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Margaret (Eleanor) Atwood 1939–
Canadian novelist, poet, critic, and short story writer.
Since the publication of her first collection of poetry, Double Persephone, in the early sixties, Margaret Atwood has been recognized as an outstanding poet. The publication of The Edible Woman several years later initiated her reputation as an important novelist—a reputation confirmed by her feminine quest novel, Surfacing, judged by many to be a contemporary classic. Although Atwood writes well in either form, most critics maintain that her true gift lies in poetic expression because of her spare, controlled, and direct style.
As a spokesperson for the culture and psyche of her native Canada and, also, for the feminist point of view, Atwood frequently uses dual themes and images. A favored combination is the search for identity coupled with a journey motif, especially a journey into the wilderness, such as the one outlined in an early collection of poems, The Journals of Susanna Moodie. Atwood advocates a return to a simpler, more natural way of life, in order to shed the roles imposed upon people by commercial culture. She aims to find the real, hidden self and to regain the lost past. This attempt to break out of role-playing, survive the accompanying pains, and establish relationships without illusions, is the basis for Dancing Girls and Other Stories and the novel, Bodily Harm. A recent collection of poetry, True Stories, also emphasizes the importance of self, bolstered by the instinct for survival. But despite her often solemn subject matter, Atwood infuses her writing with satiric wit, and both The Edible Woman and Lady Oracle are regarded as comic novels.
Although most of Atwood's writing has been widely acclaimed, there is one point upon which many critics agree: that her characterizations lack depth. Her males in particular are stereotypical, representing only negative and destructive elements. In addition, critics note that the constant re-use of her themes, images, and narrative styles has tended to make her work somewhat predictable. Nevertheless, such techniques as direct address, dramatic monologue, and the use of personal and historic events allow Atwood to achieve a uniquely personal style and voice. She has the ability to present the ordinary in extraordinary ways, giving the reader new options for reevaluating those things previously taken for granted.
(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 4, 8, 13, 15; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52; and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 3.)
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Margaret Atwood's first collection of short stories [Dancing Girls] … centres on the relationships between men and women…. Atwood writes mainly of the struggles between men and women, of painful failures and of equally painful readjustments. Atwood's women tend to suffer the most in these relationships; their male friends have affairs, or simply leave them, and the women have to shore up their defences just to get by…. [Atwood's stories] range in tone from cool detachment, to suppressed hysteria, to the lightly ironic and humorous. And Atwood's considerable ability as a poet is often evident in the stories in the vividness of phrasing and imagery. The use of suggestive imagery to convey meaning is in fact one of the most distinctive features of the best stories—'Under Glass' and 'Polarities,' for instance.
By the standard of Atwood's own best fiction—Surfacing, that is—Dancing Girls is a reasonably good, but not major work. It may be unfair or even inappropriate to compare a collection of short stories with a novel, but none of the stories has the reach or depth of Surfacing. Further, many if not most short-story collections are of uneven quality, and Atwood's is no exception; her stories, it is true, do not differ radically in quality, but distinctions between them can be made. The stories of sexual politics, nearly all told in the first person from the woman's point of view, achieve varying degrees of success. 'Under Glass,' for instance, is successful because the narrator is fully individualized, and, even as she considers that ultimate defence of Atwood's heroines, withdrawal and a retreat from all pain, she shows an appealing sense of humor. In 'The Grave of the Famous Poet,' on the other hand, the central situation is simply never brought to life. The story portrays the typical Atwood battle: the characters fight for the role of victim, establish a truce, resume the battle. The format is familiar, but we never really see the characters; they never become individualized, realized, alive. (pp. 329-30)
'The Resplendant Quetzal,' one of the finer stories in the book, has a mellow tone unusual in Atwood, and while the story may lack the sheer emotional power found in Atwood's presentation of the savage hostility between David and Anna in Surfacing or in the bitter warfare of the lovers in Power Politics, her balanced, sympathetic portrayal of the problems of both the husband and the wife has a compensating gentleness, humaneness. Atwood, however, occasionally presents her tales of men and women in a much lighter manner. In one story she creates the voice of an unsophisticated working-class woman who is recounting her rape fantasies; another more or less comic tale focuses on a rather ordinary, not particularly attractive girl whose only moment of glory comes when she is suddenly 'courted' by a strange foreigner. These stories successfully achieve what they attempt but they are light, and they are not the essential Atwood; they relate to the world of Lady Oracle rather than to that of Surfacing.
Sexual politics, of course, is only one of Atwood's major concerns; extreme alienation, both from society and from oneself, as in 'The War in the Bathroom,' is another. Atwood is expert at mapping out feelings of alienation, but there is an aspect of her dealings with these experiences that needs to be questioned. The problem that arises can be seen most obviously in 'A Travel Piece.' The main character increasingly feels a sense of unreality about her own life and waits longingly for some 'real' event to occur. When the plane she is on crashes into the sea, even the accident doesn't seem real to her until some of the other survivors in the raft think of slitting the throat of one of the others to get his blood to quench their thirst. This act, or the possibility of it, the woman takes to be definitive of 'reality.' Although there is an obvious distance between Atwood and the main character, we can't say that this is simply the character's view of reality; the third-person narrator—Atwood—seems, to some degree, to share it. Certainly in other stories we encounter the sense that only the grotesque, the bizarre, the disordered are 'real.' Undoubtedly much of the strength of Atwood's work comes from the intensity with which she explores this vision of reality, but it is in itself a narrow, partial vision.
In 'Polarities,' which I think is the best story in the book, Atwood to some extent goes beyond this limited vision…. Atwood doesn't sentimentalize her portrayal of Louise, who is presented as being virtually 'mad,' but also partly a visionary, and the story at least points to possibilities beyond a totally alienated view of reality. And the story doesn't merely portray and accept alienation, inner paralysis, but diagnoses it. The main male character, Morrison, makes some effort to help Louise but he's trapped by his essential inability to respond, by his 'chill interior, embryonic and blighted.' In a stunning ending Atwood gives us a surrealistic image of the land that expresses the emptiness of Morrison's emotional life…. Here we have an example of Atwood's art at its best, and, in her analysis of alienation, of her insight. (pp. 330-31)
R. P. Bilan, "Letters in Canada: 'Dancing Girls'," in University of Toronto Quarterly (© University of Toronto Press 1978; reprinted by permission of University of Toronto Press). Vol. XLVII, No. 4, Summer, 1978, pp. 326-38.
