The Carnivalesque in Wise Children

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Imma Ramos                                                                                                           7.11.04

                                         The Carnivalesque in Wise Children

‘Wise Children’ tells the story of the trials and tribulations of two sisters of one and the same family – the Hazards, the official, legitimate side, and the Chances, the illegitimate side. It focuses on the world of high and low culture as the Chance sisters, the twins Nora and Dora, are music hall song and dance girls, whereas Ranulph Hazard and his son Melchior are ‘the Royal Family of the British Theatre’(page 95). They are great Shakespearean actors and therefore stand for official culture and its ‘King’. However, during the time of carnival, kings are always uncrowned, and this is what happens to the Hazard family.

The decline of the old cultural norms is underlined by Carter in many ways. Melchior’s Hollywood version of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is a complete and utter flop, and the decline of the Hazard family is also reflected in Melchior’s descendants, who aren’t interested in following in their father’s footsteps, and who all end up in popular culture of some sort or another. For example, Saskia, Melchior’s daughter, becomes the presenter of a cookery show on the television, while Tristram, his son, ‘the last gasp of the imperial Hazard family’ (page 10), appears to be a victim of American cultural imperialism as he hosts a TV game show called ‘Lashings of Lolly’, in which money replaces culture.

Mikhail Bakhtin, a 20th century Russian critic, studied the works of the medieval French writer and satirist, Rabelais, and defined the context of his work as medieval carnival. The decline and fall of everything deemed holy and the promotion of the profane is typical of the carnival world described by Bakhtin in his book, ‘Rabelais and his World’. Carter specialized in medieval literature at university and it is obvious that the rebellious carnival spirit of such writers as Rabelais appealed to her. Carnival is a time of freedom, when people can say and do what they want as all the different social classes mix together in the street, and official dogma, culture and hierarchy are done away with. It is a time of enthronement and dethronement, of decline and renewal, and this is underlined in ‘Wise Children’, by the two catch phrases, which are repeated throughout the novel: ‘Lo, how the mighty are fallen’ and ‘What a joy it is to dance and sing!’.

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According to Bakhtin, carnival was a time when all the hierarchies that were so firmly established in medieval life were inverted. The lowliest were placed at the same level as those who were ordinarily socially superior – and sometimes even elevated above them. It acknowledged the organic functions of the body with bawdy references to eating, drinking, copulation and defecation. Carnival was marked by inclusion rather than exclusion – it embraced the diversity of humanity in all its forms and imperfections, and, in fact, privileged those imperfections over the perfected.

One potent image that Bakhtin evokes as being emblematic of ...

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