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Margaret Atwood 1939–-

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(Born Margaret Eleanor Atwood) Canadian novelist, poet, critic, short story writer, and author of children's books.

International acclaimed as a poet, novelist, and short story writer, Atwood is recognized as a major figure in Canadian letters. Using such devices as irony, symbolism, and self-conscious narrators, she explores the relationship between humanity and nature, the dark side of human behavior, and power as it pertains to gender and politics. Popular with both literary scholars and the reading public, Atwood has helped to define and identify the goals of contemporary Canadian literature and has earned a distinguished reputation among feminist writers for her exploration of women's issues.

Biographical Information

Atwood was born in Ottawa and grew up in suburban Toronto. She began to write while in high school, contributing poetry, short stories, and cartoons to the school newspaper. As an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, Atwood was influenced by critic Northrop Frye, who introduced her to the poetry of William Blake. In 1961 she published her first volume of poetry, Double Persephone. Atwood completed her A.M. degree in 1962 at Radcliffe College of Harvard University. She returned to Toronto in 1963, where she began collaborating with artist Charles Pachter, who designed and illustrated several volumes of her poetry. In 1964 Atwood moved to Vancouver, where she taught English at the University of British Columbia for a year and completed her first novel, The Edible Woman. After a year of teaching Victorian and American literature at Sir George Williams University in Montreal in 1967, Atwood began teaching creative writing at the University of Alberta while continuing to write and publish poetry. After the publication of her poetry collection Power Politics in 1971, she left a teaching position at the University of Toronto to move to a farm near Alliston, Ontario. Atwood received the Governor General's Award in 1986 for her novel The Handmaid's Tale, which was published that same year. She continues to be a prominent voice in Canada's cultural and political life.

Major Works of Short Fiction

In her short fiction, Atwood specializes in revealing unexpected, often unsettling aspects of the human personality and behavior normally hidden by social conventions. However, her narrative voice has been described as distanced and unemotional, and her characters as two-dimensional representations of ideas rather than fully rounded individuals. Her stories, like her poems, often pivot on a single symbolic object: a visit to a Mayan sacrificial well in “The Resplendent Quetzal,” a plane crash in “A Travel Piece,” and the bizarre amorous behavior of a foreign student in “The Man from Mars,” all serve as catalysts for her protagonists' confrontations with their conflicted inner selves. More loosely structured than her poems or novels, Atwood's stories nonetheless bear her novels' trademarks of careful plotting and concise use of language. More notably, her short fiction shares with her other works Atwood's common theme of personal identity in conflict with society. In her first collection of short fiction, Dancing Girls, the title refers to the leading characters of the stories, women who obligingly dance repressive, stereotyped roles assigned to them by a male-dominated society rather than following their inner desires. Atwood portrays patriarchal social systems as oppressive and damaging to the individual psyche and her male characters as often malevolent or emotionally withdrawn. The typical heroine of Atwood's stories is intelligent, urbane, and discontented, alienated from her true nature as well as her environment. In later collections, such as Murder in the Dark and Bluebeard's Egg, she often incorporates autobiographical material into her stories.

Critical Reception

Although for the most part Atwood's story collections have met with critical favor, some reviewers note that Atwood's short fiction is of uneven quality and is secondary to her novels and poetry. Other critics maintain that her stories retain much of the wit and penetrating insight of her longer works of fiction while displaying the same compelling imagery found in her poetry. Reviewers have detected the significant influence of the German fairy tales of Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm on her work, and several commentators assert that much of her writing has been inspired by her studies of North American and European folklore and Gothic fiction. Moreover, her fiction has often been compared to another critically and commercially popular Canadian author, Alice Munro. In general Atwood's stories have earned positive attention and are regarded as further evidence of her prodigious literary talent.

Principal Works

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Dancing Girls, and Other Stories 1977

Bluebeard's Egg 1983

Murder in the Dark 1983

Wilderness Tips 1991

Good Bones and Simple Murders 1992

Double Persephone (poetry) 1961

The Circle Game (poetry) 1966

The Animals in That Country (poetry) 1968

The Edible Woman (novel) 1969

The Journals of Susanna Moodie (poetry) 1970

Procedures for Underground (poetry) 1970

Power Politics (poetry) 1971

Surfacing (novel) 1972

Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (criticism) 1972

You Are Happy (poetry) 1974

Lady Oracle (novel) 1976

Selected Poems 1976

Life before Man (novel) 1978

Two-Headed Poems (poetry) 1978

Up in the Tree (juvenilia) 1978

True Stories (poetry) 1981

Bodily Harm (novel) 1982

Second Words (criticism) 1982

Interlunar (poetry) 1984

The Handmaid's Tale (novel) 1986

Selected Poems II: Poems Selected and New, 1976–1986 (poetry) 1987

Cat's Eye (novel) 1990

The Robber Bride (novel) 1993

Morning in the Burned House (poetry) 1995

Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (criticism) 1995

Alias Grace (novel) 1996

Eating Fire: Selected Poetry 1965–1995 (poetry) 1998

Blind Assassin (novel) 2000

Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (essays) 2001

Sherrill Grace (essay date 1980)

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SOURCE: “Versions of Reality,” in Violent Duality: A Study of Margaret Atwood, edited by Ken Norris, Véhicule Press, 1980, pp. 79–86.

[In the following excerpt, Grace finds parallels between Atwood's stories and her poetry and assesses the merits and weaknesses of the stories in Dancing Girls.]

Jeannie isn't real in the same way that I am real. But by now, and I mean your time, both of us will have the same degree of reality, we will be equal: wraiths, echoes, reverberations in your own brain.

(“Giving birth,” DG, p. 242)

The price of this version of reality was testing the other one.

(EW, p. 271)

In an effort to distinguish between creating a poem and a novel, Atwood has remarked:

You can talk about it, but not very successfully. A poem is something you hear, and the primary focus of interest is words. A novel is something you see, and the primary focus of interest is people.1

Distinctions between poetry and prose can become gratuitous, nowhere more so than with Margaret Atwood. Her poems need to be seen on the page as well as heard, while the power of language in her best prose is fully realized when read aloud. Indeed, I am most struck with what George Woodcock calls the “capillary links between her poetry, her fiction (and) her criticism.”2

Despite the larger structure of narrative, her stories and novels resemble her poems not only in theme and symbol, but in tone, point of view and voice. As we have seen, many of the poems have a duplistic structure. A comparable sense of counter-weighted settings and the use of doubled or split characters are pervasive in the fiction as well. Atwood further neutralizes the distinction between prose and poetry by frequently writing poem sequences (as well as prose poems), thereby capturing the element of continuity expected in fiction.

On the basis of the stories and the three novels about to be considered, some generalizations can be made, however, about the type of fiction Atwood writes. The people in her fictional world are less the three-dimensional realistic characters of the traditional English novel than the types associated with romance. To some extent, this is a function of point of view, for each of the novels has a first person narrator tightly enclosed within a limited perspective. Quite naturally, then, perception of others will be one-sided. But even the narrators remain aloof from the reader and this sense of two-dimensionality results in large part from the cool, acerbic nature of the narrative itself. Atwood's stories, and even more so her novels, are highly plotted, often fantastic, her intention being to focus our attention upon the significance of event and pattern.

The importance of plot, together with the emphasis placed on symbol, is consistent with Atwood's view of literature in general, of language and her view of the self. A novel is not intended to simply reflect the objective world, but to offer us a mirror in which we may detect the shapes and patterns of our experience. Language itself is dangerous and deceptive; hence, the constant stretching and probing of words in the fiction (as in the poetry) until one senses that nothing can be assumed or taken for granted. Finally, Atwood's contention that the self is a place, not an ego, a view to which I return in subsequent discussion, rules out the portrayal of character in the Jamesian or Faulknerian sense; nowhere yet has Atwood given us a rounded personality, a firm sense of the self, such as I find in Margaret Laurence's Morag Gunn. Atwood's fiction is written in what I call a mixed style combining realist and romance elements. It is a style well suited to the exploration of the contingency of life, the nature of language, and the duplicity of human perception.


Dancing Girls is a selection of representative stories which Atwood has written over thirteen years.3 All but three of the fourteen stories have been published before; the earliest “The War in the Bathroom” appeared in James Reaney's Alphabet in 1964. “Training,” “Dancing Girls” and “Giving Birth” are new. In general, the stories are of mixed quality, but I feel that none of them places Atwood in the first ranks of modern short-story writers like Bernard Malamud, Doris Lessing, or closer to home, Sinclair Ross, Alice Munro, and Clark Blaise.

The stories lack variety as individual pieces while, at the same time, they do not cohere as a collection or a unit in the way that several other collections by Canadian writers do.4 One characteristic which they have in common is the disturbing, inconclusive ending. While this is effective, especially in “The War in the Bathroom” and “The Grave of the Famous Poet,” so many of the stories end in uncertainty that the sense of being left dangling becomes exasperating. This type of conclusion mars otherwise interesting stories such as “Polarities,” “A Travel Piece,” or “Training”—something of urgent significance, I feel, almost shines through only to be finally obscured; the irony fails.

A second quality that each story shares is the confessional/autobiographical focus, not necessarily of Atwood herself, but on the part of her fictional characters. They are, for the most part, stories of the self, involving crises of perception and identity either within the individual psyche (“The War in the Bathroom,” “When It Happens,” “Giving Birth”) or arising from encounters between men and women (“Polarities,” “The Grave of the Famous Poet,” “Hair Jewellery,” “The Resplendent Quetzal”). These problems of identity and perception are recurrent, central themes in Atwood's work, and while they have been treated masterfully in short story form—Lessing's “Our Friend Judith” for example—Atwood has greater success with these themes in her poems or in the longer novel form.

Since it hardly seems necessary, nor is there space, to discuss all eleven stories, I have decided to look at Atwood's handling of the short story form and her themes in two of the more successful stories, “The War in the Bathroom” and “Rape Fantasies,” as well as in each of the new stories.

“The War in the Bathroom” is a small tour de force in which the reader is uncertain, almost from the outset, about who is speaking. The story is written in the first person present and the tone is that of personal, direct address to the reader. The heroine of the story, however, is referred to throughout as “she,” and “I” is clearly telling us about “she's” move from one flat to another followed by the mundane events of one week in the new place, presented under daily headings from “Monday” to “Sunday.” At first, “I” seems to be separate from “she”: “I have told her never to accept help from strangers” (p. 9). But this illusion in narrative convention soon slips—not only does “I” share “she's” bed, advise her on clothing, food, mathematicians and an exotic tattooed Arab. In her own “native costume” of plain wool sweaters and skirts, Ann is not exotic. She dreams, however, of re-designing cities—“Toronto would do for a start” (DG, p. 227)—into pastoral paradises. The dancing girls of the title precipitate the overthrow of Ann's urban planning dreams and the “Arabian Nights” glamour of the foreign students.

One night the silent Arab throws a wild party with three “dancing girls.” Because she is unwilling to become involved, Ann locks herself in her room while Mrs. Nolan handles the situation by calling the police and chasing the men from her house. Consequently, Ann does not see “the dancing girls” who “were probably just some whores from Scollay Square” (DG, p. 235), and does not have to relinquish entirely her image of an exotic event. She does, however, realize that her “green, perfect space of the future” has been “cancelled in advance” (DG, p. 236). The story closes as Ann indulges herself “one last time” in her urban fantasy:

The fence was gone now, and the green stretched out endlessly, fields and trees and flowing water, … The man from next door was there, in his native costume, and the mathematicians, they were all in their native costumes. Beside the stream a man was playing the flute; and around him, in long flowered robes and mauve scuffies, their auburn hair floating around their healthy pink faces, smiling their Dutch smiles, the dancing girls were sedately dancing.

(DG, p. 236)

This time the image of a re-designed pastoral city draws together the various fantasies of the story as if in one final effort to fend off the real world of Mrs. Nolan.

There is a problem that hovers over “Dancing Girls,” however, much the same problem that vitiates “Training”: what motivates Ann's fantasies? Why is she drawn to the illusory exoticism of foreign students or pastoral visions of modern cities? It is easy to sympathize with her naive desire to replace the ugly sordidness of modern cities with open, green spaces. The sense of claustrophobia arising from cramped spaces (here, the boardinghouse room), closed circles, or rigid squares is a constant Atwood preoccupation for which Ann is an exponent. Perhaps the attraction of the students with their “native costumes” can only be explained in terms of Ann's insecure sense of her own identity. As a Canadian in the United States she is not perceived as distinct, let alone foreign; she does not have a “native costume” (DG, p. 231).

“Giving Birth” is by far the most interesting and challenging story in the collection. It is, I feel, of a quality and importance equal to Atwood's finest poems. Furthermore, it is something of a personal statement on the nature of the creative process for which the birth of a child is an obvious metaphor. What is being born, however, is more than, or other than, a baby; it is a story, and an aspect of the self. The success of this story depends in part upon the fact that the birth is both metaphor and event. Also of importance, and handled with equal skill, is the narrative voice. These two elements of the narrative are inextricably woven together.

Approximately two thirds of the way through “Giving Birth,” the first person narrator asks herself why she must try to describe “events of the body” such as childbirth: “why should the mind distress itself trying to find a language for them?” (DG, p. 249) The story is the answer. The narrator begins by questioning the language we use to describe life. Words such as “giving” and “delivering” are troublesome and inadequate because they imply an end-product, an object, whereas birth like death is an event, not a thing. In order to overcome the limitations of language, in order to understand the significance of event, the narrator must, paradoxically, use language to write about the event. Thus, the narrator/writer creates her protagonist “Jeannie,” named after the light-brown haired Jeannie of the song.

Atwood goes to considerable effort to distinguish between the “I” of the story and “Jeannie”:

(By this time you may be thinking that I've invented Jeannie in order to distance myself from these experiences. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am, in fact, trying to bring myself closer to something that time has already made distant. As for Jeannie, my intention is simple: I am bringing her back to life.)

(DG, p. 243)

By “bringing [Jeannie] back to life” in fiction, the narrator can attempt to recapture the significance of an event for the self. The story is the writer's way of ‘bringing something back’ from her experience so that she will not forget entirely “what it was like” (DG, p. 252). Therefore, towards the end of the story, the narrator, who is still troubled by the words “giving birth” can realize that,

(It was to me, after all, that birth was given, Jeannie gave it, I am the result.)

(DG, p. 253)

The birth has been given to the narrator because it is an event that has become a part of her, that has changed her. Because the narrator is a writer, however, the reality of this event takes its final shape in language, in a story.

With the last lines of the story Atwood pinpoints the relationship between narrator/Jeannie/reader, and the nature of experience. Atwood has said that for her “the self is a place in which things happen.”5 Birth has happened to Jeannie, in the story, and through Jeannie to the narrator. The story has happened to us; it is the event we experience. Just as Jeannie's hair darkens and she “is replaced, gradually, by someone else” (DG, p. 254), so the narrator has changed. Atwood is asking us to reconsider the relationship between experience and the self. She is attempting, through language, to grasp the meaning of event and the significance of a universal human event for the individual self. Life, like birth and death, is a process, not a static thing or object. The self, Atwood claims, is not a hard fixed kernel, an ego, but a place where events happen, a place that is changed by events. In a sense, then, we the readers are changed by “Giving Birth.”

As noted earlier, the baby in the story is more than a metaphor for the creative process; the chief protagonist does have a baby. But the story is never tiresomely gynecological in the way that Audrey Thomas' “If One Green Bottle …” finally is. Through Jeannie and her other self, the woman with “the haggard face, the bloated torso, the kerchief holding back the too sparse hair” (DG, p. 254), Atwood portrays the very real sense of terror and estrangment from the self that a person can feel when facing an unknown ordeal. The woman who shadows Jeannie is not “really there,” but she is the embodiment both of fear and of the self's unwillingness to be absorbed by event. Jeannie and her other self, then, are the counter-weights in “Giving Birth.” By writing the story, the narrator is able to absorb event into the self rather than be overwhelmed by it. Through language, ‘the mind's distress,’ meaning is born.


  1. “Interview with Margaret Atwood,” Linda Sandler, The Malahat Review, 41 (January, 1977), p. 19. For a further discussion of her fiction see her interview with Graeme Gibson in Eleven Canadian Novelists (Toronto: Anansi, 1973).

  2. “Margaret Atwood: Poet as Novelist,” The Canadian Novel in the Twentieth Century (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 1975), p. 314.

  3. Margaret Atwood, Dancing Girls (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 1977). All further references are to this text. The following eleven stories were previously published: “The War in the Bathroom,” Alphabet, 8 (1964); “The Man from Mars,” Ontario Review (Spring-Summer, 1977); “Polarities,” Tamarack Review, 58 (1971), “Rape Fantasies,” The Fiddlehead, 104 (Winter, 1975); “Under Glass,” Harper's, 244 (February, 1972); “The Grave of the Famous Poet,” Oberon Press (1972); “Hair Jewellry,” Ms. Magazine (December, 1976); Saturday Night, 90 (May, 1975); “The Resplendent Quetzal,” The Malahat Review, 41 (January, 1977); “Lives of the Poets,” Saturday Night (April, 1977).

  4. While I do not suggest that formal and thematic unity is the best, let alone only, way to prepare a collection of stories, it has proved remarkably effective in Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women, Margaret Laurence's A Bird in the House, Clark Blaise's A North American Education and Gabrielle Roy's Rue Deschambault.

  5. Quoted from Atwood's introductory remarks on the cassette by High Barnett, Toronto, 1973.

Gregory Houghton (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: “Margaret Atwood: Some Observations and Textual Considerations,” in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 20, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 85–92.

[In the following essay, Houghton analyzes Atwood's attempt to construct meaning by drawing attention to and highlighting the “process of exclusion in everyday experience, by focusing upon the inadequacies and illusions of overt fabrications.”]

Margaret Atwood's presentation of a public self remains enigmatic, elusive and contradictory. She self-consciously refuses all the diverse personas that have been foisted upon her, working hard at escaping the net of our expectations. Her interviews are fascinating moments of flight and of flux. In part this unapproachability can be attributed to her legitimate desire for privacy and the preservation of some sense of private self, but there are other very important motives.

There can be few women writers so aware of the dangers of form, both personal and literary. In our never ending attempts to construct meaning, we must inevitably exclude, repress, oppress and ignore. Atwood, in two pieces of short fiction, twice draws attention to and highlights this process of exclusion in everyday experience, by focussing upon the inadequacies and illusions of overt fabrications. Both of these elaborate constructions are utopian.

In “Polarities”1 Louise, a graduate student obsessed with the works of Blake, seeks after what she believes to be an all-embracing communality and wholeness. As a result of her efforts she finds herself in a mental asylum, a parallel perhaps to the exclusive nature of her visions, which are actually erecting boundaries rather than breaking them down. The realization of what Louise's vision really amounted to comes too late both for her and for Morrison, her alienated, schizoid companion.

Poor Louise, he saw now what she had been trying desperately to do: the point of the circle, closed and self-sufficient, was not what it included but what it shut out.

(p. 68)

The central character of “Dancing Girls,” who is also a detached and alienated student, this time of urban design, has her own ideas of the perfect world, so perfect that people could not live there.

She wasn't yet too certain of the specific details. What she saw were spaces, beautiful green spaces, with water flowing through them, and trees. Not big golf-course lawns, though, something more winding … surprising vistas. And no formal flower beds. The houses, or whatever they were, set unobtrusively among the trees, the cars kept … where? And where would people shop, and who would live in these places? This was the problem: she could see the vistas, the trees and the streams or canals, quite clearly, but she could never visualize the people.

(p. 227)

These flawed utopias are an important instance of a deeper level that operates in many Atwood texts. That is the tension between construction and the impulse to de-construction, a tension which Atwood occasionally even overtly articulates. In those moments often it is language, as it inevitably must be, upon which and through which the battle is glimpsed and fought. Michel Foucault is of interest here in his juxtaposition of utopias and heterotopias and of their respective relationships to language:

utopias permit fables and discourse: they run with the very grain of language and are part of the fundamental dimension of the fabula; heterotopias … desiccate speech, stop words in their tracks, contest the very possibility of grammar at its source; they dissolve our myths and sterilize the lyricism of our sentences.2

Atwood's willingness to combat the categories we might wish to impose, such as nationalist or feminist, is more than a playful impulse to disorder, it is one manifestation of a project which she believes is vital to personal and societal liberation. That this sometimes latent, sometimes explicit desire to overthrow our arbitrary orderings of the world is possibly evidenced more often when Atwood is engaged as public persona has two obvious causes.

First, as a literary artist she is making and shaping literary artefacts. Texts are made of language, which inevitably commits the artist to the forces of constructed and given meanings, meanings which obscure their own arbitrary construction. Yet as I said earlier, Atwood's texts do threaten to disintegrate, to self-destruct. Atwood has no faith in the possibilities of non-illusory communication. She would rather locate meaning in whatever is not or cannot be heard, spoken or present. Of course such an intense awareness of the inherent contradictions in writing seriously affects her capacity to proceed with prose forms. In “Giving Birth,” a cry of despair is barely contained:

Words ripple at my feet, black, sluggish, lethal. Let me try once more, before the sun gets me, before I starve or drown, while I can. It's only a tableau after all, it's only a metaphor. See, I can speak, I am not trapped, and you on your part can understand. So we will go ahead as if there were no problem about language.

(p. 240)

Secondly, biography and autobiography hold out to us the possibility of an illusory form, a means to make sense of ourselves and the world, in a century where realist modes of art have been largely undermined, overthrown and replaced by endless engagements with the labyrinths of form.3 More than ever before we seek to impose on or find in the artist's life an order that we cannot attain either in art or our own lives. Atwood goes out of her way to deny such attempts. In doing so she is also vitally aware of the prevailing patriarchal critical discourse about the woman writer, perceiving that this obsession with “the life,” to the neglect of the text, may well intensify the long-standing “critical” idea that there is a necessary and determinant relationship between the woman artist's experience and her creations. The male critic says that to know her life is to know her work, and many female critics, feminist or otherwise, make sure he is not alone in this reductive and oppressive belief.

Meaghen Morris sees this as perhaps the most pervasive of the “big dichotomies” with which critics seem to feel the urge to “interrogate” women's texts. She argues that

In earlier criticism, where the life-text relation was a simple and acceptable problematic, the “speciality” of women's writing in this respect was a question of degree and of performance. Today, with this problematic largely discarded, continuing to talk of women's writing in those terms almost amounts to an admission of belief in feminine sorcery.4

Feminists who have sought to give this conception a positive inversion have not fundamentally altered its ideological foundations. Both critic and artist must do more than move within the boundaries of this discourse; Atwood has had the political and intellectual courage to try to move publicly beyond it, urging “the development of a vocabulary that can treat structures of words as though they are exactly that, not biological entities possessed of sexual organs.”5

Atwood's understanding of this biographical mode of criticism is acute. Sometimes it can lead to an unnecessary defensiveness and ambiguity, such as over the issue of feminism,6 yet her reluctance to commit herself publicly is understandable in the light of the rather absurd debate on the subject of her feminism or lack of it. On other occasions, though, it results in a delightful and deliberate ridicule of critical assumptions. She constantly urges us to separate the “I” of the text and herself. Her flexible narrative voice, which denies the possibility of one truth or one vision, is only one means by which our presuppositions are challenged. In the face of a widespread critical belief that the biographical element is the dominant one in women's literature,7 an Atwood text can contain the following passages (from “Giving Birth”), which are at least one step ahead of those critics who are constantly bemoaning recent women's fiction as a glut of feminist self-advertisement.8

This story about giving birth is not about me. In order to convince you of that I should tell you what I did this morning, before I sat down at this desk.

(p. 240)

By this time you may be thinking that I've invented Jeannie in order to dissociate myself from these experiences. Nothing could be further from the truth.

(p. 245)

Atwood's indulgence in such self-conscious play as part of her comic mode has parallels in the work of, among others, Kenneth Burke9 and Michel Foucault,10 but like Foucault she is more concerned with a level of disruption and disorder deeper than the merely incongruous or humorous. Absurdity is one term Foucault offers for this level, which he sees as destroying “the and of the enumeration by making impossible the in where the things enumerated would be divided up.”11

What, briefly, are some of the implications of Atwood's unwillingness to be named? One reading of Dancing Girls, her collection of short stories, could point to an absence in the text so overwhelming that it draws attention to itself. Story after story operates outside conventional geographical space. We are given the barest clues as to where these various worlds may be situated. How are we to understand these works in terms of Atwood as the passionate, articulate, and committed Canadian nationalist? Nationalism, while it works in very different ways, has been locatable in much of Atwood's prior output.

Attention has been drawn elsewhere to her continuous mocking and undermining of would-be nationalists;12 in fact they are very often the most ludricrous and also sometimes most oppressive characters in the text. Yet more importantly, Atwood seems consciously and/or unconsciously intent on excluding any content which could provide fuel for an unthinking reductionism: “Atwood the nationalist.” Perhaps she goes too far, but then she has always been more concerned with psychic space and states of being than with the material world. For example, one critic has described the ending of “Polarities” as a surrealistic image of the land that expresses the emptiness of the central character's life.13 The land from which Morrison felt so excluded can only reflect his utter sterility and irrelevancy:

In the corner of his eye the old women swelled, wavered, then seemed to disappear, and the land opened before him. It swept away to the north and he thought he could see the mountains, white-covered, their crests glittering in the falling sun, then forest upon forest, after that the barren tundra and the blank solid rivers, and beyond, so far that the endless night had already descended, the frozen sea.

(p. 69)

Morrison can be situated within the political and economic debates over Canadian nationalism. He is an American academic recruited northwards by the lure of money and some undefined project of self-discovery, but these questions do not exercise Atwood. In fact once again “cheap nationalism” is the subject for attack in this story (p. 59).

Two further points could be made about this absence. First, the characters that populate these texts are by and large extremely alienated, some of them well beyond any possibility of rebirth. The texts often tell us more about states of alienation, whether it be from the character's work, body, emotions, space or time, than about its causes. Nevertheless, many of them share a rootlessness, in some cases literally, in other instances as a geographical image of their own sense of unreality.

Secondly, Atwood continues to call for the term Canada to be more than a euphemism for an American colony, while seeming to believe increasingly that Canadian nationalism is a lost cause. Thus in a world of “Americans,” “Americanization” and economic and cultural imperialism, she psychically has no country, no “primary reality”14 to which she can orientate herself. So problematic has Canada become to Atwood that the text can no longer articulate it.

If the question of Canada and its future is ever present both despite and as a result of its exclusion from these texts, then what is included in the texts is often undermined, as Atwood, particularly in the last story of the collection, allows the text free reign in its de-construction tendencies. It could be argued that in “Giving Birth,” there is an homology between the spoken and the unspoken in the text, and between Jeannie and the unnamed woman, both of whom experience labour and birth. The text's construction inevitably proceeds within the bounds of conventional discourse, putting aside or putting down the unexplainable and the unpleasant in whatever limited way it can.15

Thus language, muttering in its archaic tongues of something, yet one more thing, that needs to be renamed. It won't be by me, though. These are the only words I have, I'm stuck with them, stuck with them.

(p. 239)

So too does Jeannie separate off from herself those aspects of birth which her well-intentioned, liberal consciousness cannot come to terms with. Jeannie's imagination gives form to these repressed aspects in the image of a working-class woman to whom birth represents no more than pain, oppression and monotony: “the haggard face, the bloated torso, the kerchief holding back the too-sparse hair” (p. 245).

The homology of this separation with that which is within and that which is outside the boundaries of linguistic discourse, and further the power relations that underpin it, can be clearly located in the following two passages. Jeannie says of the other woman,

She too is pregnant. She is not going to the hospital to give birth, however, because the word, the words are too alien to her experience, the experience she is about to have, to be used about it at all.

(p. 244)

Later we are told that “the word in English for unwanted intercourse is rape, but there is no word in the language for what is about to happen to this woman” (p. 244). These split selves cannot begin to be reunited until Jeannie's experience of birth radically undermines her deeply held belief structure, a structure grounded partly in the language and ideology of fashionable birth manuals. Its apparent openness and flexibility is shown to be closed and rigid, sufficing only to alienate Jeannie from the realities of herself, the birth and her interpersonal environment. “She realizes she has practised for the wrong thing, … she should have practised for this, whatever it is” (p. 250).

The text has held in suspension the question of “giving birth,” which it explored in its opening, and puts in its place a deceptive narrative that reveals the forces against which de-construction must struggle. “Jeannie is on her way to the hospital, to give birth, to be delivered. She is not quibbling over these terms” (p. 242). As her expectations are challenged by experience, so these terms once again become problematic. “This finally, is the disappearance of language.”

Thus the ending of the text throws open even further the discursive fields Jeannie has been forced to begin to be aware of. It offers a stunning metaphor of this initial awareness but more powerfully still of the de-constructive project.

All she can see from the window is a building. It's an old stone building, heavy and Victorian, with a copper roof oxidized to green. It's solid, hard, darkened by soot, dour, leaden. But as she looks at this building, so old and seemingly immutable, she sees that it's made of water. Water and some tenuous jellylike substance. Light flows through it from behind … the building is so thin, so fragile, that it quivers in the slight dawn wind. Jeannie sees that if the building is this way (a touch could destroy it, a ripple of the earth, why has no one noticed, guarded it against accidents?) then the rest of the world must be like this too, the entire earth, the rocks, people, trees.

(p. 253)


  1. “Polarities,” in Dancing Girls (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977). All further references to Margaret Atwood's short stories will be to this edition and will be incorporated in the text.

  2. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (London: Tavistock Publications, 1970), p. xviii.

  3. For a tentative, plausible, if overly simple explanation of this historical process from a Marxist perspective, see Terry Eagleton, “Aesthetics and Politics,” New Left Review, No. 107 (1978), p. 24.

  4. Meaghen Morris, “Aspects of Current French Feminist Literary Criticism,” Hecate, 5, No. 2 (1979), 70.

  5. “Paradoxes and Dilemmas: The Woman as Writer,” in Women in the Canadian Mosaic, ed. G. Matheson (Toronto: Peter Martin, 1976), p. 266.

  6. Atwood's hedging on this difficult question is evidenced in her interview with Linda Sandler. See the Malahat Review, 41 (1977), 24.

  7. For one instance of this belief see Patricia Spacks, The Female Imagination (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1972), p. 5.

  8. A not uncommon complaint from the New York Review of Books.

  9. Kenneth Burke, Perspectives by Incongruity, ed. S. Hyman (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964).

  10. See in particular John K. Simon, “A Conversation with Michel Foucault,” Partisan Review, 38, No. 2 (1971), 201.

  11. Foucault, p. xvii.

  12. As one critic among others to make this point, see Karl Miller, “Orphans and Oracles: What Clara Knew,” New York Review of Books, 26 Sept. 1976, p. 32.

  13. P.R. Bilan, “Fiction,” University of Toronto Quarterly, 47 (1978), 331.

  14. This phrase was used by Margaret Atwood in an interview. See Meanjin, 37 (1978), 195.

  15. Consider for instance this passage: “Vitamized, conscientious, well-read Jeannie, who has managed to avoid morning sickness, varicose veins, stretch marks, toxemia and depression, who has had no aberrations of appetite, no blurring of vision—why is she followed, then, by this other?” (p. 245).

Lee Briscoe Thompson (essay date 1981)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6099

SOURCE: “Minuets and Madness: Margaret Atwood's ‘Dancing Girls,’” in The Art of Margaret Atwood: Essays in Criticism, edited by Arnold E. Davidson and Cathy N. Davidson, Anansi, 1981, pp. 107–22.

[In the following essay, Thompson offers a detailed survey of the stories in Dancing Girls.]

Two-headed poems; polarities, mythic reversals: it may be from Margaret Atwood's own delight in oppositions and strong contradictions that critics often take their cue. One notices, at any rate, a tendency for commentators to deplore or dwell exclusively upon the clinical chill, the frightening detachment in Atwood's poetry, at the same time as they often criticize her fiction, particularly The Edible Woman and Lady Oracle, as shallow, flippant, frivolous, with silly protagonists, in a phrase, “not the essential Atwood.”1 The poetry is seen as cold, strange, mythical, ritualistic, while the prose is considered comparatively warm, full of common touches and ordinary bumblers; one intense and austere, the other almost frothy, rambling, diffused; one humourless, the other marked by considerable (to some tastes, too much) humour. This polarized view, while rarely pushed and almost always obliged to ignore Surfacing or term it a “poetic novel,” implies a schizophrenia, a two-headedness of the poet, two separate and distinct psyches joined only at the body level for the mechanical purposes of writing and never overlapping territories.

For this interpretation there is reinforcement in Atwood's own analysis of her endeavours in verse and fiction. Interviewed for The New York Times (May 21, 1978) by novelist Joyce Carol Oates, Atwood was reminded that “You work with a number of different ‘voices’ in your poetry and prose” and asked, “Have you ever felt that the discipline of prose evokes a somewhat different ‘personality’ (or consciousness) than the discipline of poetry?” Atwood replied, “Not just a ‘somewhat different’ personality, an almost totally different one. Though readers and critics, of course, make connections because the same name appears on these different forms, I'd make a bet that I could invent a pseudonym for a reviewer and that no one would guess it was me.” She explained, further, that “Poetry is the most joyful form, and prose fiction—the personality I feel there is a curious, often bemused, sometimes disheartened observer of society.” The appended remark, like a T.S. Eliot footnote, raises more questions than it answers. Poetry joyful? She must mean in its tight, rich creation, its soarings and plunges, its sophisticated levels of “naming.” And the narrators of many of her fictions are indeed puzzled, uncertain, frequently demoralized. In this they stand contrasted to the assured tone of some of her poetic personae. But to argue that a reader is prompted to connect the fiction and poetry solely by the appearance of Atwood's name on both is to overlook or pay insufficient attention to importantly congruent elements which unify the genres. In so saying, Atwood underrates the organic quality of her writing.

A single case in point is the incidence of humour in Atwood. It is conceded by all but the grumpiest to be a significant force in her fiction. One thinks of the hilarious passage in Edible Woman when Marion sulkily retreats beneath the bed/chesterfield, realizes that her absence has gone unnoticed, but cannot then devise a graceful way to emerge from the dustballs. Or there's the memorable contemplation of how to smuggle Ainsley's lover out past the watchful landlady. Lady Oracle offers, among many other gems, the brilliant coup of “Bravo, Mothball,” the passionate advances to obese Joan of the Italian restauranteur, the tender humour of her encounter with the Daffodil Man. It is admittedly more difficult to cite hilarities in the poetry, except of a sardonic turn. But the task becomes easier in the perspective of Atwood's article, “What's so funny? Notes on Canadian Humour.”2 She there distinguishes among British humour (based largely on class consciousness), U.S. humour (based on the tall tale, the confidence trick, and highly competitive and individualistic rather than “proper” British behaviour), and Canadian humour. Atwood unites the parody of Sarah Binks, the satire of The Incomparable Atuk, the genial humour of Sunshine Sketches, and Newfie jokes under the common heading of “concealed self-deprecation”. Given the latitude of that definition, no side-splitters emerge, perhaps, but recognition is given to the comic talent of such funny passages as:

I tightened my lips; knew that England
was now unreachable; had sunk down into the sea
without ever teaching me about washtubs

(“First Neighbours,” JSM)


Come away with me, he said, we will live on a desert island.
I said, I am a desert island. It was not what he had in mind.

(“Circe/Mud Poems,” YAH)

or the entire poem “They Eat Out,” where

the ceiling opens
a voice sings Love Is A Many
Splendoured Thing
you hang suspended above the city
in blue tights and a red cape,
your eyes flashing in unison.
The other diners regard you
some with awe, some only with boredom:
they cannot decide if you are a new weapon
or only a new advertisement.
As for me, I continue eating;
I liked you better the way you were,
but you were always ambitious.


Concession to the comic doesn't blunt the terrors and exorcisms of much of Atwood's poetry; it simply acknowledges a major aspect often buried in assessments of her as an ice princess with a gorgon touch.

What is perhaps even more useful is the way such a reevaluation of the “humourlessness” of the poetry stimulates a reviewing of the humour in the fiction. Almost at once one begins to detect the darker side, the alienation and essential isolation of Marian, the willful manipulation by Ainsley, the humiliation of Mothball through the perverted values of Miss Flegg, the pathetic loneliness of the Daffodil Man and the disastrous confusion of rescuer and villain in Joan's Gothicism-fuddled mind. Comedy slides into tragedy, minuets into madness, as they invariably do in the best of literature, and the categories of literary analysts fall into disarray.

Nevertheless Atwood's idea of two voices has a superficial validity, in that pulse readings of Lady Oracle, Edible Woman, and many of Atwood's short pieces undeniably detect a somewhat sunnier, more ‘ordinary’ approach to the universe than the bulk of Atwood's poetry. John Metcalf has pointed to the short story as the literary form closest to poetry by virtue of its intensity, brevity, and striving for a single effect. Assuming that is correct, one could then regard Atwood's short fiction, specifically her 1977 volume, Dancing Girls, as a visible bridge between the dominant ‘voices’ of her poetry and her long fiction. There are bemused fictive narrators, it is true, but there are also the characteristics of the poetry, especially the madness, the heightened consciousness, the mythic elements. Rather than speak in a voice utterly different from that of her verse, the short stories share the non-rational attributes of the poetry, and mingle the qualities of the mundane (minuets) and the poetic/mythic (madness) which have been misrepresented by some as exclusive to prose and poetry respectively.

The fourteen stories which appear in the Canadian version of Dancing Girls (an American version is apparently in the works) are resistant to glib systematization in that their original, individual publication spans fourteen years, from 1964 through 1977. Let us for convenience retain the loose terms “minuet” and “madness” to refer to the headsets which Atwood has suggested dominate her writing of prose and poetry. One is inclined to set in the “minuets” category: “The War in the Bathroom,” “The Man from Mars,” “Rape Fantasies,” “The Grave of the Famous Poet,” “Hair Jewellery,” “Training,” “Lives of the Poets,” “The Resplendent Quetzal,” “Dancing Girls,” and perhaps “A Travel Piece” and “Giving Birth.” Eleven out of fourteen: only “Polarities,” “When It Happens,” and “Under Glass” seem to commit themselves totally and immediately to the world of madness, in the dance metaphor a “danse macabre.” Under examination, however, one finds that even these categories within categories, these voices within a genre, fluctuate and transform themselves. In the work of a lover of metamorphoses, surely this is to be expected.

“The War in the Bathroom” is a week in the life of a typical Atwood character—rootless, alienated, meticulous, relentlessly self-analytic, keeping madness at bay only by a series of rituals and inventories. Using the first person narration throughout, the story presents a deliberately ambiguous relationship between the narrator and the “she” whose slightest movements are described. Is it a mind-body split we are overhearing? A spontaneous, self-indulgent persona fused with a disciplined, self-denying persona? The reader rummages for signals among the domestic details, the small joys and sorrows, coming up with only indirect evidence of time (modern, with supermarkets, fridges, apartments, and current products) and place (somewhere North American, far enough north to have snow) and no concrete bearings on the situation. But the narrator is not doing much better than the reader, carefully cataloguing everything to achieve the illusion of control. The minuet is reinforced by small standards (“I draw the line at margarine”), the madness by paranoia (suspicions of a check-out girl, of the German woman). The unsettling duality on the narrator's side of the apartment wall becomes echoed on Tuesday, the second day of the ‘diary,’ by the emergence of two voices in the next-door communal bathroom, one high and querulous, the other an urgent whisper, like daylight and nighttime selves. The narrator assumes that it is one person rather more swiftly than even the hearing of single footsteps would explain; this encourages the reader to notice that the puzzling and parallel “I-she” split is clarifying along lines of “she” doing all the physical action and “I” doing all the cerebral action and direction. “Perhaps she is a foreigner,” the narrator guesses of the dual voices by Friday, forging yet another link between Atwood's poetry and fiction. On all fronts, one is a stranger confronted by foreigners, an alien subtly warring with aliens.

Actually the major war in this story focusses not on the enigmatic voices (whose secret is resolved before the week is up) but on a consumptive old man, a fellow tenant of the apartment block. The narrator takes an excessive and cruel dislike to him on account of his compulsively regular schedule in the bathroom, despite—possibly because of—her (?) own compulsiveness. (One is tempted to comparisons with such poems as “Roominghouse, Winter” and must fight the impulse to wander into a lengthy digression on bathrooms in Atwood's work.) The story concludes on the same terms as almost all of Atwood's poetry and fiction, the view of life as a series of small, uncertain battles on the fringe of madness: “For the time being I have won.”

“The Man from Mars” presents a mother and daughter team much like the one in Lady Oracle: a fragile, dainty mom trying to manipulate a King Kong daughter. And like the fat Joan in Lady Oracle, Christine fits a dominant pattern of Atwoodian women: manless, acutely self-aware, inclined to animal imagery in her description of herself and others, making a wry, running commentary upon life in general and in particular. The narrator, while in the third person, concentrates on Christine's point of view. And the gothic combinations of pursuit, flight, and terror which play such large parts in Lady Oracle, Surfacing, and some of the poetry turn up here as the centre both hilarious and horrible of the story.

The title is a tip-off to the transitional quality of the tale: the foreigner again, here explicitly identified as about as alien as the common stock of metaphors permits: a Martian, a creature from other worlds. With that starting point, the movement of the story is rhythmic: the less-than-attractive Christine, whose life is so dull that she dreads the end of the school year; the slide into a magic, slightly mad phase, as she is mysteriously, hotly pursued by the “person from another culture”; the escalation of mystery into nightmare as she begins to brood over blood-drenched visions of assault and murder. The recession into mediocrity, the removal of the Martian/mystery/madness, finds Christine remembering her now romanticized pursuer and, when he is proclaimed “nuts,” countering defensively that there is “more than one way of being sane.” Graduation with mediocre grades is followed by a tolerable career and an adequate little life. Near the conclusion the Vietnamese conflict makes for a flickering revival of exoticism and Christine finds “the distant country becoming almost more familiar to her than her own” (a characteristic Atwood reversal). Predictably, however, the mood threatens again to become madness (shades of the poem “It is Dangerous to Read Newspapers”); the new nightmare visions provoke a deliberate retreat into the mundane, out of graphic modern television into genteel nineteenth-century novels and a carefully nondescript, domesticated final view. A certain control has been regained but only to the tenuous degree familiar throughout Atwood's writings.

The title story, “Dancing Girls,” autobiographically set in the United States in the 1960s with a female grad student protagonist from Toronto, aligns itself with “The Wars in the Bathroom” in its boarding-house cheapness and with “The Man from Mars” in Ann's “encountering” another alien male, an Arab neighbour. Ann and her landlady, while staunchly defending the prosaic side of life, are acutely aware of and fascinated by the exotic and alien: Turkish Lelah with her gypsy earrings and gold tooth, the tattooed Arab with his noisy partying, dancing girls, and vacuumed-up dirt. Indeed, these polarities give Atwood a chance to voice the chagrin Canadians so often feel at the American view that “You're not, like, foreign.” Parallel to the paradoxical approach-avoidance Atwood's characters experience regarding Gothic pursuers is the web of contradictory responses concerning aliens and alienation. One wants, simply, to be different—but not too different; the balance is rarely managed; hence the metaphor of the dance. And in a deft pirouette, Atwood casts the sober landlady and her sort as “cold, mad people” in the eyes of the amazed, terrified, and pursued alien. A wistful conclusion underscores the longing of so many of Atwood's creatures, from pioneer to high-rise dweller, for escape, for gentle, green spaces, for a world where human contact is no longer measured out in razors in the bathroom or hair in the drain.

Four of the short stories in this collection concentrate on late stages of what Chaucer called the “olde daunce,” the minuet between the sexes, and one finds again polarities of vulnerability and insensitivity, control and chaos, humour and rage. The war dance is cast, typically for this writer, as trivial guerilla warfare rather than overt bloodshed: surface minuet and subliminal massacre; it is this observance of the properties, this staying miserably within the rules of the dance floor, that gives the impact of a particularly Canadian truth.

“The Grave of the Famous Poet” and “Hair Jewellery” speak through the predominant Atwood voice, first person very singular female. “The Grave of the Famous Poet” involves the imminent split-up with an as-usual nameless “him.” There is an emphasis on alienation, contrasted with the man and woman's joint purpose of a literary pilgrimage in England. The story ties itself closely to Atwood's poetry in its clinical tone, its emphasis on victimhood, emotional paralysis, traps and helplessness. “Hair Jewellery,” dealing with similar circumstances, handles it somewhat differently. The diction is more formal, its self-consciousness the trademark of the literary academic (Atwood and her character), the analysis and delivery more amusing. Speaking of her preference for the safety of unrequired love, the narrator explains to her lover of long ago:

If, as had happened several times, my love was requited, if it became a question of the future, of making a decision that would lead inevitably to the sound of one's beloved shaving with an electric razor while one scraped congealed egg from his breakfast plate, I was filled with panic. … What Psyche saw with the candle was not a god with wings but a pigeon-chested youth with pimples, and that's why it took her so long to win her way back to true love. It is easier to love a daemon than a man, though less heroic.

You were, of course, the perfect object. No banal shadow of lawnmowers and bungalows lurked in your melancholy eyes, opaque as black marble, recondite as urns, you coughed like Roderick Usher, you were, in your own eyes and therefore in mine, doomed and restless as Dracula. Why is it that dolefulness and a sense of futility are so irresistible to young women?

She fluctuates, as we have seen elsewhere, between the mundane world of Filene's bargain basement and the Gothic horrors of such moments as the boyfriend's hand on her throat and announcement that he is the Boston Strangler. But in this story, the sequel to terror is regularly ironic humour and then wistful, romantic melancholy, a posture with implicit self-mockery. One realizes at the last the appropriateness of the title “Hair Jewellery”—memorial jewellery made from the hair of the dear departed—for the story presents just such dusty, obsolete, romantic kitsch, with all the right macabre undertones.

