Awakening From Enchantment: A Study of Postmodernism

© 1998-2001 Shawn Vidmar

A quick disclaimer. I was working on this through my last few years at the University of Idaho under the tutorial of Dr. Lance Olsen. When my coursework was finished, I was offered a job in my hometown maintaining my family's automotive dealership's website (a task I'd been doing in Idaho but full time). Coincidentally within three months of moving to Colorado, Dr. Olsen fired me as a student. I kept the correspondence to one day avenge his meanness. I didn't write for over two years, somewhere in my brain remembering his harsh words. Luckily my thesis project has been revived.

It was building this website that I had time to go back over my work and realized this subject was just too darn big, and certainly too ambiguous to set into logical rhetoric. Plus what kind of idiot does an academic study of Fairy Tales....children's literature? 

Upon some pondering and a few trips to the University of Denver (my undergraduate Alma Matter) Library. I have discovered a distinct link between Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and the Jewish Myth of the Golem, as well as the Golem's influence during the golden age of comic books, coincidentally the setting of this book.

I'm doing my best to keep it simple. So, in short, the following unfinished thesis is here for you to peruse, but don't send me any notice as to how much you hate it or where it went wrong. I'll be posting the new thesis as it gets written and then I will solicit feedback, especially since I am currently sans professor on this endeavor.

I.  Introduction
  1. Metafiction
  2. Feminism

II. Coover's Metafiction

  1. Narration
  2. Sexuality
  3. Structure

III. Carter's Feminism

  1. Point of View
  2. History

IV. Conclusion
V. Bibliography

I. Introduction

At the turn of the 19th century, story telling shifted from the traditional to a newer, modernist mode of narration.  This shift was caused by many things: the breakdown of organized religions and other institutions, Darwin’s claims that man had descended from the apes, Freud’s revelations of the discrepancy between thought, speech, action, and so on.  World travel fanned the flames of modernism and the advent of photography shook art circles.  The effect of this upheaval was an overall personal questioning of perceived surroundings, resulting in traditional narrative’s turn inward.

The modernist movement affected the world in many ways.  F. Scott Fitzgerald described the jazz age and produced rich, brash, and cynical young men surrounded by beautiful, albeit vacuous, young women.  The Harlem Renaissance enabled educated African-Americans, like Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, to speak out about their experiences and write it all down.  George Gershwin utilized jazz’s ability to improvise within the confines and around the edges of a blues, march, hymn, or pop song, and integrated it into the larger world of mainstream music.  Flappers epitomized freedom by going out alone with a cigarette in one hand and a flask of bootleg liquor in another.  Dancing broke free from the stifling ballroom steps into swing, and people were literally throwing their partner around the dance floor.  Yet with this insurgence of mass culture and its hunger for novelty and trends toward inclusion, there remained limits to the scope of the freedom.  Modernism raised the bar as far as it could imagine, and following will be an investigation into modernism’s affects upon literature, art, and architecture.

In literature, authors no longer needed to describe settings ad nauseam, there had been enough people documenting geography in travel journals and works of non-fiction; therefore the modern writer looked for new landscapes and discovered the unlimited possibilities of the human mind.  Virginia Woolfe was at the forefront of this internal monologue.  In her text, To the Lighthouse, many characters reveal a story through their own perceptions, thoughts, and insights.  It exemplifies misunderstandings within modernist tradition of story telling.  Giving the reader discussions of the character’s internal climate instead of her physical surroundings.

          Modernist art also took a turn from painting landscapes as they appeared to experiments in form and perception.  The champions of fine art began to quiet because the modernist upheaval caused questions in aesthetics.  These questions were fueled by photography which could depict a landscape or portrait more accurately than a painting ever could.  Therefore artists also turned inward toward experimental perception.  Pablo Picasso is a fine illustration of this change.  He revolutionized art with his popular cubist paintings, depicting multifaceted portraits of the same face, imbedding his own fears and anxieties into the piece.  He allowed form to be function in line drawings and simple metaphors, yet there is nothing simplistic about his art.

Architecture also evolved.  The modern designers eschewed the shackles of the ornate past.  They cleaned up the gingerbread of the Victorian epoch and the heavy Gothic designs, and aimed for a much more methodical, utilitarian design where form followed function.  Buildings from this era are plain and boxy.  LeCorbusier is known for structures resembling enlarged cardboard boxes with cut out holes for windows.  The buildings appear cold, for the designers embraced new technology to such and extent that they produced forty story skyscrapers built of glass and steel.  Frank Lloyd Wright’s linear and angular designs are good showcases of the aesthetics of modernist architecture.

