Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 752
Internationally acclaimed as a novelist, poet, and short story writer, Atwood has emerged as a major figure in contemporary feminist writing. Through female protagonists and narrators who often journey from victimization to self-actualization, Atwood explores women's issues using elements of science fiction, historical fact, fairy tale, and dystopian vision.
Atwood was born in Ottawa and grew up in suburban Toronto. As a child she spent her summers at her family's cottage in the wilderness of northern Quebec, where her father, a forest entomologist, conducted research. 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. Impressed with Blake's use of mythological imagery, Atwood wrote her first volume of poetry, Double Persephone, which was published in 1961. The following year Atwood completed her A.M. degree at Radcliffe College, 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 for a year at the University of British Columbia and completed her first novel, The Edible Woman (1969). After a year of teaching literature at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, Atwood moved to Alberta to teach creative writing at the University of Alberta. Her poetry collection The Circle Game (1966) won the 1967 Governor General's Award, Canada's highest literary honor. Atwood's public visibility increased significantly with the publication of the poetry collection Power Politics in 1971. Seeking an escape from increasing media attention, Atwood left her teaching position at the University of Toronto to move to a farm in Ontario with her husband. In 1986 she again received the Governor General's Award for her novel The Handmaid's Tale.
Most of Atwood's fiction and poetry concerns women's issues on some level, but her novel The Handmaid's Tale has generated the most feminist commentary. The story is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the early twenty-first century, after Christian fundamentalists have transformed the United States into a fascistic theocracy called Gilead. Birth rates are down in the post-nuclear age of Gilead, so Handmaids—women who are fertile—are designated as sexual slaves to produce offspring for childless couples considered morally fit to raise children. Women in Gilead are not allowed to read, hold jobs, or have money. Narrated by a young Handmaid named Offred—or Of Fred, the man to whom she belongs—the novel is considered a powerful dystopian vision of anti-feminist totalitarianism. The protagonist of Atwood's next novel, Cat's Eye (1990), Elaine Risley, is a controversial middle-aged painter who returns to her hometown of Toronto for a retrospective exhibition of her work. The trip triggers unexpected memories and emotions for Elaine, particularly thoughts of Cordelia, a childhood friend to whom Elaine was attracted despite the girl's extreme cruelty. The story is a nonlinear telling of Elaine's confrontation of her past, specifically her complex and difficult friendship with Cordelia, and the ways in which women routinely betray one another. In The Robber Bride (1993) Atwood transforms the grisly Brothers Grimm fairy tale "The Robber Bridegroom," about a demonic groom who lures three innocent maidens into his lair and then devours them, into another statement about women's treatment of each other. Three middle-aged friends are relieved to reunite at the funeral of the woman who tormented them in college, stealing from them money, time, and men, and threatening their careers and lives. But the villainous Zenia turns up alive, forcing them to relive painful memories and come to terms with the connection between love and destruction. In earlier novels such as The Edible Woman and Lady Oracle (1976), Atwood used sarcastic wit and irony to explore the masks women wear to impress men. In her essays and criticism she often discusses the difficulties of being a woman writer and the challenge of developing meaningful female and male characters.
Atwood's works have achieved both wide popular readership and much critical attention. Criticism has tended to focus on her political and social views as they are represented in her works, most notably her feminism, of which she has spoken frequently in interviews. Because her works often portray physical and psychological violence in relationships between men and women, some commentators have labeled Atwood pessimistic and dismissed her as little more than an ideologue, but other critics have hailed her as a visionary interpreter of contemporary feminist thought.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 145
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 (poetry) 1976
Dancing Girls, and Other Stories (short stories) 1977
Two-Headed Poems (poetry) 1978
Up in the Tree (juvenilia) 1978
Life before Man (novel) 1979
True Stories (poetry) 1981
Bodily Harm (novel) 1982
Second Words: Selected Critical Prose (criticism) 1982
Bluebeard's Egg (short stories) 1983
Murder in the Dark: Short Fictions and Prose Poems (short stories and poetry) 1983
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
Wilderness Tips (short stories) 1991
Good Bones (short stories) 1992
The Robber Bride (novel) 1993
The Blind Assassin (novel) 2001
Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (essays) 2002
Oryx and Crake (novel) 2003
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4801
SOURCE: Atwood, Margaret. "On Being a 'Woman Writer': Paradoxes and Dilemmas." In Second Words, pp. 190-204. Toronto, Can.: Anansi Press Limited, 1982.
In the following essay, Atwood explores the difficulties of being considered a "woman writer."
I approach this article with a good deal of reluctance. Once having promised to do it, in fact, I've been procrastinating to such an extent that my own aversion is probably the first subject I should attempt to deal with. Some of my reservations have to do with the questionable value of writers, male or female, becoming directly involved in political movements of any sort: their involvement may be good for the movement, but it has yet to be demonstrated that it's good for the writer. The rest concern my sense of the enormous complexity not only of the relationships between Man and Woman, but also of those between those other abstract intangibles, Art and Life, Form and Content, Writer and Critic, etcetera.
Judging from conversations I've had with many other woman writers in this country, my qualms are not unique. I can think of only one writer I know who has any formal connection with any of the diverse organizations usually lumped together under the titles of Women's Liberation or the Women's Movement. There are several who have gone out of their way to disavow even any fellow-feeling; but the usual attitude is one of grudging admiration, tempered with envy: the younger generation, they feel, has it a hell of a lot better than they did. Most writers old enough to have a career of any length behind them grew up when it was still assumed that a woman's place was in the home and nowhere else, and that anyone who took time off for an individual selfish activity like writing was either neurotic or wicked or both, derelict in her duties to a man, child, aged relatives or whoever else was supposed to justify her existence on earth. I've heard stories of writers so consumed by guilt over what they had been taught to feel was their abnormality that they did their writing at night, secretly, so no one would accuse them of failing as housewives, as "women." These writers accomplished what they did by themselves, often at great personal expense; in order to write at all, they had to defy other women's as well as men's ideas of what was proper, and it's not finally all that comforting to have a phalanx of women—some younger and relatively unscathed, others from their own generation, the bunch that was collecting china, changing diapers and sneering at any female with intellectual pretensions twenty or even ten years ago—come breezing up now to tell them they were right all along. It's like being judged innocent after you've been hanged: the satisfaction, if any, is grim. There's a great temptation to say to Womens' Lib, "Where were you when I really needed you?" or "It's too late for me now." And you can see, too, that it would be fairly galling for these writers, if they have any respect for historical accuracy, which most do, to be hailed as products, spokeswomen, or advocates of the Women's Movement. When they were undergoing their often drastic formative years there was no Women's Movement. No matter that a lot of what they say can be taken by the theorists of the Movement as supporting evidence, useful analysis, and so forth: their own inspiration was not theoretical, it came from wherever all writing comes from. Call it experience and imagination. These writers, if they are honest, don't want to be wrongly identified as the children of a movement that did not give birth to them. Being adopted is not the same as being born.
A third area of reservation is undoubtedly a fear of the development of a one-dimensional Feminist Criticism, a way of approaching literature produced by women that would award points according to conformity or non-conformity to an ideological position. A feminist criticism is, in fact, already emerging. I've read at least one review, and I'm sure there have been and will be more, in which a novelist was criticized for not having made her heroine's life different, even though that life was more typical of the average woman's life in this society than the reviewer's "liberated" version would have been. Perhaps Women's Lib reviewers will start demanding that heroines resolve their difficulties with husband, kids, or themselves by stomping out to join a consciousness raising group, which will be no more satisfactory from the point of view of literature than the legendary Socialist Realist romance with one's tractor. However, a feminist criticism need not necessarily be one-dimensional. And—small comfort—no matter how narrow, purblind and stupid such a criticism in its lowest manifestations may be, it cannot possibly be more narrow, pur-blind and stupid than some of the non-feminist critical attitudes and styles that have preceded it.
There's a fourth possible factor, a less noble one: the often observed phenomenon of the member of a despised social group who manages to transcend the limitations imposed on the group, at least enough to become "successful." For such a person the impulse—whether obeyed or not—is to disassociate him/herself from the group and to side with its implicit opponents. Thus the Black millionaire who deplores the Panthers, the rich Québecois who is anti-Separatist, the North American immigrant who changes his name to an "English" one; thus, alas, the Canadian writer who makes it, sort of, in New York, and spends many magazine pages decrying provincial dull Canadian writers; and thus the women with successful careers who say "I've never had any problems, I don't know what they're talking about." Such a woman tends to regard herself, and to be treated by her male colleagues, as a sort of honorary man. It's the rest of them who are inept, brainless, tearful self-defeating: not her. "You think like a man," she is told, with admiration and unconscious put-down. For both men and women, it's just too much of a strain to fit together the traditionally incompatible notions of "woman" and "good at something." And if you are good at something, why carry with you the stigma attached to that dismal category you've gone to such lengths to escape from? The only reason for rocking the boat is if you're still chained to the oars. Not everyone reacts like this, but this factor may explain some of the more hysterical opposition to Women's Lib on the part of a few woman writers, even though they may have benefitted from the Movement in the form of increased sales and more serious attention.
A couple of ironies remain; perhaps they are even paradoxes. One is that, in the development of modern Western civilization, writing was the first of the arts, before painting, music, composing, and sculpting, which it was possible for women to practice; and it was the fourth of the job categories, after prostitution, domestic service and the stage, and before wide-scale factory work, nursing, secretarial work, telephone operating and school teaching, at which it was possible for them to make any money. The reason for both is the same: writing as a physical activity is private. You do it by yourself, on your own time; no teachers or employers are involved, you don't have to apprentice in a studio or work with musicians. Your only business arrangements are with your publisher, and these can be conducted through the mails; your real "employers" can be deceived, if you choose, by the adoption of an assumed (male) name; witness the Brontës and George Eliot. But the private and individual nature of writing may also account for the low incidence of direct involvement by woman writers in the Movement now. If you are a writer, prejudice against women will affect you as a writer not directly but indirectly. You won't suffer from wage discrimination, because you aren't paid any wages; you won't be hired last and fired first, because you aren't hired or fired anyway. You have relatively little to complain of, and, absorbed in your own work as you are likely to be, you will find it quite easy to shut your eyes to what goes on at the spool factory, or even at the university. Paradox: reason for involvement then equals reason for non-involvement now.
Another paradox goes like this. As writers, woman writers are like other writers. They have the same professional concerns, they have to deal with the same contracts and publishing procedures, they have the same need for solitude to work and the same concern that their work be accurately evaluated by reviewers. There is nothing "male" or "female" about these conditions; they are just attributes of the activity known as writing. As biological specimens and as citizens, however, women are like other women: subject to the same discriminatory laws, encountering the same demeaning attitudes, burdened with the same good reasons for not walking through the park alone after dark. They too have bodies, the capacity to bear children; they eat, sleep and bleed, just like everyone else. In bookstores and publishers' offices and among groups of other writers, a woman writer may get the impression that she is "special;" but in the eyes of the law, in the loan office or bank, in the hospital and on the street she's just another woman. She doesn't get to wear a sign to the grocery store saying "Respect me, I'm a Woman Writer." No matter how good she may feel about herself, strangers who aren't aware of her shelf-full of nifty volumes with cover blurbs saying how gifted she is will still regard her as a nit.
We all have ways of filtering out aspects of our experience we would rather not think about. Woman writers can keep as much as possible to the "writing" end of their life, avoiding the less desirable aspects of the "woman" end. Or they can divide themselves in two, thinking of themselves as two different people: a "writer" and a "woman." Time after time, I've had interviewers talk to me about my writing for a while, then ask me, "As a woman, what do you think about—for instance—the Women's Movement," as if I could think two sets of thoughts about the same thing, one set as a writer or person, the other as a woman. But no one comes apart this easily; categories like Woman, White, Canadian, Writer are only ways of looking at a thing, and the thing itself is whole, entire and indivisible. Paradox: Woman and Writer are separate categories; but in any individual woman writer, they are inseparable.
One of the results of the paradox is that there are certain attitudes, some overt, some concealed, which women writers encounter as writers, but because they are women. I shall try to deal with a few of these, as objectively as I can. After that, I'll attempt a limited personal statement.
A. Reviewing and the Absence of an Adequate Critical Vocabulary
Cynthia Ozick, in the American magazine Ms., says, "For many years, I had noticed that no book of poetry by a woman was ever reviewed without reference to the poet's sex. The curious thing was that, in the two decades of my scrutiny, there were no exceptions whatever. It did not matter whether the reviewer was a man or a woman; in every case, the question of the 'feminine sensibility' of the poet was at the centre of the reviewer's response. The maleness of male poets, on the other hand, hardly ever seemed to matter."
Things aren't this bad in Canada, possibly because we were never fully indoctrinated with the Holy Gospel according to the distorters of Freud. Many reviewers manage to get through a review without displaying the kind of bias Ozick is talking about. But that it does occur was demonstrated to me by a project I was involved with at York University in 1971-72.
One of my groups was attempting to study what we called "sexual bias in reviewing," by which we meant not unfavourable reviews, but points being added or subtracted by the reviewer on the basis of the author's sex and supposedly associated characteristics rather than on the basis of the work itself. Our study fell into two parts: i) a survey of writers, half male, half female, conducted by letter: had they ever experienced sexual bias directed against them in a review? ii) the reading of a large number of reviews from a wide range of periodicals and newspapers.
The results of the writers' survey were perhaps predictable. Of the men, none said Yes, a quarter said Maybe, and three quarters said No. Half of the women said Yes, a quarter said Maybe and a quarter said No. The women replying Yes often wrote long, detailed letters, giving instances and discussing their own attitudes. All the men's letters were short.
This proved only that women were more likely to feel they had been discriminated against on the basis of sex. When we got around to the reviews, we discovered that they were sometimes justified. Here are the kinds of things we found.
I) ASSIGNMENT OF REVIEWS
Several of our letter writers mentioned this. Some felt books by women tended to be passed over by book-page editors assigning books for review; others that books by women tended to get assigned to women reviewers. When we started totting up reviews we found that most books in this society are written by men, and so are most reviews. Disproportionately often, books by women were assigned to women reviewers, indicating that books by women fell in the minds of those dishing out the reviews into some kind of "special" category. Likewise, woman reviewers tended to be reviewing books by women rather than by men (though because of the preponderance of male reviewers, there were quite a few male-written reviews of books by women).
