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Etats de passage

The transcendent space of transformation

Antonio Ochoa


Les écrits de l’écrivain britannique contemporain Angela Carter explorent l’ambiguïté des états existentiels où les objets et les sujets ne sont pas fixés à une identité définie.  Ces états « entre » remettent en question des notions culturelles établies au sujet de la beauté et de la moralité qui représentent finalement la lutte entre les transformations constantes de la nature et le besoin humain de contrôler le passage du temps et ses inévitables conséquences. Carter utilise des symboles culturels pour explorer ce qu’elle appelle les espaces « souterrains » de l’expérience humaine. Elle voit cela comme un moyen d’accéder aux impulsions et désirs primaires qui animent secrètement notre comportement conscient. L’importance de l’ambiguïté réside dans la possibilité d’un contact avec les différents états d’être. D’où la place prépondérante des seuils dans ses nouvelles, qu’il s’agisse de miroirs ou des personnages eux-mêmes, qui reflètent l’intérêt d’Angela Carter pour l’interconnexion des  différents modes d’existence.

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1In the tales of English author Angela Carter (1940-1992) abound characters and scenarios that suggest or signify thresholds and limits; a no-man’s land of space and suspended time, vampires and adolescents, woods and derelict houses. Carter seems to suggest that those characters, spaces and times are openings to ‘the possible’; that is, the contact between the known and the unknown, not what there is but what could be, a realm of possibility. Furthermore, what these characters, places and times represent as thresholds is transformation. The ambiguities of a character or the summer solstice embody a change in process. This change, this transformation, opens the limits creating an interconnection with what lies outside.

2This type of opening of the limit is explored by Spanish philosopher Eugenio Trías as a metaphor for being. In several of his books, Trías has set himself the task of pondering the reality of limits — what he calls the borderline, the limes — and of being as a limit and in relation to a limit. One important question that Trías asks is what lies before and beyond the limitand therefore questions the threshold as a place in between. The threshold (limen) is the zone that is situated on both sides of the frontier where the limit is not clear or distinct. In Angela Carter’s writings, the theme of the threshold is central, as her characters frequently bear the crossing of a borderline as a key feature.

3The interaction between those spaces — outside, limits, inside — becomes key to the understanding of the ‘liminar’ condition of being. The metaphor of the borderline taken from Trías will be useful to this reading of Angela Carter, particularly because Trías’s idea of the borderline is one in constant transformation, in a constant balancing of assimilation of outside influences and preservation of internal principles. I will attempt to show that the nature of those characters, spaces and times mentioned in the previous paragraph can be interpreted from Trías’s concept.

4If solitude is a condition of being, art and literature have sought to depict those moments when an isolated individual breaks open a passage to the outside, reaching out to what lies beyond him and thus transforming his self and his reality. The space of transformation is a threshold in itself; one that connects not only the present with the past, but also the ‘soglitary’ condition of being with the mystery of existence.

Limes, the space of transformation

5The collected short stories of Angela Carter, ‘Burning your Boats’ (1996), include an appendix that was originally integrated as an afterword to the volume of stories ‘Fireworks’ (Carter, 1974). There Carter articulates a principle that governed her writing at the time, one that can be extended to her entire short fiction as it is attested by its inclusion in the volume of 1996. Carter begins by addressing the connection that exists for her between her environment and the form of her writing: “the size of my room modified what I did inside it” (Carter, 1996: 459). This connection between the external objective reality and her internal imaginary world will prove crucial to a particular concept within her work, the crossing point between different spaces. She takes this connection between the outer and inner worlds one step further, mirroring spatial condensation with the way writing functions within the story, “the limited trajectory of the short narrative concentrates its meaning” (Carter, 1996: 459), just as she and her imagination were concentrated within a small room. Since this concentration dictated the form of her writing she further concludes that she is not writing short stories for she is not dealing with everyday experience, but tales because she is dealing with abstractions, that is, condensations of experience:

“Formally the tale differs from the short story in that it makes few pretences at the imitation of life. The tale does not log everyday experience, as the short story does; it interprets everyday experience through a system of imagery derived from subterranean areas behind everyday experience” (Carter, 1996: 459).