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Atwood is a swimmer. The familiar Canadian "underwater" motif, the notion of the self and Canada itself trapped underwater like Atlantis, occurs in the first poems of her first full collection and is repeated throughout her work, reaching a kind of climax in the novel Surfacing. The notions of inner order and outer space, garrison and wilderness, the issue of perspective and of the ways of seeing also recur, as they do in the work of Avison, Page and numerous other writers. Like Al Purdy and others, she has a concern for ancestors and for evolution, even for the geological past. There is the familiar Canadian identification with animals and a sense of fierce native gods. There is both social satire and an interest in the metaphysics of landscape, as in the work of P. K. Page…. [But] Atwood utilizes Canadian traditions in an apparently more conscious way than most writers of her generation. She taps Canadian culture's most important concerns. And she brings to traditional materials her own sensibility, her own way of saying things: the famous cool, apparently detached tone, the canny disposition of loaded words in short, punchy lines without much heightening of rhythm. It is a style highly distinctive both in its limitations and its strengths. Atwood attempts, for better and/or worse, and certainly to her immediate advantage with readers, to clarify what is complex and difficult, to get right to what she regards as the essential point.
Metaphysics and metaphor: the search for ways in which to find one's whole self, to find identity with one's body, one's instincts, one's country—in this emotional pioneering Atwood moves to the centre of national concerns. (pp. 154-55)
The Journals of Susanna Moodie enlarges upon the national theme; as a poem sequence it enlarges Atwood's scope and is highly successful, indeed an advance on her two earlier books [The Circle Game and The Animals in That Country], which were uneven though often striking. In the person and experience of Susanna Moodie the poet finds an appropriate objective correlative for her own thoughts and emotions. The book is both personal and objective, both nationalist and universal in its metaphysical enquiry….
Procedures for Underground presents family poems, the deep well of childhood memories, the bush, Canada under water, the descent into the earth to recover the wisdom of the spirits of place, alienation in cities, travel, and marriage. It is a quieter book of individual poems with a quieter and, for some, a more enduring appeal than the one that follows. Power Politics is, as they say, something else again—an account of grim sexual warfare that restores all the Atwood bite and mordant humour. It makes surreal black comedy out of the historic difficulties of women and the destructive games, projections and illusions of modern lovers in a world built on war and the destruction of the environment. But in You Are Happy, which can be regarded as a kind of sequel, the Atwood protagonist moves forward toward a new country of relationship without false hopes, promises, defences, evasions, mythologies. The singularity, the uniqueness of things, of people, in the flux: this is something nameless, beyond language, as in Surfacing. One gives oneself to the flux. (p. 157)
Her first two novels, The Edible Woman and Surfacing, are enlargements upon the themes of her poems. In each of them a young woman is driven to rebellion against what seems to be her fate in the modern technological "Americanized" world and to psychic breakdown and breakthrough. But they are quite different in tone and style.
The Edible Woman is delightfully, wickedly funny. It is feminist, certainly, but it provides a satirical account of the absurd ways of Canadian men and women. It is kindly in its irony: never so fierce in its assault as is Power Politics. There is anger but there is also good humour. The major characters are satirized—they represent various undesirable ways of existing in the modern consumer society—but they are also seen sympathetically as human beings, even the pompous Peter and the pathetic Lothario Leonard. They are not grotesque caricatures like David and Anna in Surfacing. (p. 158)
[The Edible Woman] is a largely successful comic novel, even if the mechanics are sometimes a little clumsy, the satirical accounts of consumerism a little drawn out. It is skilfully written, shifting easily from first to third person and back again to convey the stages of Marian's mental travels, her journey into self-alienation and out again. Of Atwood's three novels it is least a poet's novel….
Surfacing introduces a young woman far more fearful, desperate, and alienated from her true self than Marian McAlpin. The atmosphere is correspondingly tense and eerie, for this is a psychological ghost story like The Turn of the Screw, in which the ghosts, the young woman's parents, are lost parts of herself that she must recover. She has been unable to feel for years, even though she had a good childhood, much of it spent on an island in northern Quebec. She believes (as the reader does for much of the book) that she has been married and divorced, abandoning a child. Her encounter with the gods of place and, apparently, with the corpse of her drowned father when she returns to the scene of her childhood reveals the truth—that she had in fact had a traumatic abortion—and this drives her to a healing madness, a descent to animal simplicity and a rejection of the destructive, mechanical "civilization" that has wounded her and of all its works, even words. (p. 159)
The first-person point of view combined with the evocative description of setting makes it possible for Atwood to get away with a certain shallowness of characterization; only the narrator seems at all complex. But this is not something that interferes with the powerful flow of the novel as one reads it.
Still, it is evident here, as it is more seriously in Lady Oracle, the third novel, that characterization is not Atwood's strong point. And it is revealing that much of her fiction, including her shorter fiction, employs the first person. Everything must be filtered through the mind of the Atwood protagonist, who is usually supposed to be both shrewd and confused, a combination that is possible but which tends in certain cases to put some strain on the reader's credulity. In this respect The Edible Woman is a more balanced novel than Surfacing, and yet it is Surfacing, the poet's novel, that more powerfully engages the reader's emotions.
In Surfacing the repeated imagery of bottled, trapped and murdered animals builds powerfully to the key scene in which the father's corpse and the aborted foetus are encountered…. In Lady Oracle, however, a similar patterning of images, metaphors, and ideas fails to compensate for the fuzzy personality of the narrator, even if this last is part of the author's point. Nor is there the power of language found in the latter part of Surfacing. Indeed, the female-picaresque Lady Oracle is decidedly thinner than the other novels and lacking in over-all shape or focus, even if it is in places very interesting and enjoyable and even if it offers some rewarding insights into the need for and nature of art and the fantasy life. It is just that all of this seems too intellectually worked out, too far removed from any very deeply felt or imagined experience of the kind that "stood in," so to speak, for any very searching exploration of human character in Surfacing. Though a serious emotional resonance seems quite clearly intended, it is not achieved, mainly because recurrent poetic imagery is finally no substitute for depth of characterization. This is the major limitation of Atwood the novelist. Also, the reader may suspect that Atwood is indulging herself a little in this book, even to the extent of succumbing somewhat to the old-style "woman's fiction" she parodies…. (pp. 160-61)
It is in Surfacing, where a considerable emotional power is allowed to develop (as in The Journals of Susanna Moodie, another excursion into "large darkness" and out again), that Atwood's vision and gifts may be seen to best advantage. Here she has given the theme of quest into darkness and the journey to wholeness, a theme that she shares in recent Canadian fiction with Klein, LePan, Watson, Cohen, and MacEwen, its most overtly Canadian expression, and this is no doubt one reason for her considerable success at a time when this great and universal theme has a special significance for a rapidly developing and "surfacing" Canadian consciousness. (p. 161)
Tom Marshall, "Atwood Under and Above Water," in his Harsh and Lovely Land: The Major Canadian Poets and the Making of a Canadian Tradition (© The University of British Columbia 1979), University of British Columbia Press, 1978, pp. 154-61.