II) THE QUILLER-COUCH SYNDROME
The heading of this one refers to the turn-ofthe-century essay by Quiller-Couch, defining "masculine" and "feminine" styles in writing. The "masculine" style is, of course, bold, forceful, clear, vigorous, etc.; the "feminine" style is vague, weak, tremulous, pastel, etc. In the list of pairs you can include "objective" and "subjective," "universal" or "accurate depiction of society" versus "confessional," "personal," or even "narcissistic" and "neurotic." It's roughly seventy years since Quiller-Couch's essay, but the "masculine" group of adjectives is still much more likely to be applied to the work of male writers; female writers are much more likely to get hit with some version of "the feminine style" or "feminine sensibility," whether their work merits it or not.
III) THE LADY PAINTER, OR SHE WRITES LIKE A MAN
This is a pattern in which good equals male, and bad equals female. I call it the Lady Painter Syndrome because of a conversation I had about female painters with a male painter in 1960. "When she's good," he said, "we call her a painter; when she's bad, we call her a lady painter." "She writes like a man" is part of the same pattern; it's usually used by a male reviewer who is impressed by a female writer. It's meant as a compliment. See also "She thinks like a man," which means the author thinks, unlike most women, who are held to be incapable of objective thought (their province is "feeling"). Adjectives which often have similar connotations are ones such as "strong," "gutsy," "hard," "mean," etc. A hard-hitting piece of writing by a man is liable to be thought of as merely realistic; an equivalent piece by a woman is much more likely to be labelled "cruel" or "tough." The assumption is that women are by nature soft, weak and not very good, and that if a woman writer happens to be good, she should be deprived of her identity as a female and provided with higher (male) status. Thus the woman writer has, in the minds of such reviewers, two choices. She can be bad but female, a carrier of the "feminine sensibility" virus; or she can be "good" in male-adjective terms, but sexless. Badness seems to be ascribed then to a surplus of female hormones, whereas badness in a male writer is usually ascribed to nothing but badness (though a "bad" male writer is sometimes held, by adjectives implying sterility or impotence, to be deficient in maleness). "Maleness" is exemplified by the "good" male writer; "femaleness," since it is seen by such reviewers as a handicap or deficiency, is held to be transcended or discarded by the "good" female one. In other words, there is no critical vocabulary for expressing the concept "good/female." Work by a male writer is often spoken of by critics admiring it as having "balls;" ever hear anyone speak admiringly of work by a woman as having "tits?"
Possible antidotes: Development of a "good/female" vocabulary ("Wow, has that ever got Womb …"); or, preferably, the development of a vocabulary that can treat structures made of words as though they are exactly that, not biological entities possessed of sexual organs.
One of our writers noted a (usually male) habit of concentrating on domestic themes in the work of a female writer, ignoring any other topic she might have dealt with, then patronizing her for an excessive interest in domestic themes. We found several instances of reviewers identifying an author as a "housewife" and consequently dismissing anything she has produced (since, in our society, a "housewife" is viewed as a relatively brainless and talentless creature). We even found one instance in which the author was called a "housewife" and put down for writing like one when in fact she was no such thing.
For such reviewers, when a man writes about things like doing the dishes, it's realism; when a woman does, it's an unfortunate feminine genetic limitation.
V) SEXUAL COMPLIMENT-PUT-DOWN This syndrome can be summed up as follows;
She: "How do you like my (design for an airplane/mathematical formula/medical miracle)?"
He: "You sure have a nice ass."
In reviewing it usually takes the form of commenting on the cute picture of the (female) author on the cover, coupled with dismissal of her as a writer.
VI) PANIC REACTION
When something the author writes hits too close to home, panic reaction may set in. One of our correspondents noticed this phenomenon in connection with one of her books: she felt that the content of the book threatened male reviewers, who gave it much worse reviews than did any female reviewer. Their reaction seemed to be that if a character such as she'd depicted did exist, they didn't want to know about it. In panic reaction, a reviewer is reacting to content, not to technique or craftsmanship or a book's internal coherence or faithfulness to its own assumptions. (Panic reaction can be touched off in any area, not just male-female relationships.)
B. Interviewers and Media Stereotypes
Associated with the reviewing problem, but distinct from it, is the problem of the interview. Reviewers are supposed to concentrate on books, interviewers on the writer as a person, human being, or, in the case of women, woman. This means that an interviewer is ostensibly trying to find out what sort of person you are. In reality, he or she may merely be trying to match you up with a stereotype of "Woman Author" that pre-exists in her/his mind; doing it that way is both easier for the interviewer, since it limits the range and slant of questions, and shorter, since the interview can be practically written in advance. It isn't just women who get this treatment: all writers get it. But the range for male authors is somewhat wider, and usually comes from the literary tradition itself, whereas stereotypes for female authors are often borrowed from other media, since the ones provided by the tradition are limited in number.
In a bourgeois, industrial society, so the theory goes, the creative artist is supposed to act out suppressed desires and prohibited activities for the audience; thus we get certain Post-romantic male-author stereotypes, such as Potted Poe, Bleeding Byron, Doomed Dylan, Lustful Layton, Crucified Cohen, etc. Until recently the only personality stereotype of this kind was Elusive Emily, otherwise known as Recluse Rossetti: the woman writer as aberration, neurotically denying herself the delights of sex, kiddies and other fun. The Twentieth Century has added Suicidal Sylvia, a somewhat more dire version of the same thing. The point about these stereotypes is that attention is focused not on the actual achievements of the authors, but on their lives, which are distorted and romanticized; their work is then interpreted in the light of the distorted version. Stereotypes like these, even when the author cooperates in their formation and especially when the author becomes a cult object, do no service to anyone or anything, least of all the author's work. Behind all of them is the notion that authors must be more special, peculiar or weird than other people, and that their lives are more interesting than their work.
The following examples are taken from personal experience (mine, of interviewers); they indicate the range of possibilities. There are a few others, such as Earth Mother, but for those you have to be older.
I) HAPPY HOUSEWIFE
This one is almost obsolete: it used to be for Woman's Page or programme. Questions were about what you liked to fix for dinner; attitude was, "Gosh, all the housework and you're a writer too!" Writing was viewed as a hobby, like knitting, one did in one's spare time.
The writer as crazy freak. Female version of Doomed Dylan, with more than a little hope on the part of the interviewer that you'll turn into Suicidal Sylvia and give them something to really write about. Questions like "Do you think you're in danger of going insane?" or "Are writers closer to insanity than other people?" No need to point out that most mental institutions are crammed with people who have never written a word in their life. "Say something interesting," one interviewer said to me. "Say you write all your poems on drugs."
III) MISS MARTYR; OR, MOVIE MAG
Read any movie mag on Liz Taylor and translate into writing terms and you've got the picture. The writer as someone who suffers more than others. Why does the writer suffer more? Because she's successful, and you all know Success Must Be Paid For. In blood and tears, if possible. If you say you're happy and enjoy your life and work, you'll be ignored.
IV) MISS MESSAGE
Interviewer incapable of treating your work as what it is, i.e. poetry and/or fiction. Great attempt to get you to say something about an Issue and then make you into an exponent, spokeswoman or theorist. (The two Messages I'm most frequently saddled with are Women's Lib and Canadian Nationalism, though I belong to no formal organization devoted to either.) Interviewer unable to see that putting, for instance, a nationalist into a novel doesn't make it a nationalistic novel, any more than putting in a preacher makes it a religious novel. Interviewer incapable of handling more than one dimension at a time.
What is Hard to Find is an interviewer who regards writing as a respectable profession, not as some kind of magic, madness, trickery or evasive disguise for a Message; and who regards an author as someone engaged in a professional activity.
C. Other Writers and Rivalry
Regarding yourself as an "exception," part of an unspoken quota system, can have interesting results. If there are only so many available slots for your minority in the medical school/law school/literary world, of course you will feel rivalry, not only with members of the majority for whom no quota operates, but especially for members of your minority who are competing with you for the few coveted places. And you will have to be better than the average Majority member to get in at all. But we're familiar with that.
Woman-woman rivalry does occur, though it is surprisingly less severe than you'd expect; it's likely to take the form of wanting another woman writer to be better than she is, expecting more of her than you would of a male writer, and being exasperated with certain kinds of traditional "female" writing. One of our correspondents discussed these biases and expectations very thoroughly and with great intelligence: her letter didn't solve any problems but it did emphasize the complexities of the situation. Male-male rivalry is more extreme; we've all been treated to media-exploited examples of it.
What a woman writer is often unprepared for is the unexpected personal attack on her by a jealous male writer. The motivation is envy and competitiveness, but the form is often sexual put-down. "You may be a good writer," one older man said to a young woman writer who had just had a publishing success, "but I wouldn't want to fuck you." Another version goes more like the compliment-put-down noted under Reviewing. In either case, the ploy diverts attention from the woman's achievement as a writer—the area where the man feels threatened—to her sexuality, where either way he can score a verbal point.
I've been trying to give you a picture of the arena, or that part of it where being a "woman" and "writer," as concepts, overlap. But, of course, the arena I've been talking about has to do largely with externals: reviewing, the media, relationships with other writers. This, for the writer, may affect the tangibles of her career: how she is received, how viewed, how much money she makes. But in relationship to the writing itself, this is a false arena. The real one is in her head, her real struggle the daily battle with words, the language itself. The false arena becomes valid for writing itself only insofar as it becomes part of her material and is transformed into one of the verbal and imaginative structures she is constantly engaged in making. Writers, as writers, are not propagandists or examples of social trends or preachers or politicians. They are makers of books, and unless they can make books well they will be bad writers, no matter what the social validity of their views.
At the beginning of this article, I suggested a few reasons for the infrequent participation in the Movement of woman writers. Maybe these reasons were the wrong ones, and this is the real one: no good writer wants to be merely a transmitter of someone else's ideology, no matter how fine that ideology may be. The aim of propaganda is to convince, and to spur people to action; the aim of writing is to create a plausible and moving imaginative world, and to create it from words. Or, to put it another way, the aim of a political movement is to improve the quality of people's lives on all levels, spiritual and imaginative as well as material (and any political movement that doesn't have this aim is worth nothing). Writing, however, tends to concentrate more on life, not as it ought to be, but as it is, as the writer feels it, experiences it. Writers are eye-witnesses, I-witnesses. Political movements, once successful, have historically been intolerant of writers, even those writers who initially aided them; in any revolution, writers have been among the first to be lined up against the wall, perhaps for their intransigence, their insistence on saying what they perceive, not what, according to the ideology, ought to exist. Politicians, even revolutionary politicians, have traditionally had no more respect for writing as an activity valuable in itself, quite apart from any message or content, than has the rest of the society. And writers, even revolutionary writers, have traditionally been suspicious of anyone who tells them what they ought to write.
The woman writer, then, exists in a society that, though it may turn certain individual writers into revered cult objects, has little respect for writing as a profession, and not much respect for women either. If there were more of both, articles like this would be obsolete. I hope they become so. In the meantime, it seems to me that the proper path for a woman writer is not an all-out manning (or womaning) of the barricades, however much she may agree with the aims of the Movement. The proper path is to become better as a writer. Insofar as writers are lenses, condensers of their society, her work may include the Movement, since it is so palpably among the things that exist. The picture that she gives of it is altogether another thing, and will depend, at least partly, on the course of the Movement itself.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5891
SOURCE: Goldblatt, Patricia F. "Reconstructing Margaret Atwood's Protagonists." World Literature Today 73, no. 2 (spring 1999): 275-82.
In the following essay, Goldblatt discusses the transformation of Atwood's female protagonists "from ingenues to insightful women."
A weaver employs fragments from life, silk, raw yarns, wool, straw, perhaps even a few twigs, stones, or feathers, and transforms them into a tapestry of color, shape, and form. An author's work is similar, for she selects individuals, locations, images, and ideas, rearranging them to create a believable picture. Each smacks of reality, but is not. This is the artist's art: to reconstruct the familiar into new, fascinating, but often disturbing tableaux from which stories can unfold.
Margaret Atwood weaves stories from her own life in the bush and cities of Canada. Intensely conscious of her political and social context, Atwood dispels the notion that caribou-clad Canadians remain perpetually locked in blizzards while simultaneously seeming to be a polite mass of gray faces, often indistinguishable from their American neighbors. Atwood has continually pondered the lack of an identifiable Canadian culture. For over thirty years her work has aided in fashioning a distinct Canadian literary identity. Her critical catalogue and analysis of Canadian Literature, Survival [Sv], offered "a political manifesto telling Canadians … [to] value their own" (Sullivan, 265). In an attempt to focus on Canadian experiences, Atwood has populated her stories with Canadian cities, conflicts, and contemporary people, conscious of a landscape whose borders have been permeated by the frost of Nature, her colonizers and her neighbors. Her examination of how an individual interacts, succeeds, or stagnates within her world speaks to an emerging sense of self and often parallels the battles fought to establish self-determination.
In her novels, Margaret Atwood creates situations in which women, burdened by the rules and inequalities of their societies, discover that they must reconstruct braver, self-reliant personae in order to survive. Not too far from the Canadian blueprint of the voyageur faced with an inclement, hostile environment, these women struggle to overcome and to change systems that block and inhibit their security. Atwood's pragmatic women are drawn from women in the 1950s and 1960s: young women blissfully building their trousseaus and imagining a paradise of silver bells and picket fences.
Yet the author herself was neither encumbered nor restricted by the definition of contemporary female in her life as a child. Having grown up in the Canadian North, outside of societal propaganda, she could critically observe the behaviors that were indoctrinated into her urban peers who lacked diverse role models. As Atwood has noted, "Not even the artistic community offered you a viable choice as a woman" (Sullivan, 103). Her stories deal with the transformation of female characters from ingenues to insightful women. By examining her heroes, their predators, and how they cope in society, we will discover where Atwood believes the ability to reconstruct our lives lies.
Who are the victims?
"But pathos as a literary mode simply demands that an innocent victim suffer" (Sv, 75). Unlike Shakespeare's hubris-laden kings or Jane Austen's pert and private aristocratic landowning families, Margaret Atwood relies on a collection of ordinary people to carry her tales: university students, museum workers, market researchers, writers, illustrators, and even housemaids. In her novels, almost all dwell on their childhood years in flashback or in the chronological telling of their stories. Many of her protagonists' early days are situated in a virtual Garden of Eden setting, replete with untamed natural environments. Exploring shorelines, gazing at stars, gathering rocks, and listening to waves, they are solitary souls, but not lonely individuals: innocent, curious, and affable creatures. Elaine Risley in Cat's Eye and an unnamed narrator in Surfacing are two women who recall idyllic days unfolded in a land of lakes, berries, and animals. Offred in The Handmaid's Tale, in her city landscape, also relates a tale of a happy childhood. She is a complacent and assured child, her mother a constant loving companion. In their comfortable milieus, these girls intuit no danger.
