Atwood invests her story with mystery. Although readers may assume that the man is from Vietnam, they are never told this, nor are they given his name, age, profession, or life story. By keeping him a cipher, he remains as cryptic, and thus unnerving, for the reader as he does for Christine. Atwood puts readers in the contact zone along with Christine, only letting them find out what she finds out—no more. The technique hides the man’s identity, while revealing how quickly people judge the “other,” basing deduction on details that, in fact, reveal next to nothing. The Asian man remains an alien because Atwood wants readers to see the consequences of their limited but powerful first impressions.
Although the story is plot-driven, it is primarily a study of character, particularly Christine’s. Readers witness how there are gradations to being an outsider. Christine is on the margins of her school community until she meets someone even more marginalized. For a while, his presence pulls her into a social context where she is noticed and even appreciated. When he is no longer there to call attention to her, Christine quickly moves back into the position of the outsider.
The exposition is adept in revealing Christine and her social and family contexts well, but the rising action increases the tension between Christine’s safe world and that of the unknown man as he gains access to her world. The conflicts are multilayered between Christine and her mother, between Christine and the “man from Mars,” and between two cultures that clash rather than combine. The climax occurs when the police are called in and capture the man outside Christine’s classroom building. He seems both ominous and pitiful, both an antagonist and a sympathetic character. The denouement is Christine’s slow but sure decline after what can be read as her betrayal of the man. Atwood suggests that this will be the most exciting thing that will happen to Christine in her lifetime, and that she is left to retreat into anonymity as does “the man from Mars.”