6The ‘concentrated’ and ‘subterranean’ substance of her tales allowed her to explore the foundations of social concepts, of cultural symbols, and philosophical ideas, with which we build our sense of reality, our everyday life. In exploring those foundations through the creative imagination Carter sought a space before those concepts, symbols, and ideas were taken for reality itself. Therefore the significance of thresholds and limits in her work lies in that they signal the approximation between spaces, on the one hand the constructed social reality and, on the other, a space where those social and cultural constructs are taken as such, where they are not denied but neither taken for reality itself, but rather seen as forms that we have erected in order to help us deal, however badly or successfully, with the ‘subterranean’.

7In that same short essay Carter links herself to the literary tradition of Poe and E. T. A. Hoffman (Carter, 1996: 459) because these two writers also deal with the hidden side of human reality. Of the writings of Poe she explains that “its style will tend to be ornate, unnatural – and thus operate against the perennial human desire to believe the word as fact” (Carter, 1996: 459). For Carter it is not necessary to “imitate life” to create meaning. Indeed, meaning would lie beyond the “imitation of life” in the interpretation/deconstruction of cultural symbolism. In this move away from mimesis Carter is able to effectively question the fundamental reason which took cultural and social constructions — such as male/female, evil/good, progress/primitivism — as universal and atemporal. Her writing functions as the creation of an imaginary space — the interpretation/deconstruction of cultural symbolism through the organ of the imagination — which can be inserted between the unknown «subterranean» world and the surface of everyday reality, where we read her fiction. Such an imaginary space is close to the concept of ‘fiction’ in the sense that Jorge Luis Borges gives to this term. Borges, as far as I know, never expounded on it; however, Scottish writer Alastair Reid, Borges’s English translator, explains the term thus:

“To Borges, everything put into language is a fiction, and should not be confused with reality. The fictions we make are ways of ordering and dominating the disorders of reality, even though they in no way change it. The ‘truth’ of a fiction is less important than its effectiveness” (Reid, 1997: 80-81).

8The main difference between Borges’s conception of language and that of Angela Carter is the Argentine’s view of the impossibility of changing reality through fictions. Carter, in contrast, seems to suggest that by dealing with the hidden and unconscious desires and mechanisms of the human psyche something can be altered, whether it is our perception of reality, or our realization that if there is something that never changes about reality it is that it is continuously changing. However, in both writers the story exists between the everyday world and a mysterious subterranean other world. Their stories then are in themselves a sort of limit between those two worlds.

9Spanish philosopher Eugenio Trías opens his book Lógica del límite (1991) with the image of the limitanei, the inhabitants of the outer limits — the limes — of the Roman empire (15). The soldiers who lived there served to both defend the border and to farm the land (Trías, 1991: 15). Beyond this limes, the last frontier, were the foreigners, barbarians, strangers, and the unknown (Trías, 1991: 15). But this limes was constantly shifting and changing, between the trade with outsiders and the attacks of barbarians, the limes then “Participaba, por lo tanto, de lo racional y de lo irracional, o de lo civilizado y de lo silverstre. Era un espacio tenso y conflictivo de mediación y de enlace. En él se juntaba y se separaba a la vez el espacio romano del bárbaro. Actuaba a la vez como copula y como disyunción” (Trías, 1991: 16). [It therefore participated from the rational and the irrational, or from the civilized and the wild. It was a tense and conflictive space of mediation and linkage. In it, at one time, the Roman space was joined and kept apart from the barbarian one. It acted at the same time as copula and as disjunction.]

10Thus the metaphor of the limes serves Trías to present his ontological thesis: “aquí se afirma que el ser […] es ese limes”(Trías, 1991: 17). It is not possible to pursue Trías’s ontological argument at this point, however there is one aspect of the above quoted description that can serve as a key to the present interpretation of Angela Carter’s tales discussed in this paper, the simultaneous nature of the limes — that ‘a la vez’. The limes is not only a space that differentiates the known from the unknown, the limes is also the spaces that united them; it is both separation and union, integration and rejection. The limes is constantly transforming and adapting itself. It is the place where “contamination” seeps to the rest of the social and cultural body. Contamination becomes a constant flux in the threshold where opposite spaces — the known and the unknown — can come together. The concept of limes in this paper is taken in these broad strokes to reflect different levels of Carter’s tales. This intends not to dilute the meaningfulness of the concept but to connect it with the already discussed aspect of concentration, like a Chinese box effect, in the tales of Angela Carter. First, the text functions as a limes insofar as it is a space — a fiction — between the unknown and the individual. Second, within some of Carter’s tales the main issue is the encounter between two worlds or spaces. Third, images and scenarios, such as the woods and the solstice, suggest the importance of limits as meeting places. Fourth, some of the characters represent or even incarnate the ambiguity of the limes, such as the werewolf or an adolescent girl, where limes becomes limen. In a different book Trías writes the following: “el fronterizo revela lo que es, su esencia, su quididad, a través de su propio ser relativo al límite, que es la existencia fronteriza. El fronterizo es lo que es en razón de esa remisión al límite que le constituye, en la cual relación se juega su ser y su no ser, su sentido y su sin sentido” (1999: 79) [the one from the frontier reveals what it is, its essence, its quiddity, through its own being relative to the limit, that is the existence of the frontier. The one from the frontier is what it is, in regards to the reference to the limit that constitutes it, in this relationship comes into play its being and its not being, its sense and its non-sense]. The inhabitant of the borderline, of the frontier, in the tales of Angela Carter is also showing what there is by showing the limitations of the social and cultural constructions that inform our sense of the everyday reality.

