Atwood, Margaret 1939–
Canadian poet, novelist, and critic, Atwood utilizes a highly developed introspective technique in her exploration of self and country. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)
What is remarkable about [Power Politics] is not so much [its] highly distilled acid nastiness, nor even Atwood's controlled progress from relatively narrow personal bitterness to a broad and mythic view at the end which shows the lovers as part of a vast geological and then amphibian mass, but their humor in the face of it. The book is a tour de force, though that isn't all. To change metaphors as abruptly as Atwood, it is a murderously sharp weapon, cauterizing, not self-serving, and there is pleasure in the hefting of it. For one thing, she, the speaker, is a writer. Take that literally, take it metaphorically, what she seems to be saying is that it is not so much the deadly clinches that hurt as the distances: the irony, the incessant creation and revision of their images of each other, their attempts at control, their subtle, posturing self-victimization, its literary satisfaction. Killing him, no matter how deserving of murder he may be, she gives her performance self-consciously, and so despises herself as well…. [Those] moments in which she floats away from herself, decomposing, turning to water, or crystallizing at a grotesque distance from herself, will be familiar to anyone who has read Atwood before…. She has even made a novel, Surfacing, almost entirely out of [a] mythology of earth-air-water (now much fire in her, except that, as reader, you burn: she is at home in stone and coldness, not in heat)…. (pp. 149-51)
I find it remarkable that Atwood has been able to take those images, which must by now be comfortable to her, nearly domesticated by familiarity, and make them live so fiercely. It is the dynamic structure of the book that does it, the near-plot of the drama of dissolution, the illusion of specificity, done with mirrors (though he asks for the "One forbidden thing: love without mirrors"). In the end she has convinced us that
In the room we will find nothing
In the room we will find each other
which may sound like Merwin but comes out of a universe of killers and near-suicides much more dramatic, less metaphysical, than his. (pp. 151-52)
No man could take offense at the knives Atwood has so skillfully wielded (thrown?) in Power Politics. She may go for his private parts (which are not necessarily or solely sexual) with the blade of this book, but those mirrors she uses do not distort. Her poems are terribly fleshless, bony, as vulnerable as they are cutting. They show her naked and impaled, fiercely alone. The blood belongs to both of them, man and woman, and, by her hard and deadly skill, to anyone who touches it. (p. 152)
Rosellen Brown, in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring/Summer, 1974.
Quite simply, I cannot trust these poems [in You Are Happy], nor are they trustworthy in an exciting way. Poetry, after all, is a serious and dangerous game, playing with words, thoughts, feelings. I, for one, don't have much else. But the elements of Atwood's poetry and of her own predicament are carelessly squandered, and the reader is little convinced of the importance of caring when the poet clearly does not…. One's expectations are laughed at, one's imagination turned into fancy. Atwood plays cheap tricks, tricks with more than mirrors….
Atwood uses a wilful obscurity to pretend to profundity; her fashionably arcane invitations do not function as initiations; and the imperatives which she histrionically declares are facile—childish whimpers, adolescent moans, social anguish. (pp. 129-30)
J. E. Chamberlin, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1975 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, Spring, 1975.
Margaret Atwood continues to construct her guided missiles which have a deadly force of their own, poems so neat and silent that they move in space like an invisible invasion, descend, pierce the mind and leave a wound. And yet in spite of her sense of life as mostly wounds given and received (expressed in ["You Are Happy"] in a long series of Circe poems, no small boldness in the act of taking a myth so sacrosanct and doing it anew), Atwood attempts here both a new indifference and a new humility in her chronicle of the relations between man and woman (the chronicle as spiky and lethal in "Power Politics," her last book)…. We recall that Stevens wanted to write a fourth section of his "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction," to be called "It Must Be Human," and could not. To be human, Atwood daringly reminds us in the quotation from the gospel of the taunt addressed to Jesus by the mockers at the crucifixion, is to be "incapable of saving" oneself. I must not leave this volume, which has virtues on every page, without mentioning Atwood's comic sense, beautifully visible in the poem from the Circe sequence, "Siren Song," where we learn the secret of
the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible:
the song that forces men
to leap overboard in squadrons
even though they see the bleached skulls.
The siren continues, luring the
man closer and closer:
Come closer. This song
is a cry for help: Help me!
