The Body as an Abode of Freedom: Redefining the Female Self through Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus

Senior Capstone Experience by Nicole Hatfield ’21

Submitted to the Department of English

Advised by Dr. Elizabeth O’Connor

Description: Angela Carter describes Sophie Fevvers—the female protagonist of her eighth novel, Nights at the Circus (1984)—as a woman who breaks boundaries and redefines female empowerment: “What you have to do is to change the rules and make a new game, and that’s really what she’s [Fevvers’] about” (Katsavos). Like Fevvers, Carter engages in the art of rule breaking to formulate new feminist narratives that celebrate the female body as a story in itself. Nights at the Circus (Nights) revolves around Fevvers’ unbelievable story as a Cockney woman hatched from an egg with bird wings, raised in a brothel, and eventually made into a circus spectacle. Fevvers recounts her story to American journalist Jack Walser, and although Walser questions the validity of her story, he ultimately gets swept away by her bravado and comically joins the circus as a clown. Absurd narrative shifts, such as Walser’s transformation and Fevvers’ larger-than-life persona, define Nights and speak to Carter’s constant rule changing. Underneath all the kitsch, irony, and eroticism, her work ultimately explores how female characters redefine and pervert the self to cope with past traumas and celebrate their bodies as a type of home structure. Fevvers best embodies this perversion; her physically distorted body is both made strange and naturalized, thus allowing her to maintain an ambiguous identity. In detaching herself from humanity, Fevvers finds freedom within her body, and her detachment from conventional social structures allows her to embrace uncanny, paradoxical, and existential truths. Throughout Nights, Carter asks the readers to suspend their disbelief and consider how Fevvers’ realistic, yet surrealistic story transcends fiction and redefines the human condition. Specifically, Carter interacts with these broad, complex ideas by subverting structures related to ecofeminism, spatial meaning, and female empowerment, thus creating a space for new narratives and truths to exist.

Read Nicole’s SCE below:

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