11In what follows I will briefly sketch out instances of transformation in the tales of Angela Carter. This is meant to present a context for the more detailed analysis that I will present further along this essay. Transformation in the tales of Carter signals a moment where two realities meet, where a girl that is becoming a tiger is at that moment more than either of them. Like a game of Chinese boxes the pattern of concentration is still valid in these images of transformation: from the room where Carter wrote to the short fiction, from the short fiction to the images of thresholds and limits, from these to an actual moment of transformation: “each stroke of his tongue ripped off skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world, and left behind a nascent patina of shiny hairs. My earrings turned back to water and trickled down my shoulders; I shrugged the drops off my beautiful fur” (Carter, 1996: 169). There is a violent transformation in those words, an existential revolution where the «life in the world» is left behind for what can only be taken as a more truthful existence, a return to a pre-cultural relationship with reality. Throughout Carter’s tales the reader finds moments, images, or characters that represent or enact transformation. From the passage just quoted to the presence of werewolves and vampires in the tales ‘The Werewolf’, ‘The Company of Wolves’, ‘Wolf-Alice’, ‘The Lady of the House of Love’; from androgynies and hermaphrodites in ‘Reflections’ and ‘Overture and Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream’; to puppets, marionettes, actors, the stage in ‘Loves of Lady Purple’ and ‘The Cabinet of Edgar Allan Poe’. These recurring elements form a significant part of the basic structure of Carter’s fictional world, one that challenges fundamental ideas about our conceptions of reality. In most of these tales Carter seems to challenge the notions of an ontological identity where one entity cannot be more than one thing at one particular time. In this regard, what brings a hermaphrodite and a werewolf together is the fact that they are two distinct forms of being embodied in a single one. The simultaneity suggested here moves right to the core of a belief system that is still entrenched in Classical ideals of beauty, and therefore morality, based on symmetry and proportion. The clear division of elements is also a basis for logical thought for which definition is key, where definition is the condition of being definite, distinct, and clearly outlined. By populating her tales with this type of characters Carter is not only addressing gender and sexual issues, she is also questioning a philosophical problem at the core of Western culture, the idea of identity. And by writing tales, by choosing to rework cultural symbols such as the vampire or werewolf, Carter is suggesting a collective subconscious need, represented in those symbols, to bring down or challenge those barriers of differentiation. In these symbols we can read also the approximation of different spaces, the one belonging to man and the one belonging to nature. Transformations in her narratives become symbols for the constant mutability of the real. But they also become thresholds, symbols of transcendence, from one state to the next, from one space to another.


12The woods are a meaningful space for Carter. They are present in tales such as ‘Penetrating the heart of the forest’, ‘Master’, ‘Reflections’, ‘The Erl-King’ and ‘The Company of Wolves’, among others. The woods as a space represent more than a stage where the stories take place. The woods can sometimes have positive connotations: “you purposely mislay your way in the wood, for the sake of the pleasure of roving” (Carter, 1996: 276). However, it can also be a place of danger and terror: “the woods enclose. You step between the fir trees and then you are no longer in the open air; the wood swallows you up.” (Carter, 1996: 186) or “one beast and only one howls in the woods by night” (Carter, 1996: 212). Moreover, the woods do not only represent those opposing categories, in a way it also functions as a catalyst; it is the final element that allows things to come together. The woods are what give space for a transformation to occur without itself being transformed by it. Like other elements in Carter’s world it is the ambiguity of the woods that makes them a catalyst. The wood is a place that is close to the village, to humans and human activity, but it is also part of the natural world. In the woods the world of man seeps into nature, making it slightly more familiar: “for example, an English wood, cannot, by definition, be trackless, although it might well be formidably labyrinthine” (Carter, 1996: 275). The woods are then the space where different worlds bleed into each other, allowing encounters, exchanges, contaminations.

