Sex, Space and Subjectivity: Selfhood in Carter’s The Magic Toyshop

Submissions Reader Ashton Wenborn examines the notions of sex, space and subjectivity, and their relation to selfhood, in Angela Carter’s ‘The Magic Toyshop’. 

Angela Carter’s book, The Magic Toyshop, narrates the coming of age of its protagonist, Melanie. However, the text does not subscribe to the norms of the bildungsroman which follows the moral and physiological growth of its main character. Instead, Melanie travels from the apparent freedom of her family home to the oppressive surveillance of Uncle Philip’s toyshop, and finally is cast into the garden in the novel’s ambiguous ending. Melanie’s means of developing selfhood are altered or even confiscated in each of these spaces so that she is interrupted at the brink of her sexual awakening, then turned into a subject by Philip, and finally attempts to reclaim selfhood by rejecting his patriarchy. Not only Melanie, but Philip too, form selfhood in relation to spaces. It is therefore illuminating to explore how Carter uses space and place in order to engage with the question of selfhood and subject formation in The Magic Toyshop. Michel Foucault’s essay “Of Other Spaces” is integral to this interrogation of the role of spaces and objects in the development of identity. Specifically, his concept of the heterotopia complicates the way that Carter’s characters develop selfhood in relation to space, suggesting that in doing so they form incomplete selves which are, just like the heterotopic spaces they occupy, simultaneously real and unreal.

In “Of Other Spaces”, Foucault asserts his interest in spaces that exist “in relation with all the other sites, but in such a way as to suspect, neutralize, or invent the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect” (24). He defines such sites as being either ‘utopias’ or ‘heterotopias’, the latter of which will be the focus of this essay. The heterotopia is “at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal” (24): it is a space of otherness, and is simultaneously imagined and physical. The heterotopia is formed in relation to spaces which are “still governed by . . . oppositions that remain inviolable, that our institutions and practices have not yet dared to break down” (Foucault 23). However, a curious paradox arises out of this connection. Foucault suggests that the heterotopia’s “role is to create a space of illusion that exposes every real space . . . [o]r else . . . to create . . . another real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed, and jumbled” (27). The implication is that heterotopias can have entirely opposing functions. They can be spaces of “social experimentation”, where a marginalised group is able to gain power; they can also be “instruments that support the existing mechanisms of exclusion and domination” (Heynen 322). The Magic Toyshop features heterotopias that perform both functions, making it useful to explore the impact of each type of heterotopia on selfhood and subject formation. Regardless of whether the heterotopia is one of emancipation or domination, any formation of identity that occurs in relation to a heterotopia is based on a parody of ‘normality’ and therefore does not allow for a complete or coherent sense of self.

It is important to note that The Magic Toyshop was written in 1967, while “Of Other Spaces” was not published until 1986, making it implausible that Carter’s work was informed by Foucault’s idea of the heterotopia. Nevertheless, in The Magic Toyshop Carter seems to anticipate much of what Foucault expands upon in his essay. Both Carter and Foucault make reference to similar spaces in their texts: gardens, theatrical stages and mirror images. Moreover, in The Magic Toyshop these spaces conform to the Foucauldian notion of heterotopias as “counter-sites” which both represent and contest “real sites” (Foucault 25). This suggests an affinity between the two texts, making a heterotopic reading of The Magic Toyshop highly illuminating. These texts, however, do not work in complete harmony. Foucault’s six principles of a heterotopia state that they are “not freely accessible like a public place” (26); they are non-normative spaces such as psychiatric hospitals, cemeteries, and brothels which we do not encounter in every-day life. Carter diverges from Foucault here by presenting normative spaces such as the family home as disturbed. Therefore, despite the site’s apparent normativity, its confused state means that it is able to “accommodate . . . both reality and its other” (Hock Soon 38), allowing the normative space to function as a heterotopia.

