Plot Summary and Analysis of The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter
List of characters
Evelyn (Eve) – the main character, a misogynist man who undergoes a forced sex change operation.
Tristessa – a Hollywood actress who embodies the archetypal woman. She turns out to be a trans woman.
Barloslav – alchemist and soldier, Evelyn’s first and only friend in New York.
Leilah (Lilith) – naked model and dancer. She seduces Evelyn in New York. Later on, she becomes a military leader.
Mother – Leilah’s mother, a self-stylised goddess in the feminine city of Beulah.
Zero – the archetypal man embodying patriarchy. He has several wives he abuses. He believes that Tristessa made him infertile and wants to kill her.
Sophia – captured Evelyn and took him to Beulah where he was transformed into a woman.
The Colonel – a young religious military commander in charge of a battalion of children.
The action takes place in England. Evelyn reminisces about his childhood celebrity crush – a Hollywood actress called Tristessa who specialises in portraying suffering women. Evelyn jumps between his childhood memories and the day when he saw Wuthering Heights with a girl whose name he doesn’t remember. The film features Tristessa as Catherine Earnshaw.
At the cinema, the audience heckle the performance, as Tristessa is no longer in fashion. The girl gives Evelyn a blowjob when she sees that he is moved by Tristessa’s suffering from brain fever. The chapter ends with Evelyn flying to America.
The action takes place in a rat-infested New York plagued by violent crime and political instability. The Women and the blacks are the most fearsome political groups.
Evelyn stays at a hotel, which inexplicably catches fire at night. Hotel guests seem to be unable to express panic at night although they do succumb to it in daylight.
Evelyn moves into his new flat and makes friends with his Czech neighbour – Barloslav. He is an old soldier and alchemist, who spends most of his time shooting gigantic rats and producing gold. One day, Barloslav gives Evelyn a gold ingot.
Evelyn decides to stay in New York even though he has no job; the university he was supposed to work at is blown up by the blacks.
One day, Barloslav is beaten up to death in the streets while waiting for Evelyn to do the shopping. After Barsloslav’s funeral, Evelyn meets a sensual woman at the drugstore – Leilah. She flashes Evelyn and draws him into a scruffy area of the city where her apartment is. Throughout the pursuit, Evelyn seems to be unable to catch up with Leilah. Evelyn ends up living with Leilah in her apartment. Leilah earns a living for both of them from modelling and dancing.
Soon after moving in, Evelyn starts abusing Leilah and punishing her for misbehaviour. He quickly grows bored with her, and when he finds out that Leilah is pregnant, he refuses to take responsibility for the baby. Evelyn writes to his parents to ask for money to be able to go on a car trip. They’re hesitant due to the unstable political situation in the US but they agree in the end. Evelyn forces Leilah to have an illegal abortion, which results in a serious infection. Leilah becomes infertile. Meanwhile, Evelyn abandons Leilah in hospital and goes on a road trip, headed to the desert.
Chapter Three and Four
Chapter three: This short chapter describes the political situation in America and Evelyn’s trip. The blacks are building a wall in Harlem. The price of food and oil is skyrocketing. At the end of the chapter, Evelyn reaches the dessert.
Chapter four: A one-page chapter describing Evelyn being lost in the middle of the dessert.
Evelyn runs out of gas in the desert. He spends the night in his car, hoping to be rescued by a passer-by. During the day, Evelyn hears a noise resembling a gunshot and finds a dying bird, which has been evidently shot.
Evelyn considers burring the bird, but he is suddenly knocked out by a karate chop in the back of his neck. His assailant wears a cap with a black visor and an armband, which resembles the one used by the Women in New York. The captor ties Evelyn to her vehicle (referred to later as sand-sled) and forces him to trot along.
They arrive at a gigantic pillar, which has been snapped in two – the structure resembles the symbol on the woman’s armband. The pillar opens, revealing an underground town inhabited solely by women – Beulah.
Beulah is governed by Mother, a former plastic surgeon who has transformed her body and created a mythology about her god-like nature.
After his ordeal, Evelyn wakes up in a sterile, round room. Female voices announce over a loudspeaker that he is at the place of birth. Evelyn realises that the room resembles a womb. Suddenly, part of the wall moves open to let in Sophia, who captured Evelyn the previous day. Sophia nurses Evelyn and takes him to Mother through a series of descending circular corridors.
Evelyn is forced to kneel before the self-proclaimed monstrous goddess. A ceremony follows during which Mother rapes Evelyn. His semen is carefully collected by Sophia; the women plan to change Evelyn into a woman and impregnate him with his own sperm. Evelyn undergoes the sex-change operation and is renamed Eve. Eve is, then, forced to watch films (including some featuring Tristessa) and paintings, which are supposed to teach her how to be a woman. The training is complemented by lessons given by Sophia and Mother.
