The illusion of Ma Nelson’s brothel is soon revealed to us by Carter. Just as the prostitutes leave Ma Nelson’s brothel they decide to open the curtains for the first time, ‘The luxury of that place had been nothing but illusion, created by the candles of midnight, and, in the dawn, all was sere, worn-out decay’ (49). This illusion is what only the clients should see (some might say that Carter is even trying to fool the reader with its disguise) and the prostitutes themselves should have avoided believing in the illusion that Ma Nelson had made.
Similarly, Madame Schreck’s museum was simply an illusion. Even though it is situated in a smart area of London, it was far from smart; the museum was really a brothel in disguise. Whereas Ma nelson’s brothel displayed comic features, Madame Shreck’s museum was more of a horrific one due to the prostitutes being freaks; ‘prodigies of nature’ (59). The fact that these freaks were put on show for clients signifies the power of the gaze. At the end of the nineteenth century, we were extremely fascinated by ‘freaks’.
Julie Hearn writes in her article ‘Out of the Ordinary’, that even after scientists established that birth abnormalities were part of ‘God’s natural Order’, PT Barnum’s American Museum of Curiosities ‘still thrilled crowds with its bizarre displays’. Each of the women in Madame Schreck’s Museum can be seen as disguises for the female condition. For example, Sleeping Beauty could represent women dreaming of the new century, as that is what women of that time would have been dreaming of; a time where women would be able to vote.
The clients themselves who visit Madame Schreck’s museum are able to choose any costume they wish to wear in order to pursue their fantasy; they were able to leave the reality and be sucked into the illusion of Madame Schreck’s ‘down below’ (61). The clients are ostensibly respectable but are often perverted; therefore it is their respectability which acts as their disguise. At the start of the novel the Strong Man represents the bestiality of man. His costume in the circus is a leopard skin loincloth which emphasizes his animal like qualities.
Not only does he act like an animal but he is also treated like one from the other people in the circus. For example, when Samson is beating up Walser, Fevvers rescues him by blasting cold water at Samson which is what the Princess used on the tigress. Even though some may think that Samson and Walser are very different they are connected in some way; they are both capable of change. Even though Samson has a hard and strong external self, this is simply a disguise as there is some inner goodness in him, ‘he was very strong, and, as he knew deep down, a spiritual weakling’ (167).
This inner goodness only starts to show when he sees the ‘new’ Mignon after he thinks she has left him for a clown. The Strong Man develops himself through the novel, just as Walser does; he will uncover his more feminine side, ‘out of the fracture, sensibility might poke a moist, new-born head’. This is an analogy for re-birth (birth is a feminine act); being born again as a new man. A definite sign of his development is when he saves Fevvers and some others from the clowns dance by bringing them into a safe shelter. The Samson we knew at the start of the play would not have carried out such a heroic act.
His masquerade is dissolving into his true feminine self. Colonel Kearney is a disguise or a caricature for the capitalist USA as he is dressed as ‘Uncle Sam’, ‘a gun-metal buckle, in the shape of a dollar sign… a pair of tightly tailored trousers striped in red and white and a blue waistcoat ornamented with stars'(99). Even though it is obvious that Carter was strongly against the Capitalist America, as she is in favour of Marxism, Liberalism and Feminism, she also displays positive views on America through Walser; she portrays Walser as an amiable and sensitive figure with a great sense of freedom.
Carter displays Colonel Kearney as a man who drinks too much and his only motivation is money. He is a businessman who only has profit on his mind. Carter gives this character a pig, Sybil, as his adviser which represents the American government; the use of the pig clearly shows that she is mocking the US government. It is clear that masquerade and disguise are key elements within the novel. Both are used to represent Carter’s ideas and views on society in those days as the new century was approaching.
Even though this text can simply be read on one level, the method of using elements of masquerade and disguise means that we as the reader have to deconstruct the text and discover the underlying metaphors and symbols. The female characters within the novel use masquerade, i. e. clothes, make-up etc, to their advantage in order to get what they want, whilst still retaining self. I believe that they may represent the advance of feminism, which is displayed mainly though Fevvers.
The male characters use their elements of disguise to hide behind and therefore hiding their true self; this is mainly shown through the clowns. Carter could be trying to say that women use their masquerade in order to gain power, whereas the men use their disguise in order to justify them having it.
Word Count – 2700 Bibliography 1. Nights at the Circus Angela Carter Vintage- 1994 2. An Interview with Angela Carter Anna Katsavos www. centreforbookculture. org-1994 3. Nights at the Circus – York Notes 4. The Rational Glass Aidan Day Manchester University – 1998 5. Out of the ordinary (Article) Julie Hearn.