Similar to modernism, postmodernism evolved from history and man’s reaction to his deeds.  The 1940’s witnessed the worst example of man’s inhumanity to man with eyewitness accounts and film footage from WWII concentration camps.  Shortly thereafter the demographic group known as the Baby Boomers began to take form resulting in many families moving out of the city centers and into suburbia, causing an economic collapse that led to inner city ghettos.  Also a factor was the dismissal of many women from their wartime jobs.  These women had experienced economic and personal freedom and were being forced back into the roles of housewife and mother.  They were showered with appliances and expected to step aside in order for the returning men to take over once again.  One of those appliances happened to be the all mighty television, birthing a while new form of mass culture.

Even with these changes, many were nostalgic for the modernist tale with a recognizable structure and deliberate characters, so much so many of the early postmodern pieces have one foot in each camp.  Although postmodernism gained momentum through the 1950’s and the Cold War, the advent of mass consumerism, the McCarthy hearings, and the growing power of the teenage Baby Boomers, it didn’t really start taking shape until the radical 1960’s.

Historically the 1960’s were a decade of turmoil.  The beatnik poets were on the scene and The Beatles revolutionized rock and roll.  Socially women were gaining a voice and with the release of the pill, they were now in control of their reproduction.  The Civil Rights movement in the South took form and many refused to go to the back of the bus and insisted on integration into previously whites-only schools.  Richard Alpert and Timothy Leary put their academic careers on the line by releasing LSD which was in turn explored by society during the Electric Kook-Aid Acid Tests promoted by the Merry Pranksters and the Grateful Dead.  The experimentation of this and other mind-altering drugs gave way to Gonzo journalism, the art-nouvea swirl of letter design, and vibrating colors including Day-Glo.  A general distrust of the government continued through the anti-war sentiment fueled by media coverage, the Kent State massacre, Race Riots, and the US government’s inability to satisfy public demands to pull out of Vietnam.  Science produced the man on the moon and mass media gave birth to the ravenous paparazzi.  It is no coincidence that social and historical upheaval would give way to changes in the arts.  Literature, art, and architecture reacted to the general feelings of disgust, distrust, and deconstruction.

Many authors began formal experimentation, appropriation, and exercises in voice and diction.  Joseph Heller released Catch-22 (1961) which viciously caricatured the US military bureaucracy and the malign logic of the inescapable.  Roland Barthes revealed in “Death of the Author” that every text (or art object) could only be a reconstruction of all experience, all previous texts, and all history.  He also asserted that “the modern scriptor is born simultaneously with the text” yet with “the birth of the reader must but at the cost of the death of the author” (172).  Gone were the days of divine intervention and the reliance upon muses for inspiration.  Ten years later, Raymond Federman defined pla[y]giarism, which brought a sense of whimsy and fun to fiction and criticism, later merging them into one action termed critifiction.  Following assumptions made by the growing culture of the postmodern, the subsequent literature, art, and architecture became uprooted, ungrounded, decentered, and demoralized.

The postmodernists rebuffed tradition and began experimenting with form, structure, and narration, a trend visually evident in architecture.  Designers Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers collaborated on the Pompidou National Center for Art and Culture in Paris that is literally a six story glass building turned inside out with air vents, water mains, electric wiring color coded and presented externally as a living urban machine.  Other designers attached huge facades on old, square modernist buildings of the past.  These master builders dipped into the art of trompe l’oeil to paint windows on brick walls and ornate trim onto steel drainage systems.  The postmodern architects drew from historical movements like art deco and kitsch, as well as Greek and Egyptian designs to combine all traditions into on building.  This experimentation caused a sense of grab-bag architecture adding historical context and complexity to the architect’s collage of movements. 

Postmodern artists accomplished similar upheavals in art galleries.  Popular performance art, trash aesthetics, and conceptual art consistently questioned, What is art?  Minimalist sculptor Donald Judd released his “untitled” series of galvanized iron boxes mounted on the wall.  He propagated an art movement striving to reduce art to its primary forms and colors.  This shift spurned artists such as Andy Warhal who mass-produced silk-screens of recycled images of public consumption seen with his series of Campbell’s soup cans.  And Roy Lichtenstein realized the potential of comic book art.  Mass culture of the late 1950’s into the 60’s gave postmodernism a strong foothold in the arts.

