Margaret Atwood Short Fiction Analysis
One of Margaret Atwood’s central themes is storytelling itself, and most of her fiction relates to that theme in some way. The short-story collections each focus on key issues. Dancing Girls is primarily concerned with otherness, alienation, and the ways in which people estrange themselves from one another. Bluebeard’s Egg revolves around a favorite theme of Atwood, the Bluebeard tale of a dangerous suitor or husband. The title story explores Sally’s excessive concern with her husband and lack of awareness of herself. Wilderness Tips centers on the explanatory fiction people tell themselves and one another, on the need to order experience through such fiction, and on the ways in which humans are posing threats to the wilderness, the forests, and open space.
In Dancing Girls, a gift for comic and satiric invention is evident from the first story, “The Man from Mars.” Christine, an unattractive undergraduate at a Canadian university, is literally pursued by an odd-looking, desperately poor exchange student. The daily chases of a bizarre, small, Asian man in hot pursuit of a rather large Christine (a mouse chasing an elephant, as Atwood describes it) attract the attention of other students and make Christine interesting to her male acquaintances for the first time. They begin to ask her out, curious as to the mysterious sources of her charm. She begins to feel and actually to be more attractive. As months pass, however, Christine begins to fantasize about this strange man about whom she knows nothing. Is he perhaps a sex maniac, a murderer? Eventually, through the overreactions and interventions of others, complaints are made to the police, and the inscrutable foreigner is deported, leaving Christine with mingled feelings of relief and regret. She graduates and settles into a drab government job and a sterile existence. Years pass. A war breaks out somewhere in the Far East and vividly revives thoughts of the foreigner. His country is the scene of fighting, but Christine cannot remember the name of his city. She becomes obsessed with worry, studying maps, poring over photographs of soldiers and photographs of the wounded and the dead in newspapers and magazines, compulsively searching the television screen for even a brief glimpse of his face. Finally, it is too much. Christine stops looking at pictures, gives away her television set, and does nothing except read nineteenth century novels.
The story is rich in comedy and in social satire, much of it directed against attitudes that make “a person from another culture” as alien as a “man from Mars.” Christine’s affluent parents think of themselves as liberal and progressive. They have traveled, bringing back a sundial from England and a domestic servant from the West Indies. Christine’s mother believes herself to be both tolerant and generous for employing foreigners as domestic servants in her home; she observes that it is difficult to tell whether people from other cultures are insane. Christine also typifies supposedly enlightened, liberal attitudes, having been president of the United Nations Club in high school, and in college a member of the forensics team, debating such topics as the obsolescence of war. While the story is on the whole a comic and satiric look at the limits of shallow liberalism, there is, however, also some pathos in the end. It seems that the encounter with the alien is the most interesting or significant thing that has ever happened to Christine and that her only feeling of human relationship is for a person with whom she had no real relationship. At the story’s conclusion, she seems lost, now past either hope or love, retreating into the unreal but safe world of John Galsworthy and Anthony Trollope.
Another encounter with the alien occurs in the collection’s title story, “Dancing Girls,” which is set in the United States during the 1960’s. Ann, a graduate student from Toronto, has a room in a...
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