Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3764
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.
“The Man from Mars”
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 seedy boardinghouse. Mrs. Nolan, its American proprietor, befriends Ann because a Canadian does not look “foreign.” Mrs. Nolan’s other tenants are mathematicians from Hong Kong and an Arab who is becoming crazed with loneliness and isolation. Ann’s only other acquaintances are Lelah, a Turkish woman studying Russian literature, and Jetske, a Dutch woman studying urban design. Ann also is studying urban design because she has fantasies of rearranging Toronto. She frequently envisions the open, green spaces she will create, but she seems to have the same limitation as “The City Planners” in Atwood’s poem of that name. People are a problem: They ruin her aesthetically perfect designs, cluttering and littering the landscape. Finally, she decides that people such as Mrs. Nolan, Mrs. Nolan’s unruly children, and the entire collection of exotics who live in the boardinghouse will have to be excluded from urban utopia by a high wire fence.
Yet an event in the story causes Ann to change her mind. The Arab whose room is next to hers throws a rowdy party one night for two other Arab students and three “dancing girls.” Ann sits in her room in the dark, fascinated, listening to the music, drinking sherry, but with her door securely bolted. As the noise level of the party escalates, Mrs. Nolan calls the police but cannot wait for them to arrive. Overcome by xenophobic and puritanical zeal, she drives the room’s occupants out of her house and down the street with a broom.
Ann finally sees Mrs. Nolan for what she evidently is, a “fat crazy woman” intent on destroying some “harmless hospitality.” Ann regrets that she lacked courage to open the door and so missed seeing what Mrs. Nolan referred to as the “dancing girls” (either Mrs. Nolan’s euphemism for prostitutes or a reflection of her confused ideas about Middle Eastern culture). The story concludes with Ann again envisioning her ideal city, but this time there are many people and no fence. At the center of Ann’s fantasy now are the foreigners she has met, with Lelah and Jetske as the “dancing girls.” The implication is clear: Ann has resolved her ambivalent feelings about foreigners, has broken out of the need for exclusion and enclosure, and has rejected the racism, tribalism, and paranoia of Mrs. Nolan, who sees the world in terms of “us” versus “them.”
The question of human warmth and life and where they are to be found is more acutely raised in “Polarities,” a strange, somewhat abstract story which also comments on the theme of alienation. Louise, a graduate student of literature, and Morrison, a faculty member, are both at the same western provincial university (probably in Alberta). Both are “aliens”: Morrison is American and therefore regarded as an outsider and a usurper of a job which should have been given to a Canadian; Louise is a fragile person searching for a place of refuge against human coldness. Louise, a student of the poetry of William Blake, has developed her own private mythology of circles, magnetic grids, and north-south polarities. Her friends, who believe that private mythologies belong in poetry, judge her to be insane and commit her to a mental institution. At first Morrison is not sure what to believe. Finally, he discovers that he loves Louise, but only because she is by now truly crazy, defenseless, “drugged into manageability.”
Examining his feelings for Louise and reflecting on her uncanny notebook entries about him, Morrison is forced to confront some unpleasant realities. He realizes that his own true nature is to be a user and a taker rather than a lover and a giver and that all his “efforts to remain human” have led only to “futile work and sterile love.” He gets in his car and drives. At the story’s end, he is staring into the chill, uninhabitable interior of Canada’s far north, a perfect metaphor for the coldness of the human heart that the story has revealed and an ironic reversal of the story’s epigraph, with its hopeful reference to humans who somehow “have won from space/ This unchill, habitable interior.” The polarities between Louise’s initial vision of a warmly enclosing circle of friends and Morrison’s final bleak vision of what poet William Butler Yeats called “the desolation of reality” seem irreconcilable in this story.