Postmodernism, being more of a state of mind than anything else causes some distinct obstacles with any attempt to define it in absolute terms.  Therefore this project will merely investigate its tendencies to privilege the ontological questioning over epistemological as well as the experiments with form often presented by postmodern writers.

Epistemological questioning, according to Brian McHale in Postmodernist Fiction, is the dominant kind in modernism and involves the quest for knowledge, and—more importantly—who possesses that knowledge.  This assumption hinges on the presence of a metanarrative or The Big Explanation.  Previously metanarratives presented knowledge in finite terms.  No one questioned the church, state, or status quo.  If people had epistemological questions, all they needed to do was turn to their religion, their government, and public opinion.  Inherent in epistemological questioning is that there is knowledge to be found and someone holds that enlightened key.

This questioning is similar to the method of gathering clues as presented in the traditional detective novel.  Here a character searches for information throughout the text, sifts through the clues, and concludes with a finite resolution.  His faith is never shaken that somewhere is the key to unlock the mystery.  The reader never leaves the text without knowing all the answers.  This traditional epistemological exercise in searching for the answer is characteristic of the modernist tale.

Opposing modernist epistemology is postmodern ontology.  McHale explains when epistemological questions go beyond the realm of The Big Explanation and literally tip over into ontological queries, postmodernism gains momentum.  Ontological questioning consists of the perception of one world among many.  The textual spaces in which the protagonist finds himself are in constant upheaval.  The character does not assume there is an explanation, he just attempts to question his place in his perceived world. 

Ontological texts have nostalgia for the epistemological Q&A, and mourn the loss of something that can’t quite be remembered.  This sadness creates an unresolved tension in the postmodern texts that serve as propelling agents constantly pushing the questioning into a solipsism or the emergence of one world into an other.  Solipsism, according to McHale, is a figurative kiss of the cosmic pool balls.  The expectant tension of solipsism in the text is often where the definable postmodern resides.

The struggle between the epistemological and ontological questioning creates tension, but so does formal experimentation.  When Barthes announced that all modern texts were merely a hodge-podge of former texts, the modernists and critics recoiled and the postmodernists forded ahead.  Instead of trying to prove Barthes wrong, postmodern artists ran with the idea and began producing recycled and altered textual forms.

The postmodern authors presented here all reuse the 18th century classic fairy tale format as groundwork for their own creations.  Robert Coover, Angela Carter, and Donald Barthelme all employ the entrenched fairy tale motif in their works.  They each highlight fractures in the familiar tales by viewing them through a postmodern lens.  Pushing the epistemological Happily Ever After into the ontological 21st century questions into happiness, traditional roles, and magic, they also deposit their modern character into a formerly idyllic world producing examinations of origins.  Each author highlights the postmodern differently, yet the ontological question remains the same: “How shall I define this world?”  Coover uses the tools of metafiction, Carter calls upon feminism, and Barthelme focuses on textual linguistic pratfalls.

A. Metafiction

Metafiction, a term classifying fiction which not only folds back upon itself, it draws attention to its process and form instead of accentuating plot and content.  As Larry McCaffery concludes in The Metafictional Muse, the term metafiction is often applied to those works that were largely ignored by critics and the public for lack of understanding and misrepresentation.  As with any new mode of writing, at first it was an anomaly produced by progressive postmodernists who used the new destabilized text as a sounding board for experiments in form, freeplay, and appropriation.  And as it slipped into mainstream criticism many more authors were cited as metafictionists including William Gass and Thomas Pynchon. 

Formal experiment provides a freedom to use any desirable genre.  The established genres such as the detective novel, the epic odyssey, the science fiction trek, and the standard archetypical tales including Biblical stories, myth, and fairy tales, are all fodder for metafictionists.  Thomas Pynchon utilizes the detective novel in The Crying of Lot 49.  Pynchon’s metafiction holds a mirror to the previous assumption that epistemological questioning produces answers, and moves past that concept to the other side of the looking glass emphasizing the flaws in the standard fact-finding endeavors.  His main character, Oedipa, can’t discern between real facts and red herrings.  She collects all the data like a good detective, but Pynchon leaves her with no solid answers upon the close of the novel.

