Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 546

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Margaret Atwood frequently approaches the issue of selfhood in terms of a search for identity and in terms of violations of the self, as well as the dualities of life. In this story, she portrays the male psychiatrist superficially; he was clearly a person who hated women, as well as a weakling who made himself feel strong by surrounding himself with women with low self-esteem who loved and respected him because of his appearance of strength and character. The story’s narrator, on the other hand, is revealed as a person with flaws, but also with great gifts.

“The Sin-Eater” explores the differences between appearance and reality. Eventually, the narrator achieves an epiphany in her attempts to strip away the superficial appearance of her psychiatrist and thereby discover the truth of both his identity and her own. The psychiatrist appeared to be strong but was in reality very weak. He assumed the role of protective parent while he was really living as a self-centered child. These contradictions ultimately led to his finest deceit—pretending to be the “sin-eater” for his women patients and former wives. Ultimately, the narrator’s dream reveals her to be the true martyr.

Because Joseph smothered his women with pretended love and fatherly concern, his death, painful as it is for them to accept, ironically frees them to live more realistic and honest lives for the first time. The reader follows the narrator’s movement from shocked disbelief to anger and a sense of betrayal, through fear and nostalgia, and finally to acceptance and self-respect. The reader becomes so much a part of her psyche that her dream is relatively easy to interpret.

In her dream, the narrator envisions the waiting room to heaven (or hell) as an airplane terminal in which everyone is rushing to their destiny. She sees Joseph and his blue hand as signifying death. She is supposed to devour some party cookies decorated with moons and stars. The man who tries to attract her attention has his mouth sewed shut, and the narrator recognizes him as a boy whom Joseph never forgave for destroying his flowers. His presence shows the narrator how important it is that she devour what Joseph calls his sins so that he will no longer be haunted by his selfish behavior.

The cold blue of Joseph’s hand reveals that he is dead in the dream, even while his normal banter to the narrator reminds her of their former relationship. When he offers her cookies, they repel her: “They look too rich,” meaning that there are too many for her to swallow. Joseph’s smile, however, promises her acceptance, if not salvation. As she begins to eat the cookies, their decorative stars grow bigger and bigger until she is consumed by the universe. This dream symbolizes her ability to accept the truth about Joseph and her willingness to be the sin-eater for the sin-eater.

This story suggests that the role of victim or martyr is an individual choice, not a predetermined destiny. The narrator thinks that absorbing all of her psychiatrist’s sins will be too much for her tiny soul until her dream convinces her of her own inner strength and she comes to respect herself and believe that she can survive alone.