Read the first 15 lines of the ‘Wise Children’

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Carter has condensed a number of reoccurring themes and viewpoints into the first 15 lines of the novel. Indeed, the first two lines of this extract introduces the reader to the central theme of duality with Carter using the symbol of the city as a starting point.

”Why is London like Budapest?

Because it is two cities divided by a river.”

Although the significance of this statement is not entirely clear from the beginning pages, after reading the novel as a whole it is apparent that the issue of duality is a central theme. We are presented with various sets of twins, each with their own personalities, comedy compared to tragedy, illegitimacy compared to the ‘conventional’ family, England compared to America, the Chances compared to the Hazards. Although it is a short extract and therefore couldn’t possibly introduce all the characters or go into her point of view in detail, it undoubtedly establishes Dora’s situation and her unusual outlook on life

Arguably the most important phrase in this section is ”welcome to the wrong side of the tracks” as this applies to most of the issues Dora deals with throughout the novel. Of course there is the idea that she is an illegitimate child and therefore doesn’t feel that she entirely fits in. This is illustrated when she first meets Melchior, using her outward appearance as a symbol of how she felt:

‘One of my suspenders had come undone, my left stocking at half-mast”

This portrayal is contrasted with the description of Melchior: the ‘glossy’ photos of their father, ‘togged’ up in a kilt. This language contrast further emphasises the idea she feels she will never be considered as prestigious as her father:

‘We didn’t know then, how the hazards would always upstage us.”

Indeed, it is not only Melchior that the Chances feel ‘upstaged by.’ Saskia and Imogen, their half sisters are also presented as living on ”the right side of the tracks.” Undoubtedly, they appear to have a much more affluent start the life than the Chances with their portraits being published in sketch magazine:

‘For it was May they were born, the same day as the first of ‘Our Cyns’ five.’

By juxtaposing a Chance birth with a Hazard birth, Carter is illustrating the differences in class. Presumably, ‘Our Cyns’ eldest’s birth wasn’t as publicly celebrated as Saskia and Imogen’s. By making these various connections between the Hazard and the Chance family, Cater seems to be questioning how important image is. Although the Hazard are viewed as the ”Royal Family of theatre” in reality they are dysfunctional and in many respects, unhappy. For example, Melchior never really got to know his biological daughters and the daughters he thought were his, are in fact, his brother’s. The incestuous affair between Saskia and Tristram, ”the single, most unmentionable secret” seems to represent the true decline of the Hazard family. Indeed, Nora uses the rather sneering and disgusting language:

‘Like a dog, returning to it’s own vomit.”

Dora comments that you could make a ”crude distinction” between the North and south of London, which clearly also applies to the Hazard and the Chance family. This leads on to the issue of what the two families begin to represent as the novel progresses. Although both are theatrical families, who have great respect for Shakespeare, they seem to symbolise the ‘duality’ in Shakespeare’s writing: the Chances signifying Shakespeare’s comic plays whereas the Hazards, particularly characters such as Ranolf and Melchior, appear to represent the more tragic, serious plays. Through Doras’s eyes, however, we are less sympathetic towards the Hazards as she mocks the way they take life very seriously. This is shown when, in Hollywood, Melchior loses his valuable Shakespearen casket, which eventually turns up after a cat has excreted in it:

‘She thought there must be some holy relic in the casket…as soon as we lifted the lid, a rank aroma wafted from he pot and filled the little improvised chapel with an unmistakable smell.”

By juxtaposing crude words such as ‘rank’ with language of religion, Dora seems to be making fun of Melchior for treating something that essentially is a piece of earth with such seemingly unnecessary respect and care. Also by not directly mentioning what caused the ”unmistakable smell”, Carter us leaving it to the reader to guess what had happened, thus involving the reader in Dora’s own experiences, increasing the sympathy for her.

The fact that the Chance sisters have ”always” lived on the ”basted side of the Old Father Themes” suggests that the Chance and the Hazard family are essentially incompatible. In a way, this also becomes a symbol of the incompatibly of America and Britain, which is also a prominent theme in the novel. When describing America, Dora uses language of admiration, which is reminiscent of the language used when describing Melchior:

All the high towers…parting in front of us…we though anything could happen.”

”My father, my gloriously handsome father, my gifted, sensationally applauded genius of a father.”

Of course, in reality, neither Melchior nor America promises the excitement and joy they appear to offer: Dora has superficial views of both. Although in essence Dora enjoys her time in America, it is clearly not where she feels comfortable:

‘And there they were…snake handlers and hedgehog handlers ad lib at hand to keep them happy.’

The alliteration used in this sentence creates a rhythm which further illustrates fact that, for her, America is not a natural and free-flowing place: just like her language everything is controlled and predictable. Of course, Melchior’s rejection slows he is not the father that Dora projected of him. The fact that in these opening lines, Dora lives on the ”basted” side of the’Old Fater themes” shows that she has never really forgiven her father for publicly refusing them.

Not only are we introduced to the dualities in Dora’s life through these opening lines but also the dualities in her own personality. Her language style changes, from using common slang such as ‘basted” to seemingly well educated phrases: ”the rich lived amongst pleasant verdure.” Indeed, this language style continues throughout the novel. She seems to use different ways of speaking to represent different elements of herself, often using slang to communicate events that should be taken seriously and more sophisticated language to express immature subjects. For example, when first meeting her father, which undoubtedly was a prominent moment in her life, she goes into unnecessary detail of how she ”did piss myself a little bit…hardly enough the satin the sofa.”

This comic phrase shows Dora’s optimistic outlook on life, reinforcing her motto ”what a joy it is to dance and sing!”

In contrast, when describing childish, mindless events, more mature language has been used, which in a sense highlights the humorous elements of her life:

”The macaw, high on strut, abruptly extruded a greenish, semi-liquid substance that gathered sufficient impetus as it sped downwards.”

In another way, by giving Dora the different styles of language Carter is illustrating the fact that we should not judge things on how they appear. Although it would be easy to judge Dora as an uneducated showgirl, it is evident that she is capable of expressing herself in a much more ‘adult’ way as well. This idea is also linked to the theme of ‘appearance and reality” which occurs in many of Shakespeare plays. Dora’s description of London uses very long sentences, meaning the reader has to read it quickly, showing that she is quite an opinionated person who isn’t afraid to ”tell it like it is.” Indeed, this aspect of the personality is shown at the end of the novel, at Melchior’s party:

I couldn’t resist, I came out with it:

Don’t worry darlin’, ‘e’s not your father!’

Ultimately, ‘wise Children’ is a very unusual novel in terms of the way Dora speaks directly to the reader and the issues and themes it deals with. It may thereore take the reader some time to feel at ease with Dora’s erratic story-telling but by introducing the central theme of duality and her changeable language style, Carter is ensuring that the reader has a good idea, from reading the first pages of the novel, what to expect as the story progresses.

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