In the poem “Half-Hanged Mary” by Margaret Atwood, the speaker portrays herself as vulnerable in the first two stanzas through her choice of words and the way she describes her situation. The poem begins with, “Rumour was loose in the air.” This suggests that rumors—possibly about many unnamed people—were flying and waiting to land on a particularly unlucky, vulnerable person. It also suggests that the accusations were based on innuendo, without any real evidence or proof of malfeasance. This theme is made clear in the second line: rumor was just “hunting for some neck to land on.”
These lines give the reader the sense of just how arbitrary the “hunting” or search was. It seems as if the “neck to land on” could have been that of any person who was alone and unprotected. Moreover, the poet does not give a description of what the rumors were or what the specific crime was. Not knowing the crime adds to the sense of arbitrariness. The executors are not looking for someone who has done anything specific; they're just hunting for a "neck" or person to blame and hang.
At the time, the speaker was “milking the cow.” She therefore was alone, doing a daily chore. The description is of a fairly mundane action. Moreover, that she was alone made her particularly vulnerable. There was no one with her to help her, no one to stand up for her and defend her.
In addition, the people who come looking for her have easy access to her. This is clear in the fourth line, which is, “the barn door open to the sunset.” The door was open, which gives the reader the understanding of how easy it was to get to the speaker. Ironically, the reason the door was open was so that the speaker could enjoy “the sunset.”
In the second stanza, the writer notes that she “didn't feel the aimed word hit.” Again, there is a sense of isolation. There is no mention of anyone else being nearby, and we know from the first stanza that the speaker is alone in the barn. The use of “aimed” likens the "word" in that line to a weapon. This, coupled with the use of the word “rumour,” shows that the speaker is being accused by unknown persecutors based on nothing but innuendo. Further on in the stanza, the speaker says,
I didn't feel the smashed flesh
closing over it like water
over a thrown stone.
This makes it sound like the speaker was taken by surprise. The imagery is of a solitary woman alone in a barn doing something that she does every day and enjoying the sight of the sunset, when suddenly, the perpetrators of the rumors take aim and “shoot” her with their innuendo.
By the third stanza, the speaker lists the attributes that made her vulnerable. They are all relatively random, reinforcing the sense that the hanging was senseless, with no real substance behind the obscure accusations.