Margaret Atwood

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Atwood, Margaret 1939–

Atwood is a Canadian poet, novelist, critic, and scriptwriter. At times nearly confessional in nature, hers is intensely personal poetry, praised for its imaginative imagery and striking detail. Elements of fantasy pervade her fiction and poetry alike. Atwood's tightly controlled, deceptively simple style allows her work an impact which Melvin Maddocks calls "the kick of a perfume bottle converted into a Molotov cocktail." (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 4, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)

Patricia Morley

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You could call it an adventure thriller set in the wilds of northern Quebec. You could call it a detective story centering on the search for the main character's missing father. You could call it a psychological novel, a study of madness both individual and social. You could call it a religious novel which examines the origin and nature of the human lust to kill and destroy. You could call it any of these and I wouldn't quarrel. But you'd better call it a novel to be reckoned with, a step in the direction of that mythic creature, the Great Canadian Novel, whose siren song echoes mockingly in the ears of our writers. (p. 99)

[Margaret Atwood] said that it took a stay in Boston to make her realize she was a Canadian. This is interesting, in connection with a motif in [Surfacing] which might appear as anti-American until one examines it more closely. Americans tend to destroy what they can't eat or take home. Americans prefer powerboats to canoes, and build dams at the cost of flooding and killing the land. Come now, murmurs the voice of reason and fair play, Americans aren't the only ones who do these things. But it's okay, Atwood knows this too.

In Surfacing, the American is a metaphor of modern man in his most unlovable state: "It doesn't matter what country they're from, my head said, they're still Americans, they're what's in store for us, what we are turning into". Eyes blank behind dark glasses, they spread like a virus: if you look and think and talk like them, then you are them. We're all Americans now, evolving, "halfway to machine, the leftover flesh atrophied and diseased". Atwood's American is a fictional version of Jacques Ellul's technological man who has let his mechanical means come to dominate and determine his ends, his values, his goals. (pp. 99-100)

The narrator, like so many of the characters in the novels of Hugh MacLennan, is an orphan figure, a female Odysseus, a disturbed and frightened individual in search of a lost father and a lost way of life. She is in search of roots….

We find we can't believe everything the narrator tells us. She can't believe herself. A modified stream-of-consciousness technique is effective here. The last half-dozen chapters become increasingly surreal and fantastic. After some literal deep-diving, where the drowned body of her father merges in her mind with her aborted child, the narrator accepts the mistakes of her earlier life. She returns, like a time-traveller home from a prehistoric junket, to present realities. Withdrawal, secrecy, non-feeling is no longer possible. To 'surface' is to choose love, defined by its failures, over the safety of death: "To trust is to let go". (p. 100)

Patricia Morley, "Multiple Surfaces," in Journal of Canadian Fiction (reprinted by permission from Journal of Canadian Fiction, 2050 Mackay St., Montreal, Quebec H3G 2J1, Canada), Vol. 1, No. 4, 1972, pp. 99-100.

Gloria Onley

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In Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature … Margaret Atwood argues that every country or culture has a single unifying and informing symbol at its core: for America, the Frontier; for England, the Island; for Canada, Survival, la Survivance

(This entire section contains 1675 words.)

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la Survivance. In her Afterword to The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970) she had previously diagnosed the national mental illness as paranoid schizophrenia …; here she develops the idea that most Canadian writers must be neurotic because, "given a choice of the negative or positive aspects of any symbol—sea as life-giving Mother, sea as what your ship goes down in; tree as symbol of growth, tree as what falls on your head—Canadians show a marked preference for the negative."… This general immersion in the turgid depths of what Northrop Frye calls "the world of experience," where tragedy darkens into irony, she attributes to Canada's colonial status. The very function of a colony and of a colonial person is to be exploited; politics are always Power Politics (Atwood, 1971), whether the area of experience is sexual love or finance and international relations.

