SOURCE: "'After the Failure of Logic': Descent and Return in Surfacing," in her Madness and Sexual Politics in the Feminist Novel, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1978, pp. 91-115.
[In the following excerpt, Rigney discusses the theme of discovering the self through descent and return in Atwood's Surfacing.]
It is inevitable for Margaret Atwood's nameless protagonist of Surfacing that there should occur a "failure of logic," for her journey "home" is an exploration of a world beyond logic. Her quest, like that of Jane Eyre, Clarissa Dalloway, and Martha Quest Hesse, is for an identity, a vision of self. She must find that self—not only through the father for whom she searches the Canadian backwoods, but also through the mother for whom she must search in the depths of her own psyche.
Atwood, much like Virginia Woolf, juxtaposes and compares two internal worlds: the world of the male principle, characterized by rationality and logic but often also by cruelty and destruction, and the world of the female principle, which for Atwood implies an existence beyond reason, a realm of primitive nature where there are connections between life and death, suffering and joy, madness and true sanity, where opposites are resolved into wholes. A failure to recognize these connections is a failure to perceive the "female" part of one's self, and this results, for Atwood, in a catastrophic splitting of the self. Like R. D. Laing's patients in The Divided Self, alienated from the self and from society, Atwood's protagonist perceives herself as rent, torn asunder:
I'd allowed myself to be cut in two. Woman sawn apart in a wooden crate, wearing a bathing suit, smiling, a trick done with mirrors, I read it in a comic book; only with me there had been an accident and I came apart. The other half, the one locked away, was the only one that could live; I was the wrong half, detached, terminal. I was nothing but a head, or, no, something minor like a severed thumb; numb.
The protagonist has separated her body from her head, divided the parts of her self, and thus committed psychological suicide: "If the head is detached from the body, both of them will die." "At some point," she says, "my neck must have closed over, pond freezing or a wound, shutting me into my head…."
The division of the self is, at least partly, "a trick done with mirrors." In Atwood's novel and in much of her poetry, the mirror becomes a symbol of the split self, and one's own reflection functions like a kind of negative doppelgänger. Presumably, the mirror provides a distorted image of the self, thus stealing one's sense of a real or complete self, robbing one of an identity. Anna, that character in Surfacing who has no self left to lose, whose identity has been lost in her preoccupation with the false, made-up self in the mirror, has become "closed in the gold compact." In order to see herself as whole, the protagonist ultimately realizes, she must "stop being in the mirror." The mirror must be turned to the wall so that its reflection will not intrude between "my eyes and vision." She wishes, finally, "not to see myself but to see." In the poem "Tricks with Mirrors" Atwood considers the dangers of perceiving reflection rather than whatever reality might exist, and concludes: "It is not a trick either, / It is a craft: / mirrors are crafty." It is interesting at this point to recall that in Brontë's Jane Eyre , Jane's first visual contact with the...
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mad Bertha, her doppelgänger, is a reflection in a mirror.
The camera is another device which Atwood sees as revealing the split self or doppelgänger, the "not me but the missing part of me." Cameras, like mirrors, according to Atwood's protagonist, can also steal the soul, as the Indians believed. Like "toilets and vacuum cleaners," other examples of "logic become visible," cameras might operate to "make people vanish," stealing "not only your soul but your body also." Photographs serve to shut one in "behind the paper."
As products of the world of logic, cameras are always operated by men in Atwood's works. The fiancé in The Edible Woman, for example, is a camera enthusiast. When he explodes his flash attachment in the eyes of the protagonist, she runs for her psychological life. In Surfacing, David and Joe complete their victimization of Anna by what amounts to a form of rape as they coerce her into revealing her naked body before their intrusive, phallic movie camera, which they use against her "like a bazooka or a strange instrument of torture." The protagonist considers herself reprieved in having evaded the movie camera, and, ultimately, she demonstrates a superior wisdom by emptying the footage of movie film into the lake. But those characters in Atwood's works who victimize others with cameras are themselves victims of faulty vision. David perhaps more than Joe sees reality only through a lens, which clouds and distorts. Perhaps it is also symbolic of a lack of vision that the protagonist's father is associated with cameras; it is the weight of a camera which prevents his drowned body from "surfacing."
Cameras and mirrors thus serve to make the self more vulnerable by emphasizing its division, but the doppelgänger or missing part of the self is also detectable by other means. Anna, employing a perverted version of the magic which is part of Atwood's representation of the female principle, reads the protagonist's palm. She perceives that some of the lines are double and asks, "Do you have a twin?" The protagonist's twin, of course, is that part of herself which is alienated, suppressed, and almost irretrievably lost.
Part of that lost self is an artist who compromised and became an illustrator, acting on the advice that "there has never been any important women artists." All Canadian artists, according to Atwood, suffer a kind of schizophrenia. In Survival Atwood's exploration of Canadian literature and the Canadian psyche, she writes:
We speak of isolated people as being "cut off," but in fact something is cut off from them; as artists, deprived of audience and cultural tradition, they are mutilated. If your arm or leg has been cut off you are a cripple, if your tongue has been cut off you are a mute, if part of your brain has been removed you are an idiot or an amnesiac, if your balls have been cut off you are a eunuch or a castrato…. Artists have suffered emotional and artistic death at the hands of an indifferent or hostile audience.
The subject of the protagonist's illustrations is, significantly, children's fairy tales. "I can imitate anything," she declares. She does not, however, imitate reality, but rather she creates a fantasy world with her sketches of idealized princesses and unconvincing giants. She also has created a fairy tale for her own history, the facts of which are obscured even in her own mind. Thus, she has lost a part of herself somewhere between memory and lie. She fears the truth, but also fears losing it, as she takes inventory of her memories. "I'll start inventing them and then there will be no way of correcting it, the ones who could help are gone. I run quickly over my version of it, my life, checking it like an alibi."
For example, she has invented the alibi of an unsuccessful marriage and a childbirth to sublimate the more painful fact that she unwillingly underwent an abortion and was then abandoned by a complacent, middle-aged lover. Fragments of memory of the abortion itself—often described in terms of amputation, cutting, splitting—cause such pain that she cannot accept their reality. She considers that her invented son, in reality an aborted fetus, is "sliced off from me like a Siamese twin, my own flesh canceled." But it is an unborn child who represents her twin, a part of her self, and she is haunted by unbidden visions of the abortion which symbolizes her division from herself:
I knew when it was, it was in a bottle curled up, staring out at me like a cat pickled; it had huge jelly eyes and fins instead of hands, fish gills, I couldn't let it out, it was dead already, it had drowned in air.
The abortion itself, however, is not a cause for but an effect of the protagonist's split psyche. If a complete self had been in control, she is ultimately to realize, the operation would never have occurred. In order to become an autonomous, completed self, however, the protagonist must heal yet another kind of split—that between "good" and "evil." She must come to terms with herself as perpetrator as well as victim, or at least as a correspondent in her own victimization. During an interview, Atwood explained her protagonist's problem in the following way:
If you define yourself as intrinsically innocent, then you have a lot of problems, because in fact you aren't. And the thing with her is she wishes not to be human. She wishes to be not human, because being human inevitably involves being guilty, and if you define yourself as innocent, you can't accept that.
Atwood's concern with this delusion of female innocence is also reflected in other of her works. Marian in The Edible Woman, for example, maintains her own innocence throughout a destructive sexual relationship until the very end when she realizes that she, too, is guilty of exploitation and destruction. In Survival, Atwood groups the subjects of Canadian literature into what she terms "basic Victim Positions." She states that the central question in Canadian literature is: "Who is responsible?" The answer to that question, provided most clearly in Surfacing, is that ultimate responsibility lies almost inevitably in the self. Like Lessing's Martha Quest Hesse in The Four-Gated City confronting the "self-hater," that part of the self which victimizes both the self and others, Atwood's protagonist must confront her own complicity in such acts as the abortion. Carol P. Christ, in her article "Margaret Atwood: The Surfacing of Women's Spiritual Quest and Vision," upholds a similar contention:
Her association of power with evil and her dissociation of herself from both reflect a typical female delusion of innocence, which hides her complicity in evil and feeds her fake belief that she can do nothing but witness her victimization. In order to regain her power the protagonist must realize that she does not live in a world where only others have power to do evil.
Even God, or perhaps most especially God, the protagonist comes to realize, incorporates evil: "If the Devil was allowed a tail and horns, God needed them also, they were advantages."
In searching her childhood for the self she has lost and the memories of evil which she has unconsciously suppressed, the protagonist comes across two scrapbooks preserved by her mother. One contains drawings by her brother, all depicting war, bomber planes decorated with swastikas, people under torture—all obvious symbols for what the protagonist sees as male power in its most evil form. Her own drawings, in contrast, are representations of an impossible innocence, a feminine vision of fertility represented by artificial Easter heavens of bunnies and eggs and colored grass. The male and female principles, always in perfect balance in these childish drawings, are represented by a moon in the upper left hand corner and a sun in the right. A more enlightened, adult protagonist recalls:
I didn't want there to be wars and death, I wanted them not to exist; only rabbits with their colored egg houses, sun and moon orderly above the flat earth, summer always, I wanted everyone to be happy. But his pictures were more accurate, the weapons, the disintegrating soldiers: he was a realist, that protected him.
At another point in her memory gathering, the protagonist recalls her brother's childhood occupation of capturing and imprisoning wild animals and insects, and then allowing them to die. Her own "feminine" role was to free the animals, risking her brother's anger. A memory which is less congenial to her self-delusion of feminine innocence involves her cooperation with her brother in an act which foreshadows her cooperation in the abortion, the stabbing and dismembering of a doll, left then to float, mutilated, in the lake.
For the protagonist, the brother thus represents male power in general, manifesting itself in war games and in the violation of an essentially feminine nature, the wilderness. His exploitation of animals is repeated in the actions of "the Americans," hunters and fishermen who come to Canada to gratuitously destroy for sport. The Americans represent society's destruction of nature, obvious even in the Canadian backwoods as pollution and land "development" encroach upon the island sanctuary which is the protagonist's home. Americans, she says, "spread themselves like a virus." They represent power: "Straight power, they mainlined it…. The innocents get slaughtered because they exist." Finally, the Americans are manifestations of that origin of evil, the Hitler-boogie of the protagonist's childhood. They call to mind the fascist figure as sexual oppressor in the works of Woolf and Lessing.
Atwood's symbolism involving nature as victim is, quite obviously, multilayered. The protagonist, like the exploited wilderness, represents Canada itself and its predicament as a political victim. As Brontë, Woolf, Lessing, and Laing have also maintained,… individual schizophrenia is often a reflection of a greater, more pernicious national schizophrenia. Atwood's protagonist is a divided self, as Canada is a country divided and exploited by Americans. Atwood writes in the afterword to The Journals of Susanna Moodie: "If the national mental illness of the United States is megalomania, that of Canada is paranoid schizophrenia."
The representative crime of the Americans in Surfacing is the killing of a heron, slaughtered not for food but in truth merely because "it exists." The bird, as a trophy of power, is hanged from a tree, wings outspread, in crucifixion position. The protagonist sees the heron as symbolic of her own psychological death, but sees herself as free of responsibility for both the heron's and her own fate. She is to learn, however, that the "Americans" are, in reality, Canadians, like herself, and thus she too is somehow guilty, involved. Through her passivity in refusing to prevent the heron's death, she has cooperated in its execution, very much in the same way that she has cooperated in the perpetration of the abortion. Of the heron's death she says, "I felt a sickening complicity, sticky as glue, blood on my hands, as though I had been there and watched without saying No or doing anything to stop it." Later in the novel, she says of her participation in the abortion: "Instead of granting it sanctuary, I let them catch it. I could have said No but I didn't; that made me one of them, too, a killer."
Thus the exploiter is not "they" but "we"; women too are human and therefore killers—but perhaps with some mitigation. The protagonist kills animals only for food and then only with a kind of religious reverence for the creature she has destroyed. She fantasizes, as she clubs a flailing fish on the back of the head or fastens a squealing frog onto a fish hook, that the animals will their own victimization just as people do and are willing to die to sustain her: "They had chosen to die and forgiven me in advance." Later, she thinks:
The shape of the heron flying above us the first evening we fished, legs and neck stretched, wings outspread, a blue-gray cross, and the other heron or was it the same one, hanging wrecked from the tree. Whether it died willingly, consented, whether Christ died willingly, anything that suffers and dies instead of us is Christ; if they didn't kill birds and fish they would have killed us. The animals die that we may live, they are substitute people, hunters in the fall killing the deer, that is Christ also. And we eat them out of cans or otherwise; we are eaters of death, dead Christ-flesh resurrecting inside us, granting us life. Canned Spam, canned Jesus….
It is perhaps her delusive claim to innocence, and thus her lack of reverence, which prevents Marian in The Edible Woman from eating meat and, later in the novel, from eating almost anything at all. Only when she recognizes her complicity in her own victimization, when she understands that she has allowed men to "eat" or destroy her and that she has also attempted to destroy them, can Marian overcome her antipathy to food, bake a huge cake which is an effigy of herself, and gobble it down.
The traditional greeting of the fishermen in Surfacing, "Getting any?", is also a sexual allusion. The violation of nature by society is, for Atwood's protagonist, paradigmatic of the violation of women by men. Sexual politics, too, she sees as a battle, with herself as victim. The protagonist recalls her childhood arguments with her brother in which "after a while I no longer fought back because I never won. The only defense was flight, invisibility."
More victimized in sexual politics than the protagonist, who at least intuits something of her complicity in her situation, is Anna, whose "invisibility" is achieved behind her excessively applied cosmetics and the smoke from her constant cigarette. Her only reading material is murder mysteries, though she never realizes the ironic fact that she herself is a victim of another sort of murder. In Anna's relationship with David, her body is "her only weapon and she was fighting for her life, he was her life, her life was the fight: she was fighting him because if she ever surrendered the balance of power would be broken and he would go elsewhere. To continue the war." Anna says of David's tyranny over her: "He's got this little set of rules. If I break one of them I get punished, except he keeps changing them so I'm never sure." David, thus, is uncontestably the winner as Anna masochistically endures, perhaps even enjoys, his crude and insulting sexual allusions, his insistence on her stupidity, her own reduction as a human being.
The protagonist, perhaps, has chosen her mate a bit more wisely. Joe is more "natural" than civilized, more animal than man, with his exceptionally hairy body and his inability to communicate verbally: "Everything I value about him seems to be physical: the rest is either unknown, disagreeable or ridiculous." "What will preserve him," she says at another point, "is the absence of words." Joe's ability to manipulate power, too, is limited, as indicated by his professional failure as a potter whose grotesque vases no one ever buys. "Perhaps it's not only his body I like," the protagonist thinks, "perhaps it's his failure; that also has a kind of purity." Finally, Joe is desirable because "he isn't anything, he is only half formed, and for that reason I can trust him."
But even Joe, for a time, insists on commitment, "love" and marriage. For the protagonist, with the living proof provided by Anna and David constantly before her, marriage is more a surrender than a commitment; it is, for the woman, total immersion in the male world and thus a further division of the female self. One ceases, in marriage, to be a whole self and turns "into part of a couple." The protagonist thinks of her imagined former marriage as "like jumping off a cliff. That was the feeling I had all the time I was married; in the air, going down, waiting for the smash at the bottom." Married people, she thinks, are like the wooden man and woman in the barometer she saw when she was little, balancing each other in a perpetual kind of opposition.
Marriage and sex, for Atwood much as for Brontë, Woolf, and Lessing, are linked not only to the psychological death of the self, but to physical death as well. Atwood's protagonist perhaps confuses childbirth and abortion, but the process is nonetheless grotesque. "They take the baby out with a fork like a pickle out of a jar. After that they fill your veins up with red plastic, I saw it running down through the tube, I won't let them do that to me ever again." Contraception in itself poses a very real and practical danger. The protagonist discusses with Anna the adverse and potentially lethal effects of "the pill" on women's bodies. It is diabolic that pills come in "moon-shaped" packages, masquerading as feminine creations, because, like cameras, they are inventions of male logic. Also, like cameras, they act to obscure vision, covering the eye with a film like vaseline. The protagonist concludes:
Love without fear, sex without risk, that's what they wanted to be true; and they almost pulled it off, but as in magicians' tricks or burglaries half-success is failure and we're back to the other things. Love is taking precautions…. Sex used to smell like rubber gloves and now it does again, no more handy green plastic packages, moon-shaped so that the woman can pretend she's still natural, cyclical, instead of a chemical slot machine. But soon they'll have the artificial womb, I wonder how I feel about that.
Later, as she overhears Anna's strangled cries and inhuman moans through the thin walls of the cabin, the protagonist thinks that sex is "like death." Love and sex as destructive forces are also themes in Atwood's poetry: "next time we commit / love, we ought to / choose in advance what to kill." By the conclusion of Surfacing, however, the protagonist is able to understand that sex includes life as well as death, that it can, at least theoretically, be natural and positive as well as mechanical and destructive.
In the meantime, however, the protagonist is still divided, unable to achieve any resolution of such opposites as life and death, creation and destruction. She fears sexual commitment and so elects the defensive mechanism of refusing to "feel." A similar technique … is used by Woolf's Septimus Warren Smith and Clarissa Dalloway and by Lessing's Martha Quest Hesse. The first indication that Atwood's protagonist has chosen such a procedure is her dispassionate, almost journalistic narrative reporting of events and developments. "Anesthesia," she says, "that's one technique…." Most often, however, she does not accept the responsibility for her inability to feel, classing it as a kind of congenital condition or birth defect: "Perhaps I'd been like that all my life, just as some babies are born deaf or without a sense of touch." But as she observes her companions, hears their "canned laughter," and realizes that they too are incapable of feeling, she thinks "or perhaps we are normal and the ones who can love are freaks, they have an extra organ, like the vestigial eye in the foreheads of amphibians they've never found the use for."
Another protective technique … is the depersonalization of sex. Atwood takes the idea to its extreme absurdity: "two people making love with paper bags over their heads, not even any eyeholes. Would that be good or bad?" But, she imagines, if sex and marriage could be relegated to the inconsequential, the trivial, they could not perhaps claim so many victims. Marriage, says the protagonist, is "like playing Monopoly or doing crossword puzzles;" moving in with Joe is "more like buying a gold fish or a potted cactus plant, not because you want one in advance but because you happen to be in the store and you see them lined up on the counter." Even relationships with other women are superficial; the protagonist has known Anna only two months, yet she is "my best woman friend."
Such procedures as refusing to feel and to relate to other people, however, limit and divide the self almost as effectively as the dangers they minimize. The protagonist longs for the ability to feel: "I rehearsed emotions, naming them: joy, peace, guilt, release, love and hate, react, relate; what to feel was like what to wear, you watched others and memorized it." The protagonist has even resorted to pricking herself with pins to experience at least a physical feeling: "They've discovered rats prefer any sensation to none. The insides of my arms were stippled with tiny wounds, like an addict's."
Coincidental with the inability to feel is the protagonist's inability to communicate. The very language, for her, becomes useless and finally undesirable: "Language divides us into fragments." In replying to Joe's proposal of marriage, she finds "the words were coming out of me like the mechanical words from a talking doll, the kind with the pull tape at the back; the whole speech was unwinding, everything in order, a spool." In order to ever communicate again, the protagonist thinks that she must find a language of her own:
I was seeing poorly, translating badly, a dialect problem. I should have used my own. In the experiments they did with children, shutting them up with deaf-and-dumb nurses, locking them in closets, depriving them of words, they found that after a certain age the mind is incapable of absorbing any language; but how could they tell the child hadn't invented one, unrecognizable to everyone but itself?
Woolf's Septimus Warren Smith can understand the birds; Lessing's Lynda Coldridge communicates with spirits in code. Atwood's protagonist ultimately is to conclude: "The animals have no need for speech, why talk when you are a word…."
If one cannot communicate, cannot feel, has no name, has been so thoroughly divided, one is, like Atwood's protagonist at the beginning of the novel, psychologically dead. Atwood herself has referred to Surfacing as "a ghost story." Her protagonist has, in the sense of Laing in The Divided Self, been engulfed, "drowned," ceased to exist as a self, just as both her father and her aborted baby have drowned, one in the lake, the other "in air." She speaks also of her brother having drowned as an infant, an event which she has vicariously experienced, or at least somehow observed from what she describes as her mother's transparent womb. Later we learn that the brother was saved by the mother's intervention, but according to the protagonist, he has not regarded his experience with the respect it warrants; it was, the protagonist thinks, a kind of rebirth. "If it had happened to me I would have felt there was something special about me, to be raised from the dead like that; I would have returned with secrets, I would have known things most people didn't."
Drowning thus comes to represent not only death or a loss of self, but also a procedure for finding the self. The protagonist's descent into the lake in search of the Indian cave paintings is symbolic of her descent into her own psyche, from which return, resurrection, "surfacing," is possible. Similarly, Lessing's Martha descends into madness before she can emerge as truly and divinely sane. Surfacing is as much an allegory of the quest for psychological rebirth, for life, as it is a search for the theological meaning Carol P. Christ describes.
To be "reborn," just as to be born, the protagonist must have a "gift" from both father and mother. She has carried "death around inside me, layering it over, a cyst, a tumor, black pearl." To be alive, whole, she must recognize that she is a product of both the male and the female principles. She must understand her parentage and her origins before she can understand herself.
Her search for the father ends in the depths of the lake. "Return" for him is impossible; his body, weighed down by the symbolic camera, has never "surfaced." He is reduced to "a dark oval trailing limbs." Like Virgil, who can guide Dante's descent and show him the way through hell but never enter paradise himself, the protagonist's father represents human reason and its limitations. He can point the way with his drawings and maps, "pictographs," to "the place of the gods," the sacred places "where you could learn the truth," but he cannot himself see truth.
In the beginning, the protagonist imagines that her missing father has gone mad and lurks in the wilderness outside their cabin. His madness, she imagines, would be "like stepping through a usual door and finding yourself in a different galaxy, purple trees and red moons and a green sun." Such experiences, she thinks, could lead to revelation: "He had discovered new places, new oracles, they were things he was seeing the way I had seen, true vision; at the end, after the failure of logic." But it is only the protagonist herself and not her father who has such visions. In her dive deep into the lake she discovers not the cave paintings her father has described but the "galaxy" of her own psyche: "pale green pinpricks of light," strange shapes and mysterious fish, "chasm-dwellers."
The father himself is incapable of such visions because, for him, logic has never failed. He represents, however, the best of the male principle—logic without destruction. He has, for himself and his children, reasoned away evil, teaching them that even Hitler, "many-tentacled, ancient and indestructible as the Devil," is not, after all, "the triumph of evil but the failure of reason." The father has attempted to protect his family from evil by secluding them in the Canadian wilderness where World War II is only a subject for children's games. Yet these very games reflect the failure of the father's teaching and indicate the inevitability of evil: the first pages of the novel describe the young brother and sister, their feet wrapped in blankets, pretending that "the Germans shot our feet off."
As the father tries to eclipse evil, so he tries to reason away superstition, fear, religion: "Christianity was something he'd escaped from, he wished to protect us from its distortions." But this too is impossible. The protagonist's childhood is haunted by the idea that "there was a dead man in the sky watching everything I did." Ultimately, she must go beyond the father, beyond the world of logic which he represents. She must confront the presence of evil, in the world and in the self, and she must also confront the gods: "The power from my father's intercession wasn't enough to protect me, it gave only knowledge and there were more gods than his, his were the gods of the head, antlers rooted in the brain."
The father's gift of knowledge, however, cannot be considered inconsequential. He has led the way to self-knowledge and pointed out reality. Even the father's drowned body is "something I knew about," it is, symbolically, also the body of her own aborted fetus, "drowned in air," its fishlike corpse having been flushed through the sewers, "travelling … back to the sea." As she recognizes her father's body, the protagonist's past suddenly becomes very clear to her and her fantasy past disintegrates. "I killed it. It wasn't a child but it could have been one, I didn't allow it." "It was all real enough, it was reality enough for ever…." With this recognition the protagonist begins to experience feeling, life: "Feeling was beginning to seep back into me, I tingled like a foot that's been asleep." Shortly afterward she finds that she is even able to cry. But her resurrection is not yet complete: "I wanted to be whole."
The father thus participates in a kind of conception, but the actual birth process is the business of the female. In order to be reborn, to become whole, the protagonist must also find a "gift" from her dead mother:
It would be right for my mother to have left something for me also, a legacy. His was complicated, tangled, but hers would be simple as a hand, it would be final. I was not completed yet; there had to be a gift from each of them.
The mother's legacy is the revelation of a drawing from the protagonist's childhood of a woman "with a round moon stomach: the baby was sitting up inside gazing out." Just as the protagonist has earlier envisioned herself as present before her birth, able to see the world through her mother's transparent womb.
The protagonist interprets the message of the drawing as an instruction: in order to be alive and whole she must replace, resurrect, that part of herself which she has killed—the aborted fetus and the fertility aspect of the female principle which it represents. Early in the novel the protagonist has found it "impossible to be like my mother": now she must become her mother, "the miraculous double woman," giving birth to herself as well as to new life. The protagonist thus seeks out her lover and takes him to the shore of the lake, carefully arranging their positions so that the moon, representing the female principle as in the childhood drawings, is on her left hand and the absent male sun on her right. According to Carol P. Christ the conception itself is a religious act: "As she conceives, the protagonist resembles the Virgin Mother goddesses of old: at one with her sexual power, she is complete in herself; the male is incidental." The conception is also, however, a psychological rebirth, a healing of the divided self:
He trembles and then I can feel my lost child surfacing within me, forgiving me, rising from the lake where it had been prisoned so long, its eyes and teeth phosphorescent; the two halves clasp, interlocking like fingers, it buds, it sends out fronds.
Whereas images of cutting, splitting, division, fragmentation have dominated the novel to this point, now images of unity, joining, completeness begin to supercede. The protagonist has united the two halves of herself, found her parentage, reconciled the male and female principles within the self. Thus the "two halves" of herself also "clasp, interlocking like fingers." The body, which has been for her "even scarier than god," has been integrated with the head: "I'm not against the body or the head either; only the neck which creates the illusion that they are separate," For a second time the protagonist refers to palmistry: "When the heartline and the headline are one … you are either a criminal, an idiot or a saint." Now saintlike, in the sense that Woolf's Septimus is a saint, Atwood's protagonist has also resolved within herself the opposites of life and death. Thus she reflects nature itself:
I lie down on the bottom of the canoe and wait. The still water gathers the heat; birds, off in the forest a woodpecker, somewhere a thrush. Through the trees the sun glances; the swamp around me smolders, energy of decay turning to growth, green fire. I remember the heron; by now it will be insects, frogs, fish, other herons. My body sends out filaments in me; I ferry it secure between death and life, I multiply.
Although the argument for androgynous vision may be made with some relevancy in the case of Virginia Woolf, it is not a meaningful concept when applied to Atwood. For Atwood even more than for Woolf the male principle is ultimately expendable. The female principle alone and in itself incorporates and resolves opposites. Life and death, good and evil, exist within the protagonist, within all women, as they exist in nature. Atwood has described nature in Survival as being, not benevolently motherlike or nurselike in the Wordsworthian sense, but rather as a living process "which includes opposites: life and death, 'gentleness' and 'hostility.'" She invariably associates the female principle with nature; she deals, not with nature as a woman, but rather with women as nature. Therefore, although nature is not a mother in Atwood's novel, the protagonist's mother is aligned with nature, at home with it as with an extension of herself. Almost witchlike, with her long hair and wearing her magically powerful leather jacket, the mother feeds wild birds from her hand, charms a bear, and is in tune with the seasons which she carefully records in a special diary. It is she and not the father who represents life as she gives birth, saves her drowning son, prohibits cruelty; yet, dying herself, she also understands the mysteries of death. The protagonist, as a child asking about death, is convinced that her mother "had the answers but wouldn't tell." The protagonist recalls her mother's own death and wishes she might have taken her from the hospital room to die in the forest. There, perhaps, she might have been reborn, like nature itself: "It sprang up from the earth, pure joy, pure death, burning white like snow." It is only the male world of logic which insists on the finality of death. "The reason they invented coffins, to lock the dead in, to preserve them, they put makeup on them; they didn't want them spreading or changing into anything else. The stone with the name and the date was on them to weight them down."
Like her mother, the protagonist, although she hardly realizes it, is also aligned with nature, acting as guide for her companions in the backwoods and insuring their survival. She is instinctively aware of the dangers of the wilderness; she knows how to catch a fish and balance a canoe. She is even immune from the insects which so plague the others.
The protagonist is truly a part of nature, able to incorporate its powers into herself, however, only after she has received her mother's legacy and conceived both herself and her child. Her next act is to reject the world of male logic, the elements of civilization, its canned food and its clothing and its values. "Everything from history must be eliminated," she says, as she burns and tears books, clothing, even her fake wedding ring. The cabin itself is unbearable because it is man-made, and so she enters the forest naked except for a blanket which she will need "until the fur grows."
Here she can experience her own birth:
My back is on the sand, my head rests against the rock, innocent as plankton; my hair spreads out, moving and fluid in the water. The earth rotates, holding my body down to it as it holds the moon; the sun pounds in the sky, red flames and rays pulsing from it, searing away the wrong form that encases me, dry rain soaking through me, warming the blood egg I carry. I dip my head beneath the water, washing my eyes….
When I am clean I come up out of the lake, leaving my false body floated on the surface….
Now in tune with the powers of nature, the protagonist is granted a series of visions, one of prehistory itself: "The forest leaps upward, enormous, the way it was before they cut it, columns of sunlight frozen; the boulders float, melt, everything is made of water." She also sees her mother, who has always been "ten thousand years behind the rest," and who is also an extension of eternal nature. The protagonist becomes her mother, placing her feet in the footprints left by the vision, and finding "that they are my own." Thus she too is synonomous with nature: "I am not an animal or a tree, I am the thing in which the trees and animals move and grow, I am a place."
In this mystical identification with nature and with the female principle it represents, the protagonist surrenders individual human identity. In so doing, she comes face to face with the world beyond logic. "Logic," she says, "is like a wall"; in tearing down this wall she finds "on the other side is terror." Once the wall is destroyed, however, there is no choice: "From any rational point of view I am absurd; but there are no longer any rational points of view." She confronts madness personified, the ultimate mirror:
It is what my father saw, the thing you meet when you've stayed here too long alone.
I'm not frightened, it's too dangerous for me to be frightened of it; it gazes at me for a time with its yellow eyes, Wolf's eyes, depthless but lambent as the eyes of animals seen at night in the car headlight. Reflectors.
In Survival, Atwood discusses the theme of "bushing" in Canadian literature and the fascination of Canadian authors with the madness which occurs when one merges human identity with nature.
But for the protagonist the descent into madness, into the "chasm" of experience, must be temporary and therapeutic, rather than permanent. She desires survival, and she knows, for example, that what society sees as insanity might well serve as an excuse for persecution; she might be victimized, like the heron:
They can't be trusted. They'll mistake me for a human being, a naked woman wrapped in a blanket: possibly that's what they've come here for, if it's running around loose, ownerless, why not take it. They won't be able to tell what I really am. But if they guess my true form, identity, they will shoot me or bludgeon in my skull and hang me up by the feet from a tree.
Society is incapable of recognizing that what they perceive as a mad woman is, in reality, "only a natural woman, state of nature."
Thus the protagonist, like Lessing's Martha, loses a tenuous identity only to gain a firmer one. She "surfaces" from the illogical to return to a world of logic, but not now, as before, divided, incapable of coping. Their purpose accomplished, father and mother, as principles of nature and as "gods," have reassumed their humanity and the vision has faded. "No total salvation, resurrection. Our father, our mother, I pray, Reach down for me, but it won't work: they dwindle, grow, become what they were, human." There are "no gods to help me now." Even nature's power is now benign, impersonal: "The lake is quiet, the trees surround me, asking and giving nothing." Like Jane Eyre, Atwood's protagonist has found the mother within herself. Secure in an undivided self, the protagonist no longer needs parents or gods; she recognizes her own power and the fact that she can refuse victimization. "This above all, to refuse to be a victim. Unless I can do that I can do nothing." Now even "the Americans" can be managed and seen in perspective: "They must be dealt with, but possibly they can be watched and predicted and stopped without being copied." As Carol P. Christ says, the protagonist is "awakening from a male-defined world, to the greater terror and risk, and also the great potential healing and joy, of a world defined by the heroine's own feeling and judgment."
Atwood writes in Survival: "A reader must face the fact that Canadian literature is undeniably sombre and negative, and that this to a large extent is both a reflection and a chosen definition of the national sensibility." In its ringing affirmation, Surfacing is the exception to prove the rule. Withdrawal is no longer possible, says the protagonist, and "the alternative is death." She chooses instead a new life and a new way of seeing. She carries a new child, a new messiah: "It might be the first one, the first true human; it must be born, allowed." To the protagonist belongs the ultimate sanity: the knowledge that woman can descend, and return—sane, whole, victorious.
Margaret Atwood 1939–
(Full name Margaret Eleanor Atwood) Canadian poet, novelist, short story writer, critic, and author of children's books.
The following entry provides an overview of Atwood's career through 1994. For further information on her career and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 3, 4, 8, 13, 15, 25, and 44.
Internationally acclaimed as a poet, novelist and short story writer, Margaret Atwood has emerged as a major figure in Canadian letters. Using such devices as irony, symbolism, and self-conscious narrators, she explores the relationship between humanity and nature, the dark side of human behavior, and power as it pertains to gender and politics. Popular with both literary scholars and the reading public, Atwood has helped to define and identify the goals of contemporary Canadian literature and has earned a distinguished reputation among feminist writers for her exploration of women's issues.
Atwood was born in Ottawa and grew up in suburban Toronto. As a child she spent her summers at her family's cottage in the wilderness of northern Quebec, where her father, a forest entomologist, conducted research. She first began to write while in high school, contributing poetry, short stories, and cartoons to the school newspaper. As an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, Atwood was influenced by critic Northrop Frye, who introduced her to the poetry of William Blake. Impressed with Blake's use of mythological imagery, Atwood published her first volume of poetry, Double Persephone, in 1961. In 1962 Atwood completed her A.M. degree at Radcliffe College of Harvard University. She returned to Toronto in 1963, where she began collaborating with artist Charles Pachter, who designed and illustrated several volumes of her poetry. In 1964 Atwood moved to Vancouver, where she taught English at the University of British Columbia for a year and completed her first novel, The Edible Woman (1969). After a year of teaching Victorian and American literature at Sir George Williams University in Montreal in 1967, Atwood began teaching creative writing at the University of Alberta while continuing to write and publish poetry. Her poetry collection The Circle Game (1966) won the 1967 Governor General's Award, Canada's highest literary honor. Atwood's public visibility increased significantly with the publication of Power Politics in 1971. Requiring an escape from increasing media attention, Atwood left a teaching position at the University of Toronto to move to a farm near Alliston, Ontario, with her husband, Graeme Gibson. Atwood received the Governor General's Award in 1986 for her novel The Handmaid's Tale, which was published that same year. She continues to be a prominent voice in Canada's cultural and political life.
Since 1961 Atwood has produced a highly acclaimed body of work that includes fiction, poetry, and literary criticism. The Circle Game established the major themes of Atwood's writing: inconsistencies of self-perception, the paradoxical nature of language, the issue of Canadian identity, and conflicts between humankind and nature. In the same year that she published her second novel, Surfacing (1972), Atwood also earned widespread attention for Survival (1972), a seminal critical analysis of Canadian literature that served as a rallying point for the country's cultural nationalists. In the poetry collection The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), Atwood devoted her attention to what she calls the schizoid, or double, nature of Canada. Based on the autobiographies of a Canadian pioneer woman, The Journals of Susanna Moodie examines why Canadians came to develop ambivalent feelings toward their country. Atwood further developed this dichotomy in Power Politics, in which she explores the relationship between sexual roles and power structures by focusing on personal relationships. Atwood's novels explore the relationship between personal behavior and political issues as well. These include Lady Oracle (1976), about a protagonist who fakes her own death and thereby creates a new life for herself; The Handmaid's Tale, a dystopian novel concerning an oppressive future society; Cat's Eye (1990), a coming-of-age novel that contains autobiographical elements; and The Robber Bride (1993), a contemporary recasting of a folktale, which explores jealousy and sexual manipulation.
Criticism of Atwood's work has tended to emphasize her political and social views. Many critics identify her use of grotesque, shocking imagery and heavy irony as hallmarks of her style. Because her poetry and fiction often portray physical and psychological violence in relationships between men and women, some commentators have labeled Atwood pessimistic and dismissed her as little more than an ideologue, but other critics have found her a visionary interpreter of feminist thought. The Handmaid's Tale, for example, has been favorably compared with George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and other distinguished dystopian novels for its disturbing extension of contemporary trends and its allegorical portrait of political extremism. The many critics who praise Atwood's work admire her spareness of language, emotional restraint, and willingness to examine the harsh realities of both society and the natural world.
SOURCE: "Refusing to be a Victim: Margaret Atwood," in her Diving Deep and Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest, Beacon Press, 1980, pp. 41-53.
[In the following essay, Christ offers an analysis of Surfacing, focusing on the protagonist's quest for self-discovery and Atwood's focus on nature and power in the novel.]
The spiritual quest of the unnamed protagonist of Surfacing begins with her return to the Canadian wilderness, where she had lived as a child. Ostensibly, the protagonist is in search of her missing father, who is presumed dead. But the search is really for her missing parents, her mother having died a few years earlier, and for the power she feels it was their duty to have communicated to her. The external detective story of the protagonist's search for her father is paralleled by an internal search—half obscured by her obsession with her father—to discover how she lost the ability to feel. The scene of the mystery is strewn with false clues from her fictitious memories, which she created to shield herself from the pain of confronting her true past. While the protagonist's interest remains focused on her father's disappearance, the reader struggles to make sense of the inconsistencies in her story about her marriage, husband, and child. Why couldn't she return home after the wedding? Why did she hide the child from her parents? Why is she obsessed with the bizarre image of her brother floating just below the surface of the water, a near drowning that occurred before she was born? The unraveling of her father's mystery awakens her to the powers that enlighten her, but the unraveling of her own mystery is the key to the redemption she seeks. The two mysteries intersect when she recognizes that "it was no longer his death but my own that concerned me."