However, other Atwood protagonists are not as fortunate. Their backgrounds suggest an unhealthy, weedy soil that causes their young plants to twist and permutate. Lady Oracle's [LO] Joan is overweight. Her domineering, impatient mother and her weak father propel her to seek emotional satisfaction away from them. Lesje in Life before Man is the offspring of dueling immigrant grandmothers who cannot agree on the child's proper upbringing. Not allowed to frequent the Ukrainian "golden church with its fairytale onion" (LBM, 93) of the one, or the synagogue of the other, Lesje is unable to develop self-confidence and focuses instead on the inanimate, the solid traditions of rocks and dinosaurs as her progenitors. Similarly, the females in The Robber Bride reveal miserable childhoods united by parental abuse, absence, and disregard: Roz must perform as her mother's helper, a landlady cum cleaning woman; her father is absent, involved in shady dealings in "the old country." Charis, a second character in The Robber Bride, abandoned by her mother and deposited with Aunt Vi and Uncle Vern, is sexually violated by those who should have offered love and trust. Toni, the third of the trio, admits to loneliness and alienation in a well-educated, wealthy family. Marked by birth and poverty, Grace Marks, an Irish immigrant in the early 1800s in Alias Grace, loses her mother en route to Canada. Grace is almost drowned by the demands of her drunken father and clinging, needy siblings. These exiled little girls, from weak, absent, or cruel families, made vulnerable by their early situations, cling to the notion that their lives will be improved by the arrival of a kind stranger, most likely a handsome suitor. Rather than becoming recalcitrant and cynical, all sustain the golden illusion of the fairy-tale ending. In short, they hold to the belief, the myth perpetrated by society: marriage.
Atwood's women are cognizant of the nurturing omissions in their environments. They attempt to cultivate and cope. Charis in The Robber Bride decides to reinvent herself. She changes her name and focuses on what she considers her healing powers inherited from her chicken-raising grandmother. She, Roz, and Toni turn their faith to the power of friendship, a solid ring that lessens the painful lack of supportive families. In Alias Grace Grace's burden of an absent family is briefly alleviated by her friendship with another house-maid, Mary Whitney. Mary takes an adoring Grace under her wing and creates for Grace a fleeting vision of sisterly support. Unfortunately for Grace, Mary herself, another trusting young woman, is deceived by her employer's son and dies in a botched abortion, leaving Grace once again abandoned and friendless.
In an attempt to reestablish stable, satisfying homes, these women pursue a path, as have women throughout history, to marriage. They search for a male figure, imagining a refuge. Caught up in the romantic stereotypes that assign and perpetuate gender roles, each girl does not doubt that a man is the solution to her problems.
In The Edible Woman Marian and her coworkers at Seymour Surveys, "the office virgins," certainly do not question that marriage will provide fulfillment. In spite of the fact that Marian is suspended between two unappealing men, she does not deviate from the proper behavior. Marian's suitor, Peter, with his well-chosen clothes and suave friends, his perfectly decorated apartment, and even Marian as the appropriate marriage choice, is rendered as no more than the wedding cake's blankly smiling ornament. If appearance is all, he should suffice. Peter is juxtaposed to the slovenly, self-centered graduate student, Duncan, whose main pleasure is watching his laundry whirl in the washing machine. Marian is merely a blank slate upon which each man can write or erase his concept of female.
The narrator and her friend Anna, in Surfacing, are also plagued by moody men who are not supportive of women's dreams. In one particularly horrifying scene, Anna's husband Dave orders her to strip off her clothes for the movie camera. Anna, humiliated by the request, nevertheless complies. She admits to nightly rapes but rationalizes his behavior: "He likes to make me cry because he can't do it himself" (Sf, 80). Similarly, when Joe, the narrator's boyfriend, proposes, "We should get married … we might as well" (56), he is dumbfounded and furious at her refusal. Men aware of the role they play accept their desirability as "catches." They believe that women desire lives of "babies and sewing" (LO, 159). These thoughts are parroted by Peter in The Edible Woman when he proclaims, "People who aren't married get funny in middle age" (EW, 102). Men uphold the values of the patriarchy and women conform, few trespassing into gardens of their own design.
In Alias Grace Grace's aspirations for a brighter future also dwell on finding the right man: "It was the custom for young girls in this country to hire themselves out, in order to earn the money for their dowries, and then they would marry … and one day … be mistress of a tidy farmhouse" (AG, 157-58). In the employment of Mr. Thomas Kinnear in Richmond Hill, Grace quickly ascertains that the handsome, dark-haired housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, enjoys many privileges as the reward for being her master's mistress. Yet, although men may be the only way to elevate status, Grace learns that they cannot be trusted when their advances are rejected. Grace, on trial for the murders of Kinnear and Montgomery, is incredulous when she hears a former friend, Jamie Welsh, testify against her.
Then I was hoping for some token of sympathy from him; but he gave me a stare filled with such reproach and sorrowful anger. He felt betrayed in love.… I was transformed to a demon and he would do all in his power to destroy me. I had been counting on him to say a good word for me … for I valued his good opinion of me, and it was a grief to lose it.
Women, it seems, must be made malleable to men's desires, accepting their proposals, their advances. They must submit to their socially determined roles or be seen as "demons."
However, it is not only men but also women as agents of society who betray. In The Robber Bride Charis, Roz, and Toni are tricked in their friendship by Zenia, an acquaintance from their university days. Each succumbs to Zenia's web of deceit. Playing the part of a confidante and thoughtful listener, Zenia encourages the three women to divest themselves of their tales of their traumatic childhoods. She learns their tortured secrets and uses their confidences to spirit away the men each woman believes to be the cornerstone in her life.
From little girls to sophisticated women, Atwood's protagonists have not yet discerned that trust can be perverted, that they can be reeled in, taken advantage of, constantly abused, if they are not careful of lurking predators in their landscapes. Joan in Lady Oracle, longing for friendship, endures the inventive torments of her Brownie friends: deadly ploys that tie little girls to trees with skipping ropes, exposing them to strange leering men under cavernous bridges. Her assassins jeer, "How do ya' like the club?" (LO, 59). Elaine Risley in Cat's Eye, like Joan, is a young girl when she discovers the power of betrayal by members of her own sex. For years she passively succumbs to their games. Perhaps, because she has grown up alone in the Canadian North with her parents and brother, Elaine seeks the warming society of girls. Only when Elaine is deserted, left to freeze in a disintegrating creek, does she recognize her peers' malevolence that almost leads to her death. Elaine knows that she is a defeated human, but rather than confronting her tormentors, she increases her own punishment nightly: she peels the skin off her feet and bites her lips.
Unable to turn outward in a society that perpetuates the ideal of a submissive female, these women turn inward to their bodies as shields or ploys. Each has learned that a woman is a commodity, valued only for her appearance. Therefore it comes as no surprise that Atwood's protagonists measure their worth in terms of body. Joan in Lady Oracle sees herself as "a huge shapeless cloud" (LO, 65); she drifts. However, her soft edges do not keep her from the bruising accusations of society. Although she loves to dance, Joan's bulging body is an affront to her mother and ballet teacher's sensibilities, and so at her ballet recital she is forced to perform as a mothball, not as a butterfly in tulle and spangles.
Joan certainly does not fit her mother's definition of femininity. Because her ungainly shape is rejected, Joan decides to hide her form in a mountain of fat, food serving as a constant to her mother's reproaches: "I was eating steadily, doggedly, stubbornly, anything I could get. The war between myself and my mother was on in earnest: the disputed territory was my body" (LO, 67). Interestingly, Joan's loving, supportive, and also fat aunt Louisa bequeaths to Joan an inheritance with the stipulation that she lose one hundred pounds. Atwood herself was fascinated by transformations in fairy stories: a person could not become a swan and depart the dreaded scene that mocked the tender aspirations of an awkward ingenue in real life; she could, however, don a new mask and trick those people who had previously proffered harm.
In The Edible Woman Marian's body is also a battlefield. Unable to cope with her impending marriage to Peter, Marian finds herself unable to ingest any food that was once alive. Repulsed by her society's attitude of consumerism, Marian concludes that her refusal to eat is ethical. However, her mind and body have split away from each other. Her mind's revulsion at a dog-eat-dog world holds her body hostage: captive territory when a woman disagrees with her world. Marian "tri[es] to reason with [her body], accus[ing] it of having frivolous whims." She coaxes and tempts, "but it was adamant" (EW, 177). Marian's mind expresses her disapproval on the only level on which she possesses control: ironically, herself. Her punishment is circular: first, as a victim susceptible because she is a woman subject to her society's values; and second, as a woman only able to command other women, namely herself. Her sphere is so small she becomes both victim and victimizer.
This view of a woman who connects and projects her image of self onto her body also extends to the functions of a female body: the ability to control life by giving birth. Sarah in the story "The Resplendent Quetzal" (1977) is drained of all vitality and desire when her baby dies at birth. Her concept of identity is entangled with her ability to produce a child. When this biological function fails, Sarah's being ebbs. Lesje in Life before Man also observes that, without children, "officially she is nothing" (LBM, 267). Offred's identity and value as a childbearer as well, in The Handmaid's Tale, are proclaimed by her clothes in her totalitarian city of Gilead. She is "two viable ovaries" (HT, 135). She no longer owns a name; she is "Of Fred," the concubine named for the man who will impregnate her. Every step, every mouthful of food, every move is observed, reported, circumvented, or approved for the sake of the child she might carry to term. Her only worth resides in her biological function. Her dreams and desires are unimportant. Her goal is survival.
The women described here do not lash out openly. Each who once trusted in family, marriage, and friendship discovers that treading societal paths does not result in happiness. These disillusioned women, with aborted expectations, turn their misery inward, accepting responsibility that not society and its expectations but they themselves are weak, unworthy, and have therefore failed.
Who has laid prey and why?
"Sometimes fear of these obstacles becomes itself the obstacle" (Sv, 33). Atwood's girls are a vulnerable lot, manipulated, packaged, and devastated by the familiar faces in uncaring, dictatorial circles that reinforce societal imperatives. Those once free to roam and explore as children as well as those repressed from an early age are subject to the civilizing forces that customize young girls to the fate of females. Ironically, this process, for the most part, is performed by mothers.
Mothers, rather than alleviating their girls' distress, increase their children's alienation. When Elaine's mother in Cat's Eye ventures to discuss the cruelty of Elaine's friends, her words do not fortify Elaine; they admonish her: "Don't let them push you around. Don't be spineless. You have to have more backbone" (CE, 156). Fearing her weakness is comparable to the tiny crumbling bones of sardines, Elaine maligns herself: "What is happening is my own fault, for not having more backbone" (156). Joan's mother in Lady Oracle doesn't mince words: "You were stupid to let the other girls fool you like that" (LO, 61). Instead of offering support, the mothers blame their daughters, aligning themselves with the girls' accusers.
Mothers who themselves have not found acceptance, success, or ease in society persist in transmitting the old messages of conformity. Joan's mother in Lady Oracle is dumbfounded that "even though she'd done the right thing,… devoted her life to us,… made her family her career as she had been told to do," she had been burdened with "a sulky fat slob of a daughter and a husband who wouldn't talk to her" (LO, 179). Joan echoes her mother's complaints when she murmurs, "How destructive to me were the attitudes of society" (102).
Even the work women do conspires to maintain the subjection of their own kind. In her job, in The Edible Woman, Marian investigates what soups, laxatives, or drinks will please and be purchased. Sanctioned female activities also reinforce the imposition of correct values. In Surfacing and Cat's Eye little girls are engrossed in cutting up pictures from Eaton's catalogues that offer labor-saving devices along with fashionable clothes: children piece together a utopia of doll-house dreams. So brainwashed are these girls that when asked to indicate a possible job or profession, they answer, "A lady" or "A mother" (CE, 91).
In Cat's Eye Elaine Risley's mother does not fit the stereotype. She wears pants, she ice skates, she "does not give a hoot" (CE, 214) about the rules that women are supposed to obey. Rendered impotent as a role model in her daughter's eyes because she does not abide by the Establishment's code of correct deportment, Elaine's mother is an outsider to a woman's world that captivates Elaine.
Instead of her own nonconforming mother, Elaine is most deeply affected by the indictments from her friend Grace Smeath's mother. Mrs. Smeath, spread out on the sofa and covered with afghans every afternoon to rest her bad heart, damns Elaine for being a heathen: there is something very wrong with Elaine's family, who ignore the protocol of proper women's wear, summer city vacations, and regular church attendance. Worse yet, Mrs. Smeath, aware of the cruel games inflicted on Elaine, does not intervene. Instead she invokes deserved suffering when she decrees, "It's God's punishment for the way the other children treat her [Elaine]. It serves her right" (CE, 180). With God on her side, Mrs. Smeath relies on the Bible as the oldest and surest way of prescribing a female identity—and instilling fear.
In The Handmaid's Tale the Bible is likewise the chief source of female repression. Words are corrupted, perverted, or presented out of context to establish a man's holy vision of women: Sarah's use of her handmaid, Hagar, as a surrogate womb for an heir for Abraham becomes the legalizing basis for fornication with the handmaids. Acts of love are reduced to institutionalized rapes, and random acts of violence, banishment to slag heaps, public hangings, endorsed public killings, bribery, deceit, and pornography all persist under other names in order to maintain a pious hold on women endorsed by the Gilead Fathers.
In spite of the fact that Gilead is praised by its creators as a place where women need not fear, carefully chosen "aunts" persist in treachery that robs women of trust. To perpetuate the status quo, women are kept vulnerable and treated as children: girls must ask permission, dress in silly frocks, are allowed no money, play no part in their own self-determination. Yet Atwood's girls tire of their rigidly enforced placement that would preserve some outdated notion of female acceptability.
