Marrying the Hangman

by Margaret Atwood

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 878

In the poem, Margaret Atwood presents both an individual woman’s story and an insightful commentary on society. She writes in free verse, often using long sentences that make the work more prosaic than poetic, but introduces stylistic changes at several points. With her repeated references to voice and creativity, Atwood emphasizes the relationship between freedom and writing. Marriage, as the title suggests, is one area of consideration.

The speaker denies her own creativity in offering the story and, in doing so, resists classification of the work as poetry. Instead, at the end of stanza 1, the speaker insists that “it is history.” With this statement, the poet also refers the reader to the poem’s source of inspiration, an event in Canada’s colonial past, when a woman named Françoise Laurent was sentenced to be hanged for theft. But at several points in the poem, the speaker switches abruptly to a contemporary commentary involving her friends’ unbelievable but true stories; thus, “history” comes to encompass events of any era.

In stanza 4, Atwood uses second-person direct address to engage the reader and then draws sympathy to the female criminal, who is not named in the poem, by suggesting her reasons for stealing.

You wonder about her crime. She was condemnedto death for stealing clothes. . . .She wished to make herselfmore beautiful. . . .

In the stanza’s last line, she moves deeper into the social construction of the person and emotion, juxtaposing it both to class status and to the law: “This desire in servants was not legal.”

The poet carefully weaves a complex tale in which the woman’s “desire” moves from superficial, exterior concerns to existential absolutes: the woman desires life itself. Through the course of the poem, Atwood shows how survival can take precedence over liberty. To be released from the death sentence and the physical confines of the prison, the woman must reinvent herself. Being imprisoned threatens her identity, which Atwood expresses through the metaphor of the mirror.

To live in prison is to live without mirrors. To livewithout mirrors is to live without the self.

These associations draw on Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” whose mirror bursts when the lady is freed.

Atwood’s poem is also a commentary on the identity of the writer and, by extension, creativity itself. A woman’s physical escape from hanging can be arranged, according to colonial law, by marrying the hangman. The woman prisoner must literally turn a male prisoner into a hangman. Figuratively, she must make her own path, which she does as an author, through words. Hanging is literally a “wrung neck and swollen tongue,” but figuratively it is silencing the creative woman’s voice. “[S]he must create him, she must persuade this man. . . . / She uses her voice like a hand.” The woman becomes powerful and God-like or maternal in bringing a new creation to life.

The speaker switches at two points, in the middle and near the end, to the recent stories of their friends. The speaker emphasizes that “horror” is the stuff of real life and need not be restricted to a prison cell or life sentence. They have told their “horror stories.” In this stanza, she repeats the line from stanza 1: “This is not / fantasy, it is history.” The speaker also emphasizes the importance of the storyteller in affirming harsh realities: “we . . . tell stories . . . so we can finally believe.” Later, however, the speaker qualifies the effectiveness of this approach:

The fact is there are no stories I can tell my...

(This entire section contains 878 words.)

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friendsthat will make them feel better.

Taken literally, the woman succeeds in convincing the man to become a hangman: in saving her, he commits to killing others. The speaker explores the value of the trade-off and the different conceptions of the freedom that both will now enjoy as contrasted to the freedoms they are giving up. The limits to female creativity are emphasized throughout, along with the social limits on female liberty. The speaker notes the different quality of men’s freedom: “no man could save his life by marriage.” Although the woman did save her own life, the speaker asks about the price she paid.

What did she say when she discovered that she hadleft one locked room for another?

In addition to the switches in time and voice, the poem’s structure and diction also sometimes shift away from the prosaic, storytelling tone. At two points, Atwood abruptly switches to sentences that are more like lists to show these gendered differences regarding liberty. His terms are external, while hers are personal, intimate, and body-related.

He said: the end of walls, the end of ropes, the openingof doors, a field, the wind, a house, the sun, a table,an apple.She said: nipple, arms, lips, wine, belly, hair, bread,thighs, eyes, eyes.

A similar litany is placed at the poem’s end, after they have been released from the physical prison and begun a life together. Again, their different attitudes are shown, but this time both use combinations of concrete and abstract, and his includes the body through “foot” and “fist,” while her body references are to softer things: “rope hair, earth belly.” An association between violence and survival is suggested with the last word in her list, “blood.”