The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

'Fairy tales, Angela Carter tells us, are not “unique one-offs,” and their narrators are neither “original” nor “godlike” nor “inspired.”'

Therefore, why did she choose to use these parables as an illusion to Melanie's life in 'The Magic Toyshop'? Carter employs a variety of classic fairy tales to portray the predicament of Melanie and her siblings. This essay will discuss Carter's use of them. 'The Magic Toyshop' is a novel concerned with an adolescent girl's transformation into a woman, and the trauma and jubilation she must travel through in order to live and appreciate life. It explores her past, present, and her resulting future.

Fairy tales were originally used to educate children (mainly girls) who were entering adolescence, about morals and the role society expected of them. Carter makes a reference to an assortment of fairy tales ranging from stories, which are still being written in their simplest forms to long neglected texts. Carter's allusion to them is ironic, as Melanie's life becomes a genuinely harsh fairy tale, at an age that girls in bygone years would have been hearing them.

There are various allusions to the fairy tale of 'Little Red Riding Hood'. The tale itself has a multitude of variations due to geographical differences and the variant of storytellers. However, in 1697, Charles Perrault brought the original story to the attention of literary readers. As is typical of Carter's novel, the fairy tale has an assortment of links with it. When Uncle Philip orders Finn to “rehearse a rape” with Melanie, he is behaving in a manner belonging to the role of Little Red Riding Hood's mother. They are both aware of the dangers present but still insist on a particular event occurring. Philip tries to portray Finn as the wolf, however, unlike Little Red Riding Hood, Finn realises his position is being abused. Philip is employing him as a puppet in his show; Finn however,  manages to restrain himself mentally and physically. As Melanie travels to her Uncle's house for the first time, she notices the shops are “brightly lighted” and wonderfully coloured. This parallels Little Red Riding Hood's distraction as she wanders the “path of needles”. Furthermore, her new home is “dimly lit” and insignificant to the skyline in comparison. While the family are trying to enter the shop the door is “stuck momentarily on a thick doormat”, which contrasts  with the ease that the Wolf enters the grandmother's house. This shows the magnitude of the task Melanie faces. In varying oral modifications of the story there is a list of the clothes that Little Red Riding Hood removes. This reveals the dissimilarity between Melanie's past and present life, and her lack of materialistic possessions.       

Another difference in Melanie, since the loss of her parents, is her feelings of love and passion. Until the move to Uncle Philip's, Melanie dreamt of a handsome prince. However, after meeting Finn her maturity allows her to see it is the beauty within that counts. This is an allusion to Madame de Beaumont's version of 'Beauty and the Beast'. Beauty States “It is neither good looks nor great wit that makes a woman happy with her husband, but character, virtue, and kindness” which mirrors Melanie's feelings for Finn. Carter's intimation of it is deliberate. She uses 'Beauty and the Beast', as it is a folk tale written to reconcile young women to the custom of arranged marriage. Although nobody forces Melanie into marriage, she becomes a prisoner in a domesticated, patriarchal society. 'The  Swan Maiden' is a Scandinavian regional version of this tale; this a direct link with Carter's 'The Magic Toyshop'.

'Snow White' is another fairy tale that Carter indicates. The fairy tale varies immensely from culture to culture. Carter uses 'Snow White' because the plot “is a reflection of a young woman's development”. It also fits in with Carter's theory of a patriarchal society. In the Grimms' tale 'Schneewittchen', the dwarfs tell Snow White “If you will keep house for us, cook, make the beds, wash, sew, knit, and keep everything neat and tidy, they you can stay with us, and we'll give you everything you need”. This reflects the way Philip controls and domesticates Melanie. Another way Carter links to this fairy tale to 'The Magic Toyshop' is by the use of mirrors. In 'The Magic Toyshop', Melanie shatters the mirror because in her reflection she sees the girl who killed her parents. Whilst in 'Snow White', the mirror represents evil, but she also envisages the image of her own mother, who died in childbirth.