13The story ‘Reflections’ begins in the woods. In a familiar concentration of symbolism the story takes place in the summer solstice: “the year was swinging on the numinous hinges of the solstice” (Carter, 1996: 81). The image is not only that of a vertex of the year, it is that of an edge, a threshold that holds both halves of the year together. The solstice becomes an opening for the unknown and uncanny to spill over to the other side.

14The voice of a young girl singing permeates the air (Carter, 1996: 81). The narrator is a young male, although not as young as the singing girl, wearing a tweed jacket and a walking stick. During his walk the man stumbles on a half buried shell in the woods (Carter, 1996: 81). This shell further indicates that ‘openness’ between two spaces that made it possible to find in the woods an object that belongs to a completely different environment: “a shell so far from the sea!” (Carter, 1996: 81). The spiraled seashell nautilus is seen in mathematics as the representation of the Golden ratio in three different planes, and although there is no indication in the story that the shell in question is indeed a nautilus, I would find that the use of a shell that represents a Classical measure of proportion would be a particularly ironic turn on Carter’s part. The nautilus would thus signal not equilibrium and balance of Classical proportion but on the contrary a key to the indefinable nature of reality. The shell in the story is, if not a nautilus, spiraled:

“The whorls of the shell went the wrong way. The spirals were reversed. It looked like the mirror image of a shell, and so it should not have been able to exist outside a mirror; in this world, it could not exist outside a mirror. But all the same, I held it.” (Carter, 1996 : 82)

15Once in the possession of the shell, which proves to be unbelievably heavy, the man is attacked by a dog belonging to the girl who was singing but whom the man had not seen until now. The dog picks up the shell in its muzzle, while the girl signals to the man with her rifle. They walk to a derelict house with the door open (Carter, 1996: 84). I emphasize the fact that the door was open because it echoes with the image of the open door of the year swinging on the hinges of the solstice (Carter, 1996: 81); also, the door of the room where they are headed is open (Carter, 1996: 85). Thus the open door becomes a symbol for the open state of the world. The open door symbolizes the open threshold between two realities.

16The man is received by a being sitting on a wicker chair, “one of her profiles was that of a beautiful woman, the other that of a beautiful man. It is a defect in our language there is no term of reference for these indeterminate and undefinable beings” (Carter, 1996: 85). This «indeterminate» and ‘undefinable’ being is at the same time a dweller and a symbol of the frontier, the limit between two worlds. This ‘androgyne’ as Carter refers to her/him (Carter, 1996: 86) is the keeper of that fold, the vertex where both realities meet. He/she is the incarnation of a symbol, the encounter and balance of opposites as if the ying and yang could take on a human form: “this room is the half-way house between here and there, between this and that, because, you understand, I am so ambiguous”(Carter, 1996: 89). The ‘androgyne’ knits constantly. The room and the house are full of a muffler on which she/he is constantly at work. As a matter of fact, it was because of a dropped stitch that the seashell found its way to the man’s world. She/he is not only the incarnation, then, of opposites but also the knitting seems to indicate that the seam by which both worlds are united has to be kept going as if it had to follow the movement of time. The ‘androgyne’ is joining two different threads together, much as the hinges join door and frame together:

“‘She can,’ said Anna, ‘go both ways, although she cannot move at all. So her power is an exact equivalent of her impotence, since both are absolute’…But her aunt looked down at her soft weapon and said gently: ‘Not, my darling, absolutely absolute. Potency, impotence in potentia, hence relative. Only the intermediary, since indeterminate’” (Carter, 1996: 87)

17He/she is possibility, possibility before action although by no means passive. She/he represents, in my view, the idea of the relativism of cultural and social constructions and symbols. By being both simultaneously and ambiguously male and female he/she becomes more than either, thus becomes the reality that questions the notion that the barriers of determination and differentiation are absolute. At the center of the room we find a mirror “with touching fidelity, the mirror duplicated the room and all it contained” (Carter, 1996: 85). As much as she/he is the keeper of both realities, the mirror is the vertex, the actual joining point of both worlds. It is the doorway through which the shell has to be returned to the world it belongs: “the mirror, the symbolic matrix of this and that, hither and thither, outside and inside” (Carter, 1996: 88). The mirror is the final point of that play of Chinese boxes that can be traced all the way back to Angela Carter and her room. It is one of the most concentrated points in her narratives. This mirror is the limit between two realities.

