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Bakhtins Theory Of The Carnival English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 4302 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The carnival, according to Bakhtin’s theory, is ‘an element of popular history that has become textualised’. [1] In Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics he describes how the historical carnival developed a language of symbols that express the ‘carnival attitude which penetrates all of its forms’ and can then be transposed ‘into the language of artistic images (i.e. the language of literature)… We call [this] transposition of carnival… the carnivalisation of literature’. [2] In the introduction of Rabelais and His World, after describing the ‘carnival experience’ and the significance of the carnival to the lives of the medieval people, Bakhtin goes on to explore through the works of Rabelais how its forms and symbols can be used textually with the same intentions and effects as the carnival itself. [3] Historical carnivals live on in literary texts, and according to Vice a text can be carnival with regards to both its subject and its means of representation. Probably the best example of this is Bakhtin’s Rabelais itself, as it is both ‘about the subversive openness of the Rabelaisian novel, but it is also a subversively open book itself’ (his emphasis). [4] It concerns itself with the subject of carnival, its themes and images and how these are represented in literary works, and through this it subverts and challenges authority, itself becoming carnivalised. By speaking against or subverting authority, providing parodies of official life, and liberating competing voices or discourses, a text can be carnivalesque, and therefore the carnival is a literary principle that can be used and recognised across a diversity of periods and genres.

Golden’s novel Memoirs of a Geisha contains many of the artistic images that express the carnival attitude. The narrator and protagonist Sayuri (then Chiyo) describes to the reader the first teahouse that she encounters, into which she spies with Kuniko:

I heard the sounds of laughter and talking, and someone singing to the accompaniment of a shamisen… An old man… was telling a story about holding a ladder for a young woman and peering up her robe; everyone was laughing except Mr. Tanaka… an older woman in a kimono came with a glass for him, which he held while she poured beer.


There are several carnival elements in this introduction to the geisha culture. The laughter and drinking are of central importance, and bring to mind the images of merriment and feasting that Bakhtin describes. Laughter opposes official seriousness and has regenerative potential when directed towards official figures of authority, and drinking is linked to the grotesque material bodily functions. The story being told is also significant, because it brings together the two opposites of a young woman and an old man. It is a two-in-one image of ‘youth and age, top and bottom, face and backside… Paired images, chosen for contrast… are characteristic of the carnival mode of thinking’ (Problems: pp. 103-104). Reversal is involved, as the woman is raised up to a higher level above the man, while it is likely that she would have been considered to be in a lower position in that society. The fact that he is peering up her robe again brings in the element of the grotesque body with its focus on the lower bodily stratum and orifices, which will be dealt with in more detail later in the essay.

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Two rituals featuring prominently in Memoirs of a Geisha are dressing and clothing and the presenting of gifts. There are elaborate descriptions of the clothing worn and of the complicated dressing and makeup procedure undergone for the woman to ‘become’ a geisha. This is related to a secondary ritual of carnival briefly mentioned by Bakhtin in Problems which he calls disguise ‘i.e. the carnivalistic changing of clothing, positions and destinies in life’ (p. 103). As well as changing her clothes Sayuri is constantly trying to direct her future and her destiny, starting by changing her position in life from that of a maid to a geisha. The presenting of gifts is another secondary carnival ritual and a key theme in the novel. The men frequently give geisha expensive and extravagant gifts, which are symbols of the popularity and success of geisha and of the wealth and success of the men.

As well as the prevalence of carnival images, the life in Golden’s novel can be described as a carnival life. Bakhtin describes this as ‘the peoples second life, organized on the basis of laughter’ that was ‘vividly felt as an escape from the usual official way of life’ (Rabelais; pp. 7-8). This double existence is apparent in Memoirs of a Geisha. The teahouses, parties, and the company of the geisha provides a kind of carnival escape from the ordinary, official, business and family lives of the men in the novel. This role is revealed in a conversation between Mother and Mameha:

“You’d think that with this terrible Depression, customers would have slowed to a trickle, but really I’ve never been so busy…”

“They need their fun more than ever now,” Mother said

(p. 149)

They play the important role of providing a carnival escape from the worries and anxieties of real life. Geisha means ‘artist’, and their purpose was essentially to entertain, which they did through conversation, jokes, song and dance. These can all be described as carnivalistic, as they all contribute to and aim to achieve the crucial carnival element of laughter, which builds the second life opposed to officialdom, is universal, and has the potential for change and renewal. Also fundamental to carnival is the levelling or suspension of hierarchical inequality; the ‘free, familiar contact among people’ and the abolition of distance (Problems; p. 101). Linked to this is the uniting of opposites and the combination of ‘the sacred with the profane, the lofty with the lowly, the great with the insignificant, the wise with the stupid, etc.’ (Problems; p. 101). There is a recurring joining of opposites in Memoirs of a Geisha and a definite levelling aspect to the geisha culture. It enables ugly and old men to receive attention from young, beautiful women, and creates ‘a special form of free and familiar contact… among people who were usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, profession and age’ (Rabelais; p.10). Sayuri is a poor orphan from a fishing village, who under other circumstances would not be allowed to mingle with the high class businessmen she entertains, and she is aware of this:

I wondered what he [her father] would think if he could see me kneeling here in Mameha’s apartment, wearing a robe more expensive than anything he’d ever laid eyes on, with a baron across from me and one of the most famous geisha in all of Japan at my side.