The poet who earlier wrote of modern woman's anguish at finding herself isolated and exploited (although also exploiting) by the imposition of a sex role power structure … now perceives a strong sado-masochistic patterning in Canadian literature as a whole. She believes that there is a national fictional tendency to participate, usually at some level as Victim, in a Victor/Victim basic pattern. Only rarely, in Atwood's view, which has no patience with old-fashioned concepts of spiritual or ethical victory, do Canadian characters move from ignorance to self-knowledge, from projection to creative interaction with other characters…. She sees earlier Canadian writers preoccupied with external obstacles to survival, such as the land or climate, and later writers concerned with "harder to identify and more internal" obstacles to "spiritual survival, to life as anything more than a minimally human being."… She begins with "capsule Canadian plots" as examples of what she means, some displaying outright "failures", others, "crippled successes"…. Her satirical style, here at its crudest, relentlessly drives home her sense of a basic difficulty in human relations that seems to emerge with particular acuteness in what she briskly refers to as "Canlit." From her human relations point of view, the name of the game is to move forward into Position Four, that of creative non-victim. By definition, an author is in Position Four at the moment of writing.

To me, the structure of Atwood's thematic analysis is reminiscent of the psychology of R. D. Laing who talks about violence disguised as love, about people imposing psychological power structures or value structures on one another and on themselves, and about people in bondage to these structures. In fact, I feel that Atwood's four Basic Victim Positions (and the fifth mystical one which she postulates but leaves undefined), are almost a non-symmetrical "mapping" of Laing's psychology onto Northrop Frye's theory of fictional modes in which fictions are classified by the hero's power of action, ranging from the frustration and bondage of the ironic mode to the mythic creativity of the divine hero. For Atwood, power of action is directly related to degree of enlightenment. Atwood states that she has not read Laing, but the general idea of psychological power structures is now very much with us and has been linked, in various ways, with Laing's psychology…. These ideas have been, we might say, Surfacing all over the place for some time now, and especially in Margaret Atwood's own work, beginning with The Edible Woman (1969). To me, her most exciting contemporary significance as poet, novelist, and observer of her country's literature, lies in the fact that she is so clearly in tune with the radical spirit of her times.

In her early poetry, such as The Circle Game (1966), where she first enunciates the theme "Talking is difficult,"… she is acutely aware of the problem of alienation, the need for real human communication and the establishment of genuine human community—real as opposed to mechanical or manipulative; genuine as opposed to the counterfeit community of the body politic…. A persistent strain in her imagery, appearing in the poetry as well as in Surfacing …, is the head as disconnected from or floating above the body. Sometimes the neck is sealed over; always the intellectual part of the psyche is felt to be a fragment, dissociated from the whole. (pp. 51-2)

As Atwood notes in the Introduction to Survival, Northrop Frye suggests that in Canada "Who am I?" at least partly equals "Where is here?" Here, in Surfacing, is the liberated naked consciousness, its doors of perception symbolically cleansed; the "place" is the Canadian wilderness, which becomes the new body or rediscovered original body of the psychosomatic human Canadian man/woman in contradistinction to American schizophrenic man/woman, exiled from the biosphere and from himself/herself.

Surfacing, is, for Canadians, an anatomy of the "deluge of values and artifacts flowing in from outside" which "render invisible the values and artifacts that actually exist 'here'."… A fusion of many literary forms, Menippean satire, diary, wilderness venture, even the Canadian animal story, Surfacing is mainly concerned with indicating what must be removed so that a true sense of self may be uncovered and a movement begun in the direction of communication and community. The suggestion is implanted at the end of the psychological quest, when the surfaced female self decides to rejoin the "half-formed" father of her recently conceived child and attempt to have a human as opposed to mechanical relationship with him, that the often unsatisfactory nature of male-female relationships in modern urban society is a function of a general human failure to communicate, to use language as a tool instead of a weapon. Exile from the biosphere is related, almost metaphysically, to the exploitative use of language to impose psychological power structures. (pp. 52-3)

Atwood's wit ranges in Survival from a running put down of all power structures embodied and exposed in "Canlit" to the scathing dismissal of fictional characters as if they were one's neurotic neighbors for whom self-destruction is a kind of busy work…. This somewhat one-dimensional interpretation of "Canlit" as if it were a series of case histories of human failure can be both funny and, one hopes, enlightening to potential victims. It can also, of course, be considered an oversimplification unless one keeps firmly in mind that the basic premise of the book is to "articulate the skeleton of Canadian literature," and, as it were, let others (critics, teachers, the students themselves) put the flesh back on the bones….