The day before Eve’s impregnation, he/she steals one of the sand-sleds and makes her escape.
This short, introspective chapter examines the theme of identity. Eve/Evelyn thinks that despite having a woman’s shape, she/he still isn’t a proper woman. All of Evelyn’s documents were seized by Mother, so Eve/Evelyn has no way of proving his/her identity. (Note: for simplicity’s sake, I will from now on use the name Eve, although Eve/Evelyn continues to be confused about his/her gender identity).
The sand-sled runs out of gas. Eve has no choice but to wait for the women from Beulah to find her.
Suddenly, a dog jumps out and fells Eve to the ground. Eve is dragged to a nearby helicopter by a pack of women who only communicate in animal noises. Eve is taken to Zero’s ranch house.
Zero is a one-eyed one-legged poet, who uses language only if strictly necessary, preferring instead to make animal-like grunts and howls. The unknown women are Zero’s wives, who are constantly humiliated and abused.
Zero rapes Eve on her arrival. After that, the wives interrogate Eve in hushed voices, as Zero doesn’t allow his harem to use human language. Despite the degradation they suffer at Zero’s hands, the wives are fanatically devoted to their husband. Each of Zero’s seven wives receive his marital attention on one day of the week. But Eve presents a threat to this rota, so the wives violently attack her.
The fight is interrupted by Zero, who takes Eve to his room. Zero has a defaced poster of Tristessa pinned to his wall. The poet hates her, as he is convinced that Tristessa is a lesbian and witch, who made him infertile. Zero again sexually assaults Eve and officially makes her his eighth wife.
Eve stays in the house for some time. Zero has pigs, which are higher in the hierarchy than the wives; the animals are allowed to roam free in the house, and the wives are prohibited from shooing them away. The wives are forced to perform all the household chores.
Eve imitates the behaviour of her companions for fear that Zero might suspect that she is not a proper woman. Zero spends most of his time in his helicopter, combing the desert for signs of Tristessa’s presence. Sometimes, Zero lets his wives to dress up, and then he dances the death of Tristessa and the apotheosis of Zero.
Eve secretly scavenges for newspapers – the political situation in the US is growing worse and worse. The bloody siege of the Wall of Harlem continues. The state of California implements its decision to secede.
Finally, Zero finds Tristessa’s house.
The first-person narration is interspersed with Eve’s direct addresses to Tristessa.
The helicopter with Zero and his harem lands on the terrace of Tristessa’s tower-like house. There are glass statues around the house, which Zero and his wives proceed to destroy.
The party breaks into the house, which is made of glass and steel. A burglar alarm goes off, and the house starts to revolve on its axis. Zero goes through an open, metal door leading downstairs to a control room with an Oriental, whom he mercilessly shoots.Before his death, the Oriental must have blocked the system, as Zero is unable to stop the house from spinning.
Zero, who is followed by Eve, discovers a room full of coffins with waxworks of famous people. Amongst them is hidden Tristessa. Eve discovers that she is not a waxwork.
Zero’s dog senses that Tristessa is alive and jumps towards her, yelping. Tristessa springs out of her coffin and darts off to the roof of the house. There, she is trapped by Zero and his harem and starts crying. But when Zero tries to rip her clothes off, she collects herself and welcomes everyone with an air of dignity.
Zero forces Tristessa downstairs, and then undresses her. Tristessa is revealed to have male genitals. Zero tortures Tristessa with his whip, and then the harem are given permission to defile the house.
Then, Zero marries Tristessa and Eve in a mocking ceremony. They are forced to consummate their marriage.
Tristessa and Eve are guarded by the dog, and meanwhile Zero and his harem go on destroying the house. Eve kills the dog with a shard of glass and runs away with Tristessa. Before leaving the house, they go down to the control room, and Tristessa sets the house to spin faster. Safely outside, Tristessa and Eve watch as the wives are spat out of the house one by one. Soon, the only one left is Zero. The tower starts to tilt and it crashes into the pool, sucking Zero in.
Tristessa and Eve escape in the helicopter, which after some time dives towards the desert. The characters find themselves without any provisions. They spend the night in the desert and make love to each other.
When dawn breaks, they are sprinkled with water and separated. Tristessa and Eve are handcuffed by an army of children wearing crucifixes in charge of whom is the Colonel. The children beat Tristessa to her knees and then cut her hair. Tristessa laughs and kisses the Colonel. One of the officers shoots her.
Eve stays with the soldiers. She reels from grief after Tristessa’s death. The Colonel leads the soldiers in prayers, begging God to restore law and order in California. Eve ceases to be afraid of the Colonel as she starts experiencing something akin to maternal feelings for the children. At night, the Colonel comes to Eve’s sleeping bag, looking for comfort. He sobs himself to sleep. Eve clambers out of the tent, planning to get to Tristessa’s grave and die there. Suddenly, there is an explosion. Eve hides under the jeep and then drives away.
