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 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. My discussion here is divided into four parts. It first elaborates on the omnipresence of females and explores how these characters, while suffering from male chauvinism, exercise their subjectivity. The following section focuses on overwhelming bodily descriptions, especially anatomical portrayals of human bodies and unsettling sex scenes, investigating how Carter disturbingly unravels the social construction of the body. The next part examines the heteroglossia of the text. It demonstrates how the multi-voicedness of the narrative contributes to the deconstruction of masculine discourse. The conclusion argues that while in Doctor Hoffman the feminist rebellion remains within male hegemony, the text parodically foregrounds the politics of the representation of the body.

The omnipresence of females

"While Woman is everywhere present in this novel, women are conspicuously absent" (Robinson 163). In Doctor Hoffman, female characters are without exception victims of male chauvinism but, in one way or another, they make use of their subordinate status to tease male power and to even transgress prescriptive gender roles. This section will demonstrate the women's suffering under patriarchy and how they utilise their limited freedom and mobility to exercise their subjectivity.

Carter's novel is full of female characters, yet they are in no way the kernel of the story. …

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