Lady Oracle Summary
by Margaret Atwood

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Lady Oracle Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Lady Oracle is a five-part narrative in which Joan Foster, the first-person narrator, tells the story of her life. Spanning the time period from the early 1940’s through the mid-1970’s, Joan’s story describes her growing up in Toronto, becoming an author of gothic romances, marrying, and faking her suicide to escape the complicated turmoil of her life. The first narrative begins immediately following Joan’s phony suicide. Planning her “death” very carefully, she aims for a neatness and simplicity in it that would counter the spreading tendency of her life. Yet having fled to Terremoto, Italy, the very place where she and her husband, Arthur, had vacationed the previous year, Joan begins to regret going there. Her attempts at disguise are ineffectual, and her romances (written under an assumed name) are not going well. Overcome with nostalgia, she is forced to admit that, rather than beginning a new life, she has brought the past with her.

In the second narrative, Joan describes her childhood in Toronto. She recounts the misery of being a fat child and the discomfiture her obesity caused her beauty-obsessed mother and her Brownie companions. One of their pranks, tying Joan up on a bridge over a Toronto ravine where she is eventually rescued by the same man who had earlier exposed himself to her, causes her anxieties about identity. Further confusion ensues about her mother, who holds Joan responsible for the incident. Other painful episodes erode her self-image, and, to accommodate perceived expectations of her, Joan begins to explore and sustain various identities. The third narrative reveals Joan living in a Toronto rooming house following an attack by her mother. Using the name of her aunt, Louisa K. Delacourt, who has left her two thousand dollars on condition that she lose one hundred pounds, she begins to write gothic romances. Joan achieves a new shape and determines that she needs to construct a past to accompany it. Traveling to London, England, she meets Paul, the Polish Count, who becomes her first lover because she mistakes the offer to share his apartment as a gesture of friendship. Later, when she meets Arthur, she falsifies her past, neglecting to tell him of her childhood obesity, the facts of her earlier relationship, or her authorship of gothic romances. When her mother dies accidentally, Joan goes home to Toronto and is shocked to find that her father has already given away her mother’s clothes. Searching for clues about her mother’s life before she was born, Joan locates a photograph album containing a picture of her father and another young man with their heads cut out. Joan begins to understand her mother’s anger...

(The entire section is 679 words.)