18The man is informed that because he has seen too much he would also have to cross the mirror with the shell. He could not be allowed to remain in this world since anything could break the delicate balance. He is ordered to kiss his own image in the mirror and when he does he does not encounter the cold surface he expected but another pair of warm lips “this mouth was wet and contained a tongue, and teeth” (Carter, 1996: 89). When he kisses his own reflection he does not encounter a cold closed flat surface but an open space, the open mouth of his own reflection at the other side of the mirror to which he has been banished. This is truly an image that causes vertigo in the reader since the other side of the mirror is now open through the opening of the man’s mouth described in terms of sexuality and violence like a Francis Bacon painting.

19The girl, Anna, crosses over with him. The man cannot find words to describe either the world itself nor his perception and feelings within it: “and I cannot tell you, since there is no language in this world to do so, how strange the antithetical wood and sweet June day were, for both had become the systematic negation of its others” (Carter, 1996: 91). This absence of the possibility of description points to the ideas of fiction touched at the beginning of this essay. Having seen the «other» world the man is confused about the proper order of both worlds, which one was first; that is, which one is the original. For his mode of thinking there most be an original, an indubitable source of all meaning and order. However, in its absence he is utterly confused, everything there exists as the opposite of the other world except the girl:

“But when I looked at Anna, I saw she was exactly the same as she had been on the other side of the mirror and knew her face for one of those rare faces that possess an absolute symmetry, each feature the exact equivalent of the other, so one of her profiles could serve as the template for both. Her skull was like a proposition in geometry. Irreducible as stone, finite as a syllogism, she was always indistinguishable from herself whichever way she went.” (Carter, 1996: 90)

20Further on he calls her “she herself, the solstice in person, went on curious hinges between this place and that place unlike her aunt” (Carter, 1996 : 90). Anna, the young girl, is yet another key in the tale and in Carter’s universe. I will not discuss the full significance of adolescence in Carter’s tales just yet, since I will address this issue in the next section. Then something happens, Anna rapes him: “perhaps her gun, in this system, gave her the power to do so” Carter, 1996 :93). This act of violence can be interpreted in different ways. Whether we interpret that as a claim to female sexual power or not, the fact in the story is that as a consequence of this the man kills both Anna and her dog, and returns to the mirror and to the opposite room where the androgyne is found still knitting the seam of both worlds. In his anger the man attacks the androgyne without considering the consequences. The violence blinded him to the magnitude of what he had witnessed and not being able to understand it, he destroys it:

“‘The umbilical cord is cut,’ she said. ‘The thread is broken. Did you not realise who I was? That I was the synthesis in person? For I could go any way the world goes and so I was knitting the thesis and the antithesis together, this world and that world. Over the leaves and under the leaves. Cohesion gone. Ah!’… But I was arrogant; I was undefeated. Had I not killed her? Proud as a man, I one again advanced to meet my image in the mirror. Full of self-confidence, I held out my hands to embrace my self, my antiself, my self not-self, my assassin, my death, the world’s death.” (Carter, 1996: 95)

21By killing the androgyne he has closed the contact between the two worlds. The androgyne was like an engine that kept the possibility of both worlds existing in close proximity contact. Like the woods he/she kept the worlds at the same time united and separated. She/he is not transforming anything. He/she is, however, transformation itself, thus ever moving but seemingly stable. The story then becomes a tale about the open possibility of transformation; about the existence of an option. It is not clear whether by killing the androgyne he has destroyed the world in the other side of the mirror. But what he certainly does is effectively cancel the possibility of access, of a life open between the two worlds. He thus acted like an avenging logos that at not being able to understand the ambiguous reality that he had encountered decides to destroy it. He ultimately goes back to normality, to his walk in the woods, to his logical and ordered world as a defined and contained self.