Another tool of metafiction is appropriation.  Similar to rapper Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, the appropriating metafictionist takes an established story and manipulates it to his heart’s content.  Puff Daddy has re-released many former Sting/Police and Led Zeppelin hits of the 1970’s, such as “Every Breath You Take,” “Roxanne,” and “Kashmir,” with his own jacked-up beats, rap lyrics, re-mixed samples, and back-up singers.  The metafictional writer often takes established stories, like Little Red Riding Hood’s journey into the forest, the Joseph’s feelings, and Snow White’s enchanted kiss, and re-mixes, samples, and rewrites them in the same vein as Puff Daddy.

Metafictionists also embrace textual freeplay.  Not only are the traditional stories slipping and sliding upon frequented planes of sampling and modernization, but also linguistically.  Metafiction uses forms of playfulness to soften the blow of altering the “original” story.  The use of poetry, juxtaposition, form, alliteration, and the like produce a story never seen before by highly mindful of an antiquated tale the reader has certainly previously heard.  Metafictionists us pun, colloquial free-play, and self-conscious clichés to split open the older tales and ultimately present ontological questions.  Sentences resembling poetry pervade the texts of Coover, Carter, and Barthelme.  All of these authors employ word play in their texts, yet all are not characterized as metafictionists but rather postmodernists.  Metafiction is not the only tool postmodernists utilize in their creative fictions.  Another feature often standing under the umbrella of postmodernism is feminism.

B. Feminism

Feminism is a theory of political, economic, and social equality.  Its birth is credited to the Seneca Falls Conference in 1848.  This assembly combined the forces of the abolitionists and feminists in championing for equal rights for all peoples.  It is on this 20th of July that the “Declaration of Sentiments,” a text mimicking the Declaration of Independence with the inclusion of women and minorities, was read and released.  This was the pebble that created the ripple that became a wave in our modern society.   Author Charlotte Perkins Gilman released essays on how to survive single in her Women and Economics series (1898).

The women’s suffrage movement of the 1920’s reunited the modern woman to the cause.  Women found a untied voice with their longstanding demand for equal rights, including the right to vote.  During this uprising, they once again joined forces with other similar political movements striving for equality of all peoples, and feminist writing really began taking shape.  Originally what filled the pages of female texts were instructions on how to live outside the options of wife, mother, spinster, or whore.  As those boundaries crumbled and women gained the right to vote, to own property, to work, and to request a divorce, the idea of social equality also became internalized.

Never before had so many women been published under their own name; their fictions focused not on new hardships, but rather how they through and dealt with obstacles of patriarchy.  For most feminist fiction writers, the limitations of the realist and modernist movements were as suffocating as the patriarchal chastity belts they were trying to dislodge.  By sidling under the postmodern parasol, feminist writers were now free to utilize the many facets of postmodernism whit astounding ability, intelligence, and will to challenge the ideological systems of the status quo.

The postmodern authors using feminist lenses often appropriate established genres and rewrite them to highlight the female protagonist’s ability.  In Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy takes the standard science fiction novel and accentuates male archetypes and the female hero.  The male figures are bullish, dangerous, and sinister.  They uphold the stifling institutional paradigm bringing the spiritual death of the hero, Consuelo—nicknamed Connie.  Piercy focuses on the systems silencing women and gives her hero a voice to rebel against them.  The setting might be an asylum, but the reader is left with a choice of believing in either Connie’s strength and subsequent time travel with the feminist Luciente or her possible insanity.  Piercy includes issues of domestic violence, life as a minority, and poverty affecting many women.  Connie isn’t clear if she’s even willing to attempt an explanation to disbeliever’s of the utopian world she’s charted with Luciente, thus leaving the reader questioning her own perceptions of her experiences.

Another facet of feminism stresses the female protagonist’s intelligence.  Throughout history women have been dismissed as servants of man, decorative possessions, or workhorses, like those in Mark Twain's novels.  Or they have been treated misogynistically as whores, as Norman Mailer writes in The Quick and the Dead.  Furthermore, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, women are inevitable the enemy because they are infected by the count and in turn taint their own lovers.  When a feminist author gives her protagonist a voice, many surprising recounts emerge, such as Jo’s strong voice and independence in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women or Amaryliss’s economic prowess in Gilman’s “Her Beauty.”  We, as readers, are knocked off balance since historically most females didn’t have any type of formal education nor could many even read, thus there wasn’t any demand for strong female characters and very few could create their own.  Therefore, when she is given an informed voice, it draws attention to itself and of the many years of injustice where brilliant women were kept ignorant and silent.

