The violence that human beings inflict on one another and their isolation in an uncaring world are pervasive themes in Margaret Atwood’s work. Bodily Harm, her fifth novel, is in many respects her bleakest, though it holds out some hope in the form of compassion to be shared by those who are victims of bodily harm in any form. The novel suggests that every person falls into this category. All are victims. There is no exemption, no escape for anyone.
Rennie Wilford, the central character, is a type who will be familiar to readers of Atwood’s earlier novels—the university-educated young Canadian woman of Anglo-Saxon heritage who is mildly rebellious against the stuffy respectability of her past but far from free of its influences. She is a “lifestyles” journalist, writing about fast-food restaurants, “drain chain” jewelry, how to pick up men in laundromats—in short, about the surfaces of life. She left college in the early 1970’s expecting to dedicate herself to causes, to honest explorations of serious issues, but she soon found herself drifting toward externals, concerned more with what protesters were wearing and eating than with the issues of their protests. She has successfully avoided making deep commitments to anything or anyone, even Jake, the man with whom she lives. Significantly, he too is a person connected chiefly to the surfaces of life; he makes his living as a planner of product packaging.
Rennie’s comfortable, safe, impenetrable world of externals cracks when she discovers that she has breast cancer. Although her surgeon, Daniel Luoma, assures her that her mastectomy is successful, she reacts by withdrawing from Jake and seeing herself as both mutilated and incapable of feeling. Then, a few weeks after her operation, she returns to her apartment to find two policemen there, investigating the presence of an unknown intruder, a “faceless invader” who has made himself a cup of Ovaltine in her kitchen and left a coil of white rope lying on her bed. Unnerved by this inexplicable assault from outside, as well as by the equally inexplicable attack from her own body, she decides to escape. She flies to St. Antoine, a fictitious Caribbean island, where she believes she will, as a tourist, be “exempt” from involvement in the problems that plague her at home. She learns that no one is exempt from anything.
On the plane to St. Antoine, Rennie meets a native of the island, Dr. Minnow, who is a presidential candidate campaigning against the current dictator, Ellis, and a young man who is picturesquely known as the Prince of Peace. Later, she becomes acquainted with Lora, a rather brassy American expatriate, and Paul, a powerful drug smuggler. Through these three characters, Rennie becomes involved in island politics and is gradually sucked into a whirlpool of brutality. As she watches, horrors increase. A deaf-mute is beaten insensible. The decent patriot, Dr. Minnow, is assassinated. Dozens of citizens are tortured and mutilated in a brief political revolt. Yet, Rennie continues to try to detach herself from what is happening, to see herself as a tourist, one free to leave and to ignore the sufferings of others. Then, she and Lora are imprisoned by the government—under “suspicion,” she is told. Even under these circumstances, she refuses to see reality. When Rennie realizes that Lora is prostituting herself in order to buy small luxuries from the prison guards, she scorns her for cheapening herself. She withholds her sympathy from her companion until Lora finally rebels against their captors and is battered into unconsciousness, perhaps death, by the guards. Only then does Rennie realize that she may never be free. She cannot escape bodily harm, whether it comes through her own cancerous cells or from faceless men outside.
The novel’s ending seems deliberately ambiguous. Rennie is on a flight back to Canada, but it is a flight that is introduced in the future tense, as something that will happen. It may be a flight that exists only in Rennie’s imagination. Through this ambiguity, Atwood suggests that the “reality” of Rennie’s flight is ultimately irrelevant, since there is no escape or rescue for anyone. What is important is to accept one’s involvement in death and violence and to reach out to others, as Rennie is finally able to do when she takes Lora’s cold hand and holds it in her own, trying to draw her companion back into the world of the living.
Like Atwood’s other novels, Bodily Harm is technically complex. Rennie’s story is presented in fragments, sections that advance the plot alternating with flashbacks to her childhood, her operation, and her relationships with Jake and her doctor. While most of the book is narrated in...
(The entire section is 1944 words.)