Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5430
For Margaret Atwood, an unabashed Canadian, literature became a means to cultural and personal self-awareness. “To know ourselves,” she writes in Survival, “we must know our own literature; to know ourselves accurately, we need to know it as part of literature as a whole.” Thus, when she defines Canadian literary concerns she relates her own as well, for Atwood’s fiction grows out of this tradition. In her opinion, Canada’s central reality is the act of survival: Canadian life and culture are decisively shaped by the demands of a harsh environment. Closely related to this defining act of survival, in Atwood’s view, is the Canadian search for territorial identity—or, as literary theorist Northrop Frye put it, “Where is here?”
Atwood’s heroines invariably discover themselves to be emotional refugees, strangers in a territory they can accurately label but one in which they are unable to feel at home. They are alienated not only from their environment but also from language itself; for them, communication becomes a decoding process. To a great degree, their feelings of estrangement extend from a culture that, having reduced everything to products, threatens to consume them. Women are particularly singled out as products, items to be decorated and sold as commodities, though men are threatened as well. Indeed, Canadian identity as a whole is in danger of being engulfed by an acquisitive American culture, though Atwood’s “Americans” symbolize exploitation and often turn out to be Canadian nationals.
Reflective of their time and place, Atwood’s characters are appropriately ambivalent. Dead or dying traditions prevent their return to the past, a past most have rejected. Their present is ephemeral at best, and their future inconceivable. Emotionally maimed, her heroines plumb their conscious and unconscious impressions, searching for a return to feeling, a means of identification with the present.
Atwood often couches their struggle in terms of a journey, which serves as a controlling metaphor for inner explorations: The unnamed heroine of Surfacing returns to the wilderness of Quebec, Lesje Green of Life Before Man wanders through imagined Mesozoic jungles, Rennie Wilford of Bodily Harm flies to the insurgent islands of Ste. Agathe and St. Antoine. By setting contemporary culture in relief, these primitive sites define the difference between nature and culture and allow Atwood’s heroines to gain new perspectives on their own realities. They can see people and places in relation to each other, not as isolated entities. Ultimately, however, this resolves little, for Atwood’s novels end on a tenuous note. Although her heroines come to terms with themselves, they remain estranged.
Supporting her characters’ ambivalence is Atwood’s versatile narrative technique. Her astringent prose reflects their emotional numbness; its ironic restraint reveals their wariness. Frequent contradictions suggest not only the complexity of her characters but also the antagonistic times they must survive. By skillful juxtaposition of past and present through the use of flashbacks, Atwood evokes compelling fictional landscapes that ironically comment on the untenable state of modern men and women. Still, there remains some hope, for her characters survive with increased understanding of their world. Despite everything, life does go on.
The first of Atwood’s novels to arouse critical praise and commentary, Surfacing explores new facets of the bildungsroman. What might have been a conventional novel of self-discovery develops into a resonant search for self-recovery imbued with mythic overtones and made accessible through Atwood’s skillful use of symbol and ritual. At the same time, Atwood undercuts the romantic literary conventions of ultimate self-realization as a plausible conclusion. To accept the heroine’s final emergence as an end in itself is to misread this suggestively ironic novel.
The unnamed heroine of Surfacing, accompanied by her lover, Joe, and a married couple named David and Anna, returns to the Canadian wilderness where she was reared in hopes of locating her missing father. His sudden disappearance has recalled her from a city life marked by personal and professional failures that have left her emotionally anesthetized. While her external search goes forward, the heroine conducts a more important internal investigation to locate missing “gifts” from both parents. Through these, she hopes to rediscover her lost ability to feel. In order to succeed, however, she will need to expose the fiction of her life.
At the outset of her narrative, the heroine warns her readers that she has led a double life when she recalls Anna’s question, “Do you have a twin?” She denies having one, for she apparently believes the elaborate fiction she has created, a story involving a spurious marriage, divorce, and abandonment of her child. As additional protection, the heroine has distanced herself from everyone. She refers to her family as “they,” “as if they were somebody else’s family.” Her relationship with Joe is notable for its coolness, and she has known Anna, described as her best friend, for only two months.
