Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


College of Humanities and Social Sciences



Thesis Sponsor/Dissertation Chair/Project Chair

Jonathan Greenberg

Committee Member

Brian Cliff

Committee Member

Janet Cutler


Angela Carter and Jeanette Winterson’s novels contain magical moments in which reality is questioned and a reader suspends disbelief in the fantastic. While we know that a living heart cannot be kept in ajar and a woman cannot be born with wings, we are meant to accept these moments as possible. The use of fantastical elements in The Passion, Sexing the Cherry and Nights at the Circus supports Winterson and Carter’s unique portrayals of gender. The blending of fantasy and reality allows for the exploration of non-traditional gender roles because as these authors rewrite genre they are also rethinking gender.

In this thesis, I look at how these novels explore and challenge our expectations regarding gender roles for women, both individually and within relationships. After discussing Judith Butler’s gender theory, I explore how there is an agreed societal awareness concerning certain roles that women are supposed to fulfill and what happens when these beliefs are destabilized. Women have typically been separated into the binary of whore or virgin, sometimes with the third option of mother. While Winterson and Carter present the binary of virgin/whore, they also break it down. Fevvers is referred to paradoxically as “the Virgin Whore” and though both Villanelle and the Dog Woman work as or with prostitutes, they are much more complex than simply fitting into that label. These authors, therefore, intentionally create characters that do not always fulfill their traditionally expected roles, never mind stay within the bounds of their presumed gender. There are multiple examples of crossdressing, androgyny, and a blurring of masculine and feminine characteristics.

Winterson and Carter write within the genre of magical realism. A realist novel is more suitable for a portrayal of gender that follows strict societal codes, while a novel that has its foot both in realism and fantasy is able to better explore unconventional alternatives. A realistic narrative would likely not be able to express their provocative ideas. In a way, freedom from gender constraints implies a sense of the fantastic. Breaking from the norms of sexuality is similar to breaking free of the norms of texuality. In these novels, gender is presented as fluid and as a way for a character to begin to explore his/her identity. Relationships, both conventional and unconventional, both familial and romantic, are also ways that the characters explore their identity. Winterson and Carter promote a belief in multiple conceptions of self and these postmodern, feminist texts explore how characters can discover aspects of themselves through a blurring of gender.

These novels also use other texts as jumping off points for their personal rewriting of gender roles. Winterson gives voices to the princesses of Grimm’s “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” and to those who followed historically recognized figures like Napoleon. Carter often references Shakespeare and throughout all three of these works there are many mythological and Biblical references. These are not just allusions but also a way for these female authors to reclaim traditionally masculine writings as their own, as a part of their history as well, and to mold them accordingly.

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