A-level English/Wise Children/Plot Summary
We are introduced to Dora (the narrator) and Nora (her twin sister). It becomes clear that Dora is writing her memoirs, and that this story is based on them. We learn about their famous Shakespearean actor of a father, Melchior Hazard, and that they are his illegitimate children. Melchior has for years disregarded Dora and Nora, claiming that they are his twin brother Perry's children. We learn that Melchior slept with the chamber maid "Pretty Kitty" during the first world war. Kitty then died giving birth to Dora and Nora whilst the "zeppelins were falling". Her landlady "Grandma" Chance took the children in as her own (there is some debate as to whether she is in actual fact the mother and Kitty was just a fabrication).
We learn of Ranulph and Estella Hazard (Dora and Nora's Grandparents), and how Estella has an affair with Cassius Booth. Ranulph, ultimately, murders Cassius, Estella and then himself. Melchior and Perry then departed on their separate lives. Melchior came to England and lived with an elderly relative before running away. Perry remained a wanderer - both hold rivalries between each other.
We then get the drama of the chapter. Tristram (son of Melchior by his third marriage) arrives and tells Dora and Nora that his girlfriend, Tiffany (Dora and Nora's godchild) has gone missing after she appeared on his trashy television show "Lashings of Lolly" in a delusional state. Her delirium was due to the fact that she was pregnant with Tristram's child, but he was unwilling to commit to her. A body is later found in a river, and the police believe it to be Tiffany.
This chapter begins with Dora and Nora's seventh birthday, Grandma chance takes them to the theatre to see a "nayce musical comedy". This begins Nora and Dora's infatuation with low brow entertainment/culture. The show leaves the girls with "stars in their eyes" and they decide there and then that it will be the "damascus road" for the both of them. While at the theatre, Grandma spots Melchior, the girls biological father and points him out to the twins. The girls immediately form a crush on Melchior Hazard and thus begins their inappropriate and unconventional relationship with their father.
After the theatre, the girls return home to find a package from their uncle Perry. Inside is a present - a toy theatre that the girls learn to "treasure". The next important scene is set in Brighton, where Perry brings the girls for a family day out. This is a strange scene as it brings Perry's character into question. There is a hint that he may have had a sexual relationship with Dora ("I thought, I must have had it off with Perry"). This is a disturbing thought as not only is Dora just thirteen, but Perry is also her uncle. During the trip, the girls take a stop off at a seedy back theatre and they are introduced to Gorgeous George. Carter satirises the British public's view on empire through George, and the whole idea of low culture and bawdy humour is expressed through him (for instance, "he had a face as long as a..."). The tattoo on his chest is symbolic of the British Empire and its growth at the time (to be made ironic later on). After the show, the girls are walking with Perry when they see posters of Melchior acting in a show nearby. Their eyes swell up with tears and Perry eventually brings them into their father's dressing room. It is in this scene that the girls' fascination with Melchior becomes apparent ("i did piss myself when i saw him..."). This unexpected reaction shows how unconventional their relationship is and highlights the theme of female prevalence through the absence of father throughout the novel. Melchior completely disregards the girls and through this the girls fabricate fake memories in order to deal with the heartache of this rejection. The memory is of Peregrine lifting both girls up and performing "[a] back-flip out of the window". This is an example of magical realism that is evident throughout Carter's novel but also reminds the reader that the narrative is not all strictly true due to Dora's memory age.
The rest of the chapter is based around the girls growing up and coming of age ("We knew we were shedding our childhoods along with those ringlets, and we were pleased as punch"). Peregrine looses his money in the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the girls are forced to earn their money by dancing in the music halls. As the girls age they become interested in the facts of life, Nora especially wants to find out about all of life's "dirty little secrets". She loses her virginity to the goose from her play in an alley. The girls eventually change their physical appearances and dye their hair black. "it looked like bath night at the minstrel show". This is an example of "carnivalesque" language. On Dora and Nora's 17th birthday, Dora asks Nora for her "fella for a birthday present". This is a good example of doubles as the twins swap identities in order to share the boy. For their birthday, Melchior acknowledges the girls and gives them a "special present" which was to star in his Shakespearian play. Dora even dances with her father on this night which is odd as they have never had a proper father-daughter relationship.
This leads on to the next important aspect of chapter two, the Lynde house party for the Shakespearian play. This continues the previous idea of mistaken identities as Nora's boyfriend still mistakes Dora for Nora. He is doubling as a waiter which also adds to the theme of doubles in the chapter. The two get re-acquainted and slip upstairs to have sex for the second time while Nora flirts with an American film producer (no formal name is given but he is referred to as Genghis Khan throughout the book). Genghis Khan leaves his cigar on the table in order to dance with Nora, causing the tablecloth to catch fire. With no waiter to notice the fire, the house sets alight and everyone is forced to run outside. Dora and the boy escape from the window, naked, and continue to have sex even while the house burns down around them. This is another example of carnival, as it incorporates many of the main themes such as the celebration of the body and also chaotic situations. The idea of the pretentious upper class is satirised here also as the high cultured people in question are pictured engaging in inappropriate sexual acts.
The end of this chapter depicts Melchior mourning the loss of a paper crown (once owned by his famous father Ranulph, made by Estella his mother), "a flimsy bit of make believe" instead of all the valuables that were burnt down, however Perry saves both Nora and the paper crown from the burning wreck. It is suggested here by Carter that Perry slept with Nora on this night because was it just by chance that she was with him barely dressed? The theme of Carnivalesque is also continued here as the chaos and celebration of body parts is continued.
