Science Fiction Studies

#64 = Volume 21, Part 3 = November 1994

Nicoletta Vallorani

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. Hoffmann.

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 it represents.1

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 fiction.

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 comprehension.6

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 urban space:

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; italics mine).

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, night" (16).

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 Beulah.

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 women writers:

The utopian community of 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 paradigm.

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 performed.

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" (48).

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 defamiliarizing effect.

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 ritual.

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 Deleuze 14ff).

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 signs.

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 sexed body.


1. For the concept of a "bracketed off world," see Iser 236-246.

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 Cities.

3. See Italo Calvino, Le Città Invisibili, Torino, 1985.

4. For the concept of fictionalizing act or process, see Iser 236.

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, 1968), 122-132.

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" (Oates, 30).

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" (129).

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, 1990), 59ff.


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, 93-112.

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, 1981.

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," Jaye, 11-34.

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, 209-18.

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 housewives/slaves.

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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