Chapter Ten, "Ice Women versus Earth Mothers,"… translates women's liberation insights into fairytale symbolism and mythic terms. Canadian women, to Margaret Atwood, suffer from the "Rapunzel syndrome"; in fact, in Canada Rapunzel and the tower are the same, for Canadian heroines "have internalized the values of their culture to such an extent that they have become their own prisons." Moreover, the struggle of Canadian women in the Canadian novel is the attempt of buried Venuses and Dianas to free themselves from the Hecate-Ice-Goddess stereotype. These depth charges should clear out a lot of murky underwater territory: if reading A Jest of God discourages spinsterhood, surely reading The Fire Dwellers equally discourages matrimony. The net result for the Canadian girl observing these unsatisfactory patterns of womanly fulfilment might be to make her less idealistic and romantic, less the Sensuous Woman manqué, and rather more pragmatic and realistic in her approach to love and human relationships. In fact, for the Canadian student, Atwood's guide to "Canlit" is a map of dangerous territories to study vicariously and avoid as much as possible in one's own life. As Atwood points out in the Introduction: "Much of our literature is a diagram of what is not desired. Knowing what you don't want isn't the same as knowing what you want, but it helps."…

What if it is not a national neurosis after all, but part of what might be called the civilized human condition to create/become a victim? The victor/victim patterning may have become a risk inherent in any use of language whatsoever, since, depending on the experiential and interpretative context, and the circumstances and psychological background of the persons involved, even a single word can be used as/become a power structure implying superiority/inferiority, aggression/destruction, and many other polarities. The need for communication in Power Politics is paralleled by the realization that language tends to warp in the hand from tool to weapon …, and there is a corresponding recognition of the value of silence…. (p. 53)

To use language at all is to risk participation in its induction structure; to define is to risk committing or inciting violence in the name of love.

In her poetry Atwood implicitly recognizes that the new frontier is the language barrier and the new pioneers are those who can help us avoid what Laing calls "the mystification of experience," that is the use of language to cultivate a false consciousness in ourselves and others. Obviously the highly literate, articulate self is more sensitive to the distortions imposed by the language barrier than is the average person, although the average person is, if anything, more subject to it because less aware of what's going on.

Survival is a first step towards awareness, the basic realization that there is a victor/victim patterning inherent in life, that it may be traced in the relationships of characters in a novel, in external action, in psychological movement, in image patterns, in symbolism. (pp. 53-4)

If it were not for the inherent tendency to use language for the "mystification of experience" or, as Atwood would say, for "mythologizing", we might venture forth more confidently with the verbal diagram of Survival in our hands. As the wilderness guide in Surfacing discovers, imaginary maps may lead to real discoveries but only if we can be flexible enough in our approaches. (p. 54)

Gloria Onley, "Margaret Atwood: Surfacing in the Interests of Survival," in West Coast Review (copyright © January, 1973 West Coast Review Publishing Society), January, 1973, pp. 51-4.

Valerie Trueblood

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It is the life-impulse [Atwood] uncovers and venerates [in Surfacing] alone on the island peeling off her civilized skins. This is the impulse [she] uncovers in her poetry, honoring the claim-to-life of whatever lives.

The narrator of Surfacing sees a heron killed for sport hanging in a tree and is as powerfully converted as Saint Eustace coming upon the stag with the cross between its antlers…. Her magnified understanding is not occupied with what the heron might stand for, or mean to humans, but with the mutilated bird itself, the violation of its life. Atwood's birds and beasts aren't symbols. She hails in each thing its own life, and its own physique: for her these are enough to express its sacredness. (p. 19)

A new poetry of love and death has been taking shape since the outrush of feminist energy in the 60's. Some of its elements are that the speaker is (usually) a woman, revoked love is seen as a public act which deflects the secure progression of life, a grave, reciting, schoolgirl voice may announce intention to do violent harm, and the poet's quarrel is less with an individual than with a modern temperament unsuccessful at keeping love going or assenting to Yeats' idea of love as a discipline. In [the poems in You Are Happy] Atwood avoids the litigious, civic-minded mood of the bereft that has colored much of this poetry. Her misdoers are just as hapless as their victims…. The thrill of the carnal, when it is allowed at all, is a sad thrill. (pp. 19-20)

In this book, and each of her others, what is at the root of the sorrow? While it feeds the feminism and anger that show aboveground, the root seems to tap something much purer and colder, two things really: a disaffection from people, the mishandlers of all that is sacred, and a female sense of kinship with the natural world that waits to be plundered. People are the unhungry consumers, killers of animals, disrupters of old rhythms, living in a time they have appropriated for themselves and for whose wretchedness they are responsible…. The same sense is present everywhere in her work, most notably in The Animals in that Country and in the fine Procedures for Underground, where poem after poem celebrates the patience of the landscape under the human spur….