Even at the beginning of the journey the protagonist recognizes that she has experienced a death. Like the three friends, Anna, David, and Joe, who accompany her, she is completely cut off from her past: "Any one of us could have amnesia for years and the others wouldn't notice." She has also lost the ability to experience normal feelings. She recalls that her current man-friend, Joe, was impressed by her coolness the first time they made love. She, on the other hand, found her behavior unremarkable because she did not feel anything. She is tortured by Joe's demand that she say she love him because she does not believe the word has any meaning.
The protagonist's alienation from her feelings is reflected in her dispassionate voice. Everything is seen; nothing is felt. The small town, the cabin in the woods where she grew up, her three friends, even her memories are accurately recorded—or so it seems. Occasionally she slips, as when she says, "I keep my outside hand on the [car] door … so I can get out quickly if I have to," causing the reader to ask whether she is similarly defensive about her life, perhaps censoring her story. The reader is suspicious when the protagonist reports how she copes with the pain of seeing the town of her childhood changed: "I bite down into the cone and I can't feel anything for a minute but the knife—hard pain up the side of my face. Anesthesia, that's one technique: if it hurts invent a different pain." How much unacknowledged anesthesia, the reader wonders, does the protagonist use? Might her whole story be a shield from a pain she wishes to deny?
The protagonist's inability to feel is paralleled by an inability to act. Her selective vision holds fast to the illusion that she is helpless and "they" do things to her. Hurt and angry that her parents died before endowing her with their power, she accuses them of having hurt her. "They have no right to get old," she complains, remaining blind to the pain her abrupt departure from home doubtless caused them. Always conscious of how she might be hurt, she remains oblivious to her power to hurt others. Moreover, as the reader later discovers, she studiously avoids confronting the center of her pain, the place where she lost the ability to feel and to act—her betrayal by the first man she loved.
Unable to come to terms with his violation of her self and her body she obsessively focuses her attention on the violation of the Canadian wilderness by the men she calls "Americans," some of whom turn out to be Canadians. In Surfacing, the image of Canada victimized by Americans is a mirror of the protagonist's victimization by men. The conflict between Americans in powerboats and Canadians in canoes—one apparently stronger but alienated from nature, the other seemingly weaker but in tune with it—becomes a cover for her own pain. She identifies with Canada, the wilderness, innocent, virgin, and violated by nameless American men. Her illusion that the wilderness has no power to recover from American violation prevents her from realizing her own power to overcome her sense of violation. Though the wilderness initially deflects her vision, in the end it will provide the key, the revelation that releases her power.
Though the protagonist continually imagines herself as powerless, she is extraordinarily concerned with power Anything out of the ordinary—Madame with one hand, a purple bean at the top of a high pole, the cool blue lake, a white mushroom, the toes of saints—all are seen as harboring magical power. To her, religion and magic are one—a view modern Westerners have often associated with children or people they call primitives. Eventually the protagonist's sense of the magic-religious powers resident in things will become a key to revelations that enable her to contact the source of her power.
At first, however, the protagonist seeks her lost power in the wrong places. Realizing that she lost the ability to feel somewhere in the past, she imagines that a simple return to childhood will provide the answer. Searching through old scrapbooks kept by her mother, she discovers that she looked normal in all the pictures—no clues there. There is a clue in the drawings from her childhood—hers of eggs and bunnies, everything peaceful, her brother's of airplanes and bombs—but she cannot quite fathom it. Another clue surfaces from the garden. She remembers that once she thought a certain purple bean on a high pole was a source of power. She says she is glad the bean did not give power to her because "if I'd turned out like the others with power I would have been evil." Her association of power with evil and her dissociation of herself from both reflect a typical female delusion of innocence. Hiding from her complicity in evil feeds a false belief that she can do nothing but witness her victimization. In order to regain her power the protagonist must realize that she does not live in a world where only others have power or do evil. An unexpected thing, the sight of a dead heron strung up on a tree, monument to some "American" victory, mediates revelation.
The reaction of the protagonist and her friends to the dead heron, symbol of purposeless killing, reveals some truth about each of them. Anna's weakness is evident when she holds her nose, not from any real feeling, but simply to make an impression on the men. David's concern to preserve the Canadian wilderness from crass commercialism is revealed as mere rhetoric when he and Joe film the bird, trapping its humiliation while distancing themselves with their "art." Only the protagonist realizes the enormity of the crime as she imagines the heron in its natural habitat killing its appointed food with effortless grace. She identifies herself with the bird, wondering "what part of them the heron was, that they need so much to kill it," but she does nothing to protect the heron from further humiliation.
When they pass the spot again, a day later, the sight of the heron mediates the knowledge the protagonist requires to escape her passive sense of victimization, the delusion of her childhood innocence. For her the heron is sacred object, mediator, like Christ to the Christian. Seeing it again, she realizes that her passivity is not innocence. She does not live in a world of eggs and bunnies; she did not escape the evil others are immersed in. "I felt a sickening complicity, sticky as glue, blood on my hands, as though I had been there and watched without saying No or doing anything to stop it." Memories of her active participation in acts of cruelty equally senseless surface in her as she remembers how she and her brother used to throw the "bad kind" of leeches into the fire. She realizes there is no innocence in childhood. "To become like a little child again, a barbarian, a vandal: it was in us too, it was innate. A thing closed in my head, hand, synapse, cutting off my escape." Though she feels trapped, recognizing her guilt and responsibility is a step toward claiming her power to refuse to be a victim.
With the path to redemption through childhood closed, the protagonist decides the clue to her redemption lies in deciphering her father's final obsession—a series of unintelligible drawings and marks on maps. At first she fears he had gone mad and wandered off into the woods, but then she discovers he was copying Indian paintings and marking their locations on maps. She goes in search of the paintings to verify his sanity and her own. Deciding that the painting she seeks is submerged underwater, she dives deep into the lake to look for it. Instead of a painting, she discovers an image from her past: "It was there but it wasn't a painting, it wasn't on the rock. It was below me, drifting towards me from the furthest level where there was no life, a dark oval trailing limbs. It was blurred but it had eyes, they were open, it was something I knew about, a dead thing, it was dead." Seeing the body of her father forces her to acknowledge he is dead. The mystery of her father's death solved, his image becomes a clue to her own mystery, her own death. The open eyes of his corpse remind her of the bizarre image of her brother's near drowning, but with a shock she recognizes, "it wasn't ever my brother I'd been remembering." The thing approaching becomes the image of her aborted fetus "drowned in air." This revelation unlocks the mystery of the confusing stories of husband, child, marriage. The childbirth was an abortion; the wedding day—the day of the abortion; the husband—the lover who told her to have the abortion. "It wasn't a wedding, there were no pigeons, the post office and the lawn were in another part of the city," she remembers, finally accepting the truth about her first love affair.
The protagonist sees the fetus as a living thing, not yet a child, but an animal deserving protection like the heron. Wanting to convince her to have the abortion, her lover "said it wasn't a person, only an animal." Now she realizes, "I should have seen that it was no different, it was hiding in me as if in a burrow and instead of granting it sanctuary I let them catch it." She views her abortion as no more or less a crime than the murder of the heron, but her guilt is more direct, because the creature was in her body. As the knowledge of her complicity in a killing comes to her, she realizes why she hid her past in false memories. "It was all real enough, it was enough reality forever, I couldn't accept it, that mutilation, ruin I'd made, I needed a different version." She understands, too, that the anesthesia of false memory is no escape, but rather the beginning of a fatal disease: blocked feelings do not go away; they fester inside. "Since then I'd carried that death around inside me, layering it over, a cyst, a tumor, black pearl." Her ability to accept the painful truth about the past counteracts the anesthesia, abolishes the need for false stories to cover up true pain. By allowing herself to feel pain, she unblocks her feelings and contacts her energy and power. "Feeling was beginning to seep back into me, I tingled like a foot that's been asleep."
The protagonist sees this new self-knowledge for what it is—a revelation from great powers. "These gods, here on the shore or in the water, unacknowledged or forgotten, were the only ones who had ever given me anything I needed … The Indians did not own salvation but they had once known where it lived." In the presence of great powers, she feels the need to worship. She leaves her sweatshirt as a thank offering to the gods whose names she does not know but whose power she has felt.
She correctly understands that her redemption comes from facing the truth and accepting the pain, guilt, and responsibility it entails. With this act, the protagonist also divorces herself from the interpretations men use to justify their crimes. She no longer believes killing can be justified as "sport." She rejects her brother's distinction between "good" leeches that deserve to live and "bad" leeches that deserve to die. She rejects her lover's distinction between "good" (legitimate) fetuses that grow up to have birthday parties and "bad" (illegitimate) fetuses that must be killed. The protagonist is allowing her own feeling, not male "morality," to define reality for her.
The revelations that come to the protagonist through the heron and the underwater image of death provide her with the knowledge that unlocks her past, but she finds the revelation incomplete. Her father's "were the gods of the head, antlers rooted in the brain." She believes a gift from her mother must complement her father's gift—"Not only how to see but how to act." Searching again for something out of the ordinary to provide guidance, she senses power in one of the scrapbooks her mother had made. Heavy and warm, the scrapbook opens to a picture the protagonist had drawn as a child of "a woman with a round moon stomach: the baby was sitting up inside her gazing out." Her mother's gift is a reminder of the powers of her body. Though the gifts of the parents reflect a traditional stereotyping of men with the mind, women with the body, the protagonist incorporates both gifts and transcends the limitations of her parents' lives.
That night she conceives a child by Joe with the moon, a Goddess symbol, on her left. In a heightened state of awareness she feels "my lost child surfacing within me, forgiving me, rising from the lake where it has been prisoned for so long … it buds, it sends out fronds." As she conceives, the protagonist resembles the Virgin Mother Goddesses of old: at one with nature and her sexual power, in tune with the rhythms of the moon, complete in herself, the male being incidental.
The protagonist's extraordinary insight and sense of her power alienates her from her friends. She realizes that if she wishes to pursue the revelations and experience the powers more deeply, she must choose the isolation of the visionary quest. She can't stay with people because "they'd had their chance but they had turned against the gods, and it was time for me to choose sides." When the time to leave the island comes, she hides, escaping from her friends. "I am by myself; this is what I wanted, to stay here alone." "The truth is here." The choice of solitude is not so much a rejection of community as a recognition that certain experiences and truths are so alien to ordinary consciousness that the individual must withdraw in order to experience them.
After the others have left, the protagonist has time and space to plumb more deeply the knowledge and experience that has been given her. Lying alone at the bottom of her canoe she has a vision of the great powers of the universe, the gods who have guided her journey: "Through the trees the sun glances; the swamp around me smolders, energy of decay turning to growth, green fire. I remember the heron; by now it will be insects, frogs, fish, other herons." The great powers of the universe transform the swamp; they transform the heron from death to life. The life power rises from death. This is the meaning of the incredible words she had spoken earlier, "nothing has died, everything is alive, everything is waiting to become alive."
The protagonist recognizes her body as both revelation and incarnation of the great powers of life and death. "My body also changes, the creature in me, plant-animal, sends out filaments in me; I ferry it secure between death and life, I multiply." The female experience of the transformation of parts of her body into plant, animal, and infant is perhaps the most complete human incarnation of the great powers. The protagonist's vision of the universal transformative energy of life into death and death into life is reflected in her characteristic perception of the fluidity of the boundaries between objects, plants, animals, humans. Joe has "fur" like a bear, canoers are "amphibian," the fetus is "plant-animal" sending out "filaments."
After her vision, the protagonist enters the final phase of her visionary journey: transformation itself. She realizes that she can see her dead parents, and perhaps the gods themselves, if she follows the path she is beginning to sense. "The gods, their likenesses: to see them in their true shape is fatal. While you are human; but after the transformation they could be reached." Her transformation is frightening. Though she knows it is beyond "any rational point of view," it is neither mad nor illogical. Whereas before she had abandoned false memories, now she will give up all identity as a human. Before she had experienced the fetus transforming her body, now she will change herself into a different state.
She ritually breaks her connections to the human world—burning or purifying clothing, books, one of everything in the cabin. She is purified and transformed by immersion in the lake. Like the fetus in her womb, she changes in water. "The earth rotates, holding my body down as it holds the moon; the sun pounds in the sky, red flames pulsing from it, searing away the wrong form that encases me." The powers guide her away from the garden, the house, into the woods. She becomes wild. She is animal: "I hollow a lair near the woodpile, dry leaves underneath and dead branches leaned over." Having undergone transformation, she experiences mystical identification with all forms of life: "Leopard frog with green spots and gold-rimmed eyes, ancestor. It includes me, it shines, nothing moves but its throat breathing." She experiences direct union with the great powers of life and death in nature. All boundaries between herself and other forms of life are abolished. She becomes the transformative energy: "I lean against a tree, I am a tree leaning … I am not an animal or a tree, I am the thing in which the trees and animals move and grow."
Later she sees a vision of her mother feeding the birds; then her mother disappears, the birds remain. She is translated. This vision confirms her sense that her mother's gift is connection to nature. As Barbara Hill Rigney says, "Almost witchlike, with her long hair and wearing her magically powerful leather jacket, the mother feeds wild birds from her hand, charms a bear, and is in tune with the seasons." In a similar vein, Adrienne Rich calls the mother as she appears "Mistress of the Animals."
The next day she sees what her father saw. What he has seen "gazes at me with its yellow eyes, wolf's eyes, depthless but lambent as the eyes of animals seen at night in the car headlights." The eyes of the wolf remind her that her father's gift is the power of seeing, or insight. The protagonist is terrified as she realizes that in the state of transformation individual human identity has no meaning. Her father's vision is impersonal, but it is also strangely comforting because it means that the life power survives a particular identity. With the vision of the parents, the protagonist's circle is complete. Her parents' power has been communicated to her.
The vision granted, the gods then retreat into "the earth, the air, the water, wherever they were when I summoned them." Translated back to human form, the protagonist returns to the cabin and opens a can of beans, symbolizing her return to modern human life. Though she is no longer in direct contact with the powers, she has gained wisdom and consciousness of her own power through her encounter with them. She marks her new power with a declaration: "This above all, to refuse to be a victim … give up the old belief that I am powerless." The source of her newly discovered power is twofold. First, she renounces the fictitious memories that held together her delusions of innocence and powerlessness. Letting go and allowing her true past to surface is itself a source of tremendous energy. Second, her grounding in her own past and in the powers of the universe provides her with a sense of authentic selfhood.
Though Atwood has effectively portrayed a woman's spiritual quest, she has left the question of its integration with the social quest open. It seems likely that the protagonist, now pregnant, will return to the city with Joe and attempt to reconstruct their relationship on the basis of her recovered ability to feel. The potential for a deeper relationship with Joe is "a possibility which wasn't there at the outset." But it remains an unexplored possibility. Will Joe understand how she has changed? Will he assume equal responsibility for the care of their child? Will he view her work and personal growth as being as important as his own? Atwood's failure to address such questions makes Marge Piercy skeptical that the protagonist has achieved power at all. Using a social or political definition of power, she objects, "Power exists and some have it." To Piercy, Atwood's protagonist might reply, "Power exists in many more forms than are usually recognized. I have gained power by experiencing my grounding in the great transformative powers of the universe. I don't know yet how I will translate my power into social and political forms. But you cannot deny that I have gained power." Atwood's protagonist has experienced a spiritual and psychological transformation that will give her the inner strength to change her social and political relationships. She no longer sees herself as inevitably powerless and victimized. And since Atwood's story is set in the 1970s, not the 1890s, the reader has some reason to hope that her quest to integrate the spiritual and the social will be more successful than Edna Pontellier's [as related in Kate Chopin's The Awakening.] I am not as uneasy about Atwood's protagonist's future as Piercy. But like her, I recognize the need for stories that describe how the woman who has awakened will live in the social world. Still, I wish Piercy had understood more clearly the contribution novels like Surfacing make to women's total quest: by naming anew the great powers and women's grounding in them, such novels provide women with alternatives to patriarchal notions of power that can aid their struggle to change the social world.
The newly named power, the transformative energy of life to death and death to life in Surfacing is, of course, not new to the historian of religions. Atwood believes that her protagonist has discovered the great power worshiped by the Canadian Indians. Many tribal and ancient peoples, both men and women, have worshiped similar powers. However, as Ruether has shown, when societies become urbanized, the culture-creating males celebrate their relative freedom from the body and nature in myth, symbol, philosophy, and theology. The traditional values derived from the body and nature then become identified primarily with women, both because women's close relation to the body and nature is evident in their traditional roles of child-bearing and nurture of the young and because the culture-creating males identify the traditional values their culture has transcended with the other, woman. This development produces the paradox that the surfacing of female values in alienated urban cultures may also be a return to some—but not all—of the values of traditional tribal or less urbanized cultures. Even the experience of connection to nature as a life and death power may reflect a particularly female viewpoint in modern culture. Western male heroes commonly envision nature as something that must be conquered or as inert matter that can be shaped to their purposes. A woman's experience of the intertwining of life and death processes in pregnancy and childbirth—the fetus might die or its movement toward life might kill her—seems to encourage in her a realistic acceptance of death as an element in all life processes.
Tribal and ancient peoples who worshiped natural powers such as those represented in Surfacing knew that the close connection of life and death in the hunting and agricultural cycles and in the birth processes was a reflection of the interpenetration of life and death in all natural processes. They knew the hunted or domesticated animal and the wild plant or crop as sacred sacrifices to human life. But in Christianity, the transformative mysteries of birth and the earth were spiritualized and the notion of sacrifice was limited to Christ's death for the sins of humankind. Atwood's protagonist reverses this spiritualization when she intuits, "the animals die that we may live … we are the eaters of death, dead Christ-flesh resurrecting inside us … Canned spam, canned Jesus … but we refuse to worship." Though speaking irreverently, the protagonist is expressing her sense that the ultimate mystery of life and death is reflected in the process of eating. Indeed the original guilt may be that we must kill to live. By showing how the ancient sense of the mysteries of life and death emerges in the consciousness of a thoroughly modern woman, Atwood has done more than nostalgically recall an ancient world view. She has suggested a direction for the transformation of modern consciousness that would be beneficial for women and all life. Reverence for the human connection to natural processes would create an atmosphere in which the natural functions of women's bodies would be celebrated rather than ignored or treated as sources of shame. Menstruation, childbirth, and menopause might once again be viewed as religiously significant events. And while it would not provide solutions to all the complex problems that arise in modern technological societies, a new naming of humankind's grounding in nature might create an atmosphere, or in Crites's terms, an "orientation," in which solutions to the ecological crisis could be developed.
The issue of abortion raised by the novel provides a crucial test of the viability of the novel's vision for women's quest. The affirmation of a woman's right to control her own body and to choose abortion has been fundamental in the women's movement. And the question naturally arises: Does Atwood's protagonist's vision of her connection to nature mean that women must not have abortions but must give birth over and over again, "naturally"? A careful reading of the novel's vision suggests that this would be the wrong conclusion to draw. The novel compares the fetus in the womb to an animal in a burrow and suggests the comparison of the termination of a pregnancy to the killing of an animal living in one's body. The novel suggests that no killing should be undertaken lightly, but it also recognizes that some must die so that others may live. The protagonist's abortion was wrong for her because she did not choose it herself, but allowed her lover to choose it for his own personal convenience and because she did not allow herself to feel the sense of loss that will naturally be felt when a life is taken. The novel does not suggest that abortion is wrong, but it does suggest that abortion is not a matter of little consequence. The woman who decides that she must have an abortion should recognize, as she does in eating, that some deaths are necessary for other life and that the proper response to the sacrifice of one life for another is worship and gratitude.
The emergence of a powerful vision of women's connection to nature in a novel of women's spiritual quest seems to suggest that women can achieve power through the acceptance of female biological roles. The traditional identification of women and nature that has been a legacy of oppression can also be a potential source of power and vision. As one critic has written, to entirely reject the identification of women with the body and nature might be "to neglect that part of ourselves we have been left to cultivate and to buy—into that very polarization [of culture and nature] of which we have been the primary victims." More importantly, it may lead to the kind of psychic suicide that the first part of Surfacing portrays.
It seems to me that women must positively name the power that resides in their bodies and their sense of closeness to nature and use this new naming to transform the pervasive cultural and religious devaluation of nature and the body. Atwood's novel suggests that the opposition of spirit and body, nature and person, which is endemic in Western culture, is neither necessary nor salutary; that spiritual insight surfaces through attention to the body; and that the achievement of authentic selfhood and power depends on understanding one's grounding in nature and natural energies.
Double Persephone (poetry) 1961The Circle Game (poetry) 1966The Animals in That Country (poetry) 1968The Edible Woman (novel) 1969The Journals of Susanna Moodie (poetry) 1970Procedures for Underground (poetry) 1970Power Politics (poetry) 1971Surfacing (novel) 1972Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (criticism) 1972You Are Happy (poetry) 1974Lady Oracle (novel) 1976Selected Poems (poetry) 1976Dancing Girls, and Other Stories (short stories) 1977Two-Headed Poems (poetry) 1978Up in the Tree (juvenilia) 1978Life before Man (novel) 1979True Stories (poetry) 1981Bodily Harm (novel) 1982Second Words: Selected Critical Prose (criticism) 1982Bluebeard's Egg (short stories) 1983Murder in the Dark: Short Fictions and Prose Poems (short stories and poetry) 1983Interlunar (poetry) 1984The Handmaid's Tale (novel) 1986Selected Poems II: Poems Selected and New, 1976–1986 (poetry) 1987Cat's Eye (novel) 1990Wilderness Tips (short stories) 1991Good Bones (short stories) 1992The Robber Bride (novel) 1993
SOURCE: "Margaret Atwood: Remythologizing Circe," in her Women as Mythmakers: Poetry and Visual Art by Twentieth Century Women, Indiana University Press, 1984, pp. 62-78.
[In the following essay, Lauter examines Atwood's revision of the myth of Odysseus and Circe in her "Circe/Mud Poems."]
In her sequence of poems entitled "Circe/Mud Poems," Margaret Atwood engages in a complex act of remythologizing. That is, she steps back into the mythic realm of Homer's Odyssey to recreate and revise the story of the year-long sojourn of Odysseus with Circe from Circe's point of view. Simply by refocusing our attention within the story, Atwood reveals a more essential power in Circe than her infamous ability to seduce and deform men—namely, her highly developed capacity to see, see into, and see beyond her relationships to the persons, things, and events called "reality." Because Atwood shows how Circe exercises her capacity for insight, we are able to penetrate the masks and armor of the "hero with a thousand faces," and understand with her how the myth of the quest has become a disease in whose clutches the hero is helpless. By adopting Circe's perspective within the quest myth, Atwood is able to revalue Circe positively; at the same time, she exposes the limitations of a myth that still dominates Western civilization. Atwood's strategy of participating in mythic thinking, instead of making the usual distinction between myth and truth, allows her to suggest a surprisingly radical revision of the myth itself. She points out that we do not yet know the ending of Circe's story after Odysseus leaves her island, and that in our visions of a new ending lie the possibilities for an alternative myth, in which there is no need to journey. Atwood's work has implications for those of us who are exploring alternative images of women, and for others who believe that mythic structures offer essential knowledge that can be used to free as well as to enslave us.
In order to involve us in her mythmaking process, Atwood has us enter the island landscape of a forest blackened by fire as we would enter a dream, in a boat that glides over land "as if there is water." She explains through Circe's voice that she has not given us a full description of the landscape because she is quite sure that we live there right now and can see for ourselves. Atwood has Circe speak directly to a person who is never named, leaving open the possibility that she is addressing us. Since her awareness of Bronze Age rituals and modern steam-engines transcends ordinary boundaries of time and culture, we begin to believe that she can also transcend other restrictions that operate on our thought. Atwood reinforces this expectation of mythic behavior in her surrealistic images of bodies coming apart and crashing to the ground or trays of food containing "an ear, a finger."
In order to retain the degree of power Homer has assigned to Circe while she relocates its source and meaning, Atwood includes many of the trappings of Greek mythology: Circe has a temple where moon snakes speak of the future, and she wears a withered fist on a chain around her neck. But Circe knows the meaning of such symbols better than Odysseus or Homer did. As for her supposed power to turn her lovers into swine, she denies that she is anything more than a silent accomplice in the metamorphoses: she explains, "they happened / because I did not say anything." Actually, the men came to her in accordance with their own drives. She "decided nothing." They became animals because they allowed their skin to harden into impenetrable, armor-like hide, and because they failed to speak.
Homer was misguided on several other counts. Circe was not superhuman in the sense of being above feeling love, pain, fear, and anxiety; she did not willingly grant Odysseus' request to leave her. Nor was she rendered powerless during his stay. In Atwood's version, the lover unbuckles the fist on Circe's chain; instead of gaining control over her, he frees her from a dehumanizing pattern of action. He frees her, not to be like the totally receptive and unfeeling surrogate woman made out of mud, reported in a story by another traveller, but to penetrate his armor because her caring for him enables her to see who he is, what he intends, and how it will affect her life. The nineteenth poem shows clearly who is in command of reality. In it, Circe says (in prose),
You think you are safe at last.
I bring you things on trays, food mostly, an ear, a finger. You trust me so you are no longer cautious, you abandon yourself to your memoranda …; in the clutch of your story, your disease, you are helpless.
But it is not finished, that saga. The fresh monsters are already breeding in my head. I try to warn you, though I know you will not listen.
So much for art. So much for prophecy.
Circe's power is not sufficient to transform her lover's story without his consent, but her insight that the story continues to happen partly because she has not revealed how she felt about it, and partly because "fresh monsters" are "breeding" in her head to test his mortal courage with more misadventures, suggests that she may also have some unused ability to alter Odysseus' script.
In Atwood's sequence, Circe does attempt to change her relationship to the quest myth by proclaiming her disinterest in Odysseus' heroic gesticulations. Her attitude toward his infamous arrival on her island is scornful. The merits of his courage, pride and perseverance dissolve as she questions: "Don't you get tired of saying Onward?" With Circe's revelation of her boredom with the masks of heroism and of her disgust for the greedy, deceitful, arrogant, oppressive, vain men who have predictable desires for fame and immortality, Atwood dislodges one of the reasons that the myth of the hero survives: female approval of heroic behavior.
As the poems proceed, it becomes clear that the hero's dissatisfaction with mere material abundance has a deleterious effect not only on his lover, but also on the landscape, which is burned over, worn down, and strewn with skeletons. Since Circe states at the outset her intention to search (without journeying) for the "ones who have escaped from these / mythologies with barely their lives," and since she gives ample proof of her ability to love those who will unmask, clearly she is not the source of the misery on her island.
By the final poem, we are convinced not only that Circe's position outside the framework of the quest allows her to see more than those who remain inside it can, but also that her boundary position is a source of hope. Her capacity for breeding new disasters to appease the hero's desire for action is easily converted into a capacity for creating valid images. In the final poem, she "sees" two islands—one on which things happen pretty much as she has just recounted, over and over again like a bad film running faster and more jerkily each time it goes through the projector. The second island, independent of the first, exists only in her imagination. On the second, "we" walk together in a November landscape and are astonished by the orange hue of the apples "still on the trees." We lick the "melted snow / from each other's mouths" without sexual passion, and we are free to notice the track of a deer in the mud beside the not-yet-frozen stream. On this island, which Circe says "has never happened," our delight in the November landscape does not require any journey; the birds are birds, not omens from the dead whispering "Everything dies;" the gentle, sensuous caress between two people is enough; and mud is mud, not a symbolic woman to be fucked by man.
Circe's story remains unfinished in Atwood's sequence. We still do not know her fate after Odysseus leaves her island. We do know that she is not the seductress we thought she was. As an enchantress, her talents lay in gathering the syllables from the earth into healing words. Even without her magic powers, she is capable of imagining an alternative to the story that has imprisoned her. She emerges from the poem as an independent woman (perhaps a poet) who is capable of turning her considerable talent for seeing through others' stories into a strategy for her own survival—and perhaps the survival of all who are wise enough to trust her. Atwood's revision of Circe's story strikes us as true because it corresponds to centuries of partly-conscious experience of silent complicity in a myth we did not choose. Atwood's work raises important questions: How many other stories remain similarly unfinished? Should we finish them now? Is it really possible to change a myth?
Atwood does not provide us with an ideal goddess so much as with a believable woman, "by turns comic, cynical, haughty, vulnerable and sad," as Sherrill Grace has observed [in Violent Quality: A Study of Margaret Atwood]. But for all her realism, Atwood does not "demythologize" Circe. In the context of modern theological debate, that term is reserved for the process of stripping away the fanciful layers of image and story in order to penetrate to the (preferably historical) truth. Since, we have no reason, apart from the say-so of poets like Homer and Hesiod, to believe that Circe ever exsisted (she was never an object of widespread worship, for example), the most likely approach of the demythologizer would be to ignore or discredit her. As scholar or poet, then, the demythologizer might turn to the records of history for information about the lives of Greek women, but she would not bother to retell Homer's story.
In fact, of course, Atwood is sufficiently aware of Homer's conventions to give her poem exactly the same number of parts as Homer's book. She counts on our knowing the appropriate section (book X) so well that she can alter the story without repeating it first (as a daring jazz musician might begin a piece with an improvisation without stating the tune on which it is based). In other words, Atwood assumes that Circe is familiar enough to seem "real" to us before we begin reading her poem. Whether this reality has accrued from aesthetic persuasion (the effectiveness of Homer's text) or from psychological persuasion (our familiarity with women who seem to correspond with Homer's story) matters very little. Atwood does not want to disturb our belief; she wants to restructure it.
The extent of her investment can be measured by comparing her poem to Katherine Anne Porter's brief and charming essay, "A Defense of Circe." Porter not only accepts but repeats Homer's story, presumably in order to earn the right to reinterpret it. Enthralled by the bard's "sunny high comedy," she exclaims, "this is all pure magic, this poem, the most enchanting thing ever dreamed of in the human imagination, how have I dared to touch it?" Indeed, she does touch it lightly, retelling all sorts of details that Atwood omits: about Circe's immortal lineage and sunny disposition, her lovely stone hall in the forest glade, her handmaidens, her loom, her song, the role of Hermes in providing the herb (moly) to disarm her, her oath that she will not harm Odysseus, her restoration of Odysseus' men to forms more beautiful than the ones they had, her advice about how to visit Teiresias in Hades, and so on.
Porter does point out several minor flaws in Homer's logic. She cannot quite believe that the immortal Circe would feel threatened by Odysseus' sword. She finds unfounded the hero's claim that Circe promised to send him and his companions safely on their way. She knows that Circe's "divine amiability and fostering care" could not save Odysseus and his men from their ordained suffering. She also wonders why Circe did not steal the moly to destroy Odysseus' power, or why she did not break her oath and turn him into a fox! She resolves these problems by accepting the text as given ("this is Circe") and by offering her own non-traditional interpretation of Circe's character: whereas Odysseus and Hermes are foxy by nature, Circe can be trusted completely. Her purity extends to other realms as well; she is a "creatrix," an "aesthetic genius," whose "unique power as goddess was that she could reveal to men the truth about themselves by showing each man himself in his true shape according to his inmost nature. For this she was rightly dreaded and feared; her very name was a word of terror." This assertion of Circe's superior understanding is Porter's "defense" of Circe against those who fasten on her reputation for turning human beings into monsters.
Porter does not accept the theological distinction between myth and truth. She expects us to find her interpretation of Homer's story truthful, and she believes that The Odyssey is true in a way that "still hovers glimmering at the farthest edge of consciousness, a nearly remembered dream of glory." For her, the story is a myth only in the sense of being something that was once believed, or in the sense of being an enduring fiction that continues to touch a sensitive nerve. Its truth is limited. Porter's main reason for not altering the fiction is respect for her venerable colleague.
Not so in Atwood's case. Although she shares with Porter the interpretation that the men turned themselves to swine, Atwood knows that no successful "defense" of Circe is possible within the framework of Odysseus' story. I speculate that she also knows how difficult it is to rid the human consciousness of a stereotype that has such a long and venerable history. She could have created an historical prototype, from Greece or elsewhere, to counter the myth; indeed, many critics agree that her most successful book of poems to date is The Journals of Susanna Moodie, where she shows an uncanny ability to work with historical materials. She chose instead to remythologize the figure of Circe.
If the reader is to believe that women's essential power is not to seduce (or shall we say influence?) men but to see through them and free them from their stories, then the poet must demonstrate this power in the figure who carries the imago of seduction. The image must be transformed from within. Atwood chooses the surest way to convince us that her vision of Circe is true by letting Circe tell her own story in an authentic language. She counts on our natural desire to believe the stories that people tell about themselves—when the stories are good. But such a strategy alone would not suffice. The poet must preserve enough of the character of the original myth to give weight to her story; she must also extend it enough so that it stands on its own in the modern world. The poet must perform Circe's feats of penetrating vision with respect to the myth that has entrapped both of them.
Thus, Atwood has Circe describe her setting as the opposite of Homer's lush idyllic island. It is instead a burned forest which nonetheless spawns fireweed that splatters the air, symbolizing both nature's power of regeneration and Circe's verbal power over those who land within range of her voice. The voice, instead of singing seductive songs, asserts that Circe prefers self-effacing men who stand in humble relationship with nature to heroes who, like Icarus, regularly "swoop and thunder" around her island. She denies blame, or even responsibility, for the dismal fate of these "common" heroes; at the same time she admits her complicity. The fact that she "did not say anything" until now has meant that her words were wrecked along with their bodies.
In the fourth poem, Atwood begins to alter our image of Circe's role, presenting her as a healer (perhaps a psychiatrist?) whose people call upon her to soothe their pain, fear, and guilt with words from the earth they have assaulted. She is a hardworking witch who presses her head to the earth faithfully to collect the "few muted syllables left over." So depleted is her island that she can collect only syllables, "a letter at a time." Her wonderfully wry comment that she is a desert island (which she reports having quipped to the arriving hero) works on several levels at once. While she scores a point for clever repartee in the battle of the sexes, she also accepts the ancient identification of woman with earth as her source of power, and admits to the depletion of her own as well as the earth's resources.
In the next eight poems, a curious reversal of our expectations occurs as Circe "loses" the battle she initiates. The poems correspond to and replace about sixty lines of Odysseus' story about his "victory" over Circe which supposedly culminated in her invitation: "Come then, put away your sword into its sheath, and let us / two go up into my bed so that, lying together / in the bed of love, we may then have faith and trust in each other." In Atwood's sequence, the battle between the two is more strenuous. Circe's part in it is largely verbal; she openly berates Odysseus for his lies, his passivity, his greed, and his delusions of power, interjecting that he need only inquire of the moon snakes at her temples in order to know the future. Her magic may be diminished, but she still knows "what is sacred." In the seventh poem, she includes us in the fray, taunting or chiding us to recognize this scene as part of our own landscape, but also revealing that it is a landscape of "ennui" that offers little satisfaction.
What is remarkable about this Circe is her consciousness of what is happening to her and her articulation of that consciousness at the moment of interaction with the "other." She watches Odysseus coldly as he approaches her for her sexual favors clothed in his shell of confident expectation. She anticipates that if she grants him his wish, she will either fear or despise him. Finally, she does capitulate, and she even allows herself some moments of generosity before she notices that he receives her gifts as his due without acknowledging them. Still, she protests his rough approach to her body, calling it "extortion" and pointing out the fine line between love and hate in such gestures. She knows that underneath her own soft masks there is a face of steel to match his own, and she dares the hero to see his reflection in it.Despite her consciousness and her protests, however, Odysseus "wins." Atwood invents her own symbol for Circe's magic power—a closed fist on a chain around Circe's neck—and presents Odysseus' conquest as a triumph of the hero's armor over the fist's stuttering and muttering in the language of magic. Finding its foe unas-sailable, the fist gives up—even "renounces" Circe. So, far from graciously offering her body to achieve a fantasy of faith and trust (or to continue the struggle for power in a more "seductive" way), Atwood's Circe is overpowered. The prettiness of Homer's version is stripped away.
The surprising feature of Atwood's poem is that having "lost" the battle of wills, Circe is released from the mentality of battle. Circe "opens" like a hand cut off at the wrist clutching at freedom. The image is grotesque and not entirely successful. It is not clear how a hand can open and clutch at the same time; and the arm that feels the pain of her absence (the goddess who surrenders to patriarchal force?) is not sufficiently defined. Still, the poem clearly asserts that Circe is released into the freedom of guiltless sexual enjoyment. The result is that she is able to see her lover's body for what it is—a scarred and flawed instrument—and to continue to feel desire for him, even though she knows that his body is not the essence of what she wants.
At the same time, she suspects that her body is all he wants. Extreme as the image of the "mud woman" is, in the story "told by another traveller," Circe is vulnerable to it. She has already acknowledged her affinity with the earth, and in her present state of sexual responsiveness, she admits that it would be "simple" for her to give in to his desire, especially if Odysseus allows himself to be transformed into a gentle lover (as it appears he does later in the poem).
Circe's "freedom" is short-lived. The lovers are assailed from all sides. Their pleasure offends "the suicides, returned / in the shapes of birds" to warn or complain that "everything dies," who had not found the fruits of the earth sufficient, and who demand the lovers' death as vengeance for their own unhappiness. Circe still fears the goddess "of the two dimensions" (Hecate), who wants her to resist her lover, wants her to make herself "deaf as an eye, / deaf as a wound, which listens / to nothing but its own pain." Hecate would have Circe kick Odysseus out, and Circe knows that Hecate "gets results."
As for the hero, he becomes preoccupied with his own story, and perhaps too trusting: as Circe becomes more servant than lover, her mind turns to the creation of "fresh monsters" to feed his heroic appetite. Whether these monsters are created to make him afraid to leave, or to keep him from leaving by giving him something more to write about, they have the negative effect of undermining the couple's newly found ability to value each other apart from their stories. That ability is also undermined by Circe's jealousy of Penelope, and her resentment of the fact (which she foresees) that Odysseus will believe Penelope's defense of her wifely honor.
The hero's lack of contentment with the present, the only motive Homer provides for Odysseus' departure, is also an element in the disintegration of the lovers' relationship in Atwood's poem. Odysseus naively wants Circe to tell him the future. She responds caustically,
That's my job, one of them, but I advise you don't push your luck. To know the future there must be a death. Hand me the axe. As you can see the future is a mess.
