Murder in the Dark Themes
As Atwood is a prominent collector of themes, those found in Murder in the Dark are also found in her other works in one form or another. The most common themes found in Atwood's work are sexuality, marginalization of women and minority groups, social fears (such as growing old) as well as progression and movement, and the relationship between old and young (and the relationship between being old and being young), distrust of religion, patriarchy, issues of power, gender politics, body image, narrative voice and design, language, subversion of traditional literary forms, revisionist myth-making, history, satire, irony, Canadian nationalism, spirituality, the environment, feminist anger, bashing of males, public persona, coldness/unreliability of her narrators (as both the short story and the name of the book implies), and pessimism.
Murder in the Dark is comprised of four sections with twenty-seven prose poems in total. The first section consists of eight short works: "Autobiography," "Making Poison," "The Boy's Own Annual 1911," "Before the War," "Horror Comics," "Boyfriends," "The Victory Burlesk," and "Fainting." There seems to be a marked progression in theme and tone as the collection moves from youthful naivete toward a more adult-like skepticism. However, as always, her writing also reflects a series of binary oppositions whereby she is both curious but not fooled, skeptical but mystical, and youthful but wise. Thus, in "Making Poison" the child-like narrator reflects, "I can remember the glee with which we stirred and added, the sense of magic and accomplishment. Making poison is as much fun as making a cake. People like to make poison. If you don't understand this you will never understand anything." In "Boyfriends" we learn that the evening smells of both "mud and the full moon."
Atwood is constantly reminding the reader that her narrator is unreliable—"I went to the Victory Burlesk twice, or maybe it was only once and one of my friends went the other time and told me about it." She tests gender boundaries in "The Victory Burlesk": "[it] was quite daring for young women . . . we thought it was funny; it was almost as funny as church," and dramatically juxtaposes the young with the old, escapism with reality:
but when she finally turned around, she was old. Her face was powdered dead white, her mouth was bright reddish purple, but she was old. I could feel shame washing through me, it was no longer funny, I didn't want this woman to take off her clothes, I didn't want to look. I felt that I, not the woman on the stage, was being exposed and humiliated.
Forever challenging gender roles and boundaries, Atwood is a consistent oxymoron. In "Fainting" she reflects on a small child's experience with point of view and sight. The final statement "we faint when there's something we don't want to see, can't bear to see" is a comment on social injustices and the inconvenience of perspective. The title poem "Autobiography" is an appropriate one, as all the poems in the section are clearly autobiographical, although in a fictional sense. These poems deal with youth and ageism, life and death, violence and sentimentality, idealism and unfairness.
Section two is made up of one single poem, "Raw Materials," divided into five parts in which there is a definitive change in the narrative voice from child to adult (the narrator, "C," no longer "pinch[es] horror comics books from the racks in drugstores," for instance). Our narrator is, in a sense, more mature (certainly she is older in years), yet she is still searching for the "real experience"—something she believes she will not find. The poem is a series of descriptive travel scenarios illuminating the main theme of growing skepticism evident from the opening lines: "Why do we travel? In other words, what are we doing here?. . . The worm could be faked" and the man she sits with "smiles most of the time and has eyes that the naive might think of as candid."
Accompanying cynicism in this poem is the mysticism that always seems to be present in Atwood's binary technique. Thus, when the beggar approaches her dining party the narrator asks "Who can tell what he's thinking, what ill wishes he's sending . . . isn't it bad luck not to give money to beggars?" Similarly, when they trek to visit Jaguar Throne we learn that "Nobody says anything, though the heavy air seems full of whispers." Those same whispers later inspire a moment of mysterious panic where legend and myth suddenly come alive for the tourists until they learn it was "only a spider." Yet for all of this flirtation with mystical happenings and notions, we always return to the skeptic in Atwood—after all, the beggar turns ugly and they shoo him away "as if he's a bird"; and the "Jaguar Throne is kept in here so it can't get out."
The third section, beginning with "Murder in the Dark," illustrates a further increase in skepticism as the tone grows more aggressive and ironic. "Happy Endings" and "Page" include striking commentaries on authorial intention and structure, while "Simmering," "Women's Novels," and "Bread" are highly ironic pieces dealing primarily with both the sex war and gender roles. All of the poems in this section overtly question both patriarchal structures and the possible alternatives offered thus far. The interest of "Murder in the Dark" lies in the parable of the author and her relationship with the reader: "that's me in the dark. I have designs on you, I'm plotting my sinister crime . . . I must always lie. Now: Do you believe me?" Similarly, "Happy Endings" and "Page" play with structure with the same cynical and questioning spirit—you can choose from the variety of endings offered for John and Mary's relationship, all of which are unsatisfactory, disappointing, or cruel; you are asked to question the relevance of the page: "Touch the page at your peril: it is you who are blank and innocent, not the page" (italics added for emphasis). "Simmering" poses a thoroughly comical and satirical reversal of gender roles:
Psychological articles began to appear in the magazines on the origin of women's kitchen envy and how it could be cured. Amputation of the tip of the tongue was recommended, and, as you know became a widespread practice in more advanced nations. If Nature had meant women to cook, it was said, God would have made carving knives round and with holes in them.
However, while the men become obsessed with cooking in the kitchen, the women mistakenly feel "they ha[ve] got away with something." Thus, while the primary theme of the piece is obvious, there remains an underlying dissatisfaction with the role reversal.
The final section of Murder in the Dark is a culmination of the poetic themes witnessed thus far, fusing self reflection and social politics: "How does it feel to be a god, for five minutes anyway? . . . After you've been serviced, after you've been used, you'll be put away until needed" ("Worship"); "he's just landed and you are the land" ("Him"); "The most important thing is making her. Over, from nothing, new. From scratch, the way he wants" ("Iconography"); and finally in "Liking Men," "It's time to like men again. Where shall we begin? . . . To begin with the head and all it contains would be too suddenly painful." The politics of the sex war are most prominent in this section of the collection. Except for the slight flirtation with hope at the beginning of "Liking Men" (quickly dispelled as the poem progresses to men's boots stamping on women's faces and bodies), there is no longer a narrator tempered with a child's innocence in this final section of Murder in the Dark. Rather, an angry distrust invades the text, dominating the tone with black humor.