terms. Their mutual opposition is overtly re-enacted through a
language that emphasizes syntagmatic oppositions rather than paradigmatic
references. Through this specific choice of style Carter’s novel displays a
strong post-modernist inclination: multiplicity and multivocality seem to be
expressed through a web of apparent semantic contradictions which are in fact
subtle shifts through the usual semantic borders of the verbal signs. The
attempt to rebuild the connection between signifier and signified, and therefore
to defamiliarize language, is the principle guiding the novel as a whole, but it
becomes openly disturbing and disruptive in the description of Zero’s town.
"In the ruins of an old chapel," says the narrator,
"under a sagging roof of corrugated iron, Zero kept his pigs" (95).
The two key-words of this quotation cover semantically opposite fields: the term
"chapel" conjures up the image of a holy space, which is however
inhabited by "pigs": not ministers of religion, that is, but filthy
beasts. The contiguity of the two terms makes the whole text subversive in that
it displaces the presumed sacrality of the chapel, depicting it through a
globally blasphemous perspective. The resulting linguistic and stylistic
structure is a highly complex one, which focuses on multivocality as a strategy
for resistance against the male univocality in language and ethics.
Interestingly, the word as a unit is not deconstructed in Carter’s novel:
disintegration does not affect the syntax of the form; rather, it works on
semantics as a field of meanings no longer permanently connected to specific
Meanings are assembled through the same process of
juxtaposition which is the structuring principle both of landscapes and the
condensed universe of characters. The city as a multivocal, self-reflexive, and
unwritable text is ultimately duplicated in the figure of Tristessa. A former
movie star pinned to the fixity of his/her own beautiful but unreal image, s/he
is the narrative focus of all contradiction. Anatomically, her/his body shows
both male and female features. Tristessa therefore articulates Eve/lyn’s deep
dissociation, while making it more tangible. The split no longer affects the
gender of the character, as in the case of the narrator, but it is duplicated
and reflected in two sexes coexisting in the same body, assembling in order what
is male and what is female. As a character, Tristessa demonstrates the
contradiction inherent in the physical contiguity of two sexes that, when put
side by side, are strongly focused as conflicting terms. "Tristessa.
Enigma. Illusion. Woman? Ah" (6).
Just like the urban spaces of PNE, Tristessa can
neither be understood nor explained, because she is "an illusion in a
void" (110). Ontologically, she does not exist. Or better yet, she is given
the same level of existence as New York, Beulah, and Zero’s town: all of them
are icons of themselves, images whose elements have been deconstructed and then
re-assembled, enacting an impossible transition, the metaphor of a journey which
can have no end because it is circular. "We start from our
conclusions" says the narrator, defining the claustrophobic space that is
overcrowded with objects and meanings. The landscape of the city, within the limina
of this space, is shaped into a diluted body which resembles ultimately a
1. For the concept of a "bracketed off world," see
2. To a certain extent this concept is implied in the utopian
city as a literary topos, which determines an analogy between the urban
architecture and the shape of the human soul. The ideal city is a mainly
psychological model representing the perfect organization of an idea. Therefore,
a so-conceived urban space becomes literally a "disembodied city," a
place which is real though not tangible, just like Calvino’s Invisible
3. See Italo Calvino, Le Città Invisibili, Torino,
4. For the concept of fictionalizing act or process, see Iser
5. The contiguity between postmodernism and women’s science
fiction is by no means limited to Carter’s novels. As Robin Roberts says,
"Feminist science fiction of the 1980s can be discussed most usefully in
terms of post-structuralism and post-modernism. Post-structuralist feminist SF
problematizes language acquisition and the gendered hierarchical structures
embedded in language" ("Post-Modernism and Feminist Science
Fiction," SFS, 17:138, #51, July 1990).
6. The most obvious reference is Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.
7. See M. Bakhtin. Dostojevskij: Poetica e Stilistica (Torino,
8. "If a city may be said to have a sex," writes
Jane Marcus, "London was, and is, unmistakably male" (Marcus, 139).
9. Carter refers to a literary topos which is to be considered
as typical and recurring: "New York—that most mythical of cities—tends
to emerge in recent literature as hellish, or at any rate murderous"
10. As Burton Pike writes, "The absence of shape in the
form of orienting landmarks is a major problem for a person trying to define a
real city or navigate within it. If shapes make individual cities recognizable,
urban shapelessness is a form of disorder, expressing anxiety and loss of
coherence, and symbolizing the anonymous randomness of contemporary life"
11. See Walter Benjamin. L’opera d’arte nell’epoca
della sua riproducibilità tecnica (Torino, 1980).
