"Nights at the Circus" by Angela Carter

Categories: Angela Carter

She, like Fevvers, had to a adopt a more masculine persona in order to get what she wanted in a Patriarchal society, which in her case was support of the country as well as the members of parliament. The whole of Fevvers’ life evolves around illusion and deception. She dyes her hair blonde and her feathers in tropical colours, covers her face with extreme make-up and wears clothes to disguise her real body; her life depends on this masquerade. This re-enforces the question to the reader whether she is fact or fiction.

The train journey through Siberia

However, this masquerade starts to disintegrate. Signs of this are already seen at the start of the train journey through Siberia where her ‘blonde’ hair starts showing her dark roots, she is no longer wearing make-up and she is no longer dressed in her usual outfits. Her performing has come to an end for the time being and therefore she no longer has an audience to admire her.

When the train explodes she breaks one of her wings; her main source of power is lost. By the end of the novel her hair and feathers are both showing their natural colours.

It is almost as if the audience was what kept her masquerade intact, ‘you’re fading away, as if it was only always nothing but the discipline of the audience that kept you in trim’. Fevvers’ power is fading away, and Lizzie herself is afraid that she is giving up all of this power for her love for Walser.

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Again Carter is referring to men over-powering women, and women being trapped by marriage. However, for Fevvers it may be different as she is the one who must always be on top, ‘her wings make it impossible for her to adopt another position’ (Aidan Day).

The characters of clowns

The clowns are the characters in the novel that represent patriarchal society itself, ‘The beatings and thrashings of the clowns represent the violence which is rife in a male-dominated culture. ‘ (Pauline Palmer). They disguise themselves by wearing make up and costumes. They have the power to make themselves into anything they want to be. They are violent and because they are clowns, they have permission to do so, ‘you can do anything you like, as long as nobody takes you seriously’.

The make up of the clowns disguises the man; however the make up makes the clown ‘real’ as it is the make up which permits them to act the way they do. Carter uses the disguise of make up to stress the idea of ‘loss of self’. There is a key passage in the novel where this idea is clearly portrayed through the character of Walser, ‘When Walser first put on his make up, he looked in the mirror and did not recognise himself… he felt the beginnings of a vertiginous sense of freedom… Walser’s very self, as he had known it, departed from him, he experienced the freedom behind the mask’

Walser starts off as a journalist and a believer in facts and becoming a clown means that he has to lose his protective shell and acquire an ‘inner life’, ‘a realm of speculation and surmise within himself that was entirely his own’. Walser has to allow illusion to be a part of his life and forget his factual life. In a sense Walser is given the same powers as the author here as he is able to deconstruct himself into his ‘inner self’. Walser’s idea of the freedom that the mask gives him contradicts greatly with Buffo’s, ‘how the world defines you, now you have opted to lose your wits in the profession of the clown’.

The true meaning of being a clown

Therefore, perhaps Walser is being fooled by the true meaning of being a clown and that it does not give you freedom at all; his sense of freedom has just been an illusion. Some may say that the clowns are much more unfortunate than Walser. I believe that this may be due to the fact that Walser will always have the power to wash off his wet white make up and carry on with his journalist life, however once the clowns have chosen their faces they are stuck with it for the rest of their lives, ‘possessed the formal lifelessness of death masks, as if, in some essential sense, they were themselves absent from the repast and left untenanted replicas behind’

Therefore the clowns are locked in violence and chaos and have no way of escaping. The need of escape can be shown through Buffo’s excessive drinking. However, when Walser breaks his arm whilst attempting to rescue Mignon, he is no longer a journalist disguised as a clown; he now a real clown and therefore loses his freedom and his sense of self.

Buffo the Great

The idea of ‘loss of self’ is greatly portrayed through Buffo the Great, ‘his real name was George Buffins, but he had long forgotton it’ (118). When Buffo turns up extremely drunk, instead of pretending to kill the Human Chicken (Walser) he does it for real. To the audience it is a performance however it is in fact not a performance at all; this is where illusion and reality collide. Instead of pretending to be a clown, Buffo ‘loses himself’ and becomes a real clown; he is no longer disguised. Carter uses inter-textuality with the character of George Buffins.

She links the character of George Buffins to Gorgeous George who is a character from another of her novels, ‘Wise Children’. He was a metaphor for the decline of the British Empire, and as George Buffins was a ‘great patriot’  himself, his ‘loss of self’ can also be described as a metaphor for the decline of the British Empire. This is also emphasised at ‘Buffo’s funeral’ where a Union Jack flag is drapes over his coffin. Some might see the clowns as simply representing a patriarchal society, however I believe that they also represent the Church.

Buffo himself says, ‘you might say, might you not, that the clown is the very image of Christ’ . Angela Carter even creates a reversal of the Last Supper with Christ, with Buffo the Master Clown acting as The Christ, as well as an imitation of Jesus’ resurrection, ‘Buffo who is dead is now alive again’. Carter creates these imitations to emphasise their connection with the clowns. As I have said earlier, once the clowns have chosen their faces they will be stuck with it for the rest of their lives which signifies that they cannot change, ‘the beauty of clowning is, nothing ever changes’.

They are ‘closed institutions’ just as the Church is; they don’t progress. Ma Nelson can be seen as the female counterpart for the character of Buffo the Great. This connection can be seen in Buffo’s speech on describing the clowns, ‘we are the whores of mirth, for, like a whore, we know what we are’. However, Carter presents Ma Nelson to the reader as a more sympathetic figure than Buffo. Carter also uses Ma Nelson to represent the great hero of the British Empire however in a comic manner. As the great hero Nelson is admired, so is Ma Nelson by all the girls who live with her in the brothel.

Cite this page

"Nights at the Circus" by Angela Carter. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from http://studymoose.com/george-buffins-gorgeous-george-11843-new-essay

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