Here, as elsewhere in the last eight poems of the sequence, Circe has powers that may be explained as psychological or cognitive rather than magical. Her ability to change the island's summer climate to winter in the twenty-second poem is presumably a correlative for the psychological state of coldness she must develop in order to let her lover go. Her knowledge and insight are more acute in relationship to others, however, than they are in predicting her own fate. She worries that when Odysseus leaves the animals "may transform themselves back into men" and threaten her life. She questions whether her father, Helios, cares about her enough to restore her immortality. She wonders if Odysseus will give her back the facility with words that he released from her fist. In the face of her own fate, she is the vulnerable woman.
The final poem shows, however, that despite her worries Circe the woman retains her goddess-like capacity for envisioning the future. The first island that she sees would maintain the power of the story—revised, of course, so that she "is right." The second island seems more than anything to be a place where neither story counts. On it, the deer is not a stag to be killed for Odysseus' men, as it is in The Odyssey. The birds are not disguised suicides and the snow is not a symbol of psychological coldness as they are in Circe's story. The landscape is neither idyllic nor burned. The lovers are not surrogates for the traveller and his mud woman. The image of the second island is too open to be quite convincing—but perhaps that is its source of power. Since Circe does not articulate her dream fully, we are encouraged to dream it onward ourselves.
The Circe we see here needs no defense, although she is vulnerable. Certainly she is not pure, although she is no worse than Odysseus. Despite all the fanciful elements in the poem, we believe that Atwood has put her finger on a significant aspect of woman's power that was embodied in the ancient figure of Circe and needed only to be articulated clearly: the ability to see, see into, and see beyond the stories we tell about who we are. This is not exclusively a female power; traditionally it belongs to both Cassandra and Teiresias. But perhaps women have more often been consigned to the islands where such capacities flourish. Specifically, we have long had a different vantage point from which to view the male hero. Perhaps the delight that this poem produces in female audiences has to do with Atwood's success in modelling how to reveal the dark spot on the back of the man's head, without which, Virginia Woolf said, the man's portrait remains incomplete.
Some will say that Atwood's Circe is ungenerous; Homer's Odysseus, after all, was capable of great sorrow and guilt, not to mention aesthetic appreciation. But Atwood knows, as most of us do, how often those capacities have been repressed in favor of rapaciousness. Others will say she is too generous—that men like Odysseus have no reason to change. Atwood presents the many difficulties we would experience in achieving a real partnership, but at the same time she holds out hope for change. Whereas Homer's Circe is a minor goddess whose power to seduce men is overcome by the superior connections of Odysseus with the pantheon of gods, Atwood's is a woman who had certain enduring goddess-like capacities.
Atwood herself might describe Circe as a Venus released from the "Rapunzel Syndrome" the poet described in her book of criticism, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, published two years before You Are Happy. This literary pattern "for realistic novels about 'normal' women" includes Rapunzel, "the wicked witch who has imprisoned her," "the tower she's imprisoned in," and the Rescuer "who provides momentary escape." In the literary versions of the fairy tale, however, "the Rescuer is not much help…. Rapunzel is in fact stuck in the tower, and the best thing she can do is to learn how to cope with it." Atwood speculates that although the Rapunzel Syndrome transcends national boundaries, it takes a Canadian form: the Rapunzel figures have difficulty in communicating, or even acknowledging, their fears and hatreds; "they walk around with mouths like clenched fists."
Certainly Atwood's Circe symbolizes the release from such difficulties of communication. She has not become her own tower by internalizing the values of Western culture that would consign her to the role of cold seductress, la belle dame sans merci. Her enjoyment of sexual pleasure in the center of the poem identifies her as more Venus than Diana or Hecate, in the triple goddess figure from Robert Graves that Atwood uses to describe the possibilities for women in fiction. Circe is perhaps not a perfect Venus, as Atwood understands the figure, both sexual and maternal—unless we think of Circe's healing and serving capacities as products of maternal impulse. She is Venus with a difference: a Venus who finally does not lose her self in expressing her sexuality; one with the capacity to conceive of a new tower (island) in which she will not be imprisoned; one with the potential to be her own muse.
If the potential of this Rapunzel to liberate herself is not yet fully realized, we should not complain. It is up to us to do better. Whatever we might wish for Circe's future, we must admit that Atwood, through her knowledge of the psychology and history of relationships between males and females and through her brilliant use of literary precedents both ancient and modern, has restored her to the realm of living myth where there is no opposition between myth and truth. In this realm, myth is one kind of truth—a kind that retains its power long after philosophers and historians have revealed its impossibility, a kind that continues to glide through our dreams, fantasies, and even our gestures "as if there is water." Atwood gambles here on the possibility that myth can be transformed from within without losing its power.
Clearly the transformation worked for Atwood, as she demonstrates in the poems surrounding "Circe/Mud Poems." The first section of You Are Happy is the record of relationships between men and women that are just short of violent in their outcome—where the only moment of "happiness" occurs when the woman, walking alone in sub-freezing weather, feels the images "hitting" her eyes "like needles, crystals." Then, "Songs of the Transformed," a contemporary bestiary, ends with the warning song of the human corpse who hoarded both words and love until it was too late.
The section that follows the Circe poems, however, is markedly different. In these poems, enigmatically called "There Is Only One of Everything," the lovers make an honest attempt to inhabit their bodies instead of abandoning them "in favour of word games or jigsaw puzzles." The woman seeks to express both her anger and her desire. They move from the experience of love based on need to an experience based on ripeness. Together, they transform an ancient ritual of sacrifice into a ritual of love. Coming after the Circe poems and drawing on the same mythic elements, these poems have the effect of confirming Circe's vision of the new island and validating its essential truthfulness.
In turn, the presence of the Circe poems in the volume gives to the final sequence the status of myth. In it two people transcend both the powerful myth of the war between the sexes and its brutal history in order to participate in life organized by the values of Circe's vision. The lovers' responsiveness to each other and to nature, in a moment to be appreciated for its own unique presence, is sufficient to overcome all other imperatives—whether of life or of death. "There Is Only One of Everything" does not mean that the lovers submerge their identities to achieve the "oneness" promised in the traditional marriage ceremony, but that in sharing the uniqueness of each moment ("the tree / we saw."), each opens him/herself and becomes whole.
In the poem "Is/Not," from the fourth section of You Are Happy, Atwood's female protagonist explains to her lover,
This is a journey, not a war, there is no outcome. I renounce predictions and aspirins, I resign the future as I would resign an expired passport: … we're stuck here … where we must walk slowly, where we may not get anywhere or anything, where we keep going, fighting our ways, our way not out but through.
What kind of a journey has no outcome and goes nowhere? Unlike Circe's flippant dismissal of her powers in a moment of frustration ("So much for art. So much for prophecy,") this paradoxical formulation seems to be serious. But what does Atwood mean?
Furthermore, what should we make of the fact that "Circe/Mud Poems" does not take the form of a journey at all? Indeed, one of its most intriguing features is that it does not propose an alternative form of the quest it criticizes so bitingly—not even the form Annis Pratt describes as the female rebirth journey. Perhaps we could say that Circe's island itself represents a release from societal norms, or that Circe's rejection of Odysseus' story about her represents such a release. But this is more a matter of externalizing her private knowledge (splattering the fire-weed) than it is part of an inward exploration—more an assertion of ego in defiance of patriarchal norms than a retreat from its concerns, as in other rebirth journeys by women. It would likewise be difficult to locate a green-world guide or token, unless it is the syllables from the earth that Circe gathers in her role as witch/healer. But that is the substance of her reality, not a deviation from it. Odysseus never really becomes Circe's "green-world lover"; although for a brief period he does reveal his body beneath his armor, he quickly returns to his own concerns. Perhaps we can see him as a catalyst in Circe's life, since he does undo the fist and release her capacity for passion. There is no overt confrontation with parental figures, although Circe does wonder whether her father, the sun, will rescue her. But her immortality is assured by language, not by Helios.
Circe's report of Hecate's desire for her relationship to fail, her jealousy of Penelope, and her spiteful creation of new monsters to inhibit Odysseus might appropriately be described as manifestations of self-destructive potential (or "shadow"). If she gives in to the part of herself that experiences Odysseus' love as an invasion of her privacy, she dooms herself to loneliness. If she derides Penelope's story, she devalues her own capacity for telling a believable story. If she creates new monsters for Odysseus to conquer, she becomes a participant in the quest she criticizes. Presumably she manages to overcome all of these impulses in order to envision the second island. But can we call these acts a "plunge into the unconscious" for purposes of rebirth? This Circe seems to emerge from centuries in the unconscious to complete the cleansing acts of telling off the hero and admitting all sorts of other feelings she did not know she had.
It would be more accurate to see the whole poem sequence as proceeding from the inside out rather than in the usual manner of the spiritual quest. Circe says she "searches" for a certain kind of man. But it is more true to say that she opens herself to the possibility of a relationship that will develop that kind of man—and in turn will allow her to be the loving woman she would like to be. The poem is not so much a rebirth journey (there is no journey) as it is an exploration of what might happen if we stopped questing and made the most of the capabilities for relationship that we have "Right now I mean. See for yourself."
This is curious, for elsewhere in her work Atwood seems to be as committed to the idea of the quest as any modernist writer. Certainly Surfacing fits the pattern Annis Pratt describes, and many of her titles suggest a preoccupation with a psychological journey, usually in the form of a descent. Robert Lecker suggests that Atwood uses such patterns to question their assumptions—even to prove them false. He points out, for example, that Atwood often makes use of the romance pattern without its happy ending, return or ascent. In the case of Surfacing, he claims, "What Atwood really seems to be saying is that the mythical pattern of separation, initiation and return must itself be seen as a sham in a culture where rituals have lost their potency."
I doubt this explanation. Clearly rituals have not lost their potency for Atwood. In Two-Headed Poems, she and her sister sew a red shirt for her baby girl with every expectation of passing on to her daughter the heritage or "birth-right" of the world's mothers. She says,
It may not be true that one myth cancels another. Nevertheless, in a corner of the hem, where it will not be seen, where you will inherit it, I make this tiny stitch, my private magic.
And the child, as innocently as Sleeping Beauty once received her fatal prick from the wicked fairy, receives her mother's life-supporting gift with joy. Atwood still hopes that one myth does cancel another.
I think that what is finally mythologized in Atwood's poems is the possibility of altering myths that are so basic that we can scarcely dream of existence without them. Atwood knows that if one myth cancels another, it happens slowly, "Circe/Mud Poems," then, is part of a long process of rearranging the elements of the quest myth into a shape which may finally negate the idea of questing, as we now understand it, in order to embrace an idea of self-acceptance and relationship quite different from the traditional ideal of self-transcendence and attainment perpetuated by the quest. Atwood's vision is not "duplicitous" so much as it is double.
Like Circe, she envisions two possibilities, and she sees that, at least for the moment, "they do not exclude each other." In the first, the quest myth is simply changed from within so that the silent participants have their opportunity to "be right." In the second, the image of the journey itself is transformed, so that it becomes admirable to go through experience without going forward or getting anywhere. It is an image of movement "in place." The challenge of this kind of "journey" is simply to "Be Alive." Eventually, the antinomy between self and other that informed the quest will appear quite different, as it does in a later poem:
We do not walk on the earth but in it, wading in that acid sea where flesh is etched from molten bone and re-forms. In this massive tide warm as liquid sun, all waves are one wave; there is no other.
Atwood's mythic sequence stands in a pivotal position in her work, looking back to the "power politics" of earlier volumes and ahead to her developing sense of fruitful relationship among forms of life she does not regard as totally separate from each other. Thus her title "Circe/Mud Poems," cuts both ways. On the one hand, it protests the vision of woman which reduces her to her sexuality and materiality without recognizing her consciousness. On the other hand, from that same woman's consciousness comes a vision of the satisfaction of material reality. Perhaps Atwood will be the "poet of earth" that Wallace Stevens wanted to be, to match the poets of heaven and hell of the great tradition. As she says,
So much for the gods and their static demands, our demands, former demands … History is over, we take place in a season, an undivided space, no necessities hold us closed, distort us.
Change is possible—even at the roots of our lives, in the myths that govern our experience.
Banerjee, Chinmoy. "Atwood's Time: Hiding Art in Cat's Eye." Modern Fiction Studies 36, No. 4 (Winter 1990): 513-22.
Discusses the various narrative voices Atwood uses in Cat's Eye.
Bayley, John. "Dry Eyes." London Review of Books 13, No. 23 (5 December 1991): 20.
Compares the stories in Atwood's Wilderness Tips favorably to the works of Nadine Gordimer and Elizabeth Bowen.
Beaver, Harold. Review of Selected Poems II: Poems Selected and New, 1976–1986, by Margaret Atwood. The New York Times Book Review (3 April 1988): 12.
Praises Atwood's insights into women's issues in Selected Poems II.
Berne, Suzanne. "Watch Your Back." Belles Lettres 7, No. 1 (Fall 1991): 43.
Positive review of Wilderness Tips noting Atwood's "wry [and] disdainful" authorial voice.
Birch, Dinah. "Post Feminism." The London Review of Books II, No. 2 (19 January 1989): 3, 5.
Explores Atwood's Cat's Eye and Interlunar as expressions of the author's "personal postfeminism" and praises Atwood's insights about the nature of suffering.
Givner, Jessie. "Mirror Images in Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle." Studies in Canadian Literature 14, No. 1 (1989): 139-46.
Analyzes Atwood's displacement of conventional literary imagery in Lady Oracle.
――――――. "Names, Faces, and Signatures in Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye and The Handmaid's Tale." Canadian Literature, No. 133 (Summer 1992): 56-75.
Discusses Atwood's use of autobiographical elements in the two novels.
Greene, Gayle. "Survival Strategies." The Women's Review of Books IX, No. 4 (January 1992): 6-7.
Praises Wilderness Tips for combining "the power of [Atwood's] fiction with the complexity of her poetry."
Keefe, Joan Trodden. Review of Selected Poems II: Poems Selected and New, 1976–1986, by Margaret Atwood. World Literature Today 63, No. 1 (Winter 1989): 103-04.
Praises Selected Poems II and calls attention to the literary significance of Atwood's career.
Makay, Shena. "The Painter's Revenges." The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4479 (3 February 1989): 113.
Applauds Atwood's fidelity to childhood experience in Cat's Eye and calls the book "probably Atwood's finest novel to date."
Miner, Madonne. "'Trust Me': Reading the Romance Plot in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale." Twentieth Century Literature 37, No. 2 (Summer 1991): 148-68.
Examines Atwood's treatment of heterosexual love in The Handmaid's Tale.
Norfolk, Lawrence W. "Do They Travel?" The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4507 (24 August 1989): 903.
Praises Interlunar and analyzes Atwood's use of dark and light imagery.
St. Andrews, B. A. "Requiem for an Age." Belles Lettres 5, No. 3 (Spring 1990): 9.
Calls Atwood "a master at distilling essences and delineating profiles of our age" and praises Cat's Eye as "a massive and moving novel."
Thurman, Judith. "Books: When You Wish Upon a Star." The New Yorker LXV, No. 15 (29 May 1989): 108-10.
Finds Atwood's depiction of childhood in Cat's Eye to be truthful and compelling, but objects to the "bullying" tone of the book's prose.
Towers, Robert. "Mystery Women." The New York Review of Books XXXVI, No. 7 (27 April 1989): 50-2.
Praises Atwood's attention to detail in Cat's Eye.
SOURCE: "Dying Falls," in London Review of Books, Vol. 9, No. 14, July 23, 1987, pp. 24, 26.
[In the following excerpt, Lanchester provides a mixed assessment of the short story collection Bluebeard's Egg.]
[The endings of Margaret Atwood's fiction] tend to leave things slightly in the air, and to present themselves to the reader for interpretation. The dystopian fantasy of The Handmaid's Tale was followed by a framing fiction—of the kind that is more usually put in front of a narrative—which pretended that what we had just read had been the material presented at an academic conference, centuries after the events depicted. The academic ended with a question: 'Are there any questions?' Many of the stories in Bluebeard's Egg implicitly ask the same thing.
The material treated in Bluebeard's Egg is largely conventional, consisting as it does of relationships of one kind or another (parents in the stories which begin and end the collection, elsewhere first boyfriends, ex-lovers, new husbands: the usual). Her narrators are constantly interpreting themselves, their pasts and their relationships—a business that often goes on ruefully and after-the-event. The ideas behind this interest in the act of interpretation have been around for a little while now, and Atwood's focus on the subject is not flame-belchingly original. But the subject is an important one for her for reasons which can be discerned from little asides in the stories. When a boy gives an identification bracelet to his girlfriend, he misnames it an 'identity bracelet': she ponders a possible reason for the error, and then says: 'Another interpretation has since become possible.' The remark is more of a clue to her concerns than the interpretation which follows it: it gives us a sense of the way feminism has empowered Atwood to take familiar material and scrutinise it from a new perspective. The point about 'Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother', the first story, is that not so long ago, or to another writer, the moments would not have seemed to signify anything at all. Perhaps it is her Canadianness—the fact of coming from a country where you can say 'Yes, I am a liberal' without feeling ridiculous—which helps her to retain that combination of feminist ideas with an essentially traditional aesthetic which is one of her great strengths. 'If writing novels—and reading them—have any redeeming social value it's probably that they force you to imagine what it's like to be somebody else.' George Eliot might have said the same.
A flexible and thought-out moral and critical position is rare enough: Atwood is also a talented writer. She has a particular gift for aperçus which combine sympathy (for the character), insight (into the character) and a wry, ironic humour (which is often a matter of catching the reader's eye behind the character's back). She is very good at all varieties of rationalisation and minor deceit. Loulou, a sculptor, lives with a whole collective of male poets—very bad poets, too, we soon gather, though are never directly told. The poets use their more developed vocabularies to tease and bully her: when they call her 'marmoreal' she looks it up in the dictionary 'to find out whether she'd been insulted'. (The story's full title is 'Loulou; or, The Domestic Life of the Language'.) After sleeping with one of the poets for the first time, she had cleaned up his definitively squalid room for him. 'Bob looked on, sullen but appreciative, as she hurled and scoured. Possibly this was why he decided to love her: because she would do this kind of thing. What he said though was, "You complete me.'"
Moments like that provide much of the pleasure of Bluebeard's Egg; that kind of insight, and that kind of comedy, come very easily to Atwood. Perhaps too easily. There are times when it seems that characters are being described and events are being evoked rather mechanically, through a few carefully-chosen details and a well-modulated irony or two-giving a feeling that things are being made to happen in order to give the ironic tone of voice a work-out. In 'Scarlet Ibis', for instance, a character wheeled on to provide local colour on page 187 ('a trim grey haired woman in a tailored pink summer suit that must have been far too hot') changes her hair colour by her next appearance, two pages and about five minutes of narrative time later ('Christine talked with the pink-suited woman, who had blonde hair elegantly done up in a French roll. She was from Vienna …'). It's not a disastrous lapse, but for me it crystallised an unease with the way that what goes on in the stories sometimes comes to seem a consequence of the kind of narratorial voice Atwood has decided in advance to employ.
The title story shows her at her best. Sally is in love with Ed 'because of his stupidity, his monumental and almost energetic stupidity'; he is a heart doctor, 'and the irony of this is not lost on Sally: who could know less about hearts, the kind symbolised by red satin surrounded by lace and topped by pink bows, than Ed.' In plot terms, very little happens. We meet Sally as she stands looking out the kitchen window at Ed: their marriage is described (it's his third); we see that Sally, though brighter than her husband, is not as bright as she thinks she is; we watch the progress of the dinner party Sally was preparing (as in a lot of the stories, the background is filled in while the main character is performing a domestic chore). After the dinner party she walks into her study and sees Ed with his hand on her best friend's bum. Everyone acts as though nothing has happened.
While this has been going on, Atwood has been exploring Sally's attempts to understand Ed, whose wall-like stupidity makes him very enigmatic. Sally has been attending a night class in 'Forms of Narrative Fiction', in which the set text is an old version of the Bluebeard story: the class has been told to write the story from the point of view of any one character. Sally is inside a version of the Bluebeard story herself, of course, though she cannot realise it: the incidental ironies of the narrative all serve this larger structural irony. There is an unsummarisable richness about the thirty-page 'Bluebeard's Egg'. Many of Atwood's concerns are present in it, vividly dramatised: her interest in adapting and co-opting genre; relationships between women; the nuances of modern marriages and remarriages; the nature of female experience; what men are like. The climax of the story—as well as being thematically important (it presents Sally with a crisis of interpretation) and funny (in an adult and uncomfortable way)—is a moment of pure, dreamlike awfulness for the heroine, who is seeing happen what is for her the worst possible thing. The personal, for Atwood, is political—but it is personal too. Enjoyable though most of this collection is, 'Bluebeard's Egg' gives the reader a sense that Atwood has available a whole extra set of gears.
SOURCE: "Formal Allegiances: Selected Poems × 6," in The Kenyon Review, n.s. Vol. X, No. 3, Summer, 1988, pp. 127-46.
[In the excerpt below, Smith offers a mixed review of Atwood's Selected Poems II.]
Among American readers Margaret Atwood is Canadian literature. She has published a book annually for more than two decades, deploying a strong historical consciousness, a rich narrative imagination, and a willingness to use formal literary expression to confront whatever wrongs human dignity and freedom. Her accomplishments have been manifest in best-selling fiction, in literary criticism (the often cited Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature suggests her range), and in ten books of poetry beginning with The Circle Game in 1966. Many readers consider her foremost a poet. The simultaneous republication of her 1978 volume Selected Poems 1965–1975 with her 1987 Selected Poems II: Poems Selected and New 1976–1986 may do more than confuse readers with over-lapping titles. It may raise questions about how often Margaret Atwood has written successful poetry.
An Atwood poem is an intense sermonic in shortish, spare lines that whip domestic dramas and wilderness imagery down the page. Deliberately unliterary, its righteousness puts a finger in the middle of your chest. The results are predictable: a mixture of exhilaration, irritation, and boredom. A style meant to simulate no-bullshit veracity, this language has studied biology, current affairs, and recent movies. Even the belligerent tone of "A Woman's Issue" asserts blunt authenticity: "You'll notice that what they have in common / is between the legs."
Political or issue-centered poetry claims us by shock or argument, while most other poetry works through accumulation of specific image or the clear tug of narrative. Atwood's poems often slacken anecdotally or slide into mission chatter, oddly both the curse of the poetry-writing fictioneer and Emily Dickinson, mechanical lineation being a grid, not form. It's actually a pseudo-poem as in "The Words Continue Their Journey":
Do poets really suffer more than other people? Isn't it only that they get their pictures taken and are seen to do it? The loony bins are full of those who never wrote a poem. Most suicides are not poets: a good statistic.
Margaret Atwood's imagination, which sees the world as plastic, is metaphoric and metamorphic. She is extraordinarily receptive to places and moments resonant with apocalyptic significance, and is equally willing to render words stiffened by moral indignation. As she says, "my passive eyes transmute / everything I look at to the pocked / black and white of a war photo." For Atwood the poem frees the muted voice; it's poetry as liberation, as therapeutic function. Can art make anything happen?
Atwood suggests poetry is the happening, its language the public psychiatric process of exposure, rehearsal, correction. Metaphor (poetry = sight / sight = metamorphosis) is enactment. Her preferred form is the lyrical monologue, sincerity and diagnosis at once. It's good form for fiction, but why is the following poetry, if it is?
:moles dream of darkness and delicate mole smells frogs dream of green and golden frogs sparkling like wet suns among the lilies"Dreams of the Animals"
Merely personal, perhaps trivial, this world is a papiermâché background. Such writing trots along in the self-absorption of idealism that strains credulity with childish personification, melodramatic effects, and the gimmicks of standup persuaders. Banality replaces profundity:
though we knew we had never been there before we knew we had been there before."A Morning"
Atwood's discomfort with the demands and resources of lyric form encouraged her to employ her strengths: fictional coherence, dramatic immediacy, the arresting strangeness and authority of tale. In Procedures for Underground (1970) she echoed the mythic journey of psychoanalysis (and Dostoyevski) which leads to spiritual rebirth. With Power Politics (1971) she dramatized sexual struggles and revelations. Both books searched for large, coherent form in theme. In 1976, with The Journals of Susanna Moodie she joined in a segmented long poem a witnessing character, story, and historical veracity to testify to "Those who went ahead / of us in the forest" and thereby evoked the archetypal society and memory which is poetry's trade. Fiction gave her a form of coherence she had been unable to achieve with lyric.
From The Journals of Susanna Moodie Atwood moved to poems in sequences of numbered sections or signaling repetitions of place, subject, or title. What might be called "sequentialing form" dominated Two-Headed Poems (1978) and Interlunar (1981), but Atwood also encountered some old troubles, as evidenced in a stanza about pain and poetry:
This is the place you would rather not know about, this is the place that will inhabit you, this is the place you cannot imagine, this is the place that will finally defeat you where the word why shrivels and empties itself. This is famine. "Notes towards a Poem That Can Never Be Written"
This is less poetry than merely evasive language. Nothing offered necessarily defines famine any more than it defines Cleveland.
But with rare energy and an acute eye, Atwood has created passages remarkable for density of particulars and rhythmic prowess. Her preacherly imagination is also pastoral: she celebrates unspoiled worlds, landscapes which now mirror the fouled human enterprise. Her view in "A Sunday Drive" reveals "a beach reeking of shit" and a "maze / of condemned flesh without beginning or end." As priestess of the revolutionary spirit, she makes arrowed accusations of poems. While her animistic identity with wild creatures may verge on comic book simplemindedness, as does Ted Hughes's, her wolves, crabs, and vultures leap from inert words to real beasts. Even in "Mushrooms" there is the powerful acknowledgment of lives utterly apart from and yet ancestral to one's own: "They taste / of rotten meat or cloves / or cooking steak bruised / lips or new snow." And in "Marsh, Hawk" the inward echoing of the scene provides the lyric form her passion has needed:
Diseased or unwanted trees, cut into pieces, thrown away here, damp and soft in the run, rotting and half covered with sand, burst truck tires, abandoned, bottles and cans hit with rocks or bullets, a mass grave, someone made it, spreads on the land like a bruise and we stand on it, vantage point, looking out over the marsh.
Atwood's particulars compose a landscape-medallion of ultimate knowledge, while controlled cadence and perspective establish emotional congruity. The voice "feels" with the eye from object to object—as the body would move, with cumulative jarrings—drawing us into the metaphor rather than pressing its grid upon us. Poetry is discovered and released, not commanded. A life of sores—seen instead of explained—leads not to strident opinion but to record and conviction, the voice of human will.
Although certain permutations of form are obvious in Atwood's two selecteds, she remains the same poet early and late. She is a naturalist, a traveler, but a woman ill-suited to the urban world. One finds little humor, less joy in her. Surprisingly, her best poems concern love: tenderness for ancestors, yearning for individual belonging, erotic gratification. To Atwood love defines us all: "those who think they have love / and those who think they are without it." In the fifteen new poems in Selected Poems II, Atwood, now a year shy of her fiftieth birthday, seems to try to work beyond characteristic anger, bitter portraits of harmed women, and blunt-tongued raking of those less pure-hearted than herself. She seeks "Some form of cheering. / There is pain but no arrival at anything." Still, she shows greater tolerance, an understanding, is occasionally bemused. Among all that takes the edge off revolutionary fervor, nothing beats age. Atwood's poems, now tighter, are not serene, but they approach the grace of love through understanding. Maybe she speaks for us all—a little—in a parable of maturing:
Amazingly young beautiful women poets with a lot of hair falling down around their faces like a bad ballet, their eyes oblique over their cheekbones; they write poems like blood in a dead person that comes out black, or at least deep purple, like smashed grapes. Perhaps I was one of them once. Too late to remember the details, the veils. If I were a man I would want to console them, and would not succeed."Aging Female Reads Little Magazines"
SOURCE: "Odd Woman Out," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. VI, Nos. 10-11, July 1989, pp. 3-4.
[Yglesias is an American-born educator and novelist whose works include How She Died (1972), Family Feeling (1976), and Sweetsir (1981). In the following review, Yglesias praises Atwood's style and commitment to issues, but finds the novel Cat's Eye an uneven work.]
The successful publication of The Handmaid's Tale transformed the distinguished Canadian poet and prose writer Margaret Atwood into a world-class, internationally acclaimed, best-selling writer—to use some of publishing's most favored phrases. Her next novel, Cat's Eye, inevitably became an occasion for critics to weigh and measure this current work against the brilliant evocation of a repressively anti-woman dystopia depicted in The Handmaid's Tale. Those looking for a falling off found it. Though Cat's Eye has been sufficiently well-marketed and praised, placing Atwood once again on the best-seller list, reviewers have also expressed disappointment. (Sharon Thompson in the Village Voice, Vivian Gornick in New York Woman are only two examples.)
Why this carping? Atwood's oeuvre is astonishingly varied, copious and good. Beginning publication in 1961 with a book of poems, she continued with other works of poetry, a solid body of short fiction, and seven novels, including the stunning Surfacing. She has written children's books and collections of prose criticism and theory, so rich an outpouring in fact that the usual rumblings have been voiced, the uneasiness that often greets prolific "serious" writers. (Joyce Carol Oates is a prime target for this specious concern of critics.) There is no such thing as too much good and important writing, and Atwood's work is certainly good and important; but there is room, within the rejoicing over her accomplishment, to inquire into the force and future direction of her output. Where are Atwood the writer, and her creation. The Atwood Woman, going?
Not directly in response to this question, but to a related one, the title poem of a 1985 collection, True Stories, reins the reader in. Atwood writes:
Don't ask for the true story; Why do you need it? It's not what I set out with or what I carry. What I'm sailing with, a knife, blue fire, luck, a few good words that still work, and the tide.
But in Cat's Eye it is Atwood herself who is in desperate quest for "the true story" of a childhood experience which has eluded her until now in her fiction. If she has at long last reworked this material to her own satisfaction, she fumbles in passing on gratification to her readers.
The power to pleasure the reader, to gratify, is perhaps the single most important gift a writer possesses, not teachable in creative writing courses, not to be enforced in fact by any of the devices in the critic's arsenal and, conceivably, useless to talk about. If it's a case of the writer either having it, what is left to analyze beyond the harsh sentence of an absence of gift? The overwhelming love the great heroines of literature have called up from readers, those girls and women who step off the page into one's own life and consciousness, imparting an almost physical quality of identification and hope, seems to be, if not entirely lost to contemporary literature, then so diminished as to be effectively gone. It doesn't even seem proper for the reader to request a passionate response any more.
Post-Modernism (a term I use reluctantly as a shortcut definition of a pervasive type of contemporary novel) scoffs at such yearnings, finding them repulsively nostalgic. Understandably, since Romanticism has had its day and its say, and didn't do all that much for us anyway. But must the reader give up altogether the emotional release of gratification? Are dreariness, misery and failure, and the negative joys of satire, the substitutes we must accept as part of the modernist resolve to move beyond romantic realism?
The current Atwood Woman, Elaine Risley, is an accomplished artist who returns to Toronto, where she mostly grew up, to attend a retrospective of her work, heralded by the women's movement. Like Atwood herself, she is nearing 50, and the occasion becomes a memory trip in which her tormented girlhood is relived in the kind of detail Atwood can shape so obsessively. But there is an uneasiness in Atwood's handling of this experience, an uncertainty of direction and, yes, meaning—though, again, in modernist terms stories are not supposed to "mean," or at least no more or less than whatever they may happen to signify to individual readers. But Atwood isn't that kind of writer, or critic either. She means to "mean" something specific when she writes, no matter the disclaimers she supplies at the front of the book. But in Cat's Eye her purpose is opaquely veiled.
Much of the matter of Cat's Eye, as well as its themes (to borrow an Atwood word from her quite brilliant 1972 survey of Canadian literature, Survival: A Thematic Guide), will be recognized from earlier Atwood fictions: the unconventional parents, the challenge of the natural world, the thin quality of men-women relationships, the suppressed horror of the heroine's inner life, and the excitement and nourishment of creativity, in art and in science. And here, once again, she gives us the ultimate outsider as nail-biting third-world person, a mirror-image of her heroine, echoing the disquieting parallels she has found before between that displaced condition and the heroine's precarious sense of herself in a middle-class corner of a colonized country.
Mr. Banerji is a guest at Christmas dinner,
a student of my father's a young man from India who's here to study insects and who has never seen snow before. He's polite and ill at ease and he giggles frequently, looking with what I sense is terror at the array of food spread out before him, the mashed potatoes, the gravy, the lurid green and red Jell-O salad, the enormous turkey … I know he's miserable underneath his smiles and politeness … His spindly wrists extend from his over-large cuffs, his hands are long and thin, ragged around the nails like mine. I think he is very beautiful, with his brown skin and brilliant white teeth and his dark, appalled eyes … I can hardly believe he's a man, he seems so unlike one. He's a creature more like myself: alien and apprehensive. He's afraid of us. He has no idea what we will do next, what impossibilities we will expect of him, what we will make him eat. No wonder he bites his fingers.
We have met this creature before in Atwood fictions, most notably in the masterly short story, "The Man From Mars," from Dancing Girls, where too-large, unattractive Christine, "statuesque her mother called it when she was straining," is relentlessly pursued by "a person from another culture" because she has been kind to him in a perfunctory fashion, giving him directions to a particular location on campus. He is so small, she mistakes him for a child at first; then she notes his thinning hair and the aging lines on his face. The threaded edges of his jacket sleeves hang down over his thin wrists, his nails and the ends of his fingers are so badly bitten "they seemed almost deformed." His insanely fixed obsession with Christine makes her a laughing-stock. He ends up arrested and deported, and Christine remains an odd-woman-out for the rest of her life.
Atwood's persons "from another culture," dual images for her heroines (in Cat's Eye Elaine not only bites her nails and her fingers, she peels the skin of her feet every night until she is barely able to walk), also add complex values to her fiction, deepening the narrow, mean-spirited, middle-class dreariness of her milieus with a more painfully sharp social reality, just as the neat, swiftly executed satirical scenes at which she excels supply a deliciously nasty refreshment.
The core of Cat's Eye, the terrors and heartbreak of the realm of "girls" and "best-friends," has already been explored in Murder in the Dark and especially in Lady Oracle, where the anguish of the innocent youngster victimized by her best-friends is similarly played out, down to the symbolic locale of the sexually threatening ravine, the shaky bridge to safety, and the fall from grace, though without the mesmerizing effect Atwood produces in Cat's Eye.
That Atwood can mesmerize to some purpose was amply proven by The Handmaid's Tale. There her strengths and weaknesses came together to produce a classic, and the narrow path of her vision worked perfectly for a story in which every detail was controlled by the artists's imagination. But Cat's Eye is about life here and now, the life we all know, the life we live and question daily, not a construct totally bent to the author's will, and it is subject therefore to a set of different reader demands: a stacking up of the work's achievement not only against the author's intent, but against our own concept of what's what in the world.
What Atwood seems to be grappling with in Cat's Eye is a fundamental ambivalence about women, which many women share and should not be dismissed out of hand as simple-minded. It is the first, basic disfigurement of the oppressed: being taught, and learning well, to hate oneself. From her first novel, The Edible Woman. Atwood has mapped the syndrome eloquently. Among her women coworkers at an office party, this Atwood Woman reflects:
She examined the women's bodies with interest, critically, as though she had never seen them before … she could see the roll of fat pushed up across Mrs. Gundridge's back by the top of her corset, the ham-like bulge of thigh, the creases around the neck, the large porous cheeks; the blotch of varicose veins glimpsed at the back of one plump crossed leg, the way her jowls jellied when she chewed, her sweater a wooly tea cosy over those rounded shoulders; and the others too, similar in structure but with varying proportions and textures of bumpy permanents and dune-like contours of breast and waist and hip … What peculiar creatures they were … and the continual flux between the outside and the inside, taking things in, giving them out, chewing, words, potato chips, burps, grease, hair, babies, milk, excrement, cookies, vomit, coffee … blood, tea, sweat, liquor, tears and garbage … she was one of them, her body the same, identical, merged with that other flesh that choked the air in the flowered room with its sweet organic scent; she felt suffocated by this thick sargasso-sea of femininity … she wanted something solid, clear: a man; she wanted Peter in the room so that she could put her hand out and hold on to him to keep from being sucked down.
There are similar passages in all Atwood's novels.
In Cat's Eye, ambivalence lives at the center of the story. Elaine Risley is pulled towards the rich intellectual and scientific interests of her father, and particularly of her brilliant brother. At the same time, she worries that she is failing at being one of the boys, and longs for the mysteries of best-friends, the unknown world of girls. The vagaries of attitude of her unconventional mother leave her prey to the stupid and cruelly distorting conventions of the middle-class mothers and girls of the neighborhood in Toronto in which her odd family settles down after the Second World War. Torn, and ignorant of feminine lore, she tries to make her way.
Boys are easier in some ways, but girls and their exotic concerns are irresistible. She dissects frogs with aplomb, but the complexities of sweater-sets, girdles, perms, Church-going and Sunday School are unattainable however hard she strives. She never measures up. Among the group of best-friends into which she is initiated, Elaine is chosen as victim to be mocked, teased, mistreated and tortured to the point of real harm. She is buried at one point, and left to freeze or possibly be raped at another. As she grows into adolescence, she finds her relationships with boys "effortless … It's girls I feel awkward with. It's girls I feel I have to defend myself against; not boys."
And well she might. Apart from her mother, the women in Elaine Risley's girlhood are very nasty indeed. Cordelia, the particular best-friend who leads the pack in torturing Elaine, seems to be utterly without redeeming characteristics, yet Elaine remains obsessed with her even into her own maturity and success as an artist, though Cordelia has achieved nothing in contrast, and is last seen confined to a mental institution. It isn't Cordelia who is the subject of Elaine's paintings, however, but the mother of one of the other best-friends, a woman who devoted herself to remolding Elaine into a proper, Church-going, right-thinking, middle-class female—and failed. In the paintings so praised by the women's movement, Elaine exacts the ultimate revenge and Mrs. Smeath is rendered in canvas after canvas as the damaging, monstrous creature she had been to the young girl.