Only you, only you can,
you are unique
at last. Alas
it is a boring song
but it works every time.
This light side (with its own tight-lipped truth behind it) engenders the various songs of transformations of the men-turned-to-animals in the Circe sequence, which, though they have good lines, seem more often the work of the fancy than of the imagination, and are occasionally willed into being. Nonetheless, Atwood lets very little dross into her volumes, and she always repays rereading. (pp. 33-4)
Helen Vendler, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 6, 1975.
[You Are Happy] is an affirmative book …, and I was surprised to see Toronto reviewers going on as usual about Atwood's bleak, relentless, morbid vision as if this were only Power Politics revisited. Even the first section, in which the protagonist expresses grief, regret and remorse (as well as anger) over the failure of a past relationship, is warmer and more sympathetic than any of Atwood's earlier icy (and often accurate) analyses of the wicked ways of men, women and modern urban societies. My favourites among her earlier books, Surfacing and The Journals of Susanna Moodie, perhaps foreshadowed the development that is found here. Her new poems are earthier in the best and most positive sense. (p. 87)
The book's second section, "Songs of the Transformed," contains marvellously imaginative poems spoken by humans who have been changed into animals. From this perspective "there are no angels / but the angels of hunger"; these poems get down to the basic realities of hunger and death. All life is predatory, and all of us are transformed to corpses in the end. In the third section, "Circe/Mud Poems," the problem of the sexual relationship is re-explored in terms of the story of Circe and Ulysses; again, this is a highly imaginative treatment in which Circe's enchanted island is recognizably a Canadian rural setting. The section concludes with the suggestion that perhaps the lovers are not after all trapped in that unhappy story. In the fourth section, "There is only one of everything," a man and a woman appear to move, at first tentatively and then with joyous confidence, toward the new kind of relationship described above. The cruelty of myth has been left behind; the sacrifice and offering are voluntary, and in this there is freedom. In earlier Atwood collections one felt that even the body was regarded as a prison, but here it is singled out for praise.
The book seems, then, to be a turning point in the poet's development. Technically, too, it is an advance over Power Politics. Many individual poems from that book tend to lose their force when removed from the context of the whole sequence; moreover, some of the shock-tactics and surreal effects seem to me inadequate to the psychological processes they are attempting to represent. Here there is more technical variety than in the past, manifesting itself partly in an effective use of the prose poem; one feels that most poems are autonomous and interesting in and for themselves, as is each of the four sections, and yet all contribute to a coherent whole—a human statement, a journey. I think we may be grateful to Margaret Atwood for facing up to the most difficult facts of our existence and for putting the case for joy so minimally and so well. (p. 88)
Tom Marshall, in The Ontario Review (copyright © 1975 by The Ontario Review), Spring-Summer, 1975.
Margaret Atwood is all things to all people. If you want, she's a nationalist. If you want, she's essentially a feminist or a psychologist or a comedian. She's a maker and breaker of myths or she's a gothic writer. She's all these things, but finally she's unaccountably Other. Her writing has the discipline of a social purpose but it remains elusive, complex, passionate. It has all the intensity of an act of exorcism….
Selected Poems has the coherence of a grand design. By the end of the book you can't help seeing that there's a consistent goal underlying all Atwood's poetic adventures. She has a poem, "Tricks with Mirrors," where the mirror is addressing a narcissistic lover: I like to read it as a parable about her art.
Don't assume it is passive
or easy, this clarity
with which I give you yourself.
Consider what restraint it
takes: breath withheld, no anger
or joy disturbing the surface …
It is not a trick either,
it is a craft:
mirrors are crafty….
Metaphors aside, this craft is easy for mirrors and hard for poets. It's especially hard if you're trying to reflect a country which has no image of itself, and this is the premise of The Circle Game. On the surface, it's a conventional book, a parable of the mid-1960s, featuring an exodus from the city to the wilderness in search of the real Canada. But if you look closely, it's the story of someone who is trying to enter the cycles of nature by becoming part of the "warm rotting / of vegetable flesh."…
The Animals in That Country (1968) introduces that now-famous brand of Atwoodian irony, and it's Atwood's most overtly political book. Industrial expansion, for her, means that the machine takes over mind and body, making people into lethal robots: "I reach out in love, my hands are guns." This is the germ of Power Politics, where the lover will become the imperial aggressor, and the love affair an imitation of guerrilla warfare. Irony, of course, is the weapon of a civilized mind. For the duration of the book, Atwood reinstates the mind which was renounced in The Circle Game and will again be abdicated in The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970)….