[Unlike Annie Dillard, who works in the same area and] can become rhapsodic, Margaret Atwood is not a poet susceptible to happiness. Flushing out the harm-doers she keeps encountering herself. Her personae at various times repudiate food, love, which is predatory, Americans (this belongs elsewhere than in a parenthesis: Atwood is a Canadian with a deep fear of usurpation by the consumerism of the United States), and civilization. Her poetry has the steady unrelenting pace of conscience. But out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing, and Atwood makes blessings of her exquisite cold landscapes and the animals watching from them, and of the struggle of some of her characters to be humane.

Many of the earlier poems were baleful, a quality that persists in the first section of You Are Happy, where the subject is loss, and occasionally in Part Two, "Songs of the Transformed", where animals and a corpse speak as revolutionaries. "Pig Song" is a good example of what [D. B.] Wyndham Lewis called the Enumerative-Vituperative. But Part One closes with "You Are Happy" and an ordinary but somehow miraculous "Bird/running across the glaring/road against the low pink sun", and in the final Song of the Transformed a corpse asks the living for prayers and warns them "Sing now/… or you will drift as I do/… swollen with hoarded love". Part Three, "Circe/Mud Poems", has a chastened Circe alternating benevolence with a child's fitful rancor reminiscent of Plath, but trying to keep the wanderer—his protective moly here simply masculinity—near her.

Occasionally, too, we can hear Plath in the pathologist's dissecting-describing cadence (here is …, this is …, it is …) and directions to an infuriating lover or to the reader (see, take) as if to a slow-witted assistant. "Tricks with Mirrors", the mordant, unenamoured poem that most brings Plath to mind, seems to lack the tone of clemency that is Atwood's own. The only other poem I felt belied her gifts, "Is/Not", is an odd combination: sharp disclaimer of interest in curability (of a love affair or marriage) and concession to the California-transactional vocabulary. But it contains the dry, lively "Permit me the present tense" and the author's reverential feeling for words as the only totems left, needing "to be said and said".

"A language is everything you do," she says in Surfacing. Her sense of words as things, as having properties, permeates these poems…. She has pared her language to what proves, what alerts the senses and then the imagination to rightness, and she creates a world of ice and burned forest and deer tracks, and the reprieve of this world by the wet spring that makes her "dream of reconciliations". The lavish "Spring Poem" is full of the names of rebirths: "dandelions/whirl their blades upwards", a snake "side-winds" in its "chained hide", "the hens/roll in the dust, squinting with bliss". For Atwood, to name a thing is to make a gesture towards it, to propitiate it. Words are the repositories of spirit; their sway is strict; it is the words of the sirens that lure sailors…. Atwood's dictum "There Is Only One of Everything" is expressed in the lovely poem by that name, in which the speaker tells us she can say the incantation "I want this" only once, it is so powerful (a rare glimpse, in a poem, of the droll Atwood we saw in the novel Edible Woman: she then says it twice)….

The poem that seems to me the strongest in the book (though the hushed "Late August" rivals it) is one of the most accessible and the most pervaded by the mysticism Atwood everywhere resists and makes ironic: "First Prayer", a hymn to the human body…. This poem will be anthologized; it is passionate and wistful by turns, its ending "O body, descend/from the wall where I have nailed you/… give me this day" inverts the profane by its humility and leads to the final poem "Book of Ancestors" in which the task of being alive is a sacred one: "to take/that risk, to offer life and remain/alive, open yourself like this and become whole."

Delmore Schwartz says "Every living poet would like to be direct, lucid and immediately intelligible" but the poet's immersion in the powers and reaches of language cut him off from people not so preoccupied. Atwood's gift is to make us share her extravagant interest in what exists and discover a language inhabited, as the world she recreates is inhabited, by spirit. (p. 20)

Valerie Trueblood, "Conscience and Spirit," in The American Poetry Review (copyright © 1977 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Valerie Trueblood), March/April, 1977, pp. 19-20.