“The Resplendent Quetzal” carries on the basically humane tone of “Hair Jewellery,” but offers this time a bit of insight into both dance partners' steps. The story makes use of dramatic, mythic, poetic effects from the very first line: “Sarah was sitting near the edge of the sacrificial well.” However, Atwoodian reductio operates throughout; here, “Sarah thought there might be some point to being a sacrificial victim if the well were nicer, but you would never get her to jump into a muddy hole like that.” Her husband, Edward, exhibits the same vacillation between fantasies of the mythic past and glum realization of modern mediocrity; his vision of himself, “in the feathered costume of the high priest, sprinkl[ing] her with blood drawn with thorns from his own tongue and penis,” becomes debased to a Grade Six special project with scale models of the temples, slides, canned tortillas and tamales. Atwood tells of an abrupt reversal of roles near the end. Yet, even in the intense scene of ritual sacrifice of the doll baby, practical Sarah has noted wrinkles in her skirt and the likelihood of more flea bites. A moment of potential reconciliation or at least the introduction of strangers arises:

Sarah took her hands away from her face, and as she did so Edward felt cold fear. Surely what he would see would be the face of someone else, someone entirely different, a woman he had never seen before in his life. Or there would be no face at all. But (and this was almost worse) it was only Sarah, looking much as she always did.

The still point at the centre of the dance between the mundane and the mad has been reached again.

The fourth of the stories about deteriorated romance is “The Lives of the Poets,” which opens with Julia speaking but, as she realizes her lack of control, shifts quickly into third person. Starting with the indignities of an actual, boring nosebleed, the tale alternates complexly through relationships not only between lovers but also between a person and his environment, a writer and his audience, words and the mind, reality and metaphor, before coming to a closing drenched in symbolic blood. In the midst of increasing emotional pain, Julia humorously anatomizes the small idiocies of the visiting poet's lot. Once more Atwood's conclusion combines the self-deprecating wit of an edible woman with the raging, apocalyptic visions of many of her poetic personae:

They park the virtuous car and she is led by the two young men into the auditorium, grey cinderblock, where a gathering of polite faces waits to hear the word. Hands will clap, things will be said about her, nothing astonishing, she is supposed to be good for them, they must open their mouths and take her in, like vitamins, like bland medicine. No. No sweet identity, she will clench herself against it. She will step across the stage, words coiled, she will open her mouth and the room will explode in blood.

The story which best fits the critical stereotype of Atwood's “bubbleheaded ladies' magazine fiction” (vs. her “serious poetry”) is probably “Rape Fantasies.” Agreed, its lower-middle-class diction, full of babbling asides and slang, is far removed from the fine intuitions of the Power Politics voices. And the subject matter, the dynamics of a female office/lunch room and the “girls'” revelations of their extremely unimaginative rape fantasies, hardly seems in the same league as the mythic patterns of You Are Happy or the multiple metaphors of The Journals of Susanna Moodie. Nevertheless, when the intellectual snobberies are put aside (and appropriately so, since that is one of Atwood's satiric targets here), the narrator does demonstrate an admirable sense of humour, appreciation of the ridiculous, and considerable compassion. For once in Atwood the cutting edge seems thoroughly dulled by the sheer zaniness of the monologue.

One imaginary rapist is “absolutely covered in pimples. So he gets me pinned against the wall, he's short but he's heavy, and he starts to undo himself and the zipper gets stuck. I mean, one of the most significant moments in a girl's life, it's almost like getting married or having a baby or something, and he sticks the zipper.” She ends up drawing him out and referring him to a dermatologist. In another incarnation, she and the rapist are both slowed down by ferocious headcolds, which make the would-be assault “like raping a bottle of LePage's mucilage the way my nose is running.” The cheerful remedy here is conversation, Neo-Citran and Scotch, plus the Late Show on the tube. “I mean, they aren't all sex maniacs, the rest of the time they must lead a normal life. I figure they enjoy watching the Late Show just like anybody else.” As the reader is introduced to these and other alternatives, it becomes apparent that the naïve narrator's innocent premise is the power of the word. “Like, how could a fellow do that to a person he's just had a long conversation with, once you let them know you're human, you have a life too, I don't see how they could go ahead with it, right?” That we see so easily the flaws in this simplistic and determined optimism serves to underscore a subtle counterpoint Atwood strikes throughout her writing—the actually severe limitations of language, and the doubtfulness of real communication. The sunny normalcy of this lady's world view glosses over a chaotic realm even she must tentatively acknowledge: “I mean, I know [rape] happens but I just don't understand it, that's the part I really don't understand.”

What is also noteworthy is that this story explicitly draws men into the circle of victimhood that Atwood tends to populate with women. Rapists, yes, but failed rapists; they are betrayed by their jammed flies, their sinuses, their gullibility, their pimples, their inadequacies. And one sees that the filing clerk's rape fantasies are actually scenarios of kinship, friendship with and support of other mediocre, in fact worse-off, human beings.

“A Travel Piece” also operates in a chatty, colloquial (here third-person) voice, with a heavy measure (even for Atwood) of run-on sentences and comma splices presumably bespeaking a slightly mindless protagonist skimming on the surface of life. The story is less successful than “Rape Fantasies” in that we, like Annette, never quite penetrate to the reality of her being. But the juxtaposition of her everlasting calm/numbness with the increasingly dramatic events has a definitely surreal power, and demonstrates ably Atwood's skill at combining minuets and madness, the mundane and the bizarre. Drifting in a life raft after a plane crash, surrounded by masks and bloody markings which it is increasingly hard to remember are merely plastic sandwich trays and lipstick donned for protection against the sun,

Annette feels she is about to witness something mundane and horrible, doubly so because it will be bathed not in sinister blood-red lighting but in the ordinary sunlight she has walked in all her life … she is … stuck in the present, with four Martians and one madman, waiting for her to say something.

Annette's predicament, in Atwood's work, is not all that unusual.

“Training” too concerns itself with emotional paralysis and human inadequacies, but here the reader becomes far more involved. The story centres on the unorthodox relationship of a healthy teenaged boy and a nine-year-old cerebral palsy victim confined to a wheelchair. Jordan's cages are explicit: the uncontrolled body, the “metal net” of machinery upon which she must depend; “that mind trapped and strangling.” Rob's are subtler: his overachieving medical family and their and everyone else's expectations for him; feeling the “bumbling third son in a fairy tale, with no princess and no good luck.” Superficial antitheses are set up—the “crips” or the “spazzes” vs. the “norms.” Then the distinctions are gradually demolished. Rob feels abnormal regarding his sexuality; the possibility of the healthy person failing to cope with reality introduces madness (“Real life would be too much for him, he would not be able to take it. … He would go crazy. He would run out into the snow with no galoshes, he would vanish, he would be lost forever.”) And steady-eyed Jordan, meanwhile, comes to represent the honest, psychologically whole person. In the grotesqueries of the compelling conclusion, the polarized worlds are poignantly united in the “danse macabre”: the wheelchair square dancers “danced like comic robots. They danced like him.”

“Giving Birth,” which with “Training” and “Dancing Girls” comprise the only previously unpublished material in the collection, has been taken by some critics as autobiographical evidence of a mellowing of the formidable Atwood as a result of motherhood. In fact, one reviewer has summarized the story as “good reading for many parents, past or prospective;”3 another, less pleased, considers it “a mass magazine approach to a lesson in childbirth, tinged, of course, with female chauvinist irony.”4 Sniffs a third, it will have appeal only for those who have “been there.”5

Certainly the story is a detailed account of one birthing experience, told with Atwood's remarkable clarity and precision and having some fun with prenatal classes and maternity fads. It is also correct to say that most readers will notice a warmth and positivity, a wholeness, that is very scarce in Atwood's writings. Nor is the male figure here a nebbish; both the narrator's mate and the pregnant woman's companion, “A.,” are supportive, helpful, reasonable, in no way threatening. But Atwood's concerns in the collection have not been abandoned in this, the last story. Split and multiple personalities have appeared elsewhere, and in “Giving Birth” one has not only the complications of the narrator differentiating herself from but obviously in some respects coinciding with Jeannie, but also the fluctuating presence of Jeannie's mysterious brown alter ego. There is “pain and terror” as well, an undercurrent of fear, a consideration of death, the need for talismans against the Evil Eye, cages of conventional thought, descent into a “dark place,” the “tubular strange apparatus like a science fiction movie,” the screams. “‘You see, there was nothing to be afraid of,’ A. says before he leaves [after the birth], but he was wrong.”

Most important, “Giving Birth” tackles yet again Atwood's intense interest in the relationship between language and the body. The story opens with contemplation upon the title phrase and its true meaning. Numerous explanations are discarded; “Thus language muttering in its archaic tongues of something, yet one more thing, that needs to be re-named.” The narrator abandons that struggle for the moment, but almost at once resumes it in the form of naming the universe with her child—dog, cat, bluejays, goldfinches, winter. The young daughter “puts her fingers on my lips as I pronounce these words; she hasn't yet learned the secret of making them, I am waiting for her first word; surely it will be miraculous, something that has never yet been said. But if so, perhaps she's already said it and I, in my entrapment, my addiction to the usual, have not heard it.” This compares remarkably closely with the considerations of several selections in the recent Two-Headed Poems, but also traces its lineage to pieces from The Journals of Susanna Moodie, Power Politics, The Animals in That Country, and Circle Game. The struggle of birth gives the relationship between flesh and the word a focus, but offers no answers: “indescribable, events of the body … ; why should the mind distress itself trying to find a language for them?” When, in the middle of a contraction, a nurse speaks of pain, “What pain? Jeannie thinks. 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.” In a surreal postpartum illusion Jeannie sees the watery fragility of a solid building and is overwhelmed by the enormity of her maternal perception that “the entire earth, the rocks, people, trees, everything needs to be protected, cared for, tended.” But that technically mad anxiety is counterbalanced by the normalcy of her baby, “solid, substantial, packed together like an apple. Jeannie examines her, she is complete, and in the days that follow Jeannie herself becomes drifted over with new words, her hair slowly darkens, she ceases to be what she was and is replaced, gradually, by someone else.” As with Rob in “Training,” too much “reality” might have driven Jeannie permanently insane; protective metamorphosis is a necessity.

The justice of this view is demonstrated by a look at the three short stories one may clearly designate as tales of madness rather than mundane minuets: “Polarities,” “Under Glass,” and “When It Happens.” Least successfully realized of the three (and arguably of the entire collection), “When It Happens” anticipates the apocalypse with an unruffled certainty and overlay of domestic chores which serves to heighten the atmosphere of insanity. Agreed, the characters, Mrs. Burridge and her husband Frank, are too cardboard and plodding to infuse the contrast of the mundane and the mad (personal and global) with real terror. But the closing intimation of bloody destruction, restrainedly expressed as “the burst of red,” juxtaposed with Mrs. Burridge's final housewifely gesture of adding cheese to the shopping list, does play its part in the cumulative effect of Dancing Girls.

From the first semi-insane paragraph of “Under Glass,” it is clear that this female narrator is holding herself and her universe together with only the flimsiest of threads. She notes with satisfaction that, on this good day, “the trees come solidly up through the earth as though they belong there, nothing wavers. I have confidence in the grass and the distant buildings, they can take care of themselves. …” Her identification with the plant world is intimate, speaking as she does from the start of “all of us [greenhouse plants and the narrator] keeping quite still.” “Today, however … I walk on two legs, I wear clothes,” she explains, making a distinction between the human and the natural very near to that of the Surfacing narrator. Similarly, it is abundantly clear where her real allegiances lie, how strained her human “affiliation.”

As in “When It Happens,” the narrator of “Under Glass” maintains an impeccably “normal” surface and a deranged interior. The story moves quickly from her vegetarian fantasies into her relationship with a man, the description of which dazzles with its authenticity and all the fancy footwork of the sexual dance. A favourite: “I'm annoyed with him for some reason, though I can't recall which. I thumb through my card-file of nasty remarks, choose one: You make love like a cowboy raping a sheep.” And closer to the bone: “I steer my course so he will have to go through all the puddles. If I can't win, I tell him, neither can you. I was saner then, I had defences.”

From contemplation of self as “something altogether different, an artichoke” through her abrupt self-admonition, “None of that,” to moving a moment later “about the room in a parody of domesticity,” the narrator dances among animal, vegetable, and human incarnations. References abound to animals in zoos, “under glass,” hunted, huddled, hiding. Her death fantasy is crazily followed by visions of ducks and a line of cartoon dancing mice. Angered, she uses animal and plant images, serene and “doing nothing,” to get a grip on her rage. Estranged from her lover, she feels “bloodless as a mushroom,” finds “he's too human.” Turning her metaphoric tables when she wants a reconciliation with him, she sees her lover's face as “a paper flower dropped in water,” spreading tendrils, becoming “inscrutable as an eggplant.” The couple appear to have made up their differences by the conclusion of the story but Atwood inexorably slows the action from the normal, mundane pace of the purposefully departing narrator (“I ponder again his need for more glasses and consider buying him a large bath towel”) to the motionless, insane world under glass, the dream of no more dancing, the longing for annihilation or zerodom:

I find myself being moved, gradually, station by station, back towards the 7-B greenhouse. Soon I will be there: inside are the plants that have taught themselves to look like stones. I think of them; they grow silently, hiding in dry soil, minor events, little zeros, containing nothing but themselves; no food value, to the eye soothing and round, then suddenly nowhere. I wonder how long it takes, how they do it.

“Polarities” is the story whose titular metaphor competes most strongly with dance for control of the entire collection. It begins with an excerpt from a Margaret Avison poem which complements the other Margaret's survival ethic of “beyond truth, tenacity”:

                                                                                                                                                                                    Gentle and just pleasure
It is, being human, to have won from space
                                                            This unchill, habitable interior. …

(“New Year's Poem”)

The obvious introductory contrast is between no-nonsense, brisk Louise and shambling, slothful Morrison, a false effect the omniscient narrator begins reversing almost immediately. Louise's progression into complete madness is handled in slyly paradoxical fashion, for her vision of Blakean wholeness looks remarkably reasonable, a sort of metropolitan yin and yang, in comparison with those “sane” friends who eagerly tuck her away in the loony bin and violate her privacy. Like the aphorisms and short poems in her notebooks, “which were thoroughly sane in themselves but which taken together were not,” Louise's understanding is frequently perfect, as in her fine assessment of Morrison, even when her total picture is askew. “Morrison is not a complete person. He needs to be completed, he refuses to admit his body is part of his mind. He can be in the circle possibly, but only if he will surrender his role as a fragment and show himself willing to merge with the greater whole.” Morrison, rather impressive in his awareness and swift comprehension, interprets Louise correctly in turn: “she's taken as real what the rest of us pretend is only metaphorical.”

All these polarities, then: of wholeness and partiality, exposure and retreat, the mind-body split, interchangeable madness and sanity, energy and the inert, decorating apartments and facing the void, zoos and asylums, living colour and glacial whiteness, chosen and involuntary isolation, inclusion and exclusion, the dream of the “unchill, habitable interior” and the reality of Morrison's “chill interior, embryonic and blighted.” Morrison, the American, the actual and metaphoric outsider, can understand but not change; the reader's position, Atwood suggests by the act of writing, is less bleak.

Travels through these tales make quite unworkable the Atwoodian notion that her poetry and fiction are expressed in two entirely different, stylistically unrelated, philosophically dissimilar voices. Two voices there are, and more, but they are found throughout her work and come from a remarkably unified consciousness. It may be that Atwood's theory is subtly related to her own two public faces: mythic Margaret, the fox-woman, laconic even at readings, reserved, cool, detached, distant, vs. earth-mother Maggie on the farm, folksily recommending Aussie french fries and chatting about Jess's cute tricks. Behind the promotional masks, however, Atwood seems to have no confusion about who she is, and reading her stories and poems, her audience has no doubt about the quality of her dance. Proceeding from a single, powerful sensibility, Dancing Girls is a virtuoso performance.


  1. R.P. Bilan, “Letters in Canada 1977: Fiction,” University of Toronto Quarterly, 47 (Summer 1978), 329–331.

  2. M. Atwood, “What's so funny? Notes on Canadian Humour,” This Magazine, 8, no. 3 (August-September 1974), 24–27.

  3. Lawrence Fast, “Tripping the Light Fantastic,” Vancouver Sun, September 16, 1977, p. 33L.

  4. Keith Garebian, “Mediocre clichés from Atwood,” Montreal Star, March 4, 1978, p. D3.

  5. Sharon Nicoll, “Pirouettes and Falls,” Branching Out, 5, no. 1 (1978), 44–45.

Frank Davey (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8679

SOURCE: “The Short Stories,” in Margaret Atwood: A Feminist Poetics, Talonbooks, 1984, pp. 128–52.

[In the following essay, Davey discusses recurring themes in Atwood's short fiction.]


Atwood's short fiction contains some of her most successful prose outside Life Before Man and the prose poems of Murder in the Dark. For Atwood, the short story always has the iconic potential of poetry—to be oblique and enigmatic, to be a language structure of intrinsic attraction rather than one dependent on the action it narrates. It has the potential, in short, to act in the implicit way of ‘female’ language rather than in the explicit way of the male.

The brevity of the short story makes it a difficult form in which to tell a ‘complete’ story such as that of a character who undergoes instructive change. Unlike Atwood's four comic novels, most of her stories end inconclusively, with the characters gaining not changed lives but, at best, increased self-knowledge. The narrator of “Under Glass” gains strengthened awareness of her neurotic attachment to the world of plants; Christine in “The Man from Mars” comes to see only the emptiness of her life. The brevity of the short story also makes it particularly suitable to the use of symbols. But while in Atwood's novels characters have an opportunity to consciously interpret these symbols, and to attempt to act upon the interpretations, in the briefer form the characters usually apprehend symbols intuitively, and absorb the intuitions almost passively. For many characters—Morrison in “Polarities” confronting the “barren tundra and blank northern rivers” of Alberta, Will in “Spring Song of the Frogs” hearing the frogs' “thin and ill” sound (BE 180), Yvonne in “The Sunrise” standing in the “chilly and thin” light of a Toronto dawn (BE 265), or Sarah in “The Resplendent Quetzal” standing by the Aztec well of Chichen Itza—the symbol they have glimpsed seems to declare a fateful summary of their lives; rather than leading them to action and decision, like the symbolism of Surfacing leads its main character, the symbolism moves them toward acquiescence and stoicism.

Throughout Dancing Girls and Bluebeard's Egg, symbolism dwarfs plot; central symbols like the chemical garden of “The Salt Garden,” the blood-stained egg of “Bluebeard's Egg,” the greenhouse of “Under Glass,” the gothic crypt of “The Grave of the Famous Poet,” resonate throughout the narrative; characters respond less to each other's actions than to the symbols which impinge upon them. In many of the stories of Bluebeard's Egg, Atwood further diminishes sequential narration by constructing the stories in short modules of discrete incident; the story grows by repetition and accumulation of image and symbol rather than by linear narration. The modules resemble the seemingly disconnected stanzas of her poetry; like these stanzas they could be arranged into other sequences without significantly changing the whole.

Some of the most powerful stories of Bluebeard's Egg—“Significant Moments in the Life of my Mother,” “Bluebeard's Egg,” “The Sunrise,” “Unearthing Suite”—possess this oblique, discontinuous structure. None of these stories have a meaningful chain of narrative event; “Significant Moments” and “Unearthing Suite,” the opening and closing stories of the collection, both portray their central characters by the juxtaposition of separate anecdotes and the foregrounding within these anecdotes of an identifiable pattern of recurrent symbolism. The characters in all four stories are the same at the end as at the beginning; they have been intensely illuminated for us, however, by Atwood's isolation of their characteristic actions—Sally's repeated trivialization of her own person in “Bluebeard's Egg,” Yvonne's compulsively segmented life of routinized art and one-day friendships in “Sunrise.”


The first information we receive in Dancing Girls is carried by its paradigmatic title—not girls who dance but dancing girls. These women are not silhouettes on beer glasses, or on the stages of cabarets and lounges. They are the other female performers, filling social roles they have stumbled into—housewife, journalist, young lady poet, botanist, Blake scholar.

The emphasis of the stories of Dancing Girls falls on the gap between the usual and the unusual, between the superficial veneer of social behaviour which convention, gentility, and propriety provide, and that ‘female’ underworld of violence, obsession, and jealousy that rages below. The sudden revelation in the stories of the horrific beneath the normal is reminiscent of similar effects in Poe's short fiction, of the crypts that lurk beneath ostensibly ‘normal’ monastic buildings in Radcliffe's The Italian, and remind us of the extent to which Atwood has adapted the resources of traditional Gothic literature to her twentieth-century materials.

The opening story, “The War in the Bathroom,” focusses on the paranoid schizophrenia of the elderly woman first-person narrator, who describes herself in the third-person throughout. She is rootless, like most of the characters in Dancing Girls, living in rooming houses and having little trust in any human being. She imagines her previous landlady “was glad to see her go” (1), and believes an elderly male roomer in her new house uses the bathroom adjacent to her room at precisely nine o'clock each morning because “he does not want her in the house” (7). The schizoid separation between her thinking first-person self and acting third-person self dramatizes the usual Atwood separation between unconscious motive and conscious act. This separation is symbolically reinforced in this story by the presence of an old woman roomer, “the woman with two voices,” one “violent, almost hysterical,” and the other “formless” (8) whom the narrator later discovers to be two women, an old woman and her nurse. These are clearly another version of herself, the hysterical and violent agent controlled by the first-person “nurse.” Because within her own personality this “nurse” completely rationalizes the fantasies of the underground self, the woman can learn nothing of herself, even when her violence results in apparent disaster for the old man whom she locks from the bathroom at nine a.m.

Surface reality in “The Man from Mars” is represented by the point-of-view character's upper middle-class Toronto home and by her expectations of various social proprieties; the underground world is represented by the young man from Viet Nam, who inexplicably insinuates himself into Christine's life, deluges her with letters, follows her “at a distance, smiling his changeless smile” wherever she goes. Being liberal politically by family tradition (her family employs a black maid, she herself had once even condescended to represent Egypt in her highschool U.N. Club), she attempts to rationalize his behaviour as part of “his culture.” Although she finds the man unattractive and annoying, she also finds his attentions awaken parts of her that she has forgotten. A “solid,” athletic girl, she finds herself being “mysterious” (28) to other men.

In the bathtub she no longer imagined she was a dolphin; instead she imagined she was an elusive water-pixie, or sometimes, in moments of audacity, Marilyn Monroe.


After she has made the sensible conscious decision to have the man apprehended by the police, and learned that he has also been doggedly pursuing a sixty-year old nun in Montreal, her “aura of mystery fades.” She reverts to the very orderly ‘dancing girl’ life she had been raised for; “she graduated with mediocre grades and went into the Department of Health and Welfare; she did a good job …” (36). Again, this character learns little of herself from this encounter with someone “from another culture.” While her unconscious self remembers her tormenter as an id-figure who might break through the French doors of suppressed sexuality (she has “nightmares in which he was crashing through the French doors of her mother's house in his shabby jacket, carrying a packsack and a rifle and a huge bouquet of richly coloured flowers”), her conscious self escapes into “nineteenth century novels” and rationalizes him as “something nondescript, something in the background, like herself” (37).

Repeatedly in Dancing Girls the underground and surface worlds fail to meet and nourish each other. In “Polarities” this failure is dramatised in the relationship between two young Edmonton university teachers—Morrison, who is cautious, controlled, self-sufficient, and Louise, who becomes passionately attached to a vision of a communal society that creates a mystic “electromagnetic” circle against “civil war” (57). Together they are two poles of existence: Morrison practical and isolated, Louise visionary and gregarious. His self-sufficiency leaves his life “futile” and “barren”; her visionary delusions so disconnect her from the everyday that she cannot prevent herself being committed to a psychiatric hospital.

In the closing passage of the story, Morrison encounters one of Atwood's recurrent ‘signpost’ images. He has returned to the city zoo's wolf pen which he had earlier visited with Louise. Beside the pen are “an old couple, a man and woman in nearly identical grey coats”—human versions of the wolves. The woman answers his question “Are they timber wolves?” only with another—“You from around here?”—and looks away. Morrison “follows” her “fixed gaze,” as if it were an oracular instruction.

… something was being told, something that had nothing to do with him, the thing you could learn only after the rest was finished with and discarded … the old woman swelled, wavered, then seemed to disappear, and the land opened before him. It swept away to the north and he thought he could see the mountains, white-covered, their crests glittering in the falling sun, then forest upon forest, after that the barren tundra and the blank solid rivers, and beyond, so far that the endless night had already descended, the frozen sea.


Before this moment the story had been dominated by the circle image of the man-made electromagnetic field which the increasingly unstable Louise had believed maintained life in their northern city; here Morrison in the wolf-woman's eyes at last sees the real underground Louise had subconsciously feared—“the barren tundra and the blank solid rivers … endless night … the frozen sea.”

Another familiar Atwood image appears in “Under Glass”—the glass image of Double Persephone's world of “glass” and “carven word.” Here the title refers both to the claustrophobic relationship between the narrator and her non-committal lover and to the greenhouse in which the narrator works. Another schizoid character, she wavers between human society and that of the plants she tends. When the story opens she is on her way to her lover's flat. “Today,” she tells us, “the greenhouse has no attraction. I walk on two legs, I wear clothes.” Like Joan Foster, she has unrealistic Gothic fears about men, plus a fear of the underworld of violence and dream.

He's on the bed, asleep in a tangled net of blankets, on his back with his knees up. I'm always afraid to wake him: I remember the stories about men who kill in their sleep with their eyes open, thinking the woman is a burglar or an enemy soldier. You can't be convicted for it. I touch him on the leg and stand back, ready to run, but he wakes immediately and turns his head towards me.

Like Lesje Green, and like Louise in “Polarities,” she tries to protect herself from change and uncertainty by creating a non-human fantasy world—in her case a world of near self-annihilation, silent, and “nowhere.”

Soon I will be there; inside are the plants that have taught themselves to look like stones. I think of them; they grow silently, hiding in dry soil, minor events, little zeros, containing nothing but themselves; no food value, to the eye soothing and round, then suddenly nowhere. I wonder how long it takes, how they do it.


Death attracts many of the characters in Dancing Girls. For all of them the dance is deadly, formal, ceremonial, the dance of “plants that have taught themselves to look like stones.” Moribund relationships are the rule in these stories—“Polarities,” “Under Glass,” “The Resplendent Quetzal,” “Lives of the Poets,” “When it Happens,” “Hair Jewellery,” “The Grave of the Famous Poet”; in most cases these are relationships that have been continued even though they have effectively died some time ago. In “The Grave of the Famous Poet” it is death which motivates the characters, which brings the man on his pilgrimage to Dylan Thomas's grave (“dead people are more real to him than living ones” [85]) and which keeps the woman in an almost necrophiliac fascination with her own situation.

One of us should just get up from the bench, shake hands and leave … it would sidestep the recriminations, the totalling up of scores, the reclaiming of possessions, your key, my book. But it won't be that way. … What keeps me is a passive curiosity, it's like an Elizabethan tragedy or a horror movie, I know which ones will be killed, but not how.


This is the most visibly Gothic of the Dancing Girls stories. The man's imagination is captive of graves and ruined castles; the woman's of being “trapped” by him in “a coffin” (84), and of murder—“maybe I should kill him, that's a novel idea, how melodramatic …” (88).

Fantasies of being raped are imaginatively little different from fantasies of being the victim of a stylish murderer or of being that murderer oneself. For the ‘dancing girl’ rape is perhaps the ultimate in being asked to dance a pattern that has been externally determined. Many of the fantasies of the narrator of “Rape Fantasies” (who throughout the story addresses a man whom she has just picked up in a bar) and those of her office co-workers are cast in standard forms of popular romance. Greta's man with “black gloves,” Chrissy's bathtub visitor, and the narrator's “obliging” man who helps her find the plastic lemon with which she squirts him in the eye are versions of the simultaneously threatening and attractive Gothic hero. The narrator's variously inept rapists—one becomes suicidal after getting his zipper stuck, another has such a bad case of acne she sends him to a dermatologist, yet another such a bad cold she fixes him “a NeoCitran and scotch” (100)—all involve her in variations of the nurse romance. The narrator, however, does struggle somewhat to overcome the romance stereotypes. At the end of many of the fantasies, she insists, perhaps naively, on the essential humanity of even a rapist. “I mean they aren't all sex maniacs, the rest of the time they must lead a normal life. I figure they must enjoy watching the late show just like anybody else” (100). Her overall narrative, which she speaks as a kind of “conversation” to someone we must regard as a potential rapist, ends on a similarly plaintive and hopeful note.

… I think it would be better if you could get a conversation going. Like how could a fellow do that to a person he's just had a long conversation with, once you let them know you're human, you have a life too, I don't see how they could go ahead with it, right? I mean I know it happens but I just don't understand it, that's the part I really don't understand.

Significantly, her companion does not once enter into her lengthily offered “conversation.”

“Hair Jewellery” presents us with another woman who does not understand why a man in her life could cause her pain. As in the situation of the rather reckless narrator of “Rape Fantasies,” part of the answer is the woman's own behaviour—her finding it “easier to love a daemon than a man,” her believing “dolefulness and a sense of futility are … irresistible to young women” (109). Like the narrators of both “Rape Fantasies” and “The Grave of the Famous Poet,” this woman is victimized because of her attachment to death and death fantasies. Her lover seduces her with his “melancholy eyes, opaque as black marble, recondite as urns”; he coughs “like Roderick Usher,” and believes himself “doomed and restless as Dracula.” The implicit necrophilia of this attachment becomes apparent to her in the central symbol of hair jewellery, the “memento mori” of allegedly enduring love.

The hair jewellery consists of memorial brooches woven of the hair of deceased relatives; through her ambiguously academic study of them (she is visiting the museum at Salem, Connecticut, to do research for a paper on Nathaniel Hawthorne) the narrator comes to see that her fixation on her gloomy lover is as rewarding as the self-inflicted griefs the brooches memorialize.

I knew whose hair was in the massive black and gold memento mori in the second row of brooches, I knew who I had heard in the vacant hotel room to the left of mine breathing almost inaudibly between the spasms of the radiator.


Her Gothic fantasies are played out against a background remarkable for its banality and seediness—ill-fitting bargain clothing, rundown hotel rooms, a Salem where wind and construction noises drown out all thought of graveyards and witches. The hair jewellery symbol, like many similar symbols in Atwood fiction, makes a concealed reality concrete and visible to the narrator; it allows it to ‘surface’ from a mass of mundane detail that have hitherto disguised its lethal power as something at worst tiresome and banal.

This narrator seems, however, to have no other options than the Gothic pretence or the banality of materialistic concern. When she leaves her lover, it is for an academic job, a “silver haircut,” a “supportive” husband, a “two-story colonial” house. When she wearies of these, she imagines her lover imprisoned in her cellar, “standing dirty and stuffed, like Jeremy Bentham in his glass case” (123–124). As in “Polarities,” the unconscious life remains disconnected from the conscious life; fantasy or imagination undermine rather than enrich the narrator's intellectual achievements.

Fantasy takes over the main character, the elderly farmwife Mrs. Burridge, in the rather flawed story “When it Happens.” Hers is a paranoid fantasy, similar to that of the point-of-view character of “A War in the Bathroom.” In a period of strikes, shortages, famines, lay-offs, price increases, and inflating land values, Mrs. Burridge, who appears to live somewhat north of Toronto, begins to fear the outbreak of war, to watch for “smoke coming up from the horizon … off to the south” (127), and to fantasize about how she would deal with the resulting social breakdown. As in “War in the Bathroom,” she focusses on the violence she expects in others, imagines herself forced to stoically abandon her treasured heirlooms and possessions by “hungry people … young and tough” (134) and deliberately killing to protect herself from two ambiguously “smiling” strange men.

Clearly, if all humanity were driven during emergencies by such fantasies as those of Mrs. Burridge, these would no longer be fantasies but realistic fears. The problem with this story is that, unlike in “The War in the Bathroom,” Atwood does not signal whether her character is justified or unjustified in her fears, whether the author expects more from humanity than what Mrs. Burridge promises, or whether the story is merely an On the Beach doomsday scenario. Read alone, it has the effect of the latter. Read in the context of Atwood's general concern with the dangers of paranoid and Gothic fantasy, however, it becomes another statement of Lady Oracle's lesson that fantasy limits human potential, prevents communication, and creates potentially lethal distrust.

In Mrs. Burridge, murderousness born of paranoid fantasy lurks just below the surface of a seemingly gentle, stereotypically grey-haired farmlady who cans, freezes, and pickles. Conservatism—symbolized by Mrs. Burridge's preoccupation with the preservation of fruits, meats and vegetables—conceals raw and unacknowledged violence. This is a common occurrence in Atwood's stories: the bizarre, violent, and unsettling, often associated with repressed sexual desires, appears suddenly from beneath an ostensibly banal or conventional surface. Such violence is a part of Atwood's ‘underground’ imagery—kept hidden in the cellars of bourgeois houses in “Hair Jewellery,” or bursting with sudden ‘Martian’ energy into the lives of conventional characters in “The Man from Mars.” It is usually associated with characters who have either no sexual life, such as Christine or the old woman of “The War in the Bathroom,” or are involved in unfulfilling, grudging relationships. Mrs. Burridge, we note, has become bored with her husband (“she doesn't even feel like teasing him about his spare tire any more though she does it all the same because he would miss it if she stopped” [126]), has lost faith in his strength, and fantasizes his death with cold-blooded resignation (“she supposes she ought to feel more emotional about it, but she is well-prepared, she has been saying goodbye to him silently for years” [134]).

Annette, the point-of-view character of “A Travel Piece,” as a travel writer works professionally to suppress “danger” and “unpleasantness,” and to maintain the illusion of a conventional, smoothly-running world. Her readers “did not want to hear about danger or even unpleasantness; it was as if they wanted to believe that there was somewhere left in the world where all was well, where unpleasant things did not happen” (139). Similarly in her marriage, her husband, an intern, insists that all be well. When Annette tries to share with him some of her uneasy feelings, he seems “hurt that she was not totally and altogether happy” (141) and gives her tranquilizers to preserve that illusion. Annette has a vision of the world as

… a giant screen, flat and with pictures painted on it to create the illusion of solidity. If you walked up to it and kicked it, it would tear and your foot would go right through, into another space which Annette could only visualize as darkness, as a night in which something she did not want to look at was hiding.


Usually, of course, the foot comes through the screen from the other side, from the repressed underground ‘night’ forces like the “man from Mars.” Here the “foot” is not Annette herself but the crash of the airplane on which she is flying, a crash which leaves her floating on the Caribbean with five other examples of average humanity. Annette's immediate response is to ‘paper’ the event with travel clichés—“For exploring the Caribbean, a round orange lifeboat strikes an unusual note. The vistas are charming …” (147). But as no rescuers appear, she begins to believe “they have gone through the screen to the other side” (148). The requirements for survival are simple and primitive—food, water, sex, sanity, protection from the sun. They eat raw fish, she hears “furtive copulation” in the night, the young student drinks sea water and becomes violent and delirious. At the close of the story he must be dealt with, but should he be allowed overboard as he wishes, “wasted,” (152), or kept and killed for food? Even in entertaining these thoughts, her companions have become “Martians” (153)—not creatures from outer space but from that repressed, unintegrated underworld of unconscious savagery that no one on the raft has previously experienced.

Such a contrast between the superficial and the authentic, the conventional and the savage, is present in “The Resplendent Quetzal” both in the title image and the sacrificial Mayan well or cenote which the Canadian narrator and her husband visit. The well's primitiveness dwarfs the genteel “wishing well” which Sarah had expected.

She had imagined something smaller, more like a wishing well, but this was huge, and the water at the bottom wasn't clear at all. It was mud-brown; a few clumps of reeds were growing over to one side, and the trees at the top dangled their roots, or were they vines, down the limestone walls into the water. Sarah thought there might be some point to being a sacrificial victim if the well were nicer, but you would never get her to jump into a muddy hole like that.


The explicit sexual connotations of the well—here enlarged by the guide's tossing of his cigarette into it—make Sarah, who tends to believe she has “forgot” men, unconsciously aware that she is sexually attractive.

The guide tossed his cigarette butt into the sacrificial well and turned to follow his flock. Sarah forgot about him immediately. She'd just felt something crawling up her leg, but when she looked nothing was there. She tucked the full skirt of her cotton dress in under her thighs and clamped it between her knees.


Ultimately the well moves Sarah to psychological honesty with herself, bringing to her consciousness her repressed grief for her stillborn child, and moving her, even beyond her conscious understanding, to attempt to allay this grief. Stealing an out-of-scale figurine of the infant Christ from a crêche that decorates the hotel television set—“it was inconceivable to her that she had done such a thing, but there it was, she really had” (167)—she hurls it back into the womb-like cenote. Two signposts, statuette and cenote, have reminded the would-be tourist that she is not a tourist but a refugee, a refugee from grief and death, and have pointed her toward a symbolic act of atonement and self-honesty. The ‘other world’ of her child's conception and death “for which there was no explanation” (169) has become real for Sarah in the ‘otherness’ of a Mayan well.

Throughout this story the familiar superficial Atwood world is also visible—in the tourists' guidebooks, sun glasses, and kleenexes, the ill-matched plaster crêche set, the Fred Flintstone-shaped radio that plays a Canadian-authored U.S. popular song, a television set that plays “a re-run of The Cisco Kid.” Spanish-America is clearly being reshaped into a bourgeois U.S. image. The ‘underground’ world is visible not only in the cenote but in the ruined pyramids, the carvings of the Mayan rain-god Chac-Mool, and in the fleas whose bites “swell-up” on the narrator's husband.

The marriage between Sarah and Edward is another of the passionless, mechanical relationships that afflict Atwood characters. Not only does Sarah hide her grief over her ‘lost’ child from Edward, but she is bored by his interest in bird-watching, annoyed by his insistent economizing, and wishes he would “conveniently” die—“It wasn't that she wished him dead, but she couldn't imagine any other way for him to disappear” (161). Edward in turn fantasizes about

… crashing out of the undergrowth like King Kong, picking Sarah up and hurling her over the edge, down into the sacrificial well. Anything to shatter that imperturbable expression, bland and pale and plump and smug. …


Theirs is a surface relationship that engages the deeper unconscious areas of their psyches only in frustration and fictionalized violence. Edward's fantasy cries out against the impenetrable surface that Sarah shows to him, “that imperturbable expression,” and sees himself as reverting from a careful, penny-counting tourist to a crashing “King Kong.” His envisaging the well as the means of Sarah's death implicitly acknowledges its ancient and primitive power, invoking this power against what he sees as her “bland” exterior.

As an acknowledgement of the well's power, Edward's fantasy parallels Sarah's throwing of the plastic Christ-child into the well. Her ‘sacrifice’ is visibly a propitiation of natural ‘underground’ forces she has—“self-righteous” (158) and “concerned for appearances, always”—apparently offended. She had approached giving birth analytically, mathematically.

All the time she was pregnant, she'd taken meticulous care of herself, counting out the vitamin pills prescribed by the doctor and eating only what the books recommended. She had drunk four glasses of milk a day … had done the exercises and gone to the classes. No one would be able to say she had not done the right things.


After nature denied her the child, “she took the pill every day, without telling” (168).

Interestingly, although Edward has yearned to “shatter” her “imperturbable expression,” when she does break through her reserve by means of the ‘sacrifice’ and weeps “soundlessly” beside the well, he is unhappy and fearful.

‘This isn't like you,’ Edward said, pleading, as if that was a final argument which would snap her out of it, bring back the old calm Sarah.


Although a character may yearn for something deeper and more authentic than shallow tourism and meaningless marriage, it takes more courage than Edward seems to possess to face ‘underground’ passions that are unpredictable and turbulent as much as they are inspiring and enriching. As for Sarah, although momentarily shaken by her glimpse into the depths of her own unhappiness, she “smoothed her skirt once more … then collected her purse and her collapsible umbrella,” and resumed her functional relationship with Edward. “Did you find your bird?” (170) she asks. The bird is the quetzal, like the cenote a magic symbol of Mayan civilization and its direct, if often brutal, relationship to the forces of earth. It is the thing lost, simultaneously an unrepressed incarnation of Sarah herself and Edward's own sexual energies. We do not have to be told he has not found it.

Alienated from passion, alienated from the natural responses of their own bodies, characters like Sarah and Edward, Annette of “A Travel Piece,” or Morrison of “Polarities,” require extraordinary circumstance—Mayan wells, plane crashes, visions of humanoid wolves—to regain awareness of the underground from which they have banished themselves. Rob, the main character of “Training,” is a young man who has always felt intimidated by his parents in attempting to meet their various expectations. He too dances to alien choreography. His surgeon father expects him to follow the male family traditions of medical school and recreational baseball. Although not interested in either, Rob tries both, finding himself nauseated at the sight of blood and prone to injury in baseball. His mother's favourite picture of him is “in his choir-boy surplice, taken the year before his voice had cracked” (178). His parents have chosen his summer job on which the story focusses—counselor at a camp for crippled children, a job that meets both his father's medical priorities and his mother's sentimental piety.

For Rob the camp with its babbling hydrocephalics, its spastics with their plastic feeding tubes, and its earthy and exhibitionistic teenage cripples, is as unsettling as a Caribbean plane-wreck. He has nightmares of “bodies, pieces of bodies, arms and legs and torsos, detached and floating in mid-air; or he would feel he couldn't move, couldn't breathe” (180), nightmares which reflect his own unconscious crippling by his family, his having been amputated from both his own body and his wishes. He is confused by the latent primitive energy in Jordan, the severely crippled girl he is given charge of—“like some small fierce animal captured in a metal net” (172), embarrassed by the male teenager's locker-room humour, made both angry and jealous by the casual sexual couplings of the other counselors. He yearns for some vestige of the primitive and spontaneous—perhaps some Gothic fancy—to appear on his “bland and freckled” face.

He would have preferred a scar, a patch over one eye, sunburned wrinkles, a fang. How untouched he looked, like the fat on uncooked bacon: nobody's fingerprints on him, no dirt, and he despised this purity.


Ann of “Dancing Girls” is in many ways Rob's female counterpart. Continuing in graduate school because her father believes you should “finish what you start,” envious of graceful women with beautiful long hair, and “circumspect” in her relationships with men, she has given up her dream of being an architect in order to study in the U.S. the more practical profession of “Urban Design.” Further, “she intended to be so well-qualified, so armoured with qualifications, that no one back home would dare turn her down for the job she coveted.” As the “armoured” metaphor suggests, Ann dislikes people. In the green areas she hopes to design “she could never visualize the people. Her green spaces were always empty” (217). For her, green is not an underground image of vitality, but one of repression. If she considers the inhabitants of her design projects, they often become children who “would turn her grass to mud, they'd nail things to her trees, their mangy dogs would shit on her ferns, they'd throw bottles and pop cans into her aqueduct” (220). Or they become abstracted, desexualized, like the “dancing girls” at the wild party a “vaguely Arabian” roomer at her rooming house throws, who become in her fantasies “sedate” pastoral figures:

Indeed there is a gap between the superficial and pretentious language of Loulou's poet-friends and the ‘realities’ of her experiences, but Phil's analysis here amusingly adds to the problem rather than relieving it. In terms of Atwood's work, Phil—an intellectual user of words—is very much on the wrong side of the gap; on the other side is Loulou—who is “not that fond of talking” at any time.

Most of the stories of Bluebeard's Egg involve characters isolated from one another by this ‘language gap.’ Most focus on characters to whom the chthonic secret language of things and symbols is more real than rational human speech—characters for whom the world speaks in scarlet birds, multiplying crystals, sunrises, star-shaped cookies, an indulged cat, or fainting spells. These characters are misunderstood by those around them who trust man-made order and language more than the female language of nature—like Loulou is misunderstood above, like Yvonne in “The Sunrise” is misunderstood by the conventional young couple from whom she rents her room, or like Alma in “The Salt Garden” is misunderstood by her estranged husband Mort, whose favorite word is “arrange” (BE 207).

The characters of Bluebeard's Egg are for the most part older than those of Dancing Girls. Most are middle-aged, have been involved in disappointing marriages or long-term relationships, possess minor accumulations of property, major ones of history. Yet the women find that they are still ‘dancing girls,’ still filling roles assigned to them by men. Sally in “Bluebeard's Egg” plays both devoted wife to her diffident husband and girl-Friday to her incompetent boss. Loulou may always have to play the uneducated earth mother. Like the two older sisters in the fable of the wizard's egg which Sally encounters in her “Forms of Narrative Fiction” class, most accept men's rules for life, or—like the youngest—give continued power to men's rules by pretending to follow them.

The central character of “Significant Moments in the Life of my Mother” is a woman who has accepted most of the rules she has been given for her life. She has played with these rules—hoodwinked her autocratic father into letting her have her hair cut, invented comic ways of maintaining propriety when afflicted with popped zippers or fallen underpants, devised a means to attend university despite her father's disapproval. But she has never perceived these rules as anything other than benign, or her transgressions as anything more than “fun”. In consequence, she has become a good-humoured trivializer of life and death:

“I remember the time we almost died,” says my mother. Many of her stories begin this way.