But the women's movement is no haven. Here too ambivalence flourishes. Elaine is between husbands, a single mother, and a beginning artist when she becomes reluctantly involved in a support group:
Confession is popular, not of your flaws but of your sufferings at the hands of men. Pain is important, but only certain kinds of it: the pain of women, but not the pain of men. Telling about your pain is called sharing. I don't want to share in this way; also I am insufficient in scars. I have lived a privileged life, I've never been beaten up, raped, gone hungry … A number of these women are lesbians … according to some, it's the only equal relationship possible, for women. You are not genuine otherwise … I am ashamed of my own reluctance … but I would be terrified to get into bed with a woman. Women collect grievances, hold grudges and change shape. They pass hard, legitimate judgments, unlike the purblind guesses of men, fogged with romanticism and ignorance and bias and wish. Women know too much, they can neither be deceived nor trusted. I can understand why men are afraid of them, as they are frequently accused of being … I avoid gatherings of these women, walking as I do in fear of being sanctified, or else burned at the stake. I think they are talking about me behind my back … They want to improve me. At times I feel defiant … I am not Woman, and I'm damned if I'll be shoved into it. Bitch, I think silently. Don't boss me around … But also I envy their conviction, their optimism, their carelessness, their fearlessness about men, their camaraderie. I am like someone watching from the sidelines, waving a cowardly handkerchief, as the troops go boyishly off to war, singing brave songs.
The most mystifying event in the book is the scene in which Elaine is deserted by her best-friends and left to freeze in the snow at the bottom of a ravine. Rescue comes in the shape of a vision of the Virgin, though it is the down-to-earth concern of her mother that truly leads Elaine to warmth and safety. Oddly, too, in winding up the threads of this long book, Elaine's beloved brother Stephen is killed off suddenly, without a design intrinsic to the book's intent, or at least to the reader's understanding. On a journey to Frankfurt to present a scientific paper "on the subject of the probable composition of the universe," his plane is hijacked, and he is singled out by the terrorists and killed. This act of cruelty summarily ejects the reader from the world of the book, in a state of shock and blame for its senselessness. There is something so wayward and arbitrary in this killing that one's primary emotion is rage at the author: You killed him and I don't know why and I don't think you do either.
On the final page, in what was for me a failed attempt to sum up and resolve the book's concerns, Elaine is herself on a plane, returning home from her memory trip. In the two seats beside her are
two old ladies, old women, each with a knitted cardigan, each with yellow-white hair and thick-lensed glasses with a chain for around the neck, each with a desiccated mouth lipsticked bright red with bravado … They have saved up for this trip and they are damn well going to enjoy it, despite the arthritis of one, the swollen legs of the other. They're rambunctious, they're full of beans; they're tough as thirteen, they're innocent and dirty, they don't give a hoot. Responsibilities have fallen away from them, obligations, old hates and grievances; now for a short time they can play again like children, but this time without the pain … This is what I miss, Cordelia: not something that's gone but something that will never happen. Two old women giggling over their tea.
Stubbornly, these happenings fail to coalesce or to peak. Does the death of Stephen signify anything? Is it divine punishment for being male? (Women and children are allowed to leave the plane.) Does the vision of the Virgin? Woman as a force for good? That notion takes some straining. "Two old women giggling over their tea"—a (condescending) image for the strengthening joys of long-lasting friendships between women. Perhaps Atwood is straining out the essence of her ambivalence, locating the pure liquid of her passionate negation of traditional femininity, seeking its source so as to choke it off; or perhaps she is struggling through to an open acknowledgement and embrace of sisterhood, down to its most repellent characteristics.
A novel is like a single breaking ocean wave, its waters gathered from far-away coasts, diverted by channels and chance winds, yet moving inexorably towards a crashing silvery moment that peaks and breaks on a designated shore. Cat's Eye gathers its many streams, sends them flowing forward in wash after wash of rich detail and observation, but disappointingly no wave forms. Fizzling, it disperses its brilliant waters ineffectually, allowing them to be sucked back into the general stream. But water is one of Margaret Atwood's powerful elements, and there is no doubt that her extraordinary gifts will keep her and her readers sailing.
SOURCE: "Comic Storytelling as Escape and Narcissistic Self-Expression in Atwood's Lady Oracle," in his The Empathic Reader: A Study of the Narcissistic Character and the Drama of the Self, The University of Massachusetts Press, 1989, pp. 154-168.
[In the following excerpt, Bouson explores the psychology of the protagonist in Lady Oracle.]
Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle has tantalized, amused, and baffled critics who are fascinated with its duplicitous, protean narrator-heroine. "The task of fitting the pieces of the puzzle together, the puzzle of Joan Foster," writes one critic, "is left to the reader." As Joan narrates the story of her life and exposes her narcissistic anxieties, hurts, and rage, she is undeniably funny. But even while we laugh at her comic descriptions of her mother-dominated childhood, her childhood obesity, her recurring fat lady fantasies, and her troubled relationships with men, we are aware that her comedic voice "covers a prolonged scream of pain." Like the opera singer, Joan wants to "stand up there in front of everyone and shriek as loud" as possible "about hatred and love and rage and despair," to "scream at the top" of her lungs "and have it come out music." The kind of storyteller we've encountered before, Joan wants to seduce her listeners, compel their attention. Creating a character who amuses and disarms, keeping reader attention riveted on Joan, Atwood enjoins us to become accomplices, an appreciative audience for Joan's secret but nevertheless exhibitionistic exploits. Urging us into a pact with her storyteller-heroine, Atwood takes us into a comic version of a world we've come to know well … the solipsistic, hall-of-mirrors world of the narcissistic character.
A text replete with messages and clues for the psychoanalytic inquirer, Lady Oracle focuses attention on a troubled mother-daughter relationship. The preestablished plot Joan acts out finds its source in her mother-controlled and tormented childhood, a world in which the "huge but ill-defined figure" of her mother blocks "the foreground" while her father is essentially an "absence." An autobiographer, Joan tells the story of her childhood in an attempt to understand and thus master her memories of the corrosive emotional hurts of her past and also to verbally retaliate against her mother. Cast in the role of sympathetic listener, the reader is encouraged to take Joan's side in the mother-daughter conflict. Part of the text's agenda is to use comic accusation to expose and undercut the lethal powers of the unempathic, and hence dangerous, mother figure.
Her mother is "the manager, the creator, the agent," and she "the product," says Joan as she reconstructs her childhood relationship with her mother. Motherly "concern" in Joan's childhood is equated with "pain," her mother's anger barely camouflaged by her public pose as the concerned mother. "On her hands, in her hair," these are the metaphors Joan's mother uses to describe her, even though she "seldom" touches her. Unconsciously, her mother conspires to deny Joan's healthy childhood assertiveness and curtail her development of feelings of self-worth and authenticity. She wants Joan to "change into someone else," continually berates and finds fault with her, and always tries to teach her "some lesson or other." When Joan becomes an overweight child, she becomes a "reproach" of her mother, the "embodiment" of her mother's "failure and depression, a huge edgeless cloud of inchoate matter which refused to be shaped into anything" for which her mother "could get a prize." Joan's dreams depict her childhood anxieties about her self-absorbed, non-responsive, and angry mother. In one dream, she envisions herself struggling on a collapsing bridge; as she falls into a ravine, her nearby mother remains oblivious of the fact that "anything unusual" is happening. In another dream, Joan's memory of her mother putting on make-up in front of her three-sided mirror surfaces as a nightmare in which her mother metamorphoses into a three-headed monster and only Joan is aware of her "secret" monstrousness. And in her most terrifying dream, Joan, overhearing voices talking about her and realizing that "something very bad" is about to happen, feels utterly "helpless." The persecutory fears that Joan fictionalizes in her Gothic novels and that plague her as an adult in her dreams and real life—like her Gothic heroines, she feels vulnerable, exposed, haunted and hunted down by malevolent, spectral pursuers—find their source in her crippling childhood encounters with her mother. With her childhood contemporaries, her companion Brownies who take special delight in persecuting her since she makes such a good victim and cries so readily, she repeats her troubled relationship with her mother. Later, when she meets Marlene, one of her childhood tormentors, these painful memories erupt. "Like a virus meeting an exhausted throat, my dormant past burst into rank life…. I was trapped again in the nightmare of my childhood, where I ran eternally after the others, the oblivious or scornful ones, hands outstretched, begging for a word of praise." What Joan attempts to elicit from others is the confirming attention she never received in childhood. Like Atwood, who plays the "good mother" to Joan by making her the focal point of attention, the reader is encouraged to enact the "good mother" role by becoming an appreciative audience for Joan's comic misadventures. Divulging to us her character's needs and hurts, positioning us as confidants, Atwood invites our active listening and empathic interest.
Joan's early pursuit of audience recognition is dramatized in her childhood experiences as an overweight, would-be ballet dancer. Exposing herself to control her fear of exposure, laughing at herself to disarm those who would laugh at her, Joan describes her childhood fascination with ballet dancers. "I idealized ballet dancers …," she recalls, "and I used to press my short piggy nose up against jewelry store windows and goggle at the china music-box figurines of shiny ladies in brittle pink skirts, with roses on their hard ceramic heads, and imagine myself leaping through the air … my hair full of rhinestones and glittering like hope." Enrolled in Miss Flegg's dancing school, Joan eagerly awaits the recital performance of the "Butterfly Frolic," which is her "favorite" dance and which features her favorite costume: a short pink skirt, a head-piece with insect antennae, and a pair of cellophane wings. In her outfit, as she later reconstructs this incident, she looks "grotesque": "with my jiggly thighs and the bulges of fat where breasts would later be and my plump upper arms and floppy waist, I must have looked obscene, senile almost, indecent…." Provoked to laugh as Joan makes wisecrack after wisecrack about her weight, Atwood forces us to confront, even as we laugh at Joan's jokes about her obesity, our own—and the text's—latent cruelty.
After her embarrassed mother betrays her to Miss Flegg, Joan is given a new role in the dance: that of a mothball. Joan's "humiliation [is] disguised as a privilege," for Miss Flegg tells her it is a special part that she has been selected to dance. "There were no steps to my dance, as I hadn't been taught any, so I made it up as I went along…. I threw myself into the part, it was a dance of rage and destruction, tears rolled down my cheeks behind the fur, the butterflies would die…. 'This isn't me,' I kept saying to myself, 'they're making me do it'; yet even though I was concealed in the teddy-bear suit … I felt naked and exposed, as if this ridiculous dance was the truth about me and everyone could see it." Though thwarted in her desire to have wings, she does provoke both laughter and vigorous applause. Left alone, center stage, she is a special person, a grotesque clown.
At the time, she is filled with "rage, helplessness and [a] sense of betrayal," but she gradually comes to view this episode as "preposterous," most particularly when she thinks about telling others about it. "Instead of denouncing my mother's injustice, they would probably laugh at me. It's hard to feel undiluted sympathy for an overweight seven-year-old stuffed into a mothball suit and forced to dance; the image is simply too ludicrous." While we are invited to laugh at this episode, we also are meant to feel sorry for Joan and disapprove of her mother's unempathic behavior. As one critic observes, "Joan swings back and forth between self-pity and self-mockery. She thinks of herself as a victim and the 'pity the unwanted child' tone is very strong, but she also sees and shows herself to be ridiculous as well as pathetic." Despite Joan's comic dismissal, this incident causes a deep narcissistic wound. It later resurfaces in her recurring fat lady fantasy and gives birth to her identity as the escape artist who fears exposure and thus compulsively assumes a series of identities, each identity becoming a new trap. And here we find the precursor of the writer who achieves narcissistic revenge via her art and the comedian who later learns how to disarmingly throw the cloak of humor over her rage to win the approval of others. This also points to one of the defensive strategies of the narrative: the use of humor to partially contain and diffuse the explosive anger that threatens to erupt from just beneath the surface of the text. "All that screaming with your mouth closed," Joan says, her depiction of an Italian fotoromanzo an apt depiction of her own inner life.
As Joan battles her hostile and intrusive mother during adolescence, she transforms herself into a grotesque monster. Insistently, the text draws attention to Joan's defective body. A physical statement, Joan's obesity is a visible signifier of her thwarted and angry grandiosity, her inner defectiveness and hollowness, and her introjection of her mother's monstrousness. "Eat, eat, that's all you ever do," Joan recalls her mother saying. "You're disgusting, you really are, if I were you I'd be ashamed to show my face outside the house." Using eating as a weapon, Joan eats "steadily, doggedly, stubbornly." "The war between myself and my mother was on in earnest; the disputed territory was my body," as she later analyzes it. "I swelled visibly, relentlessly, before her very eyes, I rose like dough, my body advanced inch by inch towards her across the dining-room table, in this at least I was undefeated." Determined not to be "diminished, neutralized" by the nondescript clothes her mother wants her to wear, she chooses outfits of "a peculiar and offensive hideousness, violently colored, horizontally striped." Her confidence undercut when she recognizes that others view her obesity as an "unfortunate handicap," she comes to derive a "morose pleasure" from her weight "only in relation" to her mother. In particular, she enjoys her ability to clutter up her mother's "gracious-hostess act." Putting on her fashion shows "in reverse," she calls attention to herself by "clomping silently but very visibly" through the rooms where her mother sits. "[I]t was a display, I wanted her to see and recognize what little effect her nagging and pleas were having." Eating to "defy" her mother, Joan also eats from "panic": "Sometimes I was afraid I wasn't really there, I was an accident; I'd heard her call me an accident. Did I want to become solid, solid as a stone so she wouldn't be able to get rid of me?" Conflating her memory of herself as a fat ballerina and her fantasy of the fat lady in the freak show, she envisions herself as a fat lady in a pink ballerina costume walking the high wire, proceeding inch by inch across Canada, the initial jeers of the audience transforming into the roar of applause when she triumphantly completes her death-defying feat. Dramatizing Joan's need to exhibit her grandiose self and gain self-confirming attention, this fantasy also depicts her anxieties about her fragile self-stability, which is expressed as the fear of falling.
When Joan, left two thousand dollars by her Aunt Lou on condition that she lose one hundred pounds, goes on a diet, the mother-daughter battle enters a new phase. "Well, it's about time, but it's probably too late," her mother says at first. But when Joan begins to successfully shed her fat, her mother becomes progressively "distraught and uncertain," for as Joan grows thinner and thinner her mother loses control over her. "About the only explanation I could think of for this behavior of hers was that making me thin was her last available project. She'd finished all the houses, there was nothing left for her to do, and she had counted on me to last her forever." After Joan has stripped away most of her protective covering of fat, her mother's "cutting remarks" are finally literalized: she attacks Joan with a knife, this actual infliction of a narcissistic wound concretizing the verbal wounds Joan has suffered for years. Consequently, Joan leaves home, determined to sever her connection with her mother and to discard her past with all its "acute concealed misery."
Discovering that she is the "right shape" but has "the wrong past," she determines "to get rid of it entirely" and create "a different" and "more agreeable one" for herself. Thus she begins her life-long habit of compulsive lying and storytelling, as she invents, first for her lover Paul and later for Arthur and her adoring public, a "more agreeable" personal history. Consciously, she attempts to divest herself of her past. But she remains haunted by it, and she constantly fears exposure. No matter what she achieves, she feels that she is an impostor, a fraud, and that others will uncover her persisting defectiveness. She is also unable to escape her mother's malevolent presence and her own buried rage. When Joan receives a telegram announcing her mother's death, she thinks it might be a trap, her mother's attempt to bring her "back within striking distance." Subsequently, she imagines that she somehow has killed her mother for unconsciously she perceives her angry thoughts as lethal. Strategically "killed off" and banished from the text, the mother figure resurfaces in a potentially more dangerous form. Twice after her mother's death Joan hallucinates what she thinks is her mother's astral body. Married to Arthur, she remains a partial prisoner of her noxious past. "All this time," she recalls, "I carried my mother around my neck like a rotting albatross. I dreamed about her often, my three-headed mother, menacing and cold." When she looks at herself in the mirror, she does not see what others see. Instead, she imagines the "outline" of her "former body" still surrounding her "like a mist, like a phantom moon, like the image of Dumbo the Flying Elephant superimposed on my own. I wanted to forget the past, but it refused to forget me; it waited for sleep, then cornered me." That the narrative seemingly delivers Joan from her mother's noxious presence and from her own grotesque shape only to sabotage the rescue points to a drama which recurs in the text: the thwarted rescue.
In Joan's relationships with men, we find a repetition of this narrative pattern of thwarted rescues. Desiring magic transformations, wishing to escape from her past, Joan imagines that the men in her life are like the romantic figures populating her Gothic novels. When she meets Paul, the Polish count, and listens to his story, she thinks she has met "a liar as compulsive and romantic" as herself. Arthur, at first, seems a "melancholy fighter for almost-lost causes, idealistic and doomed, sort of like Lord Byron." Similarly, the Royal Porcupine has "something Byronic about him." But when the romance wears off and these men become "gray and multidimensional and complicated like everyone else," the inevitable happens: Joan relives her past in her relationships with men.
Her husband, Arthur, for example, is an amalgam of her father's aloofness and her mother's disapproving behavior. Arthur faults Joan for being obtuse and disorganized, is in the habit of giving expositions on her failures, and, like her mother, is "full of plans" for her. Fearing that Arthur will find her unworthy, she protects her fragile self-esteem by keeping secret her childhood obesity and her identity as Louisa K. Delacourt, the writer of costume Gothics. Both Arthur and Paul, her first lover, seem bent on changing her, transforming her into their own likenesses. While Arthur enjoys her defeats in the kitchen—"[m]y failure was a performance and Arthur was the audience. His applause kept me going"—she also comes to feel that no matter what she does Arthur is "bound to despise" her and that she can never be what he wants.
What Joan seeks from the men in her life is the mirroring attention she never got from her mother. "I'd polished them with my love," as she puts it, "and expected them to shine, brightly enough to return my own reflection, enhanced and sparkling." But the men she loves are also objects of fear. She realizes that all the men she has been involved with have had "two selves": her father, a doctor-savior and wartime killer; the man in the tweed coat, her childhood rescuer but also possibly the daffodil man, a pervert; Paul, an author of innocuous nurse novels and a man she suspects of having a secret sinister life; the Royal Porcupine, her fantasy lover and feared "homicidal maniac"; and Arthur, her loving husband and suspected madman, possibly the unknown tormentor sending her death threats. She splits men into dual identities: the apparently good man is a lurking menace, a hidden pervert, a secret killer. In the text's code, men are an embodiment of Joan's split good/bad mother and her own hidden energies and killing rage. What Arthur doesn't know about her, she tells us, is that behind her "compassionate smile" is "a set of tightly clenched teeth, and behind that a legion of voices, crying, What about me? What about my own pain? When is it my turn? But I'd learned to stifle these voices, to be calm and receptive."
Perpetually trapped, Joan perpetually attempts to escape as she assumes a series of identities and becomes a writer of Gothic novels. "Escape literature," Paul tells Joan, "should be an escape for the writer as well as the reader." While Joan uses her writing to escape her daily life, she also persistently dramatizes in her work her amorphous anxieties, her conflicted selfhood, and her need for self-rescue. For while her heroine is perpetually "in peril" and "on the run," she is also, of course, always rescued. In her work-in-progress, Stalked By Love, Joan fictionalizes her contrasting selves. Charlotte represents her socially compliant, conventional female self, the role that she assumes with Paul and Arthur, while the possessive, angry, powerful Felicia embodies her camouflaged grandiosity. Publicly, Joan plays the role of Arthur's self-effacing, inept, always-apologizing wife; in secret, she becomes Louisa Delacourt, writer of Gothic novels. As time passes, Joan's desire for public acknowledgment grows. But she also fears that if she brings the two parts of her life together there will be "an explosion." And in a sense there is.
In an episode designed to compel reader attention and provoke the critic's speculative gaze, Atwood describes Joan's discovery of her own "lethal energies" when she experiments with automatic writing. Sitting in the dark in front of her triple mirror and staring at a candle, Joan, in a symbolic act of narcissistic introversion, imagines herself journeying into the world of the mirror. "There was the sense of going along a narrow passage that led downward," she recalls, "the certainty that if I could only turn the next corner or the next—for these journeys became longer—I would find the thing, the truth or word or person that was mine, that was waiting for me." On the trail of an elusive stranger, she discovers, in the subterranean world of the unconscious, a woman unlike anybody she's "ever imagined," a woman who, she feels, has "nothing to do" with her. "[S]he lived under the earth somewhere, or inside something, a cave or a huge building…. She was enormously powerful, almost like a goddess, but it was an unhappy power":
She sits on the iron throne She is one and three The dark lady the redgold lady the blank lady oracle of blood, she who must be obeyed forever.
Figured as the mother-goddess Demeter, Lady Oracle—who is potent and blank—is a composite of the internalized mother and Joan's grandiose, empty self. It is the Lady Oracle in Joan that compels her to endlessly construct herself, to create a series of fictional lives for herself, each new creation ultimately becoming a new trap, a new replication of her past. "There was always," she remarks, "that shadowy twin, thin when I was fat, fat when I was thin, myself in silvery negative, with dark teeth and shining white pupils glowing in the black sunlight of that other world."
When Joan publishes her Lady Oracle poems and consequently becomes a cult figure, she achieves the recognition she has always craved. But this only serves to deepen the cracks in her fractured self. Again the narrative pattern of the thwarted rescue is repeated. Joan's celebrity self, which takes on a deadly energy of its own, seems alien. "[I]t was as if someone with my name were out there in the real world, impersonating me … doing things for which I had to take the consequences: my dark twin, my fun-house-mirror reflection. She was taller than I was, more beautiful, more threatening. She wanted to kill me and take my place…." At long last Joan acts out her archaic grandiosity only to feel unreal, that she is "hollow, a hoax, a delusion." In a new variation on her recurrent fat lady fantasy, she expresses her growing recognition of her subjective emptiness. Fantasying the fat lady floating up like a helium balloon, she realizes that the fat lady, despite her large size, is "very light" for she is "hollow." "Why am I doing this?… Who's doing this to me?" Joan asks herself. Unable to "turn off" her "out-of-control fantasies," she is forced to "watch them through to the end." Although we find Joan's apparent lack of control unsettling, we also sense that as a storyteller she is perpetually playing up to her audience, embroidering her preposterous fantasies. "As the teller of a humorous tale," writes Sybil Vincent, "Joan gains a sense of power. She deliberately manipulates her audience and experiences a sense of control lacking in her actual life." Situated as appreciative listeners and suspicious critics, we sense that one of the text's errands is to rivet reader attention on Joan and thus, as it were, to gratify her grandiose-exhibitionistic needs.
When all the convoluted plots of Joan's life converge—her current lover, the Royal Porcupine, wants her to marry him; Paul, her former lover, traces her and wants her back; a blackmailer hounds her; she imagines that Arthur is the persecutor sending her death threats—she determines to escape her life which has become "a snarl, a rat's nest of dangling threads and loose ends." Accordingly, she fakes her death by drowning and lives, incognito she thinks, in Italy. In a symbolic gesture, she buries her clothes, attempting to shed her past identity. But what she can never escape is her inner sense of defectiveness. In one of her more lurid fantasies, she imagines her buried clothes growing a body, which shapes itself into "a creature composed of all the flesh that used to be mine and which must have gone somewhere." Transforming into a featureless monstrous form, it engulfs her. "It was the Fat Lady. She rose into the air and descended on me…. For a moment she hovered around me like ectoplasm, like a gelatin shell, my ghost, my angel; then she settled and I was absorbed into her. Within my former body, I gasped for air. Disguised, concealed…. Obliterated." When Joan suspects that Mr. Vitroni may be in league with her secret pursuers, she fantasies herself spending the rest of her life "in a cage, as a fat whore, a captive Earth Mother for whom somebody else collected the admission tickets." As her narcissistic anxieties become more and more ungovernable, not only do her Gothic fantasies intrude into her real life, her real life invades her art: Felicia metamorphoses into the bloated, drowned fat lady and is rejected by her husband, Redmond-Arthur.
As the narrative progresses and Atwood carries us deeper and deeper into Joan's fun-house, hall-of-mirrors world, a kind of infinite regression occurs as fantasy and reality coalesce and we gradually come to the realization that Joan's descriptions of others—those in her life and her art—are autorepresentational. Joan's final and terrifying dream encounter with the "dark vacuum" of her mother forces her to recognize that her mother is her own reflection. "She'd never really let go of me because I had never let her go. It had been she standing behind me in the mirror, she was the one who was waiting around each turn, her voice whispered the words…. [S]he had been my reflection too long." In her Gothic novel, Stalked by Love, Joan's stand-in, Felicia, is compulsively drawn into the labyrinth's "central plot." At the psychocenter of the novel, the "central plot" of the maze depicted in the inset Gothic text provides interpretive clues to the narrative plot of the text we are reading. For at the maze's center, Joan-Felicia encounters her mirror selves. There she finds the ubiquitous fat lady, her defective self; there she also finds an embodiment of her identity as Louisa Delacourt, the middle-aged writer of Gothic novels and her dual red-haired, green-eyed self: Joan, the self-effacing wife and Joan the powerful poet cult figure. And there behind a closed door which she imagines is her pathway to freedom, her escape from the trap of self-entanglement, she discovers yet another alter-ego, fictional self, Redmond, who transforms sequentially into the men in her life—her father, Paul, the Royal Porcupine, Arthur—and then into a death's skull. In the specular world of the maze, Joan encounters, recursively, images of self. As Redmond reaches out to grab her, she experiences, once again, the smothering, self-fragmenting dominance of her childhood mother who unconsciously sought to obliterate Joan's fledgling self. Twice before—first during her Lady Oracle experiments with automatic writing and then in a terrifying nightmare in which she seemed about to be sucked into the "vortex" of her mother—Joan approached this world of suffocating darkness, the self-annihilating world of the engulfing, destructive mother. Joan's faked drowning, in effect, is stage managed by her dead but potent mother, who remains a menacing presence in Joan's psyche. But Joan's faked death is faked. She is the escape artist who uses deception to appease her lethal, interiorized mother-self. Her faked suicide is a signifier of her desire to live, to rescue and repair her self.
To the Italian village women, the resurrected Joan becomes an object of fear. Joan imagines that they see her as a kind of science fiction creature, "[a] female monster, larger than life … striding down the hill, her hair standing on end with electrical force, volts of malevolent energy shooting from her fingers…." The monster of her own narcissistic ire possesses her like an alien presence. In her anger, she resembles her mother. No wonder she is bent on escape, on comic diffusion of her deadly rage. In a comic denouement, Joan, fearing that her murderous pursuer is at the door, exposes her wrath when she attacks a reporter who has come to interview her. "I've begun to feel," she comments, "he's the only person who knows anything about me. Maybe because I've never hit anyone else with a bottle, so they never got to see that part of me." As the novel ends, Joan determines to stop writing Gothic novels and to turn, instead, to science fiction, a process she has already begun in her comic, self-parodic depiction of herself as a science fiction monster.
The victim of repeated maternal denials of her self, Joan, as she repeatedly fabricates her life, constructs a series of fictional identities which she disposes of at will. Through this symbolic act of self-creation and self-annihilation, she replicates and replaces her mother and becomes the guarantor of her own identity. The victim of maternal betrayal and control, Joan becomes a dissembler who secretly betrays and controls others. When Joan describes herself as "essentially devious, with a patina of honesty," readers may suspect that they, too, despite their privileged perspective, are being deceived. Again and again, critics have remarked on this. One critic comments that Joan's "absolute honesty in confessing her lies, tricks, and deceptions becomes, in itself, a confidence game which lulls the reader into a misguided trust in Joan's ability to interpret her experiences"; another insists that readers "have more reason to suspect Joan than to believe her"; and yet another says that Atwood's novel leaves readers with "the vague suspicion" that they have been "duped." In their uneasy feeling that they are being gulled and manipulated, critic/readers repeat Joan's childhood and persisting experiences of being deceived and controlled by others, by her mother and the men in her life. Depicted as a confessed liar, Joan escapes reader control and stubbornly resists being made into a stable, literary property.
"Most said soonest mended"—this garbled rendering of one of her Aunt Lou's trite sayings provides a central clue to the impulse behind Joan's autobiographical writing. Admitting, at one point, that she could never say the word "fat" aloud, Joan describes, in a vivid, comic-angry way, her childhood obesity and her persisting fat lady fantasies. Her self-exposure and self-condemnation repeat her mother's cutting remarks and also act as a form of verbal exorcism. Verbally striking back at the mother who verbally abused her as a child, Joan, as a wielder of words, fictively mothers and then obliterates the mother who attempted to annihilate her. In a similar vein, readers of Lady Oracle are urged to collude in the narrational plot to fictively "kill off" Joan's mother, who is represented in the text, in the words of one critic, "not as a woman, but as a fetish or witch-doll." Achieving verbal mastery over the men in her life who attempted to master her, Joan secretly attacks her perceived attackers and becomes a hidden menace to those who menace her. She acts this out in the novel's final scene when she assaults the reporter. When she consequently gives a bunch of wilted flowers to the hospitalized reporter as she plays nurse to him, she unconsciously signals her identification not only with the Mavis Quilp nurse heroines, but also with the daffodil man, an exhibitionist. Her artistry springs, in part, from her covert exhibitionism and rage, both expressed in her genesis as an artist—her mothball dance—and in her Lady Oracle manifestation.
In Lady Oracle autobiographical creation allows Joan to assert her grandiosity, vent her anger, and express her autonomy. Situated as a witness of Joan's conspiracy against others, the reader revels in her disguises and concocted plots and laughs at her descriptions of political activism, spiritualism, the publishing establishment, artistic creation, and faddish artists. Again and again Joan confesses her inability to control her overactive imagination, describing how her fantasies must play themselves out to their appointed ends. Indeed there are undertones of hysteria in her Gothic imaginings—her fears about being pursued in Italy—and in her fat lady fantasies, which progressively grow more and more ludicrous and elaborate. But just as Joan, as a Gothic storyteller, adroitly manipulates her audience, so she, as a comic character, compels our attention. At the outset of the novel, Joan, newly arrived in Italy, imagines all the people she has left behind. She envisions them grouped on the seashore talking to each other and ignoring her. But one thing the reader cannot do is ignore Joan. Atwood prompts us to give Joan the smiling attention that her mother never gave to her and that Arthur, who is subject to periodic depression—he gives off a "gray aura … like a halo in reverse," as she puts it—gives her less and less frequently.
"I longed for happy endings," Joan remarks, "I needed the feeling of release when everything turned out right and I could scatter joy like rice all over my characters and dismiss them into bliss." While some readers of Lady Oracle might share Joan's longing and wish to see a conclusive ending to her story and a final rescue, Atwood frustrates such a desire. "[T]here is no way for the reader to be certain that anything has changed by the end of Joan's narration," observes one critic. At the end "the reader suspects that there are more Joans to come," writes another; the reader watches "in helpless recognition," writes yet another, as Joan assumes a new role at the novel's end. Thwarting our desire for happy endings, for artistic coherence, for neat foreclosures, for final rescues, Atwood creates a plot like her character: one that is entangled and full of loose ends.
Installed as appreciative listeners, collaborators, and accomplices, we revel in Joan's zany exploits, her proliferating mirror encounters and angry-comic rhetoric. Joan's confessions are designed to entertain us, to win our smiling approbation of her thwarted grandiosity. But we are also implicitly led to reflect on our own need to escape through and live vicariously in art and to ask ourselves whether we, like Joan the compulsive creator of plots, are compulsive readers of plots. We are also led to ask ourselves to what extent we read ourselves into a fictional text just as Joan writes herself into her art. Coaxed throughout the novel to see the parallels between Joan's fictional and real worlds, we are also urged to consider to what extent we blur fact and fantasy as we construct the plots and texts of our own lives.
"I might as well face it," Joan admits in the novel's conclusion, "I was an artist, an escape artist…. [T]he real romance of my life was that between Houdini and his ropes and locked trunk; entering the embrace of bondage, slithering out again." So, too, she escapes our grasp as she multiplies before our eyes. As the realistic surface of her autobiographical account dissolves into a richly complex and redundant subjective fantasy, we gain momentary access to the shape-shifting world of the narcissist. Swerving out of our grasp, Joan lures us into a strange world in and beyond the looking glass: the multiple, mirrored, decertainized world of the narcissistic character.
SOURCE: "Waltzing Again: A Conversation with Margaret Atwood," in Margaret Atwood: Conversations, Ontario Review Press, 1990, pp. 234-38.
[In the following interview, Atwood discusses her relationship to her readers and critics of her works as well as the themes of Cat's Eye.]
[Ingersoll]: Since as you know I've been working on a collection of your interviews, could we begin by talking about interviews? You have been interviewed very frequently. How do you feel about being interviewed?
[Atwood]: I don't mind "being interviewed" any more than I mind Viennese waltzing—that is, my response will depend on the agility and grace and attitude and intelligence of the other person. Some do it well, some clumsily, some step on your toes by accident, and some aim for them. I've had interviews that were pleasant and stimulating experiences for me, and I've had others that were hell. And of course you do get tired of being misquoted, quoted out of context, and misunderstood. You yourself may be striving for accuracy (which is always complicated), whereas journalists are striving mainly for hot copy, the more one-dimensional the better. Not all of them of course, but enough.
I think the "Get the Guest" or "David and Goliath" interview tends to become less likely as you age; the interviewer less frequently expects you to prove you're a real writer, or a real woman, or any of the other things they expect you to prove. And you run into a generation of interviewers who studied you in high school and want to help you hobble across the street, rather than wishing to smack you down for being a presumptuous young upstart.
Let's not pretend however that an interview will necessarily result in any absolute and blinding revelations. Interviews too are an art form; that is to say, they indulge in the science of illusion.
You've said that when you began writing you imagined you'd have to starve in an attic without an audience sufficiently large to support your writing. Is there a Margaret Atwood who would have preferred the obscurity of a Herman Melville to whom you refer so frequently, or do you draw upon your readers' responses to your work? How much do you feel involved in a kind of dialogue with your readers?
The alternative, for me, to selling enough books or writing enough scripts and travel articles to keep me independent and to buy my time as a writer would be teaching in a university, or some other job. I've done that, and I've been poor, and I prefer things the way they are. For instance, this way I can say what I want to, because nobody can fire me. Not very many people in our society have that privilege.
I did not expect a large readership when I began writing, but that doesn't mean I'm not pleased to have one. It doesn't mean either that I write for a "mass audience." It means I'm one of the few literary writers who get lucky in their lifetimes.
My readers' responses to my work interest me, but I don't "draw upon" them. The response comes after the book is published; by the time I get responses, I'm thinking about something new. Dialogue with the readers? Not exactly. Dickens could have a dialogue with his readers that affected the books when he was publishing his novels in serial form, but we've lost that possibility. Though it does of course cheer me when someone likes, appreciates, or shows me that he or she has read my books intelligently.
Are you worried by self-consciousness as you write? Or is it an asset?
Self-consciousness? Do you mean consciousness of my self? That's what you have to give up when writing—in exchange for consciousness of the work. That's why most of what writers say about how they write—the process—is either imperfect memory or fabrication. If you're paying proper attention to what you're doing, you are so absorbed in it that you shouldn't be able to tell anyone afterwards exactly how you did it. In sports they have instant replay. We don't have that for writers.
The Edible Woman, Lady Oracle and now Cat's Eye seem in large part jeux d'esprit. You give your readers the impression that you are having a good time writing—it's hard work, but also good fun. How important is "play" to you in writing? Do you have a sense of how much the reader will enjoy what you write, as you're writing it?
I don't think Cat's Eye is a jeu d'esprit. (Oxford Shorter: "a witty or humorous trifle.") In fact, I don't think my other "comic" novels are jeux d'esprit, either. I suspect that sort of definition is something people fall back on because they can't take women's concerns or life patterns at all seriously; so they see the wit in those books, and that's all they see. Writing is play in the same way that playing the piano is "play," or putting on a theatrical "play" is play. Just because something's fun doesn't mean it isn't serious. For instance, some get a kick out of war. Others enjoy falling in love. Yet others get a bang out of a really good funeral. Does that mean war, love, and death are trifles?
Cat's Eye strikes me as unusual in one especially dramatic way: it builds upon the most detailed and perceptive exploration of young girlhood that I can recall having read. Once we've read that section of the novel, we readers might think, we've had fiction which explores this stage of young boyhood, but why haven't writers, even writers who are women, dealt with this stage of a woman's development before? How did you get interested in this area of girlhood, from roughly eight to twelve?
I think the answer to this one is fairly simple: writers haven't dealt with girls age eight to twelve because this area of life was not regarded as serious "literary" material. You do get girls this age in juvenile fiction—all those English boarding-school books. And there have been some—I'm thinking of Frost in May. But it's part of that "Man's love is of man's life a thing apart, / 'Tis woman's whole existence" tendency—that is, the tendency to think that the only relationships of importance to women are their dealings with men (parents, boyfriends, husbands, God) or babies. What could be of importance in what young girls do with and to one another? Well, lots, it seems, judging from the mail…. I guess that's where "dialogue with the readers" comes in. Cordelia really got around, and she had a profound influence on how the little girls who got run over by her were able to respond to other women when they grew up.
I sometimes get interested in stories because I notice a sort of blank—why hasn't anyone written about this? Can it be written about? Do I dare to write it? Cat's Eye was risky business, in a way—wouldn't I be trashed for writing about little girls, how trivial? Or wouldn't I be trashed for saying they weren't all sugar and spice?
Or I might think about a story form, and see how it could be approached from a different angle—Cinderella from the point of view of the ugly sister, for instance. But also I wanted a literary home for all those vanished things from my own childhood—the marbles, the Eaton's catalogues, the Watchbird Watching You, the smells, sounds, colors. The textures. Part of fiction writing I think is a celebration of the physical world we know—and when you're writing about the past, it's a physical world that's vanished. So the impulse is partly elegiac. And partly it's an attempt to stop or bring back time.
The reviewer in Time said that "Elaine's emotional life is effectively over at puberty." Does that seem accurate to you now as a reader of your own work?
That ain't the book I wrote, and it ain't the one I read when I go back to it; as I'm doing now, since I'm writing the screenplay. I don't think Elaine's emotional life is over at puberty any more than any of our lives are over then. Childhood is very intense, because children can't imagine a future. They can't imagine pain being over. Which is why children are nearer to the absolute states of Heaven and Hell than adults are. Purgatory seems to me a more adult concept.
There are loose ends left from Elaine's life at that time, especially her unresolved relationship with Cordelia. These things have been baggage for her for a long time. But that's quite different from saying she stopped dead at twelve.
At the end of Cat's Eye Elaine has lost both her parents and her brother, and said goodby finally to her ex- and to Cordelia. She has a husband and daughters she loves, but she seems very alone. What do you make of her aloneness now as a reader of your own novel?
Writers can never really read their own books, just as film directors can never really see their own movies—or not in the way that a fresh viewer can. Because THEY KNOW WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.