Elspeth Cameron

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Atwood's central theme in [Lady Oracle and Dancing Girls] is the "self,"… a complex and fascinating mixture of reality and fantasy. Playing a part, or, as Atwood would put it, dancing a role, involves difficult decisions. Mainly it means choosing between a private and a public life…. Both in Lady Oracle and Dancing Girls the "self" competes with one or more "roles" for center stage.

With characteristic wit, Atwood explores the tensions involved in the fractured identity of the artist in Lady Oracle. The first overlay of Joan's real self occurs as a result of her mother's determined imposition of two mutually inconsistent roles on her daughter…. Responding early in life to what others need her to be, she becomes devious in her efforts to preserve the real self within from annihilation. Recognition of this real self comes only from her Aunt Lou…. Through Aunt Lou's support, moral and financial, Joan is able to fly by the nets her mother casts, reducing to normal size, moving to London and changing her name to that of her Aunt Lou—Louisa K. Delacourt. Through this new name, Joan adopts another identity, not one inflicted upon her, but one, as her surname suggests, "fostered" by identification with the Aunt she has idealized. And, like Aunt Lou, she writes; not editorial letters to girls in distress, but tales of girls in distress in Costume Gothic novels…. (pp. 36-7)

For a time in London, Joan (now Louisa), indulges in the role of "mistress" to a Polish Count whose romantic patter and writing career insulate her from the banality of Canada House and the tawdriness of London. In a short time, however, another identity takes over in the form of an affair with a young fringe radical named Arthur whom she eventually marries in Toronto. At this point, Joan "fosters" yet another identity, that of the Automatic Writer who produces a book of poems called Lady Oracle, "a combination of Rod McKuen and Kahlil Gibran," which catapult her into instant fame. Meanwhile, behind Arthur's back, she launches an intense affair with the Royal Porcupine, Concreate Artist, whose frozen animal carcasses have wowed the Toronto art scene. The tension of keeping all these selves separate and functional is finally too much for her, so she "kills" Joan Foster by faking her drowning in Lake Ontario. Free again to begin yet another life, Louisa K. Delacourt, appearance transformed, boards the plane for Italy where she plans to continue writing her Costume Gothics in a small Italian village, the scene of the novel's brilliant denouement.

For Joan/Louisa, this plethora of roles is the fate of the artist: "I might as well face it," she thinks after her flight to Italy, "I was an artist, an escape artist. I'd sometimes talked about love and commitment, but the real romance of my life was that between Houdini and his ropes and locked trunk; entering the embrace of bondage, slithering out again." "Hooked on plots" in life and in art, Joan uses her ingenious imagination to survive—economically through her writing and emotionally through her series of lives she invents and lives.

Though Joan Foster is the main example of this view of life, the other artists or pseudo-artists in Lady Oracle also inhabit more than one self…. Without exception, the real self behind the mask is more ordinary, less dramatic than the projected persona. The real self, Atwood seems to say, is too dull to be valued, must be dressed up and dramatized to attract attention. The problem is that the attention so gained is for the "role" and not for the "self" who, consequently, feels unloved, insignificant and angry.

Much is made of the significance of clothes, not only in Louisa's Costume Gothics, but in life's roles as well. As the narrator of "Hair Jewellery" in Dancing Girls says:

I resurrect myself through clothes. In fact it's impossible for me to remember what I did, what happened to me, unless I can remember what I was wearing, and every time I discard a sweater or a dress I am discarding part of my life. I shed identities like a snake, leaving them pale and shrivelled behind me, a trail of them, and if I want any memories at all I have to collect, one by one, those cotton and wool fragments, piece them together, achieving at last a patchwork self.

Seen in this way, life is nothing more than a series of roles tenuously "pieced together" into "a patchwork self" by a central consciousness. And the Costume Gothics which Louisa writes are not, as one might suppose, sheer fantasy, unrelated to real life; they are elaborate dramatizations of the issues of Joan Foster's life, which is itself, in turn, an elaborate combination of the roles others devise for her and those she devises for herself.

