“She became absorbed in the contemplation of the figure in the mirror but she did not seem to me to apprehend the person in the mirror as, in any degree, herself. The reflected Leilah had a concrete form and, although this form was perfectly tangible, we all knew, all three of us in the room, it was another Leilah. Leilah invoked this formal other with a gravity and ritual that recalled witchcraft; she brought into being a Leilah who lived only in the not-world of the mirror and then became her own reflection.”
Evelyn, p. 24
Angela Carter’s novel the Passion of New Eve might be my favorite novel of recent history. As a transgender woman, my quest for materials that subvert the binary paradigm often drag me, sometimes reluctantly, to books that serve many functions in illustrating the absurd or grotesque. Notions of identity, sex vs gender, social constructions and visual reality are a main focus of my consumption habits, and Carter often brings all to the table with quaint place settings and inedible delicacies, hard to swallow, bitter and possibly immoral to consume. In this world her words live as markers of the new thought on feminist discourse, as well as some of the most controversial. The main character Evelyn is presented as a male in the first turn of the story; overtaken by the images of feminine “power” on the silver screen. But is this the power of women over their own symbols that gives him such a thrill, or is the representations of the emasculated other that fuel his interest with such ferocity?
Duality, or the hint that femininity has a duality, a ritual that is undertaken to transform the blank canvas into the presentation of woman is given a lot of consideration in Eve; Carter gives us a lot of room to assume she is playing with concepts such as the social construction of women, and the male perception and objectification of women. As Evelyn objectifies, rapes, and abandons Leilah what he is really watching is the life he will lead as a woman- her identity taken and prescribed by social conditioning and psychology, her body literally created from the blueprints of a science team to be the perfect “Playboy” model type that he himself would find perfect, and her journey into womanhood reflecting the path of all women both born and self-created. As a trans woman I feel rejection and control from the men I find around me, and I feel the pull to conform and be the vision of womanhood the world expects. This is also an example later in the book where we meet Tristessa, famed silver screen ingénue, at long last, and find her house a maze of glass and mirrored surfaces. The revelation that she was born a man reinforces that womanhood is to be viewed, or to be showcased for male dominance. And the patterns of rape and forced motherhood are all aspects of the average woman’s common journey into heterosexual spaces where coercion is so socially accepted and taught to young men. I believe that this is even reflected in the army troop of young boys Eve encounters, who seem to murder Tristessa via false chivalry, but then beat and torture and kidnap the woman regardless how much the leader needs late night cuddles. This moment early on with Leilah also foreshadows the second coming with Lilith later on, reflected in a pool of water and now catering to Eve as if she were her mother figure.
My question is in regard to the notion of the image: is Carter saying that women have an ascribed image that is immutable? Or is she trying to take us to a place where we can consider the power women have to reinvent themselves as well? Eve was made a woman, but Leilah made herself into another being, an “other” in the room with them.
“At night, dreaming, I go back again to Tristessa’s house, that echoing mansion, that hall of mirrors in which my whole life was lived…”
Eve, p. 187
Are reflections traps? Or gateways into another self?
Angela Carter’s use of rape also hits nerves within the trans community, which suffers feminization at the hands of toxic masculinity, many of us sexually assaulted even as we are called disgusting and vile. As Evelyn was a rapist and misogynist in his male life, Eve became subject to the exact same male vengeance against her in her role as a woman. She escapes the mad world of Mother, a self-made god who wants to implant the semen of Evelyn into the New Womb of Eve to foster the first born of a new age, only to be kidnapped by a madman who rapes her minute one, and forces them into a manhunt for Tristessa, whom is accused of stealing his virility directly from his seat in the movie theatre. As she escapes that madness with her famed Tristessa, revealed as a man all along, she is kidnapped and forced into a sick role of mother to a group of teenage boys who murder her role model and mirror of self, leaving her to face the uncertain future alone. These are all the stages of life and oppression that hold most women down, only abbreviated into the journey of a deviant man turned woman. To deconstruct the notions of gender roles Carter has given us this journey in the form of a series of male characters that suffer feminine ends via their presentations, insisting that the reflection of the socially constructed woman is what is under attack. Carter seems to insist that biological elements are not the sole nature of oppression, and that any biological sex can be seen as a woman and made to suffer.