The Magic Toy Shop Analysis Essay

The search for self and for autonomy is the underlying theme of most of Angela Carter’s fiction. Herprotagonists, usually described as bored or in some other way detached from their lives, are thrust into unknown landscapes or embark on picaresque journeys in which they encounter representatives of a vast variety of human experience and suffering. These encountered characters are often grotesques or exaggerated parodies reminiscent of those found in the novels of Charles Dickens or such southern gothic writers as Flannery O’Connor. They also sometimes exhibit the animalistic or supernatural qualities of fairy-tale characters. The protagonists undergo voluntary or, more often, forced submission to their own suppressed desires. By internalizing the insights gained through such submission and vicariously from the experiences of their antagonists and comrades or lovers, the protagonists are then able to garner some control over their own destinies. This narrative structure is borrowed from the classic folktales and fairy tales with which Carter has been closely associated. Carter does not merely retell such tales in modern dress; rather, she probes and twists the ancient stories to illuminate the underlying hierarchical structures of power and dominance, weakness and submission.

In addition to the folkloric influence, Carter draws from a variety of other writers, most notably Lewis Carroll, Jonathan Swift, the Marquis de Sade, and William Blake. The rather literal-minded innocent abroad in a nightmarish wonderland recalls both Alice and Gulliver, and Carter acknowledges, both directly and obliquely, her borrowings from Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). She was also influenced by the Swiftian tool of grotesque parody used in the service of satire. It was through Swiftian glasses that she read Sade. While deploring the depredations on the human condition committed by both the victims and victimizers in Sade’s writings, she interprets these as hyperbolic visions of the actual social situation, and she employs in her novels derivatively descriptive situations for their satiric shock value. Finally, the thematic concerns of Blake’s visionary poetry—the tension between the contrarieties of innocence and experience, rationality and desire—are integral to Carter’s outlook. The energy created by such tension creates the plane on which Carter’s protagonists can live most fully. In Blake’s words and in Carter’s novels, “Energy is Eternal Delight.”

Although Carter’s landscapes range from London in the 1960’s (The Magic Toyshop, Several Perceptions, Love) to a postapocalyptic rural England (Heroes and Villains), a sometime-in-the-future South America (The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman), a United States in which the social fabric is rapidly disintegrating (The Passion of New Eve), and London and Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century (Nights at the Circus), certain symbolic motifs appear regularly in her novels. Carter is particularly intrigued by the possibilities of roses, wedding dresses, swans, wolves, tigers, bears, vampires, mirrors, tears, and vanilla ice cream. Menacing father figures, prostitute mothers, and a kaleidoscope of circus, fair, and Gypsy folk inhabit most of her landscapes. It is unfair, however, to reduce Carter’s novels to a formulaic mode. She juggles traditional and innovative elements with a sometimes dazzling dexterity and is inevitably a strong storyteller.

The Magic Toyshop

At the opening of The Magic Toyshop, fifteen-year-old Melanie is entranced with her budding sexuality. She dresses up in her absent mother’s wedding gown to dance on the lawn in the moonlight. Overwhelmed by her awakening knowledge and the immensities of possibility that the night offers, she is terrified and climbs back into her room by the childhood route of the apple tree—shredding her mother’s gown in the process. Her return to childhood becomes catastrophic when a telegram arrives announcing the death of Melanie’s parents in a plane crash. Melanie, with her younger brother and sister, is thrust from a safe and comfortable existence into the constricted and terrifying London household of her Uncle Philip Flower, a toy maker of exquisite skill and sadistically warped sensibility. He is a domestic tyrant whose Irish wife, Margaret, was inexplicably struck dumb on her wedding day. The household is also inhabited by Margaret’s two younger brothers, Finn and Francie Jowle; the three siblings form a magic “circle of red people” that is alternately seductive and repulsive to Melanie.

Uncle Philip is a creator of the mechanical. He is obsessed by his private puppet theater, his created world to which he enslaves the entire household. In aligning herself with the Jowle siblings, Melanie asserts her affirmation of life but becomes aware of the thwarted and devious avenues of survival open to the oppressed. The growing, but ambivalent, attraction between her and Finn is premature and manipulated by Uncle Philip. Even the love that holds the siblings together is underlined by a current of incest. Finn is driven to inciting his uncle to murder him in order to effect Philip’s damnation. The crisis arises when Uncle Philip casts Melanie as Leda in a puppet extravaganza. Her symbolic rape by the immense mechanical swan and Finn’s subsequent destruction of the puppet release an orgiastic, yet purifying, energy within the “circle of red people.” The ensuing wrath of Uncle Philip results in the conflagration and destruction of the house. Finn and Melanie are driven out, Adam-and-Eve-like, to face a new world “in a wild surmise.”