Feminist writers also appropriate typical patriarchal systems of hierarchy and turn them on their ear.  Just as Piercy highlighted the science fiction novel and the shackles of the mental institution, Margaret Atwood exposes the religious right and a fertile woman’s worth in The Handmaid’s Tale.  In this science fiction journey, a woman is only worth as much as her husband’s military rank and her own fertility.  Those who had experienced the freedom of birth control or the right to choose are publicly condemned and often brutally executed.  It is frightening to realize how these fictional women, often professors, artists, and professionals, subtly lose their place in society and are supplanted by their socially defined worth.  However with Atwood’s bleak portrayal of a world, she also produces a feminist protagonist, known only as Offred, who is intelligent, bold, ruthless, and clever.  She uses her minimal position to shift between the worlds of silence, rape, murder, rules, and demeanor in order to decode the system and eventually escape.

Just as the metafictionist’s accentuate the ridiculous rules of acceptable form and language, and feminism restructures archaic systems and fights for equality, exploration of linguistic systems also chip away at epistemological assumptions.  

Coover’s metafiction, complete with formal experiment, appropriation, and freeplay, often pushes the envelope one step further.  Where he experiments with formal archetypes, like fairy tales and biblical parables, and also appropriates any character within that realm in a playful way, he also exposes the metafictional fissures in terms of narration, structure, and sexuality.  His consistency of these manipulations in “The Door: A Prologue of Sorts,” “J’s Marriage,” and “The Dead Queen,” demonstrate his comfort at the helm of metafiction.

II. Coover’s Metafiction

Robert Coover, born in 1932 in Charles City, Iowa began his education at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, transferred to Indiana University, Bloomington, receiving his BA in 1953.  He received his MA from the Univ. of Chicago in 1965 and coincidentally also published his first novel, The Origin of the Brunists.  He had already published several short stories in Fiddlehead, Noble Savage, Evergreen Review, and Cavalie.  He continues to submit gems to journals and magazines to this day; however, it was not until the Brunists that Coover began acquiring critical acclaim for his experimental fiction.  In fact, Brunists won the William Faulkner Award for best first novel.

The Brunists are a fictional religious sect that offers a sense of comic relief to the unhappy modernists pining for religious epistemological security.  Coover’s foray into a religion based on numerology and a bit of good luck is an excellent example of his metafictional impulses.  Following the Brunists, Coover released The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968), another experimental piece which helped define metafiction.

UBA dabbles in questions of creation and absolute answers. J. Henry Waugh, a middle-aged, single white male, concocts a tabletop baseball game ruled by a complex handbook of possible combinations of the dice.  Sounding quite normal, this game soon encompasses Waugh’s life.  He eventually looses his job out of neglect.  Soon the baseball game defines his whole world.  He, in fact, goes into deep depression when his favorite character, Damon Rutheford,  must perish in an errant pitch because of a die combination of triple ones three times in a row.  It is this moment, that Coover’s story becomes metafictional because suddenly it is no longer about a pathetic single middle-aged man, but rather a creator contemplating his power.  Coover alludes to Waugh’s feelings toward Rutheford as redeemer and son, and when Waugh could intervene and save the life of Rutheford, he realizes the UBA as he knows it would crumble.  This extremely self-reflexiveness is in a larger sense, what the author of text—creator of a world—faces during his creation process (McCaffery 48).

Coover’s metafiction, complete with formal experiment, appropriation, and freeplay, often pushes the envelope one step further.  Where he experiments with formal archetypes, like fairy tales and biblical parables, and also appropriates any character within that realm in a playful way, he also exposes the metafictional fissures in terms of narration, sexuality, and structure.  His consistency of these manipulations in “The Door: A Prologue of Sorts,” “J’s Marriage,” and “The Dead Queen,” demonstrate his comfort at the helm of metafiction.  

A. Narration  

            “The Door: A Prologue of Sorts,” Coover’s first short in his collection of fiction in Pricksongs and Descants (1969), is a great example of his exploration into narrative gaming.  He begins with an invocation to all tales magical, nursery, and biblical.  Jack and the Giant are intertwined and confused of their own identity.  Gone are the days of two-dimensional paper-doll characters, he gives the reader a vibrant Little Red Riding Hood happily skipping along into adulthood instead of to grannies house, and he portrays an aging Beauty who once was in love with a beast.  This affects the narration by excluding the omniscient narrator and moving into first person thoughts and feelings.  The reader sees Jack’s indecision about educating his daughter, Red, about the monstrosities existing in their fairy tale world.  Coover includes granny's bitterness and tenacity as she describes her unhappy ever after with the Beast who never became the prince.