(BE 22)

She re-writes her family's history into charming but superficial stories of amusing misbehaviour, ‘cute’ idiosyncrasy. The language of these stories is the received one of cliché—“He could wind you around his little finger” (25), “There you sat, happy as a clam” (26), “You had something cooking.” Not surprisingly, when the daughter who narrates the story matures and returns home with “modern poetry and histories of Nazi atrocities” (28)—material which resists sentimentalization—the mother appears distressed, looks at her as if “at any time I might open my mouth and out would come a language she had never heard before” (29).

Despite her various rebellions, the mother's language has remained that of the rule-giver; her view of all dissatisfaction with the status quo is that it can be overcome by exercise and cheerfulness—“There wasn't a lot that a brisk sprint through dead leaves, howling winds, or sleet couldn't cure” (28). The daughter's “creeping despondency” and angst make her seem to the mother, like the Vietnamese student seemed to the stolid Christine of “The Man from Mars,” utterly alien.

I had become a visitant from outer space, a time traveller come back from the future, bearing news of a great disaster.


Throughout “Significant Moments” there is an impression—partly created by the modular structure, partly by the narrator's observations, partly by the different stories the mother tells to men and to women, and partly by the contrast between her comic narrative style and the non-comic quality of the events she narrates—that men and women inhabit separate worlds.

Here my father looked modestly down at his plate. For him, there are two worlds: one containing ladies, in which you do not use certain expressions, and another one—consisting of logging camps and certain haunts of his youth, and of gatherings of acceptable sorts of men—in which you do. To let the men's world slip over verbally into the ladies' would reveal you as a mannerless boor, but to carry the ladies' world over into the men's brands you a prig and maybe even a pansy. This is the word for it. All this is well understood between them.

There are some stories which my mother does not tell when there are men present. … These are stories of romantic betrayals, unwanted pregnancies, illnesses of various horrible kinds, marital infidelities, mental breakdowns, tragic suicides …


These women's stories are recognizably those of Gothic romance, in which evil can be entertaining without being dangerous. Here too, men and women occupy separate worlds—the men of power and arrogance, the women of weakness and despair.

In “Hurricane Hazel” this separation of the sexes takes the form of the young narrator's father being an “explorer for a logging company” and therefore absent much of the year, while her mother looks after the family in a series of makeshift cabins. Similarly, the narrator's brother is away in the summers as a “Junior Ranger, cutting brush by the sides of highways somewhere in northern Ontario” (35), while she stays with her mother aspiring to have a boyfriend in order to be “normal”. In both stories the men define themselves by their jobs or professions, while the women define themselves in terms of their men, whose presence bestows ‘normality.’ This normality, whether expressed in conventional marriages, cliché language, or in high school dating customs, becomes for the stories' narrators the ‘Bluebeard's egg’—the payment women accept to surrender their selfhood. Normality, the ordinary, is dangerous, the narrator of “Hurricane Hazel” concludes on the stormy night when she and her gas-station attendant boyfriend break up because she has refused to go out with him in ominous weather. The night is that in 1954 of Toronto's Hurricane Hazel, and in the morning she looks at the storm's deadly debris and is surprised by its banality. “This is what I have remembered most clearly about Buddy: the ordinary looking wreckage, the flatness of the water, the melancholy light” (59).

The title story of Bluebeard's Egg underscores these conventional and unequal relationships between men and women. The main character is Sally, a woman who wants a conventional marriage, a conventionally beautiful house, and who has hired an interior decorator to shape her house and married Ed, a “cute” heart surgeon who has “allure” to women, to serve as her husband. Like the mother of “Significant Moments,” Sally habitually trivializes and jokes about things that she may truly care about—particularly her night school courses.

She was … intending to belittle the course, just slightly. She always did this with her night school courses, so that Ed wouldn't get the idea that there was anything in her life that was even remotely as important as he is. But Ed didn't seem to need this amusement or this belittlement. He took her information earnestly, gravely.


In fact, women are quite irrelevant, almost inter-changeable, to Ed, for whom Sally is his third wife. He is self-absorbed, absorbed in his profession, self-insulated from any emotional demands which might complicate his life. He listens to all women in the same ingenuous, grave, but unhearing way.

The wizard's egg fable, embedded into the story as material Sally has received in her fiction course, concerns a similar man—one to whom women are interchangeable. Three sisters are seized in turn by a wizard, taken to his house, and tested to determine their suitability to be his bride. The test entrusts them with an egg they must carry with them, and with custody of a room they are forbidden to enter. The first two enter the room, discover dismembered female bodies, let the egg fall into a basin of blood, and are found out, killed, and dismembered by the wizard. But the third puts the egg aside before opening the room; the wizard thus does not discover her disobedience and marries her. The three sisters correspond not only to the three wives of the heart surgeon and to the three wives of the psychiatrist Joseph in “The Sin Eater” but in a metaphoric way to all women in the collection who, like the mothers of “Significant Moments” and “Hurricane Hazel,” have accepted the Bluebeard's egg of self-effacement and dependency in a traditional marriage.

All three of the above stories suggest that women accept the ‘egg’ of deferential existence ingenuously. They mistake the man by seeing him as powerful and glamourous; they mistake themselves by taking the role of custodian of his egg seriously. Such is also the case in “Betty,” a story which is more about the growth of its young female narrator than about the title character. As a little girl, the narrator is fascinated by Betty's womanizing salesman husband Fred, a fascination she also finds in the commercial shipping of the St. Mary's River beside which she lives.

The freighters were huge, cumbersome, with rust staining the holes for their anchor chains and enormous chimneys from which the smoke spurted in grey burps. When they blew their horns, as they always did when approaching the locks, the windows in our cottage rattled. For us, they were magical. Sometimes things would drop or be thrown from them, and we would watch these floating objects eagerly, running along the beach to be there when they landed, wading out to fish them in. Usually these treasures turned out to be only empty cardboard boxes or punctured oil cans, oozing dark brown grease and good for nothing. Several times we got orange crates, which we used as cupboards or stools in our hide-outs.

Structurally this passage shows the narrator in the same relationship to the freighters as Betty is to Fred—living in the shadow of his glamour, accepting cast-offs. As the narrator grows, however, her interest turns to Betty. At first she tries to romanticize her into a Gothic victim—“a stricken and martyred woman … a woman who had narrowly escaped death … an aura of sacrificial blood surrounded her” (129–130). When Betty dies of a brain tumour, she sees her as someone punished “for being devoted and obliging,” who died screaming “against the unfairness of life” (131). These images show the narrator now trying to glamourize failure; like the Gothic throughout Atwood's work, they serve to subjugate woman by making her fate as Bluebeard's wife seem interesting. The narrator's final act, however, is to refuse both the gothic and her childhood impression that Fred was attractive and significant. It is Betty who is now “mysterious”.

Fred … no longer intrigues me. The Freds of this world make themselves explicit by what they do and choose. It is the Bettys who are mysterious.


In effect, the narrator has deconstructed the Bluebeard legend; Bluebeard is not powerful, he is ordinary; the mystery lies not in his dominance but in the woman's having naively granted it to him.

‘In Wales,’ he says, ‘mostly in the rural areas, there was a personage known as the Sin Eater. When someone was dying the Sin Eater would be sent for. The people of the house would prepare a meal and place it on the coffin.

They would have the coffin all ready, of course: once they'd decided you were going off, you had scarcely any choice in the matter. According to other versions, the meal would be placed on the dead person's body, which must have made for some sloppy eating, one would have thought. In any case the Sin Eater would devour this meal and would also be given a sum of money. It was believed that all the sins the dying person had accumulated during his lifetime would be removed from him and transmitted to the Sin Eater. The Sin Eater thus became absolutely bloated with other people's sins. She'd accumulate such a heavy load of them that nobody wanted to have anything to do with her; a kind of syphilitic of the soul, you might say.’

(“The Sin Eater,” BE 231–232)

Soon after relating this, Joseph, the narrator's psychiatrist, dies and his wife and two ex-wives host a post-funeral reception at which they and his mostly female patients feed. Here are more images of the subservient female, patient to the man's doctoral wisdom, martyr to his need to be “free from sin” (241). The role deprives the woman of individuality; Joseph's three wives “have a family resemblance—they're all blondish and vague around the edges” (240).

“The Sin Eater” is narrated in a discontinuous first person narrative in which the discontinuity and the frequent telescoping of time suggests further the fragmentation of personality a woman's dependency on a man creates. The female language of symbolic image and dream informs the narrator's awareness but does not influence her conscious decisions. She dimly perceives a picture of blue “Krishna playing the flute, surrounded by adoring maidens” as having something to do with herself and the death of Joseph, but can make no clear connection. At the story's close she is dreaming of eating Joseph's sins—in the shape of the moon and star cookies baked by his first wife—but as cosmic shapes in “dark space.”

… this is not what I ordered, it's too much for me, I might get sick. Maybe I could send it back; but I know this isn't possible.


And she reaches out to begin eating.

Four of the stories in Bluebeard's Egg—“Uglypuss,” “Spring Song of the Frogs,” “Scarlet Ibis,” and “The Sunrise”—show characters in search of something more than what the inherited social patterns offer. But, like the narrator of “The Sin Eater,” they have extreme difficulty in making their intuitions conscious. Their problem tends to be linguistic; there seems to be no words available to articulate what they feel or desire. In “Spring Song of the Frogs,” Will, whether with his anorexic niece Cynthia, his narcissistic date Robyn, or his self-preoccupied lover Diana, “doesn't know what to say” (172). He frequently desires not to speak—not to ask Diana about her illness, not to risk telling Cynthia “You're pretty now” (174). The three women have withdrawn from inherited female roles, particularly Robyn and Cynthia, but have not found authentic creative selves. They have become shadows of traditional woman, crippled moons (both Diana and Cynthia, we note, were Roman moon-goddesses). At the close of the story Will and Diana stand under a “cold and lopsided moon”. He finds her “angular, awkward,” and though he “would like to kiss her” hesitates just as he has hesitated to speak before.

In “Uglypuss,” Joel wanders from woman to woman looking for “someone to go home with … in the hope that this unknown place, yet another unknown place, will finally contain something he wants to have” (95). But Joel cannot define ‘home’. He too lacks language, possesses only clichés—“a golden oldie, a mansion that's seen better days” (83) he describes his rooming house as the story opens.

In two of these four stories the characters encounter a symbol which illuminates their lives yet which they are unable to make full use of because of their difficulties with language. Yvonne, in “The Sunrise,” who writes jokes and pleasantries on filing cards so she will not fail in conversation, cannot fully seize even the sunrises she is so compulsively drawn to watch. The correct word escapes her.

And yet she knows that her dependence is not on something that can be grasped, held in the hand, kept, but only on an accident of language, because sunrise should not be a noun. The sunrise is not a thing, but only an effect of the light caused by the positions of two astronomical bodies in relation to each other. The sun does not really rise at all, it's the earth that turns. The sunrise is a fraud.

Thus too male-female relationships—clearly symbolized in the mating of the two planetary ‘bodies,’ are a fraud to Yvonne. The conjunction cannot be be either spoken or valued.

Christine in “Scarlet Ibis” (a story remarkably similar in its symbolism to “The Resplendent Quetzal” of Dancing Girls) successfully guides her unhappy husband and child to a view of birds so splendid that the “weight” of life lifts momentarily from her body.

Don took hold of Christine's hand, a thing he had not done for some time; but Christine, watching the birds, noticed this only afterwards. She felt she was looking at a picture, of exotic flowers or of red fruit growing on trees, evenly spaced, like the fruit in the gardens of mediaeval paintings, solid, clear-edged, in primary colours. On the other side of the fence was another world, not real but at the same time more real than the one on this side, the men and women in their flimsy clothes and aging bodies, the decrepit boat. Her own body seemed fragile and empty, like blown glass.

But when back in Canada she comes to retell the story, she lapses into formulaic humour, travelogue clichés.

She put in the rather hilarious trip back to the wharf, with the Indian standing up in the bow, beaming his heavy-duty flashlight at the endless, boring mangroves, and the two men in the baseball caps getting into a mickey and singing dirty songs.

She ended with the birds, which were worth every minute of it, she said. She presented them as a form of entertainment, like the Grand Canyon: something that really ought to be seen, if you liked birds, and if you should happen to be in that part of the world.


Like the mother in “Significant Moments,” Christine cannot face for long the primitive but authentic language of objects and events, but must trivialize it with banal humour and the superficial formulae of everyday speech.

Bluebeard's Egg ends not in optimism, as does Dancing Girls, but in benevolence. The concluding story, “Unearthing Suite,” is narrated by a young woman who loves her parents despite being aware of the inequality of their relationship. She is particularly aware of the lack of privacy, the overwork, and emotional stress her independent-spirited mother has incurred by having allowed her husband, an “affable” entomologist, to give throughout their marriage a total commitment to his profession. The conclusion of the story emphasizes the different “languages” the mother and father speak—the father the male language of management and control, the mother a female one of intuition and poesis. They have discovered a fisher's droppings on the roof of their cabin.

For my father this dropping is an interesting biological phenomenon. He has noted it and filed it, along with all the other scraps of fascinating data he notes and files.

For my mother however, this is something else. For her this dropping—this hand-long, two-fingers-thick, black, hairy dropping—not to put too fine a point on it, this deposit of animal shit—is a miraculous token, a sign of divine grace; as if their mundane, familiar, much-patched but at times still-leaking roof has been visited and made momentarily radiant by an unknown but by no means minor god.

The story returns to the ‘language gap’ of “Loulou,” “Significant Moments,” and “Hurricane Hazel.” We are still, despite the warmth of the story, in the world of the wizard and his egg, where man dissects, dismembers, “notes and files,” and where woman ‘pays a price’ to be both married and “cheerful.” “What is my mother's secret? … What was the trade-off, what did she sign over to the Devil, for this limpid tranquility?” (276) the daughter asks herself. The price, she discovers, is innocence, not knowing.

“I don't know why not,” said my mother. That is her secret.


In this innocence she resembles “accepting, uncomplaining” (132) Betty and Loulou—women who have never questioned the male assumptions which surround their lives or seen consciously how different Bluebeard's analytical dismembering language is from their own.

Frank Davey (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4682

SOURCE: “Alternate Stories: The Short Fiction of Audrey Thomas and Margaret Atwood,” in Canadian Literature, Vol. 109, Summer, 1986, pp. 5–14.

[In the following essay, Davey considers ways in which Atwood's characters cope with reality by viewing it through fictional frameworks.]

She knew now that almost certainly, whenever she saw a street musician, either he was blind or lame or leprous or there was a terribly deformed creature, just out of sight, on behalf of whom he was playing his music.1

Short stories have often focused on a character's discovery of a second perspective on experience, as in Mansfield's “The Garden Party” or Joyce's “The Dead,” or in Alice Munro's collection Lives of Girls and Women in which Del Jordan discovers Garnet French's narrow view of family life, or her mother's vision of herself as “Princess Ida.” Often the discovery of such alternate perspectives has marked moments of traumatic insight or dramatic growth for the character, and has—like Del's discovery of Bobby Sheriff's banality—constituted a pivotal or terminal element in the story. In Munro's fiction, as recent criticism by Helen Hoy, Lorraine McMullen, and others2 has suggested, these moments participate in oxymoronic figures and imply the paradoxical existence of multiple and conflicting “realities”—the train companion who is both a clergyman and a molester, the high school teacher who is both an extrovert and a suicide.

In the short fiction of Audrey Thomas and Margaret Atwood, there are other kinds of alternate stories, secret scripts which characters have written one for another, stories inherited from mythology and literature that become superimposed on characters' lives, stories concealed within symbolic objects, as well as stories the characters have written to rationalize their lives. These “other” stories are contained within the apparent story, becoming ironic participants in it, qualifying it, interrogating it, sometimes working against it. In Atwood the separation between the various “stories” of the characters contributes to the detached tone of many of her fictions and to special uses of language and symbol. In Thomas the presence of multiple “stories” is reflected in disjunctive narratives in which brief “stories” are abruptly contained within or juxtaposed to other “stories.”

Most of the fictions of Thomas' first two collections are visibly constructed of variant scripts. In some a second script is implicit in the first, as in “One is One and All Alone” in which the young wife of a British official in Africa enacts a self-assured self to mask pervasive feelings of fear and ineptitude. When she loses a filling from a tooth, this fabricated self, like the tooth, crumbles, exposing the “raw nerves” of her irrational fears. In “A Monday Dream at Alameda Park” a married couple have created the story that they are “very liberated, very liberal”—a story which partly collapses when the husband finds himself drawn into group sex with another couple. In other fictions the alternative scripts are embedded in the first. In “Omo” the embedded diary of one character disqualifies the perceptions of the story's narrator. In “The Albatross” one character, Herman, has composed for himself a life-story of romantic World War II adventure, a story unconnected to his current hope to succeed as a life-insurance salesman. Thomas' text is in turn composed, among other things, of Herman's narrative, the sound track of an insurance company sales film, and another character's parody of Herman's stories. In “Three Women and Two Men” the main text is repeatedly interrupted by the characters' private fictions. “They must have needed to die. It must have been their karma,” Peter says of the victims of a mass-murder. Of her husband's careless driving Margaret says “I think he drives that way because he's small. It makes him feel powerful.”

It is easier to conjure up a fairy tale … than to put one's finger on the pulse of truth. In the tale it is all so easy. I, the princess, and he, the prince. We meet and of a sudden fall in love. There are dragons, of course, and wicked dukes and many other dangers; but these can all be banished, crushed or conquered. We mount the milk-white steed, ride off into the silver dawn. No sequel; nothing sordid. When the storytellers say ‘The end’ they mean it. Never the names of Cinderella's children.

Like the narrator of “A Winter's Tale,” most of Thomas' characters find it easier to “conjure up” a false story than to accept “the pulse of truth.” As here, the false story is usually fabricated of familiar materials. “Loving is letting go,” writes Peter in “Three Women and Two Men.” The bulk of these materials are those of romance, especially the fairy tale and Shakespearean comedy. The reference points include Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale and The Tempest (“A Winter's Tale,” “Xanadu,” and “Omo”), folk tales like Cinderella (“A Winter's Tale,” “Crossing the Rubicon”), Andersen's “The Snow Queen” (“Elephants to Ride Upon”), The Nibelungenlied (“Aquarius”), the tales collected by the brothers Grimm (“Rapunzel,” “Natural History”), and John Donne's love poems (“Aquarius,” “A Monday Dream at Alameda Park,” “The More Little Mummy in the World”).

In Ten Green Bottles and Ladies & Escorts men and women seem equally vulnerable to the roles demanded by these inherited fictions, and greet these roles with varying amounts of insight. Unlike the female mental patients of “Salon des Refusés” who unquestioningly prefer their delusions of wealth and love to the facts of their actual conditions, the young woman of “A Winter's Tale” can see that her life is but a poor imitation of romantic fantasy. In “Elephants to Ride Upon” a young man who feels forced back together, after several months separation, with a young woman he has made pregnant, projects onto her and himself stereotypically evil roles—“an ice maiden, the snow queen.”

He remembered how in the old romances the beautiful maiden turns into a hag if the wrong questions are asked, if the right answers are not given. He stood now, defeated, horrified to discover that he hated her—not only for what she had become, but for what he had become: a false knight, an imposter.

But his discovery that her coldness has been caused mostly by her fear of his family and by her concern for him eventually dissipates his fantasy. The male point of view character of “Aquarius,” however, has no sense that, by having variously cast his wife Erica as Brunhilde to his Siegfried, as a vampire who “renewed herself with his passion,” as “the very essence of female,” as the “barefoot wife” of the romantic artist, he has cheated himself out of ever discovering who this Erica may actually be.

The major change between these collections and the subsequent one, Real Mothers, is that in the latter these inherited romantic stories appear most often as stories which women have allowed men to impose upon them. Men are seldom—like the young man of “Elephants to Ride Upon” or the husband of “Aquarius”—presented as being impoverished by such stories, but rather as receiving advantage from them. In “Galatea” and “Out in the Midday Sun” both female protagonists feel as if they have been co-opted into a script written by their husbands. In “Galatea” the woman is a painter who has stopped painting “large canvases full of brutal colours” because these “disturb” her husband, and has “gone back to watercolours” of “decorative” subjects which he finds “less disturbing.” Her husband, a womanizing writer, links himself with inherited romance when he defines greatness as “one of those magic pitchers in a fairytale—you pour it out and it is still full to the top.” Thomas' title, “Galatea,” which invokes the inherited story of the sea-nymph who was bullied by the cyclops Polyphemos, whose lover Acis was pinned by Polyphemos beneath a rock, and who saved Acis by transforming him into a river, casts ironic light on both the narrator and her marriage. The narrator is abused by nothing but her own passivity; the French river she walks beside has never been her lover; the watercolours she paints mark not an historic affinity with sea and water but merely her own weakness.

In “Out in the Midday Sun” the woman is a beginning writer who has married a successful scholar. His script for her is that of the traditional helpmate—“he is the kind of man,” she says, “who will love you only so long as you walk a few steps behind. Only so long as you arrange the dinners and airline tickets. …” She has secretly written her own book (that is, written her own story) which has been accepted by a major publisher; her success will unwrite the script he has mentally composed for her. “As soon as she told him,” she tells us, as she narrates a peripatetic outer story (that contains in effect both his script and her new book) “he would leave her.” In “Timbuktu” Thomas presents the wife of an American B'hai convert who has naively brought her and their children to Africa to work as missionaries. Again the woman has been entangled in her husband's script. Here the script reaches to the inherited story of the Bible, its implicit definition of “motherhood,” its patriarchal god, its self-presumed authority. Rona, the point-of view character of “Timbuktu,” has her own narrative of uneasy role-playing in her husband's story, a narrative which at this moment contains not only the B'hai wife's story but the Biblical story both women inherit.

‘She'll do what God wants her to,’ Janet said. ‘It's out of our hands.’

Rona found this aphorism, coming from the mouth of a child, almost obscene. On the bedside table by the sick child was a jug of water and a book, Baha'u'llah and the New Era. She leafed through it … There was an almost Germanic profusion of capital letters: ‘He, His, Servant of the Blessed Perfection, Declaration, Supreme Singleness, the Most Great Peace.’ But … the basic tenets of the faith were harmless, indeed inarguable ‘motherhood issues’, one might say. B'hai. How exotic it sounded! Like The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. But also, sheep-like. Baa-Baa-Baa. … There were a lot of old-fashioned Biblical endings on the verbs: ‘enacteth, enforceth, sitteth, cometh, shineth.’

Rona's own situation is that she has married her husband Philip out of fascination with his “stories about Gibraltar, Malta, Morocco, the Ivory Coast, and Senegal … she had married Africa, not Philip.” Now she is travelling to another story external to herself—the legendary Timbuktu—and finding herself occasionally needing a man to protect her. “She should be wandering around the streets by herself, finding some little place that caught her fancy, not going to a meal that had been ordered in advance by someone else.”

A meal “ordered,” in all three senses of the word, in advance by someone else—such are the stories accepted by most of the men and women of Thomas' first two collections and by most of the women of the third. Almost each story contains not only smaller stories but the explicit words “story” or “fairy tale.” “That story was one of her best ones” (“Aquarius”); “As he told his new tale, our steward's hands would clench with excitement” (“Joseph and his Brother”); “Marie-Anne felt as if someone had been telling her a continuous fairy story” (“Real Mothers”); “Old wives' tales came back to her” (“Natural History”); “She felt like one of those queens in the fairy tales” (“Déjeuner sur l'herbe”); “she doesn't look back. In my story, that is” (“Crossing the Rubicon”). A typical Thomas story is a story about characters who have so many inherited stories that they have no single authentic story. That is, it is a story about not having a story. The contained stories—the petty lies the characters tell about themselves, the scripts they accept from their spouses or from traditional mythology or literature—demolish the container.

In “Two in the Bush” a young woman, bored with her marriage, hitches a ride with another young married woman from Ghana to the Ivory Coast, expecting sexual adventure, meeting people who are implicit stories of gunrunner, freedom-fighter, shady banker, corrupt soldier, romantic lover, but returns having had no sexual adventure, no “miracle,” no story. “I know nothing about Africa, nothing,” she concludes, and for Africa we read romance, story. At its closing, the story is implicitly about a story which didn't happen, a gunrunner who doesn't run guns, a lover who missed his tryst. “Crossing the Rubicon” contains various stories—the narrator's story of a love affair with a married man, of being attracted as a girl by abusive boys, the stories told by the mottoes on Valentine candy (“Be my Sugar Daddy,” “You're a Slick Chick”), the story told and untold by the motto on a button—(“Cinderella married for money”), the story of Liza Minnelli and Michael York in Cabaret—but ends with the woman still unable to not “look back” at her married lover, unable to refuse the inherited story.

In “Déjeuner sur l'Herbe,” two ex-lovers pretend (one story) to be brother and sister while travelling in Europe. The woman's “latest lover” has told her she is “too insipid” (two stories). Her husband has told her that she “‘leaned on him’ too much” (three stories). “‘I have had this pain,’ she told the imaginary doctor, ‘all my life’” (four stories or perhaps five). In London she reads warning signs about unattended parcels: “DON'T TOUCH. DON'T GET INVOLVED”—a sixth story. She is “content, for the most part, merely to go wherever he suggested”—another story. In a Parisian garden, “slender metal chairs” have been “left in groups which seemed … to tell stories.” At a restaurant, she asks her lover, “Do we have to play out roles that other people impose on us?” She reads a French phrase book, each phrase a story. In a French cemetery while picnicking they encounter a distraught and incoherent woman with a kitten, who returns past them without it, her hands covered with dirt. Her companion says that he believes the woman said “that the kitten was sick. That she killed it.”

“Are you sure?”

“No, I'm not sure. But there really is nothing that we can do.”

But she was already running down the path. “I'm going to find that kitten. You made it up, about what the woman said!”

“And what if you do?” he called after her. “What then?”

What indeed. What would happen if any Thomas character found his or her authentic story?

In Margaret Atwood's short stories there is a similarly recurrent separation between culturally “received” stories and other potentially more authentic stories available to the characters. Whereas in Thomas' fiction these received stories seem unconsciously adopted by the characters, who may become aware of them in the course of the story, in Atwood's they tend to be consciously followed. As in Thomas, the major source of these inherited stories is romance, but specifically gothic romance—from the gothic fairy tale, as in the title story of Bluebeard's Egg,3 to the graveyard and dungeon melodramas invoked by “The Grave of the Famous Poet” and “Hair Jewellery.” Atwood also—following the example of Mary Shelley—repeatedly links the gothic story to yet another story—that of technological hubris. Both the gothic and the technological story are narrow, simplistic, and offer to Atwood's usually unsure characters reassuring predictabilities. In “Under Glass” the female narrator's gothic imagination leads her both to see her diffident lover as an “enemy soldier” and to withdraw psychologically into the silent “nowhere” of a greenhouse. In “Polarities” Louise defends herself against her fears by constructing a geometrical “electromagnetic” theory for the psychic structure of Edmonton. In “Hair Jewellery” a woman who first uses gothic necrophilia—imagining her lover to cough “like Roderick Usher” and to be “doomed and restless as Dracula”—as an escape story to avoid the responsibilities of authentic relationship later uses the banality of a regular job, a two-storey colonial house, a “salon haircut,” a “supportive” husband to identical purpose.

Throughout Atwood's fictions the main characters are inarticulate about their personal stories, unable to express their fears to one another—as the married couple in “The Resplendent Quetzal,” unable to signal their hopes except through metaphorical acts such as Louise's electromagnetic map in “Polarities.” Characters grope for speech. Will, in “Spring Song of the Frogs,” keeps finding he “doesn't know what to say” to the various women he encounters—that is, he doesn't know what story to tell. Joel, in “Uglypuss,” can only speak in clichés—“a golden oldie, a mansion that's seen better days,” he describes his rooming house, and ironically describes his own speech. Yvonne, in “The Sunrise,” is so desperate for language that she writes jokes and pleasantries on filing cards so she will not lack words or stories in conversation.

Such characters seem afflicted by what Atwood in another story, “Loulou; or, the Domestic life of the Language,” humorously terms a language gap when the title character's poet-friends become obsessed with an apparent disparity between her mundane name and the “earth mother” role they see her filling.

“What gap?” Loulou asked suspiciously. She knew her upper front teeth were a little wide apart and had been self-conscious about it when she was younger. “The gap between the word and the thing signified,” Phil said. His hand was on her breast and he'd given an absent-minded squeeze, as if to illustrate what he meant. They were in bed at the time. Mostly Loulou doesn't like talking in bed. But she's not that fond of talking at other times, either.

The stories which characters like Loulou wish to tell often have no words and are somehow separate from the world where poets talk in bed, or where friends conduct dinner-conversation from sets of file-cards.

The unarticulated stories of these characters, in fact, have an “alternate” wordless language of symbol and aphoristic gesture. This language reveals itself in objects, like the hurricane wreckage at the end of “Hurricane Hazel” or the crystalline forms that Alma grows in “The Salt Garden.” In “The Resplendent Quetzal” both husband and wife carry unspoken stories—Edward of explosive, passionate action, Sarah of bitter grief over their stillborn child—(which is in turn an unspoken story of its parents' frozen passions). Both conceal these stories, Edward under an obsession with bird-watching, Sarah under a precisely conventional code of behaviour. Atwood's text reveals their secret stories primarily through symbols—the Mayan sacrificial well at Chichen Itza, which is not the civilized “wishing well” Sarah had expected, but a large, earthy, and suggestively vaginal hole; the plaster Christ-child Sarah steals from a crèche that decorates their hotel and hurls into the well; the magical Mayan bird Edward seeks with his metal binoculars. He doesn't find it, and Sarah—she “smoothed her skirt once more … then collected her purse and collapsible umbrella”—after her lapse into passion resumes her usual practicality. The hidden stories here briefly declare themselves, but the received, cliché stories of bourgeois life retain, for Edward and Sarah at least, greater power.

The later story “Scarlet Ibis” makes a similar contrast between the mechanical life of a bourgeois couple and the hidden story which a tropical object—birds on an island preserve—can bring to consciousness. Christine's response to these birds emphasizes their “otherness”—“on the other side of the fence was another world, not real but at the same time more real than the one on this side, the men and women in their flimsy clothes and aging bodies. …” The ibis is to her a symbol almost outside of comprehension, beyond her powers of language. In “Bluebeard's Egg” the story of the wizard's egg that Sally encounters at her writing class is similarly mysterious to her. The story troubles her but she cannot intellectualize how it might apply to her own life; in the concluding lines of the story the egg remains for her an unintegrated image “glowing softly” in their imagination “as though there's something red and hot inside it.”

This inarticulate and unintellectualizable level of meaning requires an extraordinarily large amount of symbolism. The alternate story is nearly always implicit, iconic, and only marginally understood by the characters—a fainting spell (“The Salt Garden”), a cosmic dream (“The Sin Eaters”), a compelling sunrise (“The Sunrise”), a depressing tone in the croaking of “Spring Song of the Frogs,” an exhilaratingly red bird (“Scarlet Ibis”). Denotative language in an Atwood fiction is the preserve of the gothic wizard, the scientist, or of characters who attempt to rationalize or trivialize the symbols that trouble them. This is the language of the official story. Both official and iconic languages are apparent at the conclusion of “Unearthing Suite,” when the narrator's mother and father discover a fisher's droppings on the roof of their cabin.

For my father, this dropping is an interesting biological phenomenon. He has noted it and filed it, along with all the other scraps of fascinating data he notes and files.

For my mother however, this is something else. For her this dropping—this hand-long, two-fingers thick, black, hairy dropping—not to put too fine a point on it, this deposit of animal shit—is a miraculous token, a sign of divine grace; as if their mundane, familiar, much-patched but at times still-leaking roof has been visited and made momentarily radiant by an unknown but by no means minor god.

The father views the event as knowable, but for the mother it is an “other” story, “miraculous” beyond explanation, “unknown.”

Repeatedly in Atwood's recent fictions characters defend themselves against such iconic events by trivializing their emotional responses to them, turning away from the event much like Sarah in “The Resplendent Quetzal” turns away from the Mayan well and toward her collapsible umbrella. The title character of “Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother” deals with each major symbolic event of her life in cliché language. “‘I remember the time we almost died,’ says my mother. Many of her stories begin this way.” In “Scarlet Ibis,” after witnessing birds which evoke for her “the gardens of mediaeval paintings,” Christine jovially describes them to friends “as a form of entertainment, like the Grand Canyon: something that really ought to be seen, if you liked birds, and if you should happen to be in that part of the world.” In “Bluebeard's Egg” Sally succumbs to a similar trivializing when she describes her night school course in writing.

She was … intending to belittle the course, just slightly. She always did this with her night courses, so Ed wouldn't get the idea there was anything in her life that was even remotely as important as he.

The real “other” story is that Sally cares deeply about that part of herself that seeks to define itself through these courses. The trivialized version is merely the official story, created for her husband's benefit.

The juxtaposition of these two kinds of narrative creates recurrently surreal effects. Many of the characters, particularly the women, live psychologically in the hidden story while functioning physically in the official story. They dream and think in the language of symbols but they speak in cliché. They trivialize their inner lives in order to live a life of conventional fiction. Almost all of Atwood's couples remain strangers to each other because of this failure to declare the hidden story. Edward in “The Resplendent Quetzal” keeps secret his passionate fantasies and his unhappiness with Sarah's controlled behaviour! Sarah conceals her profound grief at the loss of their child beneath a pretense of control and self-righteousness. When Sarah momentarily loses her composure, however, and weeps beside the well, he is afraid. “‘This isn't like you,’ Edward said, pleadingly.” Despite his unhappiness, he prefers the official story.

This isn't like you. The official story impoverishes the language of its users, not only restricting it to factual observation and cliché, but limiting its tone. It also limits the tone of those who are aware of hidden stories, like the narrators of “Under Glass,” “The Grave of the Famous Poet,” and “Hair Jewellery,” by making them feel disconnected from the lives of others. Their narratives have a flat, passive tone that echoes their beliefs that they are forever witnesses to events rather than participants in them. The ineffectuality of characters like Sally in “Bluebeard's Egg” is in part a property of their hidden stories, stories that are unacknowledged, marginalized, trivialized even by the people who dream them.

Ladies & Escorts, Real Mothers, Dancing Girls, Bluebeard's Egg—all these Thomas and Atwood titles are paradigmatic, denoting received “official” stories, scripts that their characters have been asked to enter. In Atwood's story “Bluebeard's Egg,” the fable of the wizard's egg assigns to each of three sisters a three-part story—an egg to protect, a room not to enter, a death by dismemberment should they fail the first two parts. The three sisters' story, like that of Sally who is told the story, like that of Edward and Sarah in “The Resplendent Quetzal,” of Will in “Spring Song of the Frogs,” of the mother in “Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother,” or of many of Thomas' characters, is the story of having embraced no authentic story. Ladies & Escorts contains stories of ladies without escorts, with titular escorts, with unwanted escorts—all are qualified not only by the source assumption of the old beer parlour sign, “ladies and escorts” but by the women's private derivative fictions about themselves and an escort. The dance of Atwood's Dancing Girls is a similar ever-present qualifier, an inherited script of social behaviour. The title generically links as social performer a housewife, a young lady poet, a botanist, a journalist, a Blake scholar. The inheritances implicit in these titles, like the inherited stories contained generally in the fictions of these two authors, are oppressive. Perhaps most important for us to consider, a major part of the western literary heritage—particularly the romance mode with its roots in Greek mythology and the Bible, its pervasive presence in myth and fairy tale, its huge presence in medieval and Renaissance literature, especially in Shakespeare—is marked in these books as destructive to authentic story. The romance is presented as an unyielding, unitary, and patriarchal inheritance that leads the passive character, male or female, ultimately to no story.

By implication, the romance, and all the other unitary forms that Northrop Frye tells us descend by displacement from it—the heroic, the comic, the tragic, the pastoral, the realistic novel, the ironic novel, the realistic short story—are discredited by Thomas' and Atwood's short fiction as literary models. The archetypal story Frye finds behind these, the Biblical one of a quest to re-enter the lost garden, is a “male” story—in its centralized theme, its Freudian symbolism, its Aristotelian structure. Disjunctive structure and multiplicity of story are used by Thomas and Atwood not to affirm through irony the Biblical story, as they are, for example, by Eliot in The Waste Land, but to suggest counter-structures. There may be other gardens, their fictions say, than the one lost by Adam or re-invented by Bluebeard; there may be unnamed, inarticulate, unchosen, or uninherited gardens; there may even be alternatives to garden. All these possibilities promise further alternatives to familiar story.


  1. Audrey Thomas, “The More Little Mummy in the World,” Ladies & Escorts (Ottawa: Oberon Press, 1977), p. 138. Subsequent quotations from Thomas' work are from this book, and from Ten Green Bottles (Ottawa: Oberon Press, 1977 [1967]), and Real Mothers (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1981).

  2. See Hallvard Dahlie, “The Fiction of Alice Munro,” Ploughshares 4 (Summer 1978), pp. 56–71; Helen Hoy, “‘Dull, Simple, Amazing, and Unfathomable’: Paradox and Double Vision in Alice Munro's Fiction,” Studies in Canadian Literature, 5 (Spring 1980), pp. 100–15; Lorraine McMullen, “‘Shameless, Marvellous, Shattering Absurdity’: the Humour of Paradox in Alice Munro,” in Louis J. MacKendrick, ed., Probable Fictions: Alice Munro's Narrative Acts (Downsview, Ont.: ECW Press, 1983), pp. 144–62; and Gerald Noonan, “The Structure of Style in Alice Munro's Fiction,” in MacKendrick, pp. 163–80.

  3. Margaret Atwood, Bluebeard's Egg (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1983). Subsequent quotations from Atwood's work are from this book and the collection Dancing Girls (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1977).

Bonnie Lyons (review date 1987)

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SOURCE: A review of Bluebeard's Egg and Other Stories, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 3, Summer, 1987, p. 312.

[In the following positive review of Bluebeard's Egg, Lyons asserts that the “stories have many virtues and sources of interest, including the revelations about Atwood's biography, the exploration of her major themes and motifs, and not least of all, their excellence as stories.”]

In “Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother,” the first story of this collection, the narrator recalls a key childhood anecdote about bunny rabbit cookies. Offered a wonderful cookie shaped like a bunny rabbit and decorated with a face and clothes of colored icing, the narrator as a child went off to a corner and talked to her cookie instead of gobbling many like her brother. The narrator muses about why her mother repeatedly told her boyfriends this story, whether to prove her “kindliness and essential femininity,” to suggest her harmlessness (“that they could expect to be talked to but not devoured”) or to warn them of her mental instability (suggesting that she was “the kind of person who might be expected to leap up suddenly from the dinner table and shout, ‘Don't eat that! It's alive!’”). A portrait of the artist as a young girl? It would seem so.

Atwood has said that this collection contains portraits of her parents. The volume is dedicated to them and the first two stories, “Significant Moments” and “Hurricane Hazel,” and two of the last, “In Search of the Rattlesnake Plantain” and “Unearthing Suite,” are written like first person memoirs told by a narrator who seems like Atwood herself. Since most readers covet information about an author's life and since Surfacing is often mistakenly seen as containing portraits of her parents, this volume of stories has special interest. Reading these stories as autobiography one sees the source of many of Atwood's strengths: her family's resilience, independence, relative obliviousness to social convention, and their knowledge of and deep affection for nature. When the Atwood-like narrator of “Hurricane Hazel” observes, “In our family you were supposed to know the names of the things you picked up and put in jars,” one can see the roots of the extremely exact observation and obsession with naming in Atwood's work. The portraits of her parents are etched with a warmth that is unusual for Atwood, and she closes the collection with the muted but clearly positive image related to her parents. While “In Search” emphasizes loss and decline—her father's stroke, dying birch trees, disappearing species of plants and animals—the story closes with the narrator's parents' triumphant discovery on their roof of the dropping of a fisher, a “beautiful arboreal voracious” predator. This deposit is for them all a miraculous token, a sign of divine grace; their roof “has been visited and made momentarily radiant by an unknown but by no means minor god.”

Various stories evoke the dangers and terrors of modern life, from the mundane and ordinary, like intrusive neighbors and incessant noise, to the catastrophic: nuclear war and biological destruction of the earth. As in all her work, there is an acute sensitivity to the subtleties of human relationships and the power struggles between women and men and between generations.

The best stories like the title story are interesting simply as stories. “Bluebeard's Egg” is about Sally, who is totally focussed on her husband Ed whom she considers opaque and charmingly stupid. Instructed by her evening course teacher to write a five page transposition of the Bluebeard story, set in the present and cast in the realistic mode, using the point of view of someone or something in the story, Sally decides to tell the story from the point of view of the egg which Bluebeard required his wives to protect and carry about with them. She thinks, “Ed isn't the Bluebeard. Ed is the egg. Ed Egg, blank and pristine and lovely. Stupid too. Boiled, probably.” But when Sally discovers Ed in a sexually ambiguous situation with her best friend, she suddenly awakens and realizes how little she knows about her husband or his first two wives (Bluebeard killed his first two wives; Ed just divorced his). And the egg, which seemed “closed and unaware,” now pulses and darkens and frightens Sally. Her last thought is “the egg is alive, and one day it will hatch. But what will come out of it?” Sally may never write a realistic Bluebeard story, but Atwood has.

The stories have many virtues and sources of interest, including the revelations about Atwood's biography, the exploration of her major themes and motifs, and not least of all, their excellence as stories.

Mona Knapp (review date 1987)

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SOURCE: A review of Bluebeard's Egg and Other Stories, in World Literature Today, Vol. 61, No. 4, Autumn, 1987, p. 629.

[In the following review, Knapp offers a negative assessment of Bluebeard's Egg.]

As much as The Handmaid's Tale was a minor literary sensation which marked Atwood's move to international prominence, her second collection of short fiction is patently unsensational. With the exception of two stories new to the American edition, the volume appeared already in 1983 in Canada. Two-thirds of the stories, in addition, have been featured previously in Harper's and other magazines, making their reappearance under one cover as much a matter of publishing convenience as of artistic necessity. Not a single date of original publication is given; and whether this is mere negligence or deliberate obfuscation by the publisher, it makes the critic's evaluation of the texts more difficult.

Of course, Atwood's unique voice, with its wry understatement and sensitive characterization, rings clear throughout. The twelve texts can be roughly divided into two groups. Four fall into the “My Parents” category of quasi-autobiographical fiction much abused by well-known authors. Their plots are elementary: childhood in the Canadian wilderness, rise and fall of the first boyfriend, civilization and nature in the Northern wilds, anecdotes about individualist parents whose “exhausting vitality” guarantees their physical and spiritual survival. These stories exemplify well Atwood's talent for evocative, almost lyrical nature description, plied earlier by the distinctive narrative voice in Surfacing.

The second, much larger group of stories presents variations on frustrated love affairs and marriages. The protagonists reflect on their wives and husbands, the offspring and ex-wives of same, on lovers and ex-lovers—all somehow dreary and unfulfilling. They reach the resigned conclusion that communication between the sexes is perpetually deficient. Love itself is, to paraphrase, something that merely “goes on as usual, until it stops.”

Special mention is deserved for three outstanding pieces. The title story uses the Bluebeard fairy tale (in which the antihero slaughters his wives for their disobedience) to describe the inner fears of the third wife of an unaffectionate husband. Also memorable, and reminsicent in its black humor of Lady Oracle, is “Uglypuss,” the story of two down-and-out left-wing activists whose affair ends with the bloody kidnapping of a cat. Two Stories about Emma, finally, describes the peculiar phenomenon of certain people born without fear, who go through life in a “bubble of invulnerability.” It was precisely the aspect of horrendous human vulnerability, however, that made The Handmaid's Tale (and Bodily Harm before it) so gripping. The absence of that aspect from the stories of Bluebeard's Egg makes them, despite their undeniable merits, two-dimensional in comparison.

Nancy J. Peterson (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: “‘Bluebeard's Egg’: Not Entirely a ‘Grimm’ Tale,” in Margaret Atwood: Reflection and Reality, edited by Beatrice Mendez-Egle and James M. Haule, Pan American University, 1987, pp. 131–38.

[In the following essay, Peterson evaluates the influence of legends and fairy tales on Atwood's short fiction.]

In a 1977 interview, Margaret Atwood speculated that her childhood reading led to the emphasis on evolution and transformation evident in her adult fiction. As a child, Atwood said, she read legends, fairy tales, and religious stories, all involving “miraculous changes of shape” (Sandler 14). The influence of these tales on Atwood's fiction is a largely untouched area of scholarship. However, the publication of her collection of short stories, Bluebeard's Egg, which overtly uses fairy tales and legends to make a statement about modern life, calls for a further examination of this influence. The story that gives the collection its title is particularly fascinating because it is based on a legend everyone knows—the tale of Bluebeard. Also, the story uses the lesser—known version of the Bluebeard story recounted by the Brothers Grimm. In the interview mentioned above, Atwood singled out the one book from her childhood that affected her later writing: “I would say that Grimm's Fairy Tales [sic] was the most influential book I ever read” (Sandler 14).

The tale that Atwood uses in “Bluebeard's Egg” can be easily identified because her short story contains a story within a story. The inner story is Grimms' version of the Bluebeard tale, as recalled by the main character, Sally. This tale is included in Atwood's story because Sally is taking a writing course and has been assigned to write “a five—page transposition [of the legend], set in the present and cast in the realistic mode” (156). Sally never writes this transposition. However, Atwood's short story—the outer story—is the fulfillment of Sally's assignment. “Bluebeard's Egg” is longer than five pages (it runs 33 pages), but it does successfully transpose the Bluebeard legend into a modern, realistic setting.

