Using the extract from page 105 to 106 as your starting point, discuss the presentation of Melchior and Peregrine in the novel “Wise Children” by Angela Carter
Melchior and Peregrine are twin brothers in the novel Wise Children but they could not be more different. Angela Carter presents these two characters in very different ways to reinforce this, by showing them as a series of opposites.
The section opens with one of Melchior’s lines, “What shall I do without my crown? Othello’s occupation gone!” which is actually from Othello itself. Melchior represents the ‘high art’ within performance, and in particular tragedy. He is the Shakespearean actor to be taken very seriously, although as we see especially in this extract, he can be very melodramatic at the same time. All throughout the novel he is portrayed as a solemn character dedicated to his work and with this comes his own performance. Melchior’s emotions are rarely shown throughout the novel, and sometimes the reader questions whether he actually can have feelings. However this is disproved with his tears at losing the crown.
“He began to cry. The tears ran down his sooty cheeks like chalk down a blackboard”
Dora comments that she had a sudden urge to “clap them (hands) together.” Even with the tears, Melchior is putting on a performance. It seems that he cannot help but hide behind a mask, in this case represented by the soot from the burning house. The loss of such a precious item reveals faults in this mask, as the tears wipe away the soot. This performance even strikes the people standing nearby. It is ironic in itself that Melchior is about to stand reciting Shakespeare, whilst his home is in flames with his daughter and brother inside. Although he must be commended for such persistence in his acting! With the burning of his mansion, we also suspect that his career has gone up in flames, but this is not so. Just as he has done several times previously, Melchior rises again similar to a phoenix and is reborn, just as Peregrine comes from the flames when salvaging Nora from the blazing residence.
As a contrast, Peregrine represents the magic and low art of performance. In the novel he saves the show using magic several times. In fact, he saves Melchior’s career on the set of Midsummer Nights Dream in Hollywood, when Genghis Kahn fumes at Melchior’s costume. Peregrine appears and manages to produce a macaw from his attire to break the tension. He also rescues the twins Dora and Nora after Melchior disowns them, and then saves Nora later on when the house is burning down. Peregrine is portrayed as the saviour of the novel. He brings a magical quality to the book, and this is done using magic realism – The facts are there but there are magical angles to what is being said. For example when Peregrine rescues Nora looking “as big as the burning house, or bigger” and the crown is unsinged on his head.
The crown appears many times throughout Wise Children and is almost a family heirloom, though Dora refers to it as “a flimsy bit of make-believe”. The crown was given to Melchior by his father Ranulf and symbolises one of the reoccurring themes in the novel – discovering your father. Melchior always wanted to become like his dad and believed that carrying the crown would carry him good fortune. This is ironic however, due to the fact that Nora and Dora, and Saskia and Imogen are not with their legitimate fathers. Peregrine took Dora and Nora in, and Melchior did the same for Saskia and Imogen, though as the saying goes, “it is a wise child that knows it’s own father”. Dora and Nora are constantly seeking recognition from their biological father, though several times he does not acknowledge this, and even betrays them in public on the set in Hollywood.
In this sense, Peregrine is seen as the mother of the two, the caring and considerate one who looks out for the girls. Whereas in contrast, Melchior is the father, concentrated on his career, upstanding and very proud. Dora refers to the twins as “our fathers” which is possibly an echo of the Lord’s Prayer, thus comparing them to God. Traditionally, fathers are our models for God, the way we perceive God to be. Thus, Melchior and Peregrines illegitimacy and complicated lives reflects badly, and Dora pokes fun at this belief.
The way the two characters are introduced by Angela Carter is also interesting to note. We do not see Melchior, as much as hear about him. This is repeated through the novel, although Melchior’s reputation is often bigger than the man himself. Dora mentions that the clock tells the correct time for the first time ever, and already the mystery starts as to the character of Melchior. The first mention is by his invitation to his 100th birthday. The mere fact he does not deliver it in person tells us a lot about his character. Dora and Nora are his legitimate children and he distances himself from them by sending the invite on “stiff, white card” – a very formal way of communication, even though they are family. The bottom of the card has a Shakespeare quote, “One man in his time plays many parts”. Already Melchior is comparing himself to Shakespeare, which shows the grandeur that he associates with himself.
Throughout the novel Melchior is perceived to be quite superficial and materialistic, always wanting to make a good impression, looking the best etc. Melchior has also had 3 wives, all of which have been young and beautiful, reinforcing his attraction to things that will reflect well on him. He seems to take a lot and give very little back, echoed by the treatment, or mistreatment of his previous wives and indeed of his twins daughters whom he has rejected.
Peregrine however, is the loving and giving one. His first appearance is when Dora describes the kimonos that she and her sister wear on their birthdays, which were given to them by their uncle. She tells us about the colours on the kimonos, another way to categorise Melchior and Peregrine, Melchior and black and white, just as his hair is jet black, and Peregrine as a man of colour and energy, with red hair. To extend this we can say that Melchior is very set in his ways and determined to establish himself with a reputable career – thus his views are black and white, whereas Peregrine is considered the rebel and the son who did ‘his own thing’.
Dora’s uncle also brings in another theme, and yet another contrast between the male twins. Peregrine immigrated to America to make his fortune, whereas Melchior stayed in England – his homeland. This is picked up all throughout the novel, the comparison between the USA and the UK. Peregrine is the traveller and Melchior the one to stay and look into his English roots.
It is strange to think that a set of twins could be so different, especially considering the similarities between Dora and Nora, though breaking stereotypes is what Angela Carter set out to do when writing Wise Children and this has been achieved effectively, though subtly.