12. Particularly clarifying are Jane Marcus’s words on the
subject: "Central to the concept of female wilderness is the rejection of
heterosexuality. In the dream of freedom, one’s womb is one’s own only in
the wilderness" (Marcus, 136).
13. With reference to a possible continuity between the female
womb and space in women’s sf, some basic considerations are to be found in
Oriana Palusci, "Judith Merrill e il grembo dell’astronave [Judith
Merrill and the Spaceship Womb]," in her Terra di lei (Pescara,
Blake, William. "Milton." The Complete Writings
of William Blake. Ed. G. Keynes. London and New York, 1952.
Bunyan, John. Pilgrim’s Progress. Oxford, 1960.
Carter, Angela. Nights at the Circus. London, 1984.
—————. The Passion of New Eve. London, 1982.
Clark, Robert. "Angela Carter’s Desire Machine." Women’s
Studies, 14:147-61, 1987.
Deleuze, Gilles. La logica del senso. Milano, 1979.
Del Sapio, Maria. Alice nella città. Pescara, 1988.
Gombrich, Ernst. Art and Illusion. A Study in the
Psychology of Pictorial Expression. Princeton, NJ, 1961.
Hassan, Ihab. "City of Mind, Urban Words: the
Dematerialization of Metropolis in Contemporary American Fiction." Jaye,
Iser, W. Prospecting: From Reader Response to Literary
Anthropology. Baltimore, 1989.
Jaye, Michael, and Ann Chalmers Watt, eds. Literature and
the Urban Experience: Essays on the City and Literature. New Brunswick, NJ,
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. New York, 1965.
Marcus, Jane. "A Wilderness of One’s Own: Feminist
Fantasy Novels in the Twenties." Squier, 134-60.
Martin, Wendy. "A View of the City Upon a Hill:
The Prophetic Vision of A. Rich." Squier, 249-265.
Moers, Ellen. Literary Women. London, 1978.
Oates, Joyce Carol. "Imaginary Cities: America,"
Palmer, Jane. "From Coded Mannequin to Bird Woman: Angela
Carter’s Magic Flight." Women Reading Women’s Writing. Ed. S.N.
Roe. Brighton, Sussex, 1987. 179-205.
Piercy, Marge. "The City as Battleground." Jaye,
Pike, Burton. The Image of the City in Modern Literature.
Princeton, NJ, 1981.
Russ, Joanna. "Science Fiction and Technology as
Mystification." SFS 16:250-60, #16, November 1978.
Squier, S. Merrill, ed. Women Writers and the City:
Essays in Feminist Literary Criticism. Knoxville, TN, 1989.
Ward, Barbara. The Home of Man. New York, 1976.
Since the 1970s, science fiction has provided a discursive
space which has enabled women writers both to criticize current social practices
and to speculate on alternative social arrangements. Angela Carter’s Passion
of New Eve represents, in relation to this particular perspective, an
original and innovative reconfiguration of characteristic female and/or feminist
motifs, such as the representation of urban technological space, the idea of a
gynocratic community, and the sociological implications of male power in
society. In this view, Carter’s novel not only conveys a comprehensive and
complex view of reality, but also makes for a definite and original literary
experience exploiting all possible narrative devices to their fullest.
Three different types of communities are described, each of
them embedding a specific side of the female stereotype. The first of these
highly symbolic places is New York, the post-modern metropolis, the ideal
background for an image of the woman as a prostitute, an empty body offering
infinite sexual pleasures. The second is Beulah, which offers a completely
different perspective: being a feminist separatist community, it is planned and
described as a metaphor of totalitarian female power. Finally, Zero’s town
again reverses perspectives, offering a nightmarish image of women as
Through a close analysis of the structural and stylistic
devices operating in each part of the novel, it is possible to map out the
psychological journey of the protagonist towards his/her identification. The
phases of this journey are marked by three physical metamorphoses implying
individual as well as gender problems. The changes in the body of Evelvn/Eve are
duplicated through the description of highly hybrid spaces, mostly defined by
unresolvable dichotomies. The outer journey reflects metaphorically the inner
quest of a human being looking for his/her own true gender. (NV)
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