The Grimms' tale included in Atwood's story is entitled “Fitchers Vogel.” Atwood's use of this particular tale as the source for her short story cannot be explained entirely as the result of her childhood reading, however. The Bluebeard legend has been passed down in several different versions. The most widely known is Charles Perrault's “La Barbe Bleue,” in which the character actually is called Bluebeard. Although Perrault's character lends his name to the title of Atwood's story, Atwood rejects his well-known tale in favor of Grimms' version. The writing teacher in Atwood's story gives one reason why Perrault's tale is not used: it is too “sentimental” (156). A comparison of Perrault's tale and Grimms' tale with each other and with Atwood's story, however, reveals several reasons why Atwood uses Grimms' version. In addition, such a comparison highlights Atwood's ability to take an idea from a fairy tale, transform it, and make it her own.

In Perrault's “La Barbe Bleue,” Bluebeard is a rich man who has a difficult time finding a wife because his beard is blue, making him unattractive to women, and because his previous wives have disappeared without a trace. His wealth—not he himself—attracts women. Grimms' character is not called Bluebeard because he does not have a beard of that color; moreover, he has no trouble attracting women because he is a wizard and can cast a spell on any woman so that she must follow him. The husband in Atwood's story, Ed Bear, is the wizard—type, but he is realistic. His ability to attract women is not supernatural. At parties, women flock to Ed because he is “a heart man, one of the best,” and “they want him to fix their hearts” (139). The phrase “heart man” is deliberately ambiguous. Realistically Ed is a doctor, perhaps a cardiologist, who specializes in treating heart problems. The legendary figure Bluebeard is also a kind of heart man—the kind that steals women's hearts. And Ed fits this mold too. Just like Grimms' wizard, who goes through two wives in the tale until the third wife uncovers his murders, Ed is married to his third wife, Sally. Sally is perplexed because Ed cannot (or will not) tell her what went wrong with his previous marriages, which both ended in divorce. She worries: “What if he wakes up one day and decides that she [Sally] isn't the true bride after all, but the false one? Then she will be put into a barrel stuck full of nails and rolled downhill, endlessly, while he is sitting in yet another bridal bed, drinking champagne” (136). Sally married Ed not for his wealth but because she is under a kind of spell—love. Using Grimms' version of the tale allows Atwood to explore the power politics of a love relationship, a theme that runs throughout Atwood's poetry and prose.

Another striking difference between Perrault's and Grimms' tales is who saves Bluebeard's wife from death. In Perrault's tale, the woman is saved with the help of her sister, who signals their brothers to hurry on their way to Bluebeard's home. The brothers arrive just in time to prevent Bluebeard from cutting off his wife's head. They kill Bluebeard, who dies without an heir, thereby leaving his fortune to his only surviving wife. In Grimms' version of the tale, the third wife is more clever that her two deceased sisters. She saves herself and brings her sisters back to life through her cunning and curiosity. She, like her sisters, enters the forbidden room, but only after she has put Bluebeard's egg in a safe place. (Her two sisters had carried the egg with them into the room and dropped it into the blood-filled basin out of shock, whereupon it became the indelible mark of their disobedience.) Thus, the third wife learns that her husband-to-be is a murdered without revealing her transgression. She also puts the severed parts of her sisters back together, and they miraculously revive. She then outwits the wizard and burns him and his friends in the house while they are waiting for the wedding to begin.

Atwood's Sally follows the role of the third wife in Grimms' tale. She does not revive Ed's previous wives, but she does raise their children. Even though she finds it difficult to be a mother to these children who are close to her own age, the narrator says “Considering everything, she hasn't done badly. She likes the kids and tries to be a friend to them, since she can hardly pretend to be a mother” (150). Sally is also depicted as the kind of woman who can take care of herself. She does not need a man to help her out of her predicament, as does the wife in Perrault's tale. Sally's self-sufficiency is a quality emphasized by the narrator. Sally is capable at her job: “her job is supposed to be full-time, but in effect it's part-time, because Sally can take a lot of the work away and do it at home, and, as she says, with one arm tied behind her back” (140). Sally can even manage her incompetent, alcoholic boss. He lets her run the show, and she lets him take the official credit. Sally can cook gourmet meals. She can set up a dinner party and make sure everyone has a good time. She can entertain Ed's associates with her clever stories and remarks. She takes night classes: medieval history, cooking, anthropology, geology, comparative folklore, forms of narrative fiction. In these classes, Sally is always the “star pupil” (153).

But the one thing that Sally cannot control is her heart. Sally depends emotionally on Ed. Her dependence on him is dramatically illustrated in one scene in which Sally talks Ed into showing her how a new piece of medical equipment operates. Using sound waves, the machine projects a picture of a person's heart onto a black-and-white television screen.

“There,” he said, and Sally turned her head. On the screen was a large grey object, like a giant fig, paler in the middle, a dark line running down the centre. The side moved in and out; two wings fluttered in it, like an uncertain moth's.

“That's it?” said Sally dubiously. Her heart looked so insubstantial, like a bag of gelatin, something that would melt, fade, disintegrate, if you squeezed it even a little.

Ed moved the probe, and they looked at the heart from the bottom, then the top. Then he stopped the frame, then changed it from a positive to a negative image. Sally began to shiver.

“That's wonderful,” she said. He seemed so distant, absorbed in his machine, taking the measure of her heart, which was beating over there all by itself, detached from her, exposed and under his control.


This scene dramatizes Atwood's ambiguous portrayal of Ed as a “heart man.” Ed has the power as a doctor and, by implication, as a husband to control Sally's heart. For Atwood, Bluebeard is not the blood-thirsty villain of the traditional legends, but a power-hungry man who “severs” his wife's heart from her body and her control. By portraying Bluebeard in a realistic setting, Atwood also broadens the implications of the Bluebeard motif: the predicament faced by Bluebeard's wives and by Sally is an archetypal situation resulting from their belief in romantic love. Atwood's story shows that women who fall blindly in love relinquish control over their hearts and their lives.

Another way in which Atwood modernizes the Bluebeard tale is by using a limited, third-person unreliable narrator. Even though this is Sally's story, it is not told in first person. Use of the third-person narrator emphasizes Sally's loss of control over her relationship with Ed. The reader is allowed to see into Sally's mind, but the narrator never confirms whether Sally's feelings and fears about her relationship with Ed are genuine or the result of paranoia. Consequently, we start to wonder if Sally's perceptions are accurate. The use of an unreliable narrator (or, at best, one who is not necessarily reliable) adds to the realism of Atwood's transposition. In both Perrault's and Grimms' tales, Bluebeard is clearly identified as an evil husband; the wives' bodies are tangible evidence of his villainy. But in Atwood's tale, as in real life, the villain is hard to recognize. Is Ed Bear indeed a Bluebeard type of husband? Or is Sally just an insecure wife who is imagining things? Since Ed has not murdered his two former wives, how can Sally—or any woman—determine if he is the loving husband he seems to be or a man who, by preying on women's affections, kills them spiritually if not literally?

The moment of recognition comes when Sally asks her best friend, Marylynn, to show Ed the antique keyhole desk that Sally has just purchased. Up until this point in the story, Sally has remarked that Ed is too stupid to be devious, that he is so dumb he needs her to protect him, that he is too innocent to know when women are trying to seduce him. At the same time, however, Sally admits that “Ed is a surface, one she has trouble getting beneath” (152). Yet, when she mulls over her writing assignment, Sally thinks, “Ed isn't the Bluebeard: Ed is the egg. Ed Egg, blank and pristine and lovely. Stupid, too. Boiled, probably” (159). The fact remains, however, that Ed's last name is not “Egg”; it is “Bear” as in Bluebeard. And Ed cannot be completely stupid; he is, after all, a successful doctor.

The scene at the keyhole desk, however, changes Sally's perceptions of Ed. As Sally enters the alcove where the desk is,

Marylynn is bending forward, one hand on the veneer. Ed is standing too close to her, and as Sally comes up behind them she sees his left arm, held close to his side, the back of it pressed against Marylynn, her shimmering upper thigh, her ass to be exact. Marylynn does not move away.

It's a split second, and then Ed sees Sally and the hand is gone; there it is, on top of the desk, reaching for a liqueur glass.


In this instant, Sally realizes that Ed might not be a faithful, loving husband. This realization takes place at a keyhole desk in Atwood's story; in the Bluebeard tales, the key is the means of entering the forbidden room where the wife finds out what kind of man she has married. Atwood, however, does not include much incriminating evidence because her story aims for realism and because the important matter in the story is the change in the woman's perception of her husband. After the scene at the desk, Sally, for the first time, gets upset with Ed for not calling their cleaning lady—who has worked for them for three years—by her proper name: Mrs. Rudge. He calls her “the woman.” Then Sally remembers that he called the previous cleaning lady, Mrs. Bird, “the woman” too—“as though they are interchangeable” (165). This detail shows the change in Sally's perception of Ed; she realizes he might not be the person she thinks he is. In fact, his resemblance to Bluebeard, for whom women and wives are also interchangeable, becomes more apparent as the story draws to a close. Later in the evening, Sally goes to bed after Ed. As she crawls in beside him, she notes that Ed “is breathing deeply as if asleep. As if” (165). She no longer trusts him completely and admits that her version of Ed might not be “something she's perceived but something that's been perpetrated on her, by Ed himself, for reasons of his own” (164). Once she admits this possibility, Sally is in a position to regain control of her life and emotions. The image of the egg is the principal means by which Atwood conveys this transformation.

The image of the egg brings up another difference between Perrault's and Grimms' Bluebeard tales. In Perrault's tale, the key to the forbidden room becomes indelibly stained with blood, telling Bluebeard that his wife has disobeyed his command. In Grimms' tale, not the key but the egg becomes stained. In none of the other variants of the Bluebeard motif does and egg become stained. As the title of Atwood's short story suggests, the egg is the most important symbol in her reworking of the legend. Exactly what the egg represents in this story is not easy to decide, however. Sally identifies Ed as the egg, but as mentioned before, the narrator is not necessarily reliable and the evidence indicates that Ed is not as simple, dumb, and passive as Sally thinks he is. Sally herself rejects three other meanings for the egg: in this story, it is not a fertility symbol or something the world hatched out of or a symbol of female virginity.

To illustrate what the egg symbolizes in this story, we can turn to Atwood's poem cycle “True Romances,” published in the volume True Stories. This poem cycle contains allusions to the Bluebeard legend, and the egg appears as an image in two of the poems. The first prose-poem/romance tells of a man who chops up his wife and leaves her in garbage cans all over Barcelona. He is obviously a modern-day Bluebeard. The second prose-poem relates the feelings of a woman who was once “desperately in love” (41)—in other words, she fell victim to a painful, romantic love. The egg image is found in poems 4 and 5, but is most significant in the former. In poem 4, the egg represents the ego:

Most people in that country don't eat eggs, she told me, they can't afford to; if they're lucky enough to have a chicken that lays eggs they sell the eggs. There is no such thing as inside, there's no such thing as I. The landscape is continuous, it flows through whatever passes for houses there, dried mud in and out, famine in and out, there is only we.


The egg can be seen as a symbol of the ego in “Bluebeard's Egg” also. The meaning of the egg eludes Sally until the very end. Meanwhile, the narrator relates Sally's fears about having no identity: “Sometimes Sally worries that she's a nothing, the way Marylynn was before she got a divorce and a job. But Sally isn't a nothing; therefore, she doesn't need a divorce to stop being one” (140). Sally's reasoning clearly begs the question; she evades the issue because she subconsciously knows that she is not her own person emotionally. In addition, the use of the third-person narrator shows Sally's selflessness.

The egg also symbolizes a person who, by himself, is whole. The country described in poem 4 of “True Romances” is a place where “They cut off the hands and heads to prevent identification.” The narrator of the poem adds, “Among those of us who still have heads and hands there are no marriages” (43). In other words, marriage is a place where the individual does not exist whole; he must sever part of himself to be married, in which case he also loses his identity. This same situation is found in “Bluebeard's Egg,” where Sally spends most of her free time thinking about Ed. At her dinner party, Sally admits that “Although she never looks directly, she's always conscious of Ed's presence in the room, any room” (163). In another place, Sally says that her motivation to take so many night courses is to concentrate on something besides Ed for a while. But when her writing teacher asks the students to explore their inner and outer worlds, Sally rebels: “she's 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” (152). Neither can she picture herself as a person distinct from Ed. In short, Sally is not a whole person, and she realizes it.

By emphasizing the egg from Grimms' version of the Bluebeard legend, Atwood creates a new moral for this story: romantic love—the kind that makes a woman emotionally dependent, the kind that puts her heart under a man's control—is dangerous. This moral is suggested by the narrator's inclusion of Grimms' tale in the story, as Sally remembers it. Sally stops at the point when the third wife has looked into the forbidden room, revived her sisters, and deceived the wizard. Because the egg is spotless, according to the legend the wizard no longer has any power over his wife. Here Sally ends the story even though Grimm goes on to tell how the wife arranges for the wizard and his friends to be killed. The point of Atwood's story is not that an evil person gets his just rewards, but that a woman whose eyes are opened can gain control of her life and her heart.

The theme of Atwood's story is much different from Perrault's. Perrault added a moral to the end of his fairy tales. “La Barbe Bleue” got not only one moral, but two. The first moral is the often-repeated warning against curiousity as a female vice that always brings about unhappiness and misery. Bluebeard's wife in this view is just another Pandora. Atwood's story acknowledges that curiosity can cause unhappiness, but only because it can lead to a moment of insight for a person who is blindly in love. The second moral Perrault added to his tale is meant to appease husbands: “cette histoire / Est un conte du temps passé; Il n'est plus d'Epoux si terrible” (29). Atwood, of course, would disagree with this “moral.” True, husbands who dismember their wives are not common today. However, husbands who want to control their wives (and wives who want to be dominated) are not only part of ancient history, but present in today's society. Throughout Atwood's fiction, the female characters struggle—not always successfully—to to get out of destructive relationships with men who want to control or dominate them. The volume of poetry Power Politics, of all of Atwood's works, perhaps best portrays the sado-masochism that is intrinsic in many male/female relationships.

Atwood's story affirms the idea that curiosity—leading to painful insight—can transform a woman's life. The change in Sally's perception of Ed is symbolized at the end of the story by the merging of the egg and heart images. First, the image of the heart controlled by Ed—the black-and-white heart—recedes into the distance.

Sally lies in bed with her eyes closed. What she sees is her own heart, in black and white, beating with that insubstantial moth-like flutter, a ghostly heart, torn out of her and floating in space, an animated valentine with no colour. It will go on and on forever; she has no control over it.


A valentine heart represents romantic love. It floats away from Sally as she lets go of her blind romanticism. Then Sally sees the egg transformed:

But now she's seeing the egg, which is not small and cold and white and inert but larger than a real egg and golden pink, resting in a nest of brambles, glowing softly as though there's something red and hot inside it. It's almost pulsing; Sally is afraid of it. As she looks it darkens: rose-red, crimson.


The image of the egg takes on the blood-red color of a heart, and it assumes the rhythmic pulsing of a living, beating heart. The egg—representing the ego, a whole person—merges with the heart only when Sally's perceptions of Ed are transformed, enabling her to regain control of her life and emotions.

Unlike the egg in Grimms' tale, in Atwood's story the egg is spotted to show that Sally's transformation will be a painful, active process. The ending of Grimms' tale is, of course, happy; in contrast, Atwood's ending is more cautious: “This is something the story left out, Sally thinks: the egg is alive, and one day it will hatch. But what will come out of it?” (166). Atwood leaves Sally on the verge of positive movement much like she leaves the narrator of Surfacing at a moment of decision. In Atwood's myth, neither is assured of living happily ever after.

The success of “Bluebeard's Egg” ultimately rests not on its borrowings from Grimms' legend, but on Atwood's ability to shape Grimms' material to her own purposes. As Atwood commented to one interviewer, “I think the thing to do with a mythology is not to discard the mythology at all, but to transform it, rearrange it and shift the values” (Van Varseveld 67). In the process of stripping the supernatural elements from the Bluebeard legend, Atwood uncovers a universal archetype: Bluebeard can be any man and his wife, any woman. While fulfilling Sally's class assignment, Atwood's short story reaffirms the value of legends and fairy tales to depict a timeless, essential part of the human condition.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. “Bluebeard's Egg.” Bluebeard's Egg. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1983. 133–66.

———. “True Romances.” True Stories. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981. 40–44.

Perrault, Charles. Popular Tales. Ed. Andrew Lang. Oxford, 1888. Rpt. New York: Arno Press, 1977.

Sandler, Linda. “Interview with Margaret Atwood.” Malahat Review, 41 (1977): 7–27.

Van Varsveld, Gail. “Talking with Atwood.” Room of One's Own 1.2 (Summer 1975): 66–70.

Russell Brown (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7617

SOURCE: “Atwood's Sacred Wells (Dancing Girls, poetry, and Surfacing),” in Critical Essays on Margaret Atwood, edited by Judith McCombs, G. K. Hall & Co., 1988, pp. 213–29.

[In the following essay, Brown explores the recurring images in Atwood's work, focusing on how they function in her fiction and poetry.]

“Think about pools.”

There is a Margaret Atwood story—“The Resplendent Quetzal”—which opens with a young Canadian woman in Mexico, sitting at the edge of a sacrificial well. The well is an unprepossessing relic of an ancient civilization, now reduced to an object at which tourists come to gaze, their attention superficial and brief. Sarah, the woman at this well, is herself a tourist, but unlike the ones she watches hurrying by, she has some time to spend and feels at least some sense of the symbolism of this once-sacred site. Still Sarah is also disappointed in the well, almost as much so as other tourists: it is less interesting to look at than she had imagined, and shallower than her guidebook had promised. A guide who has finished lecturing his tour group flirts with her briefly, but it is not romance that Sarah longs for. Rebuffed, the guide flicks his cigarette into the well and departs.

This brief scene is an extremely significant one in Atwood's canon. Some of her most important images are clustered together here, images which reappear in her work to the point of obsessive concern. Frequently drawn together in this way, they become structural elements; they form a constellation which does not readily yield single or easy meaning. Their reappearance is a sign of an ongoing investigation, of a continued pursuit of the meaning and inter-relationships of certain themes and of the metaphors which convey them. The result is that when we read widely in Atwood's work the images in any single story or poem take on enriched significance; they trigger previously established associations. We experience a sense of déjà vu: not unpleasant, it is the feeling of drifting back into a familiar dream.


“You from around here?” she asked.

“No,” Morrison said.1

The tourists at the beginning of “The Resplendent Quetzal” stand out because the figure of the tourist is so often present in Atwood's world. The person not “from around here,” embodies a general sense of dislocation, a feeling of not being at home: these are so much a part of the fiction and poetry that they become more atmosphere and mood than content.

More than half the stories collected in Dancing Girls revolve around tourists and other individuals estranged from the culture in which they find themselves. Sometimes these are people with whom the protagonist must enact transactions which are invariably uncomfortable—as in “The Man from Mars,” where a strange foreign man pursues and dismays the central character. When we encounter such outsiders, the stories suggest, our problems arise from our inability to understand or interpret unfamiliar patterns of behaviour: “Her mother volunteered that the thing about people from another culture was that you could never tell whether they were insane or not because their ways were so different” (“The Man from Mars,” DG, p. 32).

In other stories, it is the protagonist who is the outsider, the traveller into foreign lands. “Lives of the Poets” begins with a woman “lying on the bathroom floor of this anonymous hotel room”; “The Grave of the Famous Poet” opens with a pair of young vacationers riding a bus into a Welsh town. In “A Travel Piece” the central character's job is that of travel writer: “a professional tourist, she works at being pleased and not participating; at sitting and watching” (DG, p. 152).

Elsewhere in “A Travel Piece,” the authorial voice defines “tourists” as “those who are not responsible … those who make the lives of others their transient spectacle and pleasure” (DG, p. 152). In such poems as “At the Tourist Centre in Boston” and “Interview with a Tourist,” these people are treated more negatively still: they are those who always see things superficially, who perpetually condescend to unfamiliar cultures, and who impose what they desire on what they find.

This sense of the tourist accounts for some of the attraction the historic figure of Susanna Moodie holds: for Atwood, Moodie becomes an embodiment of these failures. …

All of the characters of Life Before Man, Atwood's most recent novel, are, in fact, “refugees” in some way or another, with the defence mechanisms and sense of alienation which that condition entails. Tourists, immigrants, refugees, “exiles and invaders”—there is a pervasive failure to claim one's own territory, a failure which inevitably also shows up as a failure to assert identity.

The way the alienation felt by the tourist severs him from the place where he finds himself, allowing him to treat it as “spectacle,” is nowhere more clear than in Surfacing, with its depiction of what it is like to be on “home ground, foreign territory.” In that novel David exhibits the attitude of the tourist at its most frightening, and it is that attitude which permits him to reduce the world—and with it his companions—to an emotionally distant environment, one suitable as raw material for his film Random Samples, most valued when most bizarre.

But there is no easy escape from the sense of displacement that may lead one to become a David. Even those who are not tourists, even those who do not travel to unfamiliar places, are not found comfortably at home. The image of the boarding house appears in Atwood's landscapes almost as often as that of the tourist, and for the same reason—to suggest that there is never any “home ground,” that all occupy turf which is not theirs.

Atwood conveys the sense of a lost home ground most clearly in an early poem about the state of mind produced by living in a boarding house (ATC, p. 28–29). … Throughout Dancing Girls, boardinghouses, rented rooms, and hotels are almost the only accommodations mentioned, and all exude a sense of residents who “never lived here”; nowhere is there stability; nowhere does a genuine “home” exist. Within these temporary shelters, the inhabitants are driven to compensate for their rootlessness by engaging in petty struggles, symbolic but intense, that mark off territory as their own. Like the psychological warfare over a bathroom that opens Dancing Girls, battles over borders are being covertly fought by many of Atwood's characters. Others simply redecorate, or rearrange furniture, as they attempt to turn rented rooms into their own.

The inhabitants who share these roominghouses are always the same rootless immigrants, the same aliens and tourists that turn up elsewhere. In “Polarities,” Morrison—a man marked by “his own search for place”—notices that his landlady “seemed to prefer foreign students, probably because they were afraid to complain.” In the title story, Ann—a Canadian in America who finds it confusing to be a foreigner and not be seen as one—has a landlady who plays stationary tourist by requesting that each new boarder wear his “native costume” for her children.

There are few permanent residences in the novels either. …

The danger suggested … is always that of xenophobia: at some point one identifies the “other” as being not merely foreign but as truly “alien”: the stranger comes to be seen as “a man from Mars.” In the conclusion to “A Travel Piece,” the protagonist, horrified by the actions of those with whom she is sharing a lifeboat, feels as if she is confronted with “four Martians and one madman waiting for her to say something” (DG, p. 153). But the strength of Atwood's version of this is that she never lets us escape so easily: she always eventually forces us to confront the question with which “A Travel Piece” concludes: “Am I one of them or not?”


… The well, even more than the tourists, is what commands our attention in that opening scene of “The Resplendent Quetzal.” Like the totem poles in “Some Objects of Wood and Stone,” it is a remnant of a lost religion, an object which serves to remind us that lives were once lived on a more mythic plane. The condition of tourism is that of a fallen state. The tourist passes among the relics of a visionary people without even seeing that there has been a loss: he prefers replicas and photographs to the thing itself.

Still, if the well no longer has the meaning it once did, if “There are few totems that remain / living for us,” that does not mean that the world does not contain objects which can function for us as these did for their time and people. “Some Objects of Wood and Stone” continues:

There are few totems that remain
living for us.
Though in passing,
through glass we notice
dead trees in the seared meadows
dead roots bleaching in the swamps.

(CG, p. 60)

“Dead trees” and “dead roots” are not much to cling to perhaps, and we notice them only “in passing,” but there is still a sense here that something remains to stir deep, instinctual responses.

So it is elsewhere in Atwood's world: certain things take on unexpected import, become keys to hidden meaning, gateways to visionary insight. We may not understand what we have encountered but if we are sensitive we may at least catch glimpses that tell us there is something there:

… each of the
few solid objects took some great
implication, hidden but
more sudden than a signpost

(“Migration: C.P.R.” CG, p. 53)

Atwood repeatedly depicts totems and totem-like objects that still exist in our world and that can convey the numinous world to us; they are the sacramenta that we may stumble across in our daily lives. Since the world of myth is linked for Atwood, as for most modern writers, with the world of the unconscious self, this phenomenon is like that described by Joseph Campbell:

The unconscious sends all sorts of vapors, odd beings, terrors and deluding images up into the mind—whether in dream, broad daylight, or insanity. … And they may remain unsuspected, or, on the other hand, some chance word, the smell of a landscape, the taste of a cup of tea, or the glance of an eye may touch a magic spring, and then dangerous messengers begin to appear in the brain. These are dangerous because they threaten the fabric of the security into which we have built ourselves and our family. But they are fiendishly fascinating too, for they carry keys that open the whole realm of the desired and feared adventure of the discovery of the self.2

These objects with “great implication hidden” are ontophanous, able to serve as reminders of what Mircea Eliade calls “the plenary manifestation of Being.” Moving through Atwood's landscapes, we find ourselves among objects that have meaning packed into them like so many Jacks-in-the-box. Her fiction and poetry so often contain descriptions of such things that the work itself becomes one of the signposts, pointing out the “underground” realms. Along with the sacrificial well, and the “wooden people” of “Some Objects of Wood and Stone,” there is “a talisman” carried by the protagonist of the story “Giving Birth”: “It's a rounded oblong of opaque blue glass, with four yellow and white shapes on it … it makes her feel safer to have it in the room with her” (DG, p. 238). Perhaps not always so explicitly “magical,” a host of other significant objects manifest themselves. There are, for example, Marian's famous cake at the conclusion of The Edible Woman, and the petroglyphs in Surfacing: “a talisman, my father has left me the guides, the man-animals and the maze of numbers” (S, p. 149). The very titles of poems and stories name more: “Playing Cards” (CG), “This is a Photograph of Me” (CG), “Three Desk Objects” (PU), “Weed Seeds Near a Beaver Pond” (PU), “Buffalo in Compound, Alberta” (“the god / of this place” [PU]), “Hair Jewelry” (DG), “The Grave of the Famous Poet” (DG), and the subtitle “Carved Animals” (CG). There is the fabulous bird which gives its name to “The Resplendent Quetzal” (DG), and the “Dancing Girls” who are said to have appeared in one final splendid party given by that foreign student in the room next door before he was evicted.

That both the Quetzal and the Dancing Girls are rumoured only and remain unseen, that the sacrificial well is disappointing and the famous grave proves dull, does not deny their significance, for we are, as we have seen already, living in a time and a place where, like tourists, we may get only unsatisfactory glimpses of these mana-endowed things. They are too often like the tortoises depicted in “Elegy for the Giant Tortoises,” “the relics of what we have destroyed, / our holy and obsolete symbols” (ATC, p. 23). …

In the poetry Atwood's two ways of seeing become a common structural device: a visionary mode of perception is balanced against a quotidian one.3

Still, even if we fail to perceive the hidden nature of the things around us, that richer world is not entirely lost to us nor does it cease to make demands on us. As “Two Gardens” in Procedures for Underground reminds us, the “underground” meaning remains even though we may deny it, the numinous impinges though we may think we can hold it apart. …


Now this country is underwater;
we can love only the drowned

(“Interview with a Tourist,” PU, p. 23)

As Joseph Campbell has pointed out, one of the tasks of the individual in search of enlightenment is to find the centre of things, the omphalos, which is the point of contact between time and eternity, the “place of breakthrough into abundance.”4 Every important religious site (the Bo tree, Calvary) has been thought of as such a centre, and all shrines and sacred places participate, at least symbolically, in centredness and thus serve as portals to the numinous realm.

Discovery of the centre means renewal: “… the World Navel is the symbol of the continuous creation; the mystery of the maintenance of the world through that continuous miracle of vivification which wells within all things.”5 Of course one of the greatest discoveries that the individual makes is that the centre is everywhere, that the other world is always available, and hence anything, properly understood, may serve to convey us there. Still the experiences of certain objects fill our needs better than others; some things seem natural gateways. The sacred well in “The Resplendent Quetzal” is one such object. Wells and other bodies of water have always provided symbolic representations of entrances to an unseen, mysterious world beneath the surface of our own. The presence of lakes and pools, coupled with larger patterns of descent, of “journeys to the interior,” and of submerging, is ubiquitous in Atwood's writing; and, in Survival, Atwood alludes to drowning as a convenient “metaphor for the descent into the unconscious” (Surv., p. 55). Several critics have provided discussions of the metaphoric structures of Atwood's quests for depths; the best of these is an essay by Roberta Rubenstein entitled “Surfacing: Margaret Atwood's Journey to the Interior.” Rubenstein describes the action of Surfacing—with its heroine's climactic plunge into a lake that contains a primitive rock painting, her father's drowned body, and a vision of her own repressed guilt—as an “archetypal journey into the self” which is also a “symbolic journey into both the private and collective heart of darkness.”6

Although the personal material of the subconscious self is part of what is discovered in those underwater explorations, the primitive and powerful imagery of universal myth also lies there and it is that which has the greater power to transform:

in the water
under my shadow
there was an outline, man
surfacing, his body sheathed
in feathers, his teeth
glinting like nails, fierce god
head crested with blue flame

(“Dream: Bluejay or Archeopteryx,” PU, p. 9)

In “The Resplendent Quetzal,” Sarah never makes the plunge we have come to expect, but she does something in the conclusion of the story that may be even better. Grasping the nature of symbolic and ritual action in an intuitive moment, she throws a surrogate self into the well. This final act, we sense, moves her back into participation with her mythic unconscious and gives her fragmented psyche a new potential for wholeness.

“The Resplendent Quetzal” thus contains the repeated pattern of Atwood's narratives—a submerging, whether symbolic or actual, in search of vision that may permit a final surfacing of the restored or renewed individual. …

In Atwood's version of our history, we live not only after a fall but after the deluge—and the waters have not receded. We move on the surface of that great flood, while a rich and valuable world lies beneath our feet, a world that is lost to us because it is “far undersea.”

Even to recognize our inundated condition, as in “After the Flood,” is a small victory (CG, p. 12). …

The cause of the catastrophe that has come to pass is suggested in several places, among them this passage from Surfacing: “In the bay the felled trees and numbered posts showed where the surveyors had been, power company. My country, sold or drowned, a reservoir; the people were sold along with the land and the animals, a bargain, sale, solde. Les soldes they called them, sellouts, the flood would depend on who got elected, not here but somewhere else” (S, p. 132). The world in Surfacing is being covered over because of a desire for “power,” because of greed and political venality, but the pattern that Atwood wants us to recognize is larger than this. Recall the opening of “The Resplendent Quetzal” once more: there is a third element there, besides those of tourist and well, one which seemed less important but which is also the most disturbing feature of the scene: the cigarette butt which the guide discards. Even without being told, the reader knows it is probably an American cigarette that falls upon those once-sacred wates. A Canadian tourist has travelled to Mexico to see a Mexican guide throw a bit of American refuse into one of the few remaining sites of a once-vital indigenous culture.

The throwing of the cigarette into the well may be viewed as an act rich in meaning. In Freudian terms, for example, it could be read as a displacement of the sexual violation that the guide longs for, since it follows his brief flirtation with Sarah. Though such a reading is reductive by itself, it is worth holding in mind for the sets of paired oppositions which it evokes: guide and tourist, male and female, the modern society of cigarette butts, the lost world of sacred wells. Indeed—as the production of such parallels begins to suggest—the cigarette is not so much symbolic as synedochic, a very small part directing our attention to the much larger whole which has produced it.

The cigarette is one result of a system of values to which Atwood frequently calls our attention, against which she is labouring to warn us. The discarded cigarette floating on the water suggests the pervasive presence of the products of commerce, especially American commerce, and of the technology that furnishes them—the same technology that has literally flooded the landscape in Surfacing. The fact that it is a cigarette further reminds us of the unhealthful byproducts of many of those products, as well as of the fact that they fulfill needs which they also create.

The pollution of the sacred well is not merely attributed to “commercialism” or to “technology” however. The cigarette represents something still larger as well: the omnipresent mass culture of modern society. This meaning of the cigarette becomes clear in reading the whole of “The Resplendent Quetzal,” because it is one of a series of objects that belongs to the mass, and mass-produced, culture and that overwhelms what remains of an older, more personal order of things.

The restaurant at which Sarah and her husband dine, and which she thinks about as she sits beside the well, is the chief embodiment of this pattern. We first recognize this when we see the Mexican children who come not to meet for play but to watch TV, for they find there “a re-run of The Cisco Kid, with dubbed voices” (DG, p. 162). This moment is perhaps the most devastating in our entire experience of the story: we see that Hollywood fantasies not only sanitize those social orders not yet fully assimilated to the mass culture, but that these sanitized versions of the past are eventually retranslated and returned back to the youngest members of that society, providing them with a false tradition and a history that never existed.

The restaurant is more, however, than the focus of a vanishing social order. As Sarah sits thinking about it, a nearby tourist says of her recent sight-seeing, “What beats me is why they built all those things in the first place,” and another answers, “It was their religion, that's what he said” (DG, p. 163). We are not merely reminded that the ancient religions are being forgotten: the juxtaposition of these remarks with description of the restaurant's interior makes it plain that the process is continuing, that Christianity is now likewise being secularized:

On the bar beside the television set there was a crêche, with three painted plaster Wise Men, one on an elephant, the others on camels. The first Wise Man was missing his hand. Inside the stable a stunted Joseph and Mary adored an enormous Christ Child which was more than half as big as the elephant. … Beside the crêche was a Santa Claus haloed with flashing lights, and beside that a radio in the shape of Fred Flintstone, which was playing American popular songs, all of them ancient.

(DG, pp. 162–63)

The crêche, which should be a repository for the symbolism of the central Christian mystery—God become man—has, like the well, become seedy and neglected, allowed to lose its significance. The adjacent Santa Claus, the saint become completely desacralized by his adoption into the culture of commerce, signals the reason for the decay within the manger, his flashing-light halo an indication of how far the miraculous has been displaced by the technological.

The figure of Fred Flintstone completes the progression away from the crêche: he stands both as ultimate devaluation of the primitive and as an example of the only mythic figure that modern society possesses—the cartoon character. His function as a radio shows how quickly even modern myths are harnessed by technology, but at the same time this technology has been hopelessly trivialized, the real potential of the electronic age reduced to a radio in the shape of a banal cartoon character playing superficial and outworn music.

The obvious source of the disruption depicted here is the exportation of American culture—The Cisco Kid, Fred Flintstone, popular song—but Atwood will not let Canadian readers escape their share of responsibility. As in Surfacing, where the “Americans” who killed the heron turn out to be Canadians after all, there is a shock of recognition when we listen to the only song that we actually hear.

“Oh someone help me, help me, plee-ee-ee-eeze …”
“Isn't that Paul Anka?” Sarah asked.

(DG, 163)

Nor is Canada the only country that has willingly become part of the modern mass culture. After all, in the opening scene those were “Mexican tourists,” and “Sarah found it reassuring that other people besides Canadians and Americans wore big hats and sunglasses and took pictures of everything” (DG, p. 154).

It is mass culture that has “drowned” the world. Realizing that fact means that the question of myth and of sacred object is not as simple as it first seemed. It is not that we have no myths and no totems: The Cisco Kid and Fred Flintstone-as-a-radio are proof that we do. It is rather that the mythic narratives and the totemic objects that we now possess are false or dangerous. They have been corrupted by their sources and degraded by their ends. Their unfortunate omnipresence has formed an overlay—or to borrow a term from geology, an overburden—obscuring the more meaningful world in which we once lived. The modern deluge of these offspring of the marriage of commercial technology with popular consciousness creates an obscuring surface over the more essential world in which we once dwelt.

For this reason Atwood regularly shows us that there are bad totems as well as good, objects of dangerous power as well as benign. …

It is not only the flood of consumer goods that has drowned the world, it is also the mythos that has been created for consumers, the myths that these objects, their producers, and possessers have brought into being, often just to explain and justify the new technological era. Like the Mexican boys watching Cisco Kid re-runs, we see the image of ourselves given back, however distortedly, in these myths, expressed in the omnipresent forms of popular entertainment, conveyed by the engulfing media. We can no longer see the truth of our world because a new one has risen up around it like

… the mist that has risen
everywhere as well
as in these woods

(“After the Flood, We,” CG, p. 12)

Atwood returns to this problem often [in “Backdrop addresses cowboy” (ATC, p. 50), Surfacing, Lady Oracle, and The Edible Woman]. …

Ours is a fallen world drowned in advertising and escape literature; man is damned to live out inauthentic lives in it, lives lived “by quotation.”

Atwood's version of the Fall is not, however, simply historical. In the present age each individual recapitulates that lapse, because the child is born without imposed culture. An important scene in Surfacing, when the protagonist finds childhood notebooks, demonstrates this—and helps explain why Atwood's characters generally seek anamnesis. There is an Atwood poem that proposes to look at a soul “geologically”; elsewhere the word “archeological” repeatedly occurs to describe the investigations that compel us inward. The scrapbooks extend that metaphor: there is a geology of character offered in them; a stratum at a time, we see the archeology of the psyche recorded. The passages describing these books, pp. 90–91, 158, are worth our attention. …

By reversing the surfacer's process of discovery, we can reconstruct the history of development presented here. At the core of being lies primaeval, mythic material, and an intuitive religious vision that unites God with man, man with animal, Christ with Satan.7 The most important single act in Surfacing is probably this rediscovery of the primitive stuff of which visions are made and the assertion of rights to this lost “first meaning” (“mine, I had made it”), but as the subsequent contents of the scrapbooks show, this state of innocence does not last. The child's primal vision is displaced; we feel the “shades of the prison-house” beginning to close in.

At first, the loss is not so great. The singleness of the loose page gives way to more generalized, but still powerful mythic content: “early people” with rays coming out of their heads—an anticipation of that important moment when the surfacer looks into the lake and sees “My other shape …, not my reflection but my shadow, … rays streaming out from around the head” (S, p. 141). As the child gets older, the record of the myths which she intuitively glimpsed in the depths of her mind is replaced by a collection of less vital and less meaningful mythologies given her by her culture and her society. Semi-divine beings give way to Easter eggs and rabbits. Just as the crêche in “The Resplendent Quetzal” calls our attention to the modern failure to understand one of the central events in Christianity, so these childish pictures indicate that another crucial event—the death and resurrection of God—has also suffered a devaluation: like a Christmas reduced to Santa Claus, Easter seems to have become puerile fantasies of bunnies and eggs.

The “translation” (to use a word that is generally important in Surfacing) of the narrative of Golgotha and Resurrection into a story about a rabbit that brings eggs to children marks a transitional phase in the development of individual consciousness. After all, this juvenile story of Easter does show the child's continuing responsiveness to essential myth (“perhaps it was a vision of Heaven”), partly because the tale of the Easter bunny points, however distantly, to the pagan fertility rituals that form a tradition older than Christianity, underlying and giving force to its later customs. At the same time we recognize these Easter fantasies as part of a general modern abandonment of religious stories for secular fables that will turn sacred holidays into occasions for commerce.

As the surfacer's most recent scrapbook shows, the modern mythos of the consumer society has completed the covering over of her earliest picture and its first meaning. The magazines and mail-order catalogues of her childhood, like the comic books of her brother's, provide a new, impersonal set of images that replace her earlier, personal ones (“no drawings at all, just illustrations cut … and pasted in” [S, p. 91]). There is a very real fall recorded here, since the pastoral order that prevailed in the world of rabbits gives way to the hostile warring world depicted by her brother.

The existence of two scrapbooks at this stage of childhood may indicate that it is also the point at which socially-defined sex roles are furnished for the child, with the boy offered various heroic models (soldier-spaceman-superhero) and the girl given two “safe” domestic ones: “lady” and “mother.” The extent to which these female roles are arbitrarily limited, superficial, and depersonalized is shown by the way the childhood scissors have trimmed the figures: to “dresses … no bodies in them” (S, p. 91).

It is striking that two separate books exist only at this final and most fallen stage of the child's development. It may suggest that both brother and sister previously shared in the acts of creation recorded here—operating together in a kind of undivided androgynous consciousness. Or it may call our attention to the uncertainty that runs throughout the novel about the actual status of this brother. He seems to have existed, but much of what we are told about him turns out to be untrue; he most often serves as a way for the protagonist to talk about her own repressed memories: “… it wasn't ever my brother I'd been remembering, that had been a disguise” (S, p. 143). Perhaps, then, the appearance of a “male” scrapbook is a similar disguise, a response by the surfacer to the necessity of segregating and suppressing the maleness of her own nature. Such an understanding of things would help explain a passage in the opening chapter, Anna's reading of her friend's palm: “‘Do you have a twin?’ I said No. ‘Are you positive,’ she said, ‘because some of your lines are double. … You had a good childhood but then there's this funny break’” (S, p. 8).

The process by which primal myths, essential narratives, and undivided images of self are covered over with new ones that serve modern society by suppressing individuality and encouraging materialism, is one in which Marian McAlpin, Joan Foster, and the protagonist of Surfacing are sometimes victims, but they are also implicated as collaborators: in their complicity we read Atwood's own anxieties about the place of artist and writer in the consumer society. Does the work of the creative artist help us regain the world of lost meaning—or does it become another obscuring layer on the surface? By allowing her work to be published and circulated through the channels of commerce, will the artist inevitably become corrupted, become part of the ineluctable process she protests?

Surfacing deals most directly with those questions. …


… The mirror as an image and a metaphor is perhaps the most ubiquitous of all of the elements repeated in Atwood's poetry and fiction, but it is missing from “The Resplendent Quetzal.” At best we are aware of the lack of reflections in that story, when Sarah looks into the well and finds the water muddy-brown, the bottom murky. Still, as “Tricks with Mirrors” reveals, mirror and pool are actually the same, though we often make the mistake of not recognizing their identity.

Mirrors are dangerous. …

It is our awareness that every mirror may really be a pool and that every photograph has a world behind it which gives richness to Atwood's work. The mythic patterns of action that we internalize, our understanding of our roles in life, and our images of our self: all are derived from what we see around us, from the “mirror” that our environment—whether social, cultural, or psychic—holds up to us. The danger is that by attending to these reflections we may not see the depths that lie behind or beneath them. The true beginning of vision for the surfacer comes when she looks into the lake and sees “not my reflection but my shadow” (S, p. 141). It is why the poet protests when her companion cannot see the drowned world at their feet and why—in “A Dialogue”—she can speak of her sister's perception of a lake as a dark swamp while for the poet it is like “clear day.”

It is the fear of what that unseen world may hold that is much of the source of terror for the “professional tourist” of “A Travel Piece.” Her awareness of a world under the surface makes her usual world of “spectacle” “… come to seem like a giant screen, flat and with pictures painted on it to create the illusion of solidity. If you walked up to it and kicked it, it would tear and your foot would go right through, into another space which Annette could only visualize as darkness, a night in which something she did not want to look at was hiding” (DG, p. 140). On the other hand, this world beneath the surface is the source of vision, of all visions—as it is of that longed-for one which concludes “Giving Birth,” the last story in Dancing Girls. Jeannie, the fictional projection of the I-narrator, discovers that it is partly to herself that she has given birth, and that in consequence she can see the world with new perception:

All she can see from the window is a building. It's an old stone building, heavy and Victorian with a copper roof oxidized to green. It's solid, hard, darkened by soot, dour, leaden. But as she looks at this building, so old and seemingly immutable, she sees it's made of water. Water, and some tenuous jellylike substance. Light flows through it from behind (the sun is coming up), the building is so thin, so fragile, that it quivers in the slight dawn wind. Jeannie sees that if the building is this way … then the rest of the world must be like this too, the entire earth, the rocks, people, trees. …

(DG, p. 244)

We must “look long enough” to rid ourselves of the distortion of light on surface, and move through the mirror, or the lake, or the picture. To do so would be like “Seeing the ice / as what it is, water” (“Woman Skating,” PU, p. 65). As happens so often in Atwood's landscapes, the apparently solid world will turn out to be a permeable one once the initial surface is broken through. Mirrors become pools; earth, water; substance, mist, [as in the “Progressive insanities of a pioneer,” ATC, p. 38]. … In such a world the best strategy may be to become one with the watery realm, [as in “Hypotheses: City,” PU, p. 37]. …

The quest from the earliest of Atwood's writing to the most recent work has been for a sacred space—which is why all maps are found inadequate. The space may be sought in the external world—in Canada, Mexico, Italy—but that world can at best offer entrances to the true locus, which is an interior one: “there are no destinations / apart from this.”

The discovery of the gateways to that internal world [may] become the final goal to which all other efforts are directed. Often—like Sarah sitting beside her sacred well—Atwood's characters discover that they are at the entrance already, and need only to recognize it and to find how to pass through. It is no accident that Sarah's is a sacrificial well: the act needed to open these portals usually is a sacrificial one. The need “to clear a space” in Surfacing demands the immolation of history; compulsive fasting, in The Edible Woman, brings Marian's loss of ego; Joan Foster enacts an almost ritualistic death of identity in Lady Oracle.

As “The Resplendent Quetzal” makes clear, the symbolism of sacrifice may be enough, the mythic pattern of the scapegoat that releases us from the sin of selfhood may still hold if intuitively understood. Sarah grasps that when, without knowing why, she steals the plaster Christ child from the crêche (“Separated from the dwarfish Virgin and Joseph, it didn't look quite so absurd” [DG, p. 168]) and throws it into the well. The moment of ritual sacrifice is re-enacted once more: the most primal of human urges is paid homage to. In this sacramental act, Sarah overcomes her deadening reserve and breaks through—we hope—into a new kind of existence.

