A-level English/Wise Children/Themes

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High and Low Culture[edit]

The book shows the meeting of high and low culture. Dora and Nora represent low culture, they do not perform film, it is a flop and is shown in fleapits.

The meeting of high and low culture can be seen in the way that a PhD student attempts to contact Dora and Nora to interview them about their appearance in the film version of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. The Hazard Dynasty, which performed Shakespeare, is now forced to appear on the game show 'Lashings of Lolly'.

While the Hazards live in luxury, Dora and Nora live in a terraced house in Brixton.

The novel shows the decline of high culture. Shakespeare and music halls to the mass media (Lashings of Lolly).

Gorgeous George is used to represent the decline of the British Empire. He once sang "Rose of England, breathing England’s air, Flower of majesty beyond compare…". He has a map of the British Empire on his body but after the war he is forced to play Bottom in 'The Dream'. He is eventually seen on the streets where Dora gives him money. Dora's phrase "Lo how the mighty have fallen" could equally apply to British imperialism (The practice of one country extending its control over the territory, political system, or economic life of another country). It is known that Angela Carter became interested in the relationship between imperialism and British identity.[1]

High culture such as Shakespeare is reduced to low culture by lines such as "2b or not 2b"

Carter could be seen as doing this so as to universalize Shakespeare for the masses (something that Ranulph once tried to do). Shakespeare has come to personify the epitome of "high culture," which is not necessarily true (after all, his plays often featured bawdy humor and more bumbling, even slapstick characters so as to appeal not only to the educated with references to ancient literature but also to the general public). By doing this, Carter blurs the lines between high and low culture and tries to bring Shakespeare back to his roots. She therefore goes against traditional views and the established norm, a theme which runs through the novel.

Legitimacy and Illegitimacy[edit]

  • The word Hazard is an archaic word for Chance showing how the two families are connected.
  • Gorgeous George presents a theme of the novel illegitimacy with his joke which ends in the punch line "'E's not your father!" this line reverberates throughout the novel. Specifically, to Saskia and Imogen about Melchior at his 100th birthday party.
  • Not only are Dora and Nora illegitimate but they performed in the "lower-class" music halls rather than "upper-class" Shakespeare. This is pointed out on the first page, they come from the "bastard side of old father Thames". Also, Melchior's place at Eaton Square is on the other side of the river; the legitimate side.
  • There is irony in the fact that Saskia and Imogen ridicule Dora and Nora, as they are in fact illegitimate themselves. However, Dora and Nora are jealous of the two throughout the novel as they are accepted by Melchior.
  • There are also question marks over Melchior and Perry's parentage. Perry even questions whether Pretty Kitty is the mother of Dora and Nora.
  • The novel itself celebrates romantic illegitimacy - being born on the "wrong side of the tracks".

Patriarchy[edit]

Social organization that structures the dominance of men over women.


Melchior embodies patriarchal society, however Peregrine ridicules him by making him jump for his crown and by producing a macaw from his clothes during 'The Dream'.

"old father Thames" - from the beginning of the novel, Carter introduces the theme of a male-dominated society.

However, Carter adopts what can be seen as a rather balanced perspective. On the one hand she criticizes fatherhood ("a moving feast," dealing with absent fathers) and the traditional male-dominated society, yet on the other hand motherhood is brought into question. Indeed, Carter allows the reader to even sympathize with the shallow Melchior in that he in turn has had problems with his own absent father (this is also a counter-argument to the question as to whether Carter is sexist).

Additionally, in Chapter 5, Carter almost again makes the reader pity Melchior in that he may not be that terrible a father in actual fact, it was just impossible for him to live up to the expectations of his daughters. Once again, the argument is balanced.

Nature vs. Nurture[edit]

  • "Triumph of Nature over Nurture Ducky"
  • Melchior raises Saskia and Imogen and they turn out like brats!

Perry and Grandma Chance raise Dora and Nora and they are the opposite of Saskia and Imogen

Just about every male in the novel is represented poorly! Even your opinion of Perry is challenged after the incestuous end to the novel.

Identity[edit]

Identity is another theme in 'Wise Children'

  • Grandma chance is described as “inventing herself” and inventing the family. The way in which Dora's family has been invented can be seen in the way that Wheelchair replaced Grandma Chance.
  • I was…not the Dora he’d fallen for (Piano Man) – Nora and Dora swap places.
  • ‘We were a pretty girl!’ – Dora and Nora’s identity is almost one, Dora seems to revel in the duality between her and her sister and the recognition it gives them
  • "We were bereft…of a good deal of ourselves, too – Dora feels that she has lost part of herself after Grandma Chance’s death.
  • “A wonder of the plastic surgeon’s art” – Genghis Khan’s first wife changed her appearance to look like Dora.
  • Dora and Nora's first performance is Babes In The Wood, a play of "two children abandoned in a wood". Their situation is much like Dora and Nora's, abandoned by their father, left to survive without the aid of a male role model. (R.O)