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Margaret Atwood has remarked that her poetic tradition is Canadian…. [Her nearest of kin] are James Reaney and, possibly, Jay Macpherson. (p. 129)
Influenced by Frye, both Reaney and Macpherson believe in the power of the imagination to create autonomous poetic worlds. Atwood, while celebrating the imagination, often in disturbing images that recall, for example, Reaney's The Red Heart … or Macpherson's Welcoming Disaster …, is aware of its dangers. In her poetry physical reality constantly assails imagination, challenging its proud autonomy so that the poet must adopt an ironic eye and an ambivalent attitude towards both realms. Atwood further resembles Reaney in the emphasis she places upon perception, although she is again less willing than he to trust the eye of the beholder, the individual's inner vision. Her use of myth owes much to Reaney's theories in Alphabet,… because Reaney provided a model for the intersection of immediate experience and myth. Macpherson's The Boatman, published in 1957, was one of Canada's first series of poems artistically shaped as a book instead of a collection. With Double Persephone, The Circle Game, The Journals of Susanna Moodie, and to a lesser degree in other volumes. Atwood creates comparable unity—poems inter-related through theme and image to create a structural and imaginative whole.
Atwood's differences from Reaney and Macpherson underline her affinities with poets like Al Purdy and Dennis Lee. Both write about personal experience and historical event in a style that relies less on myth, symbol, or imaginative structure than on colloquial speech rhythms and statement. Though fascinated by the power of imagination and the independence of a verbal universe, Atwood remains committed to social and ethical perspectives in her art. As well, her style is one of direct personal address or dramatic monologue which involves a deft use of colloquialisms; even the most ordinary words, "this" or "but", carry startling importance. Because the theory of art as mirror or map, outlined in Survival, is basic to her writing, one should admire the beauty of the mirror, the colour and complexity of the map, without neglecting the social relevance of poem or novel, the connection between art and life.
This connection indicates the central dialectic and tension in Atwood's work, the pull towards art on one hand and towards life on the other. How does one capture living forms in imaginative and verbal structures? How does the artist work from life to art and still reflect life? Atwood asks these questions repeatedly…. The tension that exists between art and life informs the subject/object dialectic as well. Atwood's artistic world rests upon a Blakean world of contraries and William Blake is, I suspect, the most significant non-Canadian influence upon Atwood's imagination. (pp. 129-30)
More important than Atwood's relationship to other poets is the development of her own voice and style. While a cool, acerbic wit, ironic eye and laconic phrase are characteristic of her poetry, she continues to explore new forms. Up to and including You Are Happy, the combination of detachment and irony coupled with cut-off line and duplistic form dominates her poetry. Selected Poems marks a plateau in this development. (p. 131)
As a fiction writer Atwood's tradition is tenuous. Her novels are best read in the context of twentieth-century fiction where first person narrators, ironic self-reflexive narratives, and symbolic or even mythic structures, are common. There are, however, elements that place her within a broadly-defined Canadian tradition: Atwood's emphasis on the past and the individual's need to be part of a social context, as well as her treatment of victimization and struggle for survival, are common features in [Canadian] novels. In The Edible Woman and Lady Oracle, Atwood consciously draws upon the tradition of Canadian satire from Haliburton to Leacock and Davies. This satire is heavily ironic and self-critical, while affirming fundamental human values…. (pp. 131-32)
Although Atwood's published fiction is polished and enjoyable, it is as a poet that she is truly distinctive and commanding. There are several reasons for this distinction between the power of her poetry and prose. Some of these are matters of voice and style. The sense of challenge and tension so effective in the poems is harder to maintain in a narrative. Moreover, the ironic exploration of self, a constant Atwood theme, is more successful in the poems because the irony of first person narration in the novels too often blurs. The poems are more dramatic vehicles for the exploration of the self because of the possibilities they provide for abrupt juxtaposition of points of view or creation of hallucinatory distortions of a solipsistic eye. With the exception of Surfacing, Atwood fails to sustain in her fiction the eerie, disembodied voice that rivets our attention in the poetry. Beckett's experiments with voice in Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable resemble the voice in Atwood's poetry, but in general the novel form cannot avoid some sense of ego, of particularized individuality. Certainly, it is in her poetry that Atwood best combines voice and style in order to explore perception, the philosophical extremes of solipsist and materialist, and her concept of the self as a place where experiences intersect.
The closest Atwood comes to resolving the paradoxes of self and perception is in terms of duplicity. Duality is neither negative nor ambivalent. Duality, whether of structure or metaphor, is not the same as polarity. But the human tendency to polarize experience, to affirm one perspective while denying the other, is deeply ingrained, and this makes choosing to live with duality very difficult. (p. 132)
For Atwood the dynamic of violent duality is a function of the creative act. From Double Persephone, to Lady Oracle and now Two Headed-Poems, she has continued to explore the inescapable tension between art and life, the two immortalities…. She is constantly aware of opposites—self/other, subject/object. Male/female, nature/man—and of the need to accept and work within them. To create, Atwood chooses violent dualities, and her art re-works, probes, and dramatizes the ability to see double. (p. 134)
Sherrill Grace, in her Violent Duality: A Study of Margaret Atwood, edited by Ken Norris (© copyright Sherrill Grace, 1980), Véhicule Press. 1980, 154 p.
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The most obvious and compelling strength of True Stories is that, like much of Atwood's verse, it seems to grow naturally and with ease from a personal vision no less articulate for its privacy. Reading Atwood has always been like following a guide's brilliant flashlight through an eerie but not entirely unfamiliar cellar. In True Stories the guide has emerged to the light of day only to find the world no less frightening a place. Gestures of love and family and day-to-day life jive in a danse macabre with the incomprehensible and chaotic lunges of poverty, torture, and imprisonment. Familiar and foreign become indistinct, and Atwood's remarkable sensibility finds itself the choreographer of two strange partners….