Bizarre and whimsical as Joan's world is, tensions as sinister as those in the Costume Gothic novels lurk beneath the surface. The real self is always in danger of being annihilated if the persona takes over. And personae as unalike as the Stone and Bronze Ages must be kept separate in space and time lest they neutralize each other. How, Atwood asks, can one patch together aspects of the self which threaten to pull apart the identity? The novel's story line involves the reader in this question with a suspense reminiscent of the detective novels Joan reads in her father's library…. As Joan confesses, "If I brought the separate parts of my life together …, surely there would be an explosion." (pp. 37-9)

In "Lives of the Poets," from Dancing Girls, Atwood treats the same theme of the split within the artist who has a public "role" and a private "self." Mocking Samuel Johnson's title, she describes an evening in the life of a Canadian poet which is a far cry from the eminent lives of Pope, Milton and others that Johnson described. Just prior to giving a reading in the bleak industrial town of Sudbury, Ontario, she develops a nosebleed—one of the several minor symptoms that often plague her before the readings she gives to keep herself and her man solvent. His inaccessibility by phone may or may not be evidence of infidelity—an anxiety which jolts her from the concerns of the "self" into the "role" she must play. Sending out her "dancing girl" persona to read onstage, she feels a powerful hostility to the docile audience who cannot possibly appreciate how her dedication to art has jeopardized her personal life…. (p. 39)

Especially when it comes to relationships between men and women is the conflict of "role" and "self" a deadly one. Though Atwood focuses on the artist as a complex example of the creation of roles, fantasies and fictions, hers is no esoteric portrait of the artist which excludes ordinary people. In both these books, she shows the ways in which all people create "roles" for themselves and others, especially when they fall in love….

Only relationships between the real "selves" of men and women bring fulfillment; interaction between the "roles" they play is hollow and unsatisfying.

Several of the stories in Dancing Girls are based on this theme; that of the romantic persona sent out to love who has no chance of succeeding because the real self remains hidden. (p. 40)

The institution of marriage with its continuous intimacy is bound to result in profound disillusionment for romantic men and women. In "The Resplendent Quetzal," the married couple, Sarah and Edward, are trapped in a hideous relationship in which neither is free to be authentic. The images each has had of the other at first have faded into incompatible reality. "It was almost as if he'd had an affair with another woman, she had been so different. He'd treated her body then as something holy, a white and gold chalice, to be touched with care and tenderness." As for Sarah, "At first Edward's obsessions had fascinated her, since she didn't understand them, but now they merely made her tired." To confront their many deceptions "would be the end, all the pretences would come crashing down and they would be left standing in the middle, staring at each other." Atwood shows here the pain and true heroism involved in loving another human being once the masks are removed.

Atwood at her most extreme shows, in some of the stories in Dancing Girls, how the stress of real relationships can lead to insanity. Her treatment of madness is best understood by considering psychiatrist R. D. Laing's well-known theories on the subject. For Laing, "normality" in a culture like ours that suppresses both the instincts and any form of transcendence, is nothing more than a collective "pervasive madness."… Those who have transcendent experiences, like the heroine of Surfacing, even those who simply refuse to adjust to society's standards of "normal," like Marian in The Edible Woman, may be viewed as mad by "normal" people. If "normal" means only the way in which things are done in a given society, people from other societies are likely to seem mad; as one character puts it in "The Man From Mars," "the thing about people from another culture was that you could never tell whether they were insane or not because their ways were so different." Atwood plays with the ambiguity of such frames of reference by using first person narration to let us see the cogency of people who, observed objectively, would be to a greater or lesser degree, certifiable. She is most effective when she presents madness and sanity as shades of gray, indistinguishable one from the other. She strikes this ambivalence in "Polarities" where the heroine, Louise, seeks for completeness in a fragmentary world and ends up in a mental institution. Seen from society's point of view, she is insane, but compared to her lover, Morrison and their friends, her utterances and notes indicate another level of reality the reader is inclined to accept. The story's title suggests not only the "polar" landscape and the "polar" opposites, Louise and Morrison, but also the "polarities" within Louise and, by extension, other individuals. As Louise, in what is taken for mad raving, confides, "I am the circle. I have the poles within myself. What I have to do is keep myself in one piece." As her room, with its "air of pastiche," suggests, Louise struggles grimly to hold a "patchwork self" together. (pp. 41-2)