The ambiguity of the undead—‘the lady of the house of love’

22One feature of Carter’s work that I find also represents ambiguity are the adolescent characters she depicts, or young people, in her tales. In the work of Angela Carter the figure of the adolescent is not that of the innocence of childhood but it is neither the consciousness of adulthood. The adolescent acts as a state in between that permits access to a reality beyond the immediate. The state of transformation that adolescence embodies becomes a threshold in itself where the inside and the outside of reality come into contact, and where the innocence of childhood would be in touch with the what is not yet formed while a the same time the awareness of adulthood would be in touch with the reality of man. The adolescent as threshold is more than itself since it is unfinished, it is yet at the same time it is becoming itself. Like the young girls in Balthus’s paintings, who are the connection with the mysteries of childhood, innocence, and a playful understanding of sexuality; for example in the paintings ‘Katia Reading’ circa 1967-1978 or ‘Thérèse Dreaming’ from 1938 which shows “young Therese, lost in reverie with her hands folded above her head, a rapt expression on her face, and her legs uncovered […] a haunting description of that stage in life that veers between lassitude and exuberance, innocence and sexual fantasies, reality and dream” (Rewald, 1998: 305). Similarly the adolescent as a threshold in the tales of Carter allows the self-awareness of becoming fully active and present in the world of man without the self-consciousness of having arrived at a perceived permanent condition.

23The main character in the tale ‘The Lady of the House of Love’ is a double ambiguity since she is an adolescent but also a vampire: a girl who is both death and the maiden” (Carter, 1996: 195). In this tale Carter’s treatment of ambiguities is again centered in a character, this time the adolescent queen of the vampires. She is the last in the bloodline of a family that goes back to Vlad the Impaler but she is now alone living in a derelict house feeding on animals or the occasional passer-by. Like the werewolf who exists between the world of man and the world of nature, the vampire also exists in two worlds. It combines the absence of death, for vampires are lifeless, with a life-like presence, for they still exist in the world. Thus a vampire is an “imitation of life” (Carter, 1996: 197). This fact could set the figure of the vampire next to marionettes, puppets, and other types of automata — at one point the voice of girl is described as “curiously disembodied; she is like a doll, he thought, a ventriloquist’s doll” (Carter, 1996: 204) — all of which Freud related to the feeling of ‘unheimlich’ (Freud, 2003 [1919]: 123). We can connect this feeling here to one of the definitions given in Freud’s essay, the contradiction implied within the word as the feeling that may arise by something that is recognizable but yet unfamiliar.

24The ambiguity represented by the character seeps into her personality, for “everything about this beautiful and ghastly lady is as it should be, queen of night, queen of terror—except her horrible reluctance for the role” (Carter, 1996: 197). The story begins by uniting two worlds: the ancient world of the vampires who live in the unfamiliar regions of Eastern Europe and that of a young British officer visiting friends in Vienna in the “pubescent years of the present century” (Carter, 1996: 198), who decides to explore Romania on a bicycle. The British officer is described as having “the special quality of virginity, most and least ambiguous of states: ignorance, yet at the same time, power in potential, and, furthermore, unknowingness, which is not the same as ignorance” (Carter, 1996: 198-199). If we think back at the way in which the androgyne talks about her/his self it is very similar, he/she uses the same concept ‘in potential’ (Carter, 1996: 87). This ‘potential’ is also present in the adolescent as I have said. In this story there are two worlds colliding just as in ‘Reflections’ there were two worlds colliding. In ‘Reflections’ they were the world and the anti-world, if we must call them something, although as the narrator said we can’t really know which one is which. In ‘The Lady of the House of Love’ the collision is between the world of the ‘young British officer’ who decided to ride a bicycle to the Carpathians and the timeless reality of vampires. The bicycle ironically becomes a symbol, not unlike the cross, against vampires, for it is “the most rational mode of transportation in the world” (Carter, 1996: 199). Thus the collision: “this being [the British officer], rooted in change and time, is about to collide with the timeless Gothic eternity of the vampires” (Carter, 1996: 199). Therefore this story will confront two worlds just as much as two realities were confronted in the tale ‘Reflections’. And just as in that tale, only one of those worlds can survive since, at the end, Carter is a realist and her tales of fantasy are not a denial but an examination of the subterranean drives that govern our social and cultural constructions.