In many ways, True Stories is a collection of anti-travel poems, dismissing our assumptions of both home and away as facile and ridiculous. "The palm trees on the reverse / are a delusion," she writes on a postcard, and one senses that Atwood is bent on decrying a great many delusions, about herself as much as anything else….
Throughout the collection the juxtaposition of false tranquillity and real terror weave irony after bitter irony. Ever the most gruesome poems—"Torture," "A Women's Issue," and "Spelling"—possess a grim, sardonic awareness of the cruel and absurd co-existence of love and hate. Poverty and affluence are seen as torturously entangled as the pleasures of sensuality and the pain of rape. The two worlds meet in a place that Atwood maps out in one of the most disturbing and potent poems in the book, "Notes Towards a Poem That Can Never Be Written."…
If there is not much that is pretty here, there is a great deal that is beautiful. Atwood's language and understanding of the power of language work together in careful harmonies. At times the effect is, like a chant, magical….
Margaret Atwood has a level-headed sense of compassion that strips all the potential radical chic and romantic fashionability from the causes she espouses. She does not react to issues so much as create them, finding them within herself. Even the subtle humour she employs is used to keep any nonsense from creeping into her poetry…. True Stories is a remarkable book.
David Macfarlane, "A Terrible Beauty," in Books in Canada, Vol. 10. No. 3, March, 1981, p. 10.
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[True Stories] is centred on Notes Towards a Poem That Can Never Be Written, a sequence about present-day torture and the brutality of the past…. At moments, Atwood seems damaged by her own security; unable to shut her eyes on "darkness, drowned history," she knows prison cells and death camps by a recurrent ache of the imagination. Some poems are painful to read, for she doesn't flinch from showing us the methods and effects of evil….
Not all her poems are explicitly political, though many inhabit a borderland between private and public unease. As ever, Atwood moves with brilliant fluency from objects to emotions; her ideas often take shape and force from sharp physical details such as "cooking steak or bruised lips" and "mouthpink light." That famous cool intelligence can be sardonic with a vengeance…. In True Stories, however, the abrasiveness is subdued by tenderness, a surprising vulnerability and her consciousness of our need for love (an impossible word to define, an impossible word to do without). It's a measure of Atwood's stature as a poet that the sheer excellence of the writing can be almost taken for granted. Because it is blooded by political comment, True Stories may not be one of her most immediately appealing books of poetry, but it's among her best. (p. 52)
Mark Abley, "Bitter Wisdom of Moral Concern," in Maclean's Magazine (© 1981 by Maclean's Magazine; reprinted by permission), Vol. 94, No. 13, March 30, 1981, pp. 52-3.∗
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[Much] of True Stories consists of a kind of poetic actuality, a continuing oblique comment on the world that is our here and now. It is perhaps the best verse Atwood has written, honed down to a stark directness, an accuracy of sound, yet imbued with the visual luminosity that makes poetry more than a verbal exercise. It tells us not only of the abdication of reason, but also of the tyranny of the senses and the cruel proximity of violence and love.
One of the striking aspects of True Stories, which it shares with much of the poetry in Atwood's previous volume Two-Headed Poems, is the metamorphic process by which thoughts merge into sensations, so that the mind seems imprisoned in its flesh, yet things in a curious and compensating way become liberated into thought….
The constant interplay between the sensual and the intellectual, between things and thoughts, provides the kind of formal remoteness from which Atwood can, like Auden's "Just," exchange her messages. For these are poems that, even while they warn us not to rely too much on reason, nevertheless tell us factual things about the world in which love exists on sufferance, threatened by kinds of violence and injustice that none of our theories or our codes of conduct can comprehend.
The poems assembled in the middle section of the book—"Notes towards a poem that can never be written"—read often like a verse abstract of the more harrowing sections of Amnesty International reports. They depict a condition of unreasoning barbarity, where cruelty and death are no longer tragic but merely gratuitous, absurd in their horror. (p. 55)
These poems may not—cannot—portray the rational, yet they are some of the most intensely moral writing I have read in recent years, and not less so because they savage romantic notions of love, motherhood, etc., and show how such myths can imprison and, indeed, destroy.
Yet True Stories is not all negation; its very moral intensity makes that impossible. It is about human cruelty and human love, and the two are far less necessarily intertwined than they were in earlier Atwood poetry…. (p. 56)
George Woodcock, "Love and Horror" (copyright © 1981 by Saturday Night; reprinted by permission of the author), in Saturday Night, Vol. 96, No. 5, May, 1981, pp. 55-6.
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Although Bodily Harm is a gripping and horrific narrative (complete with CIA and spy vs. spy reinforcement) it is not merely a suspense-filled adventure thriller set in the Caribbean for an added touch of exotic flair. It is the story of Rennie Wilson, an "options open" drifter who takes a seemingly harmless vacation in St. Antoine to escape the pressures and perversions of her life….
My first impulse was to dismiss the ineffectual and introspective hold that Rennie has on her life, but nothing is that simple, a fact that becomes all too clear as Rennie attempts to escape from an essentially middle-class environment. The novel possesses the unrelenting sub-surface terror of Under the Volcano, the irony and condemnation of innocence and laissez-faire that can be found in The Quiet American, and Atwood's own unflinching belief in her characters' ability to bring the story home, in all its violence and nightmare reality. The book is also concerned with that same violence, magnified several times, that major political forces effect in their race for oil, for power, for control. St. Antoine is a devastating example of what that cold and brutal mentality can do both against a country and its citizens.
Bodily Harm is an overwhelming novel; it goes for the hands (the motif is used frequently) and arrives at the throat, possessing Atwood's usual ability to harness the energy of language and implication.
Judith Fitzgerald, "Fiction: 'Bodily Harm'," in Quill and Quire (reprinted by permission of Quill and Quire), Vol. 47, No. 10, October, 1981, p. 34.
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For Margaret Atwood, life is quest, and her writing—particularly her poetry—is the charting of that journey. Atwood's journey is seldom geographical…. Unlike Charles Olson, Atwood does not dwell on location, physical presence, details of place. Her search is instead a piercing interior exploration, driving through any personal self-consciousness into regions marked by primitive responses both violent and beautiful. Atwood is interested in the human condition, a condition which exists independent of sex; and she plays a variety of games in order to explore that condition fully.