"She feels the need for escape" (Sv, 131). After enduring, accepting, regurgitating, denying, and attempting to please and cope, Atwood's protagonists begin to take action and change their lives. Atwood herself, raised on Grimms' Fairy Tales, knew that "by using intelligence, cleverness and perseverance" (Sullivan, 36), magical powers could transform a forest into a garden. However, before realizing their possibilities, many of Atwood's protagonists hit rock bottom, some even contemplating death as an escape. In Surfacing the narrator, fed up with the superficiality of her companions, banishes them and submits to paranoia.
Everything I can't break … I throw on the floor.… I take off my clothes … I dip my head beneath the water … I leave my dung, droppings on the ground … I hollow a lair near the woodpile … I scramble on hands and knees … I could be anything, a tree, a deer skeleton, a rock.
She descends to madness, stripping herself of all the trappings of civilized society.
Although often consumed with thoughts of suicide in Cat's Eye and The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood's heroines never succumb. Instead they consciously assassinate their former identities through ritual deaths by water. Joan in Lady Oracle orchestrates a baptism in Lake Ontario. Pretending to drown, she relinquishes her former life. With sunglasses and scarf, she believes herself reborn, free to begin anew in Italy. Elaine Risley, after her bone-chilling encounter in the icy ravine in Cat's Eye, is finally able to ignore the taunts of her friends. Resurrected after two days in bed, a stronger Elaine affirms that "she is happy as a clam, hard-shelled and firmly closed" (CE, 201) against those who would sabotage her; she announces, "I'm ready" (203). Fortified by a new body image with a tougher veneer and a protective mask, Elaine no longer heeds her former tormentors. She has sealed herself from further outrage and invasion.
Marian's revelation in The Edible Woman is experienced at the precipice of a ravine, where she comments, "In the snow you're as near as possible to nothing" (EW, 263). Perhaps the fear of becoming one with the ubiquitous whiteness of the landscape and forever losing herself motivates a stand. Similarly, Sarah in "The Resplendent Quetzal" forges a more determined persona after her trial by water. Instead of throwing herself into the sacrificial well in Mexico as her husband Edward fears, she hurls a plaster Christ child stolen from a crèche into the water. Believing the tribal folklore that young children take messages to the rain god and live forever in paradise at the bottom of the well, Sarah pins her hopes on a representative facsimile that she hopes will bring her peace for her lost child in the next world as well as rebirth, freeing herself from anxiety and guilt regarding the child's death.
Rather than resorting to the cool, cleansing agent of water, Grace Marks, the convicted murderess in Alias Grace, reconstructs her life through stories of her own invention. She fashions a creature always beyond the pale of her listeners' complete comprehension. As told to Dr. Simon Jordan, who has come to study Grace as a possible madwoman, her story ensnares him in a piteous romance. Grace appears outwardly as a humble servant girl always at peril from salacious employers; however, when Grace ruminates in her private thoughts, she reveals that she is wordly wise, knowing how to avoid bad impressions and the advances of salesmen. She is knowledgeable, stringing along Dr. Jordan: "I say something just to keep him happy.… I do not give him a straight answer" (AG, 66, 98). After rambling from employ to employ in search of security, Grace constructs a home for herself in her stories. Her words, gossamer thin, have the power to erect a façade, a frame that holds her illusions together.
In an attempt to discover the missing parts and prove the veracity of Grace's story, her supporters encourage her to undergo a seance. Although she recognizes Dr. Jerome Dupont, the man who will orchestrate the event, as a former button peddler, she does not speak out. When a voice emerges from the hypnotized Grace, it proclaims, "I am not Grace" (403). As listeners, we ponder the speaker's authenticity. Just who our narrator might be, madwoman or manipulator, is cast into doubt. We can only be sure that the young innocent who arrived on Canada's shores penniless and motherless has been altered by the necessity to cope with a destructive hierarchical society unsympathetic to an immigrant girl. Rather than persist and be tossed forever at the whim of a wizened world, each saddened young girl moves to reconstruct her tarnished image of her self.
"One way of coming to terms, making sense of one's roots, is to become a creator" (Sv, 181). Atwood's victims who take control of their lives discover the need to displace societal values, and they replace them with their own. In Lady Oracle Joan ponders the film The Red Shoes, in which the moral warns that if a woman chooses both family and career, tragedy ensues. Reflecting on childbirth, the narrator in "Giving Birth" (1977) hopes for some vision: "After all she is risking her life.… As for the vision, there wasn't one" (GB, 252; italics mine). Toni in The Robber Bride and Grace Marks in Alias Grace acknowledge that it is not necessary to procreate. Each is more than her body. A grown-up Elaine Risley in Cat's Eye and the narrator in Surfacing accept motherhood, but not as an outcome of their gender that will foreclose the possibilities of a creative job. In fact, Roz in The Robber Bride is quite able to combine motherhood and a successful career. Dissatisfied with traditional knowledge, Atwood's women again turn inward, now avoiding masochistic traps, fully able to deviate from society's dicta. Freed from constraining fears, they locate talents, wings that free them.
Rather than becoming cynical and devastated by society's visions and its perpetrators, Atwood's women forge on. Roz, Toni, and Charis in The Robber Bride, who have been betrayed by Zenia, put their faith back into friendship, allowing mutual support to sustain them. It is solid; it has been tested. They have turned to one another, cried and laughed, shared painful experiences, knowing that their friendship has endured in a labyrinth of twisted paths.
Offred in The Handmaid's Tale also begins to reshape her world. She envisions a better place in her thoughts, recording her words on tape. She has hope. Consciously, she reconstructs her present reality, knowing she is making an effort to project an optimistic picture. She says, "Here is a different story, a better one.… This is what I'd like to tell" (HT, 234). She relates that her tryst with Nick the chauffeur, arranged by her commander's wife, is caring and loving, enhanced by memories from her earlier life in order to conjure an outcome of happiness. In the short story "Hair Jewellery" (1977) Atwood's narrator is an academic, a writer who warns, "Be careful.… There is a future" (113). With the possibility of a new beginning, there is a chance that life can improve. In Alias Grace Grace's fabrications in her stories provide an escape hatch, a version of reality tailored to fit her needs. For both Offred and Grace, stories are ways of rebelling, of avoiding the tentacles of a society that would demean and remold them. Their stories are outward masks, behind which they frantically repair their damaged spirits. Each alters her world through language. Each woman speaks a reconstructed world into existence, herself the engineering god of her own fate. Offred confides that handmaids live in the spaces and the gaps between their stories, in their private silences: only alone in their imaginations are they free to control their own destinies.
However, Atwood's protagonists inhabit not only their minds in secret, but also their bodies in the outside world. Joan, after her disappearance from Toronto in Lady Oracle, decides that she must return home and support the friends who have aided her disguise. In the past, just as she had wielded her bulk as a weapon, so she has used her writing in order to resolve relationships. She has indulged in Gothic romances, positing scenarios; she has even played out roles with lovers in capes. In the end, she rejects her former craft of subterfuge: "I won't write any more Costume Gothics." Yet we must ponder her choice to "try some science fiction" (LO, 345).
Although it is difficult to extirpate behavior, women trust the methods that have helped them cope in the past in order to alter the future. In The Edible Woman the womanly art of baking provides Marian with a way to free herself: she bakes a cake that resembles herself. Offering a piece to Peter, she is controlling the tasty image of a woman, allowing him and, more importantly, herself to ingest and destroy it. "It gave me a peculiar sense of satisfaction to see him eat," she says, adding, "I smiled comfortably at him" (EW, 281). Her pleasure in their consumption of her former self is symbolic of the death of the old Marian.
One might say that Marian's ingestion of her own image, Joan's adoption of science fiction, and both Offred's and Grace's stories "in the head" do not promise new fulfilling lives, only tactics of escape. However, their personal growth through conscious effort represents a means to wrest control of their lives from society and transform their destinies. These women become manipulators rather than allowing themselves to be manipulated.
In Cat's Eye Elaine Risley deals with the torment of her early life in her art by moving to Vancouver and exerting power in paint over the people who had condemned her. She creates surreal studies of Mrs. Smeath: "I paint Mrs. Smeath … like a dead fish.…One picture of Mrs. Smeath leads to another. She multiplies on the walls like bacteria, standing, sitting, with clothes, without clothes" (CE, 338). Empowered by her success as an artist, Elaine returns to Toronto for a showing of her work, able to resist the pleas of her former tormentor, Cordelia, now a pitiful patient in a psychiatric facility. In a dream, Elaine surpasses her desire for revenge and offers Cordelia Christian charity: "I'm the stronger.… I reach out my arms to her, bend down.… It's all right, I say to her. You can go home" (CE, 419). Elaine is reinforced by the very words spoken to her in the vision that saved her life years before. Her work fosters her liberation. By projecting her rage outside of herself, she confronts her demons and exalts herself as a divine redeemer.
"You don't even have to concentrate on rejecting the role of victim because the role is no longer a temptation for you" (Sv, 39). The creative aspect that fortifies each woman enables her to control her life: it is the triumphant tool that resurrects each one. As artists, writers, friends, each ameliorates her situation and her world, positively metamorphosing reality in the process. In societies tailored to the submission of females, Atwood's protagonists refuse to be pinned down to the measurements of the perfect woman. Instead, they reconstruct their lives, imprinting their own designs in worlds of patterned fabric. Atwood has observed that all writing is political: "The writer simply by examining how the forces of society interact with the individual … seek[s] to change social structure" (Sullivan, 129).
Literature has always been the place where journeys have been sought, battles fought, insights gleaned. And authors have always dallied with the plight of women in society: young or old, body or mind, mother or worker, traveler or settler. The woman has been the divided or fragmented icon who, broken and downcast, has gazed back forlornly at us from the pages of her telling tale. Margaret Atwood has reconstructed this victim, proving to her and to us that we all possess the talent and the strength to revitalize our lives and reject society's well-trodden paths that suppress the human spirit. She has shown us that we can be vicariously empowered by our surrogate, who not only now smiles but winks back at us, daring us to reclaim our own female identities.
Atwood, Margaret. Alias Grace. Toronto. McClelland & Stewart. 1996. (AG)
——. Cat's Eye. Toronto. McClelland & Stewart. 1988. (CE)
——. "Giving Birth." In Dancing Girls. Toronto. McClelland & Stewart. 1977. (GB)
——. "Hair Jewellery." In Dancing Girls. Toronto. McClelland & Stewart. 1977. (HJ)
——. Lady Oracle. Toronto. McClelland & Stewart. 1976. (LO)
——. Life before Man. Toronto. McClelland & Stewart. 1979. (LBM)
——. Surfacing. Toronto. McClelland & Stewart. 1972. (Sf)
——. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Toronto. Anansi. 1972. (Sv)
——. The Edible Woman. Toronto. McClelland & Stewart. 1969. (EW)
——. The Handmaid's Tale. Toronto. McClelland & Stewart. 1985. (HT)
——. "The Resplendent Quetzal." In Dancing Girls. Toronto. McClelland & Stewart. 1977. (RQ)
——. The Robber Bride. Toronto. McClelland & Stewart. 1993. (RB)
Sullivan, Rosemary. The Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood Starting Out. Toronto. HarperCollins. 1998.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12835
EARL G. INGERSOLL (ESSAY DATE OCTOBER 1991)
SOURCE: Ingersoll, Earl G. "Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye: Re-Viewing Women in a Postmodern World." ARIEL 22, no. 4 (October 1991): 17-27.
In the following essay, Ingersoll explores the postmodern implications of the autobiographical elements in Cat's Eye.
Although one finds evidence of postmodernism in the manipulation of popular forms such as the Gothic in Lady Oracle and science fiction in The Handmaid's Tale, Cat's Eye is Margaret Atwood's first full-fledged "postmodern" work. Always the wily evader of critics' pigeonholes, Atwood, in a recent interview,1 has denied the classification of her work as "postmodern." She expresses her own amused disdain towards the critical-academic world for its attraction to "isms"2 in the discourse of Cat's Eye when Elaine Risley visits the gallery where her retrospective show is to be mounted. Risley dismisses the paintings still on display: "I don't give a glance to what's still on the walls, I hate those neo-expressionist dirty greens and putrid oranges, post this, post that. Everything is post these days, as if we're just a footnote to something earlier that was real enough to have a name of its own" (90). At the same time, this novel is clearly Atwood's most postmodern in its play with form—the fictional autobiography—and in its continual self-referentiality as a text.
At the centre of this postmodern text is Atwood's complex use of her own past. Few writers have spoken out so vehemently against readings of their work as autobiography. As her interviews indicate, she is very aware that her audience is bent upon biographical readings of her fiction.3 With obvious amusement she tells how in question-and-answer sessions following her public readings she has often just finished disclaiming autobiographical roots for her characters when someone in her audience asks if she was over-weight as a child like Joan in Lady Oracle or anorexic as a young woman like the unnamed narrator of The Edible Woman. For Atwood, there are clearly gender implications here since, as she has argued, women have traditionally been thought so imaginatively impoverished that all they could write about was themselves.
At the same time, although there is no Atwood biography—and she would be one of the last writers to authorize one—she is among the most interviewed contemporary writers. Thus, as she herself must know, serious readers of her work are familiar enough with the outlines of her family and her early life4 to be enticed into seeing the painter Elaine Risley—that stereotyped persona of modernist fiction—as at least partly her own reflection. Obviously she is not; and yet she is, despite the curious warning on the copyright page which reads in part as follows:
This is a work of fiction. Although its form is that of an autobiography, it is not one … with the exception of public figures, any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. The opinions expressed are those of the characters and should not be confused with the author's.
It is easy enough to see that Atwood is attempting to protect herself from potential legal action generated by former friends or associates who might choose to see themselves as models for the less appealing characters in Cat's Eye. However, the attempt to deny any connection with Elaine Risley must encourage the reader to suspect that the lady doth protest too much. In this way, part of the enjoyment of this text involves a shifting back and forth between invention and the facts of the inventor's past.
Atwood has provided her audience with so many of those facts of her early life that it is next to impossible for the informed reader to dismiss as coincidental the roots of Elaine's childhood in Atwood's. She has told her interviewers, for example, about the summers she spent as a child living in tents and motels while the family accompanied her father, an entomologist, doing research in the Canadian north. On more than one occasion she has described to her interviewers how she and her brother would help their father collect insects he shook from trees. In this context, given the writer's having gone on record as frustrated with her audience's misguided autobiographical readings of her earlier work, it is difficult not to conclude that Cat's Eye is, among many things, a highly sophisticated expression of play with her audience's expectations. Atwood may plead ignorance of contemporary critical theory, but she is undercutting the conventional notion that autobiography privileges an autobiographical fiction as more truthful than other forms of fiction. She shows us in Elaine Risley, a painter/writer who may seem in a conventional sense to be exploring the truth of her past but who in a truer sense is creating, or writing, a past as she chooses now to see it, rather than as it might have once existed.
