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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Heroes and Villains

Angela Carter

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To purchase Heroes and Villains

Title: Heroes and Villains
Author: Angela Carter
Genre: Novel
Written: 1969
Length: 151 pages
Availability: Heroes and Villains - US
Heroes and Villains - UK
Heroes and Villains - Canada
Heroes and Villains - India
Helden und Schurken - Deutschland
I buoni e i cattivi - Italia
Héroes y villanos - España

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Our Assessment:

B+ : strong writing, quite solid

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 13/9/1970 Richard Boston
The Times . 15/11/1969 Judith Frankel
TLS . 20/11/1969 Jane Miller

  From the Reviews:
  • "Heroes and Villains is a strange, compelling book. Though set in the future, its imagery and references are continually to the art of the past, and usually a past more remote than D. H. Lawrence. (...) All this does not suggest that Angela Carter has written one of those irritating spot-the-literary allusion works of fiction. What she has done is to take her images from a variety of sources, and assemble a fable that discusses the roles of reason and imagination in a civilized society. (...) Angela Carter tells her story with considerable skill. Her observation is sharp, and she writes extremely well. This, her fourth novel, is an undoubted success." - Richard Boston, The New York Times Book Review

  • "If this full, thoughtful, extraordinarily readable book does not succeed quite as full-bloodedly as Angela Carter's other novels, it is largely because she has forsaken approximately domestic frameworks for infinitely more perilous ground. However, it is a remarkable step into the darkness: the journey -- if you have the stomach -- is fascinating." - Judith Frankel, The Times

  • "The control of the material in the early chapters is formidable. The fantasy is made to work through the use of detail and the firmly established individuality of the characters. (...) The occasional pretentiousness which creeps into the last part of the book is partly the result of Marianne's loss of detachment and the disintegration of the Barbarians' world once she has become part of it, but it does spoil what is in many ways a remarkable novel." - Jane Miller, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Heroes and Villains is set in some post-apocalyptic future, with civilization in tatters after a great, destructive war; "places called Universities where men did nothing but read books and conduct experiments", for example, are an increasingly distant memory. Marianne, the central figure in the novel, is born in a community that manages to retain some semblance of civilization. Her father is a Professor, who carries on some of the traditions of higher learning, while a Soldier class protects the community in their fortified compound. If not quite at the gates, Barbarians roam beyond the more organized towns -- and occasionally raid them. And then there are the Out People, who are little more than animals.
       In her childhood and youth Marianne loses brother, mother, and eventually her father. When an opportunity arises, she leaves the relative safety of all she has known and goes with Jewel, a Barbarian who, years earlier, had killed her brother. She finds:

     He talked like a half-educated man and this surprised her very much since she had thought the Barbarians possessed no education at all. He also possessed, in his curiously elegant if abrupt movements as much as in his speech, a quality her father had called irony, unusual among the Professors. But, all the same, she recognized it.
       He's clever, but he's also been kept somewhat in the dark on purpose, by the one educated man in the group he lives among, Donally -- who explains to Marianne why he never taught Jewel how to read:
     'Self-defence, in the first instance,' he explained briskly. 'On the second count, I wanted to maintain him in a crude state of unrefined energy.'
     'What, keep him beautifully savage ?'
     'Why, yes, Exactly,' said Donally.
       Marianne is drawn to Jewel, and to aspects of the 'barbaric' lifestyle, but also deeply wary of both. Jewel eventually makes her his wife, but even in the steps leading to this the tensions in their relationship remain, as she also makes clear:
     'Of course, you're Jewel's woman, aren't you,' he said, as though that explained everything.
     'I'm his wife.'
     'Same thing.'
     'No, it isn't. There's no choice in being a wife. It is entirely out of one's hands.'
       Marianne remains willful and independent, but has limited options. Their world, in which civilization has broken down, disease is rife and difficult to combat, and survival seems almost random, is one that does not offer many choices.
       Carter sums up Marianne's basic dilemma in Marianne's recognition that:
     'But I think that, in the long run, I shall be forced to trust appearances. When I was a little girl, we played at heroes and villains but now I don't know which is which any more, nor who is who, and what can I trust if not appearances ? Because nobody can teach me which is which nor who is who because my father is dead.'
       Heroes and Villains is an odd, dystopian fable, describing Marianne's quest -- to find herself, and her role -- in a world that barely allows anything beyond the everyday struggle for survival. The men in her life tend to be philosophical -- and fatalistic, in a world where anything other than fatalism is entirely unrealistic. She relies on the men -- her father, Jewel -- as protectors and guides, but loses her father too early to be able to stand entirely confidently on her own. She makes a variety of attempts at escape -- though some are only half-hearted -- but complete escape eludes her.
       Carter's writing is consistently striking, with a great power to the clear but dense perfectly-pitched sentences and images: a woman with: "a dead wrist watch on her arm, purely for decoration; it was a little corpse of time" or:
     The tribe no longer protected itself against Marianne with signs, for marriage had secularized her. She was still a stranger and hence fearful but now she was specifically Jewel's responsibility and evidently they trusted him to control her dubious magics, keeping them knotted in her bag, perhaps, under his pillow, for now the children were content to ignore her and she could come and go about the camp as she pleased, creating no ripples about her.
       If anything, Carter's facility for the easy expression of so much complexity ultimately weighs down the story: the narrative comes to feel near-burstingly pregnant with meaning -- but then concludes without the simpler satisfying resolution of the traditional fairy tale. It's powerful -- and often exceptional -- stuff, but not entirely successful as a fully formed piece of fiction.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 July 2012

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Heroes and Villains: Reviews: Angela Carter: Other books by Angela Carter under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       British author Angela Carter (1940-1992) is best known for her fiction. She is the winner of numerous literary awards, including the John Llwellyn Rhys Prize (1967), the Somereset Maugham Award (1968), and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (1984).

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