The strategies Atwood uses in her poems are similar to those of her fiction: personae described in terms of such basic biological functions as eating and sleeping; myriad patterns of disguise, whether literal or anthropomorphic; duality presented as separation, as in relationships between lovers (the hints of Jungian traits suggest that Atwood's "males" could represent the rational side of her female characters as well as their own selves); praise for life simplified, closer and closer to the natural; and a stark diction and rhythm, meant to be as far from the "literary" as Atwood's own ideal life is from the conventionally "feminine."
Whether the Atwood persona is a Circe, a Lady Oracle, a Susanna Moodie, a Marian MacAlpin, or the unnamed heroine of Surfacing  she is a questioning and often bitter woman, at first resisting the passions that eventually lead her to knowledge. She pits accepted roles of womanliness, with all their final ineffectuality, against those of outraged non-conformity…. (pp. 81-2)
Ironically, given the tools of the writer, Atwood finds that the most significant knowledge comes without words…. Atwood's poetry and fiction teem with characters who fail, consistently and harshly, in expressing themselves; and she often comments on the ineffectuality of purely rational knowledge….
By her 1974 collection, You Are Happy, however, Atwood has stopped lamenting and instead shows her acceptance of the nonverbal…. One learns because one senses in the blood/heart/hands—centers of touch and emotion rather than intellect. And one is happy, without qualification, only when she, or he, has accepted that resolution of the quest. Self-knowledge must go deeper than fragile, temporal self. It must include an other…. (p. 82)
Atwood's progression to this new and apparently satisfying resolution is clearly drawn through her first six books of poetry. While the poems of The Circle Game in 1966 appeared to be direct, cutting in their perceptions, the personae of those poems never did make contact, never did anything but lament the human condition…. Relationships in these poems are sterile if not destructive…. The lovers in "Spring in the Igloo" are touching the edge of drowning; the lover in "Winter Sleepers" has already gone down. The female persona in "A Sibyl" admits her "bottled anguish" and "glass despair."
Even in this first collection, however, the problem as Atwood sees it is more than personal. There are complex reasons why love between a man and a woman is tenuous—cultural, philosophical, anthropological reasons, many of which grow from mistaken values in modern living. Because contemporary people judge in terms of technology and scientific progress, they value "improvements," devices, the urban over the rural, the new over the timeless. Much of Atwood's first collection is filled with her arguments against these attitudes…. (p. 83)
This dissatisfaction with the modern milieu, and the ethos it has spawned, leads Atwood first to the immediate move away from urban life…. "Pre-Amphibian" reinforces that tactic, and in the three-part poem "Primitive Sources" she studies ancient beliefs about god-systems, magic, and other devices for understanding the process of life—and a sentient human being's place in it. (p. 84)
Although most of the attention in the poems of The Circle Game falls on personae other than the female character, the book can easily be read as her portrait. The collection opens with "This Is a Photograph of Me," which describes the landscape surrounding the lake in which the heroine has recently drowned. In Atwood's wry directions to the viewer lies her admission of the long and difficult process that "surfacing" is to be. First one must realize the need to surface. Identity comes after that, and full definition much later…. As the last lines [of "This Is a Photograph of Me"] imply, part of that full definition must also come from the viewer/reader/lover. Attention in The Circle Game tends to be given more regularly to the male persona—he may be disappointing but he is the authority, the determinant. Atwood is not yet able to draw her female characters as if they had distinctive qualities. They are instead mirrors, listeners, watchers…. Atwood's eventual development from woman as pupil to the authoritative protagonist of Lady Oracle  illustrates well the journey to self-definition.
That Atwood has excluded so many of these poems first published in The Circle Game from her 1976 Selected Poems suggests that—for all their thematic accuracy—she finds them less satisfying as poems than some later work. Perhaps the very directness and flat diction that in the sixties appeared to be strengths had grown comparatively uninteresting, for Atwood later set her direct statements in more metaphorical contexts, and often avoided making statements at all, unless they were ironic. She also began the search for poetic personae other than the woman-lover of the poems in The Circle Game.
In The Animals in That Country  she wrote about anthropomorphic characters who seemed to represent the human types already drawn in her early poems. Metaphor suffuses these poems…. The young feminine persona remains submissive, coerced into action, dissatisfied with what choices do exist—and with her decisions about those choices. Repeatedly, she wrongs herself, whether she takes in "A Foundling" or blurs into the obliging lover ("more and more frequently the edges / of me dissolve and I become / a wish"). (pp. 85-7)
Her experiments here with varying rhythms and tones probably equipped her to catch the ambivalent persona of the book-length sequence of poems, The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970). Her achievement in this collection is to present a protagonist believable in her conflicts. Through Moodie/Atwood, we experience hope, anguish, fear, joy, resignation, and anger. It may be more important for the thematic development of Atwood's poetry that we experience the paradox of Canadian nationalism. Like Atwood, Moodie wrote enthusiastically about life in Canada yet her journals also showed her real fear of the wild, the primitive, the untamed. (p. 87)
The character of Susanna Moodie becomes a perfect mask for the journey to self-exploration that Atwood attempts. Her statement "Whether the wilderness is / real or not / depends on who lives there" sounds much like Atwood's later surfacer. "Looking in a Mirror" and "The Wereman" repeat this theme of unwitting metamorphosis, identity shaped by the wilderness and its arduous living. Not all changes are negative, however; and one of the results of this acrid confrontation with natural forces is an acceptance of dream knowledge….