            In a similar matter, “J’s Marriage” invokes many allegorical traditions into the tale.  Not only does he allude to “a lifetime of misguided deportations from ancient deformed grannies, miserable old tales of blood and the tortures of the underworld” (113), but also the biblical story of the immaculate birth.  Instead of god-like narration of the Bible,  Coover brings Joseph’s voice to light.  Here the reader witnesses Joseph’s questioning his love for the “intelligent and imaginative” Mary, despite his age and that he is “far more broadly educated” (112).  This tale twists and turns as Joseph debates his love for the Virgin Mary and later marriage proposal, as well as his subsequent anger toward a god who would “do such a useless and, well, yes, in a way, almost vulgar thing” (Coover 117) in impregnating his wife before they consummated the marriage.  Again Coover challenges familiar and formal traditional narrative in a playful and humorous way. 

            Coover’s “The Dead Queen” also turns traditional narrative on its ear.  Instead of the third person, the reader receives the little known point of view of the hapless Prince Charming.  Not only does Coover demonstrate the prince’s reluctance to accept his fate in whatever fairy tale he’s participating, he also illuminates the prince’s importance within the fairy tale.  His glib and doubtful narration is strikingly different from the traditional fairy tale hero’s assuredness.  Invoking ontological questioning, the prince wonders who is responsible and governing this world in which he has no choice but to revive Snow White.  Especially since when he acts alone and kisses the dead queen, many recoil and Snow White faints.  He is left pondering his place in this fairy tale, now that he’s broken the taboo.

            Of the three, similarities emerge.  Coover dispels the omniscient narrator and turns his characters loose in the narrative world where they exist.  he complicates matters even more by scrambling the archaic parables with feelings and emotion.  He mimics the postmodern quest for some sort of placement in this world by layering fairy tales, nursery rhymes, allegories, parables, and mythology upon his own outspoken and incredibly human heroes.  This humanist edge also aids Coover in his treatment of sexuality within his texts.

B. Sexuality

Another product of “The Door” involves exposition of the sexual undertones found in most fairy tales.  Primarily these texts were parables to children concerning how to behave, whom to trust, and how to love.  The female reaching puberty, however, often slept through it or was locked in the tower until she was ready to be rescued and live Happily Ever After.  Here Granny’s life beyond her marriage to the Beast--who never became a prince--is filled with the pain of his “thick quick cock” and the embarrassment as he “dropped a public turd or two” (Coover, PD 16).  Pubescent Little Red with a “bit of new fuzz on her pubes and juice in the little bubbies” skips on down the lane toward her own adulthood, her own ever after (Coover, PD 16).  As she approaches the symbolic door, which in “The Gingerbread House” is red and pulsing, and then decides to pass through it, the reader can only infer her initiation into adulthood through blood and barriers.

“J’s Marriage” is similar to “The Door” in Joseph’s desire for his virginal bride.  He describes his prowess as a lover, his deep love and patience for his new bride, and his sheer appreciation for her beautiful body; only to be upstaged by god and the holy spirit.  How can a man compete with that?  Again Coover undermines the seemingly innocuous tales with modern sensibilities and emotion.  He makes things all the more human by showcasing the sexual undertones almost too Freudian for the reader to admit.

“The Dead Queen” exposes the suspicions of the dwarves’ sexual intentions in the classical tale.  Here Coover allows them into the bridal chamber only to produce a folly of sexual mishaps and pleasure.  The prince doesn’t want to admit his wife’s impurity and is certain that “finger up his ass was not his own” (Coover TDQ ____).  Instead he focuses on the dead queen and her blistered feet being scraped from the red hot iron slippers.   If that doesn’t undermine the romance of the first night of happily ever after, Coover isn’t a metafictionist.  

C. Structure

“The Door” is structured to combine two modes of experimental form, primarily the changing point of view.  The story begins with Jack/Giant lamenting his role in his daughter, Red’s, movement through the tale.  He wonders if he should’ve warned her of the perils to come, or let her figure it out.  There is nothing striking about the presentation of these thoughts, but then Coover slips into the Granny’s diction in which punctuation and capitalization are absent.  The sentences run together in a breathless and hurried way.  She’s vulgar and brash.  It then shifts to the innocent Red, who vaguely hints toward her knowledge of the ramifications of her passing through the doorway into her own tale.  Coover portrays a pubescent girl eager for the next stage in her life but terribly unprepared.