I have a special fondness for Atwood in her ironical aspect, but Susanna Moodie, in its way, is a perfect book. Procedures for Underground appeared in the same year. Poetically, it's a pale reflection of Susanna Moodie and it's the only one of Atwood's books that doesn't break new ground. (p. 59)
Power Politics is vintage Atwood, it's a mirror where every vampire/victim finds his/her own face. And it's her best known book because it strikes a nerve in the collective tooth….
Atwood's affinities … are with an earlier form of society, closer to nature than ours. It could be that she sees clearly because she's outside, watching the war: Reason and Progress in one camp, Innocence and Fate in the opposite camp. Or it could be that she knows how seductive false gods are. At any rate, violence and war hover on the edge of the lovers' magic circle—mankind is present on the island in the section called "Songs of the Transformed," where those of us who have surrendered our humanity have a chance to speak.
The bestiary is perhaps Atwood's most brilliantly conceived series of poems. The domestic animals are bitterly resentful, the wild animals are sorrowful. They sing about good and evil, and about a society which cannot distinguish between good and evil. They are sometimes comic and always deadly serious. Mirrors, as Atwood says, are crafty. Mirrors also have the disgusting habit of revealing what we would rather forget. But let the corpse have the last word, because the corpse knows what kind of mirror Atwood's poems are…. (p. 60)
Linda Sandler, "The Exorcisms of Atwood," in Saturday Night (copyright © 1976 by Saturday Night), July/August, 1976, pp. 59-60.
As a literary genre, growing-up-female-in-the-1950s is as threadbare as a pair of bleached denims, but Lady Oracle is utterly unlike any feminist novel I know. For one thing, Atwood has a sense of humour. For another, she's working with "common woman." Joan [the protagonist] doesn't belong to any neurotic élite, and when she encounters the species she finds it puzzling and inconsistent. It wants multiple orgasms, but it also wants help with the dishes. "The Scarlet Pimpernel," she says to herself, "does not have time for meaningful in-depth relationships."…
Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle … is an exquisite parody of an obsolete generation. So far, it's been privileged information that Atwood's a brilliant comedian. I vote we make it public, because one or two critics should know. (p. 59)
Linda Sandler, in Saturday Night (copyright © 1976 by Saturday Night), September, 1976.
Margaret Atwood … writes novels whose pervading theme is—yes—beginning again: old material but freshly and deftly arranged, which is what matters. The protagonist of her first novel, The Edible Woman, consumes her past in the form of a cake, thus freeing herself from it, at least symbolically. In her second, Surfacing, the literal surfacing of the protagonist from the waters of the lake in which her father had drowned represents her rising from death (the past) to life.
Eating and drowning are Miss Atwood's favored modes of escape. The protagonist of Lady Oracle [Joan Foster] … casts off the shambles of her complicated past by faking her own drowning in the foul waters of Lake Ontario….
In this novel, as in life, true escape from the detritus of the past is as impossible as the notion is sometimes tantalizing. Joan Foster is a compulsive examiner of shards as well as a compulsive dreamer; the two are as irreconcilable and inextricable as Joan and Louisa. Her problem is that they must be reconciled…. Joan/Louisa may no more escape the past, real and imagined, or evade the future than Hamlet his death, but by journeying into the ruins she may, possibly, rise above them….
Words are Miss Atwood's medium, and she uses them well. To lay out the seemingly bizarre skeletons of her novels may do them a disservice, particularly Lady Oracle. It is, in fact, a very funny novel, lightly told with wry detachment and considerable art. Disbelief is willingly suspended. Its plot is complicated but the novel is never confusing and if, in the end, it remains only tentatively resolved, so does life, except in the end.
William McPherson, "New Lives for Old," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), September 26, 1976, p. 1.
