Study Guide

The Circle Game

by Margaret Atwood

The Circle Game Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The title poem of Atwood’s The Circle Game (1966) develops the circle motif that pervades her poetry and represents the patterned, structured world that both controls and shelters individuals who seek and fear freedom from conformity. The seven-part poem juxtaposes the children’s world and the adult world but suggests that childhood circle games, ostensibly so innocent, provide a training ground for the adult circle games that promote estrangement and emotional isolation. In the first part of the poem, the children play ring-around-a-rosy; but despite the surface appearance of unity, each child is separate, “singing, but not to each other,” without joy in an unconscious “tranced moving.” As they continue going in circles, their eyes are so “fixed on the empty moving spaces just in front of them” that they ignore nature with its grass, trees, and lake. For them, the “whole point” is simply “going round and round,” a process without purpose or “point.” In the second part, the couple plays its own circle games as the lover remains apart, emotionally isolated despite sharing a room and a bed with the speaker. Like the children, his attention is focused elsewhere, not on the immediate and the real, but on the people behind the walls. The bed is “losing its focus,” as he is concerned with other “empty/ moving spaces” at a distance or with himself, “his own reflection.” The speaker concludes that there is always “someone in the next room” that will enable him to erect barriers between them.

Part 3 moves from the isolation of part 1 to an abstract defensiveness that unconsciously enforces that isolation. The innocent sand castles on the beach are comprised of “trenches,” “sand moats,”...

(The entire section is 716 words.)

The Circle Game Bibliography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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Bouson, J. Brooks. Brutal Choreographies: Oppositional Strategies and Narrative Design in the Novels of Margaret Atwood. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993.

Cooke, Nathalie. Margaret Atwood: A Biography. Toronto: ECW Press, 1998.

Cooke, Nathalie. Margaret Atwood: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2004.

Cuder, Pilar. Margaret Atwood: A Beginner’s Guide. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2003.

Grace, Sherrill E. Violent Duality: A Study of Margaret Atwood. Montreal: Véhicule Press, 1980.

Hengen, Shannon. Margaret Atwood’s Power: Mirrors, Reflections, and Images in Select Fiction and Poetry. Toronto: Second Story Press, 1993.

Howells, Coral Ann, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

McCombs, Judith, ed. Critical Essays on Margaret Atwood. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988.

Moss, John, and Tobi Kozakewich, eds. Margaret Atwood: The Open Eye. Ottawa, Ont.: University of Ottawa Press, 2006.

Neschik, Reingard, ed. Margaret Atwood: Works and Impact. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2000.

Rao, Eleonora. Strategies for Identity: The Fiction of Margaret Atwood. New York: Lang, 1993.

Reynolds, Margaret, and Jonathan Noakes. Margaret Atwood: The Essential Guide. London: Vintage, 2002.

Stein, Karen F. Margaret Atwood. New York: Twayne, 1999.

Sullivan, Rosemary. The Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood Starting Out. Toronto: HarperCollins, 1998.

Wilson, Sharon R. Margaret Atwood’s Fairy-Tale Sexual Politics. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1993.