The plaster Christ penetrates the depths for Sarah. The pool is breached once more. As always, it is not surfacing but submerging which is the crucial action, an action which often depends on subverting, even if it means the subversion of the whole of modern culture.

If one reaches the underwater world the future remains a secret of the deep: perhaps it goes beyond telling. The poem “Pre-Amphibian” suggests one possibility, however. It may be that the drowned world can be redeemed, the inundating waves pushed back. If that is so, then “when / these tides recede,” we will have made our next evolutionary step (recall that the surfacer is left pregnant with “the first true human; it must be born, allowed”); we will awaken and find ourselves

stranded, astounded
in a drying world
we flounder, the air
ungainly in our new lungs
with sunlight steaming merciless on the shores of morning

(“Pre-Amphibian,” CG, p. 64)


There may be a Position Five, for mystics; I postulate it but will not explore it here, since mystics do not as a rule write books.

(Surv., p. 39)

Ultimately the hidden world that Atwood seeks has been covered over by more surfaces than just the one provided by our modern condition. It has been obscured by something more pervasive, more inevitable, and more inescapable—language itself. The narrator of “Giving Birth” makes a story of her experience, creating a new character—Jeannie—in order to tell that story, but as she does this she cannot help but reflect upon the layers with which she covers over the events as she speaks of them. “The point …” she begins, about to explain how she has named her fictional counterpart after Stephen Foster's Jeannie, and then interrupts herself to say,

(for in language there are always these “points,” these reflections; this is what makes it so rich and sticky, this is why so many have disappeared beneath its dark and shining surface, why you should never try to see your own reflection in it; you will lean over too far, a strand of your hair will fall in and come out gold, and thinking it is gold all the way down, you yourself will follow, sliding into those outstretched arms, toward the mouth you think is opening to pronounce your name but instead, just before your eyes fill with pure sound will form a word you never heard before …)

(DG, p. 231)

Language itself, the medium in which we are doomed to attempt our accounts of reality, as well as the fictions we create from it when normal language does not represent our realities satisfactorily, and what the surfacer calls the “pure logic … secreted by my head” that produces language in the first place—all of these turn out to be both dangerous mirror and beckoning pool. Julia, the poet of “Lives of the Poets” realizes this: “But what was her mistake? Thinking she could save her soul, no doubt. By the word alone” (DG, p. 207). Still if Julia despairs, she also articulates most clearly Atwood's hopes for redemption: “Things would get better, time would reverse itself … silence would open, language would flow again” (DG, p. 206).

“Giving Birth” stands out among the short stories as the one which most shows a character achieving such a redeemed state. The protagonist longs for a vision, thinks it has not come, and then abruptly experiences it after all. She feels trapped by words in the story, but as she gives birth she experiences “finally … the disappearance of language” (DG, p. 241). As nowhere else in Atwood's writing, the sacred and the profane worlds seem able to coexist with one another, albeit briefly. And, at the same time, fiction and reality converge within the very fabric of the story itself.

“Giving Birth” is Atwood's only real venture into what is sometimes called metafiction—that self-reflexive mode that calls attention to its own fictive nature and thus to its own surfaces. Such fiction always offers its readers the fascinating paradox of the mirror/pool. It becomes more opaque since we begin to see the surfaces again that we have learned to ignore (language, structure, the narrator—all the inventions of story-telling and the processes involved in making a story coalesce—are brought to the foreground where we become aware of them). At the same time, such a story becomes unexpectedly transparent as well. Rather than simply seeing through the patterns of words on the page to the characters and the plot, we find ourselves seeing through those as well—to an author managing and manipulating those events, a living human being struggling to find and convey the meaning of her own human existence. As we progress through “Giving Birth,” we are aware not only of the narrative voice bringing Jeannie into being but of Atwood standing just behind that voice and creating it; not only of a narrator using Jeannie to talk about the birth of her child, but of Atwood using both narrator and Jeannie to talk about her own recent experiences of actually having given birth. This story completes the project of the first three novels: the subversion of conventional narrative. It shows the surfaces and it invites us to consider the unspoken words and the unarticulated reality that lie beneath.

Along with some of her contemporaries, Atwood sees every act of intellection as distancing from a more primary world. Looking back at the whole of her work, we can now recognize in Atwood's writing a persistently mystical vein—for she would have us not only be more aware of the primary reality we inhabit but of the primal material of the universe itself. She, like many mystics, does not want to renounce the world but rather to draw us more deeply into it, to pull us through its surfaces and into the crue and essential dimensions which have been waiting for us all this time.

We see now why the well itself is such a powerful symbol for Atwood. It emerges into our daily world but its existence begins in another, underground, realm. It is a source of the water that we must have to survive and that lies everywhere around us—hidden, yet at our feet. We can drink from such wells and we can drown in them, but we must learn to see them as the portals they are. And as the portals they may be.


  1. Margaret Atwood, “Polarities,” Dancing Girls (1977; rpt. Toronto: Bantam-Seal, 1978), p. 64. All further references to this work (DG) appear in the text.

    ———, The Circle Game (1966; rpt. Toronto: House of Anansi, 1967). All references to this work (CG) appear in the text.

    ———, The Animals in That Country (Toronto: Oxford Univ. Press, 1968). All references to this work (ATC) appear in the text.

    ———, The Edible Woman, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1969). All references to this work (EW) appear in the text.

    ———, The Journals of Susanna Moodie (Toronto: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970). All references to this work (JSM) appear in the text.

    ———, Procedures for Underground (Toronto: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970). All references to this work (PU) appear in the text.

    ———, Surfacing (1972; rpt. Don Mills: PaperJacks, 1973). All references to this work (S) appear in the text.

    ———, Survival (Toronto: House of Anansi, 1972). All references to this work (Surv.) appear in the text.

    ———, Lady Oracle (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976). All references to this work (LO) appear in the text.

    ———, Life Before Man (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1979). All references to this work (LBM) appear in the text.

  2. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949; rpt. Cleveland: World, 1956), p. 8. The relevance of the mythography of post-Jungians such as Campbell and Robert Graves for Atwood is evident. See especially, Josie P. Campbell, “The Woman as Hero in Margaret Atwood's Surfacing (Mosaic, 11, No. 3 [Spring 1978], 17–28) for connections between Surfacing and The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In many ways my essay and hers are complementary.

  3. Frank Davey, in “Atwood's Gorgon Touch” (Studies in Canadian Literature, 2 [1977], 146–63), makes a similar observation. Davey, however, sees the continued antitheses in Atwood's poetry as being between time, process, and decay on the one hand, and space, stasis, and the attempt to control on the other—a reworking of the Dionysiac/Apollonian dualism (Heraclitean and Platonic are the terms Davey prefers in From There to Here: A Guide to English-Canadian Literature since 1960 [1974]) within which he often locates authors for discussion.

  4. Campbell, p. 43. See pp. 40–46 et passim.

  5. Campbell, p. 41.

  6. Roberta Rubenstein, “Surfacing: Margaret Atwood's Journey to the Interior,” Modern Fiction Studies, 22, No. 3 (Autumn 1976), 398, 397.

  7. Compare Rubenstein, p. 396.

Ildikó de Papp Carrington (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6450

SOURCE: “Definitions of a Fool: Alice Munro's ‘Walking on Water’ and Margaret Atwood's Two Stories about Emma: ‘The Whirlpool Rapids’ and ‘Walking on Water,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 28, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 138–46.

[In the following essay, Carrington finds parallels between Alice Munro's “Walking on Water” and Margaret Atwood's “The Whirlpool Rapids” and “Walking on Water.”]

In 1974 Alice Munro published “Walking on Water” in Something I've Been Meaning To Tell You. In 1986 Margaret Atwood also published a short story entitled “Walking on Water.” Appearing originally in Chatelaine, it was republished in a longer version in the second, American edition of Bluebeard's Egg.1 In both Munro's and Atwood's stories, the titles' Biblical allusion refers to a young character who risks drowning by trying to walk on water. In both stories this attempt is ironically labeled the activity of a fool. These similarities, especially in the light of Atwood's later comment on Munro, constitute Atwood's invitation to compare her story with Munro's. In her introduction to The Best American Short Stories 1989, Atwood writes that, even if she read Munro's short stories in Braille, she would immediately “recognize” the “strength and distinctiveness” of her fellow-Canadian's unmistakable “voice” (xxii).

A comparison of the stories reveals that “Walking on Water” is one of a pair of Atwood stories alluding to Munro's story. In Bluebeard's Egg “Walking on Water” is the second of Two Stories About Emma. The first story about Emma, “The Whirlpool Rapids,” which originally appeared in Toronto and, in a different, Americanized version, in Redbook, also alludes to Munro's story.2 Through these allusions Atwood is once again self-consciously illustrating one of Northrop Frye's central principles, that all literature is ultimately derived from other literature (Secular Scripture 10). The allusions in the Emma stories thus become a satiric recontextualization of Munro's story, but the parallels between this pair of stories and Munro's story emphasize more than the radical differences between Munro's “Walking on Water” and Atwood's.3 Through synecdoche, the stylistic, narrative, and thematic differences between their definitions of a fool become a revelation of some of the most characteristic differences between Munro's fiction and Atwood's.

These differences are reflected in the two writers' conceptions of the purpose of their fiction. Munro sees her fiction as a series of assaults on life's unsolvable mysteries: “you … have to go back over and over again and mine the same material … and sometimes you get to it and sometimes you don't” (Struthers, “The Real Material” 12). But getting to it is neither an explanation nor a solution, for

the whole act of writing is more an attempt at recognition than of understanding, because I don't understand many things. I feel a kind of satisfaction in just approaching something that is mysterious and important. Then writing is the art of approach and recognition.

(Gardiner 178)

In sharp contrast, Atwood conceives of her writing as a combination of two activities, playing intellectual games and instructing the reader. Both of these activities imply that she understands things but the reader does not: “people don't realize … that a lot of what [writers] do is play. You know, playing around with. That doesn't mean it isn't serious …” (Struthers, “An Interview with Margaret Atwood” 24). Thus, if an imperceptive interviewer misses a serious point, Atwood quickly cautions her: “you have to watch that kind of playing around” (Brans 143). “Playing around” includes pyrotechnic poetic punning and playing games with complex patterns of wide-ranging allusions often combined with a sharply satirical didacticism.4 Atwood repeatedly argues that the writer always has a message because the writer's “engagement is unavoidable” (Hancock, “Margaret Atwood” 271).5 In contrast, when Munro is asked whether her fiction contains any message, she insists, “No lessons. No lessons ever” (Hancock, “Alice Munro” 223).6 Munro's “Walking on Water” and Atwood's Two Stories About Emma epitomize these differences of purpose.

By maintaining a strictly limited, third-person point of view, Munro's “Walking on Water” immerses the reader in the deeply unsettling emotional experience of Mr. Lougheed, an elderly retired druggist in a West Coast Canadian town in the sixties. Eugene, his only friend, a young philosophy student recovering from a mental breakdown, tries to walk on water. When he disappears after his attempt fails, Mr. Lougheed fears that Eugene may have repeated his experiment and drowned. Early in the story, when Mr. Lougheed and Eugene discuss the latter's plans to walk on water, Eugene cites the example of people who “have walked on hot coals” without incurring any burns (76). His purpose is to convince the skeptical old man that the world of “external reality … responds to more methods of control than we are conditioned to accept” (76). But Mr. Lougheed insists that he cannot believe such things unless he sees them with his own eyes. In reply, Eugene cites another example, “Road to Emmaus,” referring to the passage in the Gospel of St. Luke in which the resurrected Christ meets two of His disciples on the road to Emmaus, but they fail to recognize Him as one who has returned from the dead (76).

In the first Emma story, “The Whirlpool Rapids,” Atwood alludes to both of Eugene's examples, walking on coals and the road to Emmaus. The initial allusion occurs when Emma, a college student working at Niagara Falls, is persuaded by a friend to participate in a rubber-raft test “on the dangerous Niagara Whirlpool Rapids” (124). “A bit of a daredevil,” she excitedly compares the test's challenge to a “religious trial: walking barefoot over the coals, ordeal by water” (123–24). Atwood's second allusion to Munro's story occurs in the context of two other allusions, a historical allusion to the Canadian invention of the telephone and a self-reflexive reference to her earlier fiction. The raft test is launched on the American side of the Falls because the Canadian authorities have “refused permission” for the “hazardous” test (124). Although Emma does not know the reason until later, the first-person narrator remarks that their refusal “wouldn't have stopped her” (124). In a passage deleted from the Americanized Redbook version, the narrator explains why: Emma, “like many” Canadians, “considered her fellow Canadians to be a lacklustre bunch,” as illustrated by their failure to recognize the importance of “the telephone when Alexander Bell first invented it” (124–25). Bell, a Scottish immigrant in Canada, said that he “conceived” the telephone at his home in Brantford, Ontario, in 1874. But when he tried to secure financial backing for his invention from Canadian businessmen, such as the Honorable George Brown, the influential owner and editor of the Toronto Globe, he did not succeed because they did not believe that his invention would be commercially viable (Bruce 483, 158, 165). By including this allusion in a story that originally appeared in Toronto, a magazine published by the Toronto Globe and Mail, Atwood sharpens her satiric point.7 But Americans who assume that Bell invented the telephone in Boston are unlikely to recognize her historical allusion and its function in preparing for her second, punning allusion to Munro's story.

When the raft “buckle[s]” and flings its passengers into the raging rapids, four of them drown. But Emma, although “sucked” underwater, does not (126). Surfacing and surviving like the narrators of Surfacing and Lady Oracle, she swims to the rocky shore. After this tongue-in-cheek, self-reflexive passage, Atwood introduces the second allusion to Munro, which combines the two references to walking barefoot over coals and the road to Emmaus. Realizing that she has lost her shoes in the water and wondering how she is “going to get over the rocks without” them, Emma begins to walk barefoot along a road (127). On this road she encounters two people who, although she is “cut,” “bruised and scraped,” and dressed in “ripped” and soaking clothes, fail to “notice anything unusual about her” (127). “‘What country am I in?’ Emma ask[s] them. ‘Canada,’ [says] the man” (127). Atwood believes that “words have been exhausted and you have to re-energize them by putting them in different contexts—contexts that we don't ordinarily put them in” (O'Brien 183). In this carefully prepared context—the road, the two Canadians walking along and failing to recognize the miraculous survivor of a fatal accident—“Emma ask[s]” becomes a typically outrageous Atwoodian pun, recontextualizing Munro's allusion to Emmaus. Emma, too, has just returned from the dead, but the lacklustre Canadians who did not recognize Bell's miraculous invention probably would not recognize Jesus Christ Himself.

The title of “Walking on Water” obviously alludes to Christ's miraculous feat, but the title of Munro's story and Atwood's second story is not the only allusion to Christ in either story. The character who informs Mr. Lougheed of Eugene's plan to walk on water concludes that Eugene is “either cracked” or “Jesus Christ” (68). Important not only for its content but also for the chronology it introduces, this conversation occurs on Friday, and Eugene makes his abortive attempt on Sunday morning. Watched by spectators who resemble New Testament characters, a blind woman and a hippie “wrapped” in a “bedspread like a Biblical woman,” he crawls underwater along a pier for a few moments, then emerges, addresses the spectators, and later disappears. The chronology, the crowd of spectators, and the description of Eugene's strangely empty room after his disappearance suggest the climactic events of Holy Week and Christ's empty tomb after His resurrection, foreshadowed by Eugene's earlier reference to Emmaus.

Similarly, in Atwood's “Walking on Water” Emma conceives her plan to walk on water because she hopes to earn the title of “Miss Jesus” (144). Vacationing on the Caribbean island of St. Eunice with Robbie, her married lover, she hears the tale of a native who at low tide walked along an underwater ridge of coral and lava to another island and was therefore hailed “as Jesus Christ” (137). Convinced by her earlier survival at Niagara Falls that she is invulnerable, she challenges Robbie, a middle-aged archaeology professor “writing a book on comparative tombs,” to attempt this feat with her (134). Entering the water of the bay and finding it “up to her armpits,” she wonders how Jesus had managed to walk on water: “Jesus Christ must have been a short man,” and she is tall (138–39). However, Emma succeeds in walking along the reef to the other island, but Robbie, who is “swept off the reef” and “out to sea” by the current, has to be rescued by a native in a rowboat (140). All this, as in Munro's story, is watched by a Biblical crowd of spectators: “The hill overlooking the bay was black with people …” (140). And like Munro, Atwood also alludes to Easter at the end of her second story. Robbie, still in shock after his narrow escape from a watery tomb, resembles “an Easter card” (142).

But, as already indicated by Atwood's satirical allusion to Emmaus in “The Whirlpool Rapids,” these parallel Biblical allusions do not function in the same way in the two stories. Munro's allusions create the mysterious aura surrounding Eugene's failed experiment. Her story is an intricately narrated puzzle in which the tensions and mysteries experienced by her watching protagonist, Mr. Lougheed, are never fully resolved. By referring to Munro's story, Atwood's Biblical allusions sharpen the edge of her satiric knife against the whetstone of contrast. Instead of failing in a mystical experiment like Eugene, Emma succeeds in an athletic feat, all the more astonishing because of her sex. Thus, Atwood's story is the clearly developed exemplum of an ironic argument about gender roles, one of the central topics of her fiction, her poetry, and her criticism. And instead of limiting her point of view to her protagonist, Atwood uses a first-person narrator whose comments—as already indicated—frame and interpret the action. These differences in the function of the Biblical allusions, in characterization, and in point of view and narrative technique produce very different definitions of “a fool,” the key word in both stories.

Although both stories label the attempt to walk on water the activity of a fool, in Munro's story, in spite of Eugene's failure, this realistic initial definition disintegrates. At the story's climax, Mr. Lougheed suspects frightening possibilities, although he never consciously understands that recognizing a fool might mean recognizing his own disturbed self. In contrast, in Atwood's story, the definition accumulates several distinct layers of meaning. At the climax of her story, there are three kinds of fools, but the satiric twist of the conclusion introduces a fourth kind. Thus, both stories are ironic, but in very different ways. By limiting our point of view to Mr. Lougheed's, Munro immerses us in the confusing subjectivity of his emotional experience. Atwood, while maintaining her narrator's objective distance from Emma's experiences, manipulates them to tell us what she wants us to understand.

The nature of Munro's narration, inseparable from the nature of her protagonist's experience, makes us feel what he feels. His surname, Lougheed, suggests that he will avoid all foolishness, especially foolishness involving water. “Lough” in Irish means a bay or inlet, and “heed” connotes the realistic prudence naturally characteristic of an old-fashioned country druggist. Thus, he sees Eugene's attempt to walk on water as a fool's experiment. But from the story's beginning, Munro undermines Mr. Lougheed's sense of reality in several ways.

His age and the setting of the action are the two most obvious factors that create his disturbing sense of dislocation. Bewildered by the radical upheaval of the sixties, he repeatedly fears that he, too, is seen as a fool. For example, when he comes upon two hippies publicly copulating in the hall of the house where he lives, he is not upset by the act itself because, in his rough rural childhood, very similar to Munro's own childhood in rural Ontario, he has seen much worse; but he is shocked by the hippies' reaction to his being their involuntary witness: flaunting themselves, they laugh at him, “not only unashamed but full of derision” (70). This experience is narrated in a flashback to a memory that interrupts the chronological narration of Mr. Lougheed's visit to Eugene's room to discuss his plan to walk on water.

Such flashbacks to Mr. Lougheed's memories are the third—and psychologically the most significant—way in which Munro creates his sense of dislocation. These flashbacks interrupt, complicate, and confuse the chronological narration of the actual events of the weekend. Intensely vivid but disjointed, Mr. Lougheed's memories are very confusing because he cannot always distinguish between what he remembers and what he has dreamt in a recurring dream that he has had “on and off since middle age” and now recalls in fragments that repeatedly intrude into his perception of external reality (81). The association linking his memories and his recurring dream to actual events is the disturbing similarity between Eugene and Frank McArter, the main character in Mr. Lougheed's dreams and childhood memories.

Although Eugene is both spiritually serene and enormously erudite—his room is filled with well-used books on philosophy, religion, psychology, and science—the fact that he is still “recovering” from a long mental “breakdown” suggests that he might be insane, a fool in the sense of a madman (73). Frank McArter was a mad young man who murdered his parents and perhaps drowned himself. Eugene's plans to walk on water not only expose him to the same danger of drowning but are based on ideas that Mr. Lougheed, although impressed by Eugene's erudition, finds frighteningly irrational. Arguing that “the mind can work in some ways to control matter,” Eugene wants to test this principle by trying to walk on water (76): “Now suppose I step out on the water and my apparent body—this body—sinks down like a stone, there is a possibility that my other body will rise, and I will be able to look down into the water and watch myself” (77). Mr. Lougheed rejects this possibility with scorn: “Watch yourself drown” (77). But Munro's discontinuous narration, scrambling past and present, suggests that Mr. Lougheed's own memories and dreams will give him a disturbing glimpse of the same mystery hidden under the surface of “external reality” that Eugene's experiment is designed to reveal (76).

In sharp contrast to Munro's method of narration, Atwood uses a first-person narrator in both stories about Emma. Identified as one of Emma's women friends, who in one passage becomes a concerned chorus, as in Faulkner's “A Rose for Emily,” this narrator performs many important functions.8 She introduces the illustrative plots of the stories with a clearly defined thesis; she speaks as Atwood's persona, thinking for her protagonist and defining the symbolic role of both the protagonist and of a minor character; and she interprets both plots, not only in running commentary but also in carefully organized concluding summaries.

Like a briskly efficient essayist, the narrator begins the first story with her thesis sentence: “There are some women who seem to be born without fear …,” but “there aren't very many of them around” (120). There aren't very many around in Atwood's fiction, either, but in contrast to the immensely vulnerable heroines of Bodily Harm and The Handmaid's Tale, Emma seems to live in “a bubble of invulnerability” (142). She is a character, Atwood has told an interviewer, “who doesn't think a lot,” but “does things.” Such an active character interests her for a double reason, first, because Emma's personality is the direct opposite of “female characters [who are] … fearful and timorous.” A physically “foolhardy” woman who “would do anything,” no matter how dangerous, is a woman who “goes against [her] socialization” (Hancock, “Margaret Atwood” 272). Second, as Elaine Risley, the wilderness-bred narrator of Cat's Eye, Atwood's latest novel, demonstrates, female socialization fascinates Atwood for personal reasons. Her nomadic childhood in the Canadian bush, where her father did entomological research for the government, made her “someone who was introduced to conventional social roles too late ever to mistake them for natural states of being” (Schreiber 208). “I was not socialized the way a lot of women describe themselves as being socialized. … I was not told I couldn't do things because I was a girl” (Lyons 69–70).

Thus, Atwood's categorizing generalizations—in the introduction of “The Whirlpool Rapids” and in several interviews—define not only Emma's character but also the narrator's. Like many other Atwood characters, for example, the Everywoman-narrator of The Handmaid's Tale, Emma is a flat symbolic character, whose function is to embody a thesis about female socialization and gender roles. The narrator is Atwood's persona, who does her protagonist's thinking for her, explaining in the first story how Emma “got like that”—convinced of her invulnerability—and, in the satiric conclusion of the second story, how ironically she changed (121). The narrator also defines the symbolic function of a minor character, identifying Bill, the friend who persuades Emma to take the raft trip, as “one of those agents of Fate who have intruded on Emma's life from time to time and departed from it, mission accomplished” (123). At the end of the story, narrative mission accomplished, Atwood discards narration. In a climactically organized summary, she analyzes the effects of her protagonist's experience: “Emma has told me that she learned several things from this experience. First,. … Second, … third. … But the most obvious effect of the accident on Emma was …” (128–29). Atwood repeats this pattern at the end of the second story, “Walking on Water”: “From this episode, she told me, Emma learned that …” (142). Atwood's point of view, her narrative method, her argumentative framework for the narration, and her insistent repetition of the verb learned make her two stories typically didactic.

The contrast between Munro's narrative method and Atwood's is also apparent in their definitions of the fools in their respective stories. The tension between Mr. Lougheed and Eugene in Munro's story motivates the question the old man asks Eugene before his experiment: “Aren't you bothered by the thought that you might make a fool of yourself in front of … people?” (78). Eugene's reply reveals that, unlike Mr. Lougheed, he does not fear public humiliation: “That isn't an expression that means anything to me, really. Make a fool of yourself. How can anybody do that? How can you make a fool? Show a fool, yes, expose the fool, but isn't the fool just yourself, isn't it there all the time?” (78). After Eugene fails to walk on water, he “gently” apologizes to the crowd of spectators on the beach: “I haven't reached the point I hoped I might have reached, in my control. However if this has been disappointing for you it has been very interesting and wonderful for me and I have learned something important” (87). Unlike Atwood's narrator, he does not say what he has learned. Instead, he wanders away, and Mr. Lougheed, who has been anxiously watching Eugene's experiment, goes off to a café.

There his recent anxiety makes him recall the end of his recurrent dream about Frank. When Frank murdered his parents, the men in the community went out to search for him. In his dream Mr. Lougheed, a little boy accompanying his father on the search, felt an urgently growing sense “that there was something they were going to find” (82). At the climax of the story, he suddenly recalls standing on a broken bridge and looking “down” at “a boy's body spread out, face down,” in the river below, but he does not know whether he is remembering what he actually found as a boy or only what he dreamt (90). When he returns to Eugene's room and finds it empty, this confused image of a drowned young man fuels his fear that Eugene's disappearance might mean that he, too, has drowned himself.

But there is a second, much more significant associative link between Mr. Lougheed's past and his present that he does not consciously recognize. The drowned male figure of his dream is not only Frank, and perhaps Eugene, but also Mr. Lougheed himself. Just as Eugene hoped to look down into the water to watch his own body floating below him, in his dream Mr. Lougheed looks down and sees himself drowning in confusion in an alien environment, not only the strange new world of the sixties but also the unfamiliar internal world of his own memories, intruding into the present and paradoxically both distorting and illuminating his perception of external reality. His lack of recognition thus adds a second meaning to Eugene's earlier allusion to Emmaus. Although the resurrected Christ appeared to His disciples on the road to Emmaus, “their eyes were kept from recognizing Him” (Luke 24:16). In much the same way, Mr. Lougheed's eyes are kept from recognizing the similarity between himself and his persistent memory of the drowned dream figure. But, although he does not consciously recognize this parallel, he is sufficiently disturbed by his fear of Eugene's possible suicide to doubt the firmness of his own grasp on reality. He concludes that Eugene's “mind was disturbed,” but the sequence of ideas and emotions that has led him to this conclusion leaves him also so disturbed that at the end of the story he wonders if he can go on (91). So Eugene's question, “isn't the fool just yourself, isn't it there all the time?,” finally receives a disquietingly affirmative answer: the hidden fool is carried within.

In Atwood's “Walking on Water” the identity of the fool is defined in four different ways. The first three definitions support the thesis of Atwood's story; until the unexpected conclusion, the gender roles seem to subvert the usual stereotypes of the physically courageous man and the weak and timid woman. This subversion is first suggested in “The Whirlpool Rapids” in a passage that functions as an ironic link to “Walking on Water.” When Emma, a coffee-shop waitress at a honeymooners' motel in Niagara Falls, wonders what the sight of the Falls is supposed to do for the honeymooners' sexuality, she theorizes that “the sight of all that water falling over a cliff” might make the bridegrooms “feel more potent” and the brides “quivery and weak-kneed in the face of such brute inhuman force, a quality they wistfully hope that their bridegrooms may prove to possess” (122). But because contemporary newlyweds have already had intercourse with each other, she concludes that the brides do not cherish any illusions about their husband's sexual force.

Such sexual force as Emma's lover, her former college professor, possesses is “excited by his own erudition” when he lectures to her about the “maze pattern painted” on a grave in an island cemetery (136). In this cemetery scene in “Walking on Water,” Atwood develops another important contrast between her characters and Munro's. Instead of the spiritually serene, wide-ranging erudition of Eugene, which makes him difficult for Mr. Lougheed to understand, Atwood makes Robbie's erudition narrow. He is a grumpy, self-centered specialist, “a leading man in his field, which was not large” (134). But, discounting his “grumpiness” because she believes that he is “more spiritually mature than she” is and “therefore difficult to understand,” Emma listens docilely to his explanation that “mazes had originally been the entrances or exits to burial mounds … to confuse the dead, so they'd never get out” (134–36). The flattering success of this cemetery lecture inspires him to “make love to Emma in the middle of the afternoon,” which, the narrator ironically observes, “she was still young enough to find novel” (136).

To emphasize her subversion of gender stereotypes, Atwood makes Robbie a male chauvinist who believes that women cannot take care of themselves. He accepts Emma's “challenge” to walk on water because “she'd need someone to keep an eye on her, in case she got into trouble” (138). Preparing for their expedition, she buys sun hats, pink for herself and blue for Robbie. These two symbolic colors, which initiate the socialization of babies at birth, become ironic when Emma, walking along the underwater reef, turns around and sees that it is Robbie who has gotten into trouble. Hearing his faint call for help, she sees “his light blue sun hat” and his “weakly” flailing arm (140). When she yells for help, the only person foolish enough to risk the rapidly turning tide is literally a fool: Horace, a stubborn, “feeble-minded” native, “strong as an ox,” rows out to rescue the professor as the watching crowd cheers him on (141).

After Robbie's rescue, his earlier reference to the dead getting out of their tombs is ironically echoed by his own appearance. He looks “like half a corpse … wan and … pastel as an Easter card, his red hair making his face look whitish green” (142). This color combination suggests an allusion to Piero della Francesca's “Resurrection,” in which the eerie paleness of Christ's face is emphasized by His red hair and pastel robe.9 This allusion, just as satiric as the one to Emmaus, shows that Robbie's “resurrection” demonstrates, not his superhuman powers, but his human helplessness. So, although the local bartender calls Emma “a damn fool” for attempting to walk on water, Robbie is obviously a bigger fool, “humiliated by the whole episode” of being shown up by a young woman and of being rescued by the local idiot (141–42). In dramatic contrast to Eugene's calm apology to his public in Munro's story, here the erudite man who tries to walk on water is publicly humiliated by his failure. Thus, all three characters, Emma, Robbie, and Horace the idiot, are fools, but in different senses.

However, Atwood's story does not end here. In the aftermath of Robbie's rescue, Emma becomes a fourth kind of fool. To prepare for this final ironic twist, Atwood introduces the Bluebeard's Egg version of the story with an episode that acquires its satiric significance only at the end of the story, for which it prepares by analogy. Emma, traveling alone on a boat going up the Nile, is accosted by an Arab, who, “puzzled by the cultural discrepancies that had placed a young woman on a boat, wearing peculiar clothing and not enough of it,” mistakes her for a prostitute. Watched by his laughing male friends, he offers her money and tries to kiss her. To avoid these attentions, Emma jumps overboard, but, “as she'd known” she would be, she is immediately rescued (133). Now the men who laughed at her discuss her respectfully. “They hadn't believed a young Western woman traveling alone could ever have been serious enough about what they considered her honour to risk death for it” (133). Although Emma knows that she hasn't risked “anything at all,” to the men on the boat her symbolic “gesture” defines her as what they believe a woman should be (133). She is conforming to their cultural stereotype for her gender.

This introductory episode is connected to the main narrative in the Caribbean by the comments of the Faulknerian narrators' chorus.10 Deploring Emma's lack of self-protectiveness in her relationships with men, “Emma's friends,” pluralized as “we,” recognize what she does not: that her “fearless” behavior exposes her not only to physical danger but also to psychological damage from the “awful” men “she adores,” of whom Robbie is only one example (133–34). However, the irony that the conclusion of the Caribbean incident reveals is not the damage that Robbie does to Emma, but the damage that she inflicts upon herself. For at the end of the story, Emma, just as in the introductory Nile scene, once again conforms to the gender stereotype that her daredevil personality gave only the illusion of subverting.

Her reaction to Robbie's close shave is guilt. To expiate this guilt, she meekly reverts to a woman's traditionally subservient role. As the narrator insistently nudges us to notice, “Emma, like most people, rapidly falls into stock postures in times of stress” (141). In this posture, she becomes her lover's solicitous nurse, anxiously calling a doctor, “coax[ing]” Robbie to eat, brewing him “weak tea,” baking him cookies, “an extra effort in the heat,” and “grovel[ing]” (142). She even develops a gnawing anxiety not only about his future safety but about that of all the other awful men she later falls in love with. Thus, Atwood shows that Emma may be physically invulnerable, but not emotionally. For example, because Robbie is married, he has avoided committing himself. So he has “never [been] averse to having [Emma] join him [on his archaeological field trips], as long as she paid her own way” like a “liberated woman” (134). Recontextualized, this contemporary catchword becomes a heavily ironic antonym, for Emma is not “liberated” at all. When she falls in love, even this embodiment of female machismo becomes a fool. As the typically Atwoodian willing victim, she is the hidden fool in this story: “Robbie was a kind and agreeable man whom she loved, and she'd almost killed him” (141). The pink hat fits, after all.11

Atwood's rhetorical insistence on demonstrating that Emma's physical courage does not mean that she has succeeded in totally transcending her socialization forms the most significant contrast between her two stories and Munro's story. Often torn between creating a fictional world and proving an argument, Atwood makes her “Walking on Water” an ironically didactic design: the reader learns what Emma has not learned. In Munro's story, neither Mr. Lougheed nor the reader ever finds out what Eugene has learned underwater. But, although this mysteriously important epiphany is denied to us and although Mr. Lougheed is left struggling to solve the equally mysterious workings of his own mind, Eugene can be seen as a writer-figure because he does what Munro says that she herself does when she writes: he approaches “something that is mysterious and important” (Gardiner 178). Like Munro, Eugene recognizes a hidden reality concealed under the external surface of life, but Munro refuses to spell out her character's symbolic meaning for the reader.12 “What I most admire,” she has told an interviewer, “is where the fictionalizing is as unobtrusive as possible, where there has been as strong an attempt, as honest an attempt, as one can make to get at what is really there” (Struthers, “The Real Material” 6). Atwood's incisive definitions and Munro's determination to smudge and shun definitions are the hallmarks of their respective fictional techniques and purposes.


  1. The two editions of Bluebeard's Egg and the two versions of Atwood's “Walking on Water” are both different. The first, 1983 Canadian edition of Bluebeard's Egg contains “Betty” and “The Sin Eater.” In the second, 1986 American edition of Bluebeard's Egg, these stories are replaced by Two Stories About Emma: “The Whirlpool Rapids” and “Walking on Water,” and by “In Search of the Rattlesnake Plantain.” The shorter, Chatelaine version of “Walking on Water” begins with the tenth paragraph of the Bluebeard's Egg version. Atwood obviously added the first ten paragraphs to the Bluebeard's Egg version to make “Walking on Water” a sequel to “The Whirlpool Rapids” and to introduce the story's major action by preparing for its satirical conclusion. Unless otherwise indicated, all references in the text are to the Bluebeard's Egg version.

  2. The Toronto version of “The Whirlpool Rapids” and the Bluebeard's Egg version are identical except for their paragraphing. The Redbook version of the story is different from these versions in two main ways. The first difference is in Emma's characterization. The end of the Redbook version characterizes Emma as far more selfish and strange than the other versions do. After surviving the accident in the Whirlpool Rapids at Niagara Falls, Emma knows “how very little difference she makes in the general scheme of things. …” As a result, in the Redbook version she develops into an unpleasant character who gets what her friends want at auctions and who “trashe[s]” four marriages, only to discard the man “in every case” as not “right for her after all” (55). The last paragraph of this version also describes Emma's skin as remaining strangely unwrinkled because she has been immunized by her “small injection of death” (55).

    The second difference between the Redbook version and the others is in their tone and audience. The Toronto and the Bluebeard's Egg version, which contains material deleted from the Redbook version, is more satirical and more clearly aimed at a Canadian audience than the American magazine version is. The material deleted from the Redbook version includes a satirical paragraph about “the association of Niagara Falls with honeymoons,” and additional details about the honeymoon motel where Emma works; examples of “religious trials”; a satirical comment about Canadians' failure to recognize the importance of the telephone “when Alexander Bell first invented it”; and some changes in the list of things that Emma learned from her Niagara Falls experience. Unless otherwise indicated, all references in the text are to the Bluebeard's Egg version.

  3. In discussing Bluebeard's Egg, Barbara Godard points out that critics have analyzed Atwood's “parodic recontextualization of a wide range of texts …” (51). But she mentions neither the Emma stories nor Alice Munro.

  4. For the range of Atwood's allusions, see Carrington, Margaret Atwood and Her Works 4.

  5. For a few other examples, see Atwood, “A Disneyland of the Soul” 129; “An End to Audience?” 353; Gillen 241; Lyons 81; and Van Gelder 90.

  6. For another example of Munro's rejection of any didactic purpose, see “What Is Real?” 36.

  7. The telephone is not an isolated example of a Canadian invention marketed abroad. In Continental Divide Seymour Martin Lipset quotes Herschel Hardin's conclusion that “private enterprise in Canada ‘has been a monumental failure’ in developing new technology and industry. Canadian business has rarely been involved in creating industries to process inventions by Canadians, who have had to go abroad to get their discoveries marketed” (Hardin 102–05; Lipset 121–22).

  8. Atwood says that she “read Faulkner at quite an early age” and that she considers him the “American author who has had the most influence on Canadian writing …” (Gillen 233).

  9. For a similar reference to a religious Christmas card, see “Scarlet Ibis,” Bluebeard's Egg (1986) 213, 225, and my discussion of its meaning in Margaret Atwood and Her Works 69, 70–71.

  10. Because the narrators' chorus begins the Chatelaine version of the story, its comments become the thesis that the story illustrates.

  11. The satiric conclusion of Atwood's “Walking on Water” reveals the important reason for her deletion of the Redbook ending of “The Whirlpool Rapids” from the Bluebeard's Egg version, in which the two stories appear together. The Redbook Emma who “trashe[s]” marriages only to discard the husbands is certainly not the same character who in “Walking on Water” falls in love with “awful” married men who do not want to marry her. The Redbook Emma is a victimizer; the Bluebeard's Egg Emma is a victim.

  12. For a more detailed discussion of the importance of this story in defining Munro's evolving conception of the writer, see Carrington, Controlling the Uncontrollable 117–22.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. Bluebeard's Egg and Other Stories. Toronto: McClelland, 1983.

———. Bodily Harm. Toronto: McClelland, 1981.

———. Cat's Eye. Toronto: McClelland, 1988.

———. “A Disneyland of the Soul.” The Writer and Human Rights. Ed. Toronto Arts Group for Human Rights. Garden City, NY: Anchor/Doubleday, 1983. 129–32.

———. “An End to Audience.” Second Words. Toronto: Anansi, 1982. 334–57.

———. The Handmaid's Tale. Toronto: McClelland, 1985.

———. “Introduction: Reading Blind.” The Best American Short Stories 1989. Ed. Margaret Atwood with Shannon Ravenel. Boston: Houghton, 1989. xi-xxiii.

———. Lady Oracle. Toronto: McClelland, 1976.

———. Surfacing. Toronto: McClelland, 1972.

———. Two Stories About Emma: “The Whirlpool Rapids” and “Walking on Water.” Bluebeard's Egg and Other Stories. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1986. 120–43.

———. “Walking on Water.” Chatelaine Oct. 1986: 68, 121–22.

———. “The Whirlpool Rapids.” Toronto June 1986: 58, 75, 77, 79. Insert in Toronto Globe and Mail 30 May 1986.

———. “The Whirlpool Rapids.” Redbook Nov. 1986: 51–52, 55, 57.

Brans, Jo. “Margaret Atwood: ‘Using What You're Given.’” Listen to the Voices: Conversations with Contemporary Writers. Dallas: Southern Methodist UP, 1988. 125–47.

Bruce, Robert V. Bell: Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude. Boston: Little, 1973.

Carrington, Ildikó de Papp. Controlling the Uncontrollable: The Fiction of Alice Munro. DeKalb: Northern Illinois UP, 1989.

———. Margaret Atwood and Her Works. Toronto: ECW Press, 1987.

Frye, Northrop. The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1976.

Gardiner, Jill. Untitled Interview with Alice Munro. Appendix. “The Early Short Stories of Alice Munro.” MA Thesis, New Brunswick U 1973. 169–82.

Gillen, Francis X., moderator. “A Conversation: margaret Atwood and Students.” Margaret Atwood: Vision and Forms. Ed. Kathryn Van Spanckeren and Jan Garden Castro. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1988. 233–43.

Godard, Barbara. “Palimpsest: Margaret Atwood's Bluebeard's Egg.Recherches Anglaises et Nord-Américaines 20 (1987): 51–60.

Hancock, Geoff. “Alice Munro.” Canadian Writers at Work. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1987. 187–224.

———. “Margaret Atwood.” Canadian Writers at Work. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1987. 265–87.

Hardin, Herschel. A Nation Unaware: The Canadian Economic Culture. Vancouver: T. J. Douglas, 1974.

Lipset, Seymour Martin. Continental Divide: The Values and Institutions of the United States and Canada. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Lyons, Bonnie. “An Interview with Margaret Atwood.” Shenandoah 37.2 (1987): 69–89.

Munro, Alice. “Walking on Water.” Something I've Been Meaning To Tell You. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1974. 67–92.

———. “What Is Real?” Canadian Forum Sept. 1982: 5, 36. (Rpt. in Making It New: Contemporary Canadian Stories. Ed. John Metcalf. Toronto: Methuen, 1982. 223–26.)

O'Brien, Peter, ed. “Margaret Atwood.” With Barbara Leckie and Peter O'Brien. So To Speak: Interviews with Contemporary Canadian Writers. Montreal: Véhicule Press, 1987. 174–93.

Schreiber, Le Anne. “Female Trouble.” Vogue Jan. 1986: 208–09.

Struthers, J. R. (Tim). “An Interview with Margaret Atwood.” Essays on Canadian Writing 6 (1977): 18–27.

———. “The Real Material: An Interview with Alice Munro.” Probable Fictions: Alice Munro's Narrative Acts. Ed. Louis K. MacKendrick. Downsview, Ont.: ECW Press, 1983. 5–36.

Van Gelder, Lindsy. “Margaret Atwood.” Ms. Jan. 1987: 49–59, 90.

Sandra Nelson (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: “Blood Taboo: A Response to Margaret Atwood's ‘Lives of the Poets’,” in Mid-American Review, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1992, pp. 111–15.

[In the following essay, Nelson considers the poetic language of Atwood's “Lives of the Poets.”]

I am a poet and represent an interpretive community of poets when I read. When I read the name Margaret Atwood as the author of a story, I know I am about to read words which I will interpret as poetic. I read Atwood's line, “An ice cube would be nice. Image of the Coke-and-ice” (“Lives of the Poets” 183). I will read it to myself aloud creating the poetry I expect. I pick “ice,” “nice,” and “Coke-and-ice.” I recall from the ancient poetry cave a couple lines from Gertrude Stein's prose, “To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays”: “And it was ice and it was so. / And it was dates and it was snow” (23). I interpret Atwood's and Stein's lines as musical pleasure, as an intercourse in my ear. I am a poet and I am always creating sensations from words. I write, “Like hips that part, parts can part like lips that part.” I feel “lips” like snakes in my teeth. I feel the “part, parts can part,” like parts moving together and apart, like lips moving to part. I am a poet and have given myself pleasure with sounds. I project webs of sound patterns over “Lives of the Poets.” I soak on the sounds of the words, “balled at the back” (183). I tease myself with the “i” sounds in, “Inn? Instead it's this” (183).

I represent an interpretive community of poets when I read. I project patterns. I took creative writing classes on how to pattern. I teach creative writing classes on how to pattern. “Pattern” is a poetic pattern here. I project a blood pattern on “Lives of the Poets.” Here is my pattern: “bloody nosebleed,” “nosebleed,” “bloodstain,” and “blood” (183). As I read, “blood” is the unifying drumbeat among the jazz of improvisation. I literally swing on the sounds of syllables. My blood beats in my ears. My blood flows behind my nose, down my legs.

I am menstruating. I represent the interpretive community of women. “Lives of the Poets” is about a woman who happens to be a poet. She could be an artist, housewife, welder, politician or Black. What is important is that she is a woman, and that the story is also written by a woman. As a representative of the interpretive community of women, I feel I can give a more valid reading of Atwood, the woman writer. The story opens with Julia lying on the bathroom floor with a “bloody nosebleed” (183). The first thing I think about is that a nosebleed is always bloody. I recall my bloody menstruation. Menstruation is always bloody. I think about blood. It is not a mere drumming in a poetic ear. Blood is what makes women. “Soon you will become a woman. You will know when you find blood in your panties. Here is a Kotex to wear when it happens.” (A white towel—the bloodstain spreading through it.)

At Edison Junior High I ran out of class, a red stain on my skirt, and a red streak down my leg (“Horrors, an accident”). My nickel jammed into the sanitary napkin machine—the safe blue box dropped down.

Menstruation was frightening when blood-loss always meant something was wrong. Womanhood still carries this in it. Throughout the world menstruating women are often set apart as if menstruation were an illness. “Don't pay any attention to her; she's on the rag.”

The metaphor of blood has personal meaning for women. It is the advent of menstruation when people are transformed into women (the opposite sex). In Atwood's story Julia is opposite, or not male. In Julia's presence the men make “furtive glances at one another, young beardy faces, one pipesmokes, they write footnotes, on their way up, why do we always get stuck with the visiting poet,” they ask (184). I interpret this to mean, “Why do we [men] get stuck with a woman? Women are opposite, and talk crazily about the moon and cycles.”