By surrounding herself with friends whose occupation of making a film significantly titled Random Samples reveals their rootlessness, the heroine seeks to escape the consequences of her actions. Indeed, she describes herself both as a commercial artist, indicating her sense of having sold out, and as an escape artist. Reluctantly approaching the past she sought to escape, the heroine feels as if she is in foreign territory.
That she feels alienated by the location of her past is not surprising, for she is an outsider in a number of telling ways: of English descent in French territory; a non-Catholic, indeed nonreligious, person among the devout; a woman in a man’s world. Her French is so halting that she could be mistaken for an American, representing yet another form of alienation, displacement by foreigners. Most of all, she is a stranger to herself. Rather than focusing on her self-alienation, she is consumed by the American usurpation of Canada, its wanton rape of virgin wilderness; this allows her to avoid a more personal loss of innocence.
Canada’s victimization by Americans reflects the heroine’s victimization by men. Having been subjected to the concept that “with a paper bag over their head they’re all the same,” theprotagonist is perceived as either contemptible or threatening. Her artistic skills are denigrated by a culture in which no “important” artists have been women. Even her modest commercial success is treated as a personal assault by Joe, who has an “unvoiced claim to superior artistic skills.” By telling herself that the wilderness can never recover from abuse, the protagonist denies her own recovery. Although she feels helpless at the beginning of the novel, she soon rediscovers her own capabilities, and as these are increasingly tested, she proves to be a powerful survivor. Thus, the wilderness, a self-reflection, provides the key to self-discovery.
Perhaps the most important lesson the heroine learns is that the wilderness is not innocent. Her encounter with and response to a senselessly slaughtered heron evoke a sense of complicity, leading her to reflect on similar collusion in her brother’s animal experiments when they were children. Finding her refuge in childhood innocence blocked, the heroine goes forward with her search. Once again, nature provides information, for in discovering her father’s body trapped under water, she finally recognizes her aborted child, her complicity in its death by yielding to her lover’s demands. On a broader scale, she acknowledges death as a part of life and reclaims her participation in the life process by conceiving a child by Joe.
In a ceremony evocative of primitive fertility rites, she seduces her lover. Then, assured of her pregnancy, she undergoes a systematic purgation in order to penetrate to the very core of reality. During this process, the protagonist discovers her parents’ gifts—her father’s sense of sight and her mother’s gift of life. With body and mind reunited, she takes an oath in which she refuses to be a victim. Whole, she feels free to reenter her own time, no longer either victim or stranger.
Atwood’s procedure for bringing her heroine to this state of consciousness is remarkable for its intricacy. Though she distrusts language, the protagonist proceeds to tell her story by describing what she sees. Since she has lost her ability to feel, much of this description seems to be objective—until the reader realizes just how unreliable her impressions can be. Contradictions abound, creating enormous uncertainty as intentional and unintentional irony collide, lies converge, and opinion stated as fact proves to be false. Given this burden of complexity, any simple conclusion to Surfacing is out of the question. Clearly, Atwood hints at a temporary union with Joe, but this is far from resolving the heroine’s dilemma. Outer reality, after all, has not altered. Atwood’s open-ended conclusion is thus both appropriate and plausible, for to resolve all difficulties would be to give in to the very romantic conventions that her fiction subverts.
Life Before Man
Coming after the gothic comedy of Lady Oracle, Life Before Man seems especially stark. Nevertheless, its similarity with all of Atwood’s novels is apparent. A penetrating examination of contemporary relationships, it peels away protective layers of deceptions, stripping the main characters until their fallible selves are presented with relentless accuracy. Lesje Green and Elizabeth and Nate Schoenhof are adrift in a collapsing culture in which they struggle to survive. As she focuses on each character, Atwood reveals unrecognized facets of the others.