Published in the same year as the Susanna Moodie collection, Atwood's Procedures for Underground has as central persona a pioneer woman, whose memories seem to be given voice as she looks at old photographs. Her family, the old cabin, hard winters, her husband—she speaks with a spare wisdom, moving easily between fact and dream, myth and custom. In "Procedures for Underground" she speaks as a Persephone who has gone below, been tested, learned "wisdom and great power," but returns to live separate, feared, from her companions. Knowledge of whatever source is the prize for Atwood's persona, and many of the poems in the collection play with the definition of truth, fact, knowledge, the "search for the actual." In some of the poems Atwood moves to present-day Canada and continues the theme of search through the sexual power conflict that is to be the subject of her 1971 Power Politics. (p. 88)
Power Politics is Atwood's comic scenario of the themes she had treated with relative sombreness in Susanna Moodie and Underground. If the former was an exploration of a sentient woman character, caught in and finally able to acknowledge "the inescapable doubleness of her own vision," then Procedures for Underground is a survival manual for the kind of learning that a perceptive woman would have to undertake. Handicapped as she is (with her head resting in her "gentle" husband's sack), she must make use of emotion, dream, the occult, the primitive, even the animal to find her way. In Power Politics the assumption that any woman's protective male is her handicap becomes a given, and the fun in the book comes through Atwood's myriad inventive descriptions of the power struggle—as politics, war, physical waste, innuendo, sly attack. (pp. 88-9)
One of the changes Atwood made in choosing work for Selected Poems was to omit many of the poems in Power Politics that were titled as if for stage directions: "He reappears," "He is a strange biological phenomenon," "He is last seen." By emphasizing instead poems about the two people in the relationship, and often the woman, she manages to reverse the expected power positions. In Selected Poems the male ego is less often central. The collection as represented in the 1976 book thus meshes more closely with Atwood's earlier poems, in which the female persona often moves independently on her search for self-awareness, although in her omissions Atwood has deleted some poems important to thematic strains. "Small Tactics," for example, a seven-part sequence in Power Politics, relates the war games described in this collection to those of "The Circle Game," but here the feminine voice laments, "Let's go back please / to the games, they were / more fun and less painful."… More often, in [Selected Poems], the woman is wise and loving, ready to admit her own necessary anger, but not misshapen by it. (p. 90)
Atwood's reasons for deleting [the] powerful poem ["He is last seen"] with its important recognition of dual emotions remain unexplained, but the poem does picture the male as dominant—decisive, aggressive—in ways that tend to contrast with the transformation and Circe poems of You Are Happy. In tone, however, in the strong balance of antipathy and desire, it leads [towards the poems of You Are Happy] with its somewhat richer diction and more varied rhythms.
The ironically generous central persona of You Are Happy is Atwood's fully-realized female—maker, poet, lover, prophet—a Circe with the power to change all men into animals, all men except Odysseus. Her capacity to control and yet give marks her as truly royal; her sometimes coy reluctance to accept praise suggests her basic awareness of the futility of bucking convention. Her powers may be dramatic, as the poems of "Songs of the Transformed" indicate, but they are limited to the physical, and fragile compared to the "wrecked words" Circe laments. Powerful as she is, Circe still cannot create words, and it is words for which her people beg. (pp. 92-3)
Circe differs from Atwood's earlier protagonists in that she is more aware of inhibiting mythologies. Her great understanding—of individuals as well as of patterns and cultural expectations—sharpens her perception but does not make her less vulnerable. (p. 93)
As Odysseus' dissatisfaction [with Circe] grows (his basic greed is impossible to satisfy), he thinks often of Penelope, and Circe realizes the wife's power to draw him back…. At the base of reality is the word. Despite omens and auguries, fire signs and bird flights, happenings return to the word, as Odysseus did:
You move within range of my words
you land on the dry shore
You find what there is …
Atwood changes the image of conquering male into the image of man lured by a subtler power. Verbal magic bests physical force; feminine wiles and words convince the male persona—no matter what the circumstance—that "you are happy." The ambivalence of the opening poem, "Newsreel: Man and Firing Squad" suggests the transitory and often indefinable quality of any happiness. One learns to say No to the most unpleasant of life's experiences; one counters fate and myth with strategy; one develops powers of his or her own kind and value, and for the poet, those powers are verbal….
Atwood's poems suggest that the range of human promise is wide, that exploring that range—for woman, man, artist, or lover—should be a primary life experience: "To learn how to live," "to choose," "to be also human," and, as culmination, "to surface." (p. 94)
Linda W. Wagner, "The Making of 'Selected Poems', the Process of Surfacing," in The Art of Margaret Atwood: Essays in Criticism, edited by Arnold E. Davidson and Cathy N. Davidson (copyright © 1981, House of Anansi Press Limited; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1981, pp. 81-94.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 663
[In] Margaret Atwood's new novel, Bodily Harm,… readers of her previous comic novels will find much that is familiar. Here again is the opposition between a superficial world of social convention and a subsurface one of unconscious will, physiological need and barbaric impulse. Again the narrative pattern is that of Shakespearean comedy—alienation from natural order (Rennie's Toronto career), followed by descent into a more primitive but healing reality (cancer and Caribbean violence), and finally some reestablishment of order (the concluding insight). Rennie, the point-of-view character, is another of the self-preoccupied female participants in intellectual Toronto that one encounters in The Edible Woman, Surfacing and Lady Oracle; although carrying a different history, she has the same general vocabulary, ironic wit and speech patterns of the earlier characters….
Atwood has consistently used the human body as a metaphor for surface and depth; concern for the skin as in Anna's make-up in Surfacing, Joan's weight-loss in Lady Oracle, Rennie's fashion stories here in Bodily Harm, have stood for repression of organic reality. The body itself has stood for that reality, refusing to eat in The Edible Woman, being stripped of make-up and clothing to reveal itself in Surfacing, and here asserting its mortal flesh and blood nature through Rennie's cancer.
The central irony of Bodily Harm is that this cancer, which Rennie fears may reappear and kill her, is the principal agent of her spiritual healing. The cancer forces Rennie to turn her attention from the surface beauty of her body (and of herself as sexual package) and toward her body's inner nature; she becomes dissatisfied with her superficially affectionate relationship with Jake and seeks a man to whom she can be willingly "open." It leads her to the Caribbean island where she will transcend her glib condescension toward those who suffer ("everyone gets what they deserve") and come to experience true compassion. Cancer heals. (p. 29)
Bodily Harm is overall a more satisfying novel than its forerunners. The recurrent Atwood argument that the chic veneer of civilization conceals and even apologizes for unspeakable barbarism is much more persuasive when the consequences of such concealment are not merely the bourgeois ones of unhappy liaison and neurotic despair but are instead torture, disfigurement and death. The book is stronger also because its conclusion—the comic return to society and healthful reintegration into it—is related in the future tense (either by Rennie or the unidentified third person narrator—the point of view is unclear here) only as a fantasy prediction, possibly Rennie's wish, of what may happen. The transformation and salvation of Atwood's three earlier comic heroines was less than totally credible because so abruptly achieved in the concluding pages. Here it is not achieved; we know not whether her captors will permit her return nor whether Rennie herself is capable of living out her new vision of life in a Canadian context. We know only that she has experienced a new vision, which for the novel's structural requirements is enough.