In fairy-tale fashion, Melanie is threatened by an evil father figure, protected by the good mother, and rescued by the young hero. Even in this early novel, however, Carter skews and claws at the traditional fabric. The Jowle brothers, grimy, embittered, and twisted by their victimization at the hands of Philip Flower, are as dangerous as they are endangered. They are unable to effect their own freedom. Melanie’s submission to Uncle Philip’s swan catalyzes not only her own rescue but also, indeed, the release of the Jowle siblings. Melanie’s sacrifice breaks the magic spell that held the Jowles imprisoned.

Several Perceptions

Several Perceptions, Carter’s third novel, depends less on such folkloric structure. In this novel, her evocation of the late 1960’s counterculture is so finely detailed that she manages to illuminate the thin line between the idealism and solipsism of that era, without denigrating the former or disguising the latter. The clarity of observation is achieved by viewing the culture through the eyes of Joseph Harker, a classic dropout....

(The entire section is 2815 words.)

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Definition of Representation

3. Background

4. Angela Carter

5. Summary of The Magic Toyshop.

6. The Representation of Women in The Magic Toyshop
6.1 Melanie
6.1.1 Melanie: the Explorer, Muse and Object
6.1.2 Melanie: the Bride, Mother and Housewife
6.1.3 Melanie: the Observer
6.1.4 Melanie: the Puppet and Victim
6.1.5 Melanie and Her Self-Perception
6.1.6 Melanie and Her Relationship With Finn
6.1.7 Melanie: a Summary
6.2 Mrs Rundle
6.3 Melanie’s Mother
6.4 Aunt Margaret
6.5 Other Women
6.5.1 Statue of Queen Victoria
6.5.2 Female Customers
6.5.3 Aunt Margaret's Mother

7. Conclusion


Appendix: German Abstract


1. Introduction

[…] I can date to that time and to some of those debates and to that sense of heightened awareness of the society around me in the Summer of 1968, my own questioning of the nature of my reality as a woman. How that social fiction of my ‘femininity’ was created, by means outside my control, and palmed off on me as the real thing. This investigation of the social fictions that regulate our lives […] is what I’ve concerned myself with consciously since that time. (I realise, now, I must always have sensed that something was badly wrong with the versions of reality I was offered that took certain aspects of my being as a woman for granted. […]) This is also the product of an absolute and committed materialism – i.e., that this world is all that there is, and in order to question the nature of reality one must move from a strongly grounded base in what constitutes material reality. (Carter, “Notes” 70)

In 1967 Angela Carter published a novel about an adolescent female protagonist growing up in a patriarchal system. Published at a moment in history when significant change, not only for women, but all of the western world was about to take place, The Magic Toyshop illuminates the metamorphosing social dynamics. Angela Carter sensed this moment but did not know where it was going to lead and what it would offer women. Guiding the reader through these pending seismic changes is Melanie, the novel's protagonist. As opposed to the other female characters of the novel who occupy only a fixed role suiting patriarchal hierarchy, Melanie is constantly shifting roles. She can be read as representative of the rebelling female, challenging patriarchal order. Melanie realises that none of the potential roles society offers women will satisfy her. In the end, she has the chance to enter a new world and a relationship defined by equality.

The way Angela Carter represents the female characters in The Magic Toyshop is indicative of the turbulence of the times. In order to properly assess, analyse and interpret these representations, it is necessary to take account of the historical, cultural and political circumstances of the late 1960s and the theorists who have written about Carter. Combined, they allow the modern reader to properly contextualise and understand The Magic Toyshop.

Remarkably, Carter seemed to be ahead of her time, analysing and criticising the traditional representations of femininity that society imposed on women. It was a time when they still belonged to the private sphere, embodying the roles of mothers or housewives, even though many women already were active in the work force. Men continued to prevail in the public sphere, enforcing patriarchal structures. These socially constructed representations are challenged through Melanie's conflicted relationship with her production as a feminine subject (Bristow and Broughton 10). Not only is she the victim of a patriarchal system, but she also tries to challenge and change social constructions through creating an independent identification of herself. The conventional association of women with physical illness and men with emotional need is challenged and mocked through bizarre events (Peach 181). In the use of gothic, fairy tale and dystopia, Carter establishes new representational spaces for sexual identity (Bristow and Broughton 15). As Carter puts it, the pressure of the new wine makes the old bottles explode (qtd. in Gamble, “Fiction” 33).