“Julia moved her head. The blood trickled gently down the back of her throat, thick and purple-tasting” (184). I imagine myself as Julia, turning from the other, and swallowing down the difference. Yet it is her poetry, her womanness, her blood that they have paid her for: “she would rise and move to the microphone, smiling, she would open her mouth and blood would start to drip from her nose. Would they clap? … Would they think it was part of the poem?” (184). Or would they “pretend not to notice” while she fumbled through nickels, Kotex and Kleenex in her purse?

A warm slug of blood like a salty tear crawled toward her lip. To be a woman is to always be a woman, with everything that means. We are reduced from humans to giant aquatic insects, puking like dogs on the car rug. “Just wait till we get tenure,” think the men who can't wait to dismiss women completely.

But women know they can never really be dismissed, and that the ones who are trying to dismiss them are afraid of them. Of course women were burned; all girls are taught that in grade school as a reminder to obey. But blood doesn't obey. Menstruation arrives as unexpected as Julia's sneeze. “She'd sneezed and the page in front of her had suddenly been spattered with blood. Totally unprovoked” (184). Blood is fearsome, horrible to look at. The teacher in Atwood's story had her teeth outlined in blood like a vampire. Julia says, “We were all so afraid of her none of us said anything and we spent the afternoon drawing three tulips in a vase, presided over by that bloodthirsty smile” (191). Julia reminds herself that blood has that power over others. If she were bloody she “might be disturbing to the audience” (191). The audience might fear her because of her blood.

Audiences often fear the California poet Alta, who writes about menstruation, and the fear men have of this mystery. In her poem, “I Don't Have No Bunny Tail On My Behind,” I read the lines, “i don't have no bunny tail on my behind. / i'm a sister of the blood taboo” (47). I see Playboy Bunnies and I know I am no bunny, but I am a woman who bleeds every month. It feels like a taboo to be a woman and bleed. At home my father refused to take out the women's personal trash. As a torture in high school, boys attached used Kotex to other boy's windshield wipers. The boys said, “That was the lowest thing anyone could do.”

My husband fears period blood as much as girls are supposed to fear snakes. When I show him the object of power, a used Kotex, he nearly faints, “Oh my God—all that blood—you must be dying.” He rubs his forehead painfully. I often leave bloody tissues floating in the toilet for him to discover. I picture his shocked face and then hear the flushing sound. I'm not worried about leaving bloody tissues around; he has no idea what bad things he could do with them yet (he does no outside reading).

Alta's poem curses all the men who oppress women. One of her curses is the curse of bleeding: “in my cunt is blood & i always want it to be your blood. / i hope you bleed 5 days every month. i hope your strength / drains down the toilet” (48). It is amazing that the curse of menstruation can be such a frightening curse to some. To be made a woman is indeed horrible.

As I read “Lives of the Poets,” I see Alta, Diane Wakoski, Sylvia Plath, and all the other women poets who share the blood taboo. When I read Atwood I see Sylvia Plath after her second failed suicide talking about performance and audience: “And there is a charge, a very large charge / For a word or a touch / Or a bit of blood” (8). Atwood asks of her audience, “Would they clap? Would they think it [the blood] was part of the poem?” (184).

As a poet I play it safe. In readings on campus I avoid the poems about menstruation, abortion, fucking, and all other functions that take place in that area. I never feel disturbed, because I read only the soothing poems about trees and fishing. I don't want to disturb anyone. I want them to say, “Sandy is such a nice girl; let's keep her on.” But I feel they distrust me anyway. When I look at the few tenured women on the faculty, I know every one of us is marked with blood.

The ending of “Lives of the Poets” is marked with blood. There is red snow, a solid red wall, a stomach full of blood, head full of blood, all burning red. Julia is a woman, and the full meaning of it has surfaced. I see Julia transformed into Alta. I see the room fill with the unsoothing poetry that is the real Julia. I see her exposed up there, but with the power and fire of Alta's last curse: “the curse of every wicked witch be upon your heart. / i could not hate you more if hatred were my bones” (49).

Sometimes I read something that blows away every theory as I know it. Last time this happened was when I read Alice Munro's short story, “A Royal Beating.” It occurs most often when I read stories written by women, about women. The theories seem to drop away and I experience the writing as if I'm in an intimate conversation with a close girlfriend, hearing her story which is also mine. This happened when I read “Lives of the Poets,” and encountered Bernie.

So here is the story: I am a poet married to the poet, A, who has made almost no money now for six years. At first he had Federal and State grants to help with the bills, but in the last two years he had none. I have kept a part-time job, as a T.A., and have supplemented that income with various portrait jobs (bronze busts) that have come up. I am also responsible for supplying a car, and keeping one running. My holidays consist of rebuilding carburetors, replacing water pumps, soldering radiators, etc. A has borrowed money from me to pay for graduate school where he enjoys composing poems and sharing them with his classmates.

“Why don't you try for one of those big government commissions?” A asks. “You could bring home maybe $400,000 for a couple of bronze veterans holding up a flag on a hill or something.”

“I already have too much to do: the house, car, food, school, my job.”

“But it would be for us,” he says, “our future.”

“Well you could. …”

“No way, I need my time to write.”

There is no other woman; there is no Marika. That I am thankful for. But then there is no liquid pool of flesh, or furry pleasure.

“I get no pleasure out of French kissing,” A told me. “I get no pleasure from eating a woman either. That's why I don't do these things.”

“Oh,” I said. “What do you do?”

“I do it,” he smiled. “That's it. Nothing kinky.”

It is up to me to be ready for him to do it to me. I'm really tired of doing it. I mean, he could do it himself much faster with less mess. I used to have lovers before A: exquisite men who slid me along the razor of sensation until I shook everything away. I find it odd that some men would rather not know these kinds of things. Perhaps if one is too beautiful he never needs to learn how to make someone love him.

Often I feel my whole purpose is work. I feel like an outsider who supplies a service—cash. I sometimes wonder what would happen if I was temporarily out of service. Would he trade roles, or trade women?

When I come to the end of “Lives of the Poets,” I read, “she will open her mouth and the room will explode in blood” (195). I try to forecast my own future from this, but I'm stumped as to whose blood it should be.

Works Cited

Alta. “I Don't Have No Bunny Tail On My Behind.” A Geography of Poets: An Anthology of the New Poetry. Ed. Edward Field. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.

Atwood, Margaret. “Lives of the Poets.” Dancing Girls: And Other Stories. New York: Bantam Books, 1989.

Plath, Sylvia. “Lady Lazarus.” Ariel. New York: Harper & Row, 1961.

Stein, Gertrude. “To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays.” Alphabets and Birthdays. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957.

Peter Kemp (review date 1992)

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SOURCE: “The Atwood Variations,” in Times Literary Supplement, November 6, 1992, p. 20.

[In the following review, Kemp praises Good Bones as a “sample-case of Atwood's sensuous and sardonic talents.”]

Pocket-sized and with sturdy covers, Good Bones looks a bit like a sketchbook in which an artist might jot caricatures, cartoons, preliminary studies, trial pieces and quick little exercises in catching the essence of a subject or delineating it from unusual angles. The miscellany with which Margaret Atwood fills its pages is, in fact, a writer's equivalent of this: a collection of lively verbal doodlings, smartly dashed off vignettes and images that are inventively enlarged, tilted, turned upside down. Playing with the conventions of her narrative craft is a frequent pastime. Fiction's motives and motifs are outlined with witty flourish.

“Bad News,” the opening piece, is a fantasia about the appeal of disaster tales. It's followed by a monologue in which The Little Red Hen, clucking with indignation, re-tells the story of her thrifty response to the grain of wheat as a cautionary tale of put-upon domesticity. Elsewhere, Gertrude gives her version of what happens in Hamlet, and an Ugly Sister and a Wicked Stepmother put in a good word for themselves. Political correctness is lampooned in “There Was Once,” as the reciting of a standard fairy-tale gets subverted by progressive emendations and bowdlerizings. With sly funniness, a litany, “Let Us Now Praise Stupid Women,” lists everything fiction owes to unwise females. As it catalogues the contributions to literature of “The Muse as Fluffball,” aspects of genres like the fairy-story or the Gothic tale are captured in thumbnail sketches of impressionistic brio: “trapped inside the white pages, she can't hear us, and goes prancing and warbling and lolloping innocently towards her doom … incest-minded stepfathers chase her through ruined cloisters, where she's been lured by ruses too transparent to fool a gerbil.”

In other places, Atwood's pen prods verbal raw material around to see what it turns into in differing contexts. Three brief stories each incorporate, in the order they occur in the verse, the words of a stanza from John McCrae's “In Flanders Fields the Poppies Blow”. The title work, which ends the book, is a series of virtuoso variations on the phrase, “good bones”, using changing connotations—fine bone structure, hallowed relics, strong bones—to chronicle the phases of a life.

In its weird poeticizing of physiology, that piece is typical of many in the book (as well as some of the most haunting passages in Atwood's novels). Bodily life, male and female, is inspected with jaunty acumen, and a cool eye is sent playing over its representations in fiction, sculpture and painting. These sections often call to mind that Atwood's father was an entomologist. Her stance in them sometimes jokily emulates scientific distance and dispassion, though her spoof zoologies of the human being and its gender habits soon mutate into sequences of gaudy, ingenious metaphor.

“No freak show can hold a candle to my father expounding Nature”, Atwood wrote in an autobiographical essay in Bluebeard's Egg. In Good Bones, to achieve and heighten a similar sense of the extraordinary, a vantage-point much favoured is that of the extra-terrestrial. “Homelanding” acquaints the inhabitants of another world with the behaviour-patterns peculiar to Earth's “prong people” and “cavern people”. In “Cold-Blooded,” extra-planetary lepidoptera observe the activities of the “blood creatures” so surprisingly dominant on Earth, and note crude resemblances to their own patterns of pupation and metamorphosis: “At some indeterminate point in their life cycles, they cause themselves to be placed in artificial stone or wooden cocoons, or chrysalises. They have an idea that they will someday emerge from these in an altered state, which they symbolize with carvings of themselves with wings.”

Death isn't the only phenomenon to receive this Martian treatment. One piece, “Alien Territory,” narrates the events of birth in terms of an adventure tale. Another turns the travelling of sperms towards an ovum into a science-fiction epic: “the mission becomes a race which only one may win, as, ahead of them, vast and luminous, the longed-for, the loved planet swims into view. …”

Some of these flights of fantasy float away into buoyant humour. Gravity holds others closer to such global concerns as over-population, war and ecological catastrophe. As in Atwood's novels, the pervading style is fluently accomplished, fluctuating between amusement and seriousness, allowing mockery to meld affectingly into poetry: a meditation on bats moves with easy skill, for instance, from exuberant burlesque of the Dracula myth—“O flying leukaemia, in your cloak like a living umbrella”—to tender, exact evocation of the mammals “dank lazy half-sleep of daytime, with bodies rounded and soft as furred plums … the mothers licking the tiny amazed faces of the newborn”. Mingling the incisive and the colourful, Good Bones makes a marvellous miniature sample-case of Atwood's sensuous and sardonic talents.

Neil Besner (review date 1993)

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SOURCE: “A Poet's Bones,” in Canadian Literature, Vols. 138–139, Fall, 1993, pp. 105–06

[In the following laudatory review of Good Bones, Besner deems the stories in the collection as “fictions for our time, and, arguably, fictions that show Atwood's narrative talents at their finest.”]

Because Atwood is a better poet than a fiction writer, I have always read her novels and short stories with grudging admiration. Yes, I teach The Handmaid's Tale and The Edible Woman, and I recognize the ways in which these and other Atwood novels are exciting in the classroom and out of it, but I would much rather read, teach, talk about her poems.

That this view should run against the rising tide of Atwood's reputation as a novelist might only reflect on the increasingly rarefied readership of poetry in Canada outside of academic circles (increasingly rarefied, it almost seems, in inverse proportion to the rising number of books of poems published annually). More's the pity. But to my mind Good Bones demonstrates marvellously—as did Murder in the Dark to a lesser extent—how the fragmented and deceptively offhand form of these short pieces serves the turn of Atwood's imagination more powerfully than does her more conventional fiction. Despite what Atwood herself, or her publishers, might think Good Bones is all about (I heard her suggest to June Callwood on television two night ago—trust the tale, forget the teller—that the book is simply helping out a small literary press in hard times), the truth is that Good Bones is a much better book than, say, Wilderness Tips. This is no backhanded compliment; Good Bones pulses with a grim drollery that engages and entertains even as it looks back at tradition with a knowing little leer and ahead towards various versions of apocalypse with a deftly controlled grimace. These are fictions for our time, and, arguably, fictions that show Atwood's narrative talents at their finest.

I came to Good Bones ready to find in it all of the distinctive Atwood virtues, all of the strength that at times resonates less powerfully in her prose than in her poems (and that, tellingly, so often calls to mind's eye and ear, in this age that has so blithely proclaimed the death of the author, the pervasive and indecipherable life of text, Atwood's own face and voice): the ground-glass wit; the dry and cool and flat menace of her sentences, posed, posed, compressed, composed; the taut hilarity of characters, most often female, contemplating civil wreckage, domestic havoc, psychic chaos with casual terror; the steely insight delivered deadpan. They are all there and more. But Good Bones is worth glancing at, and rereading, and opening up at random because in these twenty-seven pieces (they are not stories, poems, postcards, fables—they really are fine pieces). Atwood is free both to call up and to dismember conventional demands for coherence, unity, plot complication and extension, and character development; she is more free to play, always a deadly serious game for Atwood, to invoke familiar storylines, tales, and traditions and to trick them out in new, riddling, fragmented form.

Among this collection's delights are its protean pluralities. Variations on traditional myths are retold with unnerving familiarity, featuring contemporary reincarnations of old protagonists: in “Bad News,” the opening piece, as a sleeping metamythical bird on a rooftop contemplates the unutterable boredom of uneventful mundaneity, readers can revel in a rhythm, diction, and tone worthy of Atwood's best poetry:

She perches on a rooftop, her brass wings folded, her head with its coiffure of literate serpents tucked beneath the left one, snoozing like a noon pigeon. There's nothing to do but her toenails.

This is canny writing, sinuous with allusion, alive with cliché made strange; at a glance, it is writing to spend time with, and not simply or primarily to see through or beyond. And it is typically of the writing in the collection.

As often as these pieces look pastwards from another perspective (try “Gertrude Talks Back” for a female and maternal corrective to a suddenly prissy Hamlet), they look ahead with elegant, stylish gloom to a sterile and attenuated world under a dome (“Hardball”), or at our own world from a point of view at once soothingly familiar and freakishly alien, the perspective of moths, bats, spermatozoa, of a consciousness from another planet (“Cold-Blooded,” “My Life as a Bat,” “Adventure Story,” and “Homelanding,” with its “cave people” and “prong people”: guess who?) Many pieces celebrate the skewed stories of women past and present, revelling in the status of the unloved ones—of the ugly sister, the witch (“I'm the plot, babe, and don't ever forget it” gloats the voice of “Unpopular Gals”)—and showing that the very impulse to tell stories often arises from the myriad sadnesses, the predictable loneliness and sorrow of women singled out (“Let Us Now Praise Stupid Women,” “The Female Body”). And the hoary old art of telling any story comes in for some self-consuming and revisionist pruning as the narrator of “There Was Once” is subjected to a mercilessly correct (and very funny) ideological inquisition.

Of course Atwood's men, those sly and silent, murderously abstract ghosts, are at large here again (“Making a Man,” “Epaulettes,” “Men At Sea”); they are artfully empty figures, and like so many of the creatures slipping along these pages, they seem to haunt and beguile the wry and rueful voice that reads them into being. And there is a new tone in amongst Atwood's better-known registers, a reflective, meditative tone that gently broods over mortality, its own and others'. You can hear it most clearly in the title piece at the end of the book, but it also inhabits passages of “Death Scenes,” for one.

As some elements in the Atwood canon recede into fixity—think of Survival, a bare twenty years later it is heartening to see how her new writing can still surprise us with its old fluency, its old delights. Good Bones, I am happy to report, is not a new Atwood novel, not just another book of stories. But it most ably shimmies and shakes, rattles and drolly rolls its bones—“them bones, them dry bones, them and their good connections.”

Isabel Carrera Suarez (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “‘Yet I Speak, Yet I Exist’: Affirmation of the Subject in Atwood's Short Fiction,” in Margaret Atwood: Writing and Subjectivity, New Critical Essays, edited by Colin Nicholson, St. Martin's Press, 1994, pp. 230–47.

[In the following essay, Suarez traces the development of Atwood's narrative technique as evinced in her short fiction.]

Margaret Atwood's creative world, as has repeatedly been noted, possesses a coherence which spreads across genres, its motifs and structures recurring in different texts, whether fiction, poetry or essay. In a study published in 1983 Sherill E. Grace attempts to describe this coherence by defining Atwood's system with reference to four elements: duality, nature, self and language.1 While all four are found to some extent in any volume of Atwood's, it is the latter two that seem to dictate the literary function of nature and duality, and to constitute the key to the author's literary world. A reading of the three volumes of short stories published so far, Dancing Girls (1977), Bluebeard's Egg (1983) and Wilderness Tips (1991),2 allows, by means of the cumulative effect of the genre, some insight into the recurrences and changes in the treatment of the self and its representation in language. Such a reading shows a gradual amplification of the subject, a self which survives (and communicates) against all theoretical odds, against fragmentation, gaps and deconstructions. This affirmation of the subject and of language is suggested in selected stories of Dancing Girls and asserted in the subsequent volumes.

Considered together, the three collections of stories waver between confirming and contradicting Atwood's statement that authors do not ‘grow’ or ‘develop’, but rather do something which is closer to ‘a theme with variations’.3 Perhaps ‘growth’, with its proximity to ‘growing up’ (or, in Atwood's own simile, radishes) is the wrong metaphor to apply to the progression of her work. In the essay quoted, she goes on to affirm that ‘writers’ universes may become more elaborate, but they do not become essentially different’, and this is true of her collections of stories and their treatment of the subject. However, while the latter does not become essentially different from one collection to another, it is the concept of the subject, together with its relationship to language, that marks the evolution (if not growth or development) in the universe of Atwood's short fiction. There is a shift in emphasis from the individual, soul-searching subject of Dancing Girls to a wider extended subject, begun in the family ‘we’ of Bluebeard's Egg and expanded further, as in a widening ripple, in Wilderness Tips. The relation of this subject to language also experiences a shift, as a rather deterministic view of the limitations of language gives way to a more pragmatic critique of its use as instrument of power, modified by a belief in the possibility of appropriation and transformation of words.

Nine of the 16 stories in Dancing Girls (including ‘The War in the Bathroom’ and ‘Rape Fantasies’),4 are narrated in the first person; a significant number when compared with the later collections: four in Bluebeard's Egg, one in Wilderness Tips. The voice in all these stories is female and predominantly young. This young female subject perceives itself as struggling against an Other who, more often than not is a he and a sexual partner, but can also be her own unacknowledged self or, more widely, the world. In several of the stories the main syntactical opposition is I/he, a metonymy for the main conflict in the text (‘Under Glass’, ‘The Grave of the Famous Poet’, ‘Lives of the Poets’, ‘The Sin Eater’). In others, the same opposition appears in the form of I/you, the you referring again to a sexual partner (‘Hair Jewellery’, ‘Rape Fantasies’). The struggle is rarely limited to this opposition, however, and most of the protagonists are engaged in a battle with their own unacknowledged or repressed selves, or the selves they have left behind, having ‘shed identities like snake-skins’ (‘Hair Jewellery’). Their split personalities are described in detail, as in the schizoid pains of the woman in ‘Under Glass’, or conveyed by the narrative technique, as in ‘The War in the Bathroom’, where the two narrative voices, in the first and third persons, are revealed as having only one owner. A similar grammatical and thematic predominance can be found in the rest of the stories in the collection; in most, the dialectics of she/he are central, and reveal a hidden structure of a female subject defining itself mainly against a male antagonist, and/or struggling to accept supposedly unacceptable aspects of her own personality.

This recurrent pattern, however, is broken totally or partially in certain stories within the collection, notably in ‘Betty’ and ‘Giving Birth’, where the antagonists are multiple and female, and in ‘Polarities’, where the binary opposition he/she is secondary to the more crucial struggle by Louise to reconcile her fragmented selves, or the fragments out of which she has attempted to create her personality.

While containing a ‘he’ (Fred), and an opposition of I/she (sister), ‘Betty’ centres on the mirror image of the character who gives name to the story. A retrospective narration, it shows the choices made in the development of the self, and those left behind. It presents an adult first-person narrator who, while telling the story of her childhood neighbour Betty (a devoted, obliging wife, eventually abandoned by her husband, Fred), analyses her own past motives for seeing this woman as her double, and her later arrival at the ability to choose a different role-model. The young narrator feels that Betty's marital failure, and subsequent death, is the doom of ‘nice’ girls like herself, as opposed to that of ‘vivacious’ girls like her sister, whom Fred had clearly preferred. A romanticised version of Betty's death recedes into the background when the narrator decides to reject her as a model: ‘People change, though … As I passed beyond the age of melodrama I came to see that if I did not want to be Betty, I would have to be someone else. … People stopped calling me a nice girl and started calling me a clever one, and after a while I enjoyed this’ (DG, p. 50). This story offers one of Atwood's most optimistic endings, in the possibilities it leaves open for change, for the construction of the self, or rebirth. The narrator, faced with two opposed role-models, has been able to discard both and adopt her own, escaping her victim position.

As a counterpoint, ‘Polarities’ shows the main character, Louise, trying and failing to bring her self to life. Her personality seems to suffer multiple splits, suggested by the fissures detected in her brisk, practical manner (her poetry, the fuzzy slippers, the frilly underwear) and also represented, after her internment, in her invention of a schizophrenic parentage for herself (mother a French Protestant, father an English Catholic; mother an Italian opera singer, father a Nazi general). Her friend Morrison, focaliser of the story, provides a crucial image when he observes that her house has the strange effect of separate rooms, whose decoration is copied from acquaintances' houses: ‘Poor Louise had been trying to construct herself out of the other people she had met’ (DG, p. 70). Her growing mental unbalance, reflected in her plans to form a circle which would hold the world together, does not prevent her seeing Morrison's own unreconciled duality more clearly than anyone else: ‘He needs to be completed, he refuses to admit his body is part of his mind’ (p. 69). Louise tries to create a circle and contain the polarities, to be ‘all-inclusive’ (p. 55), but her practice of excluding things from this circle seems to lie at the root of the theoretical failure of her system. In her metaphor, as in her own personality, she fragments instead of embracing, and the story remains one of failure of the self.

Throughout the collection, the treatment of the subject is closely linked to its definition in language. Characters are represented, or misrepresented, by the language applied to them. In some cases, they are labelled by others: Christine, in ‘The Man from Mars’ (DG), is in turn ‘ordinary’ (as seen by her parents), ‘plain’ (by her sisters) or an ‘honorary person’ (as defined by men, who cannot fit her into the female categories of cock-teaser, cold fish, easy lay or snarky bitch). This self she temporarily escapes from through the fantasies awakened by her persecution by a ‘person from another culture’. In other stories characters invent their own personality through words: ‘the word she had chosen for herself some time ago was “comely”’ (‘The Resplendent Quetzal’, DG, p. 145), and split identities find their expression in duality of language, as does the writer in ‘Lives of the Poets’ (DG), who must choose between her ‘nice’ persona, represented by her gentle poems, and her repressed rage, with its ‘bloody’ language.

Characters in these early stories struggle with language, with a need to speak or make themselves understood. While the healing nature of speech is shown in ‘The Sin Eater’, most of the stories in Dancing Girls underline the inadequacies of the word as a means of communication: ‘We've talked too much or not enough: for what we have to say to each other there's no language, we've tried them all’ (‘The Grave of the Famous Poet’, DG, p. 93). ‘My hands function, exchanging round silver discs for oblong paper [buying a ticket]. That this can be done, that everyone knows what it means, there may be a chance. If we could do that: I would give him a pebble, a flower, he would understand, he would translate exactly’ (DG, pp. 86–7). The woman in ‘Under Glass’ thus wishes for comprehension through other gestures, or for the chimera of perfect interpretation. A theoretical argument is provided by Joseph, the psychiatrist of ‘The Sin Eater’, who has a phobia about telephones because ‘most of the message in any act of communication [is] non-verbal’ (DG, p. 216). And non-verbal communication is, in fact, the distinctive trait of some of Atwood's ‘inarticulate’ characters, such as the eponymous Betty and Loulou, who transmit thought or feeling through gestures; but significantly, this characteristic renders them the powerless element of the binomy which they form with their partners (Fred/Betty, the poets/Loulou).

I have elsewhere discussed Atwood's short stories, together with Doris Lessing's, as an example of the subversive strategies in women's writing, and the move away from a concentration on the traps of language into a more hopeful acceptance of the possibility of change in linguistic practices.5 This attitude has run parallel with an evolution in linguistic and literary theory, towards the rejection of notions of fixed meanings and of linguistic determinism (present in early structuralism, including feminist critics such as Dale Spender, and also in Lacanian theory) in favour of the idea of construction of meaning, and the subsequent responsibility of users in transforming the language. Linking in with current philosophical and psychological theories, but with a more pragmatic focus, feminist Deborah Cameron defends an integrational theory,6 in which external factors (social, psychological, familial) are taken into account, and earlier linguistic theories are abandoned in favour of communicative concepts such as those defined by Roy Harris or Trevor Pateman. The latter's radical discourse explores an active discourse that subverts, instead of reproducing, the established social institutions. Imperfect communication is thus accepted as the natural consequence of the indeterminacy of linguistic signs, but the focus is put on precisely this indeterminacy, which allows for multiplicity of meaning, for change and thus for subversion. Freed from the belief that we are controlled by our language, we can begin to assume control of it ourselves.

‘Giving Birth’, the final story in Dancing Girls, is the first to suggest such an attitude to language. One of the most complex and original of Atwood's early stories, it splits into three women, a trinity who protagonise the act and word of ‘giving birth’, and emerge as a remarkably solid subject at the end of the process. ‘Giving Birth’ is an explicit commentary on the difficulties of verbal communication and a practical example of the link between language and subject in Atwood's writing. Beginning with a long commentary on the phrase ‘giving birth’ and such related terms as delivering, the narrator mediates on their inadequacy and the need to rename the act. While she refuses to rename it herself, she is determined, nevertheless, to speak:

These are the only words I have, I'm stuck with them, stuck in them. (That image of the tar sands, old tableau in the Royal Ontario Museum, how persistent it is. Will I break free, or will I be sucked down, fossilized, a sabre-toothed tiger or lumbering brontosaurus who ventured out too far? Words ripple at my feet, black, sluggish, lethal. Let me try once more, before the sun gets me, before I starve or drown, while I can. It's only a tableau after all, it's only a metaphor. See, I can speak, I am not trapped, and you on your part can understand. So we will go ahead as if there were no problem about language.)

(DG, p. 226)

It is worth noting there that the distinction between metaphor and reality, which will recur in later work, functions as an antidote for inaction, allowing communication, and therefore the story, to take place.

Thus the subject begins to be defined in language, the three women who make it up (the narrator, Jeanie and her unnamed alter ego) being differentiated by their attitudes to words: Jeanie, in her articulateness and obsession with reading manuals, her alter ego in her wordless existence, the narrator as a writer, self-consciously bring her past self back to life in the story, and naming that self Jeanie. These three selves, and the concepts of language and the subject, are brought together again in the description of the pain at the culminating moment of giving birth: ‘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’ (p. 237). The statement reinforces the argument used elsewhere in the story that events of the body, such as giving birth or orgasm, may be impossible to describe in words. It also unites the three subjects in a common disappearance: the inarticulate other, for whom the words ‘giving birth’ don't exist, the articulate Jeanie, who loses the power of speech, and the narrator, who admits her difficulty in putting this event into words. All three go through the experience, a reality untranslatable into language, but whose existence is affirmed to the point of superseding the concepts of subject and of speech: rather than a reduction of the subject to text, there is a reduction of both, text and subject, to the event. After the birth, the final lines express the new order: ‘in the days that follow Jeanie herself becomes drifted over with new words, her hair slowly darkens, she ceases to be what she was and is replaced, gradually by someone else’ (p. 240), and ‘it was to me, after all, that the birth was given, Jeanie gave it, I am the result’ (p. 239). Both statements emphasis the notion of the subject as process, every stage the result of previous (multiple) others. Such a conception of the self will be crucial in later stories, and particularly in the third collection, Wilderness Tips.

Bluebeard's Egg, published six years after Dancing Girls, lifts the emphasis from the l/he pair, and explores a first extension of the self into family grounds. If we ascribe ‘Betty’ and ‘The Sin Eater’ to the first collection or period, there is a substantial change in narrative technique, since only four stories (‘Significant Moments in the Life of my Mother’, ‘Hurricane Hazel’, ‘In Search of the Rattlesnake Plantain’ and ‘Unearthing Suite’) are narrated in the first person; furthermore, the ‘I’ that these stories present, again female, could more accurately be described as a family ‘we’, being defined mainly by its relationship to the parents. Rather than a self by opposition, we face a self by addition, an ‘I’ not in struggle with its other, but accepting its extension into the family circle, with its influences and limitations.

‘Significant Moments in the Life of my Mother’, the opening and perhaps key story in the collection, blends in its narrative technique the point of view of the mother (who tells stories about herself and her family) with that of the daughter and ultimately leaves the reader to complete the portrait by adding her own. It is not, as the title may suggest, a story about the narrator's mother, for it clearly shows the narrator in the act of reconstructing her own past and present, analysing herself as a result of her childhood as recreated in the older woman's narration. The stories told by them both show the gap between daughter and mother, but just as obviously show their continuity, thus offering a portrait of daughter with mother (or m/other). The self becomes an entity whose borders are undefined, a subject, as Barbara Godard has pointed out,7 with the blurred ego boundaries described by Nancy Chodorow for women's subjectivity. The continuity of the mother-daughter dyad is shown not only in their connection through story-telling itself (a rich motif in the collection), but also in the parallel stores about their lives (haircuts as rites of passage, dodging as tactics) and in their respective constructions of each other through narration.

‘Unearthing Suite’, which closes the collection, insists on the idea of self as process/result, with the narrator ‘unearthing’, among other things, her own past and the origins of her dual tendency to slothfulness (the father) and order (the mother), made tangible in the two rooms of her house, one chaotic, one neatly designed and kept. She also traces back her tendency to inertia (as a reaction to a childhood training in movement) and, more crucially, her ‘translation of the world into words’ (p. 271), the beginnings of her writing. ‘Hurricane Hazel’, for its part, makes patent the family identity that others, neighbours and friends, attribute to the narrator in her adolescent years, and some of its uncomfortable consequences. The family context and its intricacies are also explored, more incidentally, in ‘In Search of the Rattlesnake Plantain’.

Other stories in the collection link with those in the previous book, and instances of suppressed selves recur. The most significant feature for our purposes, however, lies in the treatment of the first-person narrative, the pluralisation of the subject through its extension to the family circle (and hence, given the characteristics of the parents described, to nature). It hardly seems coincidental that the opening line in ‘Unearthing Suite’ is the suggestive ‘My parents have something to tell me’ (p. 263).

Questions of language in Bluebeard's Egg are mainly treated with reference to power and gender politics, both of which are closely related to the definition of the subject through language. ‘Significant Moments’ and ‘Unearthing Suite’ characterise the parents through their speech, and expose their generation's conventional division between ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ territories: ‘To let the men's world slip over verbally into the ladies' would reveal you as a mannerless boor, but to carry the ladies' world over into the men's brands you a prig and even a pansy’ (BE, p. 21). Men therefore swear, but not in front of women, while women reserve certain stories for female company only, stories of ‘romantic betrayals, unwanted pregnancies, illnesses of various horrible kinds, marital infidelities, mental breakdowns, tragic suicides, unpleasant lingering deaths’ (p. 21), stories which men, it is argued, are not equipped to bear or understand. The difference in language amounts to a difference of worlds, it is both consequence and cause of the social order; an order which, the daughter-narrator suggests, is changing, as her own linguistic universe reflects.

The mother of ‘Significant Moments’ is defined entirely though her language, shown in her story-telling. Other characters in the collection are reflected in their letters: Buddy's peculiar punctuation, ponderous compliments, blue splotchy ball-point; the brother's funny, vulgar, illustrated letters to his sister followed by factual ones to the mother (‘Hurricane Hazel’). But most persistently, we find descriptions of the power of language and its use or misuse. The narrator in ‘Hurricane Hazel’ learns of its effects through her brother, who very effectively ridicules the advertisements of remedies for teenage problems, and through Buddy's standard (though naïve) attempt to pin her down by giving her a bracelet with his name (his ‘identity’ bracelet).

Linguistic disadvantage constitutes the conflict per se in ‘Loulou; or, The Domestic Life of the Language’, also collected in Bluebeard's Egg. It tells the story of the unbalanced relationship between a group of over-articulate poets and ‘earthy’ Loulou, whose mismatched name and personality embody, in the poets' opinion, the ‘gap between the signifier and the signified’. The gap, in another of Atwood's ironic symbioses with theory, becomes the central motif of the story. Loulou supports a group of poets under her roof, materially with her earnings as a potter, morally with the healing power of her sexual and motherly love. Despite their constant teasing and play on her ignorance of words, she has an intuitive understanding of their motivations and abuses, and sees the trap of the role she has been cast in, that of nourishing earth-mother. While the poets wonder what there is ‘in the space between Loulou and her name’, she asks herself a far more relevant question: What is there between Loulou and the poets' construction of her? The question becomes more pressing after she seeks out an accountant and seduces him in his office: ‘he is other, he is another. She too could be other. But which other? What, underneath it all, is Loulou really like? How can she tell? Maybe she is what the poets say she is, after all; maybe she has only their word, their words, for herself’ (p. 80). The story ends unresolved, an ambiguous mixture of affirmation of Loulou, of her understanding by non-verbal means, her refusal to be defined (‘nobody invented her, thank you very much’; p. 80), and of resignation towards her trap. The ending, in which she decides that being ‘like Loulou’, as the poets require, is not so bad after all, seems a capitulation to the power of their words, but concludes, perhaps, that it is simply too late: she lacks the confidence (or the language) to explore further, and the hope for change remains only a thwarted possibility.

The story, however, also reads as a warning against false (and convenient) metaphors posing as reality. Loulou's insistence that her name is ‘just a name’ tries to counteract the effects of the poets' confusion between her personality and her name, their misuse of its relationship as metaphor; we are reminded of the narrator in ‘Significant Moments’, checking herself after trying to interpret one of her mother's stories: ‘There is, however, a difference between symbolism and anecdote. Listening to my mother, I sometimes remember this’ (p. 27).

The treatment of the self and of language in Atwood's latest collection of stories, Wilderness Tips, once more is not radically different from that of previous books, though there is a feeling that the main characters continue from a point where Bluebeard stopped. They are one stage further in age (some have grown-up children, even grandchildren), and most of them look back to their formative years, whether in childhood or, more frequently, in the early years of adulthood and of their careers. The focalisation is still mainly female, though at times shared or relinquished (‘True Trash’ alternates Joanne and Donny; Richard is the focaliser who constructs Selena in ‘Isis in Darkness’). The male characters are studied in some detail, their role often going well beyond that of the antagonist. But the most pervasive presence in the collection is that of the passing of time, with the changes produced in the individual and the collective self. Almost without exception, we face a subject and its history, a history which takes place during the past few decades, and of which the present person is the result.

Several of the texts explicitly remark on the changes brought about by specific decades, mainly the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s (‘Hairball’, ‘Isis in Darkness’, ‘The Age of Lead’, ‘Hack Wednesday’, ‘The Bog Man’); others go further back in time or, at the other end, reach the beginning of the 1990s. In ‘Isis in Darkness’ the ‘zero years’ of three decades serve as a structuring element for the plot. There is a feeling of the importance of the Zeitgeist, which is perhaps most clearly represented in ‘Isis’, where Richard moves from a youth of being ‘good with words’, interested in their abstract meanings, towards becoming the archaeologist of the past, searching for significance in its events, which he will translate into words. The collection as a whole produces the effect of the subject expanding further, the self seen in a context which encompasses more than the family and the present circumstances. The immediacy of the first-person narration is abandoned almost entirely (the exception is ‘Weight’), seemingly in favour of a more distant, but also more knowledgeable and always retrospective, third-person narrator.

This collection presents an interesting new version of ‘we’ (or ‘they’) as a syntactical and psychological subject: that of the double subject formed by two characters who, while being each other's alter ego, share a complicity amounting to spiritual twinhood: Richard and Selena in ‘Isis’, Molly and the narrator in ‘Weight’, Lois and Lucy in ‘Death by Landscape’. The relationship between these characters is closer to the idea of the lost possibilities of the self (as in ‘Hair Jewellery’; DG) than to the opposed antagonist of the earlier I/he stories. They compose a self by addition rather than by opposition; the split is not the source of battles but of inclusion of opposites into one consciousness.

In many respects, the collection Wilderness Tips is, as Atwood would have it, a more elaborate variation on previous themes, a step further in diverse explorations. Elements such as duality reappear under a slightly different treatment; five of the ten stories contain the double subject mentioned above, a ‘twin’ of the main character who, rather than function merely by opposition, has been incorporated, to become an integral part of her/his self. This twin is poignantly symbolised in ‘Hairball’, where Katherine's strange ovarian cyst, surgically removed, kept on the mantelpiece in formaldehyde and referred to as ‘Hairball’, turns out to be her ‘undeveloped twin’ (WT, p. 54), the possibility of a self that she has not allowed to grow, but which crops up to remind her of the fact. In a similar way, Selena (‘Isis in Darkness’) has continued the artistic career which Richard has traded for the shelter of an income, but which he has always pined for, however romantically. She is always part of his own self and, ultimately, in putting together her pieces (writing her biography), he becomes part of her life too.

It is Selena's death, however, that triggers off Richard's conscious involvement, and death also plays a prominent role in the other three ‘twin’ stories. While Dancing Girls presented death as desire, as Gothic presence, in Wilderness Tips it has become a reality or a justified fear. Vincent's death, in ‘The Age of Lead’, breaks up the hopeful world which he and Jane had inhabited in the past, a perfectly synchronised pair, united from adolescence by their mockery of obsolete values and clichéd language. ‘Death by Landscape’ and ‘Weight’ offer a main character whose present self is explained by the death of a close friend, an alter ego. In the first case, Lucy disappears mysteriously, leaving her friend Lois suspected of pushing her off a cliff; in her mature age, a grandmother living alone, Lois sees Lucy in the landscape paintings she has collected compulsively, and remembers going through life ‘as if she was living not one life but two: her own, and another, shadowy life that hovered around her and would not let itself be realized—the life of what would have happened if Lucy had not stepped sideways, and disappeared from time’ (WT, p. 128). This carefully constructed story emphasises the effect of an accident on someone's life, but the depiction of Lucy as the alter ego of Lois, and their past naming in the plural ‘Lois and Lucy’ is equally important and points towards unrealised possibilities of the psyche.

‘Weight’, for its part, presents another pair of close female friends who make different choices in life, and later come together in the survivor's unique self. Like Vincent and Jane, the narrator and Molly have shared not only a view of the world, but a language game: the invention of absurd definitions for the abusive terms used of women. Molly becomes militant in the defence of women, marries, has children; the narrator remains single, pursues a successful career; Molly leads ‘the life I [the narrator] might have led, if it hadn't been for caution and a certain fastidiousness’ (WT, p. 189). When Molly is murdered by her husband, her friend begins a personal campaign to raise funds for a shelter for battered women, to be called Molly's Place. Conducted in her own terms (including blackmailing of ex-lovers), it nevertheless continues Molly's commitment, with the narrator becoming again, as in the times of law school, ‘Molly and I’, a composite subject, the result of her friend's life and death.

The preoccupation with the subject as result is, of course, concomitant with the retrospective form of most of the narratives. In this collection, the examination of lost possibilities, whether by choice or sheer chance, predominates over schizophrenic division; there is a quieter acceptance of the latter, reflected in Julie's discovery (‘The Bog Man’) that one of the first axioms of Logic, ‘A thing cannot be both self and non-self at the same time’ (WT, p. 98), is not so clear-cut in terms of personality.

Characters in this collection also continue to be defined, or to define themselves, through language as such. The prime example is the manipulation of names: Katherine, in ‘Hairball’, successfully becomes Kathy, Kath and Kat, in accordance with time, place and the image she wants to project of herself. Her lover, Ger, had also been Gerard in his conventional past, before she transformed him into a successful man. The change of names is a structural element in the story: towards the end, Katherine dismisses Gerald by calling him by his full name; she signs her own merely K, and in the last line, having faced the truth about herself and taken a drastic decision, feels ‘temporarily without a name’ (p. 56). Selena, in ‘Isis in Darkness’, has also chosen this new name for herself, her previous one being the common Marjorie (dangerously close to ‘Mary Jo’, name of the narrator's wife). When Selena loses faith in poetry, she also denies her chosen name.

As in earlier collections, certain adjectives define a character: the deceived wife in ‘The Bog Man’ will always have the upper hand because she is ‘homely’; Molly dies because she is a ‘toad-kisser’, a ‘fixer’; that is, for her belief that she can transform men. She also significantly uses the term cynicism for what the narrator calls compromise. Ronette, the naïve, desired waitress in ‘True Trash’ is defined by the sexist language that judges her for being sexually active; like Loulou, she is ‘stuck with other people's adjectives’ (WT, p. 77). Like Betty and Loulou, she fails to articulate her thought or feeling in words, and offers her body instead.

No story in this collection is free from self-conscious questioning of specific words, from the exposure of ‘the gap between the signifier and the signified’. This gap, however, no longer seems unbridgeable. It is a reality to be dealt with and even taken advantage of. While the socio-linguistic powerlessness of characters like Ronette is given full credit, the attitude to language allows a more playful response than previous volumes, shown particularly in ‘The Age of Lead’ and ‘Weight’. This attitude is often united to an acute awareness of the uses to which language is put, the power of abusive labels and the symbolic power of words. Molly and her friend invent new meanings of terms such as strident, shrill, hysteria, pushy, in a playful subversion of their power against women. Clichés are mocked not only by Jane and Vincent in ‘The Age of Lead’ but also in ‘Wilderness Tips’, as signs of the mentality behind language. But overall, the deterministic view of language as an unavoidable and paralysing trap is absent from the collection, as are the instances of violent struggle; in their place, a more pragmatic view of communication, and the subversive power of word-play, show a belief in an active participation in the creation of language, and in the potential for transformation also contained in words.

Seen together, the three collections of stories form a continuum in the two aspects of the subject and its representation in language. The subject, always complex, moves from the struggle with itself and the other towards an inclusion of opposites and an extension into its context. The self as process/result/place, only suggested in the earlier stories, is stressed in the last collection. A similar evolution can be observed in the reflections on the use of language: the earlier characters struggle, feel trapped or doomed; the later stories, without losing sight of inadequacies or abuses, take a more pragmatic approach and assume, however tentatively, control of speech.

Thus language and the subject evolve together in Atwood's stories, towards a more inclusive, but also more pragmatic conception. For it would be mistaken to equate the author's perception of the subject with the deconstructionist view of its fictionality, its reduction to words. Without doubt Atwood makes use of the insights of contemporary theory, as has been evident in our analysis. She deconstructs the traditional subject and its language, fragments it and represents the self by reducing it symbolically to language—but ‘symbolically’ is, as her texts repeatedly warn us, as far as we can go in the equation of both elements. For nowhere in her texts does Atwood give evidence of the conversion of the subject into a fiction, nowhere is it equated with its construction in words, nor does fragmentation suppose a negation of the subject. Rather, while pointing out the importance, the motivation, and the consequences of the various constructions of a self (Bluebeard's Egg), her stories suggest the existence of a hidden, perhaps intangible but experiential self, which either survives fragmentation, de/construction and language problems (‘Betty’, ‘Giving Birth’), or perishes through madness (‘Polarities’). In later stories the division is less clear-cut, the self emerging neither triumphant nor wholly deconstructed, but the result of a previous process, a turning point or a temporary stage in an evolution which is left open.

The notion of the subject in Atwood's texts, therefore, is closest to Ihab Hassan's theory:8 a kind of ‘common-sense’ belief in the experiential self, as perceived by the subject from childhood to old age, despite (or by means of) the multiple transformations of a lifetime.

It is possible, of course, to find resonances of almost any current theory in Atwood's work, as her awareness of academic debate often finds reflection in her writing, albeit in her own terms (I do not think it entirely coincidental, for example, that in Foucaultian times archaeology is such a prominent symbol in Wilderness Tips). I should like to sketch, however, the proximity between some of the arguments and metaphors used by Hassan and Atwood.

‘The self may rest on no ontological rock’, Hassan declares, ‘yet as a functional concept, as a historical construct, as a habit of existence, above all, as an experienced or existential reality, it serves us all even as we deny it theoretically. The self represents something to us, even when we select some aspect of it to act.’ His essay reviews the theories (philosophical, psychological, political) which in the twentieth century have contributed to defining the self as a fictional construct; but despite these, Hassan maintains the survival of the subject, argues for the metaphors of ‘accident, invention, pattern, process, or mutation’ to describe it, and answers French deconstructionists and Hillis Miller's nihilism by exposing the ‘intellectualistic fallacy … that logic invariably grounds practice’.9 Refusing the equation of self or identity with unity or coherence, he claims that current theories have only served to change our perception of the subject, but not to deny its existence.