I am troubled by the similarity between the narrators of the four novels—several times I had the eerie feeling I was once again reading Surfacing or Lady Oracle. Also troubling is Atwood's re-use of the narrative structure of the earlier three books. One wishes the general patterns were less obvious so that one's primary experience of the book could be its own events. Similarly, the surface imagery of fashion, packaging, cosmetics, jewellery and furniture, the subsurface organic imagery of blood, wounds, dirt, insects and openness, as well as the numerous mirrors that reflect back the false doppelganger of illusory surface, have after appearing in four novels become predictable and lack the power they had when the author originated them. In short, Atwood doesn't risk much with this book; it is constructed almost entirely out of well-tested elements. These reservations aside. Bodily Harm is still a pleasure to read. (pp. 29-30)
Frank Davey, "Life After Man," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. LXI, No. 714, December-January, 1981–82, pp. 29-30.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 599
[True Stories] is a worthy successor to [Atwood's] previous works. As in an earlier book of poetry, The Journals of Susanna Moodie, the poet stakes a claim in the world against natural, human and inhuman forces of uncontained, inexplicable oppression….
Through a personae of professional torturers, seen as artistic poseurs, Atwood probes for clues to the insanity and irrationality that mock the life principle. Again, the truth varies and wavers, takes on plausible and implausible facades. In "Notes Towards a Poem That Can Never Be Written" (dedicated to poet Carolyn Forche, whom Atwood admires for her courage as a political journalist in El Salvador), her linguistic control and detachment convey more horror than any overwrought, "social conscience" poetry….
Atwood's strength derives from the fact that she seems to know exactly where she has come to at any stated point. The lay of the land is visible to her through a myriad of perspectives. The "true story" is not a constant, but kaleidoscopic and relative to its originator or the objects it encompasses. Truth, like happiness, is not a goal, but the result…. Dynamic tension is always present, inducing a springy, taut rhythm to the language itself.
Atwood's message in True Stories seems to be an assertion of the importance of self, whether alone on an island, beaten in prison, or sharing experiences with the beloved. Like the protagonist in her novel, Surfacing, Atwood escapes the pervasive, spiritual takeover of mass culture and slick ad campaigns. She pares away the extraneous and reveals herself naked but independent, offering only her self in the immediate moment. This is the only relationship or pact which the poet can genuinely offer, the only thing that matters….
In Surfacing, Atwood's writing tends more towards the poetic as the protagonist retreats further and further from a society victimized by the invidious effects of cultural imperialism. However, True Stories carries some of the imperative of prose in that the author moves from the language of personal isolation to that which confronts the reality of widespread politically/sexually-based torture. This extends Atwood's range of expression and enables her to capture a more representative slice of humanity's contemporary conditions. In other words, Atwood makes the transition from personal to political worldview carefully, avoiding the pitfalls of polemicism by adhering to her craft….
Atwood's use of bold, primal imagery conjures up echoes of Sylvia Plath. But Atwood steps beyond the confines of what she described at a recent seminar as the way critics stereotype modern women poets possessed of strong voices. Either they are neurotic, suicidal Plaths/Sextons or else hysterical, repressed Dickinsons. In Atwood's cosmology there is a need to define a new model of the assertive, articulate poet with a feminist perspective who can step away from the wholly personal to a more powerful, universal language. In earlier times the words or "spells" of some women were powerful enough to be feared by men, who labelled them witches. In more recent times there is still fear of women's words when they speak out against inequity and outright repression. But poets like Atwood are conscious of their power as writers and are determined to wield it….
With True Stories Margaret Atwood demonstrates that the Canadian instinct for survival in precarious environments prevails again. This poet has torn the gag irrevocably from her mouth, and her message is clear: a poem after a poem after a poem from a committed poet, if they can be heard, is power.
Eve Siegel, "Poetry: 'True Stories'," in San Francisco Review of Books (copyright © by the San Francisco Review of Books 1982), January, 1982, p. 21.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 305
Bodily Harm, a constantly diverting novel, fairly breathes narrative grace and skill. (p. 1)
The novel has flaws. One is narrative design run riot. There are first-person sections, set in Canada, told in the past tense, with un-quote-marked dialogue; and there are third-person sections, set on St. Antoine, told in the present, with dialogue in quotes.
So far so clear: But one understands near the end that the first-person sections are being told by Rennie to Lora in the jail cell they share; and that this setting is also the justification for the several first-person passages from Lora's point of view—passages that have had the reader rapping the walls for secret passageways. Logically, and in hindsight, it all hangs together, but fiction ought to cohere in the reading, not in the reading explained.
A more serious flaw is that the novel-of-adventure element is permitted to run so far that this wonderful book becomes hard to take with full seriousness. As it thickens with drastic events, the foreshortened plot leaves less and less room for character, often squeezing it out of the story entirely. Rennie becomes a passive observer, a narrative convenience, now posted and now moved wherever she can see the action best.
Rennie's character (who she is, the choices she makes) doesn't affect the plot; and in turn the plot, though it sweeps her up along with everyone else, finally affects her least of all (only she can fly away from it). A close relationship of mutual influence between plot and character is what distinguishes literary from genre fiction. The perfect brilliance of the writing insists that this novel is by birthright literary, but it finally sells that birthright for a delightful mess of delicious plottage. (p. 2)
Jonathan Penner, "Plots and Counterplots," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1982, The Washington Post), March 14, 1982, pp. 1-2.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 355
Margaret Atwood's Two-Headed Poems are full of interesting ideas, memorable images, and intelligent observations. She has a deep understanding of human motivation, and her poetry deals naturally with an intricate sort of psychology most poets ignore. Her poems are often painfully accurate when dealing with the relationships between men and women or mothers and daughters. And yet with all these strengths, Atwood is not an effective poet. She writes poetry with ideas and images, not with words; her diction lies dead on the page. Her poems have a conceptual and structural integrity, but the language itself does not create the heightened awareness one looks for in poetry. The problem centers in her rhythms, not only the movement of words and syllables within the line, but also the larger rhythms of the poem, the movements from line to line and stanza to stanza. While the pacing of her ideas works beautifully, her language never picks up force.