The Magic Toyshop offers representations of women as brides, mothers, housewives, puppets, daughters, objects, wives, consumers and victims. However, these roles are not taken for granted but eroded by Carter, twisted in ways questioning their very nature which was once fixed by a patriarchal society. It is a women-centred text, not only because of its female protagonist, but also its female narrative point of view.

Initially, this paper offers a definition of representation according to Stuart Hall and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Subsequently, to provide prospective and a counterweight to the world Carter presents in her novel, the social circumstances of the 1960s, especially the late 1960s, are discussed and analysed. Finally, the various characters, namely the protagonist Melanie, her mother, Mrs Rundle, Aunt Margaret, the statue of Queen Victoria, two female customers and Aunt Margaret’s mother are analysed and interpreted. Victoria, Melanie’s younger sister, will be left out of this analysis, as she is still an infant.

2. Definition of Representation

Representation forms a major part of the analysis and it is a term of many meanings and understandings. In using this term, I follow the lead of Stuart Hall who posits that representation produces culture. Central to his conceptualisation is that through language, signs and symbols are used to represent thoughts, ideas and feelings in a culture. Identity and knowledge are quintessential factors because each person gives meaning to things by how she represents them. For instance, a woman in an advertisement holding a broomstick or vacuum cleaner, or wearing an apron is automatically associated with a housewife. Hence, meaning is constructed through language as a part of discourse which has a material effect on our lives, cultures and politics (Hall 1-11). “Representation connects meaning and language to culture […], it is the production of meaning through language” (15-19).

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary suggests two relevant meanings for the word:

1. To represent something is to describe or depict it, to call it up in the mind by description or portrayal or imagination; to place a likeness of it before us in our mind or in the senses; as, for example, in the sentence, ‘This picture represents the murder of Abel by Cain.’
2. To represent also means to symbolize, stand for, to be a specimen of, or to substitute for; as in the sentence, ’In Christianity, the cross represents the suffering and crucifixion of Christ.' (16)

In our minds we carry a system of concepts and images which represent the world to us. These concepts and images in a culture combine to form a shared conceptual map and are exchanged through language. Language consists of signs that serve to express meaning and communicate our thoughts (16-21).

Thus, representation is created through signifying practice, the process of sense-making. Humans are the signifying monkeys who turn signs into representations on the basis of differentiation. Without difference, meaning would not exist as it is constructed in a dialogue with the 'Other' (225-237). “The 'Other' is fundamental to the constitution of the self, to us as subjects, and to sexual identity” (237). Difference is ambivalent, it can be both positive and negative in that it not only creates a sense one's own self but can also create negative feelings of hostility and aggression towards the 'Other' (238).

When the portrayal of women in Carter’s The Magic Toyshop is analysed, it is apparent that a signifying practice is taking place in making sense of these representations of women which are different from those of men. As Spivak explains, woman is the subaltern that is left out from history and literature. These once used to be exclusively male spheres and consequently also excluded women from representation (594-597). Angela Carter challenges this notion. Her female protagonist tries out all the culturally available identities of women in the late 1960s; however, she remains unsatisfied with all of them. At the end, it remains unclear what will happen with her. Carter leaves Melanie’s future open. Perhaps because Carter herself did not know what the future would bring.  But it is unmistakeable that she thought that the condition of women was going to change drastically.

3. Background

The Magic Toyshop was published in 1967 in the midst of a decade of changes in Great Britain. Dubbed the Swinging Sixties, the decade was a time of increasing economic prosperity as the standard of living improved and an embourgeoisement of the working class occurred (Brooke 44-47). Average personal income increased by 130 percent between 1955 and 1969, consumerism escalated and people spent money on luxuries and entertainments: cars, washing machines, televisions and refrigerators became common purchases (Sandbrook 191). It was a decade of enthusiasm for science and technology, also called the space age (46).

The model Lesley Hornby, better known as Twiggy, remembers the early sixties as a period in which “everything [had] to be in fashion immediately and then out again, constantly changing” (qtd. in Sandbrook 59). This chain of new rewards, household goods, clothes and experiences also broadened people's horizons and became accessible for millions of ordinary people. Women were accepted as part of the labour force and a new companionate relationship between husband and wife developed (Sandbrook 192-197).

Usually, the period is associated with economic decline, but to most consumers it remained remarkably positive (83). Paradoxically, despite it being characterised by revolutionary change, it was also a period of continuity (198). The journalist Johnathon Aitken associated the sixties with the values wealth, sex appeal, fame, youth, talent, novelty and quick success. These fitted the policy of a democratic, dynamic and modern Britain which Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister of that time, pursued (229). But in truth, Sandbrook claims, “most people remained completely untouched by the swinging social revolution that was supposed to be shattering the old boundaries and creating a new class” (275).

