It Ain’t No Sin: Carter’s Response to Freud’s Views of Sex

January 29, 2019 by Essay Writer

Throughout her body of work, Angela Carter continuously twists and transforms conventional ideas. Whether Carter places a feminist spin on traditional stories or challenges conventional thought by raising questions, her writing reveals innovative insights. Her last novel, Wise Children, is no exception. In this novel, Carter creates the character Dora Chance, who attempts to write her life story as a response to Freud’s work Dora, An Analysis of A Case of Hysteria, in which he analyzes the life events of a young girl. Carter plays off of Freud’s interpretations of sex as perversion by re-creating situations from Dora Chance’s life in Wise Children; in this book, she experiences sexual desire and activities as healthy, enjoyable, profound, and even comedic. Throughout Freud’s Dora, the psychologist emphasizes sex as the root cause of hysteria and neurotic action, and attributes Dora’s problems to her exposure to sexual knowledge and sexual experiences. Freud asserts that Dora received much of her knowledge of sexual activity from her childhood governess. Freud describes the governess as “an unmarried woman…who was well read and of advanced views” (29). By “advanced views,” Freud means advanced sexual views, which he clarifies by stating, “The governess used to read every sort of book on sexual life and similar subjects, and talked to the girl about them, at the same time asking her…to not mention their conversations to her parents” (29). Because the governess asked Dora not to tell her parents, Freud assumes that their sexual discussions were in some way perverse or taboo, thus implying a hidden side to sex which is somehow “inappropriate.” Additionally, Freud notes that the governess opens Dora’s eyes to her father’s sexual promiscuity in an act of jealousy (29-30). By including this fact, Freud positions the governess as a sexual villain who disrupts Dora’s life and impacts her negatively. Carter parallels the governess character with Dora and Nora Chance’s caregiver figure Grandma Chance, who provides positive sexual education for the twins. Dora Chance, who narrates her own life story, recalls positively the knowledge Grandma imparted to the twins. Firstly, Dora describes Grandma Chance as a nudist who raised the twins in their youth. She states, “She never wore a stitch…She thought it was good for us kiddies to get the air and sunlight on our skins, so we…often gambolled naked in the backyard to the astonishment of the neighbors” (27). By practicing nudism, Grandma taught the girls to be comfortable with their bodies. Grandma Chance also provided Dora and Nora with “comprehensive sex education” (84). Dora explains that prior to her encounters with men, “[she]’d never seen a naked man before although Grandma had drawn us pictures” (85). Dora mentions this sexual education directly before her description of her first sexual encounter on her 17th birthday, thus emphasizing the fact that she recalls Grandma’s education as the foundation of her sexual life. Whereas Freud portrays the governess’s sexual education of Dora in a negative light, Carter provides a positive sexual education for Dora through Grandma Chance. Just as Carter plays off of Freud’s idea of premature sexual education as a negative influence in Dora’s life, so too does she emphasize the naturalness of oral sex – rather than portraying it as a perversion, as Freud does. Freud asserts that Dora knows about oral sex only because of her negative sexual education (an education that was premature and inappropriate for a young girl), and that this knowledge leads her to fantasize about oral sex with her father’s friend Herr K (41-43). Additionally, Freud describes oral sex as an “excessively repulsive and perverted phantasy” (45). Though he asserts that young women with knowledge of the male organ who received pleasure from sucking their thumbs as children naturally fantasize about oral sex, he considers the act in itself a perversion. Carter twists Freud’s interpretation of oral sex in Dora Chance’s encounter with her first sexual partner on her 17th birthday. Carter uses Dora’s first encounter to show the naturalness of sexual intercourse and variations of sexual intimacy. Before Dora has intercourse with the young man, he approaches her naked, and Dora focuses on his penis. She states, “There was a little clear drop of moisture trembling on the tip, it came to me to lick it off” (85). This instance seems to fit with Freud’s assertion that young women with prior knowledge of the male organ will think about oral sex. However, Carter uses this incident to prove that oral sex is natural and not a perverse fantasy. Dora’s use of the phrase, “It came to me to lick it off” is a statement of how natural the act. In describing her own encounters with sex, Dora is effectively stating that she does not view oral sex in the same repulsive light that Freud does. Just as Freud denotes oral sex as a perversion, he also views sexual interaction as a root of illness. In Dora, Freud focuses on Dora’s past sexual experiences, fantasies, and knowledge as the root of her physical ailments and hysteria. Freud states, “For where there is no knowledge of sexual processes even in the unconscious, no hysterical symptom will arise; and where hysteria is found there can no longer be any question of ‘innocence of mind'” (42). Freud believes that sexual encounters are the root of mental