Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1819
Margaret Atwood’s dystopic novel The Year of the Flood is horrifying and wickedly funny, often at the same time. Most readers will find their greatest fear for society realized in the world of the novel, whether it is global warming, species destruction, out-of-control corporate greed, an entrenched gap between the rich and poor, religious fundamentalism at its extreme, rampant crime, or a global pandemic. Atwood terms her novels set in the future “speculative fiction” rather than science fiction. They explore what would happen if events followed a certain trajectory based on what is currently possible. In The Year of the Flood, the future that results is in most ways much worse than the present. The likelihood of so many things actually going so badly is slim, but the setting enables Atwood to satirize aspects of current society ranging from religion to capitalism to environmentalism.
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Despite the story’s sensational events, including a pandemic that kills all but a handful of people, Atwood’s development of the personal narratives of Toby and Ren is her novel’s most compelling feature. Each woman believes, for most of the novel, that she is the only person to survive the sickness. The plot alternates between scenes from the women’s lives after the pandemic and flashbacks to their earlier lives. The scenes told from Toby’s viewpoint are narrated in the third person, but the scenes from Ren’s viewpoint are narrated in the first person. This strategy gives readers multiple ways to understand the story. Toby is older and is analytical about her experiences. Ren is a young woman at the time of the pandemic, and her observations are often direct but do not always demonstrate a deep understanding about what happens around her. Gradually, readers learn from their two stories what led to the pandemic and why these women were saved. Only near the end of the novel do Toby and Ren discover each other, as well as other survivors.
The Year of the Flood retells the story of Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake (2003) from different perspectives. The earlier novel focused on Glenn and Jimmy and on Glenn’s creation of a new, ideal human species and his bioengineering of the plague that wipes out most people on the planet. The main characters in The Year of the Flood are bystanders reacting to events and situations as they occur.
Before the pandemic, the characters live in a society in which wealthy people live in gated corporate compounds and others live in the “pleeblands,” where laws are no longer enforced and CorpSeCorps, a police force paid for by the corporations, acts in its own interests. Corporate greed runs rampant. CorpSeCorps targets are likely to be ground up to provide meat for the Secret Burger fast food chain. The HelthWyzer corporation tries experimental drugs on unsuspecting consumers or intentionally spreads illnesses so that consumers will purchase HelthWyzer’s drugs to cure those illnesses.
Many species in Atwood’s world have become extinct because the environment has eroded. In their place, the corporations have bioengineered new species. These include the rakunk, a cross between a raccoon and a skunk; the mo’hair, a sheep with human hair in colors such as silver, blue, and purple; and the pigoon, a pig with human brain tissue. The most alarming animal, the liobam, was created by a religious extremist group: A cross between a lion and a lamb, the gentle-looking but deadly animal was designed to show that, not only can the lion lie down with the lamb, but the two species can also coexist in the same body. These satirical embodiments of corporate greed and religious extremism provide opportunities for humor. For example, the bioengineered sheep are useful for hair replacements, which look great so long as the wearer does not mind smelling like mutton when it rains.
Overall, tampering with nature is presented as a bad idea. One of the germs developed to create a need for medicines gets out of hand and kills almost everyone on the planet. In fact, all uses of science and technology turn out either to be ill-intended or to have bad effects.
In addition to damaging the planet and human health, the corporations’ power shows the dangers of capitalism gone awry. Because Ren lives in one of the walled compounds for corporate families during part of her childhood, readers learn about the comfort and privilege the compounds’ residents enjoy. Ren has a pretty bedroom with a closet full of stuffed animals. She attends high school. For the most part, her life in the compound is much like those of upper-middle-class children in current North America.
Toby and Ren both belong, for a time, to God’s Gardeners, who treat environmentalism as a religion. The Gardeners rescue Toby from her boss Blanco at Secret Burger. The fast-food chain is run by gangsters whose victims become meals. Blanco has a history of dating employees and then killing them when he gets tired of them. Toby eventually gains a leadership position with the Gardeners, although she never fully embraces their doctrine.
Ren joins the Gardeners as a child. Her mother joins because she falls in love with Zeb, one of the leaders. She later takes Ren and returns to their corporate compound when she decides to return to her husband.
Although the Gardeners are a saner and more likeable alternative to the corporations, their environmental and religious extremism are an easy target for Atwood’s satire. They squat in abandoned buildings and keep bees and grow food at their Edencliff Rooftop Garden. Their leader is called Adam One, and the other members of the leadership group are all called Adam or Eve with a number. They worship as saints such environmentalists as Euell Gibbons and Dian Fossey. Their rituals include atrociously bad hymns. Atwood researched hymns extensively, using sources ranging from the poetry of William Blake to well-known hymnals. She successfully evokes these loftier sources while making the selections she includes from The God’s Gardeners Oral Hymnbook absurdly silly.