Joan Foster has an identity crisis with a difference: she knows who she is all right, but there are too many of her. As Joan, she is the colorless wife of Arthur, a pompous graduate student who spends most of his time flitting from one tiny leftist movement to another. As Louisa K. Delacourt, she is an enthusiastic writer of the sort of quickie Gothics that are sold in the dime stores she claims to work at when she's really at the library doing costume research. Joan chose her nom de plume in honor of her Aunt Lou, the only person who cared about her when she was a miserable, fat teen-ager, and this past is another secret: Arthur must never find out that her stories of high-school popularity and cheerleading are lies. It's a hard act to keep up. When Joan produces "Lady Oracle," a book of automatic writing described by her publishers as halfway between Rod McKuen and Kahlil Gibran, her new status as the toast of Toronto brings her little pleasure….
In spite of many funny moments, "Lady Oracle" moves too slowly and is basically too serious to distract us from its clumsy contrivances. And so the zany narrative, perhaps intended to spice a familiar tale of feminist woe, points all the more plainly to a deeper unanswered question: who are these people, anyway? (p. 7)
Like her heroine, Margaret Atwood seems to have two literary selves. The first, upon which her considerable reputation is based, writes spare, tense poems full of images drawn from the bleak landscape of her native Canada and suffused with a quasi-mystical animism. This self has also written an extraordinary novel, "Surfacing," in which the sick relations between the sexes are explored as part of a larger sickness in the relations between man and nature. In both "Surfacing" and the poetry a powerful sense of place compensates for a large vagueness where human beings are concerned. The other Atwood is the author of "Lady Oracle" and an earlier "The Edible Woman," a comic novel about a young woman who escapes a conventional marriage by raising her consciousness in the nick of time. Both these books lack the metaphoric and mythic force of the other work while sharing with it a limited interest in individual character. Instead of archetypes and myths, they offer us the stock figures and pat insights of a certain kind of popular feminist-oriented fiction. It may be that the genre is not congenial to Atwood's real gifts: perhaps the very confusion of "Lady Oracle" is a measure of her discomfort. Her best work is so original, so energetic, that one is tempted to guess that "Lady Oracle" is for Atwood what Gothics were for Joan: a flight from the demands of her truest, most thoughtful self. (pp. 7-8)
Katha Pollitt, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 26, 1976.
[Surfacing] synthesizes a number of motifs that have dominated [Atwood's] consciousness since her earliest poems: the elusiveness and variety of "language" in its several senses; the continuum between human and animal, human being and nature; the significance of one's heritage, including not only personal ancestors but the gods and totemic figures of primitive cultures; the search for a location (in both time and place); the brutalizations and victimizations of love; drowning and surviving. (pp. 387-88)
The "search for the father" and the sense of a symbolic journey underline the novel's mythical implications from the outset…. Told from the first person point of view in a flat, emotionless tone, the narrative echoes what the protagonist gradually discovers and reveals about herself: a total spiritual numbness which dates back, as one learns through flashbacks, not only to her dead marriage and the abortion but to the break from her parents and the confused values of her childhood. (p. 388)
The mixture of anticipation and reticence, promise and danger, attending such a journey is one of Atwood's poetic preoccupations, articulated most directly in the title poem in the volume, Procedures for Underground…. Though the narrator of Surfacing expects that she must pass through the proverbial hell and purgatory before reaching her destination, the reader gradually learns that the hell is, in fact, behind her; not new suffering but assimilation and acceptance of her previous suffering is the path towards wholeness.
That the journey has a sacred dimension becomes even clearer through the course of the narrative, as Atwood explores the confusing religious values that have become paralyzing rather than redemptive for her narrator. (pp. 389-90)
Drowning or submersion is … one of the most persistent images in Atwood's writing, appearing not only as the central metaphor in Surfacing but in numerous poems…. In her study of Canadian literature [Survival], Atwood explains the ubiquitous metaphor, observing "The Canadian author's two favourite 'natural' methods for dispatching his victims are drowning and freezing, drowning being preferred by poets—probably because it can be used as a metaphor for a descent into the unconscious …". (pp. 392-93)
Using the symmetry of drowning by water/drowning by air, and death of the parent/death of the child in Surfacing, Atwood … imaginatively condenses the implications of the contemporary schism between flesh and spirit, secular and sacred, conscious and unconscious; the destroyed fetus is the anomalous buried half of these necessarily complementary pairs. The frequent references to mutilation, amputation, anaesthesia, and the robot-like, mechanized or wooden reality of the narrator's own immediate past are now seen as the consequences of her abortion. In removing life, "they had planted death in me like a seed…. Since then I'd carried that death around inside me, layering it over, a cyst, a tumor, black pearl …"…. To interpret this image simply as a political statement against abortion would be to misunderstood the significance of the fetus as Atwood's metaphor for the self-destructive diseases of contemporary life, and the incomplete development of the self.
