Academic journal article Hecate

A Feminist Revolt from Within: Angela Carter's Excessiveness in 'The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman'

Academic journal article Hecate

A Feminist Revolt from Within: Angela Carter's Excessiveness in 'The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman'

Article excerpt

Angela Carter's postmodern work of fantastic fiction, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972), has a male central protagonist, Desiderio, but its implied author is not anti-feminist. Carter's bold depiction of female sexuality in male-dominant worlds has given rise to much debate; even nowadays, such unorthodox and detailed pornographic descriptions are still unsettling.

This paper argues that Carter's feminism shows a postmodern approach, which deconstructs the process of signification even as it is subject to it. As Linda Hutcheon avers, postmodern tactics foreground the politics of the representation of the body through parody and counter-expectation, though such feminist rebellion nevertheless remains within the patriarchy. As such, Carter's use of irony needs analysis in considering the text's effects. In particular, she uses pornography as a critique of asymmetrical gender relations. Specifically, a notion of excess saturates the novel and emerges in three aspects. First, there is a large number of female characters in the novel. In every alternative world Desiderio encounters a woman and projects his sexual fantasy onto her. Second, the narrative is imbued with graphic portrayals of sex, including blatant illustrations of sex organs. In terms of discourse, Carter delivers a stylistic hybridity--a combination of Gothic, Fantastic and Surreal. These things all act as a potential counterforce deconstructing male power.


Angela Carter's The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972) is a work of feminist postmodernist parody. The novel breaks down the active male/passive female dichotomy by presenting readers with an array of female characters who, while victimised by the patriarchy, embody a certain autonomy. In labelling herself as a feminist, however, Carter has incurred much controversy due to her bold depictions of female sexuality and her excessive employment of pornographic discourse. On this point Alison Lee notes that Carter "called herself a feminist, but her feminism is no more monolithic than her representations of female sexuality" (x). The text has been read as clashing with the feminist ethos of the time, since "despite Carter's public feminism, her perversely elaborate representations of female characters caught in situations of sexual domination and violence seemed at odds with the dominant wing of the Women's Liberation Movement [in the 1970s], which rejected pornography and the eroticisation of oppression" (Pitchford 410).

But Carter is a demythologiser. She is interested in myths as "they are extraordinary lies designed to make people unfree" and she considers that "all myths are products of the human mind and reflect only aspects of material human practice" (Carter, "Notes from the Front Line" 25; original emphasis). The plethora of sex scenes in Carter's novels can be attributed to their embodiment of archetypes for gender roles privileging masculine order. In The Sadeian Woman, Carter proposes the concept of "moral pornography"--suggesting that a "moral pornographer might use pornography as total demystification of the flesh and the subsequent revelation, through the infinite modulations of the sexual act, of the real relations of man and his kind" (20). This double-coding process is explicitly inscribed in Doctor Hoffman.

This essay argues that Doctor Hoffman is a postmodern parody which deconstructs the process of signification yet can never escape complicity with the system against which it aims to revolt. Although postmodernism's open-endedness and lack of resolution can make it hard for feminists to achieve activist ends (Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernism 174), both feminism and postmodernism view art as "a social sign inevitably and unavoidably enmeshed in other signs in systems of meaning and value," and share the goal of revealing the social nature of cultural activity (148). Penetrating to the heart of the contempt for women distorting culture and entering the realm of true atrocity, Carter employs a notion of excess to disclose asymmetrical gender relations. …

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