We first encounter Melanie in her family home. She is at a formative stage in her life, on the brink of a sexual awakening and poised to reach adulthood. Melanie sees her identity as inextricable from her sexuality and so she is driven by a desire to “get married. Or . . . have sex” (Carter 8). In the absence of a man to bring these desires to fruition, she poses as the muses of various painters and writers. She uses props in these poses, picking a “tiger lily from the garden” (1) for her Pre-Raphaelite character, “a bit of net curtain . . .  and the necklace of cultured pearls” (2) as Cranach’s Venus, and sticking “forget-me-nots . . .  in her pubic hair” (2) in an emulation of Connie from Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Melanie’s choice of characters reveal that she is attempting to develop a sexually mature selfhood. Venus is the Roman goddess of love, sex, fertility, and desire, while the reference to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a book that sparked controversy for its sexually explicit content, introduces ideas of unbound sexuality. Melanie’s fictional identities also include an older version herself: she “looked at herself in the mirror as if she was a photograph in her own grown-up photo album. ‘Myself at fifteen.’” (6). Again, she uses objects to aid her development of selfhood, relying on the mirror to frame her as if she were a photograph. With the help of these props and the mirrors which allow her to realise her imagined personas, Melanie believes that she too possesses the sexual maturity of the women that she impersonates.

The mirror image is ubiquitous in psychoanalyses of identity, and is particularly useful in an exploration of Melanie’s development of selfhood in her family home. In “Of Other Spaces”, Foucault labels the mirror as a heterotopia, writing that “[t]he mirror . . . makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there” (4). When Melanie gazes into the mirror she experiences the paradox that is her reflection; what she believes to be a ‘true’ image of herself is actually only an imitation of reality. Henri Lefebvre, in The Production of Space, applies the act of viewing one’s mirror image to the development of selfhood. He writes that the mirror image “presents the ego with its own material presence, calling up its counterpart . . .  [yet it] merely represents ‘Ego’ as an inverted image . . . what is identical is at the same time radically other” (185). Therefore, Melanie’s reliance on mirror images to confirm that she has reached sexual maturity is an act of misinforming the ego. As a result, her selfhood is formed in relation to a falsity and thus is inconsistent with reality.

In fact, Melanie’s entire family home can be read as a heterotopia. It has the appearance of normality it is inhabited by a middle-class, nuclear family yet it does not live up to its appearance. Melanie’s parents are absent, and the beautiful objects which fill the home are either useless or broken, such as the “Mexican pottery duck, bright, gay, and daft” and “[t]he French gilt clock . . . [which] had stopped at five minutes to three . . . Nobody had bothered to wind it up again” (Carter 10). The freedom which Melanie has in this space is also not what it seems once it is interrogated. Initially, the house appears to conform to the idea of a heterotopia where social experimentations can take place; Melanie is free to explore her sexuality as she pleases and does so without intervention. However, further exploration reveals that her development of selfhood plays out within existing social norms. Melanie offers herself up as a subject in a patriarchal social structure, “performing self-objectification” (Hock Soon 30). She “gift-wrap[s] herself for a phantom bridegroom” (Carter 2) and frequently thinks of sex and marriage. Yet she does so in abstract terms, giving no thought to a potential partner, simply submitting to this gendered hegemonic structure. Furthermore, Melanie’s place in the heterotopic space means that she is only performing sexual maturity. Once she leaves this space, this aspect of her identity is lost, meaning that she must reimagine her selfhood in her new surroundings.

Following the death of their parents, Melanie and her siblings move to Uncle Philip’s house. In this space, Melanie comments that “there was no mirror” (Carter 56) nor “a single book in the house” (77). This reveals that the signifiers of identity which Melanie was using in her family home (books, mirrors, and paintings) are no longer available. As a result, Melanie begins to forget the version of selfhood that she had developed in her family home. She acknowledges this in relation to her siblings, stating that she “was already forgetting their precise and real selves. Their figures were dissolving in her mind, their features blurring” (94-5). Although she is thinking about her siblings here, the implication is that Melanie too is experiencing difficulty in recalling her selfhood. However, Melanie’s construction of selfhood is not only halted because she loses her old signifiers of identity, but also because she is unable to establish new ones in the toyshop. She is now under the control of Philip who dictates her identity. Paradoxically, is it not Philip who delivers these rules, but the other members of the household. Finn warns her to “put on a skirt” (62), wear “no make-up . . . [a]nd only speak when [she is] spoken to” (63) in order to placate Philip’s dogmatism. Even though Philip is rarely present to oversee the household personally, the inhabitants of the Flower household are plagued by a feeling that he is omniscient. Melanie’s discovery of a peep-hole confirms the sense that she is being watched. While the peep-hole is used by Finn, not Philip, to spy on her, its presence nevertheless turns Melanie into a subject of the male gaze. This contrasts with Melanie’s development of selfhood in her family home, where she gazes upon herself in order to construct identity.