In this novel, wilderness and culture converge in the Royal Ontario Museum, where Lesje works as a paleontologist and Elizabeth works in public relations. There is little need for the bush country of Quebec, since culture is something of a jungle itself. Unlike the Mesozoic, however, the present anticipates its own extinction because of abundant evidence: pollution, separatist movements, political upheaval, lost traditions, disintegrating families. Humanity is in danger of drowning in its own waste. Whatever predictability life held in the past seems completely absent; even holidays are meaningless. Still, the novel is fascinated with the past, with the behavior of animals, both human and prehistoric, and with the perpetuation of memory, particularly as it records the history of families.
As in Surfacing, a violent death precipitates emotional withdrawal. Most affected is Elizabeth Schoenhof, whose lover Chris has blown off his head as a final gesture of defiance, the ultimate form of escape. His act destroys Elizabeth’s sense of security, which resides both in her home and in her ability to manipulate or predict the actions of others. A supreme manipulator, Elizabeth attempts to make everyone act as reasonably as she. Not surprisingly, Elizabeth has at least two selves speaking different languages, genteel chic and street argot, and what passes for “civilized” behavior is merely an escape from honest confrontation with such basic human emotions as love, grief, rejection, and anger. In fact, all of the novel’s characters prefer escape to self-realization, and while they pay lip service to social decorum, they quietly rebel.
Their rebellious emotions are reflected in the larger world, a political world aflame with separatist zeal. René Lévesque, with whom Nate identifies, is gaining momentum for the separation of Quebec and the reestablishment of French as the major language, threatening to displace the English. Indeed, the world seems to be coming apart as international, national, and personal moves toward separation define this novel’s movement. As a solution, however, separation fails to satisfy the characters’ need to escape, for no matter how far they run, all carry the baggage of their past.
Elizabeth in particular has survived a loveless past, including abandonment by both parents, the painful death of her alcoholic mother, her sister’s mental breakdown and drowning, and her Auntie Muriel’s puritanical upbringing. All of this has turned Elizabeth into a determined survivor. Beneath her polished exterior is a street fighter from the slums, a primitive. Indeed, Elizabeth recognizes an important part of herself in Chris. Nate and Lesje share a different kind of past, where love created as much tension as affection. Lesje’s Jewish and Ukrainian grandmothers treated her as disputed territory, speaking to her in languages she could not understand and driving her to seek refuge in her fantasy world of Lesjeland.
Feeling like a refugee in treacherous territory, each character attempts to build a new, stable world, notwithstanding the continual impingement of the old, messy one. Nate, having forsaken his mother’s futile idealistic causes to save the world, falls in love with Lesje, whom he envisions as an exotic subtropical island free from rules. For a time, Elizabeth inhabits a clean expanse of space somewhere between her bed and the ceiling, and Lesje explores prehistoric terrain, wishing for a return to innocence. When these fantasies diminish in power, the characters find substitutes, challenging the reader to reexamine the novel’s possibilities.
Despite its bleak tone, its grimy picture of a deteriorating culture, its feeling of estrangement and futility, and its rejection of simplistic resolutions, Life Before Man is not without hope. Each character emerges at the end of this novel with something he or she has desired. Nate has Lesje, now pregnant with his child—a child who, in turn, confirms Lesje’s commitment to life by displacing her preoccupation with death. Having exorcised the evil spirits of her past, Elizabeth experiences a return of direct emotion.
There is, however, a distinct possibility that the apparent resolution is as ambivalent as that of Surfacing. What appears to be a completely objective third-person point of view, presiding over chapters neatly cataloged by name and date, sometimes shifts to the first person, an unreliable first person at that. Through her revolving characters, their identification with one another, and their multiple role reversals, Atwood creates contradictory, problematic, and deceptive human characters who defy neat categorization. Taken separately, Nate, Elizabeth, and Lesje can easily be misinterpreted; taken as a whole, they assume an even more complex meaning, reflecting not only their own biased viewpoints but also the reader’s. Atwood’s ability to capture such shifting realities of character and place is one of her chief artistic distinctions.