(pp. 212-213)

However, the existence of these carnival images in Memoirs of a Geisha does not necessarily mean that they perform the same function that Bakhtin describes, and I would argue that they indicate something quite different.

Although for the men the teahouses and the geisha are used as an escape from and resistance to official culture, to which the carnival images contribute, for the geisha the carnival seems to be constraining. Their world ‘is one governed in all ways by a rigidly structured order. Every person has a proper place in this hierarchy; every action must conform to firmly established laws of propriety’. [6] While some hierarchical relations are leveled, as mentioned earlier, they are not completely done away with. Although Sayuri is a poor orphan from a small town, allowed to interact with those normally considered to be above her, she must hide her background from them and create the illusion that she was born into the geisha culture:

I’m a fisherman’s daughter from a little town called Yoroido… I’ve never told more than a handful of people anything at all about Yoroido, or about the house in which I grew up, or about my mother and father… Most people would much rather carry on with their fantasies that my mother and grandmother were geisha, and that I began my training in dance when I was weaned from the breast, and so on.

(p. 1)

In some ways, hierarchies are even more strongly enforced. An indication of this is the replacement of the carnival space of the marketplace in Rabelais with the private and interior spaces of the teahouses in Memoirs. According to Bakhtin, the importance of the marketplace lies with its openness, which enables familiar contact and represents the universality of the people. The teahouses, on the other hand, create exclusive spaces that one must be popular, successful or wealthy enough to go to. They do in some senses ‘take on the additional significance of the carnival square’ as they are a ‘scene of meetings and contacts of diverse people’, and on occasion they do extend out onto the streets and public spaces, but for the most part they separate and discriminate (Problems: p. 106).

The geisha can be likened to the clowns and fools in medieval carnival, as they fulfil the same function that Bakhtin describes of ‘constant, accredited representatives of the carnival spirit in everyday life out of carnival season’, they ‘remained fools and clowns always and wherever they made their appearance. As such they represented a certain form of life’ (Rabelais: p.8). Similarly, the geisha must always dress and behave as geisha, even when they are not entertaining. Memoirs provides us with an insight into this border-zone occupied by both the clowns and the geisha. Bakhtin also said that ‘[w]hile carnival lasts, there is no other life outside it. During carnival time life is subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom’ (Rabelais: p. 7). If the geisha, like the clowns, are always living in and representative of the carnival life, then they must always be subject to these laws and this prompts us to ask what these ‘laws of freedom’ mean when they govern ones whole life. This reveals the paradoxical nature of this statement, as for the geisha the so-called ‘laws of freedom’ cannot be liberating. Memoirs of a Geisha provides a kind of behind-the-scenes view of the carnival showing us the lives of those who provide and contribute to it, and how those elements which provide such liberation for the men are in fact constraining for the geisha. In the geisha’s efforts to provide a carnivalistic world for the men they entertain, they are unable to do anything for themselves or make their own choices. It creates a hierarchy and undermines the universality that should go hand in hand with carnival. It therefore offers us a different perspective of the carnival, inviting us to consider it in a different way.

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To a certain extent the geisha are liberated, and Sayuri is one example of this, as by becoming a geisha she is freed from the subjugation and oppression she was subjected to as a maid. She also explains to the reader that ‘we geisha are so well pampered by our maids that we scarcely know how to look after ourselves’ (p. 160). They are released from mundane tasks, and although she still does not have complete freedom, Sayuri gains Mother’s protection from Hatsumomo so that she is no longer subject to her tyranny. However, despite the fact that they do have some separation from the seriousness of official life, which is most clearly seen when contrasted to Sayuri’s life as a worker during the war period when the geisha districts are closed down, the laws and constrictions they are liberated from are merely replaced by another set of regulations. The geisha are released from some aspects of real life, but on the other hand, they must always follow certain rules of conduct, as ‘a girl who has mastered the various arts will still come off badly at a party if she hasn’t learnt the proper comportment and behavior’, and ‘even when a girl is only scurrying down the hall toward the toilet’ she is expected to have the correct bearing (Golden: p. 160).