“J’s Marriage” contains large paragraphs of diction from Joseph.  His perceptions revealed through his telling of the story every Christian has taken for granted as miraculous.  The paragraphs are long and sentences short.  It reads much like a police account, all the words are there but emotion is somewhat detached.

“The Dead Queen” is told entirely from the Prince’s point of view.  His fears and suspicions are implied as he moves within the story we already know.  Coover highlights a minor character and gives him front stage to ponder, lament, and curse his destiny—merely to be the fairy tale prince and do what he’s told.

Coover’s many manipulations of archaic and well-known fictions expose him as the metafictionist he is.  As the world of postmodernism evolves and with the unlimited internet and explorations into hypertext, it is no surprise that Coover is keeping his hand in that postmodern hat.  He is currently teaching at Brown, a leading institution in computer aided fictions, and judging a nation-wide hypertextual contest.

III.  Carter’s Feminism

    Angela Carter’s mid-World War II birth in 1940, influenced her perception and writing as she experienced the wave of feminism coinciding with the power of the Baby Boomers.  Although British born, she credits her enlightened education a product of post war instability.  Her critics term her as a feminist for her strong characters before they were willing to include postmodernism to her vita.  This transition came as Carter began experimenting with fairy tales.

    Carter’s versions of the earlier tales throw the age-old characters into the twentieth century.  She includes enough remnants of the historical tale to allude to the standard motifs.  Her first collection of “fractured fairy tales,” The Bloody Chamber (1979), gained attention by also bringing to light the erotic nature of those older tales (Garret 414).  Here eroticism has been noted as an ability to write “narrative turns of such beauty you fall in love with the romance itself—forget the princess (Sintow 35).  Carter’s ability to expose the inherent sexuality within the fairy tales and yet heed the transition with stories of “dreams that have dreams,”  “paragraphs that “read like little, perfect essays,” and sentences that are “wild swans turning cartwheels” (Ordenky 72).  Carter's tampering and transformations shed light upon the erupting unconscious where the “Beauty falls in love with the beast as a beast” (Sintow 316) and Little Red “sleeps in granny’s bed, between the paws of the tender wolf” (Carter, Chamber 118).  Her female characters always win, and often it isn’t an obscure Happily Ever After, but rather a delightful ending exhibiting independence and definable boundaries.

    These endings support her feminism as well as her investigation into a society that privileges the beautiful and punishes the ugly.  She also exhibits her desire to replace the vacuous heroines by stronger, smarter characters.  Her strong heroines are portrayed to reject “cultural stereotypes of the female, especially the pure, passive, brainless, and asexual female, in favor of the more assertive and sexually adventurous heroines” (Oates 7).  Quite often she highlights the tradition patriarchal subordination of women.  With this, women are defined in contrast to the image of man.  In sexual difference, the nothingness of the woman is defined only through the somethingness of the male.  As the traditional fairy tale is laden with masculinity and the desire for the male first to define, then to rescue the female, she can never accurately se herself.  In fact, beauty is something purely subjective and often nothing more than a simple refraction of light in a mirror.  The patriarchal standards often distort the reflection of self-seen by the female.  Carter acts as a prism to bend these tainted reflections into self-assuredness in her tales. 

    Along with subtle sexuality and strong female characters, Carter also has a unique voice.  Charles Newman states that it is “intensely literary without being precious, deep without being indifferent to formulas without being ‘experimental’ and funny without being superficial or cruel” (1).  Her diction modernizes the older, appropriated tales.  She claims that “each century tends to create or re-create fairy tales after its own fashion” (Carter, Sleeping 126).  Therefore her versions are mere mirrors help up to contemporary society, yet her looking glass happens to also be influenced by feminism, giving her unique reflections. Carter explicitly demonstrates her ability to transgress the norm without completely straying from the tale throughout her tales in The Bloody Chamber.  Here she manipulates and manhandles the classic “Beauty and the Beast,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” and “Bluebeard _____________.”