Foucault’s “Panopticism” is particularly useful when exploring the impact of the toyshop on Melanie’s selfhood. He writes that “the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so” (201). As a result, the subject in the panoptican “inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection” (202-3). Therefore, because Melanie never knows if, and by whom, she is being watched, she regulates her development of selfhood so that it is consistent with Philip’s rules. She makes sure to dress, speak, and eat in accordance with Philip’s patriarchal household and therefore plays the role both of oppressor and oppressed. In “Of Other Spaces”, Foucault notes that the prison is an ideal example of a heterotopia of deviation “in which individuals whose behavior is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm are placed” (5). If we consider Philip’s rigid patriarchy to be the norm, then the toyshop can certainly be defined as a heterotopia of deviation. However, Philip’s surveillance of the toyshop’s inhabitants also introduces aspects of abnormality to the house. Privacy becomes public, memory becomes uncertain, and the usual contents of a family home, such as books and mirrors, are absent. The house does not reinstate normality as a heterotopia of deviation attempts to, but destabilises it so that “Melanie’s experience of derealisation will increasingly overwhelm her” (Hock Soon 36). Consequently, the house can be defined as a heterotopia which parodies normality, presenting a distorted version of reality.

In moving to the toyshop, Melanie is stripped of her autonomy. It would be an oversimplification, however, to suggest that Melanie only becomes a patriarchal subject once she moves to Philip’s house. As explored previously, in her family home Melanie performs selfhood within a patriarchal framework. Once she arrives in the toyshop this framework is policed by Philip. Therefore, despite the difference in how this submission occurs, in both spaces Melanie’s identity is dependent on her compliance within a patriarchal social structure. Crucially, the illusion of autonomy which existed in Melanie’s family home is no longer present in the toyshop. She has moved from a heterotopia of apparent freedom to one of oppression, yet in both she is unable to develop a selfhood based on reality.

Not only Melanie, but Philip too develops selfhood in relation to space. In fact, Philip so strongly identifies with the toyshop that he actually resembles the house. Carter introduces him as “the immense, overwhelming figure of a man” (69) and writes that “his silence had bulk, a height and a weight . . . [i]t filled the room” (168). However, Philip does not simply dominate the rooms he enters, but seems to morph into them. Carter emphasises Philip’s shape, writing that “his head is quite square. . . some disarrangement of the pale hair emphasised the corners” (143). Carter’s use of architectural terms suggest that if Philip were “recast as a built structure, he would most distinctively be represented as a box-like construct, which is also the most common shape of houses” (Hock Soon 37). Furthermore, the house appears to be loyal to Philip. Carter writes of the difficulties that its inhabitants have using the “gangrenous, gas-flaring monster of the bathroom geyser” (116) when bathing. Yet Philip “seemed to exert some occult authority over the geyser, for it never erupted when he lit it” (117). Man and house exist in symbiosis; Philip’s “material character derives from space” (Lefebvre 195), and in turn the house’s loyalties lie with him.

As a result of Philip’s identification with the space, the house takes on the theatrical quality of Phillip’s puppet stage. Carter writes that, “as if obeying some obscure stage direction, the dog barked” (75), while Melanie observes that “[s]he was a wind-up putting-away doll, clicking through its programmed movements” (76). Thus, the house’s inhabitants appear to be performing domesticity with Philip as their director. This establishes the toyshop as a parody of both the home and the theatre: it reflects aspects of each space but, in combining the two, neither one is complete. Foucault discusses such a space in the third principle of the heterotopia, stating that “[t]he heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible” (6). Philip’s development of selfhood in relation to this discordant space means that, just as with Melanie in her family home, his sense of self is inconsistent with reality. The theatricality that he manufactures, then, is also unreal. This allows the other residents in the house to commit small acts of resistance; Finn literally inverts normality by adopting a habit of walking on his hands, while Margaret takes mundane domestic tasks to the point of absurdity with her endless cooking and sewing. Thus, the surreal quality that Philip gives the toyshop works against him. His attempt at cultivating a space of domination becomes a heterotopia in which the empowerment of the oppressed group is made possible.