Moreover, the narrator's spiritual malaise is revealed as a product of her separation not only from the future (the unborn child) but the past (her dead parents). Her descent into her deeper self discloses the poverty of the conventional religious values she had only partly assimilated; the reality of her father's death (the death of her childhood "god") is the catalyzing shock which forces her guilt to surface. At the same time, however, she realizes that her father's legacy was not negation but affirmation: his rejection of Christianity was actually a liberation from dogma, and his gift to her is the map to a genuine sacred place where each person confronts his or her own personal truth. "These gods, here on the shore or in the water, unacknowledged or forgotten, were the only ones who had ever given me anything I needed; and freely"…. Atwood's poem, "Dream: Bluejay or Archeopteryx," powerfully adumbrates this same cluster of archaic and contemporary images:
in the water
under my shadow
there was an outline, man
surfacing, his body sheathed
in feathers, his teeth
glinting like nails, fierce god
head crested with blue flame.
Whereas language has been a key to unlocking her past self thus far, the narrator realizes that she must now transcend it in order to complete her quest, for "language divides us into fragments, I wanted to be whole"…. Through her protagonist's journey, Atwood suggests the broader paradox of the poet, who must use language to signal what is ineffable. At this point the narrative shifts to increasingly mythic images (suggesting the collective unconscious and its archetypal motifs as proposed by Jung). The narrator, in gratitude for her revelation at the bottom of the lake, leaves an item of clothing to propitiate the gods; at the same time, she is beginning to strip away the layers of civilization, and feeling begins to seep back into her numbed being. Accepting the message from her father's gods—the knowledge from the head, or how to see—she now seeks out the lesson she knows must be waiting for her from her mother—a knowledge from the heart, or how to feel. Again, she returns to her parents' cabin for further clues and again finds them in visual rather than verbal form.
The picture she recognizes as her mother's legacy is actually a drawing that she herself had made as a child:
On the left was a women with a round moon stomach: the baby was sitting up inside her gazing out. Opposite her was a man with horns on his head like cow horns and a barbed tail.
The picture was mine, I had made it. The baby was myself before I was born, the man was God, I'd drawn him when my brother learned in the winter about the Devil and God: if the Devil was allowed a tail and horns, God needed them also, they were advantages….
Of the images in Surfacing, either verbal or visual, this pictograph most poetically and economically synthesizes the motifs that Atwood has so meticulously developed. The typical childhood schematic resembles the primitive rock drawings that the narrator's father had recorded, besides repeating the link between ontogeny and phylogeny suggested throughout the novel. Moreover, it anticipates not only the narrator's later career as an artist, but also reflects the fact that the truth she seeks is already within herself—and is a non-verbal one. The subject of the picture is her own past: herself in the fetal state in her mother's womb, and the collective representation of the feminine principle expressed through maternity—which she had aborted. The male figure "opposite" in the drawing represents the complementary aspects of these elements: it is simultaneously her father, the masculine principle, a god (who, with his horns and tail, mends the Christian rift between God and Devil, good and evil), and, specifically, the nature deity of the rock paintings whose sacred place discloses the truth. In order to become whole, the narrator must "translate" the pictograph—immersing herself in its metaphoric language by living out all of its implications.
Significantly, just as she finds the drawing, her companions announce to her that the body of her father has been found on the lake bottom. But the confirmation of her own earlier discovery is not cause for grief. Denying the limiting reality of such facts, she exults, from the perspective of her newly found vision, that "nothing has died, everything is alive, everything is waiting to become alive"…. (pp. 394-96)
The knowledge of the meaning of death revealed at the bottom of the lake corresponds to her unconscious half, now joined with her conscious self to form a whole. She vows to bear the symbolic child—who is both the released guilt of her past and the potentiality of the future—by herself, animal-like, alone, rather than strapped into the death machine that civilization provides. (p. 396)
[The] narrator finds taboos and directives everywhere; she exists in a state of primitive consciousness in which each object in the outer world is invested with sacred and personal significance. Everything remotely associated with human civilization is forbidden, even food and shelter. She eats roots and builds an animal-like lair. By reducing herself as much as possible to a kind of animal state that is symbolically both pre-human and pre-birth, she hopes to recover the archaic language necessary to communicate with the spirits of her parents. (Several of Atwood's poems focus on the transformation into and out of an animal state, including "Eventual Proteus" in The Circle Game; "Arctic syndrome: dream fox" in The Animals in That Country; "Departure from the Bush" and "Looking in a Mirror" in The Journals of Susanna Moodie.) Feeling herself pregnant with what may be a "fur god with tail and horns" …—an emblem of the godhead recently conceived within her—she is rewarded for her purifying sacrifices by momentary visions of each of her parents.