The novel begins with a definition of time, justified perhaps by Risley's having returned to Toronto, her home, for a retrospective exhibition of her art. She dismisses linear time in favor of "time as having a shape …, like a series of liquid transparencies.…You don't look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away" (3). In the story she tells of her youth, Elaine offers a retrospective of the woman she has been and the women who have been important to her as she now sees herself and them. That past is very much seen through the cat's eye marble into which Elaine looked at eight and saw her future as an artist. The image of the cat's eye is central, since it represents a world into which she has been allowed access; at the same time, it is a world of inevitably distorted vision. Thus, the truth is not an entity to which we struggle to gain access so much as a way of looking and, in the process, creating the text of that truth.
Elaine Risley's retrospective allows her to review the people and relationships that have been important to the first fifty years of her life. In reconstructing her past—or the critical years from age eight to young womanhood—Elaine Risley is in large part deconstructing that past. The consequences of that deconstruction—what turns out to be the novel itself—is a complicated series of transformations through which the persona discovers that the past is only what we continue to reconstruct for the purposes of the present. And perhaps beyond that, Elaine Risley discovers that of all her relationships—with the opposite sex and with her own—the most important may have been the strange friendship with her tormentor/double Cordelia. By the end of the narrative, the persona will have finally exorcised the spirit of an alter ego who was perhaps primarily that, another self whom she no longer needs to fear, hate, or even love.
The focus of the early chapters is the very young Elaine Risley's struggle to find models in the two women who are crucial to her formative years. She begins her retrospective with her eighth birthday, a not surprising age for the onset of consciousness. For Risley, like Atwood, this was the time of her move to Toronto, and for Risley at least the end of happiness. Through the move to Toronto, a backwater of civilization in the 1940s, but still civilization, Elaine as a child is suddenly forced to confront "femininity." Having lived in tents and motels, she and her mother must don the costumes and the roles appropriate to their gender and put away their unfeminine clothes and ungendered roles until the warm weather when they return to the North. Overnight Elaine feels like an alien from another planet. The future of painful socialization is represented by the doorway in her new school marked "GIRLS," the doorway which makes her wonder what the other one marked "BOYS" has behind it from which she has been shut out (49).
We might expect Elaine to cherish the memory of a paradise lost of relatively ungendered life as a child in nature. Instead, she feels guilty for being unprepared to operate in a world of mothers who are housekeepers preoccupied with clothes and labour-saving devices. Although the mature Elaine mutes the resentment, the child Elaine suspects that her mother has failed her as the role model needed to help her find her way in a world of "twin sets" (54) and wearing hats to church. The young Elaine's inability to fault the mother she loves forces her to internalize as guilt her sense of inadequacy. If she is suffering the pain of being out of place, it must be something that is wrong with her; certainly it cannot be anything wrong with the definition of womanhood embodied in the mothers of her friends, Cordelia, Carol, but especially Grace Smeath.
Clearly Mrs. Smeath is the Bad Mother that Elaine suspects her own mother of being for not having prepared her for socialization. In the Smeath household, Elaine and her friends are involved in that socialization; they study to be future housewives by cutting out pictures of "frying pans and washing machines" to paste into scrapbooks for their "ladies" (71). A more important aspect of that socialization is represented by regular attendance at church. When the Smeaths invite Elaine to join them for the first of what eventually seems an endless series of Sundays, Atwood describes the interior of the church through the eyes of the young Elaine who might as well be a creature from Mars. One feature that becomes crucially important to Elaine are the inscriptions under the stained-glass pictures of Jesus—"SUFFER•THE•LITTLE•CHILDREN" (102)—and of Mary—"THE•GREATEST•OF•THESE•IS•CHARITY" (103).
Because she feels radically incapable of fitting into the world outside her home, Elaine becomes the victim of Cordelia's sadistic punishments for her incompetence as a student of womanhood. These punishments, which range from reprimands and shunnings to being buried alive, culminate in the scene of Elaine's almost freezing to death in a nearby ravine where Cordelia has thrown her hat. This is a ravine where "men" (51) lurk to molest careless little girls. It is Elaine's victimization at the hands of other little girls, not those mysteriously dangerous men, which leads her to the nervous reaction of peeling the skin off her feet and hands, almost as though she is studying to become a child martyr by flaying herself alive. She is saved, she convinces herself, not so much by her own mother as by the apparition of the ultimate Good Mother, the Virgin Mary.
Mrs. Risley and Mrs. Smeath function then as variants of the Good Mother and the Bad Mother. Elaine's mother suspects that Cordelia and the other girls are tormenting her daughter, but she assumes that Elaine can tell her the truth and she never notices the marks of Elaine's flaying herself.
Mrs. Smeath, on the other hand, knows that Elaine is being tormented but does nothing. In fact, Mrs. Smeath even knows that Elaine has overheard her saying that Elaine deserves to be punished for being at heart a graceless heathen. It is not until Elaine almost dies that Mrs. Risley acts. Somewhere down in the pool of the past lurks the monster of resentment against this Good Mother who should have known and acted sooner. Mrs. Risley becomes the representation, like her husband, of the well-intentioned, virtuous, but not terribly effective liberal humanists who sense that evil exists but refuse to acknowledge it, since a knowledge of evil would force them to find a place for it in their world.
Mrs. Smeath, on the other hand, is much easier for Elaine to deal with. Even as a child, Elaine can clearly see Mrs. Smeath's evil in the transparent world of that cat's eye which will be the emblem of her insight as an artist. She comes to see the crucial difference within Mrs. Smeath as a woman who professes to being a Christian—"SUFFER•THE•LITTLE•CHILDREN" and "THE• GREATEST•OF•THESE•IS•CHARITY"—yet believes that the greatest charity to little children who happen to be "heathens" is to make them indeed suffer. And, it is very much to the point that the individual who functions as Elaine's Muse is Mrs. Smeath, not Mrs. Risley. This variety of the Bad Mother, more in line with Freud's reality principle, generates a whole series of paintings through which Elaine vents her anger, hatred, and malice. Mrs. Smeath as the bad mother may very well represent much of what she finds most despicable in the conventional notion of Woman. At the same time, it is an evil which generates art and it is that art which liberates her from a self enslaved in anger towards and hatred of that image of "Woman."
That same indeterminacy is evident in Elaine's bizarre relationship with Cordelia. When she declares her independence, following Cordelia's move to another school, Elaine becomes powerful, assertive, verbally aggressive, and Cordelia fades into powerlessness, into the kind of silence which was Elaine's position early on in this power struggle veiled as a friendship. Elaine's enjoyment of a new facility with words, as though her tongue has been empowered by her earlier victimization, makes it clear how important the element of the retrospective is in this text. Told in a traditionally chronological fashion, Elaine's empowerment through language would have led the reader to anticipate that she would become a writer, rather than a painter.
In this symbiotic relationship, Elaine's friend/persecutor is given the name Cordelia. Most readers sense the irony in Atwood's borrowing the name of one of Shakespeare's innocent tragic heroines, but there are also implications of a transfer being transacted here. In the years following the Second World War, King Lear became one of our most attractive cultural myths in part because Cordelia reminds us how the innocent are swept up in the destruction of war and civil disorder and perhaps also that the innocent embody the redemptive power of love. At the same time, it is the refusal of Lear's single faithful daughter to speak, just as much as her sisters' hypocritical flattery, which sets in motion the machinery of conflict and destruction by which she and her family are overwhelmed. In this sense, Elaine, perhaps following her mother's example, is somewhat like Cordelia, choosing silence and martyrdom rather than risk the anxiety and guilt of self-assertion. Eventually, anger and resentment find their sublimated or socialized modes of expression, first in her verbal assaults on the imperfections of others and finally in her art, so often a visualization of her anguish at the hands of her tormentors.
More than anyone else, Cordelia is the one from whom she must free herself by acknowledging not only difference but kinship. Cordelia is a "secret sharer." Like her readers, Elaine keeps expecting her former tormentor to show up at the gallery, the most appropriate ghost to appear in this retrospective. Cordelia, however, does not need to appear: Elaine has already exorcized much of the guilt, hatred, and anger generated in her relationships with Mrs. Smeath and Cordelia through her art, conveniently brought together so that the artist, like her audience, can read this retrospective as a testimony to the transformative power of art. When Elaine returns to the bridge, the power of her creative consciousness calls up an apparition of Cordelia from the deeps of that pool of time with which we began. She tells us:
I know she's looking at me, the lopsided mouth smiling a little, the face closed and defiant. There is the same shame, the sick feeling in my body, the same knowledge of my own wrongness, awkwardness, weakness; the same wish to be loved; the same loneliness; the same fear. But these are not my own emotions any more. They are Cordelia's; as they always were.
I am the older now, I'm the stronger. If she stays here any longer she will freeze to death; she will be left behind, in the wrong time. It's almost too late.
I reach out my arms to her, bend down, hands open to show I have no weapon. It's all right, I say to her. You can go home now.
In a strange and unexpected sense, Cordelia has become her name. Just as Elaine earlier was rescued from physical death in the icy stream below this bridge, this time she acknowledges another variety of rescue. She confirms what this retrospective has been moving toward all along—the recognition that her art has rescued her from the spiritual death of a lifetime wasted in anger and resentment. Having recognized the power of Cordelia within herself, Elaine can at last release the Cordelia she has made to appear in the final hours before she prepares to leave home again. Perhaps she recognizes also that she and Cordelia had identities less distinct from each other than it seemed in childhood, that each had been fashioning the other in the image of a self she could not otherwise confront. Now Elaine herself can be a variety of the "Good Mother" and simply send Cordelia home before she freezes to death in "the wrong time" (443).
In the end, Cat's Eye is postmodern in several interrelated ways. Atwood offers the informed reader the lure of a few well-known features of her own childhood and then proceeds to invent an autobiography which is the experience of Elaine Risley, a character who may bear only the most superficial similarities. Autobiography, even when intended, is obviously enough only another form of fiction. By offering us, in the words of the novel's preliminary note, a work of fiction whose form is that of an autobiography, she gives us a text which confirms that truth by showing how Elaine Risley has invented herself, constructed an autobiography, through her art. Elaine is even allowed to be amused by her critics' (mis)readings of her painting, one of whom writes of Risley's "disconcerting deconstruction of perceived gender and its relationship to perceived power, especially in respect to numinous imagery" (406).
In addition, this text raises questions about the representation of women, about writing as a woman, about autobiography, and about mothers and daughters. As Barbara Johnson has argued, autobiography and its reflection in autobiographical fiction are a supplanting of the mother, a kind of giving birth to oneself through the creation of the text. Using the classic text of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Johnson argues that what a woman writer (the very term "woman writer" has traditionally been conceived of as a "freak of nature") creates has conventionally seemed a "monster." Johnson asks: "Is autobiography somehow always in the process of symbolically killing the mother off by telling her the lie that we have given birth to ourselves?" (147). In telling us the story of her life, Elaine Risley foregrounds Cordelia as a monster only to show how she freed herself from Cordelia to become as a young woman monstrous in her own way, and appropriately through language, with her "mean mouth" (247). She offers us in Mrs. Smeath, the Bad Mother, whom she subsumes psychologically in her art, a kind of monstrosity which exorcizes the monstrous complicity of Mrs. Smeath in her persecution by Cordelia and the other girls. And she offers us in Mrs. Risley, the Good Mother, a failed guide to the intricacies of femininity in the outside world and, therefore, a mother who must be killed off before Elaine can achieve selfhood at fifty.
Why, we might ask, has it taken Elaine so long to give birth to herself, the sort of act managed by the Paul Morels and the Stephen Dedaluses of modernist fiction by their twenty-fifth birthdays? Part of the answer is obvious in the question. Elaine Risley is a female rather than a male character. In this context, a good analogue is Virginia Woolf who was well aware that she could not begin work on To the Lighthouse, dealing in part with the loss of her mother, until she was in her forties. As we have learned from sociologists like Nancy Chodorow, women must struggle to achieve a sense of self separate from others, in part because they are "mothered" or nurtured primarily by women (93). In this vein, Chodorow argues, mothers see themselves as continuous with their daughters:
Because they are the same gender as their daughters and have been girls, mothers of daughters tend not to experience these infant daughters as separate from them in the same way as mothers of infant sons. In both cases, a mother is likely to experience a sense of oneness and continuity with her infant. However, this sense is stronger, and lasts longer, vis-à-vis daughters.
In these ways, the retrospective of her art is partly an invention to allow Elaine to achieve a sense of self, distinct from both Mrs. Risley and Mrs. Smeath. It is also a belated recognition of her mothering herself as the child and the young woman Elaine as well as her mothering of Cordelia whom she now can release from her hatred and her love. Having completed this retrospective of her life and given birth to herself, Elaine can acknowledge the separateness of her "daughters"—both the girl she was and Cordelia as her "other." At the risk of increasing Atwood's anxiety with yet another autobiographical reading of her fiction, it might be recalled that Cat's Eye is the revision and completion of a manuscript she began in her mid-twenties (Hubbard 205) and finished as she approached her fiftieth birthday. Despite Margaret Atwood's disclaimer that the novel is not autobiographical, it is a text performing itself as a text, a text of the author's own struggle to achieve selfhood as a woman and as an artist.5
- Unpublished interview with Deborah Weiner and Cristina Bacchilega, 1987.
- Atwood indicates her disdain of deconstruction: "What it also means is that the text is of no importance. What is of interest is what the critic makes of the text. Alas, alack, pretty soon we'll be getting to pure critical readings with no text at all" (Interview, Hancock 208).
- Atwood says: "I am very tired of people making autobiographical constructions about my novels, all of which until that time [Life before Man] had been first-person-singular novels. And I just get really tired of answering those questions: Are you the person in Surfacing? Are your parents dead? Did your father drown? Have you ever been anorexic? Have you ever been crazy? All those autobiographical questions" (Interview, Draine 376).