The elements of the carnival that Bakhtin describes as liberating and subversive instead can even be seen to function as means of control. For example, although eating and drinking are a key part of both carnival and the geisha culture, the geisha themselves are not always allowed to eat the food unless asked to do so by the men:

A moment later the door slid open and three maids came into the room carrying dinner for the men. I was a bit hungry and had to avert my eyes… Nobu must have noticed how hungry I looked for he insisted I taste it.

(p. 426).

Often, whether or not they drink is also determined by the men they entertain:

I made another scotch and water for Nobu, and he made one for me. It was the last thing I wanted; already the room seemed cloudy. But Nobu raised his glass, and I had no choice but to drink with him.

(p. 443)

Drinking with regards to tea is even made into a ceremony, where they ‘prepare tea in a very traditional manner’ and ‘even the guests… must hold the cup in certain manner and drink from it just so’ (Golden: p. 160). The bodily functions that are universal and meant to equalize are instead ritualized and become something distinctive and alienating.

In Memoirs of a Geisha, like in Rabelais, the material bodily principle plays a predominant role, as there is a focus on eating, drinking and the sexual aspects of the body. Grotesque realism is an important method through which hierarchies are suspended and ‘free and familiar contact’ is enabled and, according to Bakhtin, focus on the grotesque aspects of the body is supposed to draw attention to its universal nature and the collective body of the people, rather than the individual biological body. It is a celebration of equality and the circle of life, and degradation, in which the grotesque body plays a key role, is therefore a crucial element as it brings down to earth what has been raised to a high or abstract position. The Grotesque body is one that is incomplete and ‘contrary to the classic images of the finished, completed man’ (Rabelais: p.25). By emphasizing the universal human elements of the body, those parts involved in eating, drinking and sex, all people are leveled and brought together, so that ‘[t]he individual feels that he is an indissoluble part of the collectivity, a member of the people’s mass body… the people become aware of their sensual, material bodily unity and community’ (Rabelais; p.255). Therefore, in the grotesque body there is a focus on the open mouth and orifices, on eating, drinking, conversation and acts of a sexual nature.

In Memoirs of a Geisha, the geisha’s lives revolve around eating and drinking in teahouses, and the practice of selling a geisha’s virginity has a key role in the novel and in the success of both Sayuri and Mameha as geisha. In some ways this use of the grotesque body contributes to the carnival element, for example, when Sayuri sleeps with Dr. Crab. This results in the high class, wealthy, educated doctor and the low class orphaned girl being brought down to earth, to an ‘indissoluble unity’ (Rabelais: p. 20). This levels the hierarchy that existed and puts them on the same plane. However, this is still problematic, as Dr. Crab paid a large sum of money for Sayuri’s virginity, and she tells the reader that ‘I kept reminding myself how much the Doctor had paid for this privilege’ (p. 324). In the act itself, although it should be one that puts them on the same level, the character Sayuri’s awareness reminds the reader that it is the Doctor’s wealth and superior position in society that enabled him to be there. Because of the record amount of money paid by Dr. Crab Sayuri is made famous, and all her debts are paid off. It therefore establishes a hierarchy because she is raised from the level of a maid to that of a geisha, in this sense giving Sayuri power and control. But it is also something used to control her as it is arranged without her permission, and initially without her knowledge. The way the geishas are simultaneously liberated and imprisoned is once again established, and the purposes of the carnival images are again distorted, or shown in a different light. While the grotesque body should be a means of subverting established orders, here it is turned around and used to dominate and manipulate.

The ambivalent nature of the geisha’s existence caused by the way they’re positioned between carnival and official life, between liberation and restriction, is also demonstrated in the bodily descriptions of the geisha, as they incorporate both grotesque and classical elements. The first geisha described by the narrator is the one from the teahouse in Senzuru, the description of whom I mentioned earlier in the essay. The narrator draws a contrast between the geisha’s beautiful and sophisticated dress and her face, saying that ‘[h]er teeth protruded so badly that her lips didn’t quite cover them’ (p. 27). The open mouth is an important grotesque image and her teeth exceed the boundaries of her own body; they are grotesquely exaggerated. We are presented with a similar contrast when introduced to Mother. Chiyo is again initially focused on the beautiful elegance of her Kimono, and is shocked to find her ‘hideous-looking’ with sagging skin, and Mother’s mouth, that we are told later ‘was much too big for her face and hung open much of the time’, falls open ‘like a trapdoor’ (p. 41: p. 51). Even the beautiful, classical looking geisha have elements of the grotesque. They paint their faces either with white paint or with ‘western style’ makeup, making them appear smooth and completed, but attention is drawn to their mouth by painting the lips a bright red. Emphasis is also placed on the sexual encounters of Hatsumomo, Mameha and Sayuri. They are all beautiful geisha who would probably be considered ‘classical’, but this is contrasted by the attention drawn to their ‘grotesque’, sexual contacts.