These visions crystallize the parallel themes which Atwood has consistently developed throughout Surfacing. On the metaphysical level, the narrator returns to the primeval time before the Fall and the knowledge of good and evil, when man was undifferentiated from the godhead, unconscious of his separate (and divided) self. Having incorporated the redemptive values of the nature deities embodied by her parents' spirits in place of the earlier confusions of distorted Christianity, she has forgiven herself for her sins against the human condition, thus reaffirming the sacred ties between generations and between man and nature. On the psychological level, she has relived her guilt-ridden personal past as well as the collective past—regressing through the abortion, her dead marriage (which she had experienced as the state of continual falling, "going down, waiting for the smash at the bottom" …), and her own pre-human vestiges. In establishing identification with both the feminine (maternal, generative) and masculine (knowledge, wisdom) principles, she generates her own creative potentiality through rejoining the severed halves of her being.
As the visionary reality recedes "back to the past, inside the skull, it is the same place" …, she re-enters her "own time"…. She has recovered not so much the images of her actual parents as their symbolic reality and significance for her; their spirits can only provide one kind of truth. From them she has learned that salvation and redemption are never total, never complete; they must be constantly renewed in the present. As her parents shrink to what they really were, mere human beings and not gods, she accepts their imperfection, including the one fact that she had resisted for so long—their mortality. To accept that is to accept death itself, which, she has learned, is simply to accept life. But she also realizes that she can refuse to be a victim or to play word games that in their falsification of reality are (like her brother's arbitrary categories of good and evil) a form of death.
Like the hero of the mythological quest, she must bring the boon of knowledge back to the level of mundane reality, must translate it back into the language of sanity. In keeping with this realization, she "surfaces," choosing to return to Joe. Though he is only half-formed (and not a particularly positive character, as developed earlier in the novel), he represents a kind of animal purity and dogged devotion to her. Moreover, having recovered the capacity for love and faith, she has no one else with whom she can live out her new self-discoveries. Such a muted affirmation to conclude the novel may ring false, in view of the wholeness of vision finally achieved by the narrator. But it is consistent with Atwood's observation that.
in Canadian literature, a character who does much more than survive stands out almost as an anomaly…. [Still], having bleak ground under your feet is better than having no ground at all….
Mapping the symbolic journey into both the private and collective heart of darkness, Atwood has thus created a powerful account of modern civilization and its diseases. Elsewhere she has noted that paranoid schizophrenia—the split personality—is "the national mental illness" of Canada. However, the problem of self-division that she diagnoses in Surfacing resonates on a number of other levels; the illness is a metaphor of the human condition itself. The only cure is the journey of self-discovery: down and through the darkness of the divided self to the undifferentiated wholeness of archaic consciousness—and back…. Surfacing renders not only the archetypal journey into the self but Atwood's own personal journey back through the stages of her evolution as a poet. The novel both reveals and imaginatively extends the unity of theme and image of her previous work, expressing her ability to work within traditional frameworks to achieve an original vision. In the poem entitled "The Journey to the Interior," the narrator—like the protagonist of Surfacing—realizes
that travel is not the easy going
from point to point, a dotted
line on a map, location
plotted on a square surface
but that I move surrounded by a tangle
of branches, a net of air and alternate
light and dark, at all times;
that there are no destinations
apart from this.
Roberta Rubenstein, "'Surfacing': Margaret Atwood's Journey to the Interior," in Modern Fiction Studies (copyright © 1976, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana, U.S.A.), Autumn, 1976, pp. 387-99.
