The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

This profoundly disturbed woman narrates her own story with fragmented and obsessive memories which are themselves suspect, given the nature of her consciousness. Her tendency to describe everything she relates, from the chopping of wood to the gathering of vegetables, in images of amputation and mutilation suggests the power of the anger and guilt she has repressed Moreover, she has invented a fantasy about her past life—a fantasy which she so clearly believes that the reader is likely to be misled as well.

As she tells it, she has recently divorced her husband and abandoned his child, apparently because he treated her like an object and she lost the ability to love. The trouble is in the neck, which isolates mind from body, she explains, observing that her own neck must have closed over, shutting her into her head and preventing her from feeling any emotion whatsoever. The reality which finally “surfaces” is that she has had an illegal abortion several years earlier and has been unable to live with her guilt at betraying her parents and her own childhood horror of ever hurting any living creature. It is out of self-hatred and a profound desire for atonement that the narrator not seeks to isolate herself from the human world she identifies as full of deceit, exploitation, and violence.

Joe, the narrator’s current boyfriend, is a thinly drawn character who represents the opposite of the fake husband/lover, the father of the aborted fetus. The narrator was the victim in that first relationship—having the abortion because he wanted it, accepting his judgment that women could not become true artists, believing that he could love her and still be faithful to wife and children. As her art professor, he gave her C’s in proof of his aesthetic objectivity. Joe is not nearly so self-confident or dominating. He is the one who loves too much, who cannot mask his own vulnerability, whose face contorts with pain when she refuses to say, “I love you.” Every time the narrator sells one of her drawings or gets a new commission, he mangles another pot. Joe is furry and like a buffalo, the narrator asserts, but because “he is only half-formed,” in the end she knows that she can trust him. He will, in fact, be waiting for her when she finally surfaces from her descent into madness.

If Joe represents honesty and possibility, David represents hypocrisy and inauthenticity. Despite his anti-American diatribes, he turns out to be as destructive and exploitative as he accuses the “fascist-pig Yanks” of being When...

(The entire section is 1041 words.)


Atwood's unnamed narrator is a woman at long last undertaking a quest for moral self-clarification. A commercial artist and illustrator who once aspired to a more idealistic painterly career, she is working on sketches for a volume of Quebec fairy tales as the novel begins. Clearly reveling in the Gothic extravagances of that genre, she soon finds her own circumstances in the narrative mirroring the grotesque mysteries common to such tales. Despite having been estranged from her parents for years after a supposedly disastrous marriage of her own, she has returned to the Quebec wilderness, where a large part of her youth had been spent, because her father has been reported missing and is feared dead. She is accompanied by her lover Joe, an unsuccessful potter and night school instructor, as well as married friends Anna and David. Toward none of these people does the narrator feel any commitment or affection, and as time passes she grows increasingly distant from each of them until she ultimately flees their company altogether.

Much of the central action of the novel deals with the protagonist's tormented memories of her parents and her gradual reconciliation with each of them as she comes to accept not only their deaths but their different philosophies toward life. Her father, a botanist who alternated between remote field work and urban desk assignments, taught his children a rational, scientific response to the world of phenomena; it was he who once trained the narrator in the survivalist tactics necessary to endure the wilderness. His mysterious disappearance in the present creates much of the surface tension of the plot: has the isolation and harshness of the raw natural environment at last driven him insane? Has he capitulated to suicidal despair? Has senility made him the victim of some fatal misstep? The narrator has only the curious drawings found among his papers to guide her to the answers.

In contrast, her mother had...

(The entire section is 652 words.)


(Novels for Students)

Anna is David's wife and the narrator's "best woman friend" for the past two months. Although she appears "always cheerful," Anna:


(The entire section is 160 words.)


(Novels for Students)

David is Anna's husband. David teaches communications classes in an adult education program with Joe. Although he tries to pass himself off...

(The entire section is 319 words.)


(Novels for Students)

Joe is the narrator's often untalkative lover. She admits that "speech to him was a task, a battle, words mustered behind his beard and...

(The entire section is 369 words.)


(Novels for Students)

The narrator's mother is also dead when the novel begins. Her influence in her daughter's life becomes evident as the narrator begins her...

(The entire section is 155 words.)


(Novels for Students)

The narrator is the novel's main character, a young woman returning to the remote island on a lake in Northern Quebec, where she spent much...

(The entire section is 441 words.)

Other Characters

(Novels for Students)

The narrator's father is dead at the beginning of the novel, but she strongly feels his influence throughout...

(The entire section is 193 words.)