- Atwood tells Joyce Carol Oates the story of her family following her father into the Northern bush (Interview, Oates 70). She tells Elizabeth Meese about rebelling against her parents and going to church with her friends (Interview, Meese 182). In the Bonnie Lyons interview, she talks about the culture shock of moving to Toronto as a girl and suddenly being forced to wear dresses (Interview, Lyons 221).
- This article is based upon a paper presented in the Margaret Atwood Society session at the Modern Language Association Convention, Washington, D.C., December 1989.
Atwood, Margaret. Cat's Eye. New York: Doubleday, 1989.
——. Interview. With Betsy Draine. Interviews With Contemporary Writers: Second Series 1972-1982. Ed. L. S. Dembo. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1983. 366-81.
——. Interview. With Geoff Hancock. Ingersoll 191-220.
——. Interview. With Bonnie Lyons. Ingersoll 221-33.
——. Interview. With Elizabeth Meese. Ingersoll 177-90.
——. Interview. With Joyce Carol Oates. Ingersoll 69-73.
Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1978.
Hubbard, Kim. "Reflected in Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye." People Weekly 6 Mar. 1989: 205-06.
Ingersoll, Earl G., ed. Margaret Atwood: Conversations. Princeton: Ontario Review Press, 1990.
Johnson, Barbara. A World of Difference. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987.
CAROL OSBORNE (ESSAY DATE 1994)
SOURCE: Osborne, Carol. "Constructing the Self through Memory: Cat's Eye as a Novel of Female Development." Frontiers 14, no. 3 (1994): 95-112.
In the following essay, Osborne analyzes Atwood's use of the circular return to past events to allow her protagonist in Cat's Eye develop and establish an identity.
The memory is a living thing—it too is in transit. But during its moment, all that is remembered joins, and lives—the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.
—Eudora Welty, One Writer's Beginnings, 114
But I began then to think of time as having a shape, something you could see, like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another. You don't look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away.
—Margaret Atwood, Cat's Eye, 3
It is against blockage between ourselves and others—those who are alive and those who are dead—that we must work. In blocking off what hurts us, we think we are walling ourselves off from pain. But in the long run the wall, which prevents growth, hurts us more than the pain, which, if we will only bear it, soon passes over us. Washes over us and is gone. Long will we remember pain, but the pain itself, as it was at that point of intensity that made us feel as if we must die of it, eventually vanishes. Our memory of it becomes its only trace. Walls remain. They grow moss. They are difficult barriers to cross, to get to others, to get to closed-down parts of ourselves.
—Alice Walker, The Temple of My Familiar, 353
Recovering memories of the past leads Margaret Atwood's protagonist in Cat's Eye to her own recovery. In having Elaine create a complete sense of herself through art, dream, and memory, Atwood revises the structure of the traditional bildungsroman and kunstlerroman, privileging what feminist psychoanalytic theorists have posited as a feminine way of achieving self-knowledge. Instead of following a linear plot that emphasizes separation from the past as the mark of maturity, Atwood creates a circular structure emphasizing the protagonist's return to the scenes of her childhood and her reunion, if only in her imagination, with key figures from her past.
In her exploration of memory and the importance of the past for her protagonist, Atwood is part of a trend in contemporary fiction, represented particularly in the works of African-American women writers. Such a parallel is noteworthy, for Elaine identifies with members of minority groups in Canada as she faces the pressures of conforming to white, protestant, middle-class standards. Atwood's alternate plot structure, emphasis on memory, and attention to the pressures placed on minorities link her project in many ways with the concerns of such writers as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Gayl Jones.
The traditional bildungsroman traces the development of the male protagonist in a linear fashion to the end of adolescence when he declares himself free and independent. In Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, for example, Stephen first appears as a young boy being initiated into language as his father tells him stories of the moo-cow and baby tuckoo. The plot progresses chronologically, with a wave-like pattern of epiphanies ending each chapter, until Stephen is able to turn his back on family, nation, and religion "to forge in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of [his] race."1 His gestures are of renunciation; he severs all ties so that he can "fly by those nets" of "nationality, language, religion"2 to become the independent artist who "remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent."3 Such a structure emphasizes the male's Oedipal phase in which the boy defines himself in contrast to the mother and in alliance with the father. Stephen rejects his mother and Ireland, "the old sow who eats her farrow," in favor of his symbolic father, Daedalus, the artificer he addresses in the last lines of the novel.4
In contrast to this model, many contemporary women writers are adopting structures of circular return.5 These plots, in emphasizing a woman's need to define herself relationally, reflect the differences in male and female identity formation noted by such feminist scholars as Nancy Chodorow, Carol Gilligan, and Margaret Homans.6
In structuring Cat's Eye, Atwood mimics the wave-like motion of Joyce's Portrait, but in a much more complex way. The book begins with Elaine's return to Toronto on the occasion of a retrospective art show. The return to her childhood home, along with the review of her art, causes her to reconstruct the past, assembling the fragments, as she has subconsciously assembled fragments of her past in her paintings, only this time making sense of them by confronting the memories directly and arranging them in some kind of order. In each section, the reader travels along the same path. Beginning each part of the book in the present tense with Elaine in Toronto, Atwood then switches to the past tense when the surroundings spark a particular memory of Elaine's childhood.
Then the reader becomes completely submerged in the past event when Atwood begins narrating this episode in present tense. These moments from the past progress chronologically, following Elaine's development from age eight to the point of her mother's death a few years before the art show.
With this alternate structure, Atwood explores the nature of memory, showing that "nothing goes away"7 and that "there is never only one, of anyone."8 Unlike the male protagonists of bildungsromans who separate themselves from earlier experiences, Elaine finds her identity through consciously going back to and accepting her past and the people in it, and embracing herself as she was and is. In this way, Atwood privileges the relational needs of a female protagonist; although Elaine's childhood makes it difficult for her to form actual relationships with other women, her inner concerns reflect a desire for connection rather than separation from others.
Atwood also departs from the traditional structure of female bildungsromans such as Jane Eyre and The Awakening. By making her protagonist middle-aged, secure professionally as a minor artist, and already a wife and a mother, Atwood avoids the traditional pattern in which the point of maturation is marked by the heroine's marrying, giving birth, or finding a career. Her protagonist will not have to surrender her newly found sense of self at the end in exchange for security in marriage or society. The reader trained to expect a man to enter the plot, providing a fountain of wisdom through which the woman discovers herself, will be disappointed. No man in Cat's Eye is given such power; husbands, lovers, and even a male psychologist do not provide the insight that Elaine must achieve on her own. By making Elaine already secure in job and family, Atwood shows that these aspects of a woman's life do not necessarily lead her to a better understanding of herself. While Atwood does follow the female tradition in making Elaine's development internal, that withdrawal into the inner life is a healing one and does not lead to madness or death as was true with earlier protagonists.9
In an interview with Geoff Hancock in December of 1986, Atwood speaks of how intriguing it is for a writer to make changes in traditional forms. Once a writer understands a form and how it works, she says, she can "move beyond the conventions to include things not considered includable. [Therefore] the kind of material thought to be suitable for novels is constantly changing."10 In an interview conducted in November of 1989, she speaks specifically of Cat's Eye, saying that she is dealing with an area of life, the world of girls age eight through twelve, that is not "regarded as serious 'literary' material."11 Atwood becomes interested in stories because she notices a blank, an area that has not been written about, or because she thinks of a narrative form that could be approached from a different angle.
Because Atwood is consciously altering the traditional structure of the bildungsroman in Cat's Eye, she accentuates notions of male and female difference within the text. Elaine communicates with images, finds herself often without words, and is able to use language to her benefit only later in her development. On the other hand, her brother, Stephen, has the power to control the narrative when they play war and to write in the snow with his pee while she stands idly by. (Atwood here seems to be playing with Freud's association of penis and pen.) Stephen becomes more abstract and theoretical as he develops, moving "away from the imprecision of words"12 to a reliance on numbers, while she is grounded in concrete images.13 Even Elaine's art differs from the abstract paintings of her first husband, Jon, not serving to dismember, as his statues do, but to re-form, using memories from her past. Most importantly, Elaine, during her prepubescent period, shows the longing for relations, friendships, and mother-daughter bonds, that marks female development as different from male.
It is important to note what triggers Elaine's retrospection in terms of female development before tracing her maturation process. Elaine has reached middle age, her children have grown up, and she is having trouble accepting herself as being as old as the women that used to seem so foreign to her and Cordelia, her childhood friend. She reveals her discomfort with her mid-life status by saying that she feels everyone else her age is an adult and she is in disguise. When passing the cosmetics counter in Simpsons during her stay in Toronto, she wishes she could mummify herself, "stop the drip-drip of time, stay" the way she is, but she is forced to see herself through the eyes of the young saleslady as a middle-aged woman, and she thinks of Macbeth's lines, "My way of life / Is fall'n into the sere and yellow leaf."14
Her retrospective is a way for her to deal with this new stage of her life, a way of filling the void, overcoming the inertia, and allaying the threat of madness. As she has done earlier in her life, Elaine projects her own concerns onto the image of Cordelia. When she pictures Cordelia, it is as a woman who is fighting against the deterioration of the body or trapped in an iron lung, in a state of inertia. This projection mirrors the emptiness Elaine feels during her stay in Toronto, especially when she tries to call her husband, Ben, in British Columbia. He is not at home, and she hears her own disembodied voice on the answering machine. The nothingness that has threatened at two other key moments in her life seems to be approaching. At this time, Elaine does not walk away from the sources of her discomfort as she has in the past. Such movements toward separation fit the male model of maturation. Instead, she works to reintegrate, to re-member the various projections of herself so that she can feel that she has a full identity. She recognizes, through her picture on the art show poster, that she has reached a point where she has an identity, a face that can be defaced, but internally she must realize this identity by filling the void with memories she has blocked out earlier in her life.
Atwood's depiction of Elaine's development agrees with the theories of aging discussed in Kathleen Woodward and Murray Schwartz's Memory and Desire. Apparently, aging "generates a multiplicity of self-images," and through "varieties of playing" and "uses of illusion," we can connect past experiences into a continuous narrative that helps us deal with old age.15 According to Schwartz, "The space of illusion can fail to achieve its integrating aims and yield instead to a regressive search for imaginary unities of youth. Or we may be confronted with a violent return of the repressed, a rupture of all sense of continuity."16
In the same volume, Kathleen Woodward suggests that as we age, "we separate what we take to be our real selves from our bodies."17 She believes "the recognition of our own old age comes to us from the other, that is, from society. We study our own reflection in the body of the others, and as we reflect upon that reflection—reflection is of course a metaphor for thought—we ultimately are compelled to acknowledge the point of view of the Other which has, as it were, installed itself in our body."18 This recognition makes us experience what Freud called the uncanny, as we recognize our possible future absence, our nothingness, our death. As a result, we react against the images in mirrors and the images we see of ourselves in others.19
Carol Gilligan also speaks of mid-life as being "a time of return to the unfinished business of adolescence."20 When facing the "issues of separation that arise at mid-life," women are vulnerable due to the confusion of identity and intimacy at the crucial stage of adolescence when they formed a notion of themselves as they related with others.21 These theories explain why Elaine, when encountering middle age, needs to re-establish her own identity, to integrate past experience into her present sense of self. At first she seems to be looking for the imaginary unities of her youth as she searches for Cordelia in Toronto. As she stays there, scenes she has repressed surface. She sees herself in mirrors and is surprised by the sight; she sees herself in the figures of ladies begging on the streets and answers to their needs; and she plays with illusion, in seeing herself through the eyes of others, even those who seemed so oppressive to her as a child. She is able, through her play with images and with memory, to find continuity, a continuity seen in the narrative that structures the novel and that determines the arrangement of paintings in the art show. But she must work through the unfinished business of her adolescence, and that involves dredging up memories of a very difficult time in her development.
In her concern with memory, with the need for her protagonist to confront the past in coming to know herself, Atwood most resembles contemporary African-American novelists. In Corregidora, Gayl Jones portrays Ursa repeatedly recalling her grandmother's words until she understands their meaning; in The Temple of My Familiar, Alice Walker stresses how vital recapturing the past is for the personal growth of her protagonists, particularly Suwelo; and in Beloved, Toni Morrison depicts Sethe working through the memories of her traumatic escape from slavery and the murder of her daughter so that she can let go of the past. Likewise, Atwood presents Elaine undergoing her own form of psychotherapy in gradually uncovering, for the reader and for herself, the scenes of her childhood.
Atwood, Walker, Morrison and Jones all portray their protagonists' encounters with parental figures, particularly the mother, but the African-American writers place more importance on the interactions between the generations. Storytelling, within the texts, becomes not only a tribute to a cultural tradition, but also an act of community building as characters strive to keep the cultural past alive. While the African-American writers use oral narrative in their works as a tool for uncovering what has been repressed in a character's consciousness, Atwood depends more on Elaine's paintings and her visit to the scenes of her youth to trigger her memory. Few words are spoken, for Atwood is more concerned with Elaine's personal understanding gained through private reflection and is perhaps more skeptical of finding a common cultural past within the metropolis of Toronto, even among individuals who are of the same race, class, and gender.
Cat's Eye differs from the work of contemporary African-American women writers in another significant way: Elaine's memories are restricted to her personal past, and her encounters with the figures of her past are presented in a realistic manner. While Elaine may think she sees the characters from her past as she walks around Toronto, her interactions with these figures are always explained as occurring in her mind. Encounters with the dead come only in her dreams, in her invented narratives, in her reviewing of her art, and in the memories sparked by her return to the scenes of her past.22
In commenting on Walker's The Temple of My Familiar, Ikenna Dieke writes, "Recollective art is a rhetorical strategy of relocating the lost self, of seeking and uncovering an inner tapestry of identity, not mere psychological identity, but the exterior contexts—social, political, and personal—that make up the human self in all its complexity."23 He could easily be speaking of Atwood's project in Cat's Eye. Atwood may restrict herself to the personal recollections of her protagonist in this work, but the forces that have shaped Elaine reflect much about social and cultural conditions in Canada, particularly in the coercive nature of the white middle class, so dominant in the 1940s and 1950s.
Throughout the novel, the middle-aged Elaine expresses her hatred for Toronto. Even though it may now proclaim itself a multicultural mecca, a "world-class city," offering diversified restaurants, boutiques, and renovated districts, underneath she recognizes the same old city, with "street after street of thick red brick houses, with their front porch pillars like the off-white stems of toadstools and their watchful, calculating windows. Malicious, greedy, vindictive, implacable."24 Elaine always feels lost in Toronto, even in 1989, because to her it still represents middle-class conformity and intolerance.
