Freak shows, Fairytales and Alice Hoffman

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Fairytales are located inside the fantastic realm. They make the impossible possible and conceive of creatures that transcend our rational perceptions.

Human fascination with wondrous creatures did not always stay on page: freak shows were one way of showcasing those that did not correspond to what humanity classified as “normal”. In The Museum Of Extraordinary Things, Alice Hoffman has intertwined freak show, fairy tale tropes and a tragedy in women’s working past.

I firstly picked up this novel when I was doing research for my thesis because it sort of includes a mermaid figure- but I’ll come back to that later.

The narrative is set in 1911, in New York- more specifically on Coney Island. What might be well-known as a place of entertainment and amusement parks used to be a hot spot for freak shows. One of these freak show places is the Museum of Extraordinary Things under the leadership of Professor Sardie. His daughter, called Coralie Sardie, was born with webbed fingers. Coralie’s exploitative father sees a business opportunity in her disability and trains her to become one of his museum freaks. In the ice-cold currents of the Hudson River, Coralie is trained to hold her breath underwater for extremely long time. With a blue silk tail, she is put in a tank in the museum and embodies the museum’s “Human Mermaid”.

During one of her night swims in the Hudson River, Coralie stumbles across Eddie Cohen. Eddie is a photographer who has given up his former orthodox upbringing. After taking photos of the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, during which 146 employees died, Eddie becomes enmeshed in the case of a missing girl. His quest eventually leads him to the Museum of Extraordinary Things- and to Professor Sardie’s gruesome scientific experiments.

The mermaid establishes obvious links with the fairy tale genre. Coralie is of course not a real mermaid but her slight deformity really initiates the fake narrative around her existence. Mermaids can be read and analysed in numerous ways. However, I think that in this book, the mermaid figure emphasises two central themes:

Otherness and ostracising difference

At the end of the day, Coralie is just another girl. In today’s society, she would probably undergo surgery and her disability would go unnoticed. Yet, back in the 1900s her webbed fingers shaped her into a freak- a very problematic and offensive term. As a scientific fanatic, Coralie’s father exploits his daughter’s abnormality and does not help to shed positive light on her deformed hands.

This otherness is clearly felt by Coralie, who wishes for nothing more than to be a plain girl. Instead, she is trapped into that freak category, or as she puts it, into being

“her father’s daughter, a living wonder, an oddity no common man could ever understand” (33).

Freakshows objectified people with disabilities who often could not find work elsewhere. Visitors paid just to look at these people that were, essentially, only different to them.

The latest box-office hit The Greatest Showman , starring Hugh Jackman, probably instilled visual ideas of what these “freaks” looked like: women with beards, men with tattoos all over their bodies, people with missing limbs, or as shown in the novel, sword swallowers and conjoined twins. However, the cheeriness and empowering message of the musical version suppresses the not so joyful aspects of freak shows in history. Those people were exploited for being different, rather than celebrated. Their income depended on being stared at and made fun of- for hours. They were often treated like animals, like commodities that generated profits for people like Professor Sardie, or his non-fictional prototype, PT Barnum.

By bringing in the mermaid to this rather shameful past, Hoffman highlights an often-overlooked characteristic of the water woman. In literature and other forms of art, mermaids have a long history of being “othered”, being represented as female oddities that are situated somewhere between being a fish and woman; animal and human. The fascination with fairy tales resembles the fascination people held for freak shows, since they take place in a realm that counters conventionality. Figures like the mermaid problematise traditions and what we believe to be normal.

Unsurprisingly, out-spoken feminists like Angela Carter largely focus their writing on these worlds that offer alternative realities. Her works include fairy tales and circuses, and inevitably challenge questions of power and patriarchal values. Of course, by including the factory fire, Hoffman’s novel briefly brings in another large part of society which has been ostracised and suppressed. The now infamous fire killed 146 garment workers- out of which 123 were women. This tragedy was a big eye opener to show the lack of rights for women and workers and lead to the rise of unions.

The narratives we create define us

At the end of the day, it all boils down to the narrative we create. Coralie is nothing but a girl. Yet, all she was told and all she was trained to do, is to stand out. She has been raised within that discourse of difference, of otherness. Yet, imagine if she had parents who loved her, and told her that she was not an oddity. She might have perceived herself as an entirely different girl.

Same goes for these so-called freak shows. You only need to look back to how Barnum’s wonders were promoted: African people were advertised as “STRANGE AND SAVAGE TRIBES”. This shows that it was not what the exhibits looked like but more what the narratives, the words, and the setting shaped them into. The people shown in these freak shows were often feared not because of their disabilities or their looks, but rather because of the visual effects and narratives that surrounded them.

I think that’s something to keep in mind. People tend towards pre-figured, ready-made opinions about what is “different” before they actually come face to face with it. The narratives we create can be dangerous and can potentially offer fertile ground for racism and bigotry.

But, to end on a happier note, there’s also a positive drive in these narratives that we create. To a certain extent, it is what we find in dreams and our moments of visualisation. Every narrative starts somewhere. Often on a small scale, in a confined room, which might as well be inside our heads. But when that narrative is given attention and is told over and over again, then it might even reach the bigger crowds and somehow gain momentum. And that’s perhaps what The Greatest Showman tried to do, as the film’s theme song says:

“I am brave, I am bruised, I am who I’m meant to be- this is me.”

Nomatter how cheesy this sounds, if such lines or narratives are perpetuated, then we might not even be on such a gloomy path.

I know- I’m definitely deviating from the story here. But as you can see, there is a strong connection between fairytales and freak shows. Both have generated narratives of people or even animals that do not support the norm, or what we have come to believe stands for the norm. And I guess that’s why I was so intrigued by Alice Hoffman’s novel.

Other Circus/ Freak Show Recommendations:

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

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