Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2118
Dancing Girls and Other Stories is Margaret Atwood’s sixth book of fiction (published in the United States), having been preceded by five novels: The Edible Woman (1960), Surfacing (1972), Lady Oracle (1976), Life Before Man (1980), and Bodily Harm (1982). Atwood has also published more than ten volumes of poetry, beginning with Double Persephone (1961), and a critical study, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972).
Atwood’s fiction reflects the old truth that a writer should write about what he knows best. Her stories and novels, set in the places where she grew up and was educated, relate the tics and traumas of mostly young men and women of the sort Atwood has known well. She was born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, in 1939, and pursued her education in both Canada and the United States, beginning with a B.A. from the University of Toronto in 1961, continuing with a graduate degree from Radcliffe in 1962, doing further graduate work at Harvard and at Trent University, from which she received a D. Litt. in 1973, and ending with an LL.D. from Queens University in 1974. She has worked as a cashier and as a waitress, as a writer of market research and of film scripts, as a college teacher of English, an editor, a critic, a novelist, and a poet. Along the way, she has obviously paid close attention to the awkward manner in which men and women grope and stumble about in one another’s lives.
Dancing Girls and Other Stories probes some of the important themes treated in Atwood’s five novels: the brutalizations and victimizations of love; the possibilities for metamorphosis of the personality; the nature and effect of power in human relationships and in the natural world; the continuum between human and animal, the human being and nature; and the instinct for survival. A recurring motif which links a number of these themes is the failure of men and women to communicate on a personal level, particularly when the individual couple is or has been in love. As Atwood writes in a poem entitled “True Romance”: “It isn’t sex that’s the problem, it’s language. Or/ Maybe love makes you deaf, not blind.” Language frequently betrays Atwood’s characters; the wonder is that any relationships survive. An enduring relationship, indeed, is rare in Atwood’s fiction.
“The Man from Mars,” the first story in the collection, is the first of many in which a female protagonist survives an unsatisfactory relationship with a man. Christine is the third of three daughters, a college-age girl with a “chunky reddish face” and “big bones”; she could “not possibly ever be beautiful even if she took off weight.” She does not attract invitations for dates, but one fine day, an Oriental, “the man from Mars” of the title, asks her for directions to the economics building. She helps. He announces that he will come to her home for tea. Out of politeness, she complies, partly to please her mother. Time passes, during which he leaves the city, then returns. He tracks Christine on campus, jogging with her, joining her at lunch. Her friends begin to think of her as mysterious. She had never been mysterious before, only open, considered by her contemporaries to be “a plodder,” a “plain one,” “helpful and a hard worker”—and to her male friends, “the one who could be relied upon.” The man chasing her is, in spite of his peculiarities, “still a man.” Other men look her over again and begin to ask her out. “In the bathtub she no longer imagined she was a dolphin; instead she imagined she was an elusive water-nixie, or sometimes, in moments of audacity, Marilyn Monroe.” The police pick up the “man from Mars,” however, and he is soon deported: in Montreal, he had pursued the Mother Superior of a convent, a woman of about sixty. Christine is not special. Her “aura of mystery fades,” and her life returns to its mediocre pattern. She gets fatter, has headaches, and takes to reading nineteenth century novels.
Like many of Atwood’s women, Christine is pathologically passive, a victim, one to whom “things happen.” Other stories reveal the possibility of escaping from this passive role. In “Betty,” when the narrator was seven years old and spending the summer in “a tiny wooden cottage” upstream from Sault Sainte Marie, she recalls meeting the older Betty. One of two daughters, the narrator recounts watching couples who lived nearby, thinking that one of the men “was a murderer” and that the other, Betty’s husband, Fred, was so attractive. The narrator recalls that her mother was “livelier when he was around” and that her father drank beer with him and talked. Fred was attractive and likable but “didn’t seem to make any efforts to be nice to people.” She realizes that she cannot remember what Fred looked like—but that the inconsequential, deferential, kind Betty is easy to remember, “down to the last hair and freckle.” Still, everyone loved Fred, and no one loved Betty, in spite of the fact that Betty was “always either smiling or laughing” and that she was always doing nice things for people. Predictably, Fred left Betty, perhaps for another woman, and Betty had a nervous breakdown. Four years later, the narrator met Betty again: She “smelled strongly of Lily of the Valley,” used too much rouge to hide the “masses of tiny veins under her skin,” and was working as an executive secretary, devoting herself to her boss as she had once devoted herself to Fred. She seemed “in a way, quite happy,” but as the narrator asks, “What right had Betty to be cheerful?” Soon after this meeting, Betty became uncharacteristically aggressive; she had developed a brain tumor and died in the hospital two months later. The narrator contemplates; she sees herself abandoned “by a succession of Freds” who choose “vivacious girls” like her sister. She decides that Betty’s final outburst of anger was one “of protest against the unfairness of life. That anger, I knew, was my own, the dark side of that terrible and deforming niceness that had marked Betty like the aftermath of some crippling disease.” Others stop calling the narrator “a nice girl and started calling me a clever one, and after a while I enjoyed this.”