Rather like the narrator of Surfacing, Rennie Wilford in Bodily Harm has abandoned her past, the stifling world of Griswold, Ontario, to achieve modest success as a freelance journalist. To Rennie, Griswold represents values of duty, self-sacrifice, and decency found comic by modern-day standards. It is a place where women are narrowly confined to assigned roles that make them little better than servants. Rennie much prefers city life, with its emphasis on mobility and trends such as slave-girl bracelets and pornographic art. In fact, Rennie has become an expert on just such trends, so adept that she can either describe or fabricate one with equal facility. Having learned to look only at surfaces, Rennie has difficulty accepting the reality of her cancerous breast, which looks so healthy.
Her cancer serves as the controlling metaphor in the novel, spreading from diseased personal relationships to a political eruption on St. Antoine. Indeed, the world seems shot through with moral cancer. The symptoms are manifest: Honesty is a liability, friends are “contacts,” lovers are rapists, pharmacists are drug pushers, and no one wants to hear about issues. What should be healthy forms of human commerce have gone out of control, mirroring the rioting cells in Rennie’s breast. When confronted by yet another manifestation of this malaise, a would-be murderer who leaves a coil of rope on her bed, Rennie finds a fast escape route by landing a magazine assignment on St. Antoine.
Her hopes of being a tourist, exempt from participation and responsibility, are short-lived as she is drawn into a political intrigue more life-threatening than her cancer. Before reaching St. Antoine, she learns of its coming election, ignoring Dr. Minnow’s allusions to political corruption and makeshift operations. What puzzles her most about their conversation is his reference to the “sweet Canadians.” Is he being ironic or not, she wonders. Her superficial observations of island life reveal little, though plenty of evidence points to a violent eruption. Rennie seems more concerned about avoiding sunburn and arrest for drug possession than she is about the abundant poverty and casual violence. Her blindness allows her to become a gunrunner, duped by Lora Lucas, a resilient survivor of many injurious experiences, and Paul, the local connection for drugs and guns, who initiates Rennie into genuine, albeit unwilling, massive involvement.
As a physical link to life, Paul’s sexual attention is important to Rennie, who appreciates the value of his touch. His hands call forth the “missing” hands of her grandmother, her doctor’s hands, and Lora’s bitten hands, hands that deny or offer help. Paul’s “aid” to the warring political factions, like Canada’s donation of canned hams and Rennie’s assistance, is highly questionable, and the results are the reverse of what was planned. Trying to escape from his botched plan, Rennie is brought to confront her own guilt.
Again, Atwood uses flight as a route to self-discovery and deprivation as a source of spiritual nourishment. In Rennie’s case, however, these are externally imposed. In her underground cell, with only Lora as company, Rennie ultimately sees and understands the violent disease consuming the world, a disease growing out of a human need to express superiority in a variety of ways and at great spiritual expense. Rennie becomes “afraid of men because men are frightening.” Equally important, she understands that there is no difference between here and there. Finally, she knows that she is not exempt: “Nobody is exempt from anything.”
If she survives this ordeal, Rennie plans to change her life, becoming a reporter who will tell what truly happened. Once again, however, Atwood leaves this resolution open to questions. Rennie is often mistaken about what she sees and frequently misinterprets events. Her entire story may well be a prison journal, an account of how she arrived there. When projecting her emergence from prison, she uses the future tense. For Atwood’s purposes, this is of relative unimportance, since Rennie has been restored in a way she never anticipated. In the end, stroking Lora’s battered hand, Rennie finally embodies the best of Griswold with a clear vision of what lies beneath the surface of human reality.