There is much in these descriptions which is immediately relevant to Atwood's writing, and which ties in with feminist debates. Experienced reality, revalued by some feminisms, is pervasive in Atwood's stories, and her work has a strong ‘realistic’ component blended in with its theoretical complexity: it is not surprising, then, that the duality experience/abstract representation should be present in her conception of the subject. As to the metaphors of accident, invention, pattern, process and mutation, they all apply, as we have seen, to the treatment of fictional selves by the author, while the fallacies of logic are also exposed in her work, notably in the direct reference in ‘The Bog Man’ (WT, p. 98).

Against deconstructive theories of the subject, Hassan poses those of psychologists of identity, and specifically those of Norman Holland and Sharon R. Kaufman.10 Holland “limns a model of human identity composed of theme and variations, much like a sonata, much like any work of art. The self maintains an intense, if unnamed awareness of itself through great changes, from infancy to death’.11 The parallel with Atwood's' concept of an author's creation, quoted at the beginning of this essay, speaks for itself, and allows for an extension of her metaphor to her conception of the subject.

An equally interesting coincidence is found in the metaphor used to describe Kaufman's definition of the ‘ageless self’. Having quoted her as saying that ‘I have found that in the expression of the ageless self, individuals not only symbolically preserve and integrate meaningful components of their past, but they also use these symbols as frameworks for understanding and being in the present’,12 Hassan defends this apparently ‘naïve’ insight as containing the crucial concept of an ‘inhabited self’, an expression with strong resonances of Atwood's metaphor of a ‘habitable interior’ in ‘Polarities’. This ‘habitable interior’ (quoted from Margaret Avison) is the comfortable identity, the reconciled self that neither Louise nor Morrison have achieved.

Atwood's multiple, ever-expanding and contextualised subject is an example of Hassan's ‘survivor self’ (434), a self redefined by contemporary theory, rather than reduced to a textual fiction. Writing in the same issue of Contemporary Literature which features Hassan's essay, Eugene Goodheart reinforces Hassan's approach by insisting that the experiential self is a natural fact, without which ‘we would go crazy, suffering a radical sense of fragmentation, discontinuity and emptiness’,14 and that the coherent or repressed selves are not necessarily the true selves. The contrast between texts such as ‘Polarities’ and ‘Giving Birth’ seems to exemplify this: in the first, Louise, lacking a sense of self, suffers tragic fragmentation and final madness; ‘Giving Birth’, however, shows a subject indeed redefined by contemporary theory, who survives, emerging from the experience of the multiple, mutating selves as a solid entity, capable of finding meaning in her past and awaiting a future. The narrating subject perceives herself in wider terms than language: the repressed self, the transforming power of events, her representation in language, are all integrated into the final result, a new, presumably temporary, but solid, self. The subject becomes language, inasmuch as words are the raw material of narration, and, again, in the metaphor which language constitutes for representing the self (Jeanie becomes drifted over with new words; in pain, both she and language disappear). But language, like the tar sands, is ‘only a metaphor’ in the stories, a metaphor of the self.

The fallacy of the textual self as superseding the experiential self is described by Goodheart in the conclusion to his essay in the following terms: ‘The danger posed by writing is the temptation it offers to life to imitate writing—that is, to imitate the adventurous incoherence of the self that is possible only in writing.’15 The statement compares with Morrison's analysis of Louise's madness: ‘she's taken as real what the rest of us pretend is only metaphorical’ (p. 69). The moral joins other warnings pointed out earlier, warnings against excessive theorising of events, against reducing people to metaphors, or trapping subjects in language.

The ‘survivor self’, the pragmatic vision, is then, though not without struggle, the protagonist of Atwood's work, whether as presence or as suggested option. Equally surviving, after its own struggle, is the ‘common sense’ communicative experience of language. From tentative explorations into the exclusion of women from language (whether viewed from structuralist-deterministic positions, or as Lacanian exclusion from the symbolic), there is a movement towards a pragmatic analysis of social facts (Ronnette, Loulou) and an acceptance of imperfect communication through language, a language which can and must be transformed; the embryo of this attitude is contained in the early statement of intention in ‘Giving Birth’: ‘we will go ahead as if there were no problem about language’.

Margaret Atwood's combination of pragmatic and textual elements, of which the treatment of the subject is an example, undoubtedly constitutes one of the keys to her success for readers and is largely responsible for the controversy over her ascription to postmodernism, within whose boundaries certain practices seem to situate her. Poststructuralist notions and deconstruction have, like other theoretical concepts, influenced Atwood's writing; but from the evidence of her stories, they seem to constitute a tool for more inclusive analysis or representation, rather than a view of the world. From Atwood's careful process of redefinition, both language and the subject emerge affirmed.


  1. Sherrill E. Grace, ‘Articulating the “Space Between”: Atwood's Untold Stories and Fresh Beginnings’, in Margaret Atwood: Language, Text and System (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1983) pp. 1–16.

  2. All references in the text are to the British editions, except in the stories ‘The War in the Bathroom’ and ‘Rape Fantasies’ (Dancing Girls and Other Stories (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1977)); Dancing Girls (London: Virago, 1984); Bluebeard's Egg (London: Jonathan Cape, 1987); Wilderness Tips (London: Bloomsbury, 1991). The following abbreviations will be used in the text: DG, BE and WT.

  3. Margaret Atwood, ‘Valgardsonland’, Essays on Canadian Writing, vol. 16 (Fall-Winter 1979–80) p. 188. Grace quotes this as support for her own argument, ‘Articulating the “Space Between”’.

  4. Dancing Girls has a slightly different selection in the Canadian and British editions; the former includes ‘The War in the Bathroom’ and ‘Rape Fantasies’, excluded in Britain, while the latter includes ‘Betty’ and ‘The Sin Eater’, which were to appear in Canada in the later collection, Bluebeard's Egg. For purposes of our generalisations, we shall treat all four stories as part of the first volume, though keeping in mind that ‘Betty’ and ‘The Sin Eater’ lie between the two books, and can be seen as transitional.

  5. I. Carrera Suarez, ‘Metalinguistic Features in Short Fiction, by Lessing and Atwood: From Sign and Subversion to Symbol and Deconstruction’, in J. Bardolph (ed.), Short Fiction in the New Literatures in English (Nice: Faculté des Lettres, 1988) pp. 159–64.

  6. Deborah Cameron, Feminism and Linguistics (London: Macmillan, 1985).

  7. Barbara Godard, ‘My (m)Other, My Self: Strategies for Subversion in Atwood and Herbert’, Essays on Canadian Writing, vol. 26 (1983) pp. 13–44. Godard discusses the importance of Chodorow's theory of female identity with relation to Atwood's novels (Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering (Berkeley, Cal.: University of California Press, 1978).

  8. Ihab Hassan, ‘Quest for the Subject: the Self in Literature’, Contemporary Literature, vol. 29(3) (1988) pp. 420–37.

  9. Ibid., pp. 422, 425, 429.

  10. Norman Holland, The I (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985); Sharon R. Kaufman, The Ageless Self: Sources of Meaning in Late Life (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986).

  11. Holland, The I, p. 432.

  12. Kaufman, Ageless Self, p. 433.

  13. Hassan, ‘Quest for a Subject’, p. 434.

  14. Eugene Goodheart, ‘Writing and the Unmaking of the Self’, Contemporary Literature, vol. 29(3) (1988) pp. 438–53.

  15. Ibid., p. 453.

Ursula K. Le Guin (review date 1995)

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SOURCE: “Of Bimbos and Men's Bodies,” in The Washington Post Book World, Vol. 25, No. 3, January 8, 1995, p. 3.

[In the following review, Le Guin provides a favorable assessment of Good Bones and Simple Murders.]

If you know any writers or would-be writers, give them this little book, with a bookmark at the piece called “The Page.” In a couple of hundred words it says more than all the dozens of how-to-write books say about the act of writing, the reality of it.

Margaret Atwood knows a lot about reality. Too much, maybe. She scares people. She doesn't respect the institutions of our civilization or the tender feelings of her readers. There is something uncanny in her insights. Could it be that there really are witches? She seems to know so much about them:

“Hell, I used to have breasts! Not just two. Lots. Ever wonder why a third tit was the crucial test, once, for women like me? … You can wipe your feet on me, twist my motives around all you like, you can dump millstones on my head and drown me in the river, but you can't get me out of the story. I'm the plot, babe, and don't ever forget it.”

Her brilliance is daunting: her wit and aplomb can make her seem cold, aloof. She tends to be on the defensive, favoring the preemptive strike. Not without reason. Along with fame and praise, she encounters a curious enmity. At a reading in Canada I have seen members of the audience attack and goad her almost hysterically. Such resentment may rise from mere envy, but it may also be that she makes us feel a bit defenseless ourselves.

This marvelous little collection of short prose pieces [in Good Bones and Simple Murders] should help win over the distrustful, if only because it is so funny. It's hard to pull out bits because the pieces are so tight-knit; you've got to read all of “The Little Red Hen Tells All” or “Homelanding.” Here are some bits from “Let Us Now Praise Stupid Women”: “—the airheads, the bubble brains, the ditzy blondes … all those who dry their freshly shampooed poodles in the microwave,

“all those whose boyfriends tell them chlorophyll chewing gum is a contraceptive, and who believe it. …”

“She talks with wolves, without knowing what sort of beasts they are: Where have you been all my life? they ask. Where have I been all my life? she replies. …”

The compression, the lack of waste, is marvelous as with the Gorgon who gets to narrate her own story and says she has “nothing to do but her toenails,” or the novel-in-three-pages called “Death Scenes,” or a sentence such as, “It's a boy, they cry with joy. Let's cut some off!’

This last line comes from “Alien Territory,” an intense, complex meditation on men's bodies. As a feminist Atwood is chiefly concerned with the pain we cause one another by our curious constructions of gender. “A man and his body are soon parted,” she says, and “Men's bodies are the most dangerous things on earth,” and “Every morning I get down on my knees and thank God for not creating me a man. A man so chained to unpredictability. A man so much at the mercy of himself. A man so prone to sadness. A man who has to take it like a man. A man who can't fake it.”

There is compassion beneath the wit. The seeming coldness guards a profound comprehension of suffering. Atwood is a writer not only of great power and intelligence but of great wisdom and generosity. In these short pieces, where prose touches the compactness of poetry, all these qualities shine memorably, endearingly:

“And when you walk through the snow, in the blizzard, growing cold and then unaccountably warmer, as night descends and sleep numbs you and you know you are lost, it's the third hand that slips confidingly into your own, a small hand, the hand of a child, leading you onward.”

Good things come in small packages and this one's a treasure.

Kathleen Wall (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: “Representing the Other Body: Frame Narratives in Margaret Atwood's ‘Giving Birth’ and Alice Munro's ‘Meneseteung,’” in Canadian Literature, Vol. 154, Autumn, 1997, pp. 74–90.

[In the following essay, Wall examines the portrayal of women as well as the narrative structures in Alice Munro's “Meneseteung” and Margaret Atwood's “Giving Birth.”]

When I think of the framed depiction of women's bodies, I cannot help thinking of the nineteenth-century nude, those women depicted by Ingres, Bonnard, Courbet, and Manet in their baths, their beds, their dressing rooms. Those paintings might be said to represent an iconography of what Simone de Beauvoir identified as early as 1952 in The Second Sex as the woman as “other” in a culture where the masculine was the same, the norm. Additionally, paintings like Manet's Le dejeuner sur l'herbe emphasize the extent to which the body that is the object of the male gaze is, in this iconography, reified and abstract. Zola, trying to justify Manet's inclusion of the nude woman among the clothed men, the unlikeliness of the whole scene, wrote “Thus, surely the nude woman of Le déjeuner sur l'herbe is there only to furnish the artist an occasion to paint a bit of flesh” (Brooks 133).

Further, the poses of these representations suggest an oxymoronic knowing unself-consciousness: for how can a woman be both self-absorbed in her own toilet and yet be posing for the man who paints her? Thus we might see her as self-divided or doubled, depending on whether we attend to the painting's frame: she is alone and subject to her own self-absorption in the context of her representation within the frame that contains her. Yet before the frame separates her from the context of the artist's studio, she is certainly not alone, but rather object of the male artist's gaze. Thus the framed female body typically might be said to represent female otherness, to embody woman as both object and subject. Such a status renders her both self-divided and doubled, in contrast to the unified, singular male of whose gaze she is the object. Subject of her representation, she is the object of the desire to know and understand, but is finally unknowable and incomprehensible. In Body Work, Peter Brooks writes about the traditional connection between the desire to know the body and narrative, as well as about “the inherently unsatisfiable desire resulting from the drive to know”:

The body in the field of vision—more precisely, in that field of vision which is so central to realist narrative—inevitably relates to scopophilia, the erotic investment of the gaze which is traditionally defined as masculine, its object the female body. … As the fictions most consciously concerned with the epistemology of observation demonstrate, scopophilia is inextricably linked with epistemophilia, the erotic investment in the desire to know … [Yet] another body never is wholly knowable; it is an imaginary object that returns us to questions about the meaning of difference.


Both Margaret Atwood's story “Giving Birth,” from her 1977 collection Dancing Girls, and Alice Munro's story “Meneseteung,” first published in the New Yorker in January 1988 and subsequently collected in Friend of my Youth in 1990, contain framed representations of women. Yet unlike the nineteenth-century nudes and the objects of scopophilia that Brooks describes, the bodies depicted in the stories of Atwood and Munro are not those that are traditionally the object of the male gaze, almost suggesting an effort on the authors' part to de-romanticize and de-reify the female body. In “Giving Birth,” the protagonist is a woman in labor; in “Meneseteung,” she is a nineteenth-century “poetess” awaiting the onset of menses. In yet another way they are unlike those nudes: their enclosure is not effected by a picture frame, which we might see as a supplement to or reification of their representation, but by a frame narrative, the kind of frame that Derrida describes as “not incidental; it is connected to and cooperates in its operation from the outside. … [I]ts transcendent exteriority touches, plays with, brushes, rubs, or presses against the limit” (Derrida 20–21). In these two stories, the frame and the framed bodies interact in a way that subversively calls attention to the margin and the marginal. Such a strategy, as Molly Hite notes, questions our tendency to ignore frames and to view them as means of cutting off, and hence making an object of, that which is framed: “To call attention to the margin is to render it no longer marginal and consequently to collapse the centre in a general unsettling of oppositional hierarchies” (Other Side 121–22). As a consequence, both the nature of the body represented and the authors' ways of framing that representation challenge the iconography of those nineteenth-century nudes as well as articulating the nature of self-division and otherness that their framing entails.

The narrators of both stories (who are, not coincidentally, both writers) evince ambiguous relationships to their respective protagonists that, in evoking both similarities and differences, correspondences and discordances between themselves and the women they represent, recall another aspect of painting, the mise en abyme (Dällenbach 33).1 A further similarity in the structure of these two stories is the author's use of a second mise en abyme that depicts what Atwood's narrator terms “the other woman” whose experience of her body, related to yet different from that of the protagonist, highly colors the protagonist's own interpretation of and reaction to her body and its distinctively female experiences. First explored by André Gide in 1893, the “mirror in the text” reflects both what is and what is not represented in the narrative or in the representation between the frames. One thinks here of The Arnolfini Marriage, with its convex mirror that depicts the backs of the husband and wife as well as the painter and the wedding guests, all of whom are outside the space that van Eyck is ostensibly representing, but all of whom are represented nevertheless. The mirror thus presents a different version of what is represented within the frame (the backs of the couple) as well as what is beyond (the wedding guests and painter) the field of representation.2 Velásquez's Ladies in Waiting provides another familiar example; the King and Queen appear in a mirror on the wall of the salon. In both paintings, the mirrors—the convex mirror in The Arnolfini Marriage and the badly silvered one in Ladies in Waiting—distort as well as reflect. Hence, Dällenbach concludes that the mise en abyme reflects and distorts, articulates differences and similarities, concordances and discordances between the field of representation and the mirror in the text.

Inevitably, we see played out in the doubled, mirroring structure used by Munro and Atwood three major and interrelated concerns identified as central to women's writing. The first is woman's often multiple and contradictory reactions to the experiences of her body perhaps first theoretically articulated by de Beauvoir, and then differently focused by Luce Irigaray in This Sex Which Is Not One (for an illustration of the interrelatedness of these issues, note how Irigaray floats from the issue of a woman's pleasure to that of language):

the geography of her pleasure is far more diversified, more multiple in its differences, more complex, more subtle, than is commonly imagined—in an imaginary rather too narrowly focused on sameness. … “She” is indefinitely other in herself. This is doubtless why she is said to be whimsical, incomprehensible, agitated, capricious … not to mention her language, in which “she” sets off in all directions leaving “him” unable to discern the coherence of any meaning.

(28–29; ellipses in original)

The second concern central to our explorations of women's writing is the project of “writing the body” easily summed up by Cixous's injunction, in “Laugh of the Medusa,” that because so much of our experience is mediated by a variety of social discourses, including literary texts, woman must “write the body,” re-create it as—or in—discourse for other women, change and challenge the representations that shape our perceptions and experiences of ourselves. There is some concensus about the characteristics of literature that writes the body: Cixous describes discourse that overflows, exceeds, that “jams sociality” (344), that “does not contain, it carries; it does not hold back, it makes possible” and that expresses “the wonder of being several” (345). Certainly, “writing the body celebrates women as sexual subjects not objects of male desire” (Dallery 58). Writing the body involves, in addition, the recognition that the body, as it is now represented, is the equivalent of a text; that, like a text, it is constructed of and by the discourses in circulation around it. That equivalence is humorously acknowledged by Cixous when she threatens to show men women's “sexts” (342).

The third concern addressed by feminist criticism is the belief that women must or should write differently from men (whether they are “writing bodies” or not). Yet this belief is fraught with problems and contradictions. On one hand, Irigaray believes that a civilization that was capable of expressing women's desire “would undoubtedly have a different alphabet, a different language … Woman's desire would not be expected to speak the same language as man's (This Sex 25; ellipses in original). On the other hand, the practice of an “un-masculinized” language produces

… the “other” language of witches advocated by some women—a language of the body, singsong, visceral cries, etc.—(silence even, which supposedly can be heard, what was the point of asking for your turn to speak then?), this language of the body, this cry-language, is that enough to fight oppression? If one should not hesitate to cry out one's guts against the words that leave you out in the cold, there is no good reason to reject as “masculine and oppressive” a certain form of conceptual discourse and thus give men the exclusive control over discourse.

(Marks and Courtivron 221).

Finally, belief in a female style or language is not born out, Nancy K. Miller argues, by examinations of style on the sentence level, except in the case of individual authors whose individual styles do not provide an adequate basis for generalization about a female one (37). Thorne, Kramerae and Henley similarly found that “few expected sex differences have been firmly substantiated by empirical studies of actual speech” (640).

Hite, discussing Irigaray's metaphor of the speculum (another mirror; the reverse of van Eyck's), writes: “If there can be no clearly delineated Other language, no direct route to the articulation of difference, it followed that difference must use the language of the Same—if rather differently. That is, representation must be skewed or oblique, a perverse mimesis employing the sort of concave mirror that is the primary image of the speculum for Irigaray, the mirror that inverts the image as a condition of reflecting it. Mimesis as mimicry; representation with a difference” (Other Side 144). Might not that “mirror in the text,” Lucien Dällenbach's phrase for the mise en abyme, be these narrative structures that frame, multiply, and problematize the bodies they represent? What I propose here is that narrative structure—the use of the doubled mise en abyme along with the various interrelationships that this device creates—constitutes another language.3

It is no coincidence, then, that Atwood's story opens with just such a reference to the problems of using the available language to represent women's experience, as the narrator questions the appropriateness of the phrase “giving birth” for the experience that she is about to describe. The story's very first sentence ‘overflows’ boundaries by interrogating the title in a gesture that already problematizes the relationship between the inside and the outside of the text, given that we assume that it is authors who give texts their titles, but narrators who tell stories: “But who gives it? And to whom is it given? Certainly it doesn't feel like giving, which implies a flow, a gentle handling over, no coercion. But there is scant gentleness here, it's too strenuous, the belly like a knotted fist, squeezing, the heavy trudge of the heart, every muscle in the body tight and moving” (228).4 The narrator, nevertheless, resolves to “go ahead as if there were no problem about language” (229), even though language will often fail her or her protagonist, Jeannie, in this depiction of childbirth, late seventies style with the pre-natal classes and breathing exercises, the emphasis on breastfeeding, the eschewing of painkillers that arose out of the belief that “pain” in childbirth is caused by the wrong attitude. While Atwood's depiction of childbirth has a curious kind of historical and cultural accuracy, what is most significant about its representation is the disconnection of Jeannie from the experiencing body. When Jeannie's labor pains begin to intensify, the narrator reports: “At the moment she can't remember why she wanted to have a baby in the first place. That decision was made by someone else, whose motives are now unclear” (239). When yet another strong contraction begins, Jeannie's options seem to be escape or dissociation from her body: “she slips back into the dark place, which is not hell, which is more like being inside, trying to get out. Out, she says or thinks. … When there is no pain, she feels nothing, when there is pain, she feels nothing because there is no she” (241). Frequently, this disconnection is related to the inadequacy of a language that has no words for “the events of the body” (239), for the kind of pain or “whatever it is” (240) that she is experiencing. The fact that there is no she is accounted for by the “disappearance of language” (241).5

But Jeannie's disconnection from her body is mainly projected onto “the other woman,” a pregnant figure that Jeannie may actually have seen a couple of times, but who is “not real in the usual sense” (235). Jeannie may feel that the decision to have a baby “was made by someone else whose motives are now unclear,” and that the language for her experience is inadequate. But “the other woman's” pregnancy has even less to do with her own volition; and the language for what is about to happen to her is even more non-existent:

She, like Jeannie, is going to the hospital. She too is pregnant. She is not going to the hospital to give birth, however, because the word, the words, are too alien to her experience, the experience she is about to have, to be used about it at all. … She is a woman who did not wish to become pregnant, who did not choose to divide herself like this, who did not choose any of these ordeals, these initiations. It would be no use telling her that everything is going to be fine. The word in English for unwanted intercourse is rape, but there is no word in the language for what is about to happen to this woman.

(234; italics mine)

Placing the “other woman” in a mise en abyme allows Atwood to depict what is paradoxically contained in yet absent from Jeannie's own experience. Consider again The Arnolfini Marriage (with its pregnant woman), and the convex mirror (the obverse of Irigaray's concave mirror) that depicts what is just outside the represented plane: the wedding guests, the painter, the couple's backs. Yet of course, the picture does represent these others in their distorted, mirrored forms; they are there and not there; they are simultaneously outside the space the artist represents, yet are inserted into that representation. Similarly, the other woman, who is real and “not real in the usual sense,” shadows Jeannie throughout her experience of giving birth, representing the “other” side of childbirth. It is the “other woman” who screams from pain. It is the “other woman” who doesn't want to have a baby—perhaps, Jeannie hypothesizes, because she's been raped, because she has ten other children, because she's poor and starving. It is the “other woman” whose childbirth is fraught with complications (238). In other words, Jeannie can project the anxieties that she doesn't want fully to claim onto the other woman. Such a projection expresses Jeannie's disconnection from her body's potential experience and her fears. Thus, “the other woman,” who occupies a miniature, distorted place in Jeannie's narrative of giving birth, allows Jeannie to construct the saving fiction that it is “other women” who are [more] disconnected from the experiences of their bodies, and that these disconnections are caused by external circumstances (like rape or poverty), not by some inherent disconnection between [the female] body and mind.

As the recipient of these projections, the other woman also functions as a talisman. The morning after her daughter's birth, Jeannie hears footsteps in the hallway: “She thinks it must be the other woman, in her brown and maroon checked coat, carrying her paper bag, leaving the hospital now that her job is done. She has seen Jeannie safely through, she must go now to hunt through the streets of the city for her next case” (245). In some uncomfortable way, then, she seems both to protect and represent all those women whose experience of childbirth does not involve choice, supportive husbands, natural childbirth, healthy and desired babies, and she thus symbolizes all of the possible ways in which women can be alienated from the experience of giving birth.

But just as this figure plays the “other woman” to Jeannie, so does Jeannie play the other woman for the narrator, who wants both to claim and disclaim identity with Jeannie, though, in the telling of the story of Jeannie's childbirth, the gap between the two is slowly closed. The first sentences after the preamble about the inadequacy of language deny any equivalence between the narrator and Jeannie: “This story about giving birth is not about me. In order to convince you of that I should tell you what I did this morning, before I sat down at this desk” (229). Yet her proof is not particularly convincing; in fact, one is all but directed to wonder how this description of a morning with a child proves that she is not some one who gave birth.

Once Jeannie's story properly begins, the narrator makes use of several techniques that keep to the fore her ambiguous relationship to Jeannie. On one hand, Jeannie's story is told in the present tense, a kind of Atwoodian anti-convention that theoretically makes the narrative immediate, but that also has the paradoxical effect of suggesting that the story is a construction, is “made up,” since, according to narrative conventions, “real” stories can only be told after the events have occurred. Because the frame narrative uses past tense, and the mise en abyme makes use of the present, the naturalness of the frame and the artificiality of Jeannie's story are emphasized. Second, the psycho-narration is not entirely consonant: the narrator frequently makes judgments about Jeannie's behavior that distance her from Jeannie yet indicate the narrator's privileged knowledge.6 As Jeannie waits for her labor to become more strenuous, for example, the narrator comments: “But—and this is the part of Jeannie that goes with the talisman hidden in her bag, not with the part that longs to build kitchen cabinets and smoke hams—she is, secretly, hoping for a mystery. Something more than this, something else, a vision” (239). What kind of person takes a Turkish glass talisman into a modern hospital? What kind of woman expects that childbirth will bring mysteries with it? the narrator seems to ask.

At the same time, this narrator attempts to reassure the reader that she really wants to shrink any distinction between herself and Jeannie. In a parenthetical note that interrupts the story of Jeannie's childbirth, the narrator remarks: “(By this time you may be thinking that I've invented Jeannie in order to distance myself from these experiences. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am, in fact, trying to bring myself closer to something that time has already made distant. As for Jeannie, my intention is simple: I am bringing her back to life)” (232). But why the reader should suspect the narrator of creating distance is unclear. Does the narrator sense that the culture text tends to separate women from the experience of their bodies? Or that the culture text teaches women to separate themselves from their bodies, particularly with respect to childbirth? (Shirley Neuman's survey of mothers in autobiographical literature certainly reveals the rarity with which mothers are presented as subjects in their own right, as mothers, experiencing motherhood.) Or is she suggesting that our lack of language about childbirth makes memory difficult? Or are women encouraged to pretend these intimate, immediate events happened to someone other than our “proper” public selves, to bracket off in a kind of emotional mise en abyme the experience that is there and not there, because it is not nameable—and therefore not to be spoken of?

In the narrator's second parenthetical remark on her relationship to Jeannie, she is more forthcoming about their precise relationship: “(It was to me, after all, that the birth was given, Jeannie gave it, I am the result. What would she make of me? Would she be pleased?)” (244). Jeannie, a number of readers agree, is a previous incarnation of the narrator who is using the narrative to recapture an experience not easily remembered, partly because she has been so transformed by childbirth and motherhood that her earlier self is not readily recalled (Davey 142; Rosenberg 125), partly because there is no language to facilitate memory. Thus, she narrates, literally, “to know.” There are no real words for this identity, this similar difference, this different similarity. There is only the mise en abyme with its inherent distortions and paradoxes regarding what is within the frame and what is not, what is outside the sphere of representation, yet represented. Hence, the narrative structure articulates a relationship for which we have no ready language; it is the narrative structure with the complex inter-relationships between the narrator, Jeannie, and the other women that gives this new meaning to the phrase “giving birth” that was questioned at the story's outset.

The relationship between the narrator of “Meneseteung” and Almeda Joynt Roth bears some resemblance to the parallel relationship in “Giving Birth” in that the narrator establishes a distance from and a sympathy with the sensibilities of her protagonist. But her representation of Almeda is mediated by a number of framing devices, almost amounting to frames within frames, areas of differing degrees of narratorial authority or omniscience. In section I of the story, Munro's narrator might be seen as self-consciously engaged in “writing the body,” since Meda is presented as a text to be read and interpreted. In this frame, which extends nearly to the end of section III, the narrator ostensibly constructs her protagonist out of textual evidence: Meda's book of poems with its autobiographical preface; the poems themselves; gossipy commentary in the local paper, the Vidette. Such a construction of Meda reminds us “that woman's body is always mediated by language; the human body is a text, a sign, not just a piece of fleshy matter” (Dallery 54), particularly given that the narrator's goal is eventually an intense exploration of that body's experience of a menstrual period.

The narrator establishes her identity as a kind of researcher, and as such her narrative pretends to a kind of historical authority.7 This authority is at its strongest when she cites documents like the Vidette, or when, based on the Vidette's accounts of life in this western Ontario town, she can make generalizations about the mores and values of the town's citizens.8 Her authority is increased even further by her knowing, twentieth-century commentary upon the values of the time, upon the town's fear that, should a “man and woman of almost any age [be] alone together within four walls, it is assumed that anything may happen. Spontaneous combustion, instant fornication, an attack of passion” (59). Her authority similarly appears in her critique of the doctor who “believes that [Almeda's] troubles [with her health] would clear up if she got married. He believes this in spite of the fact that most of his nerve medicine is prescribed for married women” (62). But this authority only serves to highlight those moments when she admits to uncertainty, as when she attempts her initial description of Almeda—though note here the fluctuation from twentieth-century analysis of the roles and habits of women to the questions about Meda's life:

Almeda Roth has a bit of money, which her father left her, and she has her house. She is not too old to have a couple of children. She is a good enough housekeeper, with the tendency toward fancy iced cakes and decorated tarts that is seen fairly often in old maids. (Honourable mention at the Fall Fair.) There is nothing wrong with her looks, and naturally she is in better shape than most married women of her age, not having been loaded down with work and children. But why was she passed over in her earlier, more marriageable years, in a place that needs women to be partnered and fruitful? She was a rather gloomy girl—that may have been the trouble. The deaths of her brother and sister, and then of her mother, who lost her reason, in fact, a year before she died, and lay in her bed talking nonsense—those weighed on her, so she was not likely company. And all that reading and poetry—it seemed more of a drawback, a barrier, an obsession, in the young girl than in the middle-aged women, who needed something, after all, to fill her time. Anyway, it's five years since her book was published, so perhaps she has got over that. Perhaps it was the proud, bookish father encouraging her?


The narrator uses, then, a whole host of narrative devices to suggest her inability to have any intimate knowledge of Almeda's consciousness. She does so by establishing herself as a researcher who is constructing Almeda from texts, or by reminding us that she is a twentieth-century person who can comment on the social mores of Almeda's time, or by framing questions about aspects of Almeda's and Jarvis Poulter's lives and personalities that she cannot construct from the “evidence” that remains. Like Atwood, she further reminds us of this distance through her jarring use of the present-tense of the verb “to be” in such statements as “The population [of this town west of Kingston] is younger than it is now, than it will ever be again” (54; italics mine). Or: “the grand barns that are to dominate the countryside for the next hundred years are just beginning to be built” (61; italics mine).

But these frames, these claims to authority and admitted lapses of authority all serve the same purpose: they foreground the impossibility of the narrator's entry into Almeda's consciousness, given that we conventionally expect some consistency in a narrator's knowledge and presentation of a character's inner states. Or, to put it another way, the limits that the narrator places on her knowledge highlight those anomalous moments when she exceeds those limits. Thus, if the narrator does present Almeda's thoughts, she's clearly “making it up.” So it is interesting that the narrator most simply and confidently enters Meda's consciousness when she describes Meda's experience of her body: her physical reaction to Jarvis's heavy clothing and masculine smell, her thoughts and feelings on the hot afternoon when, under the influence of laudanum and the flow of menses, she sits in the dining room and plans the poem from which the story takes its title.

Unlike “Giving Birth,” which places the question of language in the outer frame, “Meneseteung” places that question at its centre. Here, “Almeda in her observations cannot escape words” in her attempt to articulate the complex relationship between body and mind, body and society. Her thoughts about the heat, her menstrual period, the woman found beaten and unconscious at the bottom of her garden, the effect of the laudanum on her frame of mind are expressed in language that recalls in style and content Cixous' descriptions of writing the body:

Soon this glowing and swelling begins to suggest words—not specific words but a flow of words somewhere, just about ready to make themselves known to her. Poems, even. Yes, again, poems. Or one poem. Isn't that the idea—one very great poem that will contain everything. … Stars and flowers and birds and trees and angels in the snow and dead children at twilight—that is not the half of it. You have to get in the obscene racket on Pearl Street and the polished toe of Jarvie Poulter's boot and the plucked-chicken haunch with its blue-black flower. Almeda is a long way now from human sympathies or fears or cozy household considerations. She doesn't think about what could be done for that woman or about keeping Jarvis Poulter's dinner warm and hanging his long underwear on the line. The basin of grape juice has overflowed and is running over her kitchen floor, staining the boards of the floor, and the stain will never come out. … She doesn't leave the room until dusk, when she goes out to the privy again and discovers that she is bleeding, her flow has started.


Munro has violated a near taboo against the representation of menstruation in literature,11 and perhaps is engaging with Cixous's poetically expressed connection between women's bodies and their language by connecting Meda's period with her creativity. In some ways, Munro challenges Cixous, whose good mother “writes in white ink”—which of course privileges the bodily experience of motherhood (Cixous 339). Cixous' metaphor would certainly be questionable in the case of Almeda Roth, given that the majority of nineteenth-century women who were able to create writing careers for themselves had no children. In addition, that metaphor, besides excluding women who choose not to be mothers, potentially renders a woman's creativity invisible: white ink is not visible on white paper. Meda's creativity instead is linked to her menstruation, to the impossibility—this month anyway—of motherhood, to her rejection of convention and conventional roles for women, to her aesthetic critique of her mother's “bunchy and foolish … crocheted roses … [that] don't look much like real flowers,” to her refusal of Jarvis Poulter's significant invitation, to her rejection of the cozy domesticity of grape jelly which, we are told in the framed narrative, she never makes. In Munro's story, poems come out of embracing the experience of body and rejecting society's constraints, and in this sense, is very much like the writing of the body that Cixous envisioned. Furthermore, through the metonymic connection between the experience of menses and the conception of Almeda's poem, “Meneseteung,” body has literally become—flowed into—text.

But this scene does not depict the experience or thought of the diegetically historical Almeda Roth; rather, it represents the narrator's invention or imaginative leap—a fact emphasized by the narrator's admission in the last sentences of the story: “I may have got it wrong” (73). This assertion reminds the reader that the story's central, intense scene, along with the metonymy that connects Almeda's menstrual period with her creativity is a “fiction.” That the narrator does not know precisely why Almeda never married, but feels comfortable “inventing” this intimate experience of the body speaks to the nature of the relationship between the narrator and Meda, and the extent to which this narrator can “imagine” the experience of another body. Yet the narrator, by constructing the mise en abyme, as well as by purposefully emphasizing the aporia, suggests that half the point of her representation is an exploration of the relationship between the two of them.

Yet the narrator fails to explore Meda's relationship to “the other woman” who is beaten and raped12 at the bottom of Meda's garden on the hot summer night before the onset of her period, in a scene which comprises this story's inner mise en abyme. What little we do know suggests that Meda's relationship to the other woman remains distant. We are told, for instance, that her dreams have transformed “something foul and sorrowful” into an inert and unoffending “wheelbarrow” (64); or that “[i]f she had touched the woman, if she had forced herself to touch her, she would not have made such a mistake” as calling on the help of Jarvis Poulter (66). Beyond that, there is much that we do not know about Meda's reaction to the other woman except for the helpless panic that sends her to Jarvis Poulter's house for help and advice. Why does she taste “bile at the back of her throat” (66)? Is it a reaction to the prostrate, half clothed female body at her feet, or a reaction to Jarvis Poulter's gesture, to the fact that he “nudges at the leg with the toe of his boot, just as you'd nudge a dog or a sow” (66)? Why does she feel she will retch? Is it because of the body that “weaves and stumbles down the street”? Or is it caused by Jarvis Poulter's tone of “harsh joviality” (67)? If the narrator can present us with Almeda's reaction to her period, she can also fill in these gaps. But Almeda's reaction to the ambiguous, disturbing, destructive and violent sexuality of the other woman she finds at the foot of her garden is never articulated—beyond the important fact that it must be included now in the view of her world she presents in her poetry.

The final frame returns us to the narrator's original relationship to her protagonist, presenting Almeda Roth as a historical figure whose tombstone the narrator eventually found, as well as someone whose experience and consciousness she has partly invented: “I may have got it wrong. I don't know if she ever took laudanum. Many ladies did. I don't know if she ever made grape jelly” (73). In the context of this re-established frame that reminds us of the limits of the narrator's authority—and inevitably of her willingness to burst those limits when she chooses—we can only conclude that the narrator has chosen to facilitate our view of Almeda's experience of her own body, and has blocked (or cannot help blocking) Meda's experience of “the other woman.”

The similar narrative construction of these two quite different stories, then, reveals something about women writers' representation of bodies. The respective narrators' representation of the bodies of their protagonists is variously problematized by the construction of a “frame” around the represented body, and by psychological or temporal disconnections between the narrator and the protagonist made manifest in that frame. The narrator of “Giving Birth” does this simply by affirming that she is not Jeannie; while the narrator of “Meneseteung” accomplishes this distancing by appearing in the guise of a twentieth-century writer doing research on a figure who lived in the past. Yet each narrator can, nevertheless, relate to her protagonist, and can claim some identity with her, either by attempting to define that identity or by intense, imaginative engagement in an experience that is, given the limits of the frame narrator's knowledge, theoretically unknowable. Despite the ambiguous, qualified, and problematic relationship between the frame narrator and the protagonist in the primary mise en abyme, then, the potential for identification is foregrounded. Munro and Atwood, rather than defining woman “by an act of marginalization, by a thrusting of ‘women’ to a position outside the order of the Same” (Hite Other Side 159), have used their frame narrators to redefine the margins and then to proceed to place women's bodies firmly at the centre. Those women, moreover, are not defined by their relationships to men (pace A, the good childbirth coach) or to the male gaze but rather by their own inward gaze, their intense engagement with their experience of childbirth or menstruation.

The inner mise en abyme, in contrast, highlights the distance between the story's protagonist (and her experience of her body) and “the other woman” (and her experience of her body), even while the possibility of identification is admitted and rejected. The relationship between the protagonist and the other woman is rather like that between the young women in Manet's Bar at the Folies Bérgere and her reflection: regardless of where one stands to observe that painting, a viewer cannot get the woman and reflection to cohere spatially, in spite of the fact that they belong to the same figure. Similarly, each protagonist senses the possibility of becoming [like] the other woman, but it is a possibility which each of them finally seeks to avoid. The other woman—who is largely silent, in contrast to the frame narrator whose profession is words—is frightening because she is (seen as) the helpless object of various typical abuses—rape, poverty, violence, and it is perhaps precisely the protagonists' fear of her and her experience that makes her ‘Other.’ Or, to put it another way, while the other woman may be socially marginal, her position within the centre of the frames renders her—and her experience—central. In spite of the admitted difficulties the narrators have representing her experience, she is “Other” only by virtue of being, in some ways, the “Same.” In the context of the doubled frame, and in spite of her silence, the other woman is not marginal but central.


  1. I am here entering the fiction of these stories that conventionally equates the authoritative narrator with the author. Thus when I refer to the “narrators' protagonists,” I am not mistaking the implied author for the narrator (something which several readings of Atwood's story tend to do) but am addressing the conventionalized situation the stories establish.

  2. It is possible that Atwood was thinking of this painting when she wrote the story, given that the narrator's life in “Giving Birth” is compared to Dutch genre painting and Atwood uses the image of this mirror in The Handmaid's Tale.

  3. I intend to argue elsewhere that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is the prototype of this narrative structure; like these two stories, Frankenstein makes use of a double frame that asserts numerous (and well-documented) similarities between Victor Frankenstein and his interlocutor, Robert Walton, thus recalling the painterly mise en abyme. Also similar is the “other body” of Frankenstein's monster, whose experience comprises the innermost narrative.

  4. Conventionally, the implied author is “heard” only in devices like titles and epigraphs; otherwise we “hear” only the narrator. For the narrator to respond to the title blurs this distinction. See Chatman, Coming to Terms, Chapter 5.

  5. Once Jeannie's baby is born, this inadequacy is once again posed as the mother contemplates her daughter: “Birth isn't something that has been given to her, nor has she taken it. It was just something that has happened so they could greet each other like this” (243).

  6. See Dorrit Cohn, Transparent Minds. Psychonarration (for which Cohn provides no succinct definition) is the presentation of a character's consciousness that utilizes (largely) the narrator's style, diction, and viewpoint. One of its trademarks is a predominance of verbs of consciousness—“she thought” or “she felt.” Psychonarration always implies some degree of superiority on the part of the narrator, who generally remains more “knowing” than the character. Nevertheless, psychonarration can be consonant or dissonant, depending upon whether the narrator shares or critiques the thoughts or perspective of the character.

  7. The influence of Susan Lanser's exploration of the issues of authority in Fictions of Authority permeates my discussion of this issue in Munro's story.

  8. She frequently engages in a kind of social psychonarration, in which her voice merges with the values of the townsfolk, as in this description of a hot summer day:

    One day a man goes through the streets ringing a cowbell and calling, “Repent! Repent!” It's not a stranger this time, it's a young man who works at the butcher shop. Take him home, wrap him in cold wet cloths, giving him some nerve medicine, keep him in bed, pray for his wits. If he doesn't recover, he must go to the asylum.


  9. There is a passage that similarly asks questions about Jarvis Poulter: “This is the Vidette, full of shy jokes, innuendo, plain accusation that no newspaper would get away with today. It's Jarvis Poulter they're talking about—though in other passages he is spoken of with great respect, as a civil magistrate, an employer, a churchman. He is close, that's all. An eccentric, to a degree. All of which may be a result of his single condition, his widower's life. … This is a decent citizen, prosperous: tall—slightly paunchy?—man in a dark suite with polished boots. A beard? Black hair streaked with gray. A severe and self-possessed air, and a large pale wart among the bushy hairs of one eyebrow?” (57).

  10. See Pam Houston's essay, “A Hopeful Sign: The Making of Metonymic Meaning in Munro's ‘Meneseteung’,” page 85, for a discussion of the metonymic connections between the story's title, Almeda's menstrual flow, and the grape juice.

  11. Doris Lessing was quite aware of breaking this taboo in The Golden Notebook, in which Anna, who has resolved to write an uncensored day in her journal suddenly finds herself faced with the unrepresentable: her period. She resolves to write anyway, to break the taboo, but is aware of the extent to which her experience of her period may distort her representation.

  12. The word “rape” may be only partially appropriate, since the other woman's reaction to what happens to her remains unclear, filtered as it is through Meda's sleepy consciousness. The narrator describes the sounds Meda hears almost oxymoronically, and certainly equivocally, as “a long, vibrating, choking sound of pain and self-abasement, self-abandonment, which could come from either or both of them” (64).

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. Dancing Girls. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977; rpt. Toronto: Seal, 1989.

Bordo, Susan. “The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity: A Feminist Appropriation of Foucault.” Gender/Body/Knowledge: Feminist Reconstructions of Being and Knowing. Ed. Alison M. Jaggar and Susan R. Bordo. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers UP, 1989. 13–33.

Brooks, Peter. Body Work: Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.

Carrington, Ildikó de Papp. Controlling the Uncontrollable: The Fiction of Alice Munro. DeKalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois UP, 1989.

———“Definitions of a Fool: Alice Munro's ‘Walking on Water’ and Margaret Atwood's Two Stories About Emma: ‘The Whirlpool Rapids’ and ‘Walking on Water’.” Studies in Short Fiction 28 (Spring 1991): 135–50.

Chatman, Seymour. Coming to Terms: The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990.

———Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989.

Cixous, Helene. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Feminisms. Ed. Robyn Warhol and Diane Price Herndl. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers UP, 1991. 334–49.

Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1978.

Dällenbach, Lucien. The Mirror in the Text. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.

Dallery, Arleen B. “The Politics of Writing (the) Body: Ecriture Feminine.” Gender/Body/Knowledge: Feminist Reconstructions of Being and Knowing. Ed. Alison M. Jaggar and Susan R. Bordo. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers UP, 1989. 52–67.

Davey, Frank. Margaret Atwood: A Feminist Poetics. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1984.

Derrida, Jacques. “The Parergon.” Trans. Craig Owens. October 9 (1979): 3–41.

Hite, Molly. “Writing—and Reading—the Body: Female Sexuality and Recent Feminist Fiction.” Feminist Studies 14 (Spring 1988): 121–42.

———The Other Side of the Story: Structures and Strategies of Contemporary Feminist Narrative. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989.

Houston, Pam. “A Hopeful Sign: The Making of Metonymic Meaning in Munro's “Meneseteung.” The Kenyon Review, 14.4 (1992): 79–92.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Lanser, Susan. Fictions of Authority: Women Writers and Narrative Voice. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1992.

Marks, Elaine, and Isabelle de Courtivron, eds. New French Feminisms. New York: Schocken Books, 1981.

Miller, Nancy K. “Emphasis Added: Plots and Plausibilities in Women's Fiction.” PMLA 96.1 (1981): 36–48.

Munro, Alice. Friend of My Youth. Toronto: Penguin, 1991.

Neuman, Shirley. “Your past/Your future: Autobiography and Mother's Bodies.” In Genre, Trope Gender: Critical Essays by Northrop Frye, Linda Hutcheon, and Shirley Neuman. Ed. Barry Rutland. Ottawa: Carleton UP, 1992.