illness. Additionally, Freud asserts that sexual encounters and fantasies cause the physical ailments associated with hysteria as well as other ailments. For example, Freud claims that, “Bedwetting…[has] no more likely cause than masturbation” (66). Additionally, he asserts that masturbation causes continual discharge in young girls (68). In both cases Freud explains to his patient that her sexual habit of masturbation causes her vaginal region to excrete “negative” substances: urine and discharge. By doing so, Freud promotes a view of sexual encounters as the source of negative ailments. In the same manner that Cater counters Freud’s interpretation of oral sex and sexual education, she also denounces Freud’s argument that sex causes sickness. In Wise Children, though sexual relationships may cause heartbreak and even anxiety, as in Tiffany’s case, those are typically results of the breakdown of long-standing love relationships that also include sex, and are not strictly the negative effects of the sexual act. Likewise, Cater depicts happiness and pleasure as the result of sexual encounters. For example, when Nora has her first sexual encounter with an older gentleman at the age of 16 in a back alley, Dora describes the experience in positive terms. She explains, “Don’t be sad for her. Don’t run away with the idea that it was a squalid furtive, miserable thing, to make love for the first time on a cold night in a back alley…He was the one she wanted, warts and all, she would have him, by hook or by crook” (81). By describing a situation in which Nora has sex in dirty conditions with a less-than-admirable man, Dora could assert the horrible nature of sexual relations. However, she warns the reader to refrain from doing so by painting the encounter in a positive light. The sexual encounter occurs on Nora’s terms: she knows what she wants, and she knows when she wants it. Nora does become pregnant from her night with this gentleman, but Dora makes it clear that Nora does not view this as a negative consequence. Instead, when Nora has a miscarriage, Dora explains, “Nora cried her eyes out but not because she’d lost the [man]…No. She wept the loss of the Baby” (81). To Nora, the baby is a positive result; the miscarriage is the negative. In this story, Dora places no emphasis on the negative effects of sex, focusing instead on Nora’s control over her sexual desires and her maternal loss. Though Carter does portray serious love affairs between couples (such as Dora’s night with her young man and Nora’s relationship with her long-term American boyfriend, Tony), she also presents the light-hearted side of sexual relations. One such instance occurs with Dora’s first sexual encounter with the young man with whom she is in love. Dora explains that the young man is really Nora’s boyfriend and only sleeps with Dora on the night of her birthday because Nora agrees to play a bed trick on him. Nora agrees to let Dora sleep with him, as he cannot decipher a difference between them (83-84). Even though this relationship evokes feelings of true love from Dora, a bed trick is a traditional comic device. By using such a trick to create feelings within Dora, Carter shows how sex can be both serious and lighthearted. Another instance in which Carter directly counters Freud’s negative view of sex is during the film production of What! You Will!. On the set of the film, when Peregrine removes a bird from the crotch of Melchior’s costume that causes a huge bulge, the bird repeats the phrase “It ain’t no sin!” while dancing around the set (133). By placing the bird in the crotch of Melchior’s pants, Carter wants the reader to view the bird as a sexual symbol. Carter depicts the bird as a dancing, singing, messenger of sexual freedom – an indirect response to Freud’s view of sex as a perversion. Not only does Carter depict the light-hearted nature of sex, but she also counters the idea of sex as perversion by depicting sex as an act in which everyone engages. Carter gives almost every character in the story, including secondary characters, sexual encounters. For example, Tristam is in a sexual relationship with both Tiffany and Saskia, Genghis Khan propositions Nora, Peregrine Hazard is known for his sexual exploits, and Dora and Nora both have a slew of sexual partners. many of whom they cannot name. Additionally, Carter includes a scene in which a multitude of individuals engage in sex with their respective partners at the same time. During the fire at the Lynde Court Twelfth Night Costume Ball at Melchior’s mansion, Dora and her first sexual partner again have intercourse. After they finish, Dora notes that she and her lover “weren’t the only ones who’d succumbed to nature” during the disaster (103). Many of the cast members have sex during the fire as well. She asserts “there was an orgiastic aspect to this night of disaster” (103). By using the phrase “succumb to nature,” Dora again emphasizes her view of sex as natural. Secondly, by having all of the characters engage in sex, Carter is pointing out the fact that sexual desires is a universal experience; everyone commits sexual acts, and an act cannot be perverse if it is the norm. Just as Carter uses the sexuality of a variety of characters to counter Freud’s idea of sexuality as perverse, she focuses specifically on Dora Chance’s sexual encounters to counter Freud’s analysis of Dora’s sexuality. Carter provides a parallel character for Freud’s Herr K in the character of