25The story unfolds when the British officer, tired, hungry, and thirsty sees from the road the roofs of the houses below the castle. At the center of town there is a fountain that serves as lure for unknowing travelers. Whoever stops there is invited for supper by the Countess’s housekeeper, in the castle, where she waits, playing the tarot cards. The same cards always turn up: wisdom, death, dissolution (Carter, 1996: 197). The constancy of the cards is broken that day when a card depicting a pair of lovers turns up for the first time. Until then there had been an absence of real chance in her game, but with this card the pattern is broken allowing ‘the possible’ to enter her reality. Here I must emphasize another similarity between the two tales analyzed in this paper. In both ‘Reflections’ and ‘The Lady of the House of Love’ there are small but significant variants to the constant state of affairs. In ‘Reflections’ the androgyne drops a stitch and as a consequence a shell falls out of the ‘anti-world’, and in this story the constancy of the cards, in a game of chance that has never varied, turns up a different card. Both of these events mark the opening for a possible contact — or contamination since they penetrate and transform each other — between two different worlds or realities. These random events set the different worlds in a potential connection with each other, setting in motion actions with unforeseeable consequences. To continue with this thread, the phrase “a single kiss woke up the Sleeping Beauty in the Wood” is placed as a paragraph in the middle of page 199 and then is repeated in page 205 (Carter, 1996). The isolated sentence in the story refers again to the idea of in potentia. The young British officer can, because of his ambiguous condition of virginity, set in motion the potency in the imitation of life of the eternal young queen of the vampires. Both are ambiguous beings and what Carter seems to be proposing is not to rearrange the world back to ‘normality’ but to see where this potential might lead.

26The British officer follows the housekeeper happily anticipating a warm meal. He eats by himself in the dining room and then is invited to another room, presumably, he thinks, to meet his host. Once in the dimly lit room “he saw how beautiful and how very young the bedizened scarecrow was, and he thought of a child dressing up in her mother’s clothes, perhaps a child putting on the clothes of a dead mother in order to bring her, however briefly, to life again” (Carter, 1996 : 202). What is interesting in this description of how the British officer sees the girl, is that he chooses not to see her bestiality. He sees her as a fragile and eccentric girl. He is then acting and representing that rationality conveyed earlier by his mode of transportation. This has been an underlying current in the story. The description concludes “this lack of imagination gives his heroism to the hero” (Carter, 1996: 205). His rationality, the rational world where he comes from, has closed the access to a different world, to a world not explainable by logic and utility. Nevertheless, that other world is frail, and it easily succumbs in contact. His lack of imagination is for Carter the anticipation of the war, almost a prerequisite, as if she were saying that imaginative men would not wage war in that way: “he will learn to shudder in the trenches. But this girl cannot make him shudder” (Carter, 1996: 205). The juxtaposition of history and timelessness, imagination and direct experience is here clear.

27At one point in the evening, the young Countess invites her guests into her bedchamber. There she seduces them, and in their nakedness, both real and metaphorical, feeds on them. However, the night with the British officer is different. He is different. Her Tarot cards have announced it so, revealing a card that had never until that day come up before: Les amoreaux. As the two young lovers are moving to the bedchamber Carter describes the scene that is surely to follow, a scene of love and nourishment, as imagined by the Countess:

“embraces, kisses; your golden head, of a lion, although I have never seen a lion, only imagined one, of the sun, even if I’ve only seen the picture of the sun on the Tarot card, your golden head of the lover whom I dreamed would one day free me, this head will fall back, its eyes roll upwards in a spasm you will mistake for that of love and not of death.” (Carter, 1996: 206)

28On the other hand, what is going through the pragmatic head of the British officer is of quite a different note: “the handsome bicyclist, fearful for his hostess’s health, her sanity, gingerly follows her hysterical imperiousness into the other room” (Carter, 1996: 206). They both exist on different planes; they each are the incarnation of their respective realities. This poses something of an ontological problem: two ‘realities’ cannot exist at the same time in the same place. One of them has to give up its place in the world. Both cannot exist and we know that the Countess’s reality is already crumbling. Yet the collision of the images does not finish there. While they are walking into her bedchamber the officer remembers his colonel telling him about a brothel in Paris, where 10 louis could buy an encounter in a “lugubrious bedroom, with a naked girl upon a coffin; offstage, the brothel pianist played the Dies Irae on a harmonium” (Carter, 1996: 207). The reader is presented here with the collision between the erotic varieties of cosmopolitan Paris against the crumbling reality of myth and legend. The ‘reality’ of the Countess bedchamber crumbles even further next to the illusion of the Paris brothel. The fact that one will survive the other is less important than that fact that the illusion is eroding the foundations of reality. A «reality» that for the reader, who belongs to the world of the British officer, is also an illusion. The reader becomes part of the play of interconnected realities. Carter seems to suggest by this that all of them are constructions, ones more enduring than others but constructions nonetheless.

