Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Margaret Atwood frequently approaches the issue of selfhood in terms of a search for identity and in terms of violations of the self, as well as the dualities of life. In this story, she portrays the male psychiatrist superficially; he was clearly a person who hated women, as well as a weakling who made himself feel strong by surrounding himself with women with low self-esteem who loved and respected him because of his appearance of strength and character. The story’s narrator, on the other hand, is revealed as a person with flaws, but also with great gifts.

“The Sin-Eater” explores the differences between appearance and reality. Eventually, the narrator achieves an epiphany in her attempts to strip away the superficial appearance of her psychiatrist and thereby discover the truth of both his identity and her own. The psychiatrist appeared to be strong but was in reality very weak. He assumed the role of protective parent while he was really living as a self-centered child. These contradictions ultimately led to his finest deceit—pretending to be the “sin-eater” for his women patients and former wives. Ultimately, the narrator’s dream reveals her to be the true martyr.

Because Joseph smothered his women with pretended love and fatherly concern, his death, painful as it is for them to accept, ironically frees them to live more realistic and honest lives for the first time. The reader follows the narrator’s movement from shocked...

(The entire section is 546 words.)