Peregrine, Dora Chance’s uncle. It is evident that Carter intends Peregrine as Herr K’s parallel for several reasons. Firstly, Peregrine and Dora interact frequently, just as Herr K is often with Freud’s Dora. Secondly, Peregrine serves as the older male character who is related (albeit through family rather than friendship) to Dora’s father. Thirdly, Peregrine treats Dora much as Herr K treats Freud’s Dora. Freud writes that Herr K often gave Dora elaborate gifts (52), and Peregrine lavishes presents ranging from expensive toys and food to kittens on Dora throughout her life (226). Finally, Dora is attracted to Peregrine sexually, just as Freud assumes that Dora is attracted to Herr K. On multiple occasions, Dora Chance notes her attraction towards her uncle. Dora recalls her first encounter with Peregrine, “Ooh, wasn’t he a handsome young man, in those days. If I find myself describing him in the language of the pulp romance, then you must forgive me – there was always that quality about Perry” (30). In this quotation, Dora shows her excitement over his attractiveness despite the fact that she is his niece in the same way that Freud assumes that Dora is attracted physically to Herr K despite his status as an older family friend.Once the reader sees that Carter intentionally set up the attraction between Dora Chance and Peregrine to mimic the attraction between Freud’s Dora and Herr K, one can easily see how Carter uses the relationship to once again apply elements of Freud’s case to rebut his argument that sex is a perversion. In Freud’s Dora, Herr K propositions Dora sexually (19). Freud assumes Herr K’s sexual proposition of Dora was the sexual trauma that caused Dora’s hysteria, which he indicates throughout the text. Freud writes, “Dora told me of an earlier of an earlier episode with Herr K., which was…calculated to act as a sexual trauma” (21). This encounter includes a kiss from Herr K, though he also propositions her sexually in the first instance (19). Freud asserts that these are the traumatic events that led to her hysteria. Though at times he asserts that Dora feels attraction for Herr K, even fantasizes about giving him oral sex, he still labels these events as traumatic and therefore negative. Once again Freud portrays the young girl’s sexual experiences as negative, despite the girl’s attraction to the man. To counter Freud’s assertions, Carter creates a positive sexual relationship between Dora Chance and her Herr K figure, Peregrine. Firstly, Dora continually describes Peregrine as a father figure in one instance and as an object of attraction in another. Throughout most of the text she keeps such descriptions separate. However, she combines those descriptions when she speaks of Peregrine as a father figure and also as an object of desire at her father’s birthday party: “[he] truly loved us…he saw the girls we always would be under the scrawny, wizened carapace that time had forced on us for…he was also faithful, and, where he loved, he never altered, nor saw any alteration” (208). This portion of the quotation shows his fatherly love. Dora, however, goes on to question her own feelings for him: “And then I wondered…was his fleshly envelope…outside the circle of my desire?” (208). In the same line of thought she thinks of him as both a provider of unquestionable fatherly love and also as an object of desire. When she catches herself doing this, she stops her thoughts for fear. She says, “I stopped thinking in that direction toot sweet” (208). This indicates Carter’s acknowledgement that many – including Freud – would see this attraction as perversion. However, Carter shows Dora transcending this negative view of her feelings by actually engaging in sexual activity with Peregrine at the close of the story. Additionally, after her sexual encounter with Peregrine, the two slip back into the roles of paternal figure and daughter. Peregrine states, “I’m not your father, Dora. I spent seventy-odd years regretting it, my precious, but mighty glad I am of it, this minute” (222). His statement exemplifies how easily the two move from a paternal relationship to a sexual relationship without thinking of it in a negative or perverse manner. Rather than a perversion, Dora Chance’s sexual encounter with Peregrine serves as a positive sexual experience. After the two make love, Dora tells Peregrine, “I love you more than ever I loved any young kid” (220). Her love for Peregrine is true, and not a source of trauma. Dora tells the reader that her night with Peregrine is the culmination of her sexual life. She explains, “Peregrine wasn’t the only the one dear man, tonight, but a kaleidoscope of faces, gestures, caresses. He was not the love of my life but all the loves of my life at once, the curtain call of my career as lover” (221). This quote shows her attraction to him as a positive end to her sexual life rather than the traumatic beginning to years of sexual perversion. Carter repeatedly draws similarities between the life of Dora Chance and Freud’s Dora in Wise Children, using her parallel story to negate Freud’s view of sexual activity as perversion. By creating parallel characters such as Grandma Chance and Peregrine, Cater recreates Dora’s story with a positive and healthy outlook on sex. Carter effectively negates Freud’s view of sex by creating a novel where characters experience sexual desire and activity in an enjoyable, positive, and comedic manner.

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