A parody of the gothic romance, Lady Oracle establishes Joan Foster as an escape artist intent on evading reality and commitment by “writing” her own world. Modeling her life on a romance plot, Joan attempts to dramatize the romantic myth given to women in an unromantic world. As Joan moves through self-deluding fictions into a realm of fairy tales and myth and a mirrorlike world of identities that ultimately produce entrapment, Atwood debunks the romantic ideal through her comic descriptions of mundane married life. Unable to accept the multiplicity and complexity of human beings, and therefore the reality of her own identity, Joan enacts feminine roles in her relationships with men. Fictional constructs in popular romances for women bind and confine women in their roles and also in the roles they place upon men. After Joan loses weight and becomes attractive to men, she embarks on a course through which Atwood deliberately exposes the seductive but repressive power of mass-culture romance fictions.
However, Atwood makes her point most emphatically through Joan’s “professional” fantasy life—her romance-in-progress that evolves throughout Lady Oracle. In Stalked by Love, the heroine, Charlotte, is haunted by anxieties and fears that, though mocked by Joan, are, at the same time, Joan’s fears. At first, following the conventional pattern of gothic romance, Joan depicts Charlotte as good and innocent and Felicia as the angry, bad, destructive wife. As Atwood’s narrative moves deeper into Joan’s psyche, the reality of Joan’s life and the fantasy of the novel-in-progress begin to coalesce as Joan and Felicia become one. Joan identifies with Felicia, who, drawn into the maze of the gothic text, meets four women who claim to be her, paralleling the multiple identities of Joan’s multiple selves. Felicia seeks her husband, Redmond, who appears to offer freedom but conceals a terrorizing domination, representing a composite of all the men in Joan’s life. To be “stalked by love” is to be trapped in the ideology of the romance plot. Women who seek rescue and fulfilment seek entrapment in the dominance of men, and it is to escape this that Joan becomes and “escape artist” by creating her own plot. Through Joan, the artist, Atwood also challenges cultural myths about female artists, specifically those that assert that women must sacrifice the traditional satisfaction of being women, or must automatically become self-destructive women authors.