Signifying Passion: Angela Carter's Heroes and Villains as a Dystopian Romance
Karpinski, Eva C., Utopian Studies
One of Angela Carter's most misunderstood texts,(1) Heroes and Villains (1969) is by the author's own admission an important novel, dealing with myth making in the Barthesian sense of culturally constructed collective fictions or cliches (Katsavos 12). Throughout her career, Carter has consistently rejected myths, including the utopian elements of myth and the mythic element of utopian thought, as "social fictions that regulate our lives," dismissing these myths as "consolatory nonsense," or "extraordinary lies designed to make people unfree" (1983, 71).(2) In Heroes and Villains, demythologizing is part of her permanent critique of patriarchy,(3) subsumed under a larger project of "decolonizing our language and our habits of thought" (1983, 75). Carter interrogates the binaries of self/other, body/mind, male/female, nature/culture, passion/reason, or civilized/barbarian, binaries informing patriarchal institutions and representations that serve to justify exploitation and domination of one group by another. It is my contention that in her novel she experiments with the generic framework of what will be called a dystopian romance, so as to accommodate her combined interest in social and sexual relations.(4) Although the term "dystopian romance" is not commonly used, I want to introduce a new term best corresponding to Carter's combined use of the generic conventions of romance and dystopia. The dystopian romance stands in ironic contrast to the tradition of the utopian romance, such as Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, or William Morris's News from Nowhere. Both utopian romance and many works of dystopian fiction(5) make the reader test the validity of a certain society in terms of the viability of a personal relationship. The dystopian romance proves to be a suitable vehicle for Carter's didactic allegory of the relationship between the sexes, an allegory, one might add, that uses the utopian ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in order to rewrite the myth of the Fall as it structures Western representations of the social order and sexual difference.(6) Thus "signifying passion" means both "to signify passion" and "a passion to signify," referring both to constructions of female sexuality and otherness, thematically central to Heroes and Villains, and to Carter's own passionate, self-reflexive exploration of the territory between philosophy and fiction, where bodies are subjected to social control through various discursive practices.
In addition to Rousseau, Carter engages with a variety of utopias and dystopias, as well as romances and other canonical texts of patriarchy. She alludes to the Bible (the already mentioned myth of the Fall, the story of Cain and Abel, the New Testament) and Freud (the Oedipal scenario, the myth of the primal horde, and the id-ego-super ego structure). She creates intertextual resonances with as wide a range of sources as Levi-Strauss's anthropology, Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy, Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Wells's The Time Machine, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Gothic romances such as Wuthering Heights and Frankenstein, mythology (Cupid and Psyche) and fairy tales (Beauty and the Beast), and even visual quotations from paintings (Cormon's Cain, Henri Rousseau's The Sleeping Gypsy, and Goya's The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters).(7) The intertextual overkill seems to suggest that for Carter such master narratives, including utopias as models for a perfectible society, belong in what she calls "the lumber room of the Western European imagination," where she finds most of her material (1983, 72).
Her concern with signification and the need for debunking are signaled through the ironic juxtaposition of four epigraphs. The first, from Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville, the film that raises a gangster figure to the status of a mythic hero, foregrounds the theme of legend as form giving. The second, from Andrew Marvell's poem "The Unfortunate Lover," introduces a fantasy of the demonic male lover. …