The Handmaid’s Tale
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood’s fiction turns from the realistic to the speculative, though she merely takes the political bent of the 1980’s to its logical—and chilling—conclusion. Awash in a swill of pollution, promiscuity, pornography, and venereal disease, late twentieth century America erupts into political and religious battles. Rising from the ashes is the Republic of Gilead, a theocracy so conservative in its reactionary bent that women are channeled into roles as Daughters, Wives, Marthas (maids), Econowives, or Handmaids (mistresses).
The narrator, Offred (referring to her status as a possession of her master), is among the first group of Handmaids, fertile women assigned to high-ranking government officials. Weaving between her past and present in flat, almost emotionless prose, Offred draws a terrifying picture of a culture retreating to religious fundamentalist values in the name of stability. At first her prose seems to be accurate, a report from an observer. Deeper in the story, readers come to understand that Offred is numb from all that has changed in her life. Besides, she does not trust anyone, least of all herself. Still, as a survivor, she determines to stay alive, even if that means taking risks.
Her loss of freedom and identity create new hungers in Offred: curiosity about the world, a subversive desire for power, a longing for feeling, a need to take risks. In many ways, The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel about what loss creates. Gilead, in fact, is created partially in response to men’s loss of feeling, according to Fred, Offred’s Commander. Offred, however, takes little comfort in his assurance that feeling has returned.
As she knows, feeling is ephemeral, often unstable, impossible to gauge. Perhaps this is why her characterization of others in the novel seems remote. While Offred observes gestures, facial movements, and voice tone, she can only guess at intent. Implicit in the simplest statement may be an important message. Offred thus decodes all kinds of communication, beginning with the Latin inscription she finds scratched in her wardrobe: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” Even this injunction, however, which becomes her motto, is a corruption. Though desperate for communication, Offred cautiously obscures her own message. Her struggle to understand reflects Atwood’s familiar theme of the inability for an individual truly to understand another person, another situation.
By having Offred acknowledge the impossibility of accurately decoding messages, Atwood calls attention to the narrative itself. Another interesting fictional element is the narrative’s remove in time. Offred tells her story in the present, except when she refers to her life before becoming a Handmaid. Ironically, readers learn that not only is she telling her story after events, but her narrative has been reconstructed and presented to an audience at a still greater temporal remove. All of this increases the equivocal quality of the novel and its rich ambiguity.
While Atwood demands attention, she provides direction in prefatory quotations. Most revealing is her quotation from Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Like Swift’s satire, Atwood’s skates on the surface of reality, often snagging on familiar actions and only slightly exaggerating some attitudes, especially those commonly held about women. Perennial issues of a woman’s place, the value of her work, and her true role in society are at the center of this novel.
These concerns appear again in Cat’s Eye, but in a more subdued form. In subject and theme, Cat’s Eye is an artistic retrospective. Elaine Risley, a middle-aged painter, is called to Toronto to prepare for her first artistic retrospective. Risley takes the occasion to come to terms with the dimensions of self in time, which she perceives as a “series of transparencies, one laid on top of another.” Her return to Toronto, where she grew up, gives her an opportunity to look through the layers of people and events from her present position on the curve of time. This perspective, often ironic and tenuous, allows Risley to accept herself, including her foibles.
Cat’s Eye takes full advantage of Atwood’s visual style as it reiterates the importance of perspective in relation to change. The novel’s art theme emphasizes interpretation while simultaneously satirizing the kind of inflated yet highly subjective criticism published for public consumption. Atwood’s most personal novel to date, Cat’s Eye tackles the physics of life and art and arrives at Atwood’s least ambiguous conclusion. Returning to her family in Vancouver, Risley notes that the starlight she sees is only a reflection. Still, she concludes, “it’s enough to see by.”