Britain's fashion industry grew more important than ever before, bringing forth ground-breaking inventions such as the mini-skirt (275). Very popular among young women was the so-called dolly bird look, appearing rather boyish and supposed to provocatively communicate independence. In contrast, many women criticised the female fetish of the dolly bird representing an image of sexual vulnerability. Dolly birds rather resembled puppets and turned woman into the “female eunuch” (Greer qtd. in Sandbrook 235-238). In the late 1960s, the female body became identified with eroticism rather than reproduction (Sandbrook 696).

Due to a range of new household items, women spent less time on housework and obtained more free time (63). Moreover, it was a “golden age of university expansion;” (331) demonstrated by the founding of all the red brick universities.  The establishment of the Open University[1] in 1969 was another step to in this direction. Overall, educational opportunities for women rapidly increased. They read more than men; book sales substantiated that people read more than at any time in history. The Public Libraries and Museums Act in 1964[2] made books available to everyone (409). News and information were transmitted at greater speed and one could broaden one's knowledge even while staying at home because of technological innovations (Wigny 144).

“There were signs of a stronger stirring in the women's movement in the mid 1960s” (Thane, “Women” 405). Groups like the Fawcett Society and the National Council of Women

[...] aimed at constitutional pressure for equal opportunities, equal pay, equal taxation and improved treatment of single mothers. […] From 1968 a more radical strand of feminism emerged out of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and other radical groups. It was also inspired by the growing civil rights movement in the United States. (405)

According to Thane, no improvement in gender inequalities took place.

It is sometimes interpreted as a conscious revolt by young women against the lives their mothers led in the 1940s and 1950s, which are portrayed as narrowly domestic and bounded by consumerism. (409)

She speculates that due to increased wealth and access to consumer goods in families, women became more confident and passed a “greater sense of control over their own lives” (409) to their daughters, who took this sense differently (409). Nevertheless, Bloch and Umansky claim that the whole sixties culture remains a period of male-dominated movements (1). Sandbrook opines, “women […] were beginning to cast off their age-old anxieties about childbirth and motherhood” (237). From 1950, the public sphere became more open to women, but still the primary role expected of them was motherhood (Brooke 44).

Legal progress took place with the Abortion Act in 1967, which allowed women to procure abortion safely. The National Health Service Act in the same year constituted that marital status had no influence on women's access to contraceptives. In 1969, the Family Law Reform Act set the minimum age for marriage without parental consent at eighteen and divorce was made easier, “leading to what has been called the most profound and far-reaching change to have occurred in the last five hundred years” (Ferris 288). The Equal Pay Act in 1970 legally abolished difference in treatment over employment and earnings.

Furthermore, in 1961, the pill was introduced. In the beginning, it was spread mainly among middle class women and took about six years to be accepted as a popular contraceptive in Britain (280). However, Sandbrook argues that the impact of the pill on the beginning of the sexual revolution in Britain between 1965 and 1969 is exaggerated. It became more important in the late 1960s, thus having an impact only from the 1970s onwards (489).

The 1960s marked the peak of lowest births since the Second World War and the “widowed single mother, a familiar nineteenth-century figure, has been replaced by the divorced, separated or never-married single mother” (Thane, “Women” 393). Women's magazines encouraged women's domestic roles as well as personal appearance and fashion, i.e. consumerism. Only in the 1970s did they begin to emphasise careers and paid employment (398). According to Sandbrook, “[in] the beginning of the sixties five out of every six women read at least one magazine a week. […] [Magazines then] concentrated more on the woman as consumer than the woman as housewife” (238).

Parties and international travel were the dominant features of feminine lifestyles depicted in British Vogue of the sixties. In 1964, adverts for hotels and travel outnumbered those for fashion for the first time in Vogue 's history […]. (Warsh and Tinkler 23)

Despite the fact that feminism remains a 'minority obsession' in the end of the sixties, the decade remarkably changed the lives of many women. The increasingly flexible nature of work, the technological transformation of the household, the liberalisation of divorce and legalisation of abortion enabled women to participate in British national life as never before (Sandbrook 704). Nevertheless, women's earning was regarded as additional income to the family, not the mainstay (Wilson 250). Although education and work in the 1960s were still a male occupation (Thane, “Women” 403), a girl of sixteen in 1970 was more likely to continue her education than in 1956 (Sandbrook 704).

