Sunday, April 17, 2011

Structural Analysis of Desiderio's Swan Dream

“Presently I saw the object of my vigil. A creature was approaching over the water but it did not assuage my loneliness for though I could see it was alive, it did not seem to be alive in the same sense that I was alive and I shuddered with dead…The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown; I was afraid.
As it drew near, I saw it was a swan. It was a black swan. I cannot tell you how ugly it was; nor yet how marvelous it was. Its vapid eyes were too close together on its head and expressed a kind of mindless evil that was quite without glamour, though evil is usually attractive, because evil is defiant. Its elongated neck had none of the grace traditionally ascribed to the necks of swans but lolled foolishly, now this way, now that, like a length of hose. And the beak, which was the clear, pinkish scarlet of scentless roses, striped with a single band of white, was flat, broad and spatulate, fit only for grubbing worms from mud. It swam remorselessly and terribly towards me but, when only a few yards of shifting water lay between us, it paused to unfurl its enormous wings as if it were opening a heraldic umbrella.”

Carter, Angela. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. New York: Publisher, 1994. Print

The above paragraphs are excerpted from Angela Carter’s “The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman” by Angela Carter. In these two paragraphs, Desiderio, the main character, is asleep and experiencing a dream where he is alone on an island and being approached by a swan. The depiction of the swan invites a structural analysis: it is quite unusual for an animal normally associated with grace and beauty to be connected with evil and ugliness. She subverts the typical image of the swan through these connections; whereas the typical response to a swan might be awe, Desiderio experiences a mixture of both awe and fear—an interesting combination. One way to understand the poem is to do a diachronic analysis; Carter seems to be drawing upon Yeats’ poem “Leda and the Swan,”—a poem where the swan is a rapist. Similar language is deployed by Carter to describe the swan, yet with a couple important differences. Since the presence of rape and fear of rape in Carter’s story is so strong, and since the reader later finds out that the swan is female, Carter subverts Yeats’ gender roles by making the female a rapist—and the male experiences the rape. It seems Carter uses this change to make the swan an icon of the epitome of sexual deviancy—the swan is a female source of unbridled, rapacious sexual energy—something quite unwelcome in a heteronormative society.


  1. This argument makes sense in terms of the idea of the swan in a way raping Desiderio. Despite her unusual appearance, she is able to force her way into Desiderio's mind, in a way forcing him to continuously think about Albertina. In much the same way that, in the poem "Leda and the Swan", the rape altered the destiny of the world, the mental rape of Desiderio by the swan altered the future of the world in the novel. The dream of the swan caused Desiderio to fall in love with Albertina, in addition to the meeting with the ambassador and the dream of the glass woman. If Desiderio had not fallen in love with Albertina, there is decent chance that the war would have been won by Dr. Hoffman. Albertina and Dr. Hoffman would never have brought Desiderio to their base if Desiderio was not in love with Albertina. In that case, it is quite possible that Desiderio would never have found the base and might have died in the process.

  2. I'm going to be a post-structuralist here and consider your comparison between this passage and "Leda and the Swan." These similarities only exist because you have taken English 397 at Wabash college and have therefore read "Leda and the Swan" alongside Infernal Desire Machines. Your analysis comes from your own personal education. Other readers, who did not read the poem, would not identify this scene intertextually. We cannot know if Carter ever read "Leda and the Swan," nor does it necessarily matter. The comparison only exists to you because you, Wyatt Lewis, have read both.