The Robber Bride
In The Robber Bride communication as a decoding process occurs both figuratively and literally, as one of the four protagonists, the historian Antonia “Tony” Fremont, seeks to discover the underlying meaning of the past. In her own storytelling she sometimes uses a reverse code, transforming herself into her imagined heroine Ynot Tnomerf. In fact, each of the women in the novel has renamed herself to gain distance from past traumas: Karen becomes Charis to cast out the memory of sexual abuse; Tony hopes to escape the “raw sexes war” that characterized her family; Roz Grunwald becomes Rosalind Greenwood as her family climbs the social ladder.
Although cast in comic form, the novel explores issues of identity, reality versus fiction, and women’s friendship. The three friends meet for lunch and reminisce about their betrayal at the hands of Zenia, a mysterious femme fatale who seduced Tony’s and Roz’s husbands and Charis’s lover. Zenia has multiple stories about her origins, all dramatic but plausible. She ensnares her victims by preying on their fears and hopes. Speaking about the novel, Atwood has remarked that Zenia is the equivalent of the fiction writer, a liar, a trickster who creates stories to captivate her audience.
Alias Grace is a historical novel based on the real case of Grace Marks, a nineteenth century Irish immigrant to Canada who was accused of being an accomplice in the murder of her employer and his housekeeper-mistress. The novel combines gothic elements, social commentary, and conventions of nineteenth century fiction to tell its story. Spinning out several parallel courtship plots, the novel elucidates the implications of class and gender: Servant women were often the victims of wealthy employers or their employers’ bachelor sons. Grace’s friend Mary Whitney dies of a botched abortion when she becomes pregnant.
The story is told through letters and narration by Grace and Dr. Simon Jordan, a young physician who has been employed by Grace’s supporters to discover the truth of the murder. Dr. Jordan is a foil to Grace: As her fortunes rise, his fall. Hoping to win a pardon from her prison sentence, the shrewd Grace narrates her life story in great detail but claims she cannot clearly remember the events surrounding the murder. Dr. Jordan hopes to restore her faulty memory and to learn the facts of the case. However, in an ironic twist of plot, he becomes embroiled in a shabby romantic liaison and, to avoid the consequences, flees Canada in haste. He is injured while serving as a physician in the American Civil War and loses his recent memory. Grace is released from prison, given a job as a housekeeper, and marries her employer. Dr. Jordan remains in the care of his mother and the woman she has chosen to be her son’s wife. At the end of the novel all the plot threads are conveniently tied together as in the conventional nineteenth century novel, but at the heart of the story Grace herself remains a mystery.
The Blind Assassin
Some of Atwood’s loyal readers may have looked to The Blind Assassin as an opportunity for the Nobel Committee to grace the author with its literature prize. It is a “big novel,” not merely because it runs well over five hundred pages but also because it offers a large slice of Canadian history in the twentieth century—or, perhaps more accurately, modern history, in its sweep through the two world wars and the Great Depression. It is a family chronicle of at least three generations of the Chase family, a wealthy, socially prominent family whose progenitor enriched his heirs from the manufacture of buttons and underwear. Stylistically, The Blind Assassin is an especially complex text, a series of nested narratives, for the most part under the control of the novel’s octogenarian narrator, Iris Chase Griffen, telling the story as a memoir of essentially how she has survived the rest of her family. Because she has a heart condition, Iris is racing against time to finish her story, the most important prospective reader of which is her lost granddaughter Sabrina.
Iris begins with the blunt statement, “Ten days after the war [World War II] ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge,” which this memoir promises to explain. Many readers of Alias Grace were disappointed because they expected to know eventually whether or not Grace was guilty of murder, but the opening pages of The Blind Assassin give a strong sense that Iris not only knows “whodunit” but will eventually divulge that information.
Before Iris can do so, she must explain everything that led up to that fatal day in 1945. She tells how her father survived World War I—unlike his brothers—and struggled with his business through the Depression to save his workers’ jobs, only to accept a merger that cost them those jobs and doomed Iris to a loveless marriage with his business rival, who delighted in leaving bruises on her body where only he could enjoy them as the stigmata of his domination. In rapid fashion Iris loses the only man she ever loved, then her sister and her husband to suicide, and finally her daughter is taken from her as well—a tragic sequence of events reminiscent of Greek tragedy.