The final story in Dancing Girls is the most ambitious and complex in this collection. “Giving Birth” is about a physical process, but it is also about language and the relationship between fiction and reality. The narrator (possibly Atwood herself, who gave birth to a daughter in 1976) tells a story of a happily pregnant woman named Jeanie. Jeanie diligently attends natural-childbirth classes and cheerfully anticipates the experience of birth and motherhood. A thoroughly modern woman, she does “not intend to go through hell. Hell comes from the wrong attitude.” Yet Jeanie is shadowed by a phantom pregnant woman, clearly a projection of the vague apprehensions and deep fears that Jeanie has repressed. When the day arrives, Jeanie calmly rides to the hospital with her husband and her carefully packed suitcase; the other woman is picked up on a street corner carrying a brown paper bag. As Jeanie waits cheerfully for a room, the other woman is screaming with pain. While Jeanie is taken to the labor room in a wheelchair, the other woman is rolled by on a table with her eyes closed and a tube in her arm: “Something is wrong.”
In this story, Atwood suggests that such mysterious human ordeals as giving birth or dying can never be adequately prepared for or fully communicated through language: “When there is no pain she feels nothing, when there is pain, she feels nothing because there is no she. This, finally, is the disappearance of language.” For what happens to the shadowy woman, the narrator says, “there is no word in the language.” The story is concerned with the archaic ineptness of language. Why the expression, “giving birth”? Who gives it? And to whom is it given? Why speak this way at all when birth is an event, not a thing? Why is there no corollary expression, “giving death”? The narrator believes some things need to be renamed, but she is not the one for the task: “These are the only words I have, I’m stuck with them, stuck in them.” Her task is to descend into the ancient tar pits of language (to use Atwood’s metaphor) and to retrieve an experience before it becomes layered over by time and ultimately changed or lost. Jeanie is thus revealed to be an earlier version of the narrator herself; the telling of the story thus gives birth to Jeanie, just as Jeanie gave birth to the narrator: “It was to me, after all, that birth was given, Jeanie gave it, I am the rez senses: the biological birth of an infant, the birth of successive selves wrought by experience and time, and the birth of a work of literature which attempts to rescue and fix experience from the chaos and flux of being.
A frequent theme in Atwood’s fiction and poetry is the power struggle between men and women. At times, the conflict seems to verge on insanity, as in “Under Glass,” “Lives of the Poets,” “Loulou: Or, The Domestic Life of the Language,” and “Ugly Puss.” The title story in Bluebeard’s Egg, however, seems less bleak. In a reversal of sexual stereotypes, Sally loves her husband, Ed, because he is beautiful and dumb. She is a dominating, manipulating woman (of the type seen also in “The Resplendent Quetzal”), and her relationship to her husband seems to be that of doting mother to overprotected child, despite the fact that he is a successful and respected cardiologist, and she has no meaningful identity outside her marriage. Bored, Sally takes a writing class in which she is admonished to explore her inner world. Yet she is “fed up with her inner world; she doesn’t need to explore it. In her inner world is Ed, like a doll within a Russian wooden doll and in Ed is Ed’s inner world, which she can’t get at.” The more she speculates about Ed’s inner world, the more perplexed she becomes. Required to write a version of the Bluebeard fable, Sally decides to retell the story from the point of view of the egg, because it reminds her of Ed’s head, both “so closed and unaware.” Sally is shocked into a new assessment of Ed, however, when she witnesses a scene of sexual intimacy between her husband and her best friend. Ed is after all not an inert object, a given; instead, he has a mysterious, frightening potential. Sally is no longer complacent, no longer certain she wants to know what lies beneath the surface.
“Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother”
The first and last stories in Bluebeard’s Egg reveal Atwood in an atypically mellow mood. “Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother” is a loving celebration of the narrator’s (presumably Atwood’s) mother and father and of an earlier, simpler time. Yet it is never sentimental because Atwood never loses her steely grip on reality. Looking at an old photograph of her mother and friends, the narrator is interested inthe background a world already hurtling towards ruin, unknown to them: the theory of relativity has been discovered, acid is accumulating at the roots of trees, the bull-frogs are doomed. But they smile with something that from this distance you could almost call gallantry, their right legs thrust forward in parody of a chorus line.