“Under Glass” illustrates the continuum Atwood sees between nature and human beings. The narrator, a young woman in love with a young man who has recently cheated on her, admires some greenhouse plants that “look like stones, their fleshy lobed leaves knuckle-sized and mottled so that they blend perfectly with the pebbles.” By the end of the story, she wonders “how long it takes, how they do it.” She is busy trying to be like the stones around her, unnoticeable and accommodating. Apparently, she has recently been released from the hospital and is “feeling better.” She goes to her lover’s apartment, finding him hung over and discovering that her girlfriend has slept with him the night before. “It was her idea,” he says, and “I was drunk.” The narrator carefully keeps her murderous thoughts to herself. She sees the future and thinks of herself “picking up his dirty socks and cigarette butts . . . grunting away at the natural childbirth exercises while he’s off screwing whatever was propped against him when he hit the mystic number of drinks.” She begins to think of herself as “a place not a person.” The nearest she can come to expressing her anger physically is to throw the rose she bought for him into the trash. He wants her to accept him and his “nervous tics,” but she wants “to tell him now what no one’s ever taught him, how two people who love each other behave, how they avoid damaging each other, but I’m not sure I know.” They talk. “He kisses my fingers; he thinks we have all been cured. He believes in amnesia, he will never mention it again.” She is of a different mind, but she still wants him. She will become like the flowers she admires: “. . . little zeros, containing nothing but themselves; no food value, to the eye soothing and round, then suddenly nowhere.” Like so many of Atwood’s stories, “Under Glass” is about the defensive maneuvers women take to survive in a world they believe they cannot change. What they often sacrifice is a part of themselves.
Dancing girls are women who perform for the pleasure of men, and Atwood’s women are frequently cast in that role. Even the men in her stories sometimes assume this role, becoming “performers.” The story “Dancing Girls” itself invokes the image of such girls only in passing. Told in the third person, the story recounts the experience of Ann, a graduate student in urban design who goes to Toronto to study. She lives in a boardinghouse inhabited by a succession of foreign students, with whom, as an “outsider,” she feels a certain kinship. Her own character repressed, or simply never developed, she observes the succession of graduate students in the rooming house—a group of mathematicians from Hong Kong, a Frenchman studying cinema, a girl from Turkey studying comparative literature. The landlord, Mrs. Nolan, is domineering, noisy, and quaint, asking her foreign students at one point to don their “native costume” to come to a party; no one but Ann attends.
Ann has followed her father’s advice to “Finish what you start . . . I didn’t and look what happened to me.” Her “first real boyfriend, beefy, easygoing Bill Decker . . .” was the one with whom she had “spent a lot of time parked on side streets, rubbing against each other through all those layers of clothes.” She had “known this was not something she could get too involved in.” Her relationships with “men since then” have been the same: “Circumspect.” Early in the story, a young man, apparently Middle Eastern, moves next door to her apartment. She notices every detail about him, down to his “prosaic brown shoes” and a set of scars, tattoo marks, “running across each cheek.” She “sympathized with his loneliness, but she did not wish to become involved in it, implicated by it. She had enough trouble dealing with her own.” She wonders, as months go by, “Who was he, and what was happening to him?” She figures, “he was in exile, he was drowning . . . but there was nothing she could do. . . . All you could do for the drowning was to make sure you were not one of them.” Instead she busies herself with her design for a shopping complex, a safe enclave for her mind and body. One night, she returns home to find that her mysterious Middle Eastern neighbor is having a party, with friends and drinking, she concludes from the sounds. She locks herself in and barricades the door. Later, she hears Mrs. Nolan shouting, there is a clattering on the stairs, and the front door bangs. In the morning, she learns that Mrs. Nolan has evicted the roomer, keeping his few belongings. He is homeless, possibly insane from the solitude of exile.
Mrs. Nolan, outraged by the roomer’s having two friends and three dancing girls in for a Dionysian romp of a party, sends the Middle Easterners into the street before her broom. She was satisfied that she “had done something very brave.” In his empty room, they find a pile of liquor bottles, and in another, all the trash accumulated during his stay. Ann begins to wonder about the conditions that produced such an outcome, feeling great sympathy for the Middle Easterner. She sees Mrs. Nolan from his point of view: “What would these cold, mad people do next?” Her “childish regret” is that she had not seen the dancing girls. Apparently, Atwood sees them as a sort of counterbalance to the loneliness in the Middle Easterners’ lives. They are part of the natural order, about which Ann needs to learn more before she continues her career in urban design. Ann may indeed be learning, for as the story ends, she is planning a community, the design of which suggests a balance between nature and culture: “She must learn more about animals.” Atwood suggests here and throughout the collection that we must all learn more about animals, especially the human animal that we are.
Atwood’s fiction is full of such well-crafted imagery, imagery which vividly realizes the interior life of her protagonists. Beneath the ironic surface of her portraits of representative women—recording their muted existential losses and gains, their subtle, inconspicuous adjustments to make life as agreeable as possible, though agreeable it cannot be—there is unappeasable anger and a call to change.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 48
Library Journal. CVII, September 15, 1982, p. 1767.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 17, 1982, p. 3.
New Statesman. CIV, November 12, 1982, p. 33.
The New Republic. CLXXXVII, September 20, 1982, p. 40.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, September 19, 1982, p. 3.
The New Yorker. LVIII, October 4, 1982, p. 146.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXII, July 16, 1982, p. 62.
Times Literary Supplement. January 7, 1982, p. 23.
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