The Circle Game Summary
by Margaret Atwood

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The Circle Game Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The title poem of Atwood’s The Circle Game (1966) develops the circle motif that pervades her poetry and represents the patterned, structured world that both controls and shelters individuals who seek and fear freedom from conformity. The seven-part poem juxtaposes the children’s world and the adult world but suggests that childhood circle games, ostensibly so innocent, provide a training ground for the adult circle games that promote estrangement and emotional isolation. In the first part of the poem, the children play ring-around-a-rosy; but despite the surface appearance of unity, each child is separate, “singing, but not to each other,” without joy in an unconscious “tranced moving.” As they continue going in circles, their eyes are so “fixed on the empty moving spaces just in front of them” that they ignore nature with its grass, trees, and lake. For them, the “whole point” is simply “going round and round,” a process without purpose or “point.” In the second part, the couple plays its own circle games as the lover remains apart, emotionally isolated despite sharing a room and a bed with the speaker. Like the children, his attention is focused elsewhere, not on the immediate and the real, but on the people behind the walls. The bed is “losing its focus,” as he is concerned with other “empty/ moving spaces” at a distance or with himself, “his own reflection.” The speaker concludes that there is always “someone in the next room” that will enable him to erect barriers between them.

Part 3 moves from the isolation of part 1 to an abstract defensiveness that unconsciously enforces that isolation. The innocent sand castles on the beach are comprised of “trenches,” “sand moats,” and “a lake-enclosed island/ with no bridges,” which the speaker sees as a “last attempt” to establish a “refuge human/ and secure from the reach/ of whatever walks along/ (sword hearted)/ these night beaches.” Since the speaker has earlier equated “sword hearted” with the adult world, she implies that the adult world poses the real or imagined threat. Protection from “the reach” becomes the metaphor for the lover’s unwillingness to have her “reach him” in part 4 (part 2 described her as “groping” for him). The lover’s fortifications are more subtle verbal and nonverbal games (“the witticisms/ of touch”) that enable him to keep her at a “certain distance” through the intellect that abstracts and depersonalizes reality. As the lover has been a “tracer of maps,” which are themselves the abstraction of physical reality, he is now “tracing” her “like a country’s boundary” in a perverse parody of John Donne’s map imagery in his Metaphysical love poetry. For the lover, she becomes part of the map of the room, which is thus not real but abstract, and she is “here and yet not here,” here only in the abstract as she is “transfixed/ by your eyes’! cold blue thumbtacks,” an image that suggests distance, control, and violence.

The last three parts of the poem draw together the children’s world and that of the adults. In part 5, the speaker observes the contrast between the children’s imaginative perception of violence (the guns and cannons of the fort/museum) and the adult perception of the domestication of that violence as the “elaborate defences” are shifted first to the glass cases of the museum and then, metaphorically, to their own relationship. The defenses become the “orphan game” of part 6, in which the lover prefers to be “alone” but is simultaneously attracted and repulsed by the family games in which parents “play” their roles. Metaphorically, he is on the outside looking in, observing but separated by the window barrier. In the last part of the poem, it is “summer again,” itself a circle of the seasons, and the children’s outside circle games are again mirrored by the adult’s inside circle games....

(The entire section is 925 words.)