Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 424
The title of “The Sin-Eater” establishes from the story’s start the symbolic importance of those who sacrifice themselves for others’ sins, and the story opens with a remembered conversation between the narrator and her psychiatrist. At first, readers are as shocked and disturbed by images of eating in the presence of a corpse as the narrator is. That this person is also symbolically devouring the dead person’s sins is even more morbid.
The narrator’s journey toward self-identity emerges in a series of remembered conversations between her and Joseph that are clearly and precisely portrayed with vivid details. As she searches for meaning, her self-addressed questions reveal a pattern. In every instance, her attempts to get treatment, support, or understanding from Joseph led to his interrupting her in order to catalog his own problems with women and their lack of understanding, as well as his fatigue and the resentment that he directed at his demanding patients.
As the narrator compares Joseph’s self-image and view of his life to the realities of his life that are revealed by the comments of his former wives and patients, she recognizes that his life was a sham. This leads to her dream, which brilliantly symbolizes the nature of their relationship. She emerges strong, independent, and courageous, no longer needing a father figure to protect her.
By showing all Joseph’s former wives and patients in one room, Atwood reinforces the shock of recognition that hits the narrator—a moment of insight that reveals to her the absurdity and the lie of Joseph’s life and self-image. That alone is not enough, however. She must also come to grips with the fears that led her to seek psychiatric help in the first place. This is where the symbolism of the sin-eater becomes crucial to understanding Atwood’s theme. The sin-eater legend suggests that a person becomes a sin-eater not by desire, but by urgent necessity, just as one becomes a prophet. This duty was so horrible, so repugnant, that only those desperate for money or food would choose to undertake it. Other people feared sin-eaters because they thought their sins would rub off on them, but they also respected them for their courage and devotion to duty.
The narrator’s dream combines symbols to imply a certain meaning, yet Atwood is careful not to explain its images. This forces the reader to undertake the same journey of self-discovery as the narrator does—without fear, but with some hope. Her journey ends as the reader’s begins.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 79
Cooke, Nathalie. Margaret Atwood: A Biography. Toronto, Ontario: ECW Press, 1998.
Hengen, Shannon. Margaret Atwood’s Power: Mirrors, Reflections, and Images in Select Fiction and Poetry. Toronto, Ontario: Sumach Press, 1993.
Nischik, Reingard, ed. Margaret Atwood: Works and Impact. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2000.
Stein, Karen F. Margaret Atwood Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1999.
Wilson, Sharon, Thomas Friedman, and Shannon Hengen, eds. Approaches to Teaching Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Other Works. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1996.
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