Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Speech, Silence and Female Adolescence in Carson McCullers' the Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and Angela Carter's the Magic Toyshop

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Speech, Silence and Female Adolescence in Carson McCullers' the Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and Angela Carter's the Magic Toyshop

Article excerpt


This paper examines the relationship between adolescent female characters and silence in Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940) and Angela Carter's The Magic Toyshop (1967). The established body of criticism focussing on McCullers' and Carter's depictions of the female grotesque provides the theoretical framework for this paper, as I explore the implications of these ideas when applied to language and speech. In a white Western society, where a woman's sexuality, appetite and articulation are controlled and suppressed, this paper asks: what options for expression are there, for women whose speech is always limited to their body, and whose body always speaks alterity and abjection to male interpretation?

Mute characters and their relationships with the female protagonists of these two novels open up my discussion of disembodiment, silence, and the appropriation of male-dominated cultural history in the aid of female articulation. Ultimately I discuss the ways in which these two writers explore the extent to which women can 'speak for themselves', by working within and against existing social and cultural models of womanhood.

Keywords Silence, representation, female adolescence, the body


'They said I'd been reading too much Carson McCullers.' (Carter qtd. in Haffenden 1985:80).

This is how Angela Carter summarizes the critical response to her first novel, Shadow Dance, published in 1966. The comparison to Carson McCullers is one that lasted throughout Carter's career, re-emerging for example in Margaret Atwood's review of the posthumously published Burning Your Boats (1995): "ghostly godpersons gathered round her typewriter [...] Carson McCullers, and a whole gaggle of disreputable tale-telling old grannies" (2005:152). But one cannot avoid the derogatory connotations suggested by this opening quotation. How can you read 'too much' Carson McCullers, and why is this a bad thing? What is being implied here about McCullers' writing in particular, and women's writing and reading in general?

This quotation provides a pertinent opening for my paper, which discusses the ways in which discourses surrounding femininity, the body and language intersect in the work of Carson McCullers and Angela Carter. In the above quotation, Carter's relationship to language is mapped onto the body, as she is imagined consuming--over indulging in--McCullers' prose. (2) Correspondingly, critics were "reluctant to concede that there had ever been anything more than a lot of high-falutin bluster in [her] earlier work" (Haffenden, 1985:81); an image which relates Carter's excessive literary consumption to the production of bloated 'bluster'.

The metaphors of appetite and emission used to describe Carter's writing evoke the image, deeply ingrained in Western patriarchal culture, of the female body as unruly and grotesque. This image is grounded in Biblical authority, as Eve--the 'blueprint' for womankind--is defined by her unchecked appetite for the forbidden fruit. As Luce Irigaray has argued, excessive appetite is a common metaphor for female sexuality, which is "often interpreted, and feared, as a sort of insatiable hunger, a voracity that will swallow you whole" (1985:29) (3). This overlapping between women's digestive and sexual appetites is apparent in Eve's story; when she succumbs to the temptation of the phallic serpent, the resulting punishment is childbirth.

Women are also silenced as a result of Eve's sin: "1suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence [...] the woman being deceived was in the transgression" (I Timothy 2:12-14). Thus for women, the themes of appetite, sexuality and speech coincide. As Thomas Laqueur explains in Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation (2003), the young woman who reads 'too much', has historically been regarded as "the misguided reader par excellence [. …

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