The “significant moments” of the title inevitably include some significant moments in the life of the narrator as well. Amusing discrepancies between mother’s and daughter’s versions of reality emerge, but not all are funny. For example, the narrator sees that her compulsive need to be solicitous toward men may be the result of early, “lethal” conditioning; her mother sees “merely cute” childhood behavior. The narrator recalls the shock she felt when her mother expressed a wish to be in some future incarnation an archaeologist—inconceivable that she could wish to be anything other than the narrator’s mother. Yet when the narrator becomes a mother herself, she gains a new perspective and “this moment altered for me.” What finally emerges between mother and narrator-daughter is not communication but growing estrangement. Recalling herself as a university student, she feels as though she has become as unfathomable to her mother as “a visitor from outer space, a time-traveler come back from the future, bearing news of a great disaster.” There are distances too great for maternal love to cross. Atwood is too much of a realist to omit this fact.
The final story, “Unearthing Suite,” another seemingly autobiographical reminiscence, begins with the parents’ pleased announcement that they have purchased their funeral urns. Their daughter is stunned— they are far more alive than she. Mother at seventy-three figure skates, swims daily in glacial lakes, and sweeps leaves off steeply pitched roofs. Father pursues dozens of interests at once: botany, zoology, history, politics, carpentry, gardening. From her torpor, the narrator wonders at their vitality and, above all, at their enviable poise in the face of life’s grim realities, those past as well as those yet to come. Perhaps the answer is that they have always remained close to the earth, making earthworks in the wild, moving granite, digging in gardens, and always responding joyously to earth’s little unexpected gifts such as the visit of a rare fisher bird at the story’s end, for them the equivalent of a visit “by an unknown but by no means minor god.” The narrator appreciates her parents’ wise tranquillity. She cannot, however, share it.
Atwood’s stories are frequently explorations of human limitation, presentations of people as victims of history, biology, or cultural conditioning. The theme of isolation and alienation recurs: There are borders and fences; generational gaps, which make parents and children strangers to each other; failed communication between women and men; gaps between language and felt experience. It is easy to overstate the pessimism which is present in her writings, to see only the wreckage of lives and relationships with which her work is strewn. It is therefore important not to lose sight of the human strength and tenacity (a favorite Atwood word) which also informs her work.
Eight years later, the stories in Atwood’s short-fiction collection Wilderness Tips ultimately celebrated (still grudgingly) the same human strength and tenacity. This and related themes that shaped Atwood’s vision over her writing life are embodied in the sometimes humorous and self-deprecating, often grim and urgent, seekings of the (mostly) female protagonists both to liberate and to preserve themselves in an increasingly ugly world. The conflicts that oppress these characters are rendered more nastily brutish by the realities of middle-class Canadian society in the late twentieth century. The predominant setting is Toronto, no longer “the Good” but now the polluted, the unsafe, the dingy, the dangerous, and, worst, the indifferent.
The battle between the sexes is again the focus of most of the ten stories, the combatants ranging from youth through middle age. For the most part, the battles are lost or at best fought to a draw; the victories are Pyrrhic. In “True Trash,” the consequences of adolescent sexual and social betrayals at a wilderness summer camp are dealt with only by escape into the banal anonymity of adulthood in the city. In “Hairball,” Kat, who is in her thirties, is betrayed by both a previously acquiescent lover and her own body. Stripped of the brittle security she had carefully built for herself, she hits back with a spectacularly gross act of revenge. In “Isis in Darkness,” conventional, secretly romantic Richard invests the poet Selena with a spiritual transcendence totally at odds with her real-life alienation and pathetic descent to early death over the years of their tenuous relationship. In “Weight,” the narrator, a woman of substance, lives by compromise, paying defiant homage to the memory of her scrappy, optimistic friend Molly, who was battered to death by her mad husband. For many of these protagonists (as in Atwood’s other works), language is a weapon of choice: In “Uncles,” Susanna, though emotionally unfulfilled, is a successful, ambitious journalist; in “Hack Wednesday,” Marcia is a freelance columnist; in “Weight,” the narrator and Molly, aggressive lawyers, play elaborate word games to ward off threatening realities; in “The Bog Man,” middle-aged Julie mythologizes her disastrous youthful affair with Connor. Nevertheless, as it does so often in Atwood’s works, the gulf between language and understanding yawns, exacerbating the difficulties of human connections.
