Lady Oracle

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Margaret Atwood, acclaimed Canadian author of two previous novels, The Edible Woman and Surfacing, captures the essence of Lady Oracle in her opening paragraph:I planned my death carefully; unlike my life, which meandered along from one thing to another, despite my feeble attempts to control it. My life had a tendency to spread, to get flabby, to scroll and festoon like the frame of a baroque mirror, which came from following the line of least resistance. I wanted my death, by contrast, to be neat and simple, understated, even a little severe, like a Quaker church or the basic black dress with a single strand of pearls much praised by fashion magazines when I was fifteen. No trumpets, no megaphones, no spangles, no loose ends, this time. The trick was to disappear without a trace, leaving behind me the shadow of a corpse, a shadow everyone would mistake for solid reality. At first I thought I’d managed it.

On the surface, Lady Oracle appears to be a simple story about the life of a writer, Joan Foster. Writing in a clipped, concise, low-pitched, undramatic cadence, Atwood structures the novel in five distinct parts, each a separate phase in the life of Joan Foster, beginning with the story of Joan’s temporary freedom from her past, then flashing back to her unhappy, rejected childhood, filled with “a tendency to spread, get flabby,” meandering through her adulthood and a series of romantic entanglements, following the path of least resistance, progressing to the tying-up of loose ends, gaining freedom, and ending with a shadow finish.

In a technique characteristic of her first two novels, Atwood lends dimension to a believable story by incorporating unbelievable elements. Atwood begins at once to intrigue the reader with mystery. Free from her past, Joan dons dark glasses, buries her clothes in the dark of night, cuts and dyes her long, red hair (a symbol of beauty and recognition). She sets the recurring pattern of entanglement and escape, with Joan free of her former life, yet already regretting the decision to leave it behind.

In Part I, Atwood interposes the valid, not unusual technique of the “novel within the novel,” citing long passages from the book Joan Foster is writing, allowing the reader to follow this work-in-progress simultaneously with Lady Oracle, and to perceive the character of Joan through her own fictional story. This story revolves around a man, Redmond, and several female characters vying for his attentions; one of them is Felicia, who is endowed with the symbolic long, flowing red hair. The story parallels Joan’s life of romantic escapades and flights from danger. Readers may find Joan’s fictional story sometimes more compelling than the main narrative line.

In the flashback to Joan’s childhood in Part II, an unhappy, rejected, overweight child is portrayed. Fathered by a weak, spineless man, mothered by a domineering, selfish woman, teased and tormented cruelly by female playmates, Joan eats to satisfy her psychological needs, to punish her mother, and to assuage her panic at feeling unreal. She becomes obese. Atwood returns to the dual perspective of Surfacing, projecting Joan’s fatness, the nemesis of her life, in the same way she depicted the heroine’s loss of feelings in Surfacing, both on a superficial level and on a deeper spiritual and psychological level as well. She contrives Joan’s escape from obesity through the death of Aunt Lou, and her will, in which she leaves to Joan two thousand dollars on the condition that she lose 100 pounds. Joan reaches this superficial goal, but upon escaping from fatness, she finds she has lost a certain insulation against the world, and now faces other unhappy realities from which she must escape. Atwood...

(The entire section is 1553 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Atwood has explained that in her third novel she set out to write "a kind of antithesis to Surfacing (1972), which is very tight and...

(The entire section is 251 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Atwood uses Gothic fiction to illuminate the contemporary realities of North American women's lives and thus invites readers familiar with...

(The entire section is 824 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

From the first, critics have regarded Lady Oracle as a feminist exploration of female ambivalence over the challenges of...

(The entire section is 198 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Lady Oracle both pays tribute to the Gothic novel, about which Atwood once planned to write a Ph.D. dissertation, and satirizes its...

(The entire section is 308 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Two stories in Atwood's collection Dancing Girls and Other Stories (1977) offer subject matter akin to that found in Lady...

(The entire section is 155 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Bouson, J. Brooks. Brutal Choreographies: Oppositional Strategies and Narrative Design in the Novels of Margaret Atwood. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993. A chronological discussion of Atwood’s novels, emphasizing the psychological and political concerns in each.

Hutcheon, Linda. “From Poetic to Narrative Structures.” In Margaret Atwood: Language, Text, and System, edited by Sherrill E. Grace and Lorraine Weir. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1985. Brief but informative discussion of the life/art opposition in Lady Oracle.

Rigney, Barbara Hill. Margaret Atwood. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1987. Contains a chaper on Lady Oracle that depicts Joan Foster as one who escapes reality and lives only in her art.

Rosenberg, Jerome H. Margaret Atwood. Boston: Twayne, 1984. Comprehensive study of Atwood’s works and development of her craft.

Vincent, Sybil Korff. “The Mirror and the Cameo: Margaret Atwood’s Comic/Gothic Novel, Lady Oracle.” In The Female Gothic, edited by Juliann E. Fleenor. Montreal: Eden Press, 1983. Explores Lady Oracle as an example of a new subgenre, the Comic/Gothic.