Elaine "seems" alone at the end of the book because she's on an airplane. Also: because the story has been about a certain part of her life, and that part—that story—has reached a conclusion. She will of course land, get out of the plane, and carry on with the next part of her life, i.e. her ongoing time-line with some other characters about whom we have not been told very much, because the story was not about them.
Why do authors kill off certain characters? Usually for aesthetic, that is, structural reasons. If Elaine's parents etc. had still been around, we would have to have scenes with them, and that wasn't appropriate for this particular story. Cat's Eye is partly about being haunted. Why did Dickens kill off Little Nell? Because he was making a statement about the nature of humanity or the cruelty of fate? I don't think so. He just had to polish her off because that was where the story was going.
Related to that question, a reviewer in New Statesman has written: "The novel is extremely bleak about humanity…. Through most of the novel you feel distance, dissection: a cat's eye. It ends on a note of gaiety, forgiveness and hope: but I don't believe it." When you were writing the novel did you have the sense of painting a "bleak" picture of "humanity"?
One reason I don't like interviews, when I don't like them, is that people tend to come up with these weird quotes from reviewers, assume the quote is true, and then ask you why you did it that way. There are a lot of "when did you stop beating your wife" questions in interviews.
For instance, what is this "gaiety, forgiveness and hope" stuff? I'm thinking of doing a calendar in which each day would contain a quote by a reviewer of which the next day's quote would be a total contradiction by another reviewer. I'll buy the forgiveness, sort of; but gaiety? Eh? Where? The jolly old women on the plane are something she doesn't have. You find yourself looking under the sofa for some other book by the same name that might have strayed into the reviewer's hands by mistake. Or maybe they got one with some of the pages left out.
Nor, judging from the mail I received, did readers "feel distance, dissection." Total identification is more like it. Maybe the readers were identifying with the character's attempt to achieve distance, etc. She certainly attempts it, but she doesn't get it. As for "bleak," that's a word that tends to be used by people who've never been outside Western Europe or North America, and the middle class in either location. They think bleak is not having a two-car garage. If they think I'm bleak, they have no idea of what real bleak is like. Try Kierkegaard. Try Tadeusz Konwicki. Try Russell Banks, for that matter.
Or maybe … yes, maybe … I'm bleak for a woman. Is that the key? Are we getting somewhere now?
SOURCE: "In Pursuit of the Faceless Stranger: Depths and Surfaces in Margaret Atwood's Bodily Harm," in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 15, No. 1, 1990, pp. 76-93.
[In the following essay, Lucking discusses the motifs of depth and surface in relation to Atwood's "thematic concern with the quest for authentic selfhood" in Bodily Harm.]
Margaret Atwood's recurrent use of the descent motif to dramatize her thematic concern with the quest for authentic selfhood makes her work a tempting target for explication in terms of the initiatory archetype as this has been analyzed by such writers as C.G. Jung, Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell. This aspect of her writing has come in for considerable attention on the part of critics who, like the novelist herself, experienced the impact of Northrop Frye's theories concerning the relationship between myth and literature in the late fifties and sixties. At the same time, the irony implicit in Atwood's repeated use of what has been described as a "basic romance structure" involving a "symbolic journey to an underground prison" has also not escaped notice, and critics such as Frank Davey put us on our guard against the tendency to "mistake novels which deconstruct archetypes for novels which confirm them." There can be no doubt that there is a complex interplay, amounting at points almost to a formal dialectical tension, between the underlying structure of this author's works and the direction of moral implication in which those same works tend. Whereas the classic romance scenario concludes with the triumphant return to his community of a hero newly possessed of life-giving powers or knowledge, in Atwood's work the question of whether anything positive is ultimately to be gained from her protagonist's revelatory flight from a destructive civilization never receives an unequivocal answer. In The Edible Woman, Surfacing and Lady Oracle we are not informed whether or on what terms the protagonists will rejoin the social order from which they have severed themselves, while in The Handmaid's Tale doubts are raised as to whether the fugitive is destined to survive at all. Though it may well be subjected to ironic qualification or inversion or "deconstruction" in the very course of its fictional embodiment, however, the fact remains that the initiatory archetype is present in Atwood's works, and that no critical discussion of these novels can afford to ignore a pattern whose validity in the contemporary context the author herself is so obviously concerned to examine.
A work in the Atwood canon that illustrates with particular clarity the ambivalence attaching to the initiatory journey is Bodily Harm (1981), the thematic and metaphorical structure of which hinges on a paradoxical "rebirth" into the knowledge of death and of the things that death can symbolize. The plot of the novel is not complicated in itself, although some effort must be expended in order to reconstruct the precise chronology of events from the intricately wrought analeptic structure of the work. The protagonist Rennie (Renata) Wilford is a journalist, living in Toronto with an advertising designer named Jake. She is diagnosed as having cancer and undergoes a partial mastectomy which is clinically successful, although she continues to be haunted by the fear of recurrence. She falls in love with Daniel, her physician, but although he partially reciprocates her feelings the affair is more a source of frustration than of fulfillment, and in the meantime the relationship with Jake comes to an end. Shortly afterwards Rennie learns that somebody has broken into her home in her absence and before being frightened away by the police has been waiting for her "as if he was an intimate." The intruder has left a length of rope coiled on the bed, and the police warn Rennie that he will probably return. This sinister incident prompts Rennie's decision to travel to the Caribbean and write a piece about the island of St. Antoine. Among the people she encounters here and on the neighbouring island of Ste. Agathe are Paul, an American involved in contraband activities, and his former mistress Lora, who exploits Rennie to smuggle weapons into the country on Paul's behalf. Despite herself, Rennie becomes embroiled in the turmoil of a local election, a political assassination and an aborted uprising, and together with Lora is arrested and confined to a subterranean cell in an old fort. Here she is forced to witness various scenes of brutality, culminating in the sadistic beating of Lora by their prison guards. The novel ends with the anticipation of Rennie's release through the intervention of Canadian diplomatic authorities, although there is some uncertainty as to whether this will in fact take place or is only a hopeful fantasy on her part.Atwood has been accused, not without an element of justice, of sacrificing characterization to thematic representation, of making her personages the vehicles of ideas or attitudes that she is intent on exploring rather than endowing them with an autonomous fictional life of their own. The character of Rennie Wilford, too, like that of her predecessors in Atwood's fiction, is somewhat excessively determined by the function she performs in articulating the novel's structure of ideas, and there is much in her portrayal which tends toward the merely schematic. Her personality is not so much dramatized as it is defined for us, with the consequence that she reads on occasion like a textbook on alienation. She is described as being almost neurotically disengaged, striving even in her dress for "neutrality" and "invisibility," deliberately living at the level of "surfaces" and "appearances." She "couldn't stand the idea of anyone doing her a favour," thinks of sex as no more than "a pleasant form of exercise," fears love because it "made you visible, soft, penetrable [and] ludicrous," looks upon herself as "off to the side. She preferred it there." As a journalist she has abandoned social and political issues in favour of what she terms "lifestyles," the ephemeral mores of the society she lives in and to a large degree is evidently meant to reflect. Of the celebrities monopolizing the cultural limelight she decides that "she would much rather be the one who wrote things about people like this than be the one they got written about." Rennie's studiously cultivated detachment, her calculated nonparticipation in life, is summed up in the lugubrious pun with which she greets the news that drastic cancer operations are performed only in the case of what Daniel describes as "massive involvement." "Massive involvement," says Rennie: "It's never been my thing."
It is arguable of course that the self-consciousness with which Rennie formulates her own attitude towards life is in itself symptomatic of her estrangement, and that these explicit comments are therefore meant to be obliquely rather than directly revealing. Whether this is indeed the case or not, Atwood does not limit herself to exhibiting Rennie's character exclusively through the filter of her own self-conception, and many readers will doubtless prefer the alternative strategies that the author brings to bear. When we learn for instance that Rennie has written an article about picking up men in laundromats, although "she never actually picked men up in laundromats, she just went through the preliminaries and then explained that she was doing research," the irony involved is of a different order from that with which Rennie perceives her own situation. A similar irony informs the scene in which Paul initiates a conversation with her at her hotel on St. Antoine, and she decides that his overture "does not have the flavour of a pickup. File it under attempt at human contact." At one point in the hotel restaurant she catches herself compulsively churning out deftly turned phrases concerning the cuisine, and impatiently "wishes she could stop reviewing the food and just eat it." The techniques of thematic exposition and symbolic commentary mesh imperfectly when Rennie takes an excursion on a boat with an observation window set in the bottom, and, although she "looks, which is her function," she manages to see very little because of the murkiness of the marine floor. The strikingly effective image of the observation window, which relates (through Dr. Minnow, whose political sobriquet is "Fish") to Rennie's incapacity to fathom local politics, as well as to the dream in which she surveys her own body "under glass," is somewhat spoiled by the intrusive definition of her function.
The epigraph to Bodily Harm is taken from John Berger's Ways of Seeing, a work which is centrally concerned with the social and ideological determinants of perception. It is perfectly apparent that Rennie, though she affects a spectator attitude towards life which is emphasized still further when she assumes the role of tourist, is anxious more than anything else to cultivate ways of not seeing. Atwood elaborates a dense but highly subtle pattern of imagery to characterize Rennie's tendency to experience the world not at first hand but as filtered through the clichés of a media-ridden civilization. She habitually thinks in terms of films, or photographs, or pictures, or the various other civilized stratagems by which events are framed and neutralized and rendered innocuous. She persists in writing about St. Antoine in tourist brochure terms while an uprising is brewing all around her, and carries a camera slung over her shoulder even while she is transporting an illegal machine gun from one island to another. Dr. Minnow, a native of Ste. Agathe who, after a period of training abroad, chose to return to his birthplace and involve himself in local politics, urges her to modify her perspective. "All I ask you to do is look," he tells her: "We will call you an observer…. Look with your eyes open and you will see the truth of the matter." That this is no elementary undertaking becomes apparent to Rennie when she is compelled at the end to witness the raw spectacle of human viciousness, and she "doesn't want to see, she has to see, why isn't someone covering her eyes?"
As the allusion to Berger's work perhaps suggests, Rennie's addiction to the world of surfaces and appearances is not meant to be viewed as a purely individual phenomenon, but rather as characteristic of the culture to which she belongs. At the same time, however, Atwood does furnish a psychological explanation for Rennie's attitude, relating it to specific incidents in her personal past which are recalled through flashback. Much of Rennie's attitude to life is the direct legacy of her upbringing in a small Ontario town with the gloomily suggestive name of Griswold, which she thinks of as a "subground … full of gritty old rocks and buried stumps, worms and bones"—the reverse of a surface. In her adult life she "tries to avoid thinking about Griswold," which is reduced to being "merely something she defines herself against." "Those who'd lately been clamouring for roots had never seen a root up close" is her characteristically ironic comment on her background, the obvious implication being that she is consciously detaching herself as completely as possible from her own roots. To some degree this would seem to represent a purely personal reaction against a claustrophobic environment, a determination not to assume potentially encumbering responsibilities or commitments:
All I could think of at the time was how to get away from Griswold. I didn't want to be trapped … I didn't want to have a family or be anyone's mother, ever; I had none of those ambitions. I didn't want to own any objects or inherit any.
But the spiritual climate of Griswold itself, with its vacant formalisms and grim pieties, seems more than any personal failure of adaptation to have been responsible for this almost pathological detachment. "As a child," recalls Rennie, "I learned three things well: how to be quiet, what not to say, and how to look at things without touching them." One of Rennie's earliest recollections is of her grandmother in Griswold, "prying my hands away finger by finger" in punishment for some unremembered transgression, after which the girl was confined in a cellar which is a "depth" par excellence, and which foreshadows the cell in which her older self will be incarcerated on St. Antoine.
This emblematic episode of the severing of hand contact assumes its place in an elaborate pattern of images constructed around hands and what hands represent both as vehicles of human contact and as instruments of manipulation and domination. Rennie's grandmother, who had attempted to eradicate in the girl any impulse towards tactile participation in her environment, succumbs finally to the senile delusion that she has lost her own hands. She insists to Rennie that the hands on the ends of her arms "are no good any more," and wants "my other hands, the ones I had before, the ones I touch things with." Only at the conclusion of the novel do we learn what Rennie's actual response to her grandmother's delusion has been. "Rennie cannot bear to be touched by those groping hands…. She puts her own hands behind her and backs away," while it is her mother who saves the situation by "tak[ing] hold of the grandmother's dangling hands, clasping them in her own." Rennie is evidently afflicted by subconscious guilt at having duplicated her grandmother's cold gesture of rejection. This latent sense of guilt, the obscure recognition of her own failure, manifests itself in her dream that her dead grandmother is appearing to her, extending an impossibly remote promise of salvation:
Rennie puts out her hands but she can't touch her grandmother, her hands go right in, through, it's like touching water or new snow. Her grandmother smiles at her, the humming-birds are around her head, lighting on her hands. Life everlasting, she says.
When Rennie wakes from this dream, or thinks she does, she is convinced as her grandmother was years before that "there's something she has to find…. It's her hands she's looking for," and a few days later she dreams that "her hands are cold, she lifts them up to look at them, but they elude her. Something's missing." It is clear that Jake's remark to Rennie that "you're cutting yourself off" has a punning significance that extends well beyond her relationship with him.
The event that precipitates the gradual awakening to her own symbolic handlessness which such dreams as these reflect is Rennie's discovery that she has cancer. The disease begins to restore in the most brutal way possible the severed contact between "surface" and "depths," between the individual and her "roots," between Rennie and the body in which she has up to then merely been a tenant. The first stage of this process is the recognition that those elements in her which have been rejected or repressed or simply ignored are in fact inseparable from the self they are now menacing with extinction:
The body, sinister twin, taking its revenge for whatever crimes the mind was supposed to have committed on it…. She'd given her body swimming twice a week, forbidden it junk food and cigarette smoke, allowed it a normal amount of sexual release. She'd trusted it. Why then had it turned against her?
Rennie has been treating her body as a machine to be kept in good repair, as something subordinate to what she considers to be her real self, and has accordingly tended to regard illnesses such as cancer as no more than the outward manifestations of some mental disability. Daniel tells her that while "the mind isn't separate from the body," neither can the body and its ailments be regarded merely as a function of the mind. Cancer, he reminds her, "isn't a symbol, it's a disease." After the operation that makes this only too vivid to her, her literal "opening up" at Daniel's hands, Rennie finds it increasingly difficult to live at the same level as before, and, as she anxiously probes her body for symptoms of recurrence, she reflects that "from the surface you can feel nothing, but she no longer trusts surfaces."
Rennie's evolving view as to the relative importance of surfaces and depths reveals itself among other things in her relation with two men who represent real or potential aspects of herself: her companion Jake and her physician Daniel. Jake, an adept in the field of advertising, inhabits the plane of disembodied appearances alone, manipulating images which bear no relation to the world of substance. "He was a packager" by profession, and Rennie eventually discovers that "she was one of the things Jake was packaging." Prior to her illness, Rennie has resembled Jake in evaluating attitudes and beliefs not according to their intrinsic validity or sincerity but in terms of whether they are fashionable or not, while one of her own favourite games has been "redoing" people, imagining how they would look if they were differently attired or otherwise altered.
In her way, she has also been a "packager," exploiting the media in order to manipulate tastes and inspire fashion trends of almost awesome triviality. The casual, non-binding relationship she has formed with Jake, a contract of mutual gratification, cannot survive the revelation of depths that Rennie's illness both entails and symbolizes: afterwards "she didn't want him to touch her and she didn't know why, and he didn't really want to touch her either but he wouldn't admit it." On the one hand Rennie's surface is too marred after her operation to lend itself any longer as a convenient screen on which Jake can project his fantasies, while on the other the deeper implications of these same fantasies become increasingly obvious to Rennie herself.
Daniel, by contrast, lives and works at the level of depths rather than surfaces. Rennie attributes the sentiments he arouses in her to the fact that "he knows something about her she doesn't know, he knows what she's like inside." She supposes that he must exert a similar fascination on all of his patients, for "he's the only man in the world who knows the truth, he's looked into each one of us and seen death." At the same time, unlike Jake and Rennie herself, he is virtually unconscious of himself, indifferent to his own surface or public image: "he didn't seem to think of himself much in any way at all. This was the difference between Daniel and the people she knew." When Daniel asks her how she would "redo" him her reply is formulated in terms of the hand imagery that is employed throughout the novel as a kind of symbolic notation: "'If I could get my hands on you?' said Rennie. 'I wouldn't, you're perfect the way you are.'" In making this disclaimer she is not being altogether sincere, for she does in her way try to "redo" him by manoeuvering him into an affair which is contrary to his principles, an effort that might be a displaced manifestation of her compulsion to control the knowledge of disease and death that he has gained by "looking into" her. She is unsuccessful in this endeavour, however, and her incapacity to relate to Daniel on his own terms indicates her continuing failure to come to grips with the depths at which he both literally and figuratively operates.
At this point Rennie is still suspended between the dimensions of surface and depths, dislodged from the one but not yet able to immerse herself in the other. She thinks of her position with respect to these dimensions in terms of the impossibility of contact with the two men who represent them—"One man I'm not allowed to touch … and another I won't allow to touch me"—but it is clear that this incapacity to relate to people in the external world reflects a profound schism within herself. It is above all with her own forgotten self, her "sinister twin," that Rennie must establish contact, as she herself intuits during a dream she has of herself undergoing a surgical operation: "she can see everything, clear and sharp, under glass, her body is down there on the table … she wants to rejoin her body but she can't get down." It is thus symbolically appropriate that the actual operation through which Daniel saves Rennie's life and at the same time initiates the process by which she awakens to an understanding of her own real nature should be described in terms of a rebirth. When she recovers from the anaesthetic after her operation her hand is being held by Daniel, who is "telling her that he had saved her life … and now he was dragging her back into it, this life that he had saved. By the hand." Later Daniel says of her operation that "it was almost like being given a second life," and Rennie thinks of him that "he knows we've been resurrected."
Although the symbolic significance of the name Renata is reinforced by these images of resurrection from some figurative death, the future projection implied by the name Wilford suggests quite clearly that rebirth is only the first stage in a long journey. For a descent into the "depths" that underlie surfaces cannot cease with the simple acknowledgement that one has a vulnerable and in the end "provisional" body, however important a phase in the process of self-discovery this may be. Shortly before her operation Rennie has been conducting research into the pornographic exploitation of sexual violence, and she been so repelled by the momentary glimpse she has caught into the dark abyss of human depravity that she has abandoned the project, deciding that "there were some things it was better not to know any more about than you had to. Surfaces, in many cases, were preferable to depths." Once having been evicted from the world of surfaces by the consciousness of her own susceptibility to the diseases of the flesh, however, Rennie is obliged to pursue her exploration of the depths still further, learning in the end that the "malignancy" she has encountered in the form of her illness is in fact an attribute of the world at large.
From the symbolic point of view, the discovery that a stranger has been occupying her home while she is away is an external correlative of Rennie's anguished discovery that a tumour has lodged itself within her body. The police warn Rennie that the stranger will return ("That kind always comes back"), just as she fears a recurrence of her illness. The incident therefore objectifies her growing awareness of the destructive forces lurking just below the familiar surface of life, while the rope the intruder leaves with evidently vicious intent betokens a connection which must be established, however undesired it may be. Perhaps significantly, ropes are several times associated with hands and arms in this novel. On St. Antoine Rennie is assisted into a boat by a man who "reaches out a long ropy arm, a hand like a clamp, to help her up," while another boat is later described as having "looped ropes thick as a wrist." Ropes, like hands, can serve as symbols of mediation, and the intruder who breaks into Rennie's Toronto apartment thus assumes the bizarre function of emissary:
He was an ambassador, from some place she didn't want to know any more about. The piece of rope … was … a message; it was someone's twisted idea of love…. And when you pulled on the rope, which after all reached down into darkness, what would come up? What was at the end, the end? A hand, then an arm, a shoulder, and finally a face. At the end of the rope there was someone. Everyone had a face, there was no such thing as a faceless stranger.
After this invasion Rennie can no longer maintain her pose of cool detachment from the world: "She felt implicated, even though she had done nothing and nothing had been done to her." The sense of dissociation from herself which has already been growing in her in consequence of her illness, which expresses itself among other things in the dream in which she witnesses an operation being performed on her own body, is aggravated still further, to the point that she begins to "see herself from the outside, as if she was a moving target in someone else's binoculars."
Rennie's initial reaction to this intrusion and to her consequent sense of having been implicated despite herself (the "massive involvement" which refers both to cancer and to an attitude of mind) is one of refusal and flight, a reversion to the strategy of avoidance which has already prompted her repudiation of Griswold and all it represents. Her decision to travel to St. Antoine is explained in terms of a search for anonymity: "She is away, she is out, which is what she wanted…. In a way she's invisible. In a way she's safe." After witnessing the exaggerated terror with which she recoils from an innocent attempt at personal contact on the island, Paul tells her that she is suffering from what he terms "alien reaction paranoia," that "because you don't know what's dangerous and what isn't, everything seems dangerous." But her effort to avoid danger by attaining to a personal limbo of perfect neutrality is destined to failure. Not only do the destructive forces she fears reside no less within herself than in the external world, but her desire to insulate herself from that world runs counter to an even more powerful impulse operating within her, the instinctive craving for physical and emotional contact which is gradually leading her back towards her own forgotten humanity.
Once again it is the imagery of hands that functions as an index of her developing attitude. When she has been with Daniel, Rennie has yearned for "the touch of the hand that could transform you, change everything, magic." Passionately dedicated to helping other people, Daniel is virtually identified with the hands that Rennie comes to realize she herself has lost: "all she could imagine were his hands … his soul was in his hands." The morning after her arrival on St. Antoine Rennie wonders whether she, like other cancer victims, will resort to faith healing, "the laying on of hands by those who say they can see vibrations flowing out of their fingers in the form of a holy red light." Shortly afterwards she finds herself being pursued by a deaf and dumb man, whose inexplicable attentions strike her as being "too much like the kind of bad dream she wishes she could stop having." It is only when Paul explains that the man simply wants to shake hands with her in the conviction that the gesture will bring her good luck that Rennie realizes that "he's only been trying to give her something." Some time later Rennie witnesses an old woman on Ste. Agathe applying her healing powers to a tourist, and she too "wants to know what it feels like, she wants to put herself into the care of those magic hands." Immediately afterwards she quite literally puts herself into Paul's hands—he "reaches down for her. She takes hold of his hands; she doesn't know where they're going"—and after she and Paul have become lovers, finds her hands being taken by a group of native girls.
It is Paul who serves as the agency whereby Rennie is at last restored to her own body. At first she is afraid that the scar left by her operation will repel him as it has Jake, but these fears are dispelled when she perceives his actual reaction, and understands that "he's seen people a lot deader than her." The lovemaking scene that follows implicates Rennie's final coming to terms not only with her physical self, but also with the certain consciousness of her own inevitable decline and death:
He reaches out his hands and Rennie can't remember ever having been touched before. Nobody lives forever, who said you could? This much will have to do, this much is enough. She's open now, she's been opened, she's being drawn back down, she enters her body again and there's a moment of pain, incarnation, this may be only the body's desperation, a flareup, a last clutch at the world before the long slide into final illness and death; but meanwhile she's solid after all, she's still here on the earth, she's grateful, he's touching her, she can still be touched.
This quasi-mystical moment of "incarnation" represents the bridging of the gap between mind and body that Rennie has recognized in the dream in which she perceives her own body "under glass." Having discovered that contact with the world is still possible, that she can after all be touched, Rennie herself is enabled in her turn to "lay on hands." She begins with Paul himself: "She owes him something: he was the one who gave her back her body; wasn't he?… Rennie puts her hands on him. It can be, after all, a sort of comfort. A kindness."
But the process of enlightenment in which she is engaged does not reach its termination even here. Rennie may have become reconciled to the perpetual threat of physical malignancy within herself, but she has yet to confront a still more terrifying form of malignancy in the world about her, a spiritual cancer menacing her very conception of what it is to be human in the first place. This is the capacity for cruelty which she briefly glimpsed in Toronto, while researching her article on pornography, and which so profoundly disturbed her on that occasion that she refused to pursue her investigations any further. Once again the process of discovery expresses itself symbolically as a journey of descent, assuming the form this time of Rennie's physical incarceration in a subterranean cell on the Kafkaesque charge of "suspicion." When she first visits Fort Industry in the company of Dr. Minnow, the underground corridor he shows her is "too much like a cellar for Rennie." It recalls the cellar to which she was confined by her grandmother for real or imagined misdemeanours, a punishment which as we have seen is both psychologically and symbolically linked with her preference for surfaces over depths. "When I was shut in the cellar I always sat on the top stair," Rennie recalls in connection with the ordeals to which she was subjected as a child. Here she is afforded no such option.
Rennie shares her cell with Lora, a woman she regards as different from herself in every respect. Lora is deeply immersed in the life of the island, not excluding its criminal aspects, and displays nothing of Rennie's own fastidious detachment; when the old native healer on Ste. Agathe is wounded, for instance, it is Lora who washes the blood from her face, whereas Rennie herself feels squeamish at the sight of blood and wants only to be let "off the hook." Thrust into each other's company, the two women pass the time by recounting their personal experiences; much of the novel, indeed, as the reader only now learns, has in fact consisted in these narrations. Listening to her companion, Rennie is chagrined to discover that "Lora has better stories" than herself, that she has undergone experiences whose lurid authenticity contrasts vividly with the pseudo-existence that Rennie has been living. Lora, it turns out, has actually been raised in cellars of one kind and another, and she is therefore conversant with the depths that Rennie has always shunned. She has picked up certain tricks for survival in the course of her adventures, and Rennie is disgusted to learn that she is prostituting herself in order to secure minor concessions from the prison guards. Although she realizes quickly enough that she is hardly in a position to pass judgement on Lora, she is still unable to overcome her repugnance. "She looks down at her hands, which ought to contain comfort. Compassion. She ought to go over to Lora and put her arms around her and pat her on the back, but she can't."
Rennie's attitude begins to undergo a transformation once she understands where the rope that has been left in her apartment in Toronto in fact leads. The rope has been rather smugly exhibited to her by two police officers, ostensibly the personifications of civilized order, who while waiting for her return have ensconced themselves in her kitchen like the faceless stranger himself. One of these men asks questions concerning Rennie's personal life and habits that are not altogether innocent of malice, and may indeed betray a supressed voyeuristic streak. Rennie encounters subsequent pairs of policemen, none of whom inspire much confidence, at the air terminal on St. Antoine, at a bar, in the street outside her hotel, and in her own hotel room when she is arrested on the charge of "suspicion." After the uprising on Ste. Agathe has been quelled, the local police have rounded up the insurgents and "tied the men up with ropes." Some time later a number of these prisoners are tortured by their police guards in a courtyard dominated by a scaffold, a structure which, dating back to the British occupation of the island, recalls the use civilization makes of ropes as instruments of social regimentation. One prisoner, who turns out to be the deaf and dumb man met earlier, is treated with particular ferocity: "The man falls forward, he's kept from hitting the pavement by the ropes that link him to the other men." As she witnesses this orgy of gratuitous cruelty Rennie is overwhelmed by a dark revelation of universal complicity in evil:
She's seen the man with the rope, now she knows what he looks like. She has been turned inside out, there's no longer a here and a there. Rennie understands for the first time that this is not necessarily a place she will get out of, ever. She is not exempt. Nobody is exempt from anything.
After this climactic vision, which subverts the categories of inside and outside, of here and there, by which she has hitherto sought to confer moral immunity on herself, Rennie can no longer deny her own involvement in anything. Depths have become surfaces. The diagrammatic simplicity of the victor/victim dichotomy is undermined by the consciousness that the roles can be reversed without in the least affecting the essential structure of relationships. As Paul, in some ways Rennie's mentor in her journey towards enlightenment, has earlier remarked, "there's only people with power and people without power. Sometimes they change places, that's all."
But although this obliteration of the tidy distinctions upon which her existence has been founded leaves Rennie feeling fatally implicated in everything she sees, it also has its positive aspect. When, shortly after the torture episode, Lora too is savagely beaten by the prison guards, Rennie finally finds it within herself to acknowledge her essential kinship with her companion and embody that recognition in a concrete act. At first Lora's mangled face seems to be "the face of a stranger"—the mask of the "faceless stranger" that Rennie has been fleeing from throughout the novel—but then she realizes that "it's the face of Lora after all, there's no such thing as a faceless stranger, every face is someone's, it has a name." She uses her own saliva to wash the blood off Lora's face, as Lora herself has earlier washed the blood from the face of the old healer. After this,
She's holding Lora's left hand, between both of her own, perfectly still, nothing is moving, and yet she knows she is pulling on the hand, as hard as she can, there's an invisible hole in the air. Lora is on the other side of it and she has to pull her through, she's gritting her teeth with the effort … this is a gift, this is the hardest thing she's ever done.
She holds the hand, perfectly still, with all her strength. Surely, if she can only try hard enough, something will move and live again, something will get born.
Rennie is thus duplicating in her own way the act that Daniel performed for her sake some time before, laying on hands in order to bring another human being back to life. By so doing she rediscovers the hands she forfeited in her youth, "feel[ing] the shape of a hand in hers … there but not there…. It will always be there now." The consequence of this crucial act of midwifery would seem to be that "something" is indeed "born," if not Lora herself then the new "subversive" reporter Rennie, who is capable for the first time in her life of seeing things not as society pretends they are but as they are in reality. "What she sees has not altered; only the way she sees it. It's all exactly the same. Nothing is the same." What remains uncertain is whether this "rebirth" is a purely private, existential event only, or one that might bring some benefit to the rest of mankind.
A number of critics have debated the question of whether Rennie is actually released from prison or not, as well as that of whether Lora is literally restored to life through Rennie's ministrations. Atwood's convoluted narrative design seems expressly calculated to generate doubts as to the "reality" of the final episodes, and as Carrington points out the "paradoxical statements" with which the novel concludes "suggest that these scenes of rescue and return represent only a fantasy ascent from the dark underground of the dungeon." Without wishing to go too deeply into this question, I would suggest that Atwood, in shifting to the future tense to describe Rennie's release, intends to introduce an element of formal ambiguity which is essential to her meaning. For the clear implication of the work is that Rennie, whether she is physically liberated from the prison or not, can never escape the knowledge of human evil which that prison has come to symbolize. At the same time the recognition of human kinship which finds positive expression in Rennie's effort to revive Lora is one whose redemptive value is entirely independent of its practical consequences. In a certain sense, then, it is irrelevant whether Rennie is liberated or not, or whether Lora is resuscitated or not. Rennie remains imprisoned within the malignant cell even if she is free, and is freed by the capacity to lay on hands even if she remains in prison. It is this paradox that explains the apparently contradictory statements with which the novel concludes: "She will never be rescued. She has already been rescued. She is not exempt. Instead she is lucky."
Bodily Harm is, as Atwood herself once described it, an "anti-thriller," and frustrates the reader's conditioned expectation that suspense will be resolved in the customary manner. This refusal to play the game would seem to be part and parcel of Atwood's didactic point, for the conventions of the thriller (or of any other popular genre) might also be seen as culturally transmitted moulds through which raw experience is crystallized, neutralized and packaged for general consumption. Writing about life as if it were susceptible to thriller treatment is not much different from treating life as if it were simply a potential photograph or film or series of "lifestyles" articles. It is another way of not seeing, of confining one's experience to a fraudulent surface, a way which is parodied by Rennie's own abbreviated technique for reading mystery stories. But murder is real, as is human evil in all its manifestations, and an unmediated encounter with the crude actuality of bodily harm entails the shattering of the conventionalized modes of perceiving the world that genres of this kind exemplify. Looked at from a certain point of view, then, Bodily Harm is a self-deconstructing novel, to use an unwieldy but perhaps useful term. When Atwood says that her book takes the components of the thriller genre "and then pulls them inside out, as you would a glove," it is clear that the process she is describing mirrors that through which her protagonist is "turned inside out" during her climactic moment of vision in the prison. In overturning the very convention it implicitly invokes, denying its own generic postulates, the book enacts on a formal level the more general process of subverting those illusory categories that distance the perceiver from the world and from herself: the distinctions between aggressors and victims, depths and surfaces, here and there, mind and body, "I" and "thou." The structural ambiguity of the novel thus serves to reinforce a moral message which is very far from ambiguous, that only through a process of radical subversion is it possible to confront the malignant cell that lurks both within and outside the self, and to recognize in it the stranger's face which is our own.
SOURCE: "Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye: Re-Viewing Women in a Postmodern World," in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 22, No. 4, October, 1991, pp. 17-27.
[In the following essay, Ingersoll analyzes what he perceives as the autobiographical elements in Cat's Eye.]
Although one finds evidence of postmodernism in the manipulation of popular forms such as the Gothic in Lady Oracle and science fiction in The Handmaid's Tale, Cat's Eye is Margaret Atwood's first full-fledged "postmodern" work. Always the wily evader of critics' pigeonholes, Atwood, in a recent interview, has denied the classification of her work as "postmodern." She expresses her own amused disdain towards the critical-academic world for its attraction to "isms" in the discourse of Cat's Eye when Elaine Risley visits the gallery where her retrospective show is to be mounted. Risley dismisses the paintings still on display: "I don't give a glance to what's still on the walls, I hate those neo-expressionist dirty greens and putrid oranges, post this, post that. Everything is post these days, as if we're just a footnote to something earlier that was real enough to have a name of its own." At the same time, this novel is clearly Atwood's most postmodern in its play with form—the fictional autobiography—and in its continual self-referentiality as a text.
At the centre of this postmodern text is Atwood's complex use of her own past. Few writers have spoken out so vehemently against readings of their work as autobiography. As her interviews indicate, she is very aware that her audience is bent upon biographical readings of her fiction. With obvious amusement she tells how in question-and-answer sessions following her public readings she has often just finished disclaiming autobiographical roots for her characters when someone in her audience asks if she was overweight as a child like Joan in Lady Oracle or anorexic as a young woman like the unnamed narrator of The Edible Woman. For Atwood, there are clearly gender implications here since, as she has argued, women have traditionally been thought so imaginatively impoverished that all they could write about was themselves.
At the same time, although there is no Atwood biography—and she would be one of the last writers to authorize one—she is among the most interviewed contemporary writers. Thus, as she herself must know, serious readers of her work are familiar enough with the outlines of her family and her early life to be enticed into seeing the painter Elaine Risley—that stereotyped persona of modernist fiction—as at least partly her own reflection. Obviously she is not; and yet she is, despite the curious warning on the copyright page which reads in part as follows:
This is a work of fiction. Although its form is that of an autobiography, it is not one … with the exception of public figures, any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. The opinions expressed are those of the characters and should not be confused with the author's.
It is easy enough to see that Atwood is attempting to protect herself from potential legal action generated by former friends or associates who might choose to see themselves as models for the less appealing characters in Cat's Eye. However, the attempt to deny any connection with Elaine Risley must encourage the reader to suspect that the lady doth protest too much. In this way, part of the enjoyment of this text involves a shifting back and forth between invention and the facts of the inventor's past.
Atwood has provided her audience with so many of those facts of her early life that it is next to impossible for the informed reader to dismiss as coincidental the roots of Elaine's childhood in Atwood's. She has told her interviewers, for example, about the summers she spent as a child living in tents and motels while the family accompanied her father, an entomologist, doing research in the Canadian north. On more than one occasion she has described to her interviewers how she and her brother would help their father collect insects he shook from trees. In this context, given the writer's having gone on record as frustrated with her audience's misguided autobiographical readings of her earlier work, it is difficult not to conclude that Cat's Eye is, among many things, a highly sophisticated expression of play with her audience's expectations. Atwood may plead ignorance of contemporary critical theory, but she is undercutting the conventional notion that autobiography privileges an autobiographical fiction as more truthful than other forms of fiction. She shows us in Elaine Risley, a painter/writer who may seem in a conventional sense to be exploring the truth of her past but who in a truer sense is creating, or writing, a past as she chooses now to see it, rather than as it might have once existed.
The novel begins with a definition of time, justified perhaps by Risley's having returned to Toronto, her home, for a retrospective exhibition of her art. She dismisses linear time in favor of "time as having a shape …, like a series of liquid transparencies … You don't look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away." In the story she tells of her youth, Elaine offers a retrospective of the woman she has been and the women who have been important to her as she now sees herself and them. That past is very much seen through the cat's eye marble into which Elaine looked at eight and saw her future as an artist. The image of the cat's eye is central, since it represents a world into which she has been allowed access; at the same time, it is a world of inevitably distorted vision. Thus, the truth is not an entity to which we struggle to gain access so much as a way of looking and, in the process, creating the text of that truth.
Elaine Risley's retrospective allows her to review the people and relationships that have been important to the first fifty years of her life. In reconstructing her past—or the critical years from age eight to young womanhood—Elaine Risley is in large part deconstructing that past. The consequences of that deconstruction—what turns out to be the novel itself—is a complicated series of transformations through which the persona discovers that the past is only what we continue to reconstruct for the purposes of the present. And perhaps beyond that, Elaine Risley discovers that of all her relationships—with the opposite sex and with her own—the most important may have been the strange friendship with her tormentor/double Cordelia. By the end of the narrative, the persona will have finally exorcised the spirit of an alter ego who was perhaps primarily that, another self whom she no longer needs to fear, hate, or even love.
The focus of the early chapters is the very young Elaine Risley's struggle to find models in the two women who are crucial to her formative years. She begins her retrospective with her eighth birthday, a not surprising age for the onset of consciousness. For Risley, like Atwood, this was the time of her move to Toronto, and for Risley at least the end of happiness. Through the move to Toronto, a backwater of civilization in the 1940s, but still civilization, Elaine as a child is suddenly forced to confront "femininity." Having lived in tents and motels, she and her mother must don the costumes and the roles appropriate to their gender and put away their unfeminine clothes and ungendered roles until the warm weather when they return to the North. Overnight Elaine feels like an alien from another planet. The future of painful socialization is represented by the doorway in her new school marked "GIRLS," the doorway which makes her wonder what the other one marked "BOYS" has behind it from which she has been shut out.