She was more likely to pursue her own intellectual and cultural interests for as long as she liked, to marry when and whom she wanted, to have children when and if she wanted, and, above all, to choose whether she remained at home as a housewife or pursued her own career. These were not small advances, and they had a profound effect on the ways men saw women and women saw themselves. (704)

By the 1960s, the man's position as provider in the home was beginning to be eroded by women's employment and consumer power (Ehrenreich qtd. in McLeer 90). These developments also affected family relationships, which were broken down and thus were turning nuclear families into increasingly isolated entities (Thane, “Population” 54).

4. Angela Carter

Angela Carter was born in 1940 and died in 1991. Posthumously, she became a popular author at English university campuses (Gamble, “Fiction” 7). During her career, she produced a vast variety of works, ranging from novels to short stories, verse and film screenplays to journalistic output. She travelled widely and was fascinated by sexual politics, in particular by images of women and the role women had in creating, directing and shaping the pictures that circulated of them (Stoddart 3-5). She came of age in the 1960s and said of herself as being “in the demythologising business” (qtd. in Gamble, “Fiction” 10), seeking in particular to dispose of the “social fictions that regulate our lives” and to question “[how] that social fiction of femininity was created, by means outside my control and palmed off on me as the real thing” (Carter qtd. in Wyatt 549). According to De Beauvoir, myth fixes the roles women can play in society and renders women's lives static and unchanging (95-97). Against that myth Carter fought.

Thus, Carter's work fits into this time, beginning to “represent how women have a conflicted relationship with their production as feminine subjects” (Bristow and Broughton 10). Women began to question their objected and marginalised position in society. Carter's “style answers to a pattern of social and intellectual mobility” (Britzolakis 53).

In Notes from the Front Line Carter points out:

There is a tendency to underplay, even to completely devalue, the experience of the 1960s, especially for women, but towards the end of that decade there was a brief period of public philosophical awareness that occurs only very occasionally in human history; when, truly, it felt like Year One […] I can date to that time and to some of those debates and to that sense of heightened awareness of the society around me in the summer of 1968, my own questioning of the nature of my reality as a woman. (Carter qtd. in Hanson 60)

She explains how she was influenced by the 1960s’ sense of optimism and possibility, reflecting the late 1960s turbulences.

Civil rights movements took place in the USA, student protests occurred in France and other European countries in 1968. However, Sandbrook  suggests that those upheavals cannot be compared with the small-scale events that took place in Britain (543). In contrast, Bristow and Broughton claim that “it felt as if an established cultural order was being turned on its head” (10). According to Waugh, “there was undoubtedly much radical and popular optimism about the dawn of a new social order” towards the end of the 1960s and “enormous transformations in attitudes to authority, sexuality and censorship, and civil liberties” took place (qtd. in Stoddart 11). Familiar symbols and conventions, identities and the understanding of history and truth were regarded as relative rather than fixed or eternal concepts (Stoddart 11).

Carter, familiar with European art, French symbolists and dadaists, inquires into the “way in which meanings, boundaries and identities are rendered real through cultural and linguistic metaphors” and takes a critical look at what we take for granted (Peach  2009: 8p). Her “novel's concerns with the female body and sexuality are typical of Anglo-American feminist art and literature of the late 1960s and early 1970s” (66). Carter antagonised phallocentric discourse that emphasised motherhood and reproduction and which deprived mothers of their “identity as [women] and as [lovers]” (Holmlund 290).

The Magic Toyshop is situated at a moment just before the women's movement really took off in Britain. 1968 marks a crucial point in history due to a heightened awareness of society. This awareness concerned politics, gender, race and class issues which were very important to the people. Riots took place all over the world. Students in Paris were demanding equal access to education and in many American cities people took to the streets for racial equality and rebelled against the Vietnam War, as they did in London. From then on there was an increased possibility of rioting and making a difference. As stated before, Angela Carter's The Magic Toyshop was published just before this remarkable year. It was a transitional point in history, a period when the questioning of patriarchal structures could no longer be avoided.

5. Summary of The Magic Toyshop

The Magic Toyshop is a Bildungsroman. This genre is generally characterised by a psychologically and physically growing protagonist. That is exactly what happens to Melanie, who in the novel undergoes her rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. She is a fifteen-year-old girl who grows up in a middle class household in the countryside with her twelve-year-old Jonathon and her five-year-old sister Victoria. Her parents are travelling to America and the housekeeper Mrs. Rundle cares for the children.


[1] Far-distance learning university which is available to everyone regardless of their circumstances.

[2] This law states that councils have a legal duty to provide library facilities without charging people for them.


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