(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The novel’s title has different meanings for the main characters. For Elizabeth, “life before man” means that she must place her own life before any man; she must never allow a man to manipulate her, as Chris has done, or become addicted to a man’s image of her, as she has done with Nate. For Nate, it means that life as people know it now is not fully human, is not “the ethical life” to which he is committed. For Lesje, it means paleontology first of all, the study of life forms predating homo sapiens. It may also refer to her life before she knew what a man-woman relationship could involve and to her decision to become pregnant and thereby affirm that life itself is more important than the problems of men and women. In the long-range perspective of geological time, she realizes that life may well outlast the human race; however, she does not share William’s indifference about the future of humankind.

Atwood’s working title for the novel was “Notes on the Mesozoic.” As Lesje reflects in a moment of musing, “Mesozoic” means “mid-life” and is used for the broad geological time span when the dinosaurs lived. It comes between the Paleozoic and Neozoic—that is, the old life and the new life. Elizabeth and Nate are going through mid-life crises in the novel, and Lesje, who is undergoing more of a youthful identity crisis, plays a central role in Nate’s mid-life change. Atwood’s working title helps to explain the two epigraphs that she chose for the novel. The first quotation, from a book on dinosaurs, makes the reader...

(The entire section is 642 words.)