Oryx and Crake
Atwood has encouraged readers to approach Oryx and Crake as a “bookend” to The Handmaid’s Tale. Oryx and Crake is also set in a future United States. It involves speculation concerning humankind’s uses of science, but Atwood rejects the term “science fiction” for this novel as well as for The Handmaid’s Tale, preferring instead to call them “speculative fiction.” She has been adamant in arguing that all the scientific elements she needed for Oryx and Crake’s future world, in which global warming and genetic engineering are the dominant forces, are either already in play or merely extensions of the present.
Oryx and Crake represents a new departure for the author as her first novel with a male viewpoint character. Snowman, short for “The Abominable Snowman,” struggles to survive in a postapocalyptic world. Snowman was once “Jimmy,” the childhood chum of Crake, a boy wonder of bioengineering. In its earlier stages, bioengineering was a boy’s game of dreaming up hybrids such as the “rakunk,” a mixture of raccoon and skunk. Now the field has developed into procedures such as NooSkins, which gradually replace human skin for a youthful appearance.
As a young man, Crake moves into a powerful position in which he seduces Oryx, whom Jimmy and Crake “met” as boys surfing child pornography online, as well as Jimmy, as his instruments in a master plan to eradicate humanity and replace it with the Children of Crake, creatures he has genetically engineered to survive, as Homo sapiens no longer can, in the global swamp generated by contamination of the atmosphere and the melting of the polar icecaps. These Frankenstein’s “monsters” will inherit a brave new world from which Snowman and a few remaining humans will soon depart.
Commissioned by Canongate Books for its series The Myths, The Penelopiad offers the long-suffering wife of Odysseus an opportunity to tell her side of the story from the Underworld more than three millennia after her death. Half of the novel is her memoir, a genre to which Atwood has become attracted in her later years.
Penelope begins with her unhappy childhood as the daughter of an indifferent water spirit and a royal father who foolishly sought immortality by attempting to drown her when the Oracle prophesied that Penelope would weave his shroud—actually it was her father-in-law whose shroud she would famously weave—but she was saved by a flotilla of ducks, thus earning the nickname “Duckie.” From childhood she was tormented with the name by her beautiful cousin Helen, whose abduction by or elopement with Prince Paris would start the Trojan War.
Accordingly, if Penelope would cast herself as a figure in Greek tragedy—Atwood’s theater adaptation has been successfully staged—Helen is the nemesis who brought about a fall from the good fortune of her early married life with Odysseus, whom she grew to love, even if she could never trust him because he was a “storyteller” and because he had his eye on Helen. Like Iris with her writer-lover, Penelope learned to tell stories after making love. Almost obsessed with her cousin as rival for Odysseus’s love, Penelope devotes her energies to managing Ithaca so well that Odysseus upon his return will tell his wife she is worth a thousand Helens.
Atwood has stated that she took the Canongate assignment because she had been haunted as an early teenager by the summary execution of Penelope’s twelve maids by Odysseus and Telemachus. The maids function as a Greek chorus of cynical commentary on the royals. They are Penelope’s confidants, spies, and helpers with the unweaving of the shroud their mistress must finish before choosing a new husband. At least one disclosed the shroud ruse, and Penelope may have feared they would accuse her of adultery. The big question is whether Penelope colluded in their murder. Like Grace, Penelope never reveals any guilt.
Atwood’s vision is as informed and humane as that of any contemporary novelist. Challenging her readers to form their own judgments, she combines the complexity of the best modern fiction with the moral rigor found in the works of the great nineteenth century novelists. Atwood’s resonant symbols, her ironic reversals, and her example challenge readers and writers alike to confront the most difficult and important issues of today’s world.
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