[Atwood's] techniques for the dissection of the human personality—the detached point of view, the clinical precision of language, the scientific imagery—all are reminiscent of the scientist or medical expert…. Frequently, the effectiveness of her narrator's point of view comes from the tension that arises when highly charged emotional situations are observed with the cool detachment of someone looking through a microscope. This detachment is especially suitable when the narrator is insane, as in "When it Happens"—a device Atwood may have gleaned from Agatha Christie's most famous mystery, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Other techniques which Atwood uses related to this scientific point of view are the journal form, the splitting of point of view and scientific analogy. In "The War in the Bathroom," for example, the journal form is used to give a day-by-day record of precise observations which eventually enable the narrator to retaliate effectively. The same technique, in a more subtle way, is used in both Atwood's previous novels, as well as in several of the other stories in Dancing Girls. Atwood's narrators are often seen to keep a close watch on everything around them as if, like people stranded in the bush, their very lives depended on it. In cases where a real self, such as we have seen in Lady Oracle, hides behind one or more personae, Atwood frequently splits the point of view, using first person for the real self, third person for the persona. This device is the organizing principle in The Edible Woman, as it is in such stories as "Giving Birth" and "The War in the Bathroom."… Finally, analogy with scientific situations, especially those drawn from biology, provide Atwood with symbols suitable for her subjects. "Under Glass," as the title suggests, views the breakdown of a relationship in much the same way as the narrator herself watches the animals in the Moonlight Pavilion of the zoo…. (pp. 42-3)

Atwood's prose is filled with images and descriptions taken from the world of science. (p. 43)

This adaptation of the scientific for literary purposes, gives Atwood's prose its characteristic cool, tense tone. For her, it is a way of seeing clearly, of getting close to the truth, since it allows a rational penetration through superficial appearance to an underlying truth. Though some readers will feel that the "expert surgeon" Atwood murders to dissect, there is no denying the powerful impact of the tension between her emotional subject matter and her emotionless tone. "Natural," then, in Atwood's view, is true or authentic; "artificial" is misleading or distorted. This view of life inevitably gives rise to biting satire when such "artificial" aspects of contemporary life as dress, customs, even language, are examined carefully. Atwood often seems like an anthropologist from another world, accurately recording the things people do in our society as if she herself had never done them…. Atwood shows that through the "artifice" of social behavior which represses real feelings and hides or distorts the real self, man has created for himself dense and chaotic mazes which are surely hideous, were they not so funny. (p. 44)

Atwood shows men and women at their best, their truest, when social masks are stripped away so that man can be viewed as a species in nature. The real issues, she shows, are those which mankind hold in common with all living creatures—survival of the fittest (Lady Oracle), territorial aggression ("The War in the Bathroom"), the finding of a mate ("The Man From Mars"), anger and jealousy ("Lives of the Poets") and reproduction ("Giving Birth"). Man's "creativity" through which he imagines and then lives roles with values other than these simple basic truths, interferes with and threatens his potential for happiness and for spiritual fulfillment. "For true happiness," Eunice P. Revele advises Arthur and Joan in Lady Oracle, "you must approach life with a feeling of reverence…. Avoid deception and falsehood…. Above all, you should love each other for what you are and forgive each other for what you are not." Coming from a woman who has herself adopted a persona, these words indicate ironically both what is best for man and the impossibility for man of living out this truth. Since art itself is a kind of falsehood, Atwood often gives the impression, like the Russian novelist Nabokov, that the very forms with which she works are a distortion, even to the point in Surfacing and "Giving Birth," of suggesting that language itself is an "artifice" that interferes with the singleness of emotion, thought and action that animals experience. Atwood views character as a series of transformations in the form of imagined personae who, chameleon-like, enable the inner "self" to survive. Holding together all these phases of the identity in some sort of "patchwork self" may be the most difficult task man faces in contemporary society. (pp. 44-5)

Elspeth Cameron, "Margaret Atwood: A Patchwork Self," in Book Forum (copyright © 1978 by The Hudson River Press), Vol. IV, No. 1, 1978, pp. 35-45.


Atwood, Margaret (Eleanor)


Atwood, Margaret (Vol. 15)