In two of the collection’s most successful stories, however, that gulf is bridged by messages spoken, ironically, by the dead. In “The Age of Lead,” a television documentary chronicles the exhumation from the Arctic permafrost of the body of young John Torrington, a member of the British Franklin Expedition, killed like his fellows by lead poisoning contracted through their consumption of tinned food. The documentary, which protagonist Jane is sporadically watching, weaves in and out of her recollections of Vincent, a friend from her childhood, recently dead. All their lives, his identity was ephemeral and undefined, but as Jane recalls his slow decline and death of an unnamed disease and ponders his enigmatic nature, the television offers the 150-years-dead Torrington, emerging virtually intact from his icy grave to “speak” eloquently to the living. Similarly, in “Death by Landscape,” Lois’s childhood acquaintance Lucy, who vanished on a camp canoe trip, slyly returns to haunt the adult Lois in Lois’s collection of wilderness landscape paintings, assuming a solidity she never had as a live child.
Still, despite the pessimism, inadequacies, and guilt of many of the stories’ characters, the reader’s lasting impression is a positive one. “Hack Wednesday,” the last story, speaks the same grumpy optimism that informs much of Atwood’s poetry and prose. Marcia knows she will cry on Christmas Day, because life, however horrific at times, rushes by, and she is helpless to stop it: “It’s all this hope. She gets distracted by it, and has trouble paying attention to the real news.”
Good Bones and Simple Murders
Good Bones and Simple Murders incorporates some material from Murder in the Dark. The short pieces in this collection have been termed jeux d’esprit and speeded-up short stories. They showcase Atwood’s wit, control, and wordplay as she speculates about hypothetical situations, such as “What would happen if men did all the cooking?”, and revises traditional tales, such as “The Little Red Hen.” In Atwood’s version, the hen remains “henlike” and shares the loaf with all the animals that refused to help her produce it. In these pieces, characters who were silent in the original tales get to tell their side of the story. In “Gertrude Talks Back,” Hamlet’s mother explains matter-of-factly to her son that his father was a prig and that she murdered him. In “Simmering,” the women have been cast out of the kitchens and surreptitiously reminisce about the good old days when they were allowed to cook.
Many of the short pieces here are explicitly about storytelling. The first story, “Murder in the Dark,” describes a detective game and presents the writer as a trickster, a spinner of lies. “Unpopular Gals” tells of the mysterious women of traditional stories, the witches and evil stepmothers who tell their own side of the story here. “Let Us Now Praise Stupid Women” explains that it is not the careful, prudent, rational women who inspire fiction but rather the careless “airheads,” the open, ingenuous, innocent women who set the plots in motion and make stories happen. “Happy Endings” plays with variations on a simple plot, answering in different ways what happens after a man and a woman meet. “The Page” explores the blank whiteness of an empty page and the myriad stories that lurk beneath it.
Atwood does not imply that human experience is beyond understanding, that evil is necessarily beyond redemption, or that human beings are beyond transformation. Her wit, humor, irony, imagination, and sharp intelligence save her and her readers from despair, if anything can. To write at all in this negative age seems in itself an act of courage and affirmation, an act Margaret Atwood gives no sign of renouncing. Though her readers already know Atwood’s message, it bears repeating.
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