Redekop, Magdalene. Mothers and Other Clowns: The Stories of Alice Munro. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Rosenberg, Jerome H. Margaret Atwood. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

Stovel, Nora. “Reflections on Mirror Images: Doubles and Identity in the Novels of Margaret Atwood.” Essays on Canadian Writing 33 (Fall 1986): 50–67.

Thompson, Lee Briscoe. “Minuets and Madness: Margaret Atwood's Dancing Girls.” In The Art of Margaret Atwood: Essays in Criticism. Ed. Arnold E. Davidson and Cathy N. Davidson. Toronto: Anansi, 1981. 107–22.

Thorne, B., Christine Kramerae, and Nancy Henley. Language, Gender, and Society. Newbury, MA: Rowley House, 1983.

Karen F. Stein (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8626

SOURCE: “Scarlet Ibises and Frog Songs: Short Fiction,” in Margaret Atwood Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1999, pp. 125–44.

[In the following essay, Stein offers a thematic and stylistic overview of Atwood's short fiction.]

Atwood's stories combine realism and whimsy, fairy tale, myth, and fantasy as they represent the lives of contemporary women and men struggling to cope with an often puzzling or difficult world. Many of the stories contain striking symbols that stand in dramatic counterpoint to the routine or dulled lives of the characters. These short fictions explore a range of situations, from playful or provocative meditations on language and on women's bodies to examinations of our darkest fears. Atwood is especially interested in the fictions characters invent about their lives and in the ways that these stories may become traps or self-fulfilling prophecies or may be rewritten to offer new possibility. Dramatic symbols drawn from the world of nature (a flock of scarlet ibises, a cistern, a hurricane, ancient bog people) often mark these stories. Characters who are locked in narrow, self-enclosed fantasy worlds cannot read these signs or they misinterpret them. In contrast, the characters who are receptive to the signs are vital, creative, and able to modify or learn from their stories.

Atwood's first short story collection, Dancing Girls (1977), depicts characters who are alienated from each other and sometimes even psychically alienated from themselves. Most of them face disasters, either real or imagined, but their alienation and isolation are in fact the worst disasters. The second collection, Bluebeard's Egg (1983), focuses on themes of sexual politics and storytelling as they relate to the Bluebeard story of the demon lover. In the Grimms' version of this story, the female protagonist saves herself from a dangerous suitor by telling the story that reveals the murders he has committed. The women here tell stories, but most of them remain locked in obsessive relationships with their demon lovers. Murder in the Dark (1983), published in the same year as Bluebeard's Egg, contains short fictions and prose poems that play a series of variations on themes of language, perception, stories, and sexual politics. Wilderness Tips (1991) is primarily about reclaiming lost women through storytelling and about the stories we tell ourselves and each other, out of our need for fictions to explain the often incomprehensible world. Good Bones (1992) is a series of playful meditations retelling popular myths.


Dancing Girls is Atwood's first collection of short stories. The 14 stories in this book, most of them previously published in a wide range of magazines in the United States and Canada, tell of difficult human relations, of missed connections, of failed communication, of loss. Most of the protagonists are victims in one way or another, although they usually do not recognize or admit that they are (Atwood claims in Survival that the first victim position is denial). Their lives are lackluster, boring, and unsatisfying. Yet dramatic symbols punctuate these stories: ancient sacrificial cisterns, timber wolves, the grave of a famous poet, a plate of cookies shaped like moons and stars. But the protagonists are unable to read these portents and thus cannot resolve their problems. Consequently, they remain isolated and emotionally frozen. Most of them live more deeply in fantasy than in the real world; their stories serve to isolate them even further.

Disaster, real or imagined, large or small, hovers over all the stories: one woman fantasizes about an unspecified apocalyptic event, another about rape; several experience the ends of romantic relationships; one woman is sent to a mental hospital; a plane crashes; a child dies at birth and leaves its parents' lives empty. Most of the women expect danger or disaster. Are they more aware than most people of the world's dangers? Or are they more paranoid? Or perhaps they are simply more used to being victims and thus continually expect the worst. And if the world is a dangerous place, how does one prepare for disaster? What would our responses to these situations be? Apart from the plane crash and the baby's death, these disasters are created by people rather than forces of nature. In fact, the most frequent disaster here is the isolation of individuals and their consequent entrapment in narrow lives of emotional paralysis.

As in “The Man from Mars,” other people seem so alien as to be incomprehensible, fearsome, as if from other planets. Sometimes even the disparate parts of the self are alien to each other, as in “The War in the Bathroom.” Central figures here are often tourists, aliens, foreigners, displaced persons. Although they travel, as tourists or travel writers, their journeys may lead them to unpleasant revelations but do not result in personal transformation. Locked in their separate worlds, the main characters lead lives of “quiet desperation,” emotional flatness. They are split, schizoid, for they sustain public roles but keep their feelings private, hidden from others and even from themselves.

The first story, “The War in the Bathroom,” sets the book's tone of claustrophobia and despair and introduces the first of its doubled protagonists who have minimal expectations and who experience isolation and alienation. It is narrated by an unpleasant, vindictive, and bossy woman who orders around the other unnamed woman in the story, proffering such advice as never to accept help from strangers. It turns out that the voice is a split self—the “I” is the ego or the mental function of the “she” who carries out the mechanical activities of her constricted daily routine: washing, dressing, marketing, eating. The narrating “I” is like a character in a Samuel Beckett story; she is obsessive about detail and locked into a minimal round of repeated daily chores. Compounding her vindictiveness, she achieves what she perceives as a small victory by arranging to lock an elderly man out of the shared bathroom.

This protagonist is explicitly split into two, a speaking voice and an acting person. But all the characters in this volume share her doubleness to some degree. They lead secret fantasy lives that contrast dramatically with their public lives. Often the fantasies are more compelling than their daily routines. As a result, they are unable to form deep connections with others, and they remain fragmented.

In “The Man from Mars” and in “Dancing Girls,” foreign students cause consternation for women who see them as aliens, as if from other planets. Frightened by their differences, the women imagine that these young men from other cultures will endanger them. Their fears and fantasies produce emotional withholding. In “The Man from Mars,” Christine is stalked by a small Asian man, “a person from another culture” (10). She is outwardly polite to him but avoids him and resists his attempts to become friends. After he is deported for stalking the Mother Superior of a convent in Montreal, Christine finds that she is obsessed with him and fantasizes about his fate in his home country. She realizes her similarity to him when she thinks that “he would be something nondescript, something in the background, like herself” (37). In “Dancing Girls,” Ann observes her landlady, Mrs. Nolan, watching her new tenant, the foreign student. Mrs. Nolan is fascinated by his foreignness and asks him to dress up in his native costume for her children, but she is secretly terrified that he will be disruptive or violent. She uses the occasion of a party he holds to call the police to get rid of him.

“Polarities” tells of a graduate student, Louise, who attempts to create connections among a group of people that she knows. She enacts her wish in increasingly bizarre ways. At first she wishes to become friends with Morrison, but he is indifferent. She fantasizes building a “circle” of human linkage to counteract the alienation of a desolate and uncongenial urban environment. She repeatedly approaches Morrison, but he puts her off, remaining noncommittal. Reingard M. Nischik analyzes this story in terms of speech act theory and finds that Morrison speaks indirectly and insincerely, and that he uses questions to distance himself rather than to seek information or to establish communication: we learn repeatedly that he “lies,” feigns interest he does not feel, and does not listen to Louise.1 While Louise refers to herself and reveals her feelings, Morrison holds himself aloof.

The story is told from Morrison's point of view. He and a group of colleagues commit Louise to a mental hospital because of her bizarre behavior. Prying into her notebooks on the pretext of looking for the one she wants, they find that she has a clearer insight into Morrison than he has into himself; she has written, “Morrison is not a complete person … he refuses to admit his body is part of his mind” (58). Morrison reluctantly comes to believe that he loves her, but he is uncomfortable because he realizes “it was only the hopeless, mad Louise he wanted. … A sane one, one that could judge him, he would never be able to handle” (62). Dismayed and at loose ends, Morrison drives to the zoo that he and Louise had once visited. He stands outside the pen where the wolves are now looking at him and senses that this is a portent he cannot understand. “Something was being told, something that had nothing to do with him, the thing you could learn only after the rest was finished with and discarded” (64). Yet he cannot comprehend what this might be.

A married couple who are likewise emotionally shut off, Sarah and Edward in “The Resplendent Quetzal” are unable to discuss their mutual grief and consequently face a loveless marriage after their baby dies at birth. Edward is a relentless tourist, a bird-watcher, a devotee of pre-Columbian ruins. He has planned their tour of ancient Mayan ruins in Mexico. His enthusiastic pursuits are a kind of quest for purpose, for meaning in a mundane life. Since the death of the baby, Sarah has not returned to school and “wouldn't get a job”; instead she “sat at home,” listlessly, as if “waiting for something” (160). Sarah believes that after their baby's death Edward “had lost interest, he had deserted her” (169). Edward suggests that she try to become pregnant again, hoping that this will bring them comfort, but she secretly takes birth-control pills to prevent pregnancy.

Their life together is built of avoidance, indirection, evasion, and outright dishonesty. For example, Sarah pretends to see distant birds so as to get Edward to leave her alone for a few minutes. Although he knows her subterfuge, he pretends to believe her: “Her lie about the birds was one of the many lies that propped things up. He was afraid to confront her, that would be the end, all the pretenses would come crashing down and they would be left standing in the rubble, staring at each other” (158).

The exotic setting and a telling incident lend drama to the story. Sarah steals a figure of the infant Jesus from a crèche at a small restaurant, and she throws it into the cistern where formerly sacrificial victims were thrown to carry messages to the gods and to insure continuing fertility for the community. Her act is a symbolic sacrifice, an unconscious prayer for a restoration of her own fertility and engagement with life. Edward sees her standing on the brink of the cistern and fears that she is about to jump in. But when he reaches her and finds that she is crying silently, he is “dismayed … desperate,” because he is unprepared to deal with her feelings, to confront the emotion beneath her pretense of control. The implication is that their marriage will continue, sterile and suffocating.

Physical disaster sets the stage for the human disasters that follow in “A Travel Piece.” This is the story of Annette, a travel writer whose airplane crashes into the ocean while she is returning from her latest exotic excursion. Annette has increasingly felt as if her life is unreal and the places she visits for her job merely scenery, painted backdrops. “Real events happen to other people, she thinks, why not me?” (141). In the lifeboat with a small group of others she thinks, “[S]omething real had happened to her,” then decides that after all, “[T]here is no danger here, it is as safe in this lifeboat as everywhere else” (147). The expected rescue does not come, and the stranded survivors contrive stratagems to remain alive, for it is indeed dangerous in the lifeboat (as dangerous as everywhere else?). They make sunshades out of plastic food trays and smear lipstick on their faces as sunscreen, causing them to look like interplanetary aliens. Annette thinks of taking a photo but does not, probably because she no longer believes they will be rescued. When one of the men on the boat becomes delirious and tries to jump overboard, Annette realizes that the group on the boat is considering the possibility of killing him and eating him for their own survival. She sees her predicament as “stuck in the present with four Martians and one madman waiting for her to say something” (153) and wonders, “Am I one of them or not?” (153). Are other people like Martians or madmen? Is there an “us” and a “them”? This is real life, not the game of lifeboat played at Elizabeth Schoenhof's dinner party in Life Before Man. Cannibalism is a recurring motif in Atwood's work, sometimes treated humorously (as in Marian McAlpin's woman-shaped cake) but contemplated as a terrifyingly real possibility in this story.

The narrators of “The Grave of the Famous Poet,” “Lives of the Poets,” and “Hair Jewellery” describe failing relationships as the couples in each grow distant from each other and subside into emotional stagnation. The poet's grave does not bring redemption or inspiration to the tourists who seek it out; indeed, the grave symbolizes the death of their relationship. The narrator of “Hair Jewellery” enjoys her fantasies of unrequited love, rationalizing that although she experiences the “emotional jolts of the other kind,” she can continue to live her “meager … and predictable” life (108). She and her partner romanticize and demonize each other (as do the sparring pair in Power Politics). Yet when they meet unexpectedly at a conference years later, they are both disappointed that the other “has sold out” and is leading a respectable academic life, complete with spouse and children. Julia Morse narrates “Lives of the Poets,” referring to herself in both the first and the third person as she describes her travels to give poetry readings to support herself and her partner, Bernie, an artist involved in a small and unlucrative cooperative gallery. Julia has come increasingly to dislike these readings, although she does not tell Bernie. As if her body is rebelling, she gets headaches, colds, and swollen hands and ankles. At the current reading, in Sudbury, Ontario, she develops a nosebleed. Waiting for the escorts from the university to bring her to the reading, she calls Bernie. “Something is frozen,” she thinks, reflecting on her life on the road; “Bernie, save me” (206). When a woman answers the phone she realizes that Bernie has been carrying on an affair. Furious, Julia determines that at this poetry reading she will not be polite and decorous as usual. Instead, at the start of the reading, “she will open her mouth and the room will explode in blood” (195).

“When It Happens” describes the apocalyptic fantasies of Mrs. Burridge, another woman who leads a double life. While she conducts her daily routines of harvesting tomatoes, canning pickles, and writing marketing lists for the weekly trip to town, she has absorbing fantasies of a national disaster that will prompt her to run away into the woods for safety. Certain that a disaster will occur, although she is unsure of its nature, she mentally prepares for the event, hiding one of her husband's guns and thinking of her escape route. Again, as in the other stories here, she does not share her thoughts with her husband, for she believes he would not understand her fears. Thus she perpetuates their lack of communication. Is she intuiting an actual approaching catastrophe? Or is she becoming paranoid, as she continues to live more fully in her disaster fantasy than in her life?

In “Rape Fantasies” a young woman does share her fantasies of possible danger with a man, but the situation is complicated, and we are left to wonder if her stories protect her or endanger her. The story takes the form of a monologue of a young secretary out at a bar on a Friday night. Like Scheherazade she tells stories to a possibly threatening male in the hope that her narratives will intrigue him and establish a rapport so that he will not harm her. Her monologue talks about female fantasies of a disastrous event, rape. She is trying to debunk the notion that women find rape fantasies pleasurable, and to that end she describes her own nonsexual fantasies. In each of her scenarios she uses compassion as a vehicle to avoid becoming a victim. In each instance, she and/or the would-be rapist come to sympathize with and help each other, and each of the rapists is deterred from attacking her. In one of her fantasies the would-be rapist has a cold and she gives him a hot soothing drink; in another she tells the man that she is dying of leukemia, and it turns out that he has the same ailment, so they agree to spend their last months together. As she talks to the man she meets at the bar, she is trying to use conversation to build a connection so that he will not rape her: “I think it would be better if you could get a conversation going. Like, how could a fellow do that to a person he's just had a long conversation with, once you let them know you're human, you have a life too, I don't see how they could go ahead with it, right?” (104). The story ends with this question, a chilling one, for as we know, date rape is a common occurrence.

After the major and minor disasters, the losses and endings, the book ends with a story about a birth. Jeannie gives birth and, as a new woman, writes the story, and her life changes; as a mother, she becomes a different person.

Two of the stories in the Canadian edition of Dancing Girls (“The War in the Bathroom” and “Rape Fantasies”) did not appear in the first American edition, although they are included in subsequent editions; instead, two more-recently published stories, “Betty” and “The Sin Eater,” appeared in their place. “The Sin Eater,” a complex story with richly ambiguous symbolic overtones, deals with the subjects of redemption through storytelling and the responsibility of people for each other. Indeed, this story is the subject of a volume of essays entitled The Daemonic Imagination that presents a range of interpretive approaches and pairs critiques of Atwood's story with discussions of a New Testament passage, Mark 5:1–19, that tells the story of Jesus exorcising demons besieging a suffering man.2

In “The Sin Eater” the unnamed woman narrator recounts her memories of her therapist, Joseph, on the night after his funeral. She remembers his cynicism, his refusal to explain her dreams, his insistence that life is “a desert island … Forget about the rescue” (215). After he dies, the narrator laments his loss because for her he was the one person “who is there only to be told” (223). She also remembers a story he told her about the “sin eaters”: in rural areas of Wales, food was placed on the coffin already prepared for dying people. The Sin Eater, an elderly person that Joseph believes was probably a woman, was invited to come and eat the food, thus symbolically transferring the sins of the dying person to herself.

The narrator attends Joseph's funeral, where his two ex-wives and his third, now widowed, wife are dressed in pastels rather than black, and where the guests eat rich chocolate cake and cookies in the shape of stars and moons. That night she dreams of being delayed at an airport, lacking her passport (again, the alien, the tourist, the displaced person), and meeting Joseph, who takes her to a restaurant where the first wife, in a waitress's uniform, serves them a plate of star and moon cookies. Joseph says wistfully, “My sins,” and the narrator panics as she looks at the plate, thinking, “[I]t's too much for me, I might get sick” (224). But as the story ends the plate floats toward her, she reaches for the cookies, the table disappears, and she notes, “There are thousands of stars, thousands of moons, and as I reach out for one they begin to shine” (224).

The story, replete with richly ambiguous biblical and mythic symbols, tells of loss and its possible transformation. The biblical Joseph, the hero cast out by his brothers, interpreted the Pharaoh's dreams to save Egypt from famine, but the contemporary Joseph refuses to decipher the narrator's dreams. The Sin Eaters are linked to Jesus, who takes on sins to redeem repentant sinners. And, of course, communion food is symbolic of Christ's body just as the funeral food symbolizes resurrection and continuing life. Martha Burdette writes: “Joseph, the powerful male deity of her dream, associated with the moon, stars, and darkness, and with Dumuzi/Tammuz, the vegetation god of presence/absence mourned especially by women, refuses to stay buried” (164–65).3

Yet Atwood's story is complicated. The old women who eat sins are outcasts in their communities, women who “became absolutely bloated with other people's sins,” although they had some “perks”: it was bad luck to kill them (213–14). Moreover, the story reminds us that in Atwood's fiction the consumption of food is usually linked to power. And the nature of this power is ambiguous here. For example, Ann-Janine Morey compares the narrator to another Atwood protagonist who is linked with food, Marian McAlpin of The Edible Woman. Morey believes that in “The Sin Eater” the narrator has regressed. “We leave the nameless female narrator at some point of transformation, but we have no idea if, in reaching for the cookies, she enacts a triumph or a further loss. … Has this been a narrative about the loss of a therapist, or the loss of a self who never has a chance to appear?” (175).4

Other questions are raised as well. Who is the Sin Eater in this story? Is it the therapist, who listens to the sins and absolves the guilt of his clients? Or is it the narrator, whom Joseph is asking to absolve him from his guilt? And when the narrator recounts the story to the reader—who takes the place of Joseph as the one “who is there only to be told”—does the reader then become the Sin Eater, the one who consumes the story that the narrator tells in her search for absolution?

What are the sins that must be eaten to insure the sinner's redemption? In the world of Dancing Girls the sins are those of self-absorption, removing oneself from human connections. And if this is so, then story-telling may participate in the sin-eating process. For telling stories performs many functions. Stories may be exemplary, cautionary tales. A story may also be a confession, a seeking for absolution. And telling stories may become a means of making connections and of sharing experiences. Atwood, as a satirist, a moralist, is writing cautionary tales about the dangers of isolation and alienation, the human disasters of everyday life.


These 13 stories, 12 of them narrated by women, focus on storytellers and storytelling and on the themes of sexual politics embedded in the Bluebeard fairy tale of the title story. In the one story narrated by a man, “Spring Song of the Frogs,” Will speaks in a flat, unemotional voice. His marriage has ended, and he has had several affairs, but we learn nothing of the emotions and conflicts that characterized these relationships. In this story he tries to initiate or resume affairs with two women, but neither attempt succeeds. Self-absorbed and devoid of emotions, he is a Bluebeard figure, a man who brings emptiness rather than passion to his relationships.

Two types of women inhabit these stories. One type is the “ice maiden” so often encountered in Atwood's world—the narrator of Surfacing or of Power Politics, for example—a woman uncertain of her direction, frozen emotionally, a victim trapped in a difficult relationship with a Bluebeard-like male. These women (Alma, Becka, Christine, Sally) live in cities, gray urban wastes of alienation, and they are distanced from their own stories, locked into cliché and superficiality, failing to confront the deeper significance of their lives. The second type is “a creative non-victim,” akin to Joan Foster's aunt, Louisa Delacourt, in Lady Oracle, a mature woman with a sense of purpose. The strong, purposeful Loulou, the fearless Emma, the self-contained artist Yvonne are approaching this state; the narrator's mother in the autobiographical fictions has achieved it. (“What is her secret?” the narrator keeps asking.) These women are more vital, associated with the life force, marked by their connections to nature's green world; they bake bread, watch the sunrise, take risks.

In this book, characters such as the narrator's mother who find meaning in natural symbols are engaged, open to life and to other people. When Christine views the flock of scarlet ibises, she and her husband feel closer than they have in some time, and she feels more solid, more grounded (224–25). When Yvonne watches the sunrise, her sense of order returns (298–99). In contrast, Will in “Spring Song of the Frogs” hopes to find pleasure and satisfaction (and romance) when the frogs sing, but he is thwarted: “The voices … sound thin and ill. There aren't as many frogs as there used to be, either” (201). Frogs symbolize transformation, the renewal of life. His inability to hear meaning in the songs reveals that he is cut off from the world of nature and from others.

The Bluebeard story forms a central motif in Atwood's work, providing a framework to explore heterosexual relationships. This tale, as is usually the case, exists in many versions and concerns the dangers of marriage. The “Fitcher's Bird” story typically involves three sisters. While the first two marry and are killed by the Bluebeard figure, the third outsmarts him, discovers his murderous secrets, and restores her sisters to life. The villain is a wizard who gives each successive wife an egg to carry wherever she goes but forbids her to enter one room in his castle. Of course, all of them do, finding murdered women in a basin of blood and causing their eggs to become bloodstained. When he finds out, he punishes them with dismemberment. The clever third sister leaves her egg outside, escapes from the wizard, and reassembles her siblings. In “The Robber Bridegroom” variant, the maiden foils the killer by telling what she has discovered, pretending that it is a fiction. The villain is then put to death. Thus, the young woman finds her power through storytelling, a frequent theme in Atwood.

While the Bluebeard tale casts the man as the villain, Atwood's texts suggest that women internalize social conventions that deny them power. Thus, social pressures contribute to the victims' problem. For example, Marian McAlpin opts to let her fiancé make all her decisions when they become engaged; the girls in Cat's Eye cut pictures out of an Eaton's catalogue and paste them in scrapbooks, thus learning how to become consumers. In contrast, the narrator's mother in “Unearthing Suite” resists social pressures. She considers her marriage “an escape [from convention]. … Instead of becoming the wife of some local small-town professional and settling down, in skirts and proper surroundings, to do charity work … she married my father and took off down the St. John's river in a canoe. … She … must have felt that she had been rescued from a fate worse than death: antimacassars on the chairs” (312).

Atwood takes a tongue-in-cheek look at sexual (and linguistic) politics in “Loulou, or the Domestic Life of the Language.” Loulou is an earth mother whose house has become the gathering place for a group of free-loading poets. A potter, Loulou is absorbed in the physical world; she embodies the female “secret life—the life of pie crusts, clean sheets, … the loaves in the oven” (4). Loulou wedges her own clay, bakes bread, cooks casseroles. The poets, on the other hand, deal with abstractions, with language. They are comic Bluebeard wanna-bes. They write poems about Loulou, live in her house without paying rent, eat the food she cooks for them, tease her, and refer to her solidity and earthiness in big words she doesn't understand: marmoreal, geomorphic, chthonic, telluric. One teases her, “[W]hat existed in the space between Loulou and her name? Loulou didn't know what he was talking about” (66). Eleonora Rao explicates this story as exploring “women's marginal position within hegemonic [i.e., male-dominated] discourse. The story dramatizes woman's (self) exclusion from language, and the strategies of resistance and survival she adopts in a male-dominated context, where the power of naming is in the hands of male poets” (Rao, 167). Loulou chooses to reject the poets' abstract and arcane language, to live in the physical realm. But there is a delightful twist here. Because the story is told from Loulou's point of view, we see the poets through her eyes: they are quite helpless without her practical capability. And so she has “the last word” about them.

Repeatedly in Atwood, telling stories is an imperative, a way for a protagonist to achieve insight into her situation, to establish connections, or to make her voice heard. In “Bluebeard's Egg” Sally fails to achieve a positive outcome. Sally's problem is that she tells the wrong kinds of stories and doesn't tell her own story. Obsessed with her husband Ed, a cardiologist, “a heart man,” she tells herself stories about him: that women are chasing him, hiding from him, then making sexual advances. She tells him these stories as well. Because she is the narrator, the reader may wonder: Is her repeated story a reflection of her personal insecurity? Is Ed innocently oblivious to the flirtations of women who approach him at parties to ask about their hearts? Is Sally aware (or suspicious) that he is a philanderer? Or do her repeated stories precipitate the very situation she fears? Moreover, when Sally repeatedly tells these stories to her new friend, the divorcée Marylynn, she may be setting up the very outcome she fears.

Because she focuses on her husband's story, Sally fails to learn her own story that could offer her greater self-awareness and release from her obsession. When she persuades Ed to examine her heart with a new machine at his office, she finds that her heart seems foreign and insubstantial to her: “a large gray object, like a giant fig” (161). She takes adult education courses to “concentrate her attention on other things,” yet somehow her attention always returns to Ed. Her instructor tells the class to “explore your inner world,” but Sally is “fed up with her inner world; she doesn't need to explore it. In her inner world is Ed … and in Ed is Ed's inner world, which she can't get at” (167). For her current course, Forms of Narrative Fiction, she has to tell a modern version of the Bluebeard tale from the point of view of one of the characters. To be creative, Sally decides to tell the story from the egg's point of view. But she doesn't know yet what her story will be. She identifies Ed with the egg, and he is a mystery to her.

Meanwhile, Sally hosts a party and sees Ed standing with his arm brushing her friend Marylynn's rump. What is the meaning of this gesture? Is it casual, unplanned, or does it signal a liaison between the two? Or has Sally imagined the gesture? In contrast to the inquisitive heroine of the “The Robber Bridegroom” fairy tale, she is afraid to find the answer to her question. The fairy tale heroine discovered the truth and confronted her prospective husband by telling the story in the guise of fiction, thereby saving her life. In contrast, Sally is hesitant and fearful; accordingly, she keeps quiet about her discovery. She lies beside Ed and thinks of her pale and “ghostly” heart, in contrast to her vibrant image of an egg, “glowing softly as though there's something red and hot inside it. It's almost pulsing; Sally is afraid of it. … the egg is alive and one day it will hatch. But what will come out of it?” We must wonder what the consequences will be for her marriage and for her understanding of her “inner world.”

“Uglypuss” and “The Salt Garden” are also variants of the Bluebeard story, featuring men who are destructive and hostile to their partners. Joel in “Uglypuss” is self-centered and unfaithful, and Becka gets revenge. Alma in “The Salt Garden” is drifting, caught up in two complicated, overlapping romance triangles.

Four of the stories here, “Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother,” “Hurricane Hazel,” “In Search of the Rattlesnake Plantain,” and “Unearthing Suite,” purport to be autobiographical. Like the later Cat's Eye, these fictions blur the line between autobiography and fiction, and of course, all autobiography is to some degree fiction.

The mother in “Significant Moments” is a gifted storyteller, aware of her audience. She speaks with emotion, uses different voices and gestures, and dramatizes the stories. She tailors stories for different occasions and tells the more serious ones, about divorces and romantic tragedies, to women, because men need to be shielded from the unpleasant facts of life. The narrator explains that “the structure of the house [her mother grew up in] was hierarchical, with my grandfather at the top, but its secret life—the life of pie crusts, clean sheets, the box of rags in the linen closet, the loaves in the oven—was female” (4). The narrative here focuses on anecdotes the mother tells about her life, interspersed with the narrator's commentary. The significant moments are childhood memories: how her mother convinced her father (the narrator's grandfather) to allow her to get a haircut, how her pet chicks died, how she jumped from the barn rafters attempting to fly. Then there are stories about the narrator as a child: how she talked to her rabbit cookie at a tea party. What lesson am I to learn from this, she wonders.

“Hurricane Hazel” is another family story. The narrator is 14 and has her first boyfriend, the older Buddy. She tries to pretend to be “normal,” but her family is different from the conventional suburban family because they live in the bush in the summers, where her father conducts entomological research. Buddy visits her at their cabin, and she spends the day with him. She accepts his ID bracelet even though she does not want it because “I felt that Buddy had something on me: that, now he had accidentally seen something about me that was real, he knew too much about my deviations from the norm. I felt I had to correct that somehow. It occurred to me, years later, that many women probably had become engaged and even married this way” (48). Sharon Rose Wilson comments wryly that here, as in much of Atwood's fiction, “[P]assing the test of socialization, being a conventionally ‘true bride’ or good date, is failing the test of being a human being” (Wilson, 266).

The volume's closing story, “Unearthing Suite,” is cast as a memoir of the narrator's parents. In fact, Atwood reads a passage from this story as a voice-over in the videotape Atwood and Family as her parents enact the parts, her mother swimming in the lake and her father surveying the dock for repairs. In this story, the narrator contrasts herself with her more agile, active, and healthy parents. They are healthy; she has a cold. She would cling anxiously to the roof if she climbed it; her mother. “clambers nimbly” to sweep off the leaves every fall. They are energetic and carry out projects; she does “as little as possible” (311). Among their projects, her parents build houses that she calls “earths” and explains, “[T]hey are more like stopping places, seasonal dens, watering holes on some caravan route which my nomadic parents are always following” (306).

The narrator finds that her vocation as a storyteller emerged from childhood patterns. When she was young, her parents exhorted her to be still so as not to tip a canoe, touch a tent in the rain, or unsettle the precarious balance of a heavily laden motorboat. “Perhaps it was then that I began the translation of the world into words. It was something you could do without moving” (311). And perhaps also, enforced stillness in natural surroundings taught her to observe carefully and to enjoy her imagination.

In contrast to the unmoving narrator, the mother is active, always moving—ice-skating, skiing, swimming, or organizing the family moves from house to house. The narrator explains: “Photographs have never done justice to my mother. This is because they stop time; to really reflect her they would have to show her as a blur” (303). Unlike the passive, frozen women, the mother cannot be “captured” by a camera.

Her mother is optimistic, unconventional; she asserts herself as a real person, lively, active, interesting, a full partner in the marriage. The unconventional, nomadic life she found in her marriage was a way to freedom—out of the stifling conventions of the parlor and drawing room, into the bush. She is a welcome counterpoint to the women who are figuratively Bluebeard's victims in the book's other stories (Sally, Alma, Becka).

The incident that ends the story, and the book, reveals the mother's character and is another “significant moment.” When her mother was sweeping the roof, she found the droppings of an unusual animal, a fisher. The father finds this “an interesting biological phenomenon.” For her mother; however, it is a “miraculous token, a sign of divine grace; as if their mundane, familiar, much-patched … roof has been visited and made momentarily radiant by an unknown but by no means minor god” (323). Thus, her mother, attuned to the green world, reads divine grace into animal droppings. Thus, the book's framing stories depict a comfortable, stable marriage and present a woman who escapes from restrictive social conventions to become her own person, a “creative nonvictim.”


This collection appeared in Canada in 1983 and was combined with Good Bones when published in the United States as Good Bones and Simple Murders (Doubleday, 1994). Many of the pieces here are about the writing and storytelling process. They are small snippets of stories: young children making poison, schoolgirls reading horror comics and throwing snowballs. Some are mental games: What if men did the cooking? What if words were tangible objects?

The title piece describes a party game in which the person taking the role of the murderer lies while the others tell the truth. The narrator claims that the writer is the murderer, and “by the rules of the game, I must always lie” (30). “Simmering” is a role-reversal fantasy. It retells the subversive stories told by women who have been exiled from the sacred mysteries of the kitchen and sent off by their husbands to work. There was a time when women's “kitchen envy” was treated by amputating the tips of their tongues. Now, women gather in living rooms and whisper the secret tales of a time when women did cook. “The Page” describes the terror and danger of entering the world beneath the blank page, for “beneath the page is everything that has ever happened, most of which you would rather not hear about” (45). “Happy Endings” details various plots that may be written, but the author notes that the endings are all the same: “John and Mary die” (40).

The book ends with “Instructions for the Third Eye,” the eye that sees things we would rather not see. The third eye sees more, and more clearly: “The third eye can be merciless, especially when wounded. … Try not to resist the third eye: it knows what it's doing. Leave it alone and it will show you that this truth is not the only truth. One day you will wake up and everything, the stones by the driveway, … each brick, each leaf … your own body, will be glowing from within, lit up, so bright you can hardly look. You will reach out … and you will touch the light itself” (62).


This collection of 10 stories is unified through the themes of loss of innocence, difficult relationships, death, and storytelling. In particular, these stories reveal our need of storytelling as a way of discovering meaning, explaining our experiences, and coming to terms with ourselves and others. For the stories we tell often determine our survival. The stories counterpose ordinary life with our fantasies about it, which are often inadequate or misleading, such as the fashion magazine's fantasies of sexual allure (“Hairball”), the romance magazine's tales of sex and betrayal (“True Trash”), and Greek myths of transformation (“Isis in Darkness”). Particularly Canadian fantasies of the Northern landscape underlie three of these stories, “The Age of Lead,” “Death by Landscape,” and “Wilderness Tips.” It is instructive to read these stories in tandem with Atwood's Strange Things, a discussion of Canadian popular myths about “the malevolent North.” In Atwood's stories here, the focus is on the dangers humans cause rather than the dangers posed by the landscape. The Bluebeard story, the demon lover fairy tale, is an intertext of “Weight” and “Hack Wednesday.” “Uncles” foregrounds the gap between our own fictions about ourselves and the way others see us.

Telling stories is a major theme here, especially in “True Trash,” “Isis in Darkness,” and “Death by Landscape,” three stories about the reclamation of lost women through storytelling. The first story, “True Trash,” is about the process of telling stories. Joanne, a freelance writer, is the perceiver who gives structure to the tale. When the story begins she is about 18 and a waitress at a boys' summer camp in the 1950s. The title is the waitresses' parody of the True Romance magazine that the waitresses read, snickering at the contrived melodramatic tales of forbidden lust and sex. Yet even as they are reading the tales, a similar story is unfolding among them: one of them becomes pregnant out of wedlock. Joanne later discovers who the unsuspecting father of the child is and wonders if she should tell him: “The melodrama tempts her, the idea of a revelation, a sensation, a neat ending. But it would not be an ending, it would only be the beginning of something else. In any case, the story itself seems to her outmoded. … It's a story that would never happen now” (30).

“Hairball” is narrated by Kat, a fashion magazine editor who comes to realize that she has designed her life to mirror a slick magazine. She dresses at the height of fashion—tough, hard, edgy—and assumes a demeanor to match but discovers that what she really wants is comfort, marriage, security. Similarly, she chooses clothing to transform her lover into a sexier man but then realizes that she liked him better as he was before. The hairball of the title is her ovarian cyst, a benign growth that has been surgically removed. Kat comes to think of the hairy growth as the child she has never had. She keeps it in a jar and uses it to dramatic purpose at the story's conclusion.

“Isis in Darkness” is the title of a poem sequence written by the mysteriously alluring young woman Selena. Her poems recount the story of the Egyptian fertility goddess searching for the bones of her beloved Osiris, the vegetation god, and piecing them back together. The story tells of the transformations of myth and poetry and points to the missed opportunities for human transformation. Selena is named after the Greek goddess of the moon. But the contemporary Selena becomes an alcoholic and dies young, while the story's narrator, Richard, a less-talented poet who loves her from afar, lapses into a dull marriage, a divorce, and an uninspired career. Richard is in the position of Isis at the story's end, assembling his fragments of Selena's life on notecards and planning to write the book that will reveal her poetic genius and troubled life. In memorializing her he finally finds the subject that inspires him. In contrast to Richard, whose retelling of Selena's story enhances and magnifies her, Julie's story of Connor (“The Bog Man”) diminishes him, for her memory of him dwindles over time.

“Death by Landscape” is a haunting tale of Lois, whose friend Lucy disappears on a canoe trip one summer at camp. A typical Canadian nature story, according to Atwood, is about being lost or killed in a dangerous landscape (SV. 55). In this story, the focus shifts from the dangerous landscape to the characters' stories about it. The camp director needs to account for the inexplicable event and persuades herself that Lois pushed Lucy off a cliff. Lois finds the event inexplicable. She lacks a story about the accident and retreats into her memories of Lucy. She collects landscape paintings by Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven and believes that “every one of them is a picture of Lucy” (118).5 Interestingly, Tom Thomson himself was drowned while canoeing on one of his painting expeditions.

“The Age of Lead” juxtaposes two seemingly unrelated narratives: a TV documentary describing the death of John Torrington, a young sailor on the ill-fated Franklin expedition of 1845, and the story of Jane's friend Vincent. As Jane tells the story, the links between the two narratives emerge. The documentary recounts a scientific expedition led by Owen Beattie, a Canadian forensic anthropologist, in 1984 and 1986 to exhume Torrington's body from the permafrost. In 1845, Captain John Franklin of the British Royal Navy led a group of 134 men in two specially equipped ships to search for a Northwest Passage that would link England and northern Europe with the Pacific through the Arctic Ocean. The entire expedition died, the cause of their deaths a mystery: “At the end those that had not yet died in the ships set out in an idiotic trek across the stony, icy ground, pulling a lifeboat laden down with toothbrushes, soap, handkerchiefs, and slippers, useless pieces of junk” (161). It has taken more than one hundred years to develop the story that explains their deaths. Jane learns that Franklin and his explorers were poisoned by the lead solder in their cans of provisions: “It was what they'd been eating that had killed them” (161).

Jane juxtaposes the documentary with memories of Vincent, who died recently at age 43 of an unidentified disease and who had joked that his disease “must have been something I ate” (160). Jane thinks about “the sidewalk that runs past her house … cluttered with plastic drinking cups, crumpled soft-drink cans, used take-out plates,” very like the “useless pieces of junk” left behind by the Franklin expedition (162). Sherrill E. Grace writes: “[W]e are positioned to perceive that the moral … is that we, like Franklin and his men, are being poisoned by what we eat or by what we are doing to the environment upon which we depend for food. … If [they] could not read the signs connecting their destruction with the conveniences of their world in time to save themselves, why should we? If they were not safe in their science and technology, why should we be safe?”6 Thus, interestingly, the danger lies more in technology than in the Northern landscape that proved so dangerous in Atwood's early poems. And perhaps we need to revise our own stories about contemporary technology.

Two stories tell of the demon lover, the deathlike male. In “Weight” the gentle and forgiving Molly clings to romantic hopes for redeeming her obsessively jealous husband and is murdered, while her friend, the pragmatic and cynical narrator, survives to commemorate Molly with a battered women's shelter. For Molly and the narrator, telling the right stories is a life-or-death imperative. “Hack Wednesday” is a comic variant, a day in the life of a middle-aged newspaper columnist, Marcia, and her political activist husband, one of the rigid, “straight-line” personalities whose version of political correctness imposes artificial and needlessly constraining rules of behavior.

“Wilderness Tips,” the title story, is narrated by George, an immigrant to Canada, whose polite surface charm belies his amoral behavior. The story is a complex one, alluding to actual and invented stories of the North as it questions the meanings of wilderness for Canadian identity (Howells, 32–37). Each of the characters has a set of assumptions about the values implicit in wilderness, and in the course of the story, these values are destabilized, turned upside down: again, humans prove more treacherous than the wilderness.

In each of the stories here, the characters must reevaluate the fictions on which they have based their lives. In her next collection of short fiction, Good Bones, Atwood plays with a variety of popular myths, rewriting them from unusual points of view.


The 27 short fictions and prose poems collected in this book are confections, jeux d'esprit, stories told with wit from unusual points of view, wryly revising cultural myths although often carrying sly undertones, as in “The Female Body” and “Making a Man.” The bat tells of its fear of humans in “My Life as a Bat.” The moth in “Cold-Blooded” reports to its home planet about a race of strange and backward “blood-creatures.” When “The Little Red Hen Tells All,” she explains that, being henlike, she shared the loaf of bread with all the lazy animals who never helped her. When “Gertrude Talks Back,” she tells her son Hamlet that he is an “awful prig sometimes,” just like his father.

“Let Us Now Praise Stupid Women” tells us that the wise, smart, careful women lead wise, ordered lives, but the stupid ones are endearing because “they make even stupid men [and women] feel smart” (32). Moreover, the stupid women, because of their general innocent ineptness, generate the plots of narratives; they are the ones “who have given us Literature” (37). And where would we be without stories, for, as the narrator exclaims, “No stories! Imagine a world without stories!” (32).

The pieces here, like those in Murder in the Dark, have been called fables, speeded-up short stories, and prose poems. They blur the boundaries between fiction and poetry, thus “expanding the brackets” of the genres. They are testaments to Atwood's love of story and to her continuing exploration of the complex, multiple, ambiguous fictions we invent in our ongoing quest for survival.


  1. Reingard M. Nischik, “Speech Act Theory, Speech Acts, and the Analysis of Fiction,” Modern Language Review 88, no. 2 (April 1993): 297–304.

  2. Robert Detweiler and William G. Doty, The Daemonic Imagination: Biblical Text and Secular Story (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990); hereafter cited in text.

  3. Martha Burdette, “Sin Eating and Sin Making: The Power and Limits of Language” in Detweiler and Doty, 159–68.

  4. Ann-Janine Morey, “The Old In/Out,” in Detweiler and Doty, 169–80.

  5. The Group of Seven was a group of Canadian painters formed in 1920. Influenced by Tom Thomson (1877–1917), the group was eager “to develop a new style of Canadian painting” featuring landscapes and Northern scenes. “In constrast to the farmers and industrialists who sought to conquer the land and to prosper from it, these artists saw in the untamed terrain a reflection of the country's spirit.” Members of the group were Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A. Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J. E. H. McDonald, and F. J. Varley. Anne Newlands, The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson (Willowdale, Ontario: Firefly Books, 1995), 6.

  6. Sherrill E. Grace, “‘Franklin Lives’: Atwood's Northern Ghosts,” in Various Atwoods, ed. Lorraine M. York (Concord, Ontario: Anansi, 1995), 159–61.

Further Reading

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McCombs, Judith and Carole L. Palmer. Margaret Atwood: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1991, 735 p.

Primary and secondary bibliography.


Cooke, Nathalie. Margaret Atwood: A Biography. Toronto: ECW, 1998, 378 p.

Biography of Atwood.


Alvarez, Kate. Reviews of Surfacing and Good Bones. TLS: Times Literary Supplement (1 July 1994): 22.

Negative assessment of Good Bones.

Clute, John. “Embracing the Wilderness.” TLS No. 4393 (12 June 1987): 626.

Review of Bluebird's Egg and Other Stories and The Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English which Atwood edited with Robert Weaver.

Crace, Jim. “Off-Cuts.” TLS (23 March 1984): 311.

Negative review of Murder in the Dark.

Deery, June. “Science for Feminists: Margaret Atwood's Body of Knowledge.” Twentieth Century Literature 43, No. 4 (Winter 1997): 470–86.

Analyzes the role of science in Atwood's work.

Deveson, Richard. “Lashing Out.” New Statesman 107, No. 2764 (9 March 1984): 25.

Mixed review of Murder in the Dark.

Kildahl, Karen A. “Margaret Atwood.” Critical Survey of Short Fiction, edited by Frank N. Magill, pp. 13–19. Salem Press, 1987.

Discusses defining characteristics of Atwood's short fiction.

McCombs, Judith, ed. Critical Essays on Margaret Atwood. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1988, 306 p.

Collection of critical essays on Atwood's work, including her short fiction.

Morris, Mary. “The Art of Fiction CXXI: Margaret Atwood.” Paris Review 32, No. 117 (Winter 1990): 69–88.

Atwood discusses the major themes of her work as well as her creative process.

Nicholson, Colin, ed. Margaret Atwood: Writing and Subjectivity: New Critical Essays. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994, 261 p.

Compiles recent critical essays on Atwood's fiction and poetry.

Nischik, Reingard M. “Speech Act Theory, Speech Acts, and the Analysis of Fiction.” Modern Language Review 88, No. 2 (April 1993): 298–306.

Analyzes Atwood's utilization of language.

Richards, Beth. “Interview with Margaret Atwood.” Prairie Schooner 67, No. 4 (Winter 1993): 8–12.

Brief interview.

Roraback, Dick. Review of Good Bones & Simple Murders. Los Angles Times Book Review 62 (19 February 1995): 6.

Laudatory review.

Rosenberg, Jerome H. Margaret Atwood. Boston: Twayne, 1984, 184 p.

Critical survey of Atwood's works.

Russell, Brandon. “Eavesdropping.” TLS (17 August 1984).

Review of Dancing Girls.

Additional coverage of Atwood's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 12; Bestsellers, 1989:2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49–52; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 3, 24, 33, 59; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 3, 4, 8, 13, 15, 25, 44, 84, 135; Contemporary Novelists; Contemporary Poets; Contemporary Popular Writers; Contemporary Women Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 53; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Novelists, Poets; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Feminist Writers; Major 20th-Century Writers, Vols. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vol. 4; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 8; Poetry for Students, Vol. 7; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 3; Something About the Author, Vol. 50; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; and World Literature Criticism.

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Margaret Atwood World Literature Analysis


Atwood, Margaret (Feminism in Literature)

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