During her first eight years while her father is a forest-insect field researcher and the family leads an unconventional, nomadic life in northern Canada, Elaine longs for real girl friends, for a relationship with someone like herself. Then her father takes a position as a professor in Toronto, and Elaine is able to become friends with other girls her age. She finds herself an outsider. Despite being the same race, class, and gender as the girls who befriend her, Elaine painfully discovers how different she is from the rest of middle-class society. She has no religious training since her father, a scientist, does not believe in organized religion. She knows nothing about the material trappings of middle-class culture: pageboy haircuts, Eaton catalogues, chintz curtains, and twin sets. By comparing her home to the homes of her friends, she recognizes that her family is not as well-off financially. Finally, the customs and rituals of little girls seem strange to her because she has grown up playing with and freely emulating her closest companion, her brother, without worrying about society's gender restrictions.
When Elaine first moves to Toronto, Carol Campbell befriends her. Besides offering companionship, Elaine, as an exotic oddity, serves as a means of enhancing Carol's own status. Carol treats Elaine as she would a member of a primitive tribe, marveling at Elaine's ignorance of the objects, rituals, and ways of life of the Toronto middle class. But the differences that amaze Carol at first soon become the targets for attack when other girls join the group.
Elaine begins playing a part so that she can fit in with her girlfriends. Caught between her own tendencies to express herself as her brother would and her society's expectations for her to be delicate, modest, and conforming, she loses her own voice and identity, copying the behavior of her friends and remaining silent when her views do not agree with theirs.
During the summer following her introduction to the society of little girls through Carol Campbell and Grace Smeath, Elaine stands outside her parents' window, imagining that they do not exist. She becomes critical of her parents and begins searching for replacement figures for them. Chodorow explains that as an adolescent girl begins to reject her parents, she longs for a best friend "whom she loves, with whom she is identified, with whom she shares everything.…Her friendship permits her to continue to experience merging, while at the same time denying feelings of merging with her mother."25 The mother substitute Elaine takes is Cordelia, who has joined the group by the time Elaine returns. Attracted by Cordelia's wildness and her potential to be subversive in defying the conventions of society, Elaine soon finds that Cordelia can get away with being different because she is older and wealthier. Instead of providing an outlet for Elaine, Cordelia becomes the embodiment of the culture's intolerance, directing the other girls in their persecution of Elaine.
Cordelia is an abusive mother figure who reinforces Elaine's sense of difference at every turn, making her constantly feel that she is not normal, not like other girls. We learn later that Cordelia feels alienated in her home environment because she is not as gifted as her two sisters are. Cordelia's treatment of Elaine, then, mirrors her own family's treatment of her. In tormenting Elaine, Cordelia is simply acting out of the loneliness and rejection she feels within her own family, even echoing her parents' words in her reprimands of Elaine.
Despite the ill treatment, Elaine doesn't betray her "friend," so strong is her need for relationship. Elaine fears being cast out forever from her circle of friends. Her only defense becomes her silence, and she grows mute even to herself. Even though she tries her best to fit into this new social group, attending church with Grace Smeath, submitting herself to the harsh treatment of Cordelia, and even reaching the point of negating herself, Elaine never feels comfortable conforming in this manner. Elaine shows her continued sense of alienation when she states that she likes cat's eye marbles best because they are "the eyes of something that isn't known but exists anyway … like the eyes of aliens from a distant planet."26 Symbolically, Elaine removes the cat's eye marble, a sign of her secret difference, from her purse when she goes to church.
In church, Elaine feels perhaps the greatest pressure to conform under the watchful eyes of Grace. At first when Elaine notices the pictures of Jesus surrounded by children of all different colors who look at Him with the same worshipful gaze Elaine has directed toward Grace, she feels included, taken in. Yet she also senses a problem with society's desire to privilege what is white over that which is colored. As the Sunday school class watches slides in which knights with very white skin battle evil, Elaine sees through this illusion, so to speak, noticing the light switches and the wainscoting beneath the projected image. And on White Gift Sunday, Elaine is disturbed because the gifts are "made uniform, bleached of their identity and colors.… They look dead."27 The color white in both circumstances is important, for it introduces a racial element that is reinforced not only by Elaine's identification with ethnic and racial minority figures, but by the association of Elaine with the color black throughout the novel, an association that will be discussed in more detail later. As Toni Morrison notes in Playing in the Dark, characters of color are often used to define, through their difference, the implications of whiteness.28
The individuals portrayed in Elaine's painting "Three Muses" all share with Elaine an outsider status in Toronto. She includes these figures in her portrait because as a child, not only is she treated kindly by each one, but she identifies with all of them in their alienation from the dominant culture. First, she sees in her father's associate from India, Mr. Banerji, a creature like herself, "alien and apprehensive."29 She notices his chewed nails, the misery underneath his smile, the pressure he feels living in a society so foreign to him. Like Elaine, Mr. Banerji is never totally accepted in Toronto. After suffering through years of racial discrimination in the university's promotional system, he finally returns to India.
The second muse is Mrs. Finestein. Elaine enjoys baby-sitting for her son, Brian, since he is uncritical, unlike her friends. But when Grace and Carol point out that Brian is a Jew, revealing their prejudice against the people they call the killers of Jesus, Elaine fears her own ability to protect the child and stops baby-sitting. Still, she feels there is "something extra and a little heroic" about Brian because he is a member of a group that has suffered under Hitler's rule.30 She later feels the same dimension of heroism added to her own character when her painting "White Gift" is attacked at the art show by a conservative middle-class woman outraged by its blasphemy.
The third figure with whom Elaine identifies is her teacher, Mrs. Stuart. Elaine enjoys Mrs. Stuart's class much more than Mrs. Lumley's. Instead of indoctrinating the students about the superiority of British culture over the culture of the colonies, Mrs. Stuart, a Scot, stresses the positive aspects of foreign lands. Mrs. Stuart, an exile herself, gives Elaine hope, for she offers her images of wonderful foreign places where she may be able to escape the stifling atmosphere of Toronto.
While Elaine is a white Canadian, not ostensibly a member of a minority in Toronto, Atwood encodes racial difference within the text to accentuate Elaine's feelings of oppression. As Elaine surrenders power over her own self-definition, Atwood associates her more and more with the color black while her oppressors, Cordelia, Carol and Grace, are aligned with white images. For example, Elaine derives her strategy for surviving the taunts of her friends through two sources, both associated with blackness. When she discovers a dead raven one summer, she notices that no matter how she pokes it, it does not feel a thing. She notes its color, black like a hole, and reflects that no one can get at it, no matter what they do. When she subsequently blocks her own feelings, she becomes like the dead raven. After fainting at the Conversat, she discovers an even better way of escaping from her tormentors. By holding her breath until she faints, a sensation she describes as blackness closing in around the edges of her eyes, she is able to avoid Cordelia's reprimands.
When Cordelia and the other girls bury her, Elaine has no image of herself in the dark hole, just a square of blackness, because at this point, she essentially loses her identity. Elaine learns to protect herself by not being, not feeling, not talking. In picturing Cordelia pushing her off a cliff, drawing a self-portrait that shows her figure as a small speck of light in the middle of blackness, and finally finding some type of escape through fainting, losing consciousness, and going into a state of nothingness, Elaine works harder and harder to negate herself.
This negation continues until Elaine is able to find a mother figure who can replace the harmful Cordelia and thus fulfill Elaine's pre-Oedipal need to form an attachment with someone like herself. Her need for a mother substitute becomes exacerbated when her own mother's miscarriage and depression distance her from Elaine. At this point, by dreaming that Mrs. Finestein and Mr. Banerji are her parents, Elaine reveals her perception that these characters, as members of ethnic minorities, have more in common with her and thus promise more support as parents than her own family is able to provide. In the same dream, Elaine pictures her mother giving birth to twins, one gray and the other missing. She sees herself as one twin, gray and without identity, and the double, the role Cordelia serves, is missing. At this point, Elaine realizes, through her dreams, the need for a new figure to whom she can become attached.
The figure that replaces Cordelia is an imaginary one that Elaine chooses in deliberate opposition to the society responsible for the erasure of her identity. When Elaine overhears Grace's mother and aunt discussing her, she realizes that despite her efforts to conform, they still view her as a heathen, and more importantly, that the adult society sanctions the abuse she receives from her peers for being different. At this point, in rebellion against the God Mrs. Smeath and her society seem to control, she chooses her own private icon, the Virgin Mary, a figure always in the background in Grace's religion. Elaine rebels against the rules of the "onion church" by aligning herself with an opposed minority, the Catholics, and kneeling as she prays to this alternate mother figure.
In the scene in which these prayers are answered and Elaine finds the strength to break with Cordelia, black and white imagery again plays a crucial role. Cordelia makes an angel in the white snow and her face appears as a white oval right before she throws Elaine's hat into the ravine. These images of whiteness contain a sinister aspect, however, for the imprint of Cordelia's fingers in the snow makes the angel appear to have claws, and the chilling ice of the ravine threatens death for Elaine. What comes to her rescue, in contrast to the whiteness, is not the traditional image of Mary, with blue dress and crown, but the figure of Mary dressed in black. Elaine, then, aligns herself with minorities, both literally and figuratively, in order to overcome the oppression of white, middle-class Canadian society.
Once Elaine is able to create a mother substitute, Mary, with her imagination, she can break free of Cordelia's domination. Elaine, released from her silence, begins to seize control through language, becoming the mean mouth that can frighten Cordelia through her stories. Earlier, Cordelia had seized narrative control by telling of her family, the dead people in the ravine, and witches in eggshells, but now Elaine relishes her power over Cordelia by telling her she is a vampire. The figures associated with her power over Cordelia, Mary and a vampire, come again to Elaine's mind as she returns to Toronto. Regretting wearing her powder-blue jogging suit to the interview at the gallery, she wishes for a Nun black or Dracula black outfit to make her feel more powerful. Before reunion with the images of her past, she is still daunted by the judgmental atmosphere she encounters in the gallery, and she looks to black disguises to aid her.
While the imaginary mother substitute, Mary, allows Elaine to escape Cordelia's domination, this vision does not offer a permanent resolution to her relational needs. In the next stage of her development, Elaine avoids others who resemble her, for she still fears facing herself. Not until she can make a connection with her double, with the image of Cordelia, will she feel comfortable with herself or with those who reflect what she is.
In art school, then, Elaine stays away from other girls and looks for acceptance from male students. Securely dressed in black, living in a neighborhood of immigrants, she fits into the art school crowd. Elaine seems to follow traditional lines of development at this point, finding in her art teacher, Joseph, a father figure who promises that although he is beginning with nothing, he can "finish" her. Joseph, called D. P. (Displaced Person) by the other art students because he is an Eastern European refugee, needs Elaine's support as much as she needs his. Once again, Elaine aligns herself with someone else who feels alienated from the culture. Even her intimate life with Joseph is associated with a foreign world, for they always have sex on his Mexican blanket.
The need in Joseph, and later in Jon, does not frighten Elaine the way that need in other women does, for it is the need of someone different from herself. With Cordelia and with her fellow art student, Susie, who parallels Cordelia and is conflated with her in Elaine's dream, Elaine is more frightened, for she sees herself mirrored in both. Susie and Elaine are both dating Joseph and thus parallel. When Elaine meets Cordelia again, her image is mirrored in Cordelia's sunglasses, and Elaine realizes that she is acting her role in relationships with men in her life just as much as Cordelia is acting on stage. Elaine refuses to help either of these women, to form bonds with them, for that would mean confronting herself. She does not become friends with Susie, and she later refuses to aid Cordelia in leaving the mental institution.
Once again, as Elaine had negated herself to fit into the female world of the little girls, she negates herself in fitting into the roles defined by the men in her life. By first allowing Joseph to mold her, and then later in conforming to Jon's expectations when she moves in with and then marries him, she loses a sense of her own identity. She becomes silent, feels vacant, and upon discovering that she is pregnant, feels once again that she is a black square that is totally empty. Indeed, neither Joseph nor Jon sees Elaine; instead, they project onto her the image of their need. Elaine's understanding of how each man views her becomes obvious in her painting of them. In this painting, Elaine, with a cat's eye marble head, appears as the model for Joseph and Jon, yet their portraits are not of her. The symbolism in this piece of art shows that Elaine is capable of seeing, but not of being seen.
Elaine's unresolved problems with her past lead her eventually, in considering her life a ruin, to attempt suicide, longing for death as she did in the ravine. The voice that pushes her in this scene is Cordelia's, for Cordelia is the first to make Elaine feel as though she is nothing. Once Elaine realizes that Cordelia's voice will not go away as long as she stays in Toronto, that the echoes of the past will continue to haunt her, she finds the strength to leave. Within the childhood world of young girls and within the structures of marriage and motherhood, Elaine fails to find her own identity because of the pressure middle-class society places on her to conform. She flees to British Columbia, she says, not only to mark the end of her marriage, but also to escape the city of Toronto.
In her new locale, through her painting, Elaine once again regains control of her life, and she is even able to remarry, but she is unable to find connections with women because her relations with the women earlier in her life have not been resolved. The act of separating oneself from the past, the act that culminates the male bildungsroman, does not lead to resolution in Atwood's novel. Elaine claims that she is good at leaving and not looking back, but while such a separation may allow her to heal some of her wounds, her complete self-knowledge occurs only when she is able to look back, to return and confront the past.
It seems important that Atwood does not portray Elaine as finding herself through feminist collectives or motherhood. Perhaps Atwood is rebelling against the myths that maintain that a woman can get a better sense of herself through organized groups of women who share the same experiences of oppression, or through becoming a mother and thus satisfying her longing, according to Freud, for a penis. Repeatedly, Atwood emphasizes Elaine's alienation from other women—those in her art group, in her consciousness-raising group, and in the gallery holding her retrospective show—for all these women seem as judgmental to her as her first female friends, Cordelia, Grace, and Carol.31
The third stage of Elaine's development parallels patterns Diana George notes in the work of female poets. Using Kathleen Woodward's theories on female aging, George concludes that "an encounter with one's parents (and in the case of aging women poets, especially the mother) may permit the poetic self to move toward wholeness, even if not to achieve it."32 In Atwood's portrayal of Elaine's return to her mother, she also parallels trends in the work of African-American authors. Joyce Pettis, in discussing works by Paule Marshall, Gloria Naylor, and Toni Morrison, notes that often in black women's texts, "Characters travel back to their cultural origins or to the origin of their maternal ancestors in search of bringing coherence to fragmented lives."33 In the last episode of the chronological narrative that structures Cat's Eye, Elaine returns to Toronto to be with her dying mother. Together, they uncover layer upon layer of the past in an old trunk, eventually coming to the red purse, associated in Elaine's mind with the saving figure of Mary.
