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The Subversive Author and Her Incredible Feats,
By A Customer
This review is from: Nights At The Circus (Paperback)The beginning of Nights at the Circus is filled with descriptions that question the identities of the characters rather than offer clear descriptions of them. The characters transform themselves, but not in the typical way that fiction creates characters through an explained process of development; but rather, it is one of mutation. The character's presentation of themselves is an act of subterfuge. All the narrative voices that are encountered assert their position as authoritative and dominant in a way that seeks to undermine all the rest, but remains questionable. As Lorna Sage writes in her examination of narrative voices in Nights at the Circus, All of these voices are generously endowed with the kind of dubious plausibility that comes from the suspicion that they are making it up as they go along, just like the author, so that the reader is often treated to the uncanny feeling that he or she is being addressed from behind masks by characters who know they are on stage. It is in the hands of the questionable narrators that the author has placed us as an act of subversion to point out that, while the characters are fictional constructs, they are also entitled to a kind of creative freedom in the identity they choose to present to the reader. This is a technique that blurs the character's identities to create a space of historical disharmony. If the reader is to believe that the characters have an actual past, it is one that we will never feel entirely secure about. It is implied in this that the past is created out of a single personal perspective, one that is largely based on imagination, rather than a line of uncontestable facts. This narrative technique pushes the reader into the chair of an audience member. The spectacle that ensues frames a number of questions about the construction of identity. Is identity solid or fluid? Are the assumptions made about the character's identities formed from a personal perspective or that of an observer? Rather than offer answers to these questions, the narrative of the characters offer a sense of being that is constantly maintained within the present and not subject to a sense of inevitability based on history.
Biographical facts are distorted through a voyeuristic presence upon a character's identity. When Walser comes to interview Fevvers he is more ambitious about dismantling and destroying the identity that is presented to him than trying to understand it. This is a condition of his journalistic ambition, but it is also an act of misogyny to align Fevvers to his own image of what a woman (or a proper bird) should be. Considering her actions in the rest of the narrative, it appears that her ability to transform what people believe to be her identity is what saves her from the many attempts to destroy her sense of being (both physically and mentally). Her vibrant character and profession as a performer enables her to dodge any idea that she is only what the external perspective perceives her as. Through her ability to constantly maintain a performance, the reader and other characters that view her are forced to question their sense of her identity. Through this she is able to maintain an unstifled sense of identity because it is one based upon transformation and elusiveness. Walser deliberates on her motives of presenting herself in the way she does: he (Walser) was astonished to discover that it was the limitations of her act in themselves that made him briefly contemplate the unimaginable - that is, the absolute suspension of disbelief. For, in order to earn a living, might not a genuine bird-woman - in the implausible event that such a thing existed - have to pretend she was an artificial one? He smiled to himself at the paradox: in a secular age, an authentic miracle must purport to be a hoax, in order to gain credit in the world. The distinction between what is genuine and what is false is invalid if a perception of another is made with total acceptance. The reason why Fevvers encounters so many hardships is that people cannot suspend their disbelief. However, the question of whether she really is a bird-woman is suspended in favor of the idea that an unconditional perception of another is what should be made rather than asking a plethora of unanswerable questions about another's identity. If this is the standpoint the reader maintains while reading Fevvers' account of her life, then emotional involvement will take precedence over any logical objections. Any secure sense of being can only be made if there is a certain amount of faith. Fevvers' sense of her own identity is large enough to undo any grounding perception others may have of her and this is why she is able to fly.
The communities in Nights at the Circus are counterpoints to the closed, highly formed communities found in novels like To the Lighthouse and the stories of Katherine Mansfield. They allow identity to be individually created rather than socially arranged. The identities always remain in control and under the ownership of the characters themselves. This technique of writing resists any attempt to marginalise the character's position in their social environments because they create identities outside of a hierarchy scheme. Rather, the characters inhabit a fantasy zone composed of mobile symbols intended to poke fun at and undermine the ideas they represent. Nights at the Circus is never allowed to submit to any particular ideological scheme, but point to dreams which are the hinder side of thought's boundaries. It is a novel not intended to platform any particular ideology like feminism (a common belief of this novel), but champion a general philosophical outlook that can undermine conventional moralistic and limited systems of belief.