Carter also mentions Charles Perrault's 'Bluebeard'. The tale challenges the usual 'happy ever after' fairy tales. Although it arouses anxiety and apprehension, its role in 18th century society was to encourage young brides that these emotions were typical. Carter's use of it shows Melanie overcoming the repulsion of Finn's “extraordinary, extravagant, almost passionate dirtiness”. This mirrors the wife's reaction to Bluebeard's nauseating deformity. In Perrault's version, his wife drops the key, to they locked room, in a pool of blood and stains it. The stain represents a double sin, one moral and one sexual. These coincide with Melanie and her original sin of trying her mother's wedding dress, and of her developing awareness of her own sexuality. Bluebeard was a gothic villain, who owned an elaborate castle, where he entertained with lavish parties. The guests had access to all the rooms bar one. This mirrors the workshop in 'The Magic Toyshop', as Philip will not allow anyone in unless he is present. Bluebeard's wife uncovered his gruesome secret. This mirrors Philip finding his wife and Francie together. When Bluebeard's wife discovers his private store, her brothers kill him and burn down the castle. As Francie appears to confront Philip, Carter describes him as emerging from behind “one of the sinister doors of Bluebeard's castle”. She also entitle it “Bluebeard's Castle”, when Finn is leading Melanie to his room to “rehearse”. When Joseph Jacobs translated the tale into English in 1890, he rewrote 'Bluebeard' as 'Mr. Fox'. In 'Mr. Fox', his fiancée manages to escape his clutches, with a severed hand and exposes him. This mirrors when Finn takes Melanie into the workshop and shows her the theatre, she anxiously thinks the puppets have a “strange  liveliness as they dangled unfinished from their hooks”, they are “hanged and dismembered”. Melanie also sees “A hand. Cut off” in the kitchen drawer. In Margaret Atwood's version of 'Bluebeard', 'Bluebeard's Egg', she has modernised it. She mentions “Edward Bear” as her pet name for her husband; Carter uses this as the name for Melanie's teddy bear. This shows Melanie's affection for the bear and the love it represents.

Writers continuously retell the fairy tale of  'Goldilocks and the Three Bears' for children in an uncomplicated and innocent manner. Carter indicates this text is parallel to the circumstances in which Melanie finds herself. This tale teaches a moral. The young girl, Goldilocks, exploits and damages items that do not belong to her. This mirrors Melanie's actions and her disregard for the importance of her mother's wedding dress. The language Carter uses, “It was too big” imitates Goldilocks when trying out a variety of bear items. Although Goldilocks is startled and frightened by the bears, she runs home having learnt her lesson, and will never take anything without permission again. Melanie, however, believes her actions brought about the demise of her parents and the forced 'exile' from her home. Carter also references the story when describing Aunt Margaret eating “Baby Bear” portions. This implies she, like Goldilocks, is feeling lost and frightened.

Carter points towards a Chinese fairy tale, 'Willow Pattern', when Melanie wishes she could run across “the little bridge on her willow pattern plate”. The tale is about two young lovers, who elope after the girl's father refuses to allow them to be together. The father follows them and eventually finds them; he kills the boy and his daughter dies when he sets fire to the house. Their spirits turned into doves to spend eternity together. Both Melanie and Finn, and Margaret and Francie, with Philip taking the role of the father, can represent the star-crossed lovers of the tale. The doves are representative of the peace and love felt by Melanie towards Finn, Francie, and Margaret, and also of her experiences with the swan, which are behind her.

Angela Carter weaves fairy tale motifs throughout 'The Magic Toyshop'. Her allusion to them allows the reader to understand and interpret Melanie's hopes and fears. The role of many central characters in fairy tales links to Melanie's life. Carter uses Uncle Philip as a representative of the gothic villain in fairy tales.


  1. One of the most interesting reviews! Thanks

  2. this was really interesting to read

  3. A brilliant review that provoked me to read the novel again. Thank you.

  4. Thanks for great review!


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