One notices the curious neutrality of Atwood's language most clearly in her sequence of prose poems, "Marrying the Hangman," which obliquely tells the story of Françoise Laurent, a woman sentenced to death for stealing, who legally avoids punishment by convincing the man in the next cell to become a hangman and then marrying him. (Atwood uses a real historic incident here, but the plot seems like something out of a Mascagni opera.) The language in these prose poems is qualitatively no different from the language of her verse, except that it has no line breaks. It most resembles a passage of "elevated" prose, like an excerpt from Joan Didion's histrionic Book of Common Prayer.
The few times in Two-Headed Poems that Atwood's language condenses into genuinely arresting rhythms, the results are fresh and convincing, as in "Foretelling the Future."… But these moments are rare. Imaginative in conception, these Two-Headed Poems are mostly flat and perfunctory in execution. If images and ideas alone could make poetry, Atwood would be a major poet. (pp. 110-11)
Dana Gioia, "Eight Poets," in Poetry (© 1982 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXL, No. 2, May, 1982, pp. 102-14.∗
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 290
["Bodily Harm"] bristles with intelligence and is often so witty that I wondered why I wasn't enjoying it more. The trouble may lie with the tropes. These are clever but obtrusive and can make the story seem to be no more than a hook for hanging symbols on. Atwood's metaphors are deft, but there are just too many of them: almost anything can stand for something else. When Rennie's untidy lover fails to throw out empty containers and keeps glancing at her blouse, it is because Rennie has had a mastectomy and the blouse too is an empty container.
The mastectomy itself—bodily harm—prefigures worse to come and may be an emblem of the harms wreaked by the consumer society…. Reification is rampant. We are objects for each other's skills and jokes—the most painful being inadvertent, as when Rennie's doctor, just before diagnosing cancer, asks whether she's ready yet to have babies and adds, 'You're heading for the cutoff point.'
Rennie is not, however, allowed to wallow in wise-cracking self-pity. The author has shock therapy in store: a visit to a Third World country with an unstable régime in whose eruptions she becomes engulfed. Ever since Graham Greene used revolutionary Mexico as a metaphor for hell, such settings have served novelists for harrowing souls. When Rennie finally escapes she has been sufficiently politicised to plan some serious reporting—and has learned that there are worse things than cancer. The neat conclusion suggests that the revolutionary country is a purely contingent place, devised to bring Rennie to her moment of truth. 'Bodily Harm' is an imaginative, thoughtful novel, but perhaps over-controlled.
Julia O'Faolain, "Desperate Remedies," in The Observer (reprinted by permission of The Observer Limited), June 13, 1982, p. 31.∗
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Margaret Atwood, the Canadian novelist, has one of current fiction's more detached voices. Her tone toward her characters reflects the nature of the characters themselves: women who are divided into separate personae—one half defined by the role they feel society has thrust upon them, the other, their true self (insecure and amorphous as it is) trying to break out. Like many other characters in recent fiction, their lives are directionless; they drift in and out of relationships and find little satisfaction in work. Atwood doesn't treat them as whole persons, but rather as fragmented parts of a human being. Consequently, it's often difficult for the reader to gather much sympathy for them—they're too much the victims of every current neurosis. Her last novel, Life Before Man, examined the lives of three narcissistic, shallow individuals; although the novel progressed along a linear time span, and set out to analyze the characters' changing over time, we saw almost no change in their lives, and little of redeeming value to justify such a detailed presentation of their neuroses.
But in Bodily Harm, her most recent novel, by placing Rennie Wilford, her protagonist, on a Caribbean island in the throes of revolution, and adding a scare with cancer to her life, Atwood has, in a sense, saved Rennie from the stagnant fate of her other novels' characters. The stakes are higher; survival, one of Atwood's favorite themes, is no longer a 1970s term tossed around at cocktail parties. Death, rather than the modern sense of ennui, threatens Rennie and the people around her, and ultimately gives her life a meaning she hadn't known before….
The structure of the novel effectively plays off Rennie's Toronto life against her Caribbean life. Her experiences in the Caribbean are interrupted by flashbacks from her childhood, growing up among an oppressive mother and grandmother—the standard background of Atwood's women—and her life around the time of her mastectomy. The sections in the Caribbean move more quickly than do those in Canada; the latter often producing a sense of frustration in the reader, since its stagnancy is juxtaposed with the urgency of the Caribbean scenes. When one has confronted life-and-death situations and people constantly living on the edge, it's difficult to turn back to people who wonder what trend to follow next. Let's hope Atwood's next novel continues along the same lines, for this is her most readable to date.
Nancy Ramsey, "'Bodily Harm'," in San Francisco Review of Books (copyright © by the San Francisco Review of Books 1982), Summer, 1982, p. 21.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 395
"In a way I admire her, she gets through the days." That is what Margaret Atwood's characters do—get through the days. In other stories by other writers, these characters would commit suicide or join support groups and we would be forced to recognize them as contemporary victims/heroines….
Margaret Atwood does not write that kind of story. She looks deeper and sees more clearly and she insists that the reader see as well. The stories in "Dancing Girls" are painful and subtle, for Atwood's characters do not thrash but suffer quietly in ways they do not quite understand. Most are women too alone to realize their own aloneness….
Each is unsure of herself as a woman, somehow incomplete. They suffer from wounds too deep to acknowledge and they give off the desperation of the unloved.
Though Atwood's characters yearn for love, they suffer from an odd insistence on being hurt. Most are best at experiencing loss; it is what they know and somehow it solaces them. These characters almost seek loss and make bad choices or choices that keep them small. They linger in the prolonged adolescence of graduate school; they pick men who will betray them.
Margaret Atwood's attitude makes these dark stories extraordinary: She trusts her characters and knows they are survivors. No one here is going to stick her head in an oven or gas herself in the garage. They survive by the force of strengths they do not understand.
The momentum of this collection is much like that of a novel and, by the final stories, the heroines have developed wry senses of humor and ways of moving through the world without damaging themselves…. These last women have pieced themselves together and grown from vulnerable to tender.
Atwood's prose is poet's prose, full of startlingly accurate images, much of it rich enough to be relined as verse. She has a poet's sense of how deep to lay open her characters.
If Hemingway is correct and "good books are truer than if they really happened and that after you are finished reading one you will feel that it all happened to you," then this is such a book. Margaret Atwood is one of our finest contemporary writers.
Linda Rolens, "Women Too Alone to Realize Their Aloneness," in Los Angeles Times Book Review (copyright, 1982, Los Angeles Times, reprinted by permission), October 17, 1982, p. 3.
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