Dancing Girls and Other Stories is Margaret Atwood’s sixth book of fiction (published in the United States), having been preceded by five novels: The Edible Woman (1960), Surfacing (1972), Lady Oracle (1976), Life Before Man (1980), and Bodily Harm (1982). Atwood has also published more than ten volumes of poetry, beginning with Double Persephone (1961), and a critical study, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972).
Atwood’s fiction reflects the old truth that a writer should write about what he knows best. Her stories and novels, set in the places where she grew up and was educated, relate the tics and traumas of mostly young men and women of the sort Atwood has known well. She was born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, in 1939, and pursued her education in both Canada and the United States, beginning with a B.A. from the University of Toronto in 1961, continuing with a graduate degree from Radcliffe in 1962, doing further graduate work at Harvard and at Trent University, from which she received a D. Litt. in 1973, and ending with an LL.D. from Queens University in 1974. She has worked as a cashier and as a waitress, as a writer of market research and of film scripts, as a college teacher of English, an editor, a critic, a novelist, and a poet. Along the way, she has obviously paid close attention to the awkward manner in which men and women grope and stumble about in one another’s lives.
Dancing Girls and Other Stories probes some of the important themes treated in Atwood’s five novels: the brutalizations and victimizations of love; the possibilities for metamorphosis of the personality; the nature and effect of power in human relationships and in the natural world; the continuum between human and animal, the human being and nature; and the instinct for survival. A recurring motif which links a number of these themes is the failure of men and women to communicate on a personal level, particularly when the individual couple is or has been in love. As Atwood writes in a poem entitled “True Romance”: “It isn’t sex that’s the problem, it’s language. Or/ Maybe love makes you deaf, not blind.” Language frequently betrays Atwood’s characters; the wonder is that any relationships survive. An enduring relationship, indeed, is rare in Atwood’s fiction.
“The Man from Mars,” the first story in the collection, is the first of many in which a female protagonist survives an unsatisfactory relationship with a man. Christine is the third of three daughters, a college-age girl with a “chunky reddish face” and “big bones”; she could “not possibly ever be beautiful even if she took off weight.” She does not attract invitations for dates, but one fine day, an Oriental, “the man from Mars” of the title, asks her for directions to the economics building. She helps. He announces that he will come to her home for tea. Out of politeness, she complies, partly to please her mother. Time passes, during which he leaves the city, then returns. He tracks Christine on campus, jogging with her, joining her at lunch. Her friends begin to think of her as mysterious. She had never been mysterious before, only open, considered by her contemporaries to be “a plodder,” a “plain one,” “helpful and a hard worker”—and to her male friends, “the one who could be relied upon.” The man chasing her is, in spite of his peculiarities, “still a man.” Other men look her over again and begin to ask her out. “In the bathtub she no longer imagined she was a dolphin; instead she imagined she was an elusive water-nixie, or sometimes, in moments of audacity, Marilyn Monroe.” The police pick up the “man from Mars,” however, and he is soon deported: in Montreal, he had pursued the Mother Superior of a convent, a woman of about sixty. Christine is not special. Her “aura of mystery fades,” and her life returns to its mediocre pattern. She gets fatter, has headaches, and takes to reading nineteenth century novels.
Like many of Atwood’s women, Christine is pathologically passive, a victim, one to whom “things happen.” Other stories reveal the possibility of escaping from this passive role. In “Betty,” when the narrator was seven years old and spending the summer in “a tiny wooden cottage” upstream from Sault Sainte Marie, she recalls meeting the older Betty. One of two daughters, the narrator recounts watching couples who lived nearby, thinking that one of the men “was a murderer” and that the other, Betty’s husband, Fred, was so attractive. The narrator recalls that her mother was “livelier when he was around” and that her father drank beer with him and talked. Fred was attractive and likable but “didn’t seem to make any efforts to be nice to people.” She realizes that she cannot remember what Fred looked like—but that the inconsequential, deferential, kind Betty is easy to remember, “down to the last hair and freckle.” Still, everyone loved Fred, and no one loved Betty, in spite of the fact that Betty was “always either smiling or laughing” and that she was always doing nice things for...
(The entire section is 2118 words.)