The Gardeners echo some current fundamentalist religious groups by wearing unfashionable clothing that makes them easy to identify in a crowd. While their knowledge of plants helps them produce food, some of the Gardeners use that knowledge to stay stoned most of the time, evoking a stereotype of environmentalist hippies. The Gardeners refer to members who spend most of their time too stoned to participate in normal activities as “fallow.” One of the Gardeners even runs a business (without the consent of the group) growing highly potent marijuana in his apartment.
Like many religious and environmental groups that predict the Earth’s destruction, the Gardeners’ prophecies warn of a “waterless flood” that will wipe out much of humanity. To prepare, they hide food and other supplies in caches they call “Ararats,” named after the mountain where Noah’s Ark came to rest. It turns out that they are right about the flood, but, as Toby learns once she becomes an Eve, the prophecy may have derived from insider knowledge rather than divine inspiration. The Adams and Eves have computers that they use only within a hidden room and have connections inside the corporations.
Atwood even satirizes attitudes toward higher education and the professions for which it qualifies students. Academically talented students from the corporate compounds study science at the Watson-Crick Institute, but their less successful peers enroll in humanities courses at the dilapidated Martha Graham Academy.
As she does in much of her other work, Atwood scrutinizes gender roles in The Year of the Flood. For the most part, the novel’s gender roles extend current stereotypes. Within the corporations, most of the scientists are men. The women shop and seek beauty treatments. Outside the corporations, male violence is expected and even glorified. Toby’s boss Blanco beats and rapes her. Ren, once she is an adult, takes a job at the Scales and Tails club. The women dress to look like birds or reptiles, and they perform for the guests on trapezes. Ren survives the plague because she is locked in an isolation room to make sure she is not infected after a client bites through her biofilm suit.
The most violent men end up in prison, where they play games of “painball.” They remain on teams until they are killed or, in rare instances, escape. Fans watching on television choose favorites and gamble on the sport. Toby’s former boss Blanco ends up in the painball prison. He survives the plague, and he and another painballer continue chasing Toby. Meanwhile, as a remedy to the problems in male-female relations, Glenna minor character in this novel but a major one in Oryx and Crakedesigns a new human species. These new people mate only when the female comes into season. When she is “blue,” she chooses four men with whom to mate.
Humor and satire are not the only features that keep The Year of the Flood from being extremely grim. In fact, the novel depicts a world in which kindness and love make survival possible. The most important friendships are between women. Ren’s childhood friend Amanda travels a long distance to rescue her from the room where she is locked when the waterless plague strikes. Toby helps Ren find Amanda after the escaped painballers abduct her.
The novel ends with some of the last surviving humans sitting around a campfire. Toby and Ren have tied up the painballers, who sit with them. Amanda is also there but is weak and upset. Jimmy, Ren’s high school boyfriend whom she cannot stop thinking about, is also at the campfire but is so badly injured that he does not recognize her or seem to know where he is. The survivors hear the members of the new race coming toward them, singing.
This ending leaves many questions about who will survive and what the resolution will be. Members of the new species have told Toby and Ren that they can cure Jimmy by singing, so perhaps he will recover. The likelihood that Blanco can be reformed after pursuing Toby for years is slim, but his fate is left uncertain as the painballers may escape or die. In the biblical story of Noah, the animals that Noah saved on his ark went forth to repopulate the Earth, but the chance of the three men and three women sitting by the campfire following that example seems remote. The main characters have left the Gardeners’ Eden, which was anything but innocent and idyllic, and have survived the great flood, but Atwood has not yet revealed whether the world cleansed by the flood is better or worse than the one that came before it. She has left herself the option of writing another novel that answers these questions. Until that occurs, readers can speculate as to what utopian or dystopian world these characters might create.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 103
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The Christian Science Monitor, September 26, 2009, p. Books 25.
Kirkus Reviews 77, no. 15 (August 1, 2009): 24.
Library Journal 134, no. 13 (August 1, 2009): 62.
London Review of Books 31, no. 17 (September 10, 2009): 7-8.
Ms. 19, no. 3 (Summer, 2009): 43.
The Nation 289, no. 14 (November 2, 2009): 25-32.
New Scientist 203, no. 2726 (September 19, 2009): 50.
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The New York Times, September 15, 2009, p. 1.
The New York Times Book Review, September 20, 2009, p. 1.
The New Yorker 85, no. 30 (September 28, 2009): 79.
Publishers Weekly 256, no. 29 (July 20, 2009): 119.
The Spectator 311, no. 9447 (September 19, 2009): 42.
The Times Literary Supplement, September 18, 2009, p. 19-20.
The Village Voice 54, no. 51 (December 16, 2009): 35.
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