Margaret Atwood's new novel [Lady Oracle] is a compound of domestic comedy, Jungian psychology and social satire, stirred with wit and flavoured with the occult. (p. 84)
Atwood means to give her heroine [Joan] a quality of helpless vulnerability, but endows her with an ironic sensibility so keen as to make her seem the strongest character in the book, a cool and amused observer rather than the chief sufferer. This is a minor failing, however, and it is a relief to turn from the humourless intensity of Surfacing to the urbane comedy of Lady Oracle. In the former novel, the heroine's grim entry into a primeval world and her determined rejection of human contact conveyed a kind of superior contempt for the equivocations and compromises of everyday life, as well as a feminist hostility to a society which reduces women to the level of sex objects. In some respects the pattern is repeated in Lady Oracle: the heroine, trapped in an identity she detests, searches for some meaning in her life; shedding men along the way, she undergoes a ritual death and rebirth, flirts with dark powers in her psyche, and emerges to a new awareness of self. Also reminiscent of Surfacing is the book's attack on the crassly materialistic concerns of North American life, on the vulgarity of a society dedicated to show. Yet in Lady Oracle these themes become largely a source of satiric humour; there is none of the morose self-righteousness which marks the tone of the earlier novel. Atwood has not lost her seriousness of purpose, but her vision has broadened, and she has developed a maturer sense of the possibilities inherent in any given situation. (pp. 84-5)
The heroine's search for emotional fulfilment and psychic integration gives coherence and direction to a plot that might otherwise seem rather creaky and disjointed. As is often the case with fiction cast in autobiographical form, the narrative follows an episodic line, and parts of the action are sometimes very tenuously connected…. Still, such weaknesses seem slight beside the deftness in Joan's career and introduces so many unusual and interesting characters. She has, too, an admirable control of style; her ability to insert the telling phrase and her eclecticism of reference give her writing a liveliness and polish that are unusual in Canadian fiction. (pp. 86-7)
Herbert Rosengarten, "Urbane Comedy," in Canadian Literature, Spring, 1977, pp. 84-7.
Lady Oracle is proof that when it comes to fiction, the whole is sometimes not equal to, let alone more than, its parts. Many of the parts of Atwood's finally unsatisfying third novel are witty, excellent, insightful….
Lady Oracle is … an uneasy mixture of Gothic parody and a comedy of manners. The parody of the Gothic shows us still another side of Atwood…. Her main character's Costume Gothics reveal what might be a scholarly knowledge of the field as well as an uncanny feel for the psychology behind them. Likewise, much of the comedy of manners, the social comedy, strikes precisely the right note….
But these various aspects never emotionally connect or mesh into a unity: in fact, the parodic and satiric parts detract from the most interesting and moving material—the evocation of the heroine's childhood…. [The] vision of fatness—its causes, trial and results—is the finest aspect of the novel. (p. 283)
What is perhaps most disturbing about Lady Oracle—and a clue to its ultimate failure—is its strange closeness and yet distance from Surfacing, Atwood's last novel. Many of the same themes and images pervade both works. In both first-person novels we have heroines interested in magical transformation, exploration of the past, especially in relationship to parents, death and the disappearance of a body, mystical religion, an examination of the sources and uses of art. But where magical transformation involved a genuine quest in Surfacing, here it is automatic writing and false drowning. Where mystical religion meant trying urgently to contact the local nature-spirits in Surfacing, here it is an easy world of aged spiritualists. Where the growth in Surfacing involved abandoning commercial art and seeking deeper roots in childhood drawings and Indian pictographs, here the art is Gothic novels rejected in the end—in favor of science fiction. On one level, Lady Oracle seems almost a parody or weird distortion of Atwood's most serious themes.
In essence, Surfacing is an exploration, a quest novel; Lady Oracle is an entertainment, an escape novel—in both senses of the word. The resolution of Surfacing is aesthetically and emotionally satisfying, entailing as it does a genuine metamorphosis, a psychological transformation. The resolution of Lady Oracle is witty, emblematic and contrived—a comic gesture. This is unsatisfying because the novel is basically serious, unlike Atwood's first novel The Edible Woman, which has the same sort of conclusion. (pp. 283-84)
[Finally,] when we hear the mysterious footsteps down the hall approaching our heroine, we no longer care if she is "saved" or "got"—we and, I suspect, her creator, can't quite believe, let alone feel for her. (p. 284)
Bonnie Lyons, in The New Orleans Review (© 1977 by Loyola University), Vol. 5, No. 3.