Chapter Eleven and Twelve
Chapter eleven: Eve abandons her plan to die at Tristessa’s side, as in the distance she spots women from Beulah rushing in her direction. Eve turns back and drives out of the desert to an abandoned highway.
She stops at a gas station to fill up the tank. Suddenly, a man shoots at Eve. He then bursts out into tears and commits suicide.Eve comes into the house to find the man’s dead family – two children and a woman.
Eve fills her tank and drives off through the deserted roads. She arrives at a shopping centre. Suddenly, the shopping centre and the road ahead of Eve explode. Eve abandons the car to hide in the shopping centre plaza, as now there are bullets swishing in the air. Eve is knocked out by debris from the fight.
When she wakes up, she is taken to a room full of injured people. There, she meets Leilah but she seems different – the submissive dancer has transformed into a military leader.
When Eve’s scratches are taken care of, Leilah and Eve talk about what’s happened since they last saw each other. Leilah reveals Mother whom Eve met in Beulah is her mum.
Leilah suggests that Eve is taken to Mother’s hideaway for the duration of the fights, and they go to a bay, at which Mother sits in a wicker chair and sings. Now, deprived of her trappings of goddess, Mother is an old, harmless woman. Leilah watches the lady with irony and pity. In the bush close to Mother’s chair, a rowing boat is stored away.
After a small breakfast, Leilah takes Eve to a cave and tells her to get inside. Eve crawls through a series of caves, which contain such objects as Tristessa’s photos or Barloslav’s gold ingot. Time seems to be running back, and the cave resembles the inside of a womb.
Eve comes out of the cave the same way she went in. Leilah asks if it was Tristessa that made Eve pregnant. Then, she gives Eve some provisions to survive on the beach and leaves.
Eve exchanges the gold ingot she took from the cave for Mother’s rowing boat. Eve sails away.
Chapter twelve: A short chapter mainly devoted to recounting Eve’s dreams about Tristessa. Eve is at sea, sailing towards England.
Genre and Language
The Passion of New Eve is narrated by Eve/Evelyn. The novel employs such techniques as parody and hyperbole to criticise gender myth-making. It uses magic realism – a genre that fuses realist aspects with supernatural or improbable elements. To give you an example, real locations such as New York or Harlem co-exist with fictional ones such as the city of Beulah. Furthermore, we wouldn’t expect the events depicted in the novel to happen in real life. For instance, the existence of self-created goddesses, who have performed a series of plastic operations on themselves and live in secret, underground cities is improbable.
The language in The Passion of New Eve is vivid and rich. Technical and sophisticated vocabulary co-exist side by side with obscenities. This fusion of high and low culture is typical of postmodernism.
The Meaning of the Title
The title refers to two biblical stories – the Garden of Eden and the Passion of Christ. Just like the biblical Eve, Carter’s Eve is created in an artificial way from a man. The allusion to this biblical myth signifies a re-birth, a beginning but it also connotes sin. The adjective ‘new’ differentiates Eve/Evelyn from her biblical namesake – it situates her as a woman shaped by modern times.
The title also refers to the Passion of Christ. Similarly to Jesus, Eve suffers throughout the book, maybe to redeem the sins of the human race. One way of interpreting the title is to observe that Eve’s ordeal is metaphorical atonement for Evelyn’s sins committed against women.
Carter uses religious imagery extensively throughout the novel. It is especially visible in the portrayal of Mother and Zero, who embody matriarchy and patriarchy respectively. Both of them have created religious iconography and a system of irrational beliefs that elevate one gender over the other. In addition, both characters use coercion and violence to impose their convictions on others. Through the use of religious imagery, Carter criticises gender myth-making, regardless of whether it concerns men or women.
Beulah represents gynocentrism, which is associated primarily with second-wave feminism from the 1970s. Gynocentrism holds that women are superior to men because of their reproductive organs.
Carter is equally critical of patriarchy, which relegates women to the position of slaves. In the novel, the patriarchal system is represented by Zero’s ranch house.
Sex and Gender
The Passion of New Eve can be seen as a predecessor to Butler’s groundbreaking theorisation of gender performativity. Carter denaturalises gender, which doesn’t follow from sex. A prime example of this is Tristessa – the most feminine character is revealed to have male genitals. Moreover, Tristessa is a Hollywood actress, which drives home the point that gender is a performance that is encoded in our culture. Tristessa learns how to perform gender from literature.
Eve/Evelyn also has to learn how to be a woman. In the novel, there is a lot of inconsistencies in the use of gendered personal pronouns in relation to Tristessa and Eve/Evelyn. The binary concept of gender may not be adequate to express the reality of these characters
Carter also shows that just as gender is just a construct, so is sex. This is indicated by the plastic surgery that is performed on Evelyn.
© 2018 Virginia Matteo