We might expect Elaine to cherish the memory of a paradise lost of relatively ungendered life as a child in nature. Instead, she feels guilty for being unprepared to operate in a world of mothers who are housekeepers preoccupied with clothes and labour-saving devices. Although the mature Elaine mutes the resentment, the child Elaine suspects that her mother has failed her as the role model needed to help her find her way in a world of "twin sets" and wearing hats to church. The young Elaine's inability to fault the mother she loves forces her to internalize as guilt her sense of inadequacy. If she is suffering the pain of being out of place, it must be something that is wrong with her; certainly it cannot be anything wrong with the definition of womanhood embodied in the mothers of her friends, Cordelia, Carol, but especially Grace Smeath.
Clearly Mrs. Smeath is the Bad Mother that Elaine suspects her own mother of being for not having prepared her for socialization. In the Smeath household, Elaine and her friends are involved in that socialization; they study to be future housewives by cutting out pictures of "frying pans and washing machines" to paste into scrapbooks for their "ladies." A more important aspect of that socialization is represented by regular attendance at church. When the Smeaths invite Elaine to join them for the first of what eventually seems an endless series of Sundays, Atwood describes the interior of the church through the eyes of the young Elaine who might as well be a creature from Mars. One feature that becomes crucially important to Elaine are the inscriptions under the stained-glass pictures of Jesus—"SUFFER • THE • LITTLE • CHILDREN"—and of Mary—"THE • GREATEST • OF • THESE • IS • CHARITY."
Because she feels radically incapable of fitting into the world outside her home, Elaine becomes the victim of Cordelia's sadistic punishments for her incompetence as a student of womanhood. These punishments, which range from reprimands and shunnings to being buried alive, culminate in the scene of Elaine's almost freezing to death in a nearby ravine where Cordelia has thrown her hat. This is a ravine where "men" lurk to molest careless little girls. It is Elaine's victimization at the hands of other little girls, not those mysteriously dangerous men, which leads her to the nervous reaction of peeling the skin off her feet and hands, almost as though she is studying to become a child martyr by flaying herself alive. She is saved, she convinces herself, not so much by her own mother as by the apparition of the ultimate Good Mother, the Virgin Mary.
Mrs. Risley and Mrs. Smeath function then as variants of the Good Mother and the Bad Mother. Elaine's mother suspects that Cordelia and the other girls are tormenting her daughter, but she assumes that Elaine can tell her the truth and she never notices the marks of Elaine's flaying herself. Mrs. Smeath, on the other hand, knows that Elaine is being tormented but does nothing. In fact, Mrs. Smeath even knows that Elaine has overheard her saying that Elaine deserves to be punished for being at heart a graceless heathen. It is not until Elaine almost dies that Mrs. Risley acts. Somewhere down in the pool of the past lurks the monster of resentment against this Good Mother who should have known and acted sooner. Mrs. Risley becomes the representation, like her husband, of the well-intentioned, virtuous, but not terribly effective liberal humanists who sense that evil exists but refuse to acknowledge it, since a knowledge of evil would force them to find a place for it in their world.
Mrs. Smeath, on the other hand, is much easier for Elaine to deal with. Even as a child, Elaine can clearly see Mrs. Smeath's evil in the transparent world of that cat's eye which will be the emblem of her insight as an artist. She comes to see the crucial difference within Mrs. Smeath as a woman who professes to being a Christian—"SUFFER • THE • LITTLE • CHILDREN" and "THE • GREATEST • OF • THESE • IS • CHARITY"—yet believes that the greatest charity to little children who happen to be "heathens" is to make them indeed suffer. And, it is very much to the point that the individual who functions as Elaine's Muse is Mrs. Smeath, not Mrs. Risley. This variety of the Bad Mother, more in line with Freud's reality principle, generates a whole series of paintings through which Elaine vents her anger, hatred, and malice. Mrs. Smeath as the bad mother may very well represent much of what she finds most despicable in the conventional notion of Woman. At the same time, it is an evil which generates art and it is that art which liberates her from a self enslaved in anger towards and hatred of that image of "Woman."
That same indeterminacy is evident in Elaine's bizarre relationship with Cordelia. When she declares her independence, following Cordelia's move to another school, Elaine becomes powerful, assertive, verbally aggressive, and Cordelia fades into powerlessness, into the kind of silence which was Elaine's position early on in this power struggle veiled as a friendship. Elaine's enjoyment of a new facility with words, as though her tongue has been empowered by her earlier victimization, makes it clear how important the element of the retrospective is in this text. Told in a traditionally chronological fashion, Elaine's empowerment through language would have led the reader to anticipate that she would become a writer, rather than a painter.
In this symbiotic relationship, Elaine's friend/persecutor is given the name Cordelia. Most readers sense the irony in Atwood's borrowing the name of one of Shakespeare's innocent tragic heroines, but there are also implications of a transfer being transacted here. In the years following the Second World War, King Lear became one of our most attractive cultural myths in part because Cordelia reminds us how the innocent are swept up in the destruction of war and civil disorder and perhaps also that the innocent embody the redemptive power of love. At the same time, it is the refusal of Lear's single faithful daughter to speak, just as much as her sisters' hypocritical flattery, which sets in motion the machinery of conflict and destruction by which she and her family are overwhelmed. In this sense, Elaine, perhaps following her mother's example, is somewhat like Cordelia, choosing silence and martyrdom rather than risk the anxiety and guilt of self-assertion. Eventually, anger and resentment find their sublimated or socialized modes of expression, first in her verbal assaults on the imperfections of others and finally in her art, so often a visualization of her anguish at the hands of her tormentors.
More than anyone else, Cordelia is the one from whom she must free herself by acknowledging not only difference but kinship. Cordelia is a "secret sharer." Like her readers, Elaine keeps expecting her former tormentor to show up at the gallery, the most appropriate ghost to appear in this retrospective. Cordelia, however, does not need to appear: Elaine has already exorcized much of the guilt, hatred, and anger generated in her relationships with Mrs. Smeath and Cordelia through her art, conveniently brought together so that the artist, like her audience, can read this retrospective as a testimony to the transformative power of art. When Elaine returns to the bridge, the power of her creative consciousness calls up an apparition of Cordelia from the deeps of that pool of time with which we began. She tells us:
I know she's looking at me, the lopsided mouth smiling a little, the face closed and defiant. There is the same shame, the sick feeling in my body, the same knowledge of my own wrongness, awkwardness, weakness; the same wish to be loved; the same loneliness; the same fear. But these are not my own emotions any more. They are Cordelia's; as they always were.
I am the older now, I'm the stronger. If she stays here any longer she will freeze to death; she will be left behind, in the wrong time. It's almost too late.
I reach out my arms to her, bend down, hands open to show I have no weapon. It's all right, I say to her. You can go home now.
In a strange and unexpected sense, Cordelia has become her name. Just as Elaine earlier was rescued from physical death in the icy stream below this bridge, this time she acknowledges another variety of rescue. She confirms what this retrospective has been moving toward all along—the recognition that her art has rescued her from the spiritual death of a lifetime wasted in anger and resentment. Having recognized the power of Cordelia within herself. Elaine can at last release the Cordelia she has made to appear in the final hours before she prepares to leave home again. Perhaps she recognizes also that she and Cordelia had identities less distinct from each other than it seemed in childhood, that each had been fashioning the other in the image of a self she could not otherwise confront. Now Elaine herself can be a variety of the "Good Mother" and simply send Cordelia home before she freezes to death in "the wrong time."
In the end, Cat's Eye is postmodern in several interrelated ways. Atwood offers the informed reader the lure of a few well-known features of her own childhood and then proceeds to invent an autobiography which is the experience of Elaine Risley, a character who may bear only the most superficial similarities. Autobiography, even when intended, is obviously enough only another form of fiction. By offering us, in the words of the novel's preliminary note, a work of fiction whose form is that of an autobiography, she gives us a text which confirms that truth by showing how Elaine Risley has invented herself, constructed an autobiography, through her art. Elaine is even allowed to be amused by her critics' (mis)readings of her painting, one of whom writes of Risley's "disconcerting deconstruction of perceived gender and its relationship to perceived power, especially in respect to numinous imagery."
In addition, this text raises questions about the representation of women, about writing as a woman, about autobiography, and about mothers and daughters. As Barbara Johnson has argued, autobiography and its reflection in autobiographical fiction are a supplanting of the mother, a kind of giving birth to oneself through the creation of the text. Using the classic text of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Johnson argues that what a woman writer (the very term "woman writer" has traditionally been conceived of as a "freak of nature") creates has conventionally seemed a "monster." Johnson asks: "Is autobiography somehow always in the process of symbolically killing the mother off by telling her the lie that we have given birth to ourselves?" In telling us the story of her life, Elaine Risley foregrounds Cordelia as a monster only to show how she freed herself from Cordelia to become as a young woman monstrous in her own way, and appropriately, through language, with her "mean mouth." She offers us in Mrs. Smeath, the Bad Mother, whom she subsumes psychologically in her art, a kind of monstrosity which exorcizes the monstrous complicity of Mrs. Smeath in her persecution by Cordelia and the other girls. And she offers us in Mrs. Risley, the Good Mother, a failed guide to the intricacies of femininity in the outside world and, therefore, a mother who must be killed off before Elaine can achieve selfhood at fifty.
Why, we might ask, has it taken Elaine so long to give birth to herself, the sort of act managed by the Paul Morels and the Stephen Dedaluses of modernist fiction by their twenty-fifth birthdays? Part of the answer is obvious in the question. Elaine Risley is a female rather than a male character. In this context, a good analogue is Virginia Woolf who was well aware that she could not begin work on To the Lighthouse, dealing in part with the loss of her mother, until she was in her forties. As we have learned from sociologists like Nancy Chodorow, women must struggle to achieve a sense of self separate from others, in part because they are "mothered" or nurtured primarily by women. In this vein, Chodorow argues, mothers see themselves as continuous with their daughters:
Because they are the same gender as their daughters and have been girls, mothers of daughters tend not to experience these infant daughters as separate from them in the same way as mothers of infant sons. In both cases, a mother is likely to experience a sense of oneness and continuity with her infant. However, this sense is stronger, and lasts longer, vis-à-vis daughters.
In these ways, the retrospective of her art is partly an invention to allow Elaine to achieve a sense of self, distinct from both Mrs. Risley and Mrs. Smeath. It is also a belated recognition of her mothering herself as the child and the young woman Elaine as well as her mothering of Cordelia whom she now can release from her hatred and her love. Having completed this retrospective of her life and given birth to herself, Elaine can acknowledge the separateness of her "daughters"—both the girl she was and Cordelia as her "other." At the risk of increasing Atwood's anxiety with yet another autobiographical reading of her fiction, it might be recalled that Cat's Eye is the revision and completion of a manuscript she began in her mid-twenties and finished as she approached her fiftieth birthday. Despite Margaret Atwood's disclaimer that the novel is not autobiographical, it is a text performing itself as a text, a text of the author's own struggle to achieve selfhood as a woman and as an artist.
SOURCE: "'Lady Oracle': The Politics of the Body," in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 22, No. 4, October, 1991, pp. 29-48.
[In the following essay, Patton analyzes Atwood's use of goddess mythology in Lady Oracle.]
I search instead for the others the ones left over, the ones who have escaped from these mythologies with barely their lives
Margaret Atwood wrote these words as if they were spoken by the Circe persona in the "Circe/Mud Poems" section of her book of poetry called You Are Happy. Atwood's career as poet, storyteller, and critic has been a coming to terms with "these mythologies," a general term for myths about women and myths about gender relations which have been inscribed in our literature. Her career has been also a search for an escape from "these mythologies." Although numerous critics have analyzed Atwood's work with myths about women, their readings have been limited to primarily psychological interpretations. For the many women who have escaped "with barely their lives," however, cultural myths about women are very much a form of "power politics." To do justice to Atwood's work, we must look beyond psychology to the politics of her work with—and against—myth.
By far the most potent myth in Atwood's imagination has been the White Goddess, a multi-faceted myth which reflects socially constructed images of women's roles. Ever since Atwood's first reading of Robert Graves's book, The White Goddess, when she was of college age, this Goddess has shadowed her thinking. One could easily argue that even her most recent novel, Cat's Eye (1988), is a reworking of goddess images. In fact, while she was working on Cat's Eye which is a novel of retrospectives, Atwood wrote a retrospective on her own career for Ms. magazine's fifteenth-anniversary issue. She described the influence of the Goddess:
I read Robert Graves' The White Goddess which … terrified me. Graves … placed women right at the center of his poetic theory, but they were to be inspirations rather than creators…. They were to be incarnations of the White Goddess herself, alternatively loving and destructive…. A woman just might—might, mind you—have a chance of becoming a decent poet, but only if she took on the attributes of the White Goddess and spent her time seducing men and then doing them in…. White Goddess did not have time for children, being too taken up with cannibalistic sex.
The depth of Atwood's early obsession with this Goddess can be assessed by noting that her unpublished doctoral dissertation, "Nature and Power in the English Metaphysical Romance of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries" (Atwood Papers), revolves around the idea of supernatural women and goddesses as manifestations of ideas about nature. Remnants of this thesis are visible in published materials such as "Superwoman Drawn and Quartered: The Early Forms of She" and "The Curse of Eve," as well as the chapter on fictional women in Survival, her survey of Canadian literature. Double Persephone, Atwood's first collection of poetry, reflects the Demeter/Persephone myth, while other poetry, especially the "Circe/Mud Poems," utilizes the Goddess figure.
Robert Graves's version of the Goddess is a figure descended from earth mothers and grain goddesses from the matriarchal past, yet she often eats children, even her own. As Artemis or Diana, one of her major "incarnations," she is associated with the moon, and therefore is seen in three phases: virginity, fecundity, and hag. The Goddess is ambivalent, "both lovely and cruel, ugly and kind." Most important for Graves, she is the Muse, worshipped by all great poets. "Woman," writes Graves, "is not a poet: she is either a silent muse or she is nothing." The domestic is the enemy of the poetic for Graves; the worst thing that could happen to a poet would be that some "domestic Woman" would turn him into a "domesticated man." "The White Goddess is anti-domestic," he writes; "she is the perpetual 'other woman.'"
The myth of the White Goddess condenses, as myths do, many of the deepest, often unarticulated fears of women and men. Atwood's project is in part to articulate, to give form to, those fears—through reworking images of the Goddess. In her own versions of the Goddess, Atwood condenses fears of being large and fat, fears of being powerful, fears of devouring or overpowering lovers and children, and the fear of being a writer. Finally, because she is the Triple Goddess, of multiple identities, she represents the difficulty of coming to a sense of one "true" single identity, the Self, a goal which Western culture has invoked as the great desideratum.
Evidence in the Atwood collection of manuscript drafts and files of research materials (in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library) indicates that Atwood's novels are written both in terms of and also "against" the Goddess. I read Atwood's work as an attempt to come to grips with the hidden agendas of patriarchy, with socially constructed myths about women. Thinking back to Barthes's definitions of myths in Mythologies, that myth is "depoliticized speech" which "has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency appear eternal," then the myth of the White Goddess represents exactly the sort of "depoliticized speech" which has historically been used to define, limit, and disempower women. She is one major instance of the myths, legends, and texts which have been used as tools in women's subordination. Atwood has begun to deconstruct, historicize, and reappropriate the myth of the Goddess; she has begun, in short, to politicize it.
While in her first novel, The Edible Woman (1969), Margaret Atwood transformed Robert Graves's fearsome "White Goddess" into a "delicious" cake, Lady Oracle (1976) represents a second major attempt to deal with the Goddess, who is in this text more powerful than ever before. Atwood comes to terms with the most terrifying aspect of the Goddess in the Graves text, the devouring, powerful cannibalistic Venus who mates with men and eats them. She is the power of nature made visible, and the poet's necessary muse.
Lady Oracle is a representation of the narrator's attempt to act out the role of the Goddess. By having her narrator become the Goddess, Margaret Atwood takes on the issue of cultural control of women (and women's bodies) as represented in literature and in prescribed images or roles for women; she does combat with Graves in particular and patriarchy in general. Atwood's reading of Graves emphasizes two aspects: the cannibalistic nature of the Goddess and her role as silent Muse. The poetic vocation is thus a key to Lady Oracle, and a continuation of the discussion about the relationship between the artist and her world raised in Surfacing, Atwood's second novel. How can a woman inhabit the space of literature without being overwhelmed by the ideological preconceptions of that literature? How can a modern woman live without becoming a victim of the ideological constructs of the Western world?
Lady Oracle, Atwood's third novel, is about the eating woman. The heroine, Joan Delacourt Foster, is an avid consumer who literalizes the "oral" in "oracle." As a noticeably overweight child, she imagines her mother's image of her, which "must have been a one-hole object, like an inner tube, that took things in at one end but didn't let them out at the other." As she grew older, her mother "was tired of having a teen-aged daughter who looked like a beluga whale and never opened her mouth except to put something in it." Although Joan diets away her one hundred pounds of excess weight, she is occasionally haunted by nightmares of her fat childhood body and by meeting people who might remember her "Before" self. She earns her living writing "Costume Gothics," formulaic romance novels; sections of her latest book, Stalked By Love, are interpolated into Lady Oracle.
Joan's husband, a serious academic and political radical, does not even know about her Gothic romances; he also does not know that she is having an affair with "The Royal Porcupine," an avant-garde artist. He does know that she is becoming famous for a book published under her married name, a volume of automatic-writing poetry called Lady Oracle. Then a blackmailer threatens to reveal Joan's multiple identities. In an effort to disentangle herself from her complicated life, she enacts an imitation drowning death, flies to Italy, and buries her wet "drowning" costume, planning to begin a new life as easily as she usually begins writing a new book.
The Goddess is such a significant image to Lady Oracle that Atwood's research materials for the novel consist primarily of photocopied articles and references to the Goddess and to the Sibyl (another form of the Goddess). Basing my analysis upon the materials in these files, I argue against purely psychological explanations of Atwood's use of the mythological material, the route chosen by critics such as Barbara Godard, Roberta Sciff-Zamaro, and Sherrill Grace. Rather, the Goddess has both political and aesthetic dimensions for Atwood—she represents women's fears, but she also represents cultural constructions of women's roles. As Susan J. Rosowski notes, "In Lady Oracle, Atwood turns this tradition back upon itself, confronting the Gothic dimensions that exist within our social mythology" because "[o]nce established, fictional constructs become impervious to human reality."
Perhaps the most striking item in Atwood's research materials for Lady Oracle is the photocopy of a photo of a statue of the Goddess, labelled "Mother Nature," but generally known as the Artemis of Ephesus. This statue is, serendipitously, located within the enormous maze of the Villa d'Este, which she calls in her screenplay version of Lady Oracle, "the Tivoli Gardens, built by a Renaissance Cardinal for his dirty-weekend-palace. The Gardens are filled with statues that squirt water from various orifices of their bodies, run by hydraulic pressure." Atwood uses this figure in the published novel as part of the scenery. On a vacation in Italy, Arthur and Joan are wandering in the Villa D'Este when they suddenly come upon the Goddess:
She had a serene face, perched on top of a body shaped like a mound of grapes. She was draped in breasts from neck to ankle, as though afflicted with a case of yaws: little breasts at the top and bottom, big ones around the middle. The nipples were equipped with spouts, but several of the breasts were out of order.
This is a significantly more provocative image of the White Goddess than that in the Graves text; Graves stresses the role of the Goddess as a beautiful muse and as a destroyer of men and children, but ignores her "nature goddess" shape. If we think critically about this passage, what stands out is the difference between the "serene" head and the incredibly grotesque body. Unlike the other statues in the Gardens, with normal human bodies attached to normal human heads, this monstrosity encapsulates the complete lack of fit between mind and body. The contrast emphasizes "Mother Nature's" (and woman's) alienation from her own body, as if the female function of the body (childbearing and breast-feeding) had gone completely out of control, usurping every other function. To have breasts, to be female, is compared by Atwood to a disease, yaws. And the unreliability of the female body is emphasized by the note that "several of the breasts were out of order." This cultural limitation of the female body is part of what troubles Joan Foster.
Chapter 25 of the published version of Lady Oracle concludes with the passage quoted above followed by a short paragraph in which the narrator says that she
stood licking my ice-cream cone, watching the goddess coldly. Once I would have seen her as an image of myself, but not any more. My ability to give was limited, I was not inexhaustible. I was not serene, not really. I wanted things, for myself.
The complacent and distant attitude of the narrator in this published version is a reworking of a page of loose typescript in the files for Lady Oracle which gives a much more troubled version of this scene. It is apparent in the published version that Atwood has chosen to define the narrator as a person whose personal boundaries and self-definition are clear. In quite an opposite way the unpublished material emphasizes the conflicts, fears, and desires of Joan Delacourt Foster.
If two breasts are a virtue in woman, why not three, why not a hundred? We stood hand in hand, licking up the last of our vanilla ice cream, regarding the goddess, who did not regard us. Her head rose from its nest of breasts like the head of a beautiful leper. What prayers could be addressed to such a deity? Something easy for the breasts to understand for the head was merely human, the body divine, its deformity made this obvious. Something repetitive and monosyllabic. Give. Give.
The interesting complexity in this section is that the point of view is not strictly limited. There is a dangerous sympathy with the Goddess, a connection that is too close. The narrator seems to be in part imagining herself as the Goddess, constantly asked to "Give. Give."
The emotional entanglement is signalled by the complex, contradictory language, the oxymoronic phrases: "a beautiful leper," the "body divine [because of] its deformity." The conflicting, intertwined emotions, the fear that one is the Goddess, the longing for the Goddess, the desire to escape from the Goddess, are all captured here. The very complexity of point of view, the multiple, mutually antagonistic desires suggest that the character of Joan Delacourt Foster which finally emerges in the published novel is in some sense a distillation of even wilder and less controlled versions.
The unpublished quotation continues in an even more vivid imaginative sequence:
An image of inexhaustibility, and you looked at her with a certain longing, or so I imagined. Yet several of the breasts were not working, and the rest merely dribbled; think about that, the next time you treat a woman as the incarnation of the dream of largesse, and that goes for both of you. I know that I was two things for you, what you saw and what you would rather have seen; but how can I complain? We are never adequate to the dreams of others and these dreams infest our lives, like termites, like bloodworms. Any of these dreams come true would be a monster. Who carved this goddess? I can imagine her coming to life, reeling topheavily down the street, every breast wobbling, sprinkling lawns and flower borders as she passes, like a new portable irrigation system, her nurturing face twisted into a different expression, rage, the desire for revenge, seeking her creator. Women scream, men laugh in [page ends]
Leaving aside the issue of the addressee, the emotional weight of this passage in the final lines is terror, "women scream," a cry that may or may not have been displaced from the narrator onto other women. The terror is both personal and generic, both generalized fear of the Goddess as a "type," and also the particular fear of the narrator. The Goddess resembles not just a mythological figure, but also Joan's own former self, "reeling topheavily down the street." The Goddess is a terrible vision because of her "rage," "the desire for revenge." She is monstrous and linked to monsters—yet as a mythological archetype she is supposed to be the female, that which is part of, or a possibility in, every woman. Paradoxically, the narrator's fear is mixed with, as she says, "a certain longing," associated with the fact that she is "licking up the last of [her] ice cream," and worrying that the breasts are not inexhaustible. But these desires are repressed. The longing for breast milk, while licking on the breast-shaped and disappearing ice-cream cone, is transformed in the published version into an association with cold rather than nourishment, as the narrator watches "the goddess coldly."
We can see the degree to which the Goddess figure becomes a generalized "sign" of myths about women by connecting this unpublished material to Joan's attempt to bury her clothes, her former identity. The heroine has dug a hole under her rented "villa" in Italy in order to bury the wet clothes that were evidence of her faked death. Then she begins to imagine that the clothes are a buried body and that she is a murderer: "The clothes were my own, I hadn't done anything wrong, but I still felt as though I was getting rid of a body, the corpse of someone I'd killed." In fact, three hundred pages later, the clothes do return to haunt her. Her landlord's father digs them up and returns them, revealing the fact that he and the townspeople had been aware of her "buried" identity all along. But just before Mr. Vitroni returns the clothes, Joan has a revealing nightmare which ties together the buried clothes, her imaginary buried "body," and her vision of herself as fat.
Below me, in the foundations of the house, I could hear the clothes I'd buried there growing themselves a body. It was almost completed; it was digging itself out, like a huge blind mole, slowly and painfully shambling up the hill to the balcony … a creature composed of all the flesh that used to be mine and which must have gone somewhere. It would have no features, it would be smooth as a potato, pale as starch, it would look like a big thigh, it would have a face like a breast minus the nipple. (ellipses in original)
The text has conflated the buried or murdered "body" with Joan's dieted-off fat. But there is also a striking similarity between "the creature composed of all the flesh that used to be mine" and the Goddess partially suppressed earlier, who came "reeling topheavily down the street," making every woman scream. The multiple breasts have been turned into a "face like a breast minus the nipple." She is enormously fat, featureless, wandering blindly "like a huge mole" as if she were magnetically attracted to Joan, as if she were Joan.
These passages constitute a climax to Atwood's ongoing obsession with the function of the Goddess as a "sign" of "woman" and of female possibility. They signify the terror of women, their fear that their own female bodies will overpower their minds, will search them out and destroy their lives—or that their bodies will become alienated from their heads, that their bodies will be "composed of flesh" which will "have no features." What is common to all of these terrifying images is the exaggerated size, the inhuman disproportion of the breast-covered Goddess, as if the fact of having a female body overpowered any other personal characteristics. As Atwood noted so clearly in her 1987 retrospective, "Great Unexpectations," the images of what a woman could be scared her "to death." If women actually incarnated the characteristics attributed to them in myths such as the White Goddess, then one would not want to be female.
What is perhaps most significant, then, in the Artemis of Ephesus statue and in Atwood's writing about that statue is what we might call its "essentialism," that it reduces "Nature" to "Woman" (and "Woman" to "Nature"), that it defines both "Woman" and "Nature" by one characteristic (nourishment), and that the result is completely grotesque. It is as if Atwood took the most ludicrous examples of women embodying nature in the nineteenth-century romances she had studied in her doctoral dissertation, and then pushed those even further towards the grotesque. In a similar fashion, the philosophical import of Joan's childhood and adolescent obesity (and of her adult obsession with that discarded "Fat Lady") is that it is a sign, a grotesque reduction, of an individual to one single characteristic which erases all other meanings. This essentialism is perfectly incarnated in Joan's nightmare of the "body" which the clothes have grown, which has "no features," is "smooth as a potato," with "a face like a breast minus the nipple." As Molly Hite remarks, "this is a book in which fat is a feminist issue, and in which excess of body becomes symbolic of female resistance to a society that wishes to constrict women to dimensions it deems appropriate."
I have argued that Atwood sees amazing power in the White Goddess, but that in Lady Oracle she manages to take control over the goddess by rendering her powerless, even ridiculous. The "Fat Lady" in the pink skating costume, the sequence in which Felicia turns fat, the comic incident with the arrow in Joan's rear end, even—perhaps especially—the scene in which Joan and Arthur lick ice cream cones in front of the Goddess; these all appropriate and domesticate the Goddess. The powerless Goddess is even found inside of Joan's Costume Gothic, Stalked by Love, disguised as one of four women who sits in the maze; she is the one who is "enormously fat." The novel both constructs the Goddess and trivializes her, takes power over her, uses her. She may be a sign, but she is also just a sign.
Earlier I defined the myth of the White Goddess, using Barthes's terminology, as "depoliticized speech" which "has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency appear eternal." Atwood's approach to mythologizing and essentializing of "woman" is to appropriate, deconstruct and domesticate that myth. Using Susan McKinstry's observation that Joan "is, precisely, a character" who has turned herself into fiction, we can see this manoeuvre as political, as turning the powerful Goddess into a figure one can control, manipulate, and parody. When Judith McCombs writes of Lady Oracle that "this is myth and genre upside-down, reflexive, parodied," one can think about those moves (parody, turning a genre upside-down) as acts of appropriation of cultural myths about women. If we look at the context in which Atwood wrote the novel, it is clear that the story may be interpreted as political, as taking seriously the social construction of "woman," especially the goddess figure, and rendering that construction powerless.
Thus far, I have noted the stimulating effect which the figure of the Goddess has on Atwood's imagination and have pointed towards evidence that this figure represents a kind of uncontrolled power which the text both uses and attempts to contain. The problem with the Goddess figure, as represented up until now, is her silence. Each image of the Goddess is speechless, inarticulate. She may have an expressive face, but she never shouts, curses, or yells, much less writes. She is, in short, Graves's perfect White Goddess, completely the Muse, never the inspired, never the poet.
Atwood solves the problem of the silenced Goddess by giving her a voice—by turning her into Joan Foster, author. We readers hear the Goddess speak through Joan. She tells us, at least, her side(s) of the story. Atwood's act of giving voice to the Goddess, her destruction of the myth of the silent Goddess, is enabled to some extent by additional material about the Goddess provided by her researcher. While one aspect of "woman" is epitomized by the silent statue, reduced to the single function of nurturing, other attributes are possible. The research file contains numerous entries from encyclopedias, dictionaries, and classical works which emphasize the role of the Goddess as "Sibyl," her position as "oracle." It includes excerpts from Virgil's Aeneid and Ovid's Metamorphoses (Book XIV), both of which concern the incident in which Aeneas consults the Sibyl in order to discover how to find his dead father's shade; the Sibyl gives information and prophesies at length. Some of the references discuss Diana or Artemis; others mention the Delphic oracle, naming Daphnis and Pythia; Ovid and Virgil simply call her "Sibyl."
Other names for the Goddess were Proseprine and Hecate, and the research even includes sketches of two statues of this triple Goddess. One entry notes that the "most famous of her temples was that of Ephesus…. She was there represented with a great number of breasts, and other symbols which signified the earth, or Cybele." The entry concludes with remarks that allude to a certain bloodthirstiness on the part of the Goddess, that some worshippers "cruelly offered on her altar all the strangers that were shipwrecked on their coasts" and that she "had some oracles."
Another entry from the Classical Dictionary, on "Pythia," describes in detail how "Pythia, the priestess of Apollo at Delphi" would deliver her oracle:
… she was supposed to be suddenly inspired by the sulphureous vapours which issued from the hole of a subterranean cavity within the temple, over which she sat bare on a three-legged stool, called a tripod. In this stool was a small aperture, through which the vapour was inhaled by the priestess, at the divine inspiration, her eye suddenly sparkled, her hair stood on end, and a shivering ran over all her body. In this convulsive state she spoke the oracles of the god, often with loud howlings and cries, and her articulations were taken down by the priest, and set in order.
The similarity between Pythia's inspiration and Joan's "automatic writing" of "Lady Oracle" is quite striking; it is clear that Joan is acting as a sort of oracle. Her three-sided mirror substitutes for the tripod, the candle for the vapour, and her automatic writing takes the place of the priest.
But Joan is also partly modelled upon the Cumean Sibyl, an oracle of Apollo who spoke to Aeneas. Atwood used this excerpt from the C. Day Lewis translation of the Aeneid, with the Sibyl speaking from a cave:
The Sibyl cried, "for lo! the god is with me. And speaking / There by the threshold, her features, her colours were all at once / Different, her hair flew wildly about; her breast was heaving, / Her fey heart swelled in ecstasy; larger than life she seemed, / More than mortal her utterance:
The significance of this Sibyl is that she is able to lead Aeneas into the underworld; her power opens up the "maze" of Hades, just as Joan's experiments with her candle and triple mirror conjure up a goddess/guide: "she lived under the earth somewhere, or inside something, a cave or a huge building; sometimes she was on a boat."
The intriguing connection between the marked excerpt from the Aeneid and Joan's Costume Gothic romances is almost parodic, since the romances make a formulaic routine of the heaving breast and flying hair. Yet the Cumean Sibyl does retain the power of prophecy and speech. She is woman unsilenced; in another passage from Atwood's excerpts from the Aeneid, "her voice came booming out of the cavern, / Wrapping truth in enigma; she was possessed."
The most significant materials of all are the xeroxed references (both from Robert Graves's The Greek Myths) to the silencing of the oracles which had belonged to women—in other words, to women's loss of the power of the word. In Graves's section on "Oracles," for example, he notes that "The Delphic Oracle first belonged to Mother Earth, who appointed Daphnis as her prophetess; and Daphnis, seated on a tripod, drank in the fumes of prophecy, as the Pythian priestess still does." Graves then suggests alternative explanations of why Mother Earth no longer controls the oracle, and the final explanation, that the priests of "Apollo robbed the oracle" seems definitive. This conclusion is substantiated by a note on the following pages that all "oracles were originally delivered by the Earth-goddess, whose authority was so great that patriarchal invaders made a practice of seizing her shrines and either appointing priests or retaining the priestess in their own service."
Margaret Atwood seems to be attempting to recover the Oracular or the Sibyllic role of the Goddess, to undo the overthrow of the "woman" (not lady) oracle by the priests of Apollo, and to reinstate the Goddess who is a poet. Paradoxically, she is empowered by the writings of Robert Graves, who most forcefully presented Atwood with her problem in her early years. By looking back to the legends of the original transition from matriarchy to patriarchy, Atwood is placing the almost trivial, definitely comic, story of Joan Delacourt Foster within the much more cosmic frame of the gendered arrangements of contemporary culture, which even today keep women as merely the priestesses and the Muses of patriarchal writing. These research materials, in other words, remind us that Atwood's primary obsession, as she framed it in Ms. magazine, is with the representation of the Goddess as the muse of the male poet, with Graves's contention that a woman could not be a poet. But what even Graves's own notes on "Oracles" hypothesize, and what the Aeneid demonstrates, is the power of a woman's voice, of the woman oracle, when she is allowed to speak.
I believe that if we think of the novel Lady Oracle as having sprung, in some sense, from musings upon the mythology of Artemis/Diana, Hecate/Mother Nature as represented in these excerpts and illustrations, then it becomes even more clear that one of the aims of the text is to reimagine the Delphic oracle again under the control of women. This is a figurative way of saying that the novel is attempting to imagine a way in which women can take back their rightful place as poets and writers. We can think of the various modes of writing in Lady Oracle as musings upon the place of gender in the politics of literary production, or even as musings upon the place of literary production in the realm of sexual politics. If we return to the published novel, we can see evidence that Atwood is, indeed, articulating the difficulties for women writers in assuming an equal place in the marketplace of literary production.
In Lady Oracle, the domination of publishing by editors who are primarily interested not in quality of writing but in sales, not in feminism but in money, is represented by John Morton, Doug Sturgess, and Colin Harper, the men who decide to publish Joan's poem. Sturgess's reduction of Joan Foster to a seductive object to decorate the bookjacket is typical: "Don't you worry your pretty head about good. We'll worry about good, that's our business, right?" Not only do men control women writers, but in addition, the modes of writing and creative expression practiced by men are presented as inherently repulsive: Fraser Buchanan's blackmail letters and avant-garde poetry of rejection slips, and the Royal Porcupine's "poetry" of frozen dead animals. This "art" is a burlesque, as McCombs says, [in Women's Studies, Vol. 12, 1986] of "Survival's colonial mentality, victims, dead animal and frozen Nature stories," but it is nevertheless unappealing to a woman writer. If we take these examples as representative, the role of men in the politics of literary production is to exploit women and animals.
Can women writers then enter into political writing? Atwood discusses this possibility through her description of Resurgence, the "small Canadian-nationalist left-wing magazine" which Arthur, Sam, and Don write. This journal provides an alternative form of literary production, and the fact that Marlene is the managing editor emphasizes the point that women can enter this sort of literary marketplace. Within the context of the novel, however, Resurgence becomes a joke because of the maelstrom created by the sexual politics of its staff, the merry-go-round of beds. Further, as Joan points out "Nobody … read Resurgence except the editors, some university professors, and all the rival radical groups who edited magazines of their own and spent a third of each issue attacking each other." Thus, as of 1976, Atwood did not see political writing as an attractive field for writing women.
Rejecting avant-garde art and political commentary, one discovers that the formulaic romance is possibly the most appealing field for women writers, so available to women that Paul has to disguise himself as Mavis Quilp in order to have his novels accepted. Further, as McCombs reminds us, the genre is definitely "natural" to Canada, since Harlequins are "Canada's most viable literary art, and a major publishing export." With female authors, female protagonists, and an enormous female audience, the market is ready for use.
At one point, Joan even considers the possibility of recuperating the Costume Gothic for political purposes. She knows that these formulaic stories (as compared to Resurgence) actually appeal to the masses which the left-wing radicals believe they want to reach: "Terror at Casa Loma, I'll call it, I would get in the evils of the Family compact, the martyrdom of Louis Riel, the horror of colonialism, both English and American, the struggle of the workers, the Winnipeg General Strike."
The idea of the power of the cheap romance remains as one of the pleasures of reading Lady Oracle. The interpolated scenes from Joan's novel in progress are vividly written and enticing enough to engender desire for a satisfactory resolution of the plot, so that even the sophisticated reader feels the attraction of the genre. Her allusions to fotoromanzi, Italian love stories written almost like comic strips with voice balloons, but photograph pictures, point to a similar genre. In Margaret Atwood's letter to "Donya" requesting research materials for Lady Oracle she specifically requested a copy of a "photoromanza": "In case you don't know what these are, they are cheesy magazines, sort of like True Romances except that the story is told in still black & white photos, with captions & cartoon balloons. The cheesier the better, and if you find several equally cheesy ones, buy all of them." No actual fotoromanzi have been preserved in the files but these "cheesy" romances, mentioned several times in Lady Oracle, have characteristics which clearly appeal to Joan: "The stories were all of torrid passion, but the women and men never had their mouths open … Italy was more like Canada than it seemed at first. All the screaming with your mouth closed."
Yet it is the popular appeal and the ephemeral nature of the fotoromanzi which distinguish them from high culture. With Lady Oracle and Joan's poem of the same name, Atwood begins her search for a mode of artistic expression which is anti-élitist in that it is deliberately designed for wide appeal, open to women authors and women characters, and which can also be opened up for larger purposes than escape.
Finally, Joan Foster's creation of her Gothic romances and her oracle poem is a story, like that of Atwood's strategies for appropriating to herself the potent image of the Goddess, in which the artist takes to herself the power of the Sibyl. Although the critic Frank Davey argues [in Margaret Atwood: A Feminist Poetics] that, as a narrator, Joan is "drowning in language," we could also say that she is letting loose the power of language.