29While undressing the Countess drops the dark glasses that were protecting her from the light of the candle and internal light of the officer. The glasses break, and she cuts herself trying to pick up the pieces. The officer kneels down next to her taking the wounded finger to his lips. This exchange of blood and saliva, a clear figure of interconnection, turns the Countess into a human to the horror of her ancestors who witness this from their paintings: “how can she bear the pain of becoming human? The end of exile is the end of being”(Carter, 1996 : 207).

30Once this transformation happens the truth of her space becomes clear. The room and the house are in a state of decay and dereliction and as “he was awaked by larksong. The shutters, the curtains, even the long-sealed windows of the horrid bedroom were all opened up and light and air streamed in” (Carter, 1996 : 207). The dilapidated state of the house marks the crumbling of the threshold itself, of the façade behind which lies the unknown world of vampires and timelessness. The dilapidation, that is, of the symbolic world itself. Assigning the image of disrepair and decrepitude to the world of the vampires, and that of the bicycle to the outside world of progress and world wars, signals not only the clash between these two realities, but the end of the symbolic world linked to the imagination represented by the Gothic vampire world. It is interesting to note, that it is not the world of the vampires that pollutes the Western modern industrial reality but the other way around. It is the traveler, with his symbol of rationality, who steps into the house of the undead. The image of the fragility of the Countess is an echo of that of the house itself. Both are in the act of disappearing as if they represented the state of officer’s ability to reach back to that subterranean existence, which every day has less importance for his utilitarian reality.


31The images through which Angela Carter explores certain cultural concepts, social symbols, and ideas function due to her awareness of the fact that symbols, concepts and ideas are constructions. That is, constructions that like the houses in her tales suffer decay and are replaced by others. Thus they cannot be taken as universal and atemporal. What remains in her tales is that «subterranean» condensation of experience that speaks to us about the need to recognize their relative existence. The abstractions of Trías and Carter do not move on the same plane of discourse, however they both signal new ways to think and engage reality, both through the idea of limits and thresholds. These are not inert but are rather in a constant ebb and flow, transforming themselves and their surrounding areas. What brings the ideas of both Carter and Trías together is the fact that in the limit the spaces that it connects interact within it. Even if in this interaction one of the worlds in Carter’s narratives is destroyed, unlike in Trías whose purpose is to show that existence of being depends on such an interaction, there remains the open possibility that some elements of the world that disappeared have contaminated enough the surviving world as to challenge its sense of exclusivity.

32It is probably too adventurous to say that Carter seems to be nostalgic, not for a romanticized world of vampires and werewolves but rather for the open possibilities of the existing one. The fact that in the tales analyzed here one of the two worlds ends up in destructed, is not so much an inevitable consequence as the result of the impossibility of acceptance of another world. What is tragic about the tales of Carter is that the worlds that do not survive are supplanted by a world that sees no alternative other than itself. And this is one of the finer points of Carter’s cultural criticisms.

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CARTER, Angela, 1996, Burning Your Boats : Collected Short Stories. London, Vintage.

FREUD, Sigmund, 2003 [1919], The Uncanny. London, Penguin.

REID, Alastair, 1997, Oases: Poems and Prose. Edinburgh, Canongate.

REWALD, Sabine, 1998, “Balthus’s Thérèses”, Metropolitan Museum Journal, 33 : 305-314.

TRÍAS, Eugenio, 1991, Lógica del límite. Barcelona, Destino.

TRÍAS, Eugenio, 1999, La razón fronteriza. Barcelona, Destino

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Antonio Ochoa, « The transcendent space of transformation »Conserveries mémorielles [En ligne], #7 | 2010, mis en ligne le 10 avril 2010, consulté le 25 mars 2023. URL :

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Antonio Ochoa

read Latin American literature and philosophy of art at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. He then obtained a Master of Letters on the poetry of San Juan de la Cruz from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. He received his doctorate also from the University of Edinburgh with a dissertation on the concepts of presence and space in Latin American poetry. He recently finished a Spanish translation of Robert Duncan's book of poems /Bending the Bow/. Antonio Ochoa is also a poet. He teaches Latin American Literature at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.

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