Earlier in the narrative after Elaine describes the figure of Mary rescuing her from the ravine, she tells of visiting churches wherever she goes, searching for statues of the Virgin Mary. Though she approaches each with hope, she is always disappointed—until she and Ben travel to Mexico. There, in a foreign environment far away from Toronto, she sees a statue of Mary, dressed in black, the only statue of Mary that seems real to her. Recognizing Mary as "a Virgin of lost things, one who restored what was lost," Elaine wants to pray to her but does not because she does not "know what to pray for."34 At this point in her life, when she has escaped from her past and is beginning a life with Ben, she recognizes the importance of the symbol of Mary, but she does not yet realize what the finder of lost things can restore to her. Once she and her mother begin uncovering the past by going through the trunk, however, Elaine realizes that what was lost were the memories of her past, the sense of self of which Cordelia and others had robbed her.
As the items in the trunk and her mother's recollections help Elaine recover repressed memories, she is able to look into the last item she finds, the cat's eye marble, and see her life entire. Even though her mother is unaware of the importance of these artifacts, they enable Elaine to confront the events of the past and herself. Elaine, now that she is a mother, can understand and forgive her own mother for not protecting her against Cordelia. She realizes that her mother was concerned but powerless, unable to control the social pressure that had been so traumatic for her daughter. Elaine's growth, it seems, depends not so much on her mother's actions, then or now, but on Elaine's efforts to deal with her past during her final trip to Toronto.
Elaine, throughout her life, has resisted being a spectacle, being the subject of either her own gaze or the gaze of others. She does not like Joseph to stand behind her; that reminds her of Cordelia walking behind and judging her. She avoids mirrors, declaring that women do not want to see themselves. Indeed, she resists the whole idea of returning to Toronto for the art show and of staying at Jon's because it is "a silly thing to do, too retrospective," but the retrospective art show forces Elaine to look again not only at her painting as it reflects her life, but also at herself and her past.35 The cat's eye marble once gave her power to see without feeling so that she could separate herself from others; now that this separation has prepared her for a new kind of bonding, she is granted the ability to see with feeling, through her painting and her dredging up of old memories. In looking again at her portraits of Mrs. Smeath, Elaine notices that what she always believed were self-righteous eyes were actually the eyes of a displaced person who shared her own fear and loneliness.
As Elaine imagines seeing herself as a child through the eyes of Mrs. Smeath, she changes her opinion of this woman. Rather than reacting to her with the accustomed hatred, wishing to exact an eye for an eye, she reacts with sympathy and empathy. By imaginatively placing herself in the position of another, Elaine creates the bonds that had been impossible to form earlier in her life. After reviewing the paintings that depict her unconscious grappling with the past, Elaine, drunk and disappointed with the show, cries, making what she feels is a "spectacle" of herself, even though no one is watching. She has become a spectacle for herself, a means of seeing and the object being seen.
Finally, Elaine is able to overcome the haunting figure of Cordelia by recognizing that the fear and loneliness and pain she felt as a child were the emotions Cordelia experienced as well. When she returns to the ravine, she no longer has to depend on imaginary figures of Mary to help her, for she has become the older figure now, capable of seeing Cordelia from a different perspective. Atwood dispenses with the traditional symbol of maternal care and artistic inspiration by having Elaine dismiss the vision of Mary as being "nobody and nothing."36 Memory makes the vision return in absolute clarity, but a mature Elaine recognizes that she directs the images of Mary and Cordelia; they no longer control her. By reaching out to comfort the imaginary figure of Cordelia, Elaine shows that she has reached an acceptance, not only of her past and the figures in it, but of herself.37 That is the reason that, as she turns to look down the path, the image of Cordelia is no longer there. In her place is a middle-aged woman. Elaine has come to accept herself, her present position in life, by taking the inner journey through her past and renewing the relationships from which she had previously run away.
The ending of Cat's Eye is not entirely positive, for Elaine still feels the loss from failed relationships. But as she flies home, Elaine realizes that she has regained a sense of herself and that the echoes of her past, like the stars above her, provide her with enough light to see by. Atwood's heroine, unlike the protagonists of earlier bildungsromans, completes her growth in self-knowledge. She does not go mad, she does not commit suicide, and she corrects her earlier actions of separating from others. She achieves full maturity by reforming the pre-Oedipal bonds in accepting, if only in her imagination, the other who is like herself.
In Cat's Eye, Atwood shows that Elaine, in search of self-definition, is hampered by the pressure middle-class society places on her to conform to established roles. By establishing her kinship with minority figures, Elaine becomes empowered enough to break away from the coercive influence first of Cordelia and then of Jon and Joseph. But not until Elaine is able to reconnect with these figures in her past does she feel whole. In returning to Toronto, Elaine first makes peace with Jon. Then, through looking again at her art, reviving old memories, and summoning visions of Cordelia and Mrs. Smeath, Elaine is also able to reconnect with the abusive figures of her childhood, recognizing that they felt the same alienation and loneliness as she did. Atwood shows that growth for individuals and for societies comes when people are able to empathize and connect with those who differ from them while also embracing themselves.
In having Elaine return to her childhood home to participate in a retrospective art show, Atwood, like many of her contemporaries, stresses the importance of memory in the maturation process. The bildungsroman evolves, as a result of this change in emphasis, from a linear structure to a circular one that illustrates even in its form the interaction of past and present in a protagonist's psyche. Earlier in her life, when Elaine severed her ties with Cordelia and Jon, she used the imagined mother substitute, Mary, and her painting to help her escape from her past. But such avoidance left her development incomplete so that at middle age, she must overcome her depression by returning to Toronto. There, she fully develops her identity by playing with images of herself as seen in the bodies of others and by embracing those images both as they appeared in her childhood and as they appear now. While growing up under the pressures of white, middle class conformity made Elaine's childhood traumatic, she is able to find emotional release by returning to the scene of this trauma and learning, in her imagination, to identify not only with those who shared her sense of alienation, but also with those who were her oppressors.
- James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in The Portable James Joyce, ed. Harry Levin (New York: Viking Press, 1946), 526.
- Joyce, Portrait, 469.
- Joyce, Portrait, 483.
- Joyce, Portrait, 470.
- Gayle Greene, Changing the Story: Feminist Fiction and the Tradition (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 15-16.
- While I am aware of the objections made to Chodorow's work as universalizing the experience of white women, I find her theories useful in discussing Elaine's development since Elaine fits the model on which Chodorow's observations are based. I do not wish to suggest by my use of Chodorow, however, that all women, regardless of socio-economic, ethnic or racial difference, follow this model exactly. Nor do I believe that this plot structure is restricted only to female authors and female protagonists. Pat Conroy's The Prince of Tides proves otherwise. I simply believe that women raised within the family structure Chodorow describes tend to have greater relational needs than men and that contemporary women authors often adopt the circular plot structure as a means of writing against the earlier tradition of the bildungsroman.
- Margaret Atwood, Cat's Eye (New York: Bantam Books, 1989), 3.
- Atwood, Cat's Eye, 6.
- Elizabeth Abel, Elizabeth Hirsch and Langland, The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1983), 9-13.
- Earl G. Ingersoll, Margaret Atwood: Conversations (Princeton: Ontario Review Press, 1990), 194-195.
- Ingersoll, Margaret Atwood: Conversations, 236.
- Atwood, Cat's Eye, 3.
- Claudine Hermann's observations of differences between male and female conceptions of space and time come to mind here. She links women's being cut off from space and subjected to time without any means of recuperating it through action to an absence of grammar, an inclination toward poetry. She quotes Professor Anastasi of Fordham University: "On the whole, girls are better than boys in subjects that rely primarily on verbal activity, memory, and perceptual speed. Boys are better in subjects involving numerical reasoning, spatial aptitudes, and in certain informational subjects like history, geography, or the sciences in general." Claudine Hermann, "Women in Space and Time," New French Feminisms, ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron (New York: Schocken Books, 1981), 173.
- Atwood, Cat's Eye, 119-120.
- Murray M. Schwartz, "Introduction," Memory and Desire: Aging—Literature—Psychoanalysis, ed. Kathleen Woodward and Murray M. Schwartz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 3-5.
- Schwartz, "Introduction," 3-5.
- Kathleen Woodward, "The Mirror Stage of Old Age," Memory and Desire: Aging—Literature—Psychoanalysis, ed. Kathleen Woodward and Murray M. Schwartz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 104.
- Woodward, "The Mirror Stage," 104-105.
- Woodward, "The Mirror Stage," 109-110.
- Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982), 170.
- Gilligan, In a Different Voice, 170.
- In Surfacing, Atwood uses more of the techniques common to Walker and Morrison, for in this novel, Atwood deals with the way in which one culture, from the United States, threatens to obliterate another culture, that of the Canadians, especially the native Indian population of the North. As Lissie's memory, in extending through many generations in her various incarnations as animal and human, connects Walker's characters with their cultural past, Atwood's protagonist in Surfacing goes beyond her own personal past in using Indian cave painting as clues to her father's disappearance and in following Indian ritual to revert to a more animalistic state in which she has visions of her dead parents. In her protagonist's interaction with the dead, Atwood uses a similar technique to the one Morrison employs in Beloved.
- Ikenna Dieke, "Toward a Monistic Idealism: The Thematics of Alice Walker's The Temple of My Familiar," African American Review 26/3 (Fall 1992); 509.
- Atwood, Cat's Eye, 14.
- Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978), 138.
- Atwood, Cat's Eye, 67.
- Atwood, Cat's Eye, 132.
- Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992).
- Atwood, Cat's Eye, 138.
- Atwood, Cat's Eye, 143.
- Gayle Greene argues in Changing the Story that Cat's Eye is a misogynist text reflecting the current backlash against feminism. I disagree. I feel Atwood is merely attacking the assumption that women readily connect because of their common experience.
- Diana Hume George, "'Who Is the Double Ghost Whose Head Is Smoke?' Women Poets on Aging," Memory and Desire: Aging—Literature—Psychoanalysis, ed. Kathleen Woodward and Murray M. Schwartz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 143.
- Joyce Pettis, "'She Sung Back in Return': Literary (Re)vision and Transformation in Gayl Jones's Corregidora," College English 52/7 (November 1990): 787-799.
- Atwood, Cat's Eye, 212.
- Atwood, Cat's Eye, 16.
- Atwood, Cat's Eye, 422.
- Note the difference between this image and the image at the end of Portrait when Stephen becomes the "spiritual-heroic refrigerating apparatus," turning away from Emma, his mother, and his friends to embrace "the white arms of roads" and to be alone. Joyce, Portrait, 525.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 568
Blakely, Barbara. "The Pronunciation of the Flesh: A Feminist Reading of Margaret Atwood's Poetry." In Margaret Atwood: Language, Text, and System, edited by Sherrill E. Grace and Lorraine Weir, pp. 33-51. Vancouver, Can.: University of British Columbia Press, 1983.
Examines the notion of identity in Atwood's poetry.
Bouson, J. Brooks. Brutal Choreographies: Oppositional Strategies and Narrative Design in the Novels of Margaret Atwood. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993.
Draws on feminist and psychoanalytic theory to examine political and psychological links among Atwood's novels.
Coad, David. "Hymens, Lips, and Masks: The Veil in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale." Literature and Psychology 47, nos. 1-2 (2001): 54-67.
Analyzes the political symbolism of veils in The Handmaid's Tale.
Cooper, Pamela. "Sexual Surveillance and Medical Authority in Two Versions of The Handmaid's Tale." Journal of Popular Culture 28, no. 4 (spring 1995): 49-66.
Examines the surveillance of women in The Handmaid's Tale, arguing that the film version of the novel forces the audience to be complicit in the surveillance.
Davey, Frank. Margaret Atwood: A Feminist Poetics. Vancouver, Can.: Talonbooks Ltd., 1998.
Discusses Atwood's development of a formal feminist poetics throughout her canon.
Deery, June. "Science for Feminists: Margaret Atwood's Body of Knowledge." Twentieth Century Literature 43, no. 4 (winter 1997): 470-86.
Contends that Atwood's representation of women's experience draws heavily from the principles of modern physics.
Klarer, Mario. "Orality and Literacy as Gender-Supporting Structures in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale." Mosaic 28, no. 4 (December 1995): 129-42.
Examination of Atwood's portrayal of the oral tradition in The Handmaid's Tale as a political tactic in which orality is used to uphold gender roles and stereotypes.
Nicolson, Colin, ed. Margaret Atwood: Writing and Subjectivity: New Critical Essays. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1994.
Thirteen essays examining Atwood as a woman writing about women.
Nischik, Reingard M., ed. Margaret Atwood: Works and Impact. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2000.
Collection of essays on a wide variety of topics in Atwood's works as well as her influence on literature and culture. Contains an interview with Atwood, examples of her artwork and photographs, and a bibliography.
VanSpanckeren, Kathryn, and Jan Garden Castro, eds. Margaret Atwood: Vision and Forms. Carbondale and Edwardsville, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988.
Collection of essays with a primarily feminist grounding. Includes an autobiographical foreword by Atwood, an interview, and a moderated discussion with students.
Wilson, Sharon Rose. Margaret Atwood's Fairy-Tale Sexual Politics. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1993.
Examines Atwood's interpretive use of fairy tales as transformative for women.
OTHER SOURCES FROM GALE:
Additional coverage of Atwood's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 13; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 12, 47; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 1; Bestsellers, Vol. 89:2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 3, 24, 33, 59, 95; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 3, 4, 8, 13, 15, 25, 44, 84, 135; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Poets, Ed. 7; Contemporary Popular Writers; Contemporary Women Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 53, 251; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied, Novelists and Poets; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Novels; Feminist Writers; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 5; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vols. 4, 12, 13, 14; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 8; Poetry for Students, Vol. 7; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 3, 13; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 2, 46; Something about the Author, Vol. 50; Twayne's World Authors; World Literature Criticism; and World Writers in English, Vol. 1.
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