    She contends with the patriarchal views of female looked-at-ness through her recreation of “Beauty and the Beast” found in her tale “The Tiger’s Bride.”  Here even Carter’s Beauty has worth, for the Beast desires her.  Yet instead of a wife to break his spell of bestiality, he wants only to see her “unclothed nude without her dress” (Chamber 58) after which she’s free; however this is where Carter’s magic interrupts.  Beauty bargains with the Beast to protect her shame in granting his request but the Beast denies her compromise.  Later when the stalemate results in her freedom, she ponders her life before the Beast and decides to send her robotic twin to “perform the part of my father’s daughter” (Carter, Chamber 65).

    Beauty’s choice to trick her father and stay with the Beast is her first independent decision.  As a result, she gives herself freely to the Beast, who first purrs and then licks her naked body with his “abrasive as sandpaper” tongue.  He is literally stripping “skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world,” as her “nascent patina of shining hairs” begins to emerge (Carter, Chamber 67).  Beauty transforms to a beast, not Beast to prince as expected.  Carter takes the submissive stereotype and inserts a bold and brassy female ready to handle her sexuality and desires on her own terms. 

    This type of transformation litters Carter’s work and it is no surprise that her tale “The Company of Wolves” reconstructs the helpless female into a healthier character.  Whereas the traditional Red Riding Hood is terrified of the ferocious wolves of the forest, with Carter she realizes since “her fear did her no good, she ceased to be afraid” (Carter, Chamber 117).  And when they rehash the scenario of “what big teeth you have…better to eat you with” he bursts out laughing in the wolf’s face for Red knows she’s “nobody’s meat” (Carter, Chamber 118).  However she soon learns it wasn’t her flesh but rather her sex that the wolf was more interested in gobbling up.  Weighing her choices, she ceremoniously discards her clothing into the fire as well as the wolf’s disguise.  She guides the wolf’s head onto her lab as she picks lice out of his pelt during their “savage marriage ceremony” (Carter, Chamber 118).  Here too, Carter produces a savvy heroine unabashed of her own flesh and capable of diffusing the highly patriarchal ruts in which past fairy tales reside through the roles of needy beasts and shocked wolves.  Carter’s version of Bluebeard told in “The Bloody Chamber’ also presents the male as dangerous.  Here, however, the heroine cannot tame him, but rather she must escape from his isolated castle reminiscent of.  

A. Point of View

Readers experience the Beast as she does.  They can empathize with her anxiety, fear, and compassion upon meeting this man who would accept the bet of a daughter.  The Beast has a “crude clumsiness about his outlines. . . an odd air of self-imposed restraint” keeping him from “dropping down on all fours,” and a mask “with a man’s face painted beautifully on it” (Carter, Chamber 53).  With that, Beauty ponders perception, her own and others.

As with any author sidling up to postmodernism, she must chose a comfortable venue in which to exploit it.  Angela Carter does just that with her use of feminist characters and quest for equality in many of her fabulous fairy tales.

B. History 

She addresses many issues of feminism in her works, focusing on the argument in cinema of the male gaze. 

She treats the older fairy tales as the male gaze for they were created in patriarchy and only instructed women to wait for a prince for rescue.  Very seldom was a gal left up to her own device, that is why it is such a delight to read Carter’s work.  She holds her protagonist up as an object and then gives her the strength to achieve growth, to make a decision, to break out of the fairy tale folly which upholds the chauvinistic ideals of what the little woman should be like: beautiful, happy, virginal, helpless (or asleep), magical, quiet (or asleep), etc.  

IV. Conclusion

V.  Bibliography

  1. Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1985.     

  2. Barthelme, Donald. Snow White. New York: Scribner, 1965.

  3. Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Modern Criticism & Theory. Ed. David Lodge. New York: Longman, 1991. 167-172.

  4. Carter, Angela. The Bloody Chamber. New York: Penguin, 1979.

  5. Coover, Robert. Pricksongs and Descants. New York: Plume, 1969.

  6. Coover, Robert. “The Dead Queen.” Quarterly Review of Literature. 18 (1973), 304-13.

  7. Federman, Raymond.  Critifiction: Postmodern Essays.  New York: State U of New York P, 1993.

  8. Glennon, Lorraine, ed. Our Times. Atlanta: Turner Publishing Inc., 1995.

  9. McCaffery, Larry. The Metafictional Muse. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1982.

  10. McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1987.

  11. Piercy, Marge. Woman on the Edge of Time. London: Woman’s Press Ltd., 1979.

  12. Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. London: Picador, 1966.

  13. Rossi, Alice S., ed. The Feminist Papers. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1973.  

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