The power of the Sibyl, however, is an ambiguous power. It is like the power of the mother, the power of creation. Yet on the other hand, it is also a giving away of one's self. Out of Joan's subconscious comes Lady Oracle, and after Joan's supposed suicide has been publicized in the media, the poem is turned into an item for popular consumption: "Sales of Lady Oracle were booming, every necrophiliac in the country was rushing to buy a copy."
The similarity between the many-breasted Goddess and the woman writer is apparent in this quoted sentence. Like the Goddess who offers her breasts, her substance, for public consumption, the poet offers herself, her ideas, her selves, and her fears for public consumption. Her novels or poems will be "condensed," "digested" by reviewers, "consumed" by the public, "devoured" by fans, "regurgitated" in literature classes—she will be metaphorically cannibalized.
Atwood is acutely aware of these possibilities. Her attention to the fotoromanzi suggests that she is meditating upon the role of the writer as producer of ephemera, thinking about the offering of a woman writer's created identities (of her "selves") for digestion by the public. The covers of Atwood's novels make the books resemble supermarket literature, which one might pick up along with the bread, milk, and fruit. A recent series simply has Margaret Atwood's face on every cover, as if the author were the product to be sold. The French language version of Lady Oracle has the real Margaret Atwood's face in a circular frame next to a parody of Margaret Atwood's face, with red hair and red eyebrows, in a rectangular frame.
Ultimately, I suggest, the writer is in the position of the narrator of the ice-cream-eating sequence, longing for the milk of an inexhaustible muse, Goddess and Mother, yet also in the position of the Goddess herself, constantly required to "Give. Give" of her self, to offer her heart to the public. An unpublished poem, entitled "Oracle Poem Three," poignantly raises this issue:
What would you like today you who sit in rows and are bored and are hungry? Shall I describe a flower for you? Shall I describe a cripple? Would that make you feel better? I can do either. Or maybe you would like to kill me, that would be fun, that would be participation. Then you could divide me into segments, relics: that's what you do with saints, it makes them last longer. A finger to take home and place under your pillow and pray every night: perhaps it will cure you— But the heart, the golden heart, that's the element you will squabble over: wars have been fought for it. You think it will be secret, you think it will be magic, with the valuable heart you can do anything you want. But when you dig it out you are disappointed: it's scarcely larger than a chicken liver, it's pale, it's normal, and when you've swallowed it diamonds don't drop from your lips, you can't hear the trees talking. Is it because you have no faith?
The Delphic oracle is again under the control of a woman, a sibyl. She speaks. She may be devoured, she may devour, but at least she speaks.
In Lady Oracle, Atwood both destroys the Goddess (parodies her, makes her trivial) and celebrates her oracular powers, the force of her language. The triumph of Lady Oracle is that finally, after years of obsession with the Goddess, Atwood confronts her in her most horrifying aspect and, in Barthes's terminology, "vanquishes [the] myth from the inside."
SOURCE: "The Hairball on the Mantlepiece," in The New York Times Book Review, November 24, 1991, p. 7.
[Wilcox is an American-born short story writer and novelist whose works include Modern Baptists (1983), North Gladiola (1985), and Miss Undine's Living Room (1987). In the following review, Wilcox generally praises Atwood's Wilderness Tips, but finds some of the prose awkward and over-mannered.]
In "Hack Wednesday," one of the most engaging stories in Margaret Atwood's third volume of short fiction, Wilderness Tips, a middle-aged newspaper columnist sizes up men in an unusual way: "She can just look at a face and see in past the surface, to that other—child's—face which is still there. She has seen Eric [her husband] in this way, stocky and freckled and defiant, outraged by schoolyard lapses from honor." This uncanny ability applies just as well to Margaret Atwood herself. Almost every one of the 10 stories in this collection superimposes the past upon the present in an unsettling, often startling manner, which conjures up a sense of the mysterious in even the most banal relationships.
The first story, "True Trash," a deceptively easygoing coming-of-age tale, accustoms us to the author's bold leaps in time. Set mainly in a summer camp on an island in Ontario's Georgian Bay, "True Trash" gives us a leisurely account of teen-age waitresses' fitful interaction with the "small fry" and counselors at Camp Adanaqui.
But it is only in a flash-forward of 11 years, when the former schoolboy camper Donny has dropped the last syllable from his name and grown a beard, that the story begins to take shape. During a chance encounter with him in Toronto, Joanne, a former waitress at the camp, begins to put together the missing pieces in a real-life True Romance story—or rather, as one of the waitresses called this type of magazine, True Trash. "The melodrama tempts [Joanne], the idea of a revelation, a sensation, a neat ending." But she is too sophisticated now for such a pat, "outmoded" story, and withholds from Don a revelation that would make him seem a True Trash character.
Information withheld gives a contemporary twist to another basically old-fashioned tale. In "Death by Landscape," also set in a Canadian summer camp—Manitou is for girls, though—the mysterious disappearance of Lucy, one of the campers, during a canoe trip brings the disparate elements of the story into sharp focus. Cappie, the owner and director of Camp Manitou, cannot live with the unknowable. As Lois, Lucy's best friend, realizes later when she is a grown woman, Cappie had a desperate "need for a story, a real story with a reason in it; anything but the senseless vacancy Lucy had left for her to deal with." Cappie's story is pure fiction, though, with no basis in fact. Lois's attempt to fill the "senseless vacancy" with some meaning leads beyond any literal rendering to a mythical landscape of her own disturbed mind.
This yearning for meaning in a post-modern world is further explored in "The Age of Lead," Here the past that confronts Jane, a financial consultant in her 40's, is not just her youth. While watching a television program on the exhumation of a member of the Franklin expedition that was lost in the Arctic 150 years ago, Jane recalls her touching friendship with Vincent, a designer she had known since high school. Whereas it is eventually learned why John Torrington, the 20-year-old petty officer on the expedition, died, 43-year-old Vincent's recent death from "a mutated virus" cannot be explained by modern science. As Jane muses upon the two deaths, the more personal theme emerging from her school days with Vincent is united with the story's larger concern with indeterminacy: "She felt desolate…. Their mothers had finally caught up to them and been proven right. There were consequences after all; but they were the consequences to things you didn't even know you'd done."
If the frozen corpse of the petty officer seems "like a werewolf meditating," so too does the 2,000-year-old man discovered by a peat digger in "The Bog Man" appear "to be meditating." Here again the past confronts the present in what at first seems a merely sensational, irrelevant way. Julie, a naïve Canadian student in love with her married archeology professor, goes to Scotland, where she endures boredom, "congealed oatmeal" and "rock-hard lamb chops" in order to be with her lover on a field trip. Trying to escape the boredom, Julie ventures out to the bog, where she is upset by the sight of the well-preserved corpse. This unearthing of the past seems to her "a desecration. Surely there should be boundaries set upon the wish to know, on knowledge merely for its own sake." Not surprisingly, she follows her instinct of leaving the past—or rather, the inconvenient parts of the past—buried when she later, as a mature, twice-married woman, tells the story of her affair to her women friends. "She leaves out entirely any damage she may have caused to Connor…. It does not really fit into the story."
Other characters in Wilderness Tips are more honest as they "sift through the rubble, groping for the shape of the past." In "Isis in Darkness," a professor tries to revive the magic power that words held in his youth by writing about a brilliant woman poet who once had him under her spell. "Uncles" introduces us to Susanna, who ascends with the speed and ease of a romance-novel heroine from lowly newspaper obit writer to celebrated radio and television interviewer. Though she has considered herself a well-loved, deserving woman, the publication of a former colleague's memoir causes Susanna to wonder if she has "remembered my whole life wrong."
Kat, like Susanna, enjoys a slick rise to the top, though hers, in "Hairball," is more easily explained. "When knives were slated for backs, she'd always done the stabbing." What would otherwise be an all-too-familiar tale of comeuppance in the dreary world of fashion magazines is given an uncanny aura by the presence of a benign tumor, dubbed Hairball, which Kat has preserved from an operation and given a place of honor on her mantelpiece. "The hair in it was red—long strands of it wound round and round inside."
Like the red-haired bog man and the frozen corpse haunting "The Age of Lead," the pickled tumor opens up another dimension, revising the story of Kat's life in a way over which she, for once, has no control: "Hairball speaks to her, without words…. What it tells her is everything she's never wanted to hear about herself. This is new knowledge, dark and precious and necessary. It cuts."
Well constructed as these stories are, some may seem to belabor their themes with built-in explanations. At times, we're told what to make of the inexplicable, and such wonderful anomalies as the bog man or the frozen petty officer may wind up as too-convenient symbols. Now and then, the language itself can be troubling. In Ms. Atwood's previous collections, Dancing Girls and Bluebeard's Egg, the prose was supple, finely tuned with a variety of inflections. But in Wilderness Tips the stylized repetition of words and phrases ("Jane doesn't watch very much television. She used to watch it more. She used to watch comedy series") can seem mannered. And for a writer so abundantly talented, there are patches of curiously flat, unimaginative narrative, where we might encounter someone going "cold with dread" or bad luck gathering around a summer camp "like a fog."
These reservations, however, do not apply to such complex, beguiling stories as "Wilderness Tips" and "Hack Wednesday." In "Wilderness Tips," the same themes are in evidence, but handled more deftly, with a buoyant irony that can keep even so ponderous an image as a sinking passenger liner afloat. Instead of a bog man or a dead English sailor, Ms. Atwood here serves up a roguish Hungarian émigré with the Anglicized name of George. The first time he visited Wacousta Lodge, the rustic lakefront house belonging to Prue's staid family, "he was led in chains, trailed in Prue's wake, like a barbarian in a Roman triumph…. He was supposed to alarm Prue's family." Nevertheless, Wacousta Lodge is conquered by the "barbarian" when George marries Prue's more docile sister Portia.
Browsing one day through the lodge's bookshelves, George comes across a book, published in 1905, called Wilderness Tips. "The book itself told how to do useful things, like snaring small animals and eating them—something George himself had done, though not in forests." This casual aside, suggesting so much about George's savage past, sets up a useful counterpoise to his wife's New World innocence. Portia "wishes she could go back a few decades, grow up again. The first time, she missed something … some vital information other people seemed to have." Here again is the familiar theme of life stories seeming incomplete because of missing information. But it is in many ways a willful ignorance that Portia lives with, refusing to explore the barbarian's own wilderness with any of the tips so conveniently at hand.
The barbarian hovering on the periphery of "Hack Wednesday" is perhaps the most disconcerting alien in this collection. It is Manuel Noriega himself, "his round face pocked and bleak as an asteroid." How Ms. Atwood works him so naturally into her tale of a middle-aged newspaper columnist at odds with her editor is storytelling at its best. Here a vision of the past helps bring about a sense of forgiveness, riot in any facile way, but with a tough-minded good humor that makes Marcia the columnist, one of Ms. Atwood's most appealing characters.
SOURCE: "Time Telescoping Tales," in The Christian Science Monitor, December 27, 1991, p. 14.
[In the following review of Wilderness Tips, Rubin praises Atwood's ability to function as a "barometer" of the social climate of present and past decades in her writing, but faults her work for "a lack of energy and élan."]
I find it hard to dislike Margaret Atwood's fiction, or even to offer serious criticism of it. Thoughtfully feminist, ecologically sensitive, a clear-eyed observer of social trends from urban alienation to rural isolation, Atwood is one of those writers who seem to function as barometers of their times.
One seldom feels one has wasted one's time in reading her. Often, one comes away from her work with a memorable insight or two. But I cannot say that I approach a new Margaret Atwood novel or story collection with a keen sense of anticipatory pleasure or excitement. Something about her gray, flat style communicates a damp, cold feeling of weariness, which is not simply the effect of her commitment to exposing the sometimes-depressing truth about living on an exploited, violence-prone planet, but also a lack of energy and élan in the way she does what she does.
Born in Ottawa in 1939, Atwood published her first book of poems in 1961, and now has about a dozen volumes of poetry to her credit. But it was the appearance of her novels throughout the 1970s and 1980s that gained her a wider audience. In poetry and prose alike, she has tackled a variety of modes, from the social realism of Life Before Man and Bodily Harm to the historical re-creation of her poetic sequence about a pioneer woman, The Journals of Susanna Moodie, and her dystopic futurist fantasy, The Handmaid's Tale, which was made into a film.
Wilderness Tips is Atwood's third collection of short stories. Many of these 10 neatly constructed, present-tense narratives unfold backward or forward over several decades. The characters define themselves—or fail to define themselves—in terms of the way they and the world have changed over the years.
The opening story, "True Trash." is set at a summer camp in the late 1950s, where a group of girls who have summer jobs as waitresses amuse themselves by reading and laughing at the stories in True Romance magazines. But life turns out to be more like fiction—even bad fiction—than they suspected. The innocent and not-so-innocent pleasures of summer flirtation and the scandal of a teenage pregnancy seem to lose their meaning over the years, however, as the story concludes: "You can do anything now and it won't cause a shock. Just a shrug…. A line has been drawn and on the other side of it is the past, both darker and more brightly intense than the present."
The hard-driving heroine of "Hairball" also changes with—or even slightly ahead of—the times. She begins as a "romanticized Katherine," dressed by her mother in frilly dresses, then sheds the frills in high school to emerge as a "bouncy, round-faced Kathy … eager to please and no more interesting than a health food ad." At university, she becomes "Kath" in her "Take-Back the-Night" jeans. By the time she runs off to England and lands a job with an avant-garde magazine, she's "sliced herself down to Kat … economical, street-feline, and pointed as a nail." Kat's toughness is shown to be a valuable asset, but in the hard-nosed world she's helped to create, even someone like herself can be tossed on the trash heap.
Richard of "Isis in Darkness" meets Selena in Toronto in 1960. Like other young people who hang out at the coffeehouse there, Selena styles herself a poet. The difference is, her talent is real. Richard recognizes her quality and falls in love with her. It's not that he wants to marry her, or even that he feels the usual kind of desire for her. What he feels is a mysterious wish "to be transformed by her, into someone he was not." Richard marries a librarian and settles down to become an academic. But every 10 years, Selena turns up in his life, first as a living reminder of an existence dedicated to poetry, later as a walking emblem of discouragement and despair. Schematic as it is, this story achieves a measure of poignancy lacking in some of the other pieces.
The title story, about three sisters and the vaguely disreputable charmer who romanced the middle one but married the youngest, has a gloomy ending that left me as cold as its bloodless, stiffly drawn characters. Similarly, the childhood tragedy in "Death by Landscape" is such a literary cliché that any reader following the meanderings of this predictable story line would be more shocked if the troubled teenager had not met with misfortune on the camp canoe trip.
In "Bog Man," a student's risqué affair with her archaeology professor in the early 1960s is a story that keeps changing as years go by. At first, it's a tale she tells only in confidence and only to other women: a story about the mysterious ways of men. Later, she tells the story more freely, emphasizing its comical elements, no longer idealizing the professor and feeling now a touch of sympathy for his hapless wife. The more time goes by, the more comical and cynical the story becomes and the less remains of her original emotions. "Connor [the professor] … loses in substance every time she forms him in words. He becomes flatter … more life goes out of him…. By this time he is almost an anecdote, and Julie [the former student] is almost old."
A similar process of disillusion is described in "The Age of Lead." As teenagers, Jane and. Vincent mocked their mothers' joyless warnings about the dire consequences of deviation from the work ethic. But after the excitement of the 1960s and the expansion of opportunities for women in the 1970s, the 1980s fall like a ton of bricks: acid rain, urban decline, pollution, poverty, AIDS, and early death for many of Jane's contemporaries. "Their mothers had finally caught up to them and been proven right. There were consequences after all; but they were the consequences to things you didn't even know you'd done."
The bleakness of Atwood's outlook is underscored by the chilly third-person narration she favors: detached, slightly wry, often a little monotonous, but sometimes tightening to a dour sort of elegance. One can hardly fault Atwood for her pessimism or her resolutely pared-down style. But the vision offered here is a limited one: like a black-and-white television continuously tuned to nightly bad news.
What must be commended, however, is Atwood's ability to evoke the passing of entire decades—to convey how it feels to live at a given time and how it feels to view it in retrospect—all within the brief compass of a short story.
SOURCE: "The Handmaid's Tale, Cat's Eye and Interlunar: Margaret Atwood's Feminist (?) Futures (?)," in Narrative Strategies in Canadian Literature: Feminism and Postcolonialism, edited by Coral Ann Howells and Lynette Hunter, Open University Press, 1991, pp. 93-107.
[In the following essay, LeBihan analyzes the narrative technique and major themes in The Handmaid's Tale, Cat's Eye and some of the poems in Interlunar.]
Margaret Atwood is nothing if not formidable in her utilization of different forms in her writing. Her two latest novels are strikingly different from one another in terms of the formal traditions within which they might be placed. Cat's Eye is a woman painter's cynical retrospective principally on her relationships with other women and feminism. The Handmaid's Tale is most often labelled 'feminist dystopian'. I intend to call into question the use of this title here, for the way in which it has been employed to place Atwood's novel against the mainstream of fiction, conveniently reading the location and label as marginalizing. Marginalization then becomes construed as having the function of undermining the subversive effects of the text. In what follows, I will suggest some alternative readings of location, which offer the possibility of serious challenges to mainstream thought from places other than from the conventional centres of power.
Her latest collection of new poetry, Interlunar, contains poems whose narrators speak from locations which find echoes in the setting of The Handmaid's Tale. They are voices that have been given to them, voices which aim to discover precisely where they have been put, voices which protest against the order which has this locational power over them. The voices in the poetry are nearly all weakened however, by disease, death, despair. The Handmaid's Tale is offered as a prediction of the future only if its warnings against oppressive central powers to mute protest are ignored. The world of Gilead is not quite an inevitable destiny. This kind of hope is not offered by the poetry of Interlunar. 'Letter From The House Of Questions' is not like the tale which has fortunately survived as proof that in some small, though ambiguous way, a protest has been registered. Instead it begins with a sense of its own inevitable annihilation:
Everything about me is broken. Even my fingers, forming these words in the dust a bootprint will wipe out by morning, even these words.
Atwood has used a different writing genre or generic style for three of her most recent publications, then: poetry, 'feminist dystopian' novel and almost realist novel (since the bizarre or fantastic is never entirely missing from Atwood's work). I want to explore in this paper some of the connections between texts using different kinds of genre, of which Atwood makes use in her later writing: the speculative fiction and autobiographical confession of The Handmaid's Tale, the retrospective first person speaker of Cat's Eye and the less assertive narrational voices in the poetry of Interlunar. This study is an attempt to discover whether Atwood's work offers hope for feminist fiction in the future, whether it can challenge the position offered to it by the literary mainstream or whether its words in the dust will be obliterated by a savage bootprint.
Putting Margaret Atwood's name on a feminist agenda immediately causes problems. In refusing to overtly align herself with the women's movement, Atwood has been seen as a reactionary artist, separating her art from her politics and undermining feminist solidarity. This latter perceived fracturing of sisterhood has been welcomed by masculist critics, who see any kind of criticism and internal political division into factions as destructive wrangling or bitching. Pro-feminist critics have also begun to reject Atwood's work as a result of her apparent distance, despite the fact that her textual concerns are very relevant to many issues discussed as 'feminist', irrespective of her personal declarations of non-alignment to specific feminist groups.
The agenda of 'feminist (?) futures (?)', the reason for all the question marks relating to Atwood's work, converges for me at a much debated current critical problem. The questions meet at a spot marked by a 'post'. Does Atwood's writing exemplify postfeminism, postmodernism or postmodernist feminism? In what ways are these critical, political and chronological categories useful in reading her later fiction and in what ways does her writing help us better articulate these positions?
The post stands at a crossroads, as a sign pointing the (literary and critical) directions. The post marks one spot, its own stable site where it is embedded in concrete, but being a directional indicator, it is clearly attempting to order and to ease the transit of others, who look to it to learn where they are, where they have been and where they are going. Perhaps one of the biggest questions relating to the post is the one of who erects such a solid, stable, privileged signifier. For He who attaches the sign (and I use He advisedly) is the style merchant of today, the director of what is central and therefore of what is marginal. The presence of the post is a sign of the cultural times (just like fashion designer labels, it is a marker of who is in and who is out). The post is tagged to descriptions to indicate the contemporaneity of the signified. Postmodernism, Postfeminism and the like are titles which tell us the time.
But the chronological issue of the post is a vexing one, for it is a prefix which in addition to marking what is in vogue, what is current and up to date, is an attachment which also indicates time passing, and politics progressing beyond their starting points. As I read it, then, the post may seem static and upright, but in fact it is a moment of utter uncertainty. It relates at once to several planes of history, offering both a relevant connection with the movement from which it has evolved but also a distinction from those origins. The post is also generally an attachment which appears to offer some kind of engagement with current critical theory, a warning triangle—'Caution. Theory Ahead!'—or the post can even turn out to be a sign which points to reader in a misleading direction.
Elaine Risley, the narrator of Cat's Eye, comments upon the post problem with some bitterness. After procrastinating as far as possible, she finally enters the feminist art gallery where her retrospective collection is to be shown. She comments with irritation:
I don't give a glance to what's still on the walls. I hate those neo-expressionist dirty greens and putrid oranges, post this, post that. Everything is post these days, as if we're all just a footnote to something earlier that was real enough to have a name of its own.
Elaine Risley firmly rejects any attempt to make her a member of a post movement because she equates the post with the past. Elaine Risley distinguishes between the past, as something which is dated and irrecoverably lost, and history, which is a subjective reconstruction influenced by elements of that past, but which is by no means the same thing. But for her the post marks not a position in an historical continuum but rather a radical break in genre, style and politics. According to the formulation of Elaine Risley here, the post becomes a sign that the past is no longer a relevant or fashionable referent. Elaine Risley wants her paintings to be current, which is why she has such ambivalent feelings about the retrospective exhibition ('first the retrospective, then the morgue' she comments). But she wants to be current on her own terms, not in post terms. 'Language is leaving me behind', she says, which is precisely what she believes the action of the post prefix to be. To have her work termed postfeminist appears to Elaine Risley to specifically date her feminism, and thereby make it outdated. This post categorization process appears to make her feminism 'past it' when she still sees it as necessary and relevant. As Margaret Atwood herself says in an introduction to The Edible Woman:
The goals of the feminist movement have not been achieved and those who claim we're living in a post-feminist era are either sadly mistaken or tired of thinking about the whole subject.
The Handmaid's Tale confronts the issue of postfeminism in a different way from Cat's Eye, by having the narrator speak from a time when postfeminism is no longer meaningful because the feminist precedent has all but been eradicated in a way that Elaine Risley fears might happen as a result of it being posted. References to preceding political, historical and artistic movements are still meaningful in all these discourses in Elaine Risley's era despite her fears that dating processes are used to relegate the past rather than make reference to it. The catalogue for her exhibition, for example, describes one of the paintings as:
A jeu d'esprit … which takes on the Group of Seven and reconstructs their vision of landscape in the light of contemporary experiment and post-modern pastiche.
The post prefix can no longer be attached to politics, art or history in The Handmaid's Tale in the way it is used in Cat's Eye because there is no official recognition of any preceding movements. There has been an attempt to erase awareness of a multiple and subjective past through the institution of a single, approved version of history. Gilead orthodoxy replaces various perspectives on the past which are accessible only through different histories by equating its one history with the past; this history is appointed to give access to what it propagates as the only true past which, this orthodoxy says, is to be disowned because of its corruption and dissolution. The only acceptable reality in Gilead is the present. Fantasy and memory (the personal, subjective stories confessed by the narrator) do not conform to this orthodoxy—they challenge the single historical canon which purports to tell the past as it really was. Fantasy and memory are consequently the very strategies which the narrator uses as part of her resistance of contemporaneity, erupting through the Gilead period in the regular 'Night' episodes that haunt the novel with the narrator's consciously reconstructed, or her unconscious/dream worked personal history.
Like Elaine Risley's rejection of the post label, like the unconventional narrator of the tale, the Handmaid herself, who keeps at least one of her identities secret, The Handmaid's Tale similarly resists labels that position it within a particular generic stream. The maintenance of a covert or multiple identity is shown in the novel to be part of a policy of subversion of the dominant, as I shall discuss later. The projection of the novel into the 22nd century, then, the intervals of fantasy and nightmare, the shifts in temporal position, the narratorial insistence that the text is just one version of a story that can be told in different ways by other people, the multiple examples of women's communities with their different (and sometimes oppositional) political struggles, the perspective given by the final chapter that what we grasp as a single text is in fact a reassembled transcription from a surviving jumble of cassette recordings: through all these strategies the novel constantly reiterates its uncertain, problematic relationship with the concept of a single reality, one identity, a truthful history as propagated by both the political orthodoxy of Gilead and by much of literary criticism today.
There are four levels of narrative time in The Handmaid's Tale:
1) The pre-Revolution past, characterized by the narrator's memories of her childhood with her mother, her student days with Moira, her memories of her daughter and her relationship with Luke.
2) The period of the Revolution itself, and the time immediately subsequent to that, including the time spent training at the Red Centre.
3) The main narrative time, Gileadean time. It is this narratorial period that is interrupted by the dream sequences. The Gileadean present is what the narrator is telling her tale about, although the events of this present are still retold as past occurrences, narrated retrospectively on to cassette tape, a fact of which we are informed at the final textual time level.
4) The time of the 'present' (our future?), the period of the Symposium of Gileadean Studies—25 June 2195.
Apart from these textual times there is the question of the reader's own temporal context for the novel, her own recognition of events in the text and the placement of them within her own time scheme. For instance, some of the pre-Revolution period accounts of the novel deal with the narrator's mother's involvement in the women's movement of the late 1960s and the narrator's somewhat reactionary response to her mother's militancy. The narrator recalls witnessing the ritualistic burning of pornographic publications, for example, and she remembers the return of angry and injured women from abortion demonstrations. This is an inclusion of what can be seen as 'real history' or rather, what is sometimes called 'faction': a fictionalization or generalized account of real occurrences. This is what Linda Hutcheon calls historiographic metafiction. The problem which I think this novel addresses is whether historical accounts can ever be more than 'faction'. The novel suggests that the privileging of history, notably in the form of 'authentic' first person narrative accounts of the past, as something more truthful and accurate than faction, is fallacious. The narrator insists that the tale she is telling is a 'reconstruction' which is always going to be at some level inaccurate, partial, incomplete, because it is retrospective and told by only one voice. But she suggests that this 'factitious' status, neither wholly fact nor complete fiction, is something that her story has in common with other historiographic metanarratives.
The novel operates on friction between narrative and theory, and between fiction and history. The story being told is one which comes from the personal experience of the narrating subject, although she does make use of stories told to her by others from their own lives. This first person confessional I rubs uneasily against the perspective provided by the viewing eyes of the academics which only cross the reader's field of vision at the conclusion of the novel. These organizing theoretical and editorial intrusions establish the text and 'establishmentarize' it. They drag the underground into the open, making public the story the Handmaid wanted to tell but they also attempt to uncover her secrets, trying to signpost her identity, giving her tale a stable location and thereby diffuse any resistance it might otherwise provide against the single authoritative, authentic history.
The preserved tapes on which The Handmaid's Tale is supposedly recorded can be viewed as vital records of the past, primary sources, a woman's voice speaking from a time when she should have been silent. The narration, because of its historical context, has become (like the scrabble game she plays) an act of subversion and rebellion. There is a level at which certain groups positioned within the women's studies category believe in these kind of recovered sources as challenges to a mainstream, canonical and patriarchal version of the past. But the narrative also consumes the past as it represents it, rewriting history by itself as its own fictional narrative, not The One Truth, but story, as the narrator insists.
The narrator's story is, on one level, a subversive act, because of the time in which she lived. She lives in a dystopian time when there is a patriarchal state domination of information. To withhold information, or to spread unauthorized material, is an act of treason for which the punishments are brutal and public. The narrator keeps a secret of her own name apart from the patronymic 'Of/fred'. Keeping this private knowledge forges a link with the past, but it is also an act of defiance, as the narrator is proving, at least to herself, that secrets can still be kept.
The private name has the same defiant linguistic pleasure for the narrator as her discovery of another piece of women's history. The carved incantation found in the bottom of her wardrobe, the pig latin joke 'Nolite te bastardes carborundorum' (don't let the bastards grind you down) is an example of women's history, literally staying in the closet. Women's history is as illicit in Gilead as homosexuality now, made subject to acts of suppression, under a similarly fearful state. The carving is a sign of the power of the secret in a time of oppression for the narrator, but the non-classically educated narrator has to ask the Commander for a translation of the coded message left by the previous Handmaid as a legacy to her follower.
The past is being reproduced at one level as a subversive act, but it is not a reproduction that is free of the determining factors of the prevailing ideology. Pig latin is a boy's school joke at the expense of classical teaching methods, but is a joke made from within the boys' school and interpretable only by the same classical scholars. Similarly, the recovery of the Handmaid's narrative by an academic institution in the 22nd century, the placing of the narrative in a literary continuum with Chaucer and all that that implies about a static canon, means that an act of feminist subversion has become part of the establishment. Elaine Risley is able to be self-conscious about this recuperation of her work since it happens in her own lifetime, and her comments are not without ambivalence:
My career is why I'm here, on this futon, under this duvet. I'm having a retrospective, my first. The name of the gallery is Sub-Versions, one of those puns that used to delight me before they became so fashionable. I ought to be pleased by this retrospective, but my feelings are mixed; I don't like admitting I'm old enough and established enough to have such a thing, even at an alternative gallery run by a bunch of women. I find it improbable, and ominous: first the retrospective, then the morgue. But also I'm cheesed off because the Art Gallery of Ontario wouldn't do it. Their bias is toward dead foreign men.
Elaine Risley recognizes that she has become part of the feminist establishment, but she is still not taken seriously by the national art scene; that scene is still, as Atwood eloquently puts it, occupied by 'dead foreign men'.
Successful resistance for Elaine Risley depends upon standards of success set by her own culture and for Risley this means widespread, establishment recognition of her art. Risley's rebellion is public resistance to trends set both by the establishment and the 'alternatives' including mainstream feminism. For the narrator of The Handmaid's Tale resistance, if it is to be survived, has to remain underground. In the narrator's past, lack of public resistance was in part a result of her apathy. She writes:
Is that how we lived then? But we lived as usual. Everyone does, most of the time. Whatever is going on is as usual. Even this is as usual, now.
We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn't the same as ignorance, you have to work at it … The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.
We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of the print. It gave us more freedom.
We lived in the gaps between the stories.
The gaps between the stories told in black print can, despite their apparent blankness be read in a number of ways. They are not necessarily invisible to the reading eye (nor to the disciplinary one). The gaps are for the narrator in her earlier, pre-Revolution life, acquiescences to 'the usual', representing ways of surviving in an oppressive patriarchal state, where it is easier to keep a low profile than to draw attention to the way in which 'the usual' is formed according to gender.
Another way of reading the white spaces is to view them as being essential to the black print, a contrast which the human eye requires before it can recognize shapes and signs to read. Christopher Dewdney explains this lucidly in his Immaculate Perception in a section called 'Edge Features', and he also goes some way to showing here how the post can be used to illuminate and refer to the past, rather than just annihilating it:
Our vision relies on discontinuity and change. It seems the majority of neural processing in the striate cortex consists of an analysis of edge-features. An object is perceived by its edges, the relationship of discontinuous lines. All written languages are the abstraction and distillation of only the essential edge-features necessary to perceive the form on which meaning is concomitant.
The black print never acknowledges its dependence on the white spaces with which it is discontinuous and thereby made perceptible. The consciousness has not been taught to focus on the white page against which the black letters are defined, and it is the print which is given the privileged attention as the unusual, the significant, not 'the usual' background.
The Handmaid is obliged to occupy the white space, and to live as usual. She can make this 'as usual' more than superficial by acquiescing completely, as Janine appears to do, at least initially, transforming herself into a semitransparent blur (like 'raw egg-white',), to which no one pays attention. The narrator can, alternatively maintain only the superficial whiteness and have her own black spaces, her positive side. These do not challenge the orthodox centre page print; there is no question of their publication at that time. For the narrator in Gilead, the significances consist in the blackness of the 'Night' sequences which are as contrasts to the present white spaces in which she is supposed to invisibly subsist. By giving prominence to recollection of the subjective experience of the past, particularly as a private, illicit act, the narrator has found a way of providing Gilead with edge features.
The fantasy dream and memory of the 'Night' and the illicit relationship with Nick are the Handmaid's version of black print which has to remain invisible, whitewashed, at least while she is in Gilead. Finally, she goes the closest she can to taking over the black print and turning it to her own uses, by narrating her story in a form which clearly is intended to preserve it for others, although which others can never be known. But, of course, in this novel which is ever aware of determining power systems and the impossibility of escape from them, the controllers of the black print eventually take centre page. The mainstream academicians are the ones who transcribe, who organize, edit and publish the Handmaid's tale, and therefore relocate it firmly within the black print, once again neglecting the white ground.
I will reintroduce the post at this point. Up to now, the post has been discussed both as a signifier of chronological location—the prefix that indicates temporal movement away from origins—and it has also been discussed as the sign of the contemporary. The post has been seen, and feared (by Elaine Risley) as a marker of discontinuity and change, making the break with the past into a sign of fashion: the post as the designer label. In The Handmaid's Tale the character of Aunt Lydia is said to have a fondness for the either/or; that is, she cannot see the black print and the white spaces at the same time. In tune with Gilead orthodoxy, she would see the presence of the past as a threat to current stability, except that her either/or mentality enables her to deny that any vestige or reconstruction of a past remains. For Aunt Lydia there is only now.
The either/or viewpoint can be shown to be a fallacious one. The fusion of meanings into the word 'faction' shows that simple either/or divisions fail to operate at any linguistic or political level. The Handmaid's Tale itself proves the existence of a blend of what is considered historical fact and what is thought to be science fiction. The division of kinds of feminists into different political groups in the novel offers the possibility of feminist political, as well as literary, factions which are neither destructive bitchy squabbles nor pluralist utopias. I want to suggest that Dewdney's term 'edge-feature' is appropriate to the post because it functions as a marker of discontinuity and change, but one which illuminates the interdependence of the either/or, rather than insisting on the mutual exclusion of one term by the other.
A poem from Interlunar which recalls the quality of horror in some of the sequences from The Handmaid's Tale is 'No Name', and it comments upon a moment of stasis between dream and reality, between life and death, a transition point where there is no firm post to cling to. The scene described in the poem is in a nightmare setting, a moment where the relationship and power between the man and the narrator, against whose door he is bleeding, is not established and is entirely uncertain:
He is a man in the act of vanishing one way or another. He wants you to let him in. He is like the soul of a dead lover, come back to the surface of the earth because he did not have enough of it and is still hungry but he is far from dead. Though the hair lifts on your arms and cold air flows over your threshold from him, you have never seen anyone so alive.
This man corpse returns with a powerful grip on the narrator, with his 'Please / In any language'. The haunting of the narrator in the poem is like those moments of the narrator's past that re-occur in The Handmaid's Tale. They have a narrative power over her, stories which demand to be told. She prefaces certain sections of the tale with the reluctant 'I don't want to be telling this', but somehow the narrator appreciates the necessity for her history to be recorded. 'No Name' ends with the same suspended moment with which it begins, a poem of non-progression:
Your door is either half open or half closed. It stays that way and you cannot wake.
In the poem a third position of stasis results from failing to occupy either one position, that offered by the fully open door, or another, that provided by the fully closed door. The narrator is locked into her dreamlike state apparently because she has refused the either/or. The half-open/half-closed state becomes just a third fixed term. But there is a fourth, more mutable condition where all the positions are potentially ones that can be taken, or even all occupied at once. In the poem the narrator is locked into a dream, in the novel she is locked into a nightmarish dystopic world from which dreams are sometimes an escape, sometimes a torture. In both novel and the poem there is a tangential location which is implicit, an alternative to the fixed either/or choices, but both texts arrive finally at the rigid third term. The choice ultimately appears to be between the white space, the black print, or the stasis of indecision. The option of recognition of the fourth 'edge-feature' does not appear as a possibility.
The Handmaids themselves are supposed to have, like the poem, 'no name', no stability. This is to make them interchangeable and replaceable. The stable, pre-Revolution name to which Offred attaches herself secretively is the name that the 22nd century academic researchers really require in their belief that it will give them not just another history but a fully open door to a single, retrievable past. Their attempts to discover the narrator's secret go precisely against the attempts of the Handmaid herself to preserve this one aspect of her private body and her private past in the face of the violations of freedom being perpetrated in the state of Gilead. The state of Gilead has removed the mythical private family unit and this is nowhere more obvious than in the figure of the Handmaid herself, announcing her function in her red robes. The sexual act is transformed from the containment of the nuclear family in the pre-Revolution, when two metaphorically fused to form one, into a multiple fission of the familial unit, with the Handmaid standing for the wife, but precisely positioning herself in between the wife and the Commander as a rupture in the once traditional coupling. Unfortunately, the potential of this rupture of the private unit to deconstruct the power and hierarchy of the monogamous patriarchal family is not realized. Rather, the intervening Handmaid simply reinforces the ties that bind the Commander and the wife. The Handmaid's role is subordinate to that of the privileged couple, and she is an item in the male-controlled chain of trade in women.
The biological division of power in The Handmaid's Tale, then, accordingly not only to gender but also fertility, is another symptom of what Aunt Lydia is fond of, the either/or. Gender ambiguity, bisexuality or plurality of sexuality are impossibilities in Gilead. The signposts are on the genitalia. The narrator is consistent in her attempt to undermine the division into the two gendered posts which keeps her attached to the powerless and subordinate half of the binary. One of the ways in which she does this is with the repeated motif: 'context is all'. The shock of the old, the specifically dated in the modern environment—for instance, the fashions in the Vogue magazine, the ridiculous garments retrieved for use in Jezebel's—prompts the very important recognition that versions of normality are not static. Elaine Risley, in a world whose versions of femininity are more contradictory and complex than those of Gilead, although by no means unrelated, of course, walks up to a drunk bag-lady on the street. The incident provides Elaine with a review of the language of gender and power:
When I get up even, I see that this person is a woman. She's lying on her back, staring straight at me. 'Lady', she says. 'Lady, Lady.' That word has been through a lot. Noble lady, Dark Lady, she's a real lady, old-lady lace, Listen lady, Hey lady watch where you're going, Ladies room, run through with lipstick and replaced with women. But still the final word of appeal. If you want something very badly you do not say Woman, Woman, you say Lady, Lady.
