“Half-Hanged Mary” is a medium-length narrative poem in free verse that has ten sections, each containing one to five stanzas. In it, Atwood reconstructs the hanging of Mary Webster, a woman accused of witchcraft in Massachusetts in the 1680’s. Webster was hanged but did not die; thus the title of the poem.
The poem is written in the first person: Mary tells her own story. The ten sections of the poem are titled by time. The first, “7 p.m.,” tells of the hour in the evening when authorities come for Mary while she is milking the cows. Her crimes, she deduces, include living alone, owning her “weedy farm,” knowing a cure for warts, and, most of all, being a woman: having “breasts/ and a sweet pear hidden in my body.” Her specific examples show how well she understands her situation. The times are ripe for witch-hunts, and any woman a bit out of the ordinary is vulnerable. “Rumour,” she tells her reader, was “hunting for some neck to land on.”
At “8 p.m.,” the time of the second section, Mary is hanged. She describes the excitement of the men who hang her; they are excited “by their show of hate” and by “their own evil.” At “9 p.m.,” she describes the women who watch. She understands that they cannot help her, for they, too, are vulnerable just by being women. Should they choose to help or even acknowledge her, they might be the next to be accused. At “10 p.m.,” Mary addresses God. She suggests that now she and God can continue to quarrel about free will, obviously an important subject to her. She searches for some reason for her suffering, and she finds God indifferent to her plight.
At “12 midnight,” Mary fights against death. It waits for her and tempts her. She knows that giving in to death means giving up the pain, but it also means “To give up my own words for myself,/ my own refusals.” Staying alive is an assertion of her own personhood, of her refusal to accept the allegations and punishment of her society, and she is determined to hold out for as long as she can. The focus of her fight is against oblivion, and this fight carries her through the night. At “2 a.m.,” she feebly cries out, a cry that mostly means “not yet.” At “3 a.m.,” her strength is ebbing, and she feels as if she is drowning. She reiterates her innocence and refuses to give in. By “6 a.m.,” although she is still technically alive, she feels that she has already died once, and, in fact, she has.
At “8 a.m.,” the townspeople come to cut down the corpse. However, Mary is not dead, and the law prohibits another attempt at killing her. Her tenacity is a mixed blessing, however, for the citizens are more certain of her dark powers now that she has escaped death, and, in her struggle, she has lost much of her own self: “Before, I was not a witch./ But now I am one.”
The final section, titled “Later,” substantiates these two lines. Now people stay out of her way. Now she can say and do anything without fear. Now she is truly an outcast, surviving on berries, flowers, dung, and mice. She has, in fact, become crazy from the same experience that has made her free. Absolutely mistreated and misunderstood, she speaks “in tongues.” The townsfolk have created the witch that they wanted.
Margaret Atwood’s poems are loaded with imagery, and, in “Half-Hanged Mary,” the imagery often disturbs. Atwood forces the reader into...
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what contemporary poet Adrienne Rich calls “re-vision”: “seeing with fresh eyes” in order the break the hold of tradition. Her images grab and surprise the reader and insist upon the reader’s reassessment of expectations. Some of the images depend primarily on visual surprise. The rope is put around Mary’s neck and she is yanked skyward: “Up I go like a windfall in reverse,/ a blackened apple stuck back onto the tree.” She later compares her hanging self to “a turkey’s wattles.” Death is “like a crow/ waiting for my squeezed beet/ of a heart to burst/ so he can eat my eyes.” These similes present fresh, startling pictures that require a moment for the reader to take in.
Often, single words or simple phrases form the image. When Mary speaks of the women watching her, she uses synecdoche (the use of a part to represent the whole) to freeze the image. It is the “bonnets,” “dark skirts,” and “upturned faces” who come to stare. Her images often shock. An aborted baby is “flushed” from the mother. Mary looks down into “eyeholes/ and nostrils” from above. Atwood’s angels do not sing, but “caw.” This raw imagery pervades the poem, intruding on the reader’s sensibilities like static on the radio.
The unexpected word or combination of words creates not ambiguity but clarity. By the last section of the poem, “Later,” Mary’s lunacy or witchness seems certifiable. She skitters and mumbles, “mouth full of juicy adjectives/ and purple berries.” As she scavenges for food because her position and means of self-support are gone, she speaks without fear: “I can now say anything I can say.” Yet, in reality, she is voiceless. First, nobody listens to her. Even worse, she has less ability to speak, as indicated by the second “can” in the quote above. She is now limited by her own emotional demise, and the words Atwood uses for her speech are “mumbling,” “boil,” and “unravels”; she speaks in tongues to the owls.
Throughout the poem, Atwood emphasizes the irony of Mary’s situation, often expressing her cynicism in sarcastic renderings of common phrases. In describing herself, Mary mentions her breasts and ovaries, then says that “Whenever there’s talk of demons/ these come in handy.”
She understands that the women cannot come to her aid because “Birds/ of a feather burn together” and because “Lord/ knows there isn’t much/ to go around.” She starts a conversation with God because she has “some time to kill,” but she later finds him absent from the sky. “Wrong address,” she says, “I’ve been out there.” By the end of the night, she is “At the end of [her] rope,” and, when she is cut down and gives the onlookers a “filthy grin,” she speaks to her reader: “You can imagine how that went over.”
The tone of these expressions clearly shows Atwood’s attitude toward the whole hanging affair. Seemingly light statements are steeped in sarcasm and thus hang in the air in judgment of the society that does kill the original Mary and reincarnates her as a witch and lunatic.
Cooke, Nathalie. Margaret Atwood: A Biography. Toronto, Ontario: ECW Press, 1998.
Hengen, Shannon. Margaret Atwood’s Power: Mirrors, Reflections, and Images in Select Fiction and Poetry. Toronto, Ontario: Sumach Press, 1993.
Nischik, Reingard, ed. Margaret Atwood: Works and Impact. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2000.
Stein, Karen F. Margaret Atwood Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1999.
Wilson, Sharon, Thomas Friedman, and Shannon Hengen, eds. Approaches to Teaching Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Other Works. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1996.