Last Reviewed on September 17, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 738
Author Margaret Atwood may be more contemporaneously famous for her novel-turned-Hulu-series The Handmaid’s Tale, but she has also penned other noteworthy novels with themes of dynamics of power in personal relationships and institutional positions in works such as Life Before Man (1979). Atwood, a Canadian herself, sets Life Before Man in Canada as well. The novel tells the story of three primary characters: Nate; his wife, Elizabeth; and his colleague and lover, Lesje. The narrative is presented by means of first-person narration from each respective character’s perspective or point of view, as well as via third-person omniscient narration.
The novel is divided into five parts, and the first part opens with narration by Elizabeth. Atwood writes,
I don't know how I should live. I don't know how anyone should live. All I know is how I do live. I live like a peeled snail. And that's no way to make money.
The quote speaks to Elizabeth’s awareness and struggle for power in her life. She expresses a lack of direction, a lack of insight, an awareness of the possibility to change, and the acknowledgement that she is ill-equipped to enact that change. Snails need their shells to survive, much like turtles. To live without one’s shell, one’s natural protection, is to exist with vulnerabilities exposed and with a visible weakness or lack that can be exploited. She knows she is vulnerable, particularly to Nate, and part of her weakness is her dependence on him, yet she is a survivor. Elizabeth yearns for freedom, autonomy, and empowerment, and when the story opens, she knows neither how to change her life nor how to profit from her existence, financially or otherwise.
Later in the novel, in another section featuring Elizabeth, Atwood writes,
She hates it when anyone has power over her. Nate doesn’t have that kind of power, he never had. She married him easily, like trying on a shoe.
Nate and Elizabeth both have lovers outside of their downward-spiraling marriage. This quote contrasts an encounter Elizabeth has with a man named Chris with the dynamic with her husband. Throughout the novel, Atwood explores various forms of power. Here, Chris has a sexual power and physical power over Elizabeth that she both enjoys and despises. Regardless of her feelings about Chris and his power over her, she regards Chris as more virile and powerful than Nate. Elizabeth emasculates Nate in her mind in her comparison between a sexual encounter with Chris and her whole married life with Nate. Although Elizabeth feels dependent, non-autonomous, and powerless within the marriage, she still perceives Chris as possessing personal strengths Nate never had and never will. This is ironic, considering Chris commits suicide due his lack of strength or ability to cope. The quote also speaks to the lack of romance, love, and respect Elizabeth always had for Nate.
In a section about Lesje, Atwood writes,
Live again! she’d wanted to cry, like some Old Testament prophet, like God, throwing up her arms, willing thunderbolts; and the strange flesh would grow again, cover the bones, the badlands would moisten and flower.
Lesje and Nate are colleagues in paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada. In this scene, Lesje is literally speaking about a species of dinosaurs, specifically the Albertosaurus. Figuratively, she is speaking about her desire for more power in her life. She desires the power to raise the dead. She desires the powers of (mostly) men from biblical times. She wishes she was a god that could resurrect animals and plants. She wants to be a force that gives life. In the scene, the quote is one of Lesje’s thoughts. She is thinking to herself how she can communicate her love for paleontology to onlookers who perceive it as dull work. She does not speak aloud, only thinks. In her thoughts, she expresses her desire for power and effectively expresses her passion for her work. In real life, she is silent, almost motionless, like the display in the museum she is near when this moment occurs. The quote reflects the contrast between Lesje's inner world and the person she is in the company of others.
These quotes are samples of the larger theme of power as it relates to relationships and institutions of society within the text. All characters both retain power and lack power throughout the narrative, depending on the situation and perspective.
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