Admittedly, these acts of resistance are minor. Nevertheless, by the end of the novel the family members under Philip’s patriarchal control gain enough power to reject his control. Having destroyed Philip’s beloved swan, Finn loses all remnants of fear of him. As a result, when the family find that Philip has gone for the day, Finn is no longer controlled by the pervasive threat of Philip’s surveillance and is able to use his absence as an opportunity to reclaim the space for his family. There is a notable change in the way that Carter presents the space. When Melanie first meets Philip, his presence at the table is “magisterial” (71) and “stifling” (73). Now, however, “Uncle Philip’s ominous chair stood empty, the shell of a threat” (183). The chair, which was once a symbol for Philip’s power, now merely evokes the memory of his control. Finn is able to declare “Sod it . . . I’m going to sit in his chair . . . It can’t engulf me” (183), suggesting that, as an inanimate object, the chair does not have agency. This contradicts the idea that the house carries out Philip’s bidding when he is absent. The house’s loyalties appear to have shifted, as the family observes that “[t]he chair gave [Finn] authority” (184). Consequently, the heterotopic features of the house begin to dissipate. This is most apparent in the way that the family eats in Philip’s absence; “they took a long time over breakfast and all ate a great deal” (184), “then they all washed up together, giggling and splashing” (185). This starkly contrasts with the silent meals policed by Philip. The family are no longer performing domesticity in an oppressive heterotopia, but are able to enjoy a meal in the first ‘real’ space that Carter presents. Melanie too experiences a change as a result of their liberation from Philip’s heterotopia. Up until this point, she has always formed identity in relation to the objects around her, and because she always finds these objects in heterotopic spaces her selfhood is never coherent. However, she now considers that “it would be good to strip off her possessions” (186) and gives her treasured green dress and pearls to Margaret. In giving away these possessions she does not lose a part of her selfhood, as she did when she left her family home, but adds a new facet to her identity as she befriends Margaret. Melanie’s newfound ability to develop selfhood in relation to people, not objects, means that she can finally begin to form an identity that is consistent with reality.

This happy ending is fractured in the final pages of the novel. Surrounded by flame, Carter presents two relationships: Melanie and Finn, and Margaret and Francie. Yet neither relationship is sufficient as the story’s resolution. Margaret and Francie’s love is tainted by incest and Philip’s rage. The last we see of them is their “lover’s embrace, annihilating the world” (Carter 193). They are finally free to express their hidden selfhood, yet this will destroy them. Melanie and Finn’s relationship is flawed in a decidedly less dramatic way. Finn has lost his boyish liveliness, claiming he will never dance again because he is “a family man now” (191), he is “straining to be happy” (191) and Melanie feels no love, only sympathy, for him. The pair escape together, ending up in the garden where Finn muses that “[n]othing is left but us” (200). In this moment, they conform to Foucault’s idea that “[t]he garden is the smallest parcel of the world and then it is the totality of the world . . .  [a] universalizing heterotopia” (6). Yet, although they have escaped Philip’s control, their emergence into yet another heterotopia leaves the narrative feeling bereft of any resolution. Carter offers the pair no hope for a future that is free from the uncertainties of the heterotopic space, and so their selfhood too is left incomplete.

Works Cited

Carter, Angela. The Magic Toyshop. London: Virago, 1981. Print.

Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces”. Trans. Jay Miskowiec. Diacritics. 16.1(1986): 22-27. Web. 12. Nov. 16.

—. “Panopticism”. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979. 195-209. Print.

Heynen, Hilde. “Heterotopia unfolded?”. Heterotopia and the City. Eds. Michiel Dehaene and Lieven De Cauter. London: Routledge, 2008. 309-325. Web. 12. Nov. 16.

Hock Soon, Andrew Ng. Women and Domestic Space in Contemporary Gothic Narratives: The House as Subject. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2015. Print.

Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991. Print.