As Atwood is a prominent collector of themes, those found in Murder in the Dark are also found in her other works in one form or another. The most common themes found in Atwood's work are sexuality, marginalization of women and minority groups, social fears (such as growing old) as well as progression and movement, and the relationship between old and young (and the relationship between being old and being young), distrust of religion, patriarchy, issues of power, gender politics, body image, narrative voice and design, language, subversion of traditional literary forms, revisionist myth-making, history, satire, irony, Canadian nationalism, spirituality, the environment, feminist anger, bashing of males, public persona, coldness/unreliability of her narrators (as both the short story and the name of the book implies), and pessimism.
Murder in the Dark is comprised of four sections with twenty-seven prose poems in total. The first section consists of eight short works: "Autobiography," "Making Poison," "The Boy's Own Annual 1911," "Before the War," "Horror Comics," "Boyfriends," "The Victory Burlesk," and "Fainting." There seems to be a marked progression in theme and tone as the collection moves from youthful naivete toward a more adult-like skepticism. However, as always, her writing also reflects a series of binary oppositions whereby she is both curious but not fooled, skeptical but mystical, and youthful but wise. Thus, in "Making Poison" the child-like narrator reflects, "I can remember the glee with which we stirred and added, the sense of magic and accomplishment. Making poison is as much fun as making a cake. People like to make poison. If you don't understand this you will never understand anything." In "Boyfriends" we learn that the evening smells of both "mud and the full moon."
Atwood is constantly reminding the reader that her narrator is unreliable—"I went to the Victory Burlesk twice, or maybe it was only once and one of my friends went the other time and told me about it." She tests gender boundaries in "The Victory Burlesk": "[it] was quite daring for young women . . . we thought it was funny; it was almost as funny as church," and dramatically juxtaposes the young with the old, escapism with reality:
but when she finally turned around, she was old. Her face was powdered dead white, her mouth was bright reddish purple, but she was old. I could feel shame washing through me, it was no longer funny, I didn't want this woman to take off her clothes, I didn't want to look. I felt that I, not the woman on the stage, was being exposed and humiliated.
Forever challenging gender roles and boundaries, Atwood is a consistent oxymoron. In "Fainting" she reflects on a small child's experience with point of view and sight. The final statement "we faint when there's something we don't want to see, can't bear to see" is a comment on social injustices and the inconvenience of perspective. The title poem "Autobiography" is an appropriate one, as all the poems in the section are clearly autobiographical, although in a fictional sense. These poems...
(The entire section is 1290 words.)