This combination of the classical and the grotesque, consistent with the ambiguous nature of the majority of the carnival images, is indicative of the ambivalent status of the geisha in the novel. They represent a breaking away from rules and regulations in the carnival that they provide for the men they entertain, and this carnival role is signified by the grotesque element of their representation. However, they are subject to certain rules and etiquettes in the way they provide this carnival and are always required to present a certain image to those observing them, which is mirrored by the classical, finished looking body they must create though their clothing and makeup. The novel problematises images usually associated with the carnival and the role of those who can be described as representatives of carnival, thereby problematising carnival itself and what it stands for. Those elements that Bakhtin described as providing ‘temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order’ in Memoirs creates and conceals a different, but just as constraining, order (Rabelais: p. 10). Carnival is controlled and the features of carnival which should be used for liberation are used for imprisonment; what Bakhtin argued to be subversive and an attack on authority Golden has used to describe the assertion of authority. Golden’s use of the carnival consequently prompts the question; can there ever be true ‘carnival’? That is, is it really possible to be liberated from authority and find true equality, or will this liberation and escape for one group of people always result in another being oppressed and controlled? Although one description of the geisha parties tells us that the men ‘spent the evening dancing and singing, and drinking with the geisha’, which is a carnivalesque description, this is an account of private parties held by businessmen and aristocrats (Golden: p. 330). There remains a hierarchy, and this kind of carnival world is not available to the poorer working classes. Throughout the novel it is only those who are wealthy who are given the opportunity to participate in the carnival that is depicted, and the poverty stricken and the lower classes usually feature only as those who are oppressed by tyrannical higher class figures, such as the maids who are tyrannized by Hatsumomo, or who must struggle to make their way in a world that is dominated by those higher class figures.

But one could argue that because Golden’s writing liberates the voice of one who is oppressed, at last giving them the chance to speak out, it is still carnivalesque with regards to its means of representation, embodying the attitude of carnival even if it problematises it as subject. Memoirs can be seen as carnivalised writing because it liberates the voice of a subject kept under the control of others, first as a low, working class maid and then as a geisha, and her discourse is mobilized against authority. Bakhtin said that the form of the novel could be used to liberate different voices and opinions, and by presenting these different conflicting views it could be democratic, or polyphonic. This democracy within a text can be used to subvert an authority that attempts to control by eliminating opposing views.

However there is a voice that remains oppressed, that is not given the chance to speak, and goes largely unmentioned throughout the novel, and that is the wives of the men. We are not often reminded of the wives, but when we are, it acts as a shock and a surprise to the reader. We are reminded that the fairytale ending Sayuri is longing for is not all it seems, because her happiness may be at the cost of the wife of the chairman. For Sayuri, the Chairman represents liberty and freedom, and she dreams of having a relationship with him in which they are equals rather than her being an inferior object. She mentions another geisha called Shizue who fulfilled this dream of having a danna with whom there was mutual love and affection, even though ‘he wasn’t a wealthy man, and she wasn’t a beauty’ (Golden: p. 337). She is the envy of all the other geisha, who also dream of escaping the hierarchies in which they are confined, and ‘was considered by everyone in Gion to be the most fortunate of women’ (p. 337). It is interesting that she remains a geisha, indicating that she wishes to remain in the carnivalistic world of laughter that ‘counteracts the gloomy one-sided official seriousness which seeks to absolutize the given conditions of existence and the social order’, and she is considered so fortunate because she also has the carnival that ‘brings the world close to man and man close to his fellow man’ (Problems: p.133). It is a world without the hierarchies, and the pressures and constraints of having to always conform to the wishes of others. This is could be interpreted as an illustration within the novel that carnival, where there is equality and a recognition of universality between the participants, is possible to achieve. However, we may also assume the possibility that Shizue had to remain a geisha because her danna already had a wife, and could therefore make her no more than his mistress, as this kind of situation is a common one within the novel. This contributes to the argument that carnival cannot be achieved, because even when it is finally obtained by Sayuri, the shadow of the wife of the chairman still hovers in the background, reminding us that there is always a group of people who are oppressed and remain subject to a hierarchy.

Golden presents a carnival world from a different angle enabling us to reconsider its meaning and scope of possibility, and the way carnival images are used and presented in his novel suggests that it is problematic and unattainable. The way the wives are largely left overlooked but occasionally brought to the outskirts of the novel, allowing them to be glimpsed before moving on and once again leaving them behind, reminds and demonstrates to the reader that there is always a group that is neglected. Even though the novel itself could be described as one that is carnivalised and liberating, some voices are still smothered and kept on the margins. I would argue that this is intentional, illustrating that there can never be a situation in which all people are truly levelled, made equal and liberated.

Word count – 4277


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