The sign on the door of the toilet is run through with lipstick but the writing underneath can still be seen. The substitution of 'women' for 'ladies' as acceptable terminology does not mean that 'ladies' and all its baggage of meaning is eradicated, as the bag-lady is there to indicate with her plea. As Elaine Risley says at the beginning of the novel:
Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space … I began then to think of time as having a shape, something you could see, like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another. You don't look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away.
The selective process of recovery of the past in The Handmaid's Tale is used as a characterization device for the narrator and it also becomes a damning indictment of the Gilead state organization. The commander is constructed as living in the past, with 'old-fashioned values', although in a less conscious way than the narrator, who actively reconstructs her past for herself as a political and personal survival tactic. The Commander takes Offred to a Disneyland version of a brothel, nicknamed Jezebel's by the women who work there. All the prostitutes have to wear sequinned, low-cut, frivolous attire that has been salvaged from the past: bunny-girl outfits, swimming costumes, frilly lingerie. The narrator recalls:
'It's like walking into the past,' says the Commander. His voice sounds pleased, delighted even. 'Don't you think?'
I try to remember if the past was exactly like this. I'm not sure, now. I know it contained these things, but somehow the mix is different. A movie about the past is not the same as the past.
Of all things the Gileadean statesmen could choose to replicate out of the past, these men choose prostitution. The sanctioned prostitution and surrogacy of the Handmaid system has its roots in the practices of many eras and cultures, but Jezebel's recreates a trade of sexual illegitimacy, a parody of sexual relations from the immediately pre-Revolution past. The narrator emphasizes the 'inauthenticity' of her mental reconstructions of the past in her stories. But the construction behind the Gilead system appears to believe in the annihilation of the Utopian 1960s permissiveness, and a replacement of the failed fabricated world from that era by a 'natural' system, the return to the 'usual' which means a system based on female subordination, with women as items in a complex scheme of ownership and reproduction.
The tale telling functions as a reassurance of the existence of the past, that things were different once. The need to juxtapose past and present is a desire for perspective, looking down through the waters of time rather than along the line as Elaine Risley sees it, reading the sign underneath the lipstick scoring. The Handmaid says:
What I need is perspective. The illusion of depth, created by a frame, the arrangement of shapes on a flat surface … Otherwise, you live in the moment. Which is not where I want to be.
The perspective is provided by the white background to counteract the black print which fixes the subject in the moment. The subject needs to be able to see the frame, to be conscious that the arrangement of shapes on a flat surface is precisely that. Therefore there is an arranging subject in addition to an arranged one. The change of perspective is provided for the reader as much by the science fiction style of the novel and its future dystopian setting as by the narrator's recounting of her past. The shift in time-scales in the novel is part of its emphasis on avoiding complacency, of avoiding the danger of accepting the present moment as usual when at another point in time its standards would have been rejected as appalling or horrific. The dystopian genre and temporal shifts are ways of drawing attention to the frame, the arrangers, and the white space and flat surfaces which make perception of the signs and shapes possible.
The Handmaid's Tale demonstrates the juxtaposition of past standards of normality with present 'usualness' and within this, the function of some kind of historical evidence to jog the memory into recognition of change. As the narrator reminds us: 'Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you'd be boiled to death before you knew it'.' In the 'Night' episodes of the novel, the narrator explains how she claims space for her thoughts, and more particularly for her past as a way of judging the temperature of the water. She recalls her mother urging her out of complacency, her mother's nagging insistence on the importance of the history of the women's movement, a selective version of the past:
You young people don't appreciate things, she'd say. You don't know what we had to go through, just to get you where you are. Look at him, slicing up the carrots. Don't you know how many women's bodies the tanks had to roll over just to get that far?
It is the 'Night' episodes of the novel, significantly, in which these stories from the past emerge. In the daylight, under the scrutiny of the Eyes, the narrator's recollection of the past puts her at risk. 'Night' becomes a definite, positive location from which to articulate resistance to the status quo, provided by the structural organization of the novel, interspersed as it is with these sequences which challenge the narrative of the present. Of course, Atwood does not allow this imposed structural division to go without examination. There is emphasis on the necessity of drawing attention to the frame throughout the novel and the final chapter, which claims to have organized the material in the tale, reincorporates into the academy what has up to this point been seen as a disruptive narrative strategy. But this demonstrates the impossibility of a clear division between the light and dark, the mainstream and the subversive, the inoperative 'either/or', something suggested also by the title poem from Interlunar:
The lake, vast and dimensionless, doubles everything, the stars, the boulders, itself, even the darkness that you can walk so long in it becomes light.
The post as a chronological locator does not mean that its terms are divided off from the theories of literature that came before or that are to follow. The post does not give privilege to the prior theories either. Rather, it insists on recalling them and partially incorporating them within the present. The post does mark out the poles between which meanings shuffle, but the movement is not necessarily between only two signposts, and the movement can be back and forth: the post does not mark the entrance to a one-way street. 'The lake' is 'vast and dimensionless' as the poem says. The posts are used to mark out sections within it, making their own patterns and boundaries. Even this marking out of areas for concern does not prevent the darkness from turning into light, or the light from fading into dark. What this means for the future is uncertain, as the narrator of The Handmaid's Tale concludes:
Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing: I have given myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can't be helped.
And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.
The compromise that 'can't be helped' is the relinquishing of privacy and the safe white spaces away from print, the giving of oneself into the hands of strangers through telling a story. The most recent of Elaine Risley's paintings in Cat's Eye is a similar recognition of the risks of constructing a central subject, a narratorial I (or 'an oversized cat's eye marble'). The adoption of another genre, another way of telling a story in Atwood's latest novel, that is the paintings put into words: these provide another perspective on the positioning of a public subject, a subject which is both an attempt to resist the mainstream but also requires recognition provided by convention in order to achieve an effect. The frames can be stretched: Elaine Risley's latest painting, 'Unified Field Theory', is 'vertical oblong, larger than the other paintings'; The Handmaid's Tale is dystopian fiction, but also historiographic metafiction with a confessional journal-style first person narrator. The single identifiable generic frame is stretched to include as many different writing strategies as possible within its construction. But the story once in print or paint, as both novels' narrators accept, is not under the subject's control. Elaine Risley says, whilst looking around her exhibition:
I walk the room, surrounded by the time I've made; which is not a place, which is only a blur, the moving edge we live in; which is fluid, which turns back on itself, like a wave. I may have thought I was preserving something from time, salvaging something; like all those painters, centuries ago, who thought they were bringing Heaven to earth, the revelation of God, the eternal stars, only to have their slabs of wood and plaster stolen, mislaid, burnt, hacked to pieces, destroyed by rot and mildew.
A leaky ceiling, a match and some kerosine would finish all this off. Why does this thought present itself to me, not as a fear, but as a temptation?
Because I can no longer control these paintings, or tell them what to mean. Whatever energy they have came out of me. I'm what's left over.
Elaine Risley lives to see how her work takes off without her, how it changes with each additional post attached to it, framing it, mildewing it. The Handmaid's Tale survives in a form as battered as those paintings of centuries ago. Interlunar is a reminder to pay attention to the lighting, to the way it colours and changes shapes, the way everything can be doubled in the reflection of that vast and dimensionless lake or else obscured and submerged without trace.
SOURCE: "The Atwood Variations," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4675, November 6, 1992, p. 20.
[In the following review, Kemp praises Good Bones as a "sample-case of Atwood's sensuous and sardonic talents."]
Pocket-sized and with sturdy covers, Good Bones looks a bit like a sketchbook in which an artist might jot caricatures, cartoons, preliminary studies, trial pieces and quick little exercises in catching the essence of a subject or delineating it from unusual angles. The miscellany with which Margaret Atwood fills its pages is, in fact, a writer's equivalent of this: a collection of lively verbal doodlings, smartly dashed off vignettes and images that are inventively enlarged, titled, turned upside down. Playing with the conventions of her narrative craft is a frequent pastime. Fiction's motives and motifs are outlined with witty flourish.
"Bad News", the opening piece, is a fantasia about the appeal of disaster tales. It's followed by a monologue in which The Little Red Hen, clucking with indignation, retells the story of her thrifty response to the grain of wheat as a cautionary tale of put-upon domesticity. Elsewhere, Gertrude gives her version of what happens in Hamlet, and an Ugly Sister and a Wicked Stepmother put in a good word for themselves. Political correctness is lampooned in "There Was Once", as the reciting of a standard fairy-tale gets subverted by progressive emendations and bowdlerizings. With sly funniness, a litany, "Let Us Now Praise Stupid Women", lists everything fiction owes to unwise females. As it catalogues the contributions to literature of "The Muse as Fluffball", aspects of genres like the fairy-story or the Gothic tale are captured in thumbnail sketches of impressionistic brio: "trapped inside the white pages, she can't hear us, and goes prancing and warbling and lolloping innocently towards her doom … incest-minded stepfathers chase her through ruined cloisters, where she's been lured by ruses too transparent to fool a gerbil."
In other places, Atwood's pen prods verbal raw material around to see what it turns into in differing contexts. Three brief stories each incorporate, in the order they occur in the verse, the words of a stanza from John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields the Poppies Blow". The title work, which ends the book, is a series of virtuoso variations on the phrase, "good bones", using changing connotations—fine bone structure, hallowed relics, strong bones—to chronicle the phases of a life.
In its weird poeticizing of physiology, that piece is typical of many in the book (as well as some of the most haunting passages in Atwood's novels). Bodily life, male and female, is inspected with jaunty acumen, and a cool eye is sent playing over its representations in fiction, sculpture and painting. These sections often call to mind that Atwood's father was an entomologist. Her stance in them sometimes jokily emulates scientific distance and dispassion, though her spoof zoologies of the human being and its gender habits soon mutate into sequences of gaudy, ingenious metaphor.
"No freak show can hold a candle to my father expounding Nature", Atwood wrote in an autobiographical essay in Bluebeard's Egg. In Good Bones to achieve and heighten a similar sense of the extraordinary, a vantage-point much favoured is that of the extra-terrestrial. "Homelanding" acquaints the inhabitants of another world with the behaviour-patterns peculiar to Earth's "prong people" and "cavern people". In "Cold-Blooded", extra-planetary lepidoptera observe the activities of the "blood creatures" so surprisingly dominant on Earth, and note crude resemblances to their own patterns of pupation and metamorphosis: "At some indeterminate point in their life cycles, they cause themselves to be placed in artificial stone or wooden cocoons, or chrysalises. They have an idea that they will someday emerge from these in an altered state, which they symbolize with carvings of themselves with wings."
Death isn't the only phenomenon to receive this Martian treatment. One piece, "Alien Territory", narrates the events of birth in terms of an adventure tale. Another turns the travelling of sperms towards an ovum into a science-fiction epic: "the mission becomes a race which only one may win, as, ahead of them, vast and luminous, the longed-for, the loved planet swims into view…."
Some of these flights of fantasy float away into buoyant humour. Gravity holds others closer to such global concerns as over-population, war and ecological catastrophe. As in Atwood's novels, the pervading style is fluently accomplished, fluctuating between amusement and seriousness, allowing mockery to meld affectingly into poetry: a meditation on bats moves with easy skill, for instance, from exuberant burlesque of the Dracula myth—"O flying leukaemia, in your cloak like a living umbrella"—to tender, exact evocation of the mammals "dank lazy half-sleep of daytime, with bodies rounded and soft as furred plums … the mothers licking the tiny amazed faces of the newborn". Mingling the incisive and the colourful, Good Bones makes a marvellous miniature sample-case of Atwood's sensuous and sardonic talents.
SOURCE: "Reading Reflections: The Autobiographical Illusion in Cat's Eye," in Essays on Life Writing: From Genre to Critical Practice, edited by Marlene Kadar, University of Toronto Press, 1992, pp. 162-70.
[In the following essay, Cooke explores Atwood's use of a fictional protagonist and an autobiographical form in Cat's Eye.]
I have been told by friends, relatives, colleagues, and teachers—in fact, by everyone I know who has read it—that Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye is 'more autobiographical than her other books.' And, of course, they are right. It is more autobiographical—or, anyway, it is more obviously about self-representation—than her other books. But it is autobiographical in the same way that Lady Oracle is gothic: it speaks to the form as much as it speaks from or within it.
The fascinating part about all this is that those experienced readers who would be embarrassed to classify Lady Oracle as just another costume gothic, or Surfacing as a simple unironic quest narrative, are the very same readers who seem to dismiss this novel by describing it as 'autobiographical.' They have been fooled by Atwood—yes—but also by the literary conventions she is exploring in this novel, those of autobiography itself. Most important, they have been fooled into looking at the autobiographical illusion that Atwood creates, and into overlooking the deft sleight of hand involved in its creation.
My argument is that autobiography is not so much a generic category as it is a literary strategy. Atwood's readers must do more than classify Cat's Eye in terms of autobiography; they must focus their attention on the way autobiography is used in the novel. Accordingly, the emphasis of my discussion of the autobiographical elements in Cat's Eye lies more on Atwood's artistry than on the links between Atwood's life and her art.
I am choosing my terms carefully because as critics have come to question their confidence in the 'referentiality of language' and the 'authenticity of the self' they have become increasingly uncomfortable about classifying autobiography at all, particularly about differentiating between autobiography, on the one hand, and fictional autobiography, on the other. After all, the project of categorizing various kinds of autobiographical writing places limits on a form that seeks to challenge limits—those between expression and experience, in particular. Northrop Frye, for example, traces autobiography back to 'a creative, and therefore fictional' impulse. And Paul Jay argues that 'the attempt to differentiate between autobiography and fictional autobiography is finally pointless. For if by "fictional" we mean "made up," "created," or "imagined"—something, that is, which is literary and not "real"—then we have merely defined the ontological status of any text, autobiographical or not.' However, by conflating forms of autobiography and fiction, Jay ignores the invitation that autobiographical fiction sends to its readers, to be read as both fiction and nonfiction—at the same time. Readers of autobiographical fiction, that is, are asked to read with a kind of double vision. I am by no means suggesting that such writing is any less fictional than fiction itself, just that we are invited to believe it might be. Herein, to my mind, lies all the difference.
What reason do we have to identify autobiographical elements as distinguised from fictional ones? I think we suspect that autobiography reads differently from fiction. Before we open the cover, for example, we find ourselves wanting to know whether a book is fiction or non-fiction. To be sure, when we say that a work is autobiographical we suggest that it has a claim to truth. This is why, as Alice Munro attests, those who classify a work as autobiographical go on to comment on its validity, and its author's 'good faith' or 'honesty.' In spite of ourselves, then, we readers check to see what shelf a book is on in the library; we read the dust jacket; we watch for markers within the text.
When we do these things with Cat's Eye we find quite a bit of evidence to suggest that it is autobiographical. Briefly, it is a first-person narratives about an artist who sanctions autobiographical readings of her own work. Then there is Margaret Atwood's dust-jacket biography that bears striking resemblances to the events of Elaine's narrative: the entomologist father, the brother, the summers in the countryside, the Toronto childhood, to name only a few things. Further, some of the episodes in Elaine's life cannot help but remind us of episodes in the lives of her fictional sisters. Take that Toronto ravine, for instance. It haunts Joan of Lady Oracle just as it haunts Elaine. And, by now, it has made a deep and lasting impression on all of Atwood's readers.
Ironically, too, Atwood's disclaimer only makes us focus our attention on the autobiographical elements within the novel. 'This is a work of fiction,' she tells us. 'Although its form is that of an autobiography, it is not one.' But we all know enough not to take Atwood's comments at face value, so we pursue the issue. In what way does Cat's Eye have the form of an autobiography? In what way is it fiction? Can we not assume that the incidents in Cat's Eye, as well as the first-person narrator, are grounded in Atwood's own life? I think we can; but how does that help us?
One answer is that Cat's Eye is both fiction and autobiography: a 'fictive autobiography,' to coin my own term, an autobiography composed by a fictional protagonist, which draws attention to its own problematical status as a fictive construct. As a result, we expect more from this book, and from Atwood herself: entertainment and honesty, craft and good faith. But that does not solve the problem. It is not enough for me to classify this as a fictive autobiography (as I have), as autobiography, as fiction, or, as Douglas Glover writes in his review (for Books in Canada), Atwood playing 'hide-and-seek at the place where autobiography and fiction meet, always ensuring there is a back door open for quick escapes.' More important than our trying to define Cat's Eye in relation to those two terms, fiction and autobiography, is our exploring the implications of Atwood's challenging us to try.
That is, Atwood is deliberately using the autobiographical form in her fiction. But why? I can think of at least three reasons for this: there are probably many more.
First, Atwood has always forced us to explore our assumptions as readers. When she writes, 'You fit into me / like a hook into an eye,' we are certain we understand the kind of relationship she is talking about: the solid, comfortable, close male-female kind. But then she makes us take another look. 'A fish hook,' she writes. 'An open eye' ('Epigraph,' Power Politics). What she is doing in Cat's Eye is an expanded version of this kind of pulling-the-rug-out-from-under-us. By now, in this post-Saussurean, post-post-modern literary era, we probably think that we can no longer be taken in by anything that has the ontological status of a literary text. However sophisticated we are as readers, though, we can all still be caught on the autobiographical hook. We think of ourselves as 'sophisticated readers,' after all, precisely because we enjoy reading; it satisfies an insatiable curiosity, a desire to solve questions, to find things out. And autobiographical fiction offers the lure of a particular individual's answers (in good faith) to the questions that concern him or her.
Further, when the writer is a woman, the temptation to ignore the distance between the text and the events represented in it seems to be even greater. Women have long been credited with the dubious honour of best being able to understand and communicate their emotions and personal experience. Mary Jacobus calls this the 'autobiographical "phallacy,"'—with a "ph"—'whereby male critics hold that women's writing is somehow closer to experience than men's, that the female text is the author, or at any rate a dramatic extension of her unconsciousness.' But it is not only male critics who give credence to the 'autobiographical "phallacy"'; so too do feminists. Sylvia Plath proudly proclaims that women have long been associated with the 'blood-hot and personal.' And as Molly Hite quite rightly notes, 'many of the Anglo-American feminist critics who began with the intent of doing justice to women's fiction as a chronicle of female experience seem to have found themselves in the process purveying an exaggerated theory of mimesis in which authors are simply mirrored in their own texts.'
In fine, when we read Cat's Eye we are drawn by the prospect of the author within the text, of finding out about Atwood, or perhaps by having those stories we have heard about her confirmed, by her. It is not that this book is any less fictional than her others, but rather that the autobiographical elements in it suggest that it might be.
Atwood knows this. She has recognized that autobiographical fiction, by its very definition, forces its readers to do a kind of double-take—the same kind of double-take she has always demanded for her readers. At first glance, that is, generic classification seems to be a central issue. On closer inspection, however, it becomes apparent that this is no more than a red herring. When we read Cat's Eye, we are forced to redirect our attention from Atwood's presence or absence in this seemingly autobiographical text to ourselves and, in particular, to our assumptions about autobiographical fiction itself. This is indeed a book about self-reflection; and the reader's role is to reflect upon the various reflections of the self contained within it.
Another reason why Atwood uses the autobiographical in her fiction is that it provides one alternative to the narrative closure that seems to make her so uncomfortable. Cause of much critical anxiety, you will remember, was the absence of closure in Atwood's novel Surfacing. Hiding silently at the end of the novel, the still-unnamed protagonist is unable to move, let alone set about reintegrating herself into society. The conclusion of Atwood's next novel, Lady Oracle, is still more unstable. Not only do we find out that a stranger has probably recorded what we have so far taken to be Joan's first-hand account of her life, but we find that Joan is unable to impose closure on the book she herself is writing. If closure is anywhere to be found in this novel, it is in the opening lines, where Joan describes the death she has orchestrated for herself. As soon as we read further, though, we find that this ending, like all closure within the novel, has been exploded. Other endings are problematic as well: think of The Handmaid's Tale or The Edible Woman. Certainly, Atwood resists the two endings frequently reserved for a novel's heroine: marriage or death. This limited option, as Rachel Blau du Plessis has pointed out, is inadequate for any female writer. Instead, du Plessis argues, some women writers choose to 'write beyond' the traditional endings they inherit as a way of illustrating their problematic nature. And Atwood, in particular, has consistently shown her discomfort with narrative conventions by 'unwriting' the novelistic forms she takes up—the quest in Surfacing, the gothic in Lady Oracle, to name just two examples.
Of course, that Cat's Eye is a fictive autobiography would seem to eliminate the problem of closure: since the future is unclear to the autobiographer as well as to his or her audience, the ending of any autobiographical work is often ambiguous. And Cat's Eye is no exception in that the ending points to the limited nature of human perception:
Now it's full night, clear, moonless and filled with stars, which are not eternal as was once thought, which are not where we think they are. If they were sounds, they would be echoes, of something that happened millions of years ago: a word made of numbers. Echoes of light, shining out of the midst of nothing.
It's old light, and there's not much of it. But it's enough to see by.
But the autobiographical elements in Cat's Eye serve to challenge closure in a different way. As we recognize material from both Surfacing and Lady Oracle, we realize that Atwood draws upon and uses the autobiographical in these novels too. And surely, this is a way of forcing us to look beyond the text—to the unwritten world of Atwood's own experiences, perhaps, but certainly to other texts.
Finally, Atwood used the autobiographical as a tool in her ongoing challenge of classification, literary and otherwise. In her earlier novels, discomfort with rigid schemes of classification was voiced by the novel's heroines. Joan Foster, for instance, fights against the gothic as it begins to encroach upon her life and her art, seeing herself as a kind of 'escape artist.' Offred, too, attempts to escape from the prison-house that her society has created around biblical words and phrases. And even such an early protagonist as the Surfacer is uncomfortable with the restrictions society imposes upon women. To be sure, by alerting us to the fact that women in the Quebec countryside have no names, she emphasizes her—and yes, Atwood's—discomfort with naming. Neither the Surfacer nor the protagonist of The Handmaid's Tale have names (although Connie Rooke argues very convincingly that she has discovered Offred's 'real' name). Generally, though, Offred is called 'The Handmaid' by the academics of the text and within it who piece together her story. And, as they suggest, the name 'Offred' is itself only a 'patronymic, composed of the possessive preposition and the first name of the gentleman in question.'
For an Atwood heroine, though, Elaine Risley seems curiously resigned to the ways in which she and her art are classified. When Charna, one of the capital 'f' feminists in the book, describes The Three Muses as 'her disconcerting deconstruction of perceived gender and its relationship to perceived power, especially in respect to numinous imagery,' Risley agrees—up to a point. 'If I hold my breath and squint,' she says, 'I can see where she gets that.' As readers, though, we cannot help seeing that Charna's description of the painting is inadequate. It is not wrong, exactly; it is just limited. Because we see the paintings through Elaine's eyes, we are able to see more in them than feminist concerns.
What is happening, then, is that the heroine no longer has to battle against the hegemony of rigid classification precisely because the reader does it for her. Whereas, we readers are now very comfortable suggesting that the parodic elements in novels such as Surfacing, Lady Oracle, and The Handmaid's Tale are motivated by Atwood's 'feminist' concerns, we are suddenly uncomfortable with the term. Somehow that vexed tag 'feminist'—which means something different to Charna, Jody, Carolyn, Zillah, and Elaine, to name just a few examples—is more problematic than descriptive. And yet it is still necessary: for Cat's Eye is a book about the thoughts and images that make up Elaine's reflections—feminist, humanist, and personal.
To be sure, reviewers have already shown that they are uncomfortable putting any labels to Cat's Eye. Just as in the past they have been quick to categorize—and recategorize—Atwood's work, they are now hesitating. Even more surprising than this resistance to classification, however, are the grounds upon which that resistance is based: the sense that this is more than a feminist tract, more than a postmodern exploration of literary self-reflection, precisely, because it speaks from and about the autobiographical form.
In other words, Atwood is forcing us to rethink our position—again. Just as we had become comfortable with the idea that a biographical reading is a reductive one, Atwood shows us that it is quite the opposite. It is precisely the autobiographical aspect in and of Cat's Eye that makes us resist our temptation to master the text. We want to say that Cat's Eye is all of fiction and autobiography, feminist tract and personal meditation, contemporary metafiction and classical narrative precisely because it is more than these. But to say that would be to admit that Atwood has restored our faith in story and in the magic of literary illusion; and we are surely much too experienced as readers to say that.
SOURCE: "Mirror, Mirror, Who's the Evilest?" in Newsweek, Vol. CXXII, No. 19, November 8, 1993, p. 81.
[In the following review, Shapiro praises Atwood's novel The Robber Bride.]
Nobody maps female psychic territory the way Margaret Atwood does, sure-footed even in the wilds. Her latest novel, The Robber Bride takes its title from the Grimm fairy tale about the robber bridegroom who kidnaps maidens and carries them off to his house to be cut up and eaten. Here the malevolent suitor is a woman named Zenia, mysterious and alluring, who insinuates herself into other women's lives and carries off their husbands and boyfriends. If they're lucky, they escape.
At the center of the book are three women, longtime friends who became so after Zenia slashed and burned her way through each of their lives. Zenia herself lurks just out of sight until close to the end, when each of the women confronts her—and in her, their own worst demons. The three are classic Atwood creations, so vivid and idiosyncratic they could live next door, while perfectly evoking their time (now) and place (big Canadian city with a university). There's Tony, the maverick military historian enthralled by the human face of war, who lectures on such topics as fly-front fastenings and their effect on speed and efficiency in battle. There's Roz, the rich but desperately insecure business-woman. If only she were world-class at something, she frets—saintliness, or better yet, sin. "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the evilest of us all?" she wonders. And it answers, "Take off a few pounds, cookie, and maybe I can do something for you." The third is Charis, born Karen, a name she left behind when she took up a life of herbal remedies, reading people's auras and oneness with nature. It's a measure of Atwood's great gifts that she can describe Karen's childhood experience of incest—a crime on the brink of becoming a literary cliché—so poignantly that it's freshly agonizing.
Moving amid these three women, touching up their portraits with one perfect detail after another, conjuring Zenia from their memories and fears, Atwood is in her glory. What a treasure she is, and what a fine new book she has written.
SOURCE: "On the Villainess," in San Francisco Review of Books, February-March, 1994, pp. 30-32, 34.
[In the following excerpt, Atwood discusses her writing process and the role of the literary villainess in reference to her book The Robber Bride.]
[Miller]: In The Robber Bride, your character Zenia is cruel, cold-blooded and calculated, so able to manipulate the female protagonists in the book …
[Atwood]:… And the male …
In a recent New York Times article you said there has been a gap in the literary appearance of the villainess. Has this been particularly on the part of women writers, and have you met any resistance to Zenia from feminists?
No. There is a whole list of manipulative characters, some of them written by women. We need go back no further than Edith Wharton. Have you read The Custom of the Country?
No, I haven't.
Well, you should. (She laughs.) It is about a manipulative, social climbing woman who steps on the bodies of all the men she climbs over. Also The House of Mirth, about an extremely evil women, the adulterer's wife, who essentially destroys the heroine of this book. So there are several such characters; when I was talking about it, it was that this character had disappeared in the fifties. I was at a feminist conference called 'Women Reviewing Women' in Wellesley; I was surrounded by feminists. They were buying this book like crazy. And I also get this a lot at readings, that it's so wonderful that women don't just have to be good and victims all the time because if you make women nice all the time that's the equivalent to making them powerless all the time. Of course, there have been many more villainesses created by men. And do you know why that is? Because there have been so many more characters created by men. And why was that? Because women really didn't start writing books until the late nineteenth century. Why was that? Because they couldn't write. If you want to see a villainess character, take a look at Toni Morrison's Sula.
So you don't feel there has been a recent gap in women writers depicting such evil in women?
There was a gap beginning in the fifties. The femme fatale disappeared for awhile, and I think the reason for that was that there was a big push to get women back into the home. And you can't set up housekeeping with the Marlene Dietrich of The Blue Angel. It's not going to work out. So women had to be made much more mommy-like, much more Doris Day-like or cute and pert and Debbie Reynolds-like or sexual and stupid, like Marilyn Monroe and not a threat. But the threatening, smart, cunning, manipulative women, which Clare Boothe Luce's play The Women was all about—have you ever seen it?
No I haven't.
Well there's a movie version of it too. Take a look. All of the women in it are out scheming one another. There's never a man visible. It's very cleverly done. You see the women talking to them on the phone, but you never actually see a man in the whole movie. It's all women, and there are good ones and bad ones, and the plot finally turns when the good one decides to fight for the man that the bad one has stolen. And that was a forties movie, and I think it may have been a thirties play. This was a familiar character until the fifties, and then she disappeared. And then we got the sixties, and she wasn't around much then either because the sixties were the fifties until 1967, and then everybody was so focused on quote the sexual revolution that we weren't even thinking about that, and then came the women's movement with, "If you can't say anything nice about women, don't say anything at all." I think we're now through with all that, and we can put the full cast of characters back on the stage. Because to say that women can't be malicious and intentionally bad is to say that they're congenitally incapable of that, which is really very limiting.
For all her evil, it does seem that ultimately Zenia has a positive effect on the three female protagonists? Would you agree?
I like to leave judgments like that to the reader. Some people have said that; other people have said all kinds of other things that have nothing to do with that.
Well, their relationship to Zenia does seem to represent the fact that if one is not willing to look squarely at one's darker side, one is ultimately less able and less powerful.
Well, I would certainly take that point of view. I think you could say that. I don't know whether you're familiar with the opera Tales of Hoffman. There's a character in that who gets his shadow stolen from him, and in fact, to lose your shadow is to lose your soul. So insofar as Zenia is the shadow side of the characters, she is a necessary component. But you must realize that any character in a novel, if the novel is of any interest at all, has more than one dimension. Zenia is also a tricky con artist and a magician; by magician I mean the kind that says, "Look here," and while you're looking there, they're picking your pocket with the other hand. As an example, if I want to sell you the Golden Gate Bridge and you want to buy it, you give me the money. If it's a legitimate transaction, I give you the Bridge. If it's not a legitimate transaction, then you give me the money, and I skip town, and then you find out that I never had the Bridge in the first place. That's a con artist transaction, and that's what Zenia does. But notice that it is dependent on the desire of the person who gets conned. I can't sell you the Golden Gate Bridge unless you want to buy it. So Zenia has something to offer each of the characters that they want. And part of it is their notions of themselves as nice people, because in each case, she appeals to them for help, and because it is part of their image of themselves and they help one another, they help her. And with one another, it's real help that they have to give, and it's needed, and all of those exchanges are legitimate exchanges. So it's not saying, "Don't be a nice person." I think it's saying, "Look in the bag or else you're going to get left holding the sack," or "A rattlesnake that doesn't bite teaches you nothing," or "Illusion is the first of all pleasures."
Would you say that you enjoy creating a certain amount of stir? In a past interview you said, "If you're not annoying someone, you're not really alive."
Well, I don't think it's cause and effect. In other words, I don't set out to annoy people. I set out to write books, and in all books there is conflict, in all books that hold your interest for more than ten pages. There is change, there is conflict, there are things that rub against one another, and that is just the nature of the novel. Wouldn't you say?
Yes I would.
Because if you have a book in which John and Mary get up in the morning and have a wonderful day, and they are very nice to each other, and their kids turn out well, and their dog is just terrific, and they have a great house, and they both have wonderful jobs, how much longer are you going to go on reading? Something has to happen. So it can be the invasion of monsters from outer space; it can be a flaw in their own characters or another character in the book, but something has to happen.
Politics and the relationship of the powerful to the powerless is a thread that runs throughout your work. You have commented in the past about how you don't like the distinction made between politics and art, as though one is sullied and the other is pure.
No, what I don't like is people thinking that they can't put politics into art because one is contaminated and the other pure, that art should only be about the psyche, that it should only be about the individual. Well, the novel has never only been about that because the novel shows people moving through time in society, and no matter what kind of novel it is, it always has that, and once you have society, you have power structure, and once you have power structure, you have politics. By that I don't mean that all novels should be about what goes on in Washington. That's not what I'm saying at all. What I am saying is that in the world that we observe, power is distributed unevenly … not a huge insight. (She laughs.)
Is the most interesting work for you personally that which is written by those who are disenfranchised in some way?
No, I don't make that kind of distinction. The most interesting work is that which is well done. In other words, you can't categorize things in that way in terms of subject matter or genre either. Some people think there is something called a legitimate novel and that there are other forms that aren't quite right, such as detective fiction or science fiction. I don't make those kinds of distinctions. If a book is well done and gripping, I don't care what kind of book it is, and I don't care what its arena is. It happens to be so that books in which a person is contending with forces may very well be about a person in a disadvantaged group contending with the forces of society. It may be about that or it could be about something quite different. You never know. But if we were to say these kinds of books are good because of their subject matter and these kinds of books are bad because of their subject matter, we would certainly generate a lot of mediocre literature about certain subject matter.
Who are some of the writers you presently feel a certain affinity with, whose books you most eagerly anticipate?
I just got hold of E. Annie Proulx, not because I have read any of her work but just because she sounds interesting and I will read her work. The lists get very long, and they also irritate those who happen to be left out. I hate giving off-the-cuff lists. I read so much, and there are so many books that have been memorable to me that in order to answer this question properly, I would probably have to sit down and write you a bibliography that would be at least ten pages. But let me mention a new writer that you probably haven't heard of—Barbara Gowdy.
What is the range of your reading?
Very broad. I read all kinds of books from all kinds of times from all kinds of countries and from all kinds of genres. And by all kinds of genders. In fact, I just checked out a book called Lesbian Vampire Stories. Now there's a category. And it's full of evil women, I have to tell you, and it's very much promoted as a feminist book. What do you make of that? (She laughs.) Literature is full of male anti-heroes; maybe Zenia is a female anti-hero. (Laughter.) Certainly my publicity person at Doubleday … she said, "Oh I love this book. You can use it as a sort of litmus test for your friends. You can say, this is a Zenia person; this is a Charis person; this is a Tony person; this is a Roz person." And I said, "And what about you?" She said, "Zenia." I said, "Oh, I'm shocked and horrified. Why do you think Zenia?" She said, "Because I am all of the others, and I want to be her." I said, "Why are you saying that?" She said, "Because she has power." And it's true; she has power, and power can be power to help, and it can be power to harm, but it also has to contain within itself a potential for harm, otherwise it's not power. I think that's one of the things women found out when they got some power, that once you have some power you're going to do some things that other people don't like.
What are the seeds for your novels and short stories?
I used to thrash around trying to think of answers for this, and another writer gave me the answer. When asked, "Where do you get your ideas?," she says, "I think them up." And that's what happens.
Do you work on your poetry, novels, and short stories at the same time, alternating between them?
When I'm working on a novel, I do almost nothing else; although with this one, I did a few pieces which are more or less unclassifiable: some are monologues, some are short prose pieces, one is a rewrite of "The Little Red Hen" story, and one is what Gertrude really said to Hamlet when he came into her dressing room and told her how to behave. And that you'll get next year. But apart from that, when I'm writing a novel, I don't usually write poetry. And when I'm writing short stories, I seem to write nothing but short stories.
What is your next step in writing a novel? Once you have that seed of plot, do you concentrate then on developing characters?
Well, I don't even necessarily start with a seed of plot. I start with an image, a theme, a voice, a situation, a circumstance. I think writing a novel is a lot like making things out of mud, with the same amount of squashing it up and throwing it away and starting again all of those kinds of things. I don't think novels proceed from the top down. I don't think they start with abstract concepts and move down. Some have been created like that; certain kinds of experimental writing are like certain kinds of conceptual art in that people say, "Oh, I think it would be a good idea to dig a great big, circular hole in the ground and then line it with pink plastic." And in a way once you have that notion, it's almost secondary to create the object. But I feel that I build my novels up much more from the ground and from details than from saying, "Now I'm going to write a novel about this."
So in creating your characters you don't first start with a concept of what you would like them to embody?
I don't start with that thing that people always wish you to produce. They say, "What is the main idea of your novel?" They think that novels are how-to books or books of philosophy or that they are my-theory-of-life type books. If I wanted to write that kind of book, I would have written it. Novels are about people, people moving through time interacting with one another, and I don't think they can be reduced to "What is the theme in twenty words or less?" As one person said, "What would you like the reader to take away with her?" In other words, "What's the prize in the box of crackers? Why did I have to go through all this popcorn just to get this little plastic thing?" When I was in high school, we had to take a poem and then write a prose rendition of it. I think a lot of people still have this notion that a writer is an inarticulate person who can't get it out, that it takes them 500 pages to say, "War is hell" or whatever the message may be, and I don't think that fiction or poetry work like that. I think that what the book means is the experience that you bring to the book, and therefore it's going to have a somewhat different meaning to every single individual because everyone brings his or her totality to a book. I will see different things from the things that somebody else will see, just as I will see different things in a painting or different things in a film. "Mr. Shakespeare, tell us what is the reader to take with her from Hamlet? Never put off tomorrow what you can do today." And that's often what we're asked to do, summarize and condense and come out with this message.
Do you revise as you write or get it all down and then revise?
I write it through and then I revise it, often as much as six times. After you've done that and after you've gone through your editor, who is a very picky person, and then gone through the galleys and the page proofs, you've gone through it a lot of times. But to get into it, it means you have to, at least I do, write quite freely and that means I discard a lot and have a lot of crumpled pieces of paper.
Do you allow your editor to read your work while it's in progress?
Is there anyone you allow to read it?
No, I didn't go to creative writing school.
Are you surprised by the turns your characters take?
Well if I wasn't, I would get very bored.
Is that part of what fuels you to write?
Nobody knows what fuels him or her. It's an unknown mystery, and nobody knows in the writing department and nobody knows in the rest of life. That's another one of those crackerjack questions: "Where's the battery? Where's the little box with what makes you go in it?"
But is the surprise element one of the things you most enjoy about writing?
I certainly enjoy those when they occur. I don't know, I've been doing this since I was 16 years old. It's kind of useless by this time to ask me why I do it. And really why should anybody have to answer that question? I mean, why do you like running? Why do you like horseback riding? I like it. It's in my personality to like it.
Edna O'Brien has said that whether a novel is autobiographical or not does not matter, that what is important is the truth in it and the way that truth is expressed. Do you agree with that?
Yes, because in fact who knows? You will never know. I mean I could lie my head off and tell you that in fact I'm Charis or some other thing like that, and you would never know. We certainly don't know whether Shakespeare thought he was Richard III. We will never get to interview him. The author interview is a very recent phenomenon. Probably authors shouldn't be allowed to go out in public at all.