Chapter 3 describes the filming of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. This chapter is a very outrageous and chaotic chapter, just like the middle of a Shakespeare play. Melchior falls in love with Genghis Khan's wife, Delia Delaney aka Daisy Duck, a very flirtatious woman- whom at the beginning of the chapter was flirting with Perry. Genghis Khan is outraged by this and decides that he wants Nora to have his child but she is in love with Tony, a young Italian, and so he gets Dora to marry Genghis in her place. There is to be a triple wedding; Nora to Tony, Dora to Genghis and Melchior to Daisy Duck. This triple wedding is again an allusion to Shakespeare as in some Shakespeare plays there are prominent triple weddings. Genghis' ex-wife, who has been stalking Genghis for quite some time, turns up having had a face lift to look like Dora because she is desperate to re-marry Genghis and will do anything to please Genghis - even change her appearance and this shows she is a woman who has bowed to the patriarchal society. She marries Genghis instead of Dora, who hides at the wedding by wearing a big Donkey mask from Bottom in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Tony's mother decided that Nora is not good enough for her son and so she empties a huge vat of marinara sauce onto Nora and this marriage is called off. Although Dora does not dwell on this, later in the book we see that Nora is perhaps more upset by this than you may first imagine. The Dream ends and the girls return home with Grandma Chance who arrives to rescue them.
We are also introduced properly to Irish, another of Dora's lovers, and, perhaps the one that she values most. Irish, a writer/playwright holds much similarity to Oscar Wilde. Irish seems to value Dora more than she does him as she is also sleeping with her German teacher at this time. Irish is an alcoholic. Dora seems to use Irish for an education she has never really properly had.
Chapter 4 describes Dora and Nora alone after the death of Grandma Chance and how Grandma Chance was their "shelter and breast." This is also when Perry comes to Saskia's and Imogen's birthday baring gifts from his travels, two new types of butterflies he named after them, which the two sisters hate. Also Melchoir announces he is going to marry Saskia's friend Cordelia (a reference to King Lear, Shakespeare). The two sisters then throw a massive strop and smash plates at trees and destroy the so called party. Melchoir slaps Saskia and says he will no longer give them any pocket money. Poor old Perry is left heart broken because he has been totally rejected, and has his presents thrown back at him. This again is where Perry vanishes on one of his own quests.
It is later that night that Lady Atalanta is found at the bottom of the staircase of her home, followed by Saskia's and Imogen's sudden departure, having made their mother sign off the home and the last of her money to them. It is never told whether Lady Atalanta fell or was pushed, yet the end result is her being in a wheelchair and living with Dora and Nora in the basement room of 49 Bard Road.
Dora, Nora and the Lady Atlanta depart to their father, Melchior's, 100th birthday party. Along the way, Dora meets Gorgeous George from Chapter 2, except he's now an old homeless tramp begging for money off the rich party-goers. Dora gives him £20 (a note with the face of Shakespeare on the reverse) and tells him to spend it all on booze.
At the party, Melchior finally acknowledges them as his children, but Dora and Nora are unsure of his sincerity as there are cameras and news crews everywhere - but they take Melchior's apologies with great pleasure and they both melt into the child versions of themselves whereby they saw great admiration and love toward this mysterious man.
A few things become apparent and some characters unexpectedly arrive with extravagant, carnivalesque entrances. Daisy Duck is the first, entering with a battalion of trumpet players and Gambian dancers (with Puck). Saskia's cake is then brought in. Before Melchior can cut the cake, there is a knocking at the door. Perry arrives in a magical, mystical way - not forgetting that he is presumed dead - and is described as "larger the life" in both persona and fat ("...was as large as a warehouse..."). Perry then releases butterflies, a butterfly for every person at the party, and produces a long box. Opening it, the lovely Tiffany steps out. She too is presumed dead (from chapter one), so her appearance strikes tears. Tristram begs for Tiffany to give him a second chance, but Tiffany completely disregards him, much to Dora and Nora's pleasure.
It is then discovered that Saskia, who baked the cake, had slipped poison into it - to try and murder her father as she tried to murder Lady Atalanta. Truths are shared relating to Saskia, Melchior and Lady A (in her speech)- whose presence is exemplified by Perry.
This is when Dora and Perry run off to the master bedroom and have sex, where Dora fantasises about "bringing the house down". Dora questions him, asking if he is her father. Perry replies, no - but he believes that Dora's mother isn't who Grandma said she was... The point of incest here is toned down, and also the desperation of the pair is denied, and the entire affair is seen as an act of equal compassion. The themes of Magic Realism and Carnivalesque are continued here as how many centenarians and 75 year olds have sex?
With this done, they find the Cardboard crown and present it to Melchior (as it had been discovered that Melchior has been feeling useless in his age) and Melchior sees this as a peace offering. Perry then gives Dora and Nora two twin 'babies' (which are described as similar to kittens) from his coat pocket, stating that they belong to Gareth (Tristram's twin) who had been in South America.
For once, there is a truce between the Hazards and the Chances, representing a truce between legitimacy and illegitimacy. Dora and Nora walk back to their houses with the two babies, and break into song and dance in the middle of the street.
The novel ends with the important motif, "What a joy it is to dance and sing!"