The Carnivalesque in Wise Children
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 the carnival spirit is that of the laughing hag, who is heavily pregnant and on the verge of giving birth. Her flesh is aged and sagging, and she is close to death, but she is also about to bring fresh life into the world and to continue the cycle of birth, life and death, well beyond her own return to the earth. She laughs at life, at death, at humanity and at the cycle of existence.
Her laughter represents yet another aspect of carnival. This form of humour undermines the hierarchies that exist outside of carnival – it reminds us that even the most exalted of men and women are just as human as the rest of us. Like us, they eat, drink, copulate and defecate. And, like us, they were born and they will die. And so, this humour elevates the lowly, even as it reduces the lofty. Like the celebration of the imperfections of humanity, its frailties and its links with its earthy origins, carnival laughter allows for the destruction of hierarchies.
The spirit of the carnivalesque permeates the work. Dora, one notes, has little respect for the socially superior characters in the novel. The Lady Atlanta Hazard, first wife to Melchior, is affectionately named ‘Wheelchair’ after becoming disabled. Dora refuses to pay homage to those who are higher up in the social hierarchy and ridicules them light-heartedly: ‘The lovely Hazard girls, they used to call them. Huh. Lovely is as lovely does; if they looked like what they behaved like, they’d frighten little children’ (page 7) she says of Lady Atlanta’s daughters. And, despite his lofty reputation, Dora’s own father is similarly subjected to her mischievous commentary, reminding us that for all his apparent superiority and ambitions, he’s as human and flawed as the rest of us. She knows that the quickest way to undermine dignity is to bring up images of copulation and defecation, so she often evokes such associations when her father enters the scene: ‘I did piss myself when I saw him, in fact, but only a bit, hardly enough to satin the sofa. Such eyes! Melchior’s eyes, warm and dark and sexy as inside of a London cab in wartime…those knicker-shifting, unfasten-your-brassiere-from-the-back-of-the-gallery eyes…’(page 72). Later, it is not Melchior’s eyes that come under scrutiny, but some other, considerably more private parts: ‘…the way that Melchior filled those tights was the snag; Genghis hadn’t gone to all this expense so that his wife would be upstaged by her co-star’s package’ (page 132). And so it is that even the head of the ‘Royal Family of the theatre’(page 37) is temporarily dethroned by Dora’s irreverence. Her descriptions of these and other characters are sassy and vivid. She is ready to laugh at the bizarre or absurd, no matter how it tries to disguise itself in finery and to her the class system is laughable. She is ready to reduce everyone to the same level by exposing their flaws, but at the same time she does not pretend to be better than they are. So it is that in her laughter we can find our own humanity. We can never quite take ourselves seriously when we think of Dora’s stories, because as she points out, ‘nothing is a matter of life and death except life and death’ (page 215).
And yet, between the extremes of life’s beginning and end, there is so much to be experienced. Dora may claim to have said ‘maybe’ to life (page 5), but her narrative serves as a resounding ‘yes’ to all the chaos of life. The at once intriguing and energetic Dora takes us on an intense and wild journey as she informally recounts her hectic and complex life and family history. Reading her accounts is not unlike trying to ride and tame a wild horse: it is hard to keep up with her fleeting mind and spontaneous trains of thought as she skips from one subject to another, at times providing no apparent link, instead of giving a chronological, ordered account of her life. The events Dora recounts are surreal, chaotic and wonderfully vivid. She freezes her account in the middle of one scene in order to jump several generations back into the past to talk about her grandparents (pages 11-12), even though they have no relevance to the scene which she had frozen. In this sense, Carter is challenging the conventions of linearity and breaking into a joyously whimsical form that, by its very nature, is carnivalesque in its celebration of chaos and motion.
It is also important to note that Dora’s English is anything but correct. Double negations and mistakes with pronouns abound in her very colloquial speech and this familiar, ungrammatical tone is set right from the beginning of the book when she introduces herself to the reader: ‘Me and Nora, that’s my sister, we’ve always lived on the left-side, the side the tourist rarely sees, the bastard side of Old Father Thames’ (page 1). She has the freedom to juggle with words and to use the marketplace language of the carnival described as follows by Bakhtin: ‘The temporary suspension, both ideal and real, of hierarchical rank created during carnival time a special type of communication impossible in every day life. This led to the creation of special forms of marketplace speech and gesture, frank and free, permitting no distance between those who came in contact with each other and liberating from norms of etiquette and decency imposed at other times’.
What is striking about Dora’s speech is the carnivalesque lack of restraint that characterizes it; it really is ‘frank and free’. It simply bubbles over with enthusiasm as is typical spoken language. Her stories are lively and her speech is full of exclamation marks, asides, short nominal sentences or never-ending ones, which leave you breathless. This enables her, as Bakhtin says, to get rid of the distance between her and her readers who are quiclkly drawn into her text. She even makes them participate actively by addressing them personally. Dora often asks the reader questions to draw him into her narrative an her speech seems so natural and full of life and verve that, as the following quotation shows, she often just goes on and on until she gest carried away and forgets where she is: ‘There I go again! Can’t keep a story going in a straight line, can i? drunk in charge of a narrative. Where was I?’ (page 158).
When, at the end of the novel, three-month old twins are presented to Dora and Nora by their uncle Perry, Nora in particular is thrilled by the prospect of raising them: ‘”Babies!” she said, and cackled with glee’ (page 229). And so it is that the novel ends with the marvellous, memorable, utterly carnivalesque image of the laughing hags, serenading their babies in two-part harmony as they head toward their home on Bard Road. The last lines of the novel end with the optimism and joy associated with birth and renewal: ‘There was dancing and singing all along Bard Road that day and we’ll go on singing and dancing until we drop in our tracks, won’t we kids. What a joy it is to dance and sing!’ (page 231-232).