Atwood, Margaret (1939 -)
Internationally acclaimed as a novelist, poet, and short story writer, Atwood is widely considered a major figure in Canadian letters. Using such devices as irony, symbolism, and self-conscious narrators, she explores the relationship between humanity and nature, unsettling aspects of human behavior, and power as it pertains to gender and political roles. Her authorial voice has sometimes been described as formal and emotionally distant, but her talent for allegory and intense imagery informs an intellectual and sardonic style popular with both literary scholars and the reading public. Atwood has also been instrumental as a critic. She has helped define the identity and goals of contemporary Canadian literature and has earned a distinguished reputation among feminist writers for her exploration of women's issues.
Atwood was born in Ottawa and grew up in suburban Toronto. As a child she spent her summers at her family's cottage in the wilderness of northern Quebec, where her father, a forest entomologist, conducted research. She began to write while in high school, contributing poetry, short stories, and cartoons to the school newspaper. As an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, Atwood was influenced by critic Northrop Frye, who introduced her to the poetry of William Blake. Impressed with Blake's use of mythological imagery, Atwood wrote her first volume of poetry, Double Persephone, which was published in 1961. The following year Atwood completed her A.M. degree at Radcliffe College, Harvard University. She returned to Toronto in 1963, where she began collaborating with artist Charles Pachter, who designed and illustrated several volumes of her poetry. In 1964 Atwood moved to Vancouver, where she taught English for a year at the University of British Columbia and completed her first novel, The Edible Woman (1969). After a year of teaching literature at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, Atwood moved to Alberta to teach creative writing at the University of Alberta. Her poetry collection The Circle Game (1966) won the 1967 Governor General's Award, Canada's highest literary honor. Atwood's public visibility increased significantly with the publication of her poetry collection Power Politics in 1971. Seeking an escape from increasing media attention, Atwood left her teaching position at the University of Toronto to move to a farm in Ontario with her husband. In 1986 she again received the Governor General's Award for her novel The Handmaid's Tale(1986) and was later awarded the Booker Prize for her novel The Blind Assassin (2000).
The poems in Atwood's first volume, Double Persephone reflect the influence of Blake's contrasting mythological imagery. While this collection demonstrates her penchant for using metaphorical language, Atwood's second volume of poetry, The Circle Game, garnered widespread critical recognition. Atwood explores the meaning of art and literature, as well as the Gothic, in the poetry collection The Animals in That Country (1968). Presenting the poet as both performer and creator, she questions the authenticity of the writing process and the effects of literature on both the writer and the reader. In The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970) Atwood devotes her attention to what she calls the schizoid, double nature of Canada. Centered on the narratives of a Canadian pioneer woman, Journals investigates why Canadians came to develop ambivalent feelings toward their country. Atwood further develops this dichotomy in Power Politics, in which she explores the relationship between sexual roles and power structures by focusing on personal relationships and international politics.
The story of an unnamed freelance artist who journeys to the wilderness of Quebec to investigate her father's disappearance, Surfacing (1972) focuses on the dichotomous nature of family relationships, cultural heritage, and self-perception. The protagonist of Atwood's novel Lady Oracle (1976) is Joan Foster, who writes "costume Gothics" and fakes her own death to avoid the consequences of her past mistakes. The novel depicts relations between mothers and daughters and explores twentieth-century female identity by illustrating the monstrosity of the societal roles created by and for women. Just as Atwood uses monsters (Joan's three-way vanity mirror is a "triple-headed monster" and Joan becomes a "duplicitous monster") to highlight the novel's thematic concerns, so does Joan utilize her own costume Gothic characters and narratives to explore the issues that concern her, and in the end is able to begin writing in a new discipline—science fiction. In her novel Life before Man (1979) Atwood dissects the relationships between three characters: Elizabeth, a married woman who mourns the recent death of her lover; Elizabeth's husband, Nate, who is unable to choose between his wife and his lover; and Lesje, Nate's lover, who works with Elizabeth at a museum of natural history. All three characters are emotionally isolated from one another and are unable to take responsibility for their feelings as their relationships deteriorate.
Atwood turned to speculative fiction with her novel The Handmaid's Tale, depicting the dystopia of Gilead, a future America in which Fundamentalist Christians have imposed dictatorial rule. Here, in a world polluted by toxic chemicals and nuclear radiation, most women are sterile; those who are able to bear children are forced to become Handmaids, official surrogate mothers who enjoy some privileges yet remain under constant surveillance. Almost all other women have been deemed expendable. While The Handmaid's Tale focuses on an imagined future, Atwood's novel Cat's Eye (1990) explores how misconceptions about the past can influence people's present lives. The story of Elaine Risley, a prominent artist who returns to her childhood home in Toronto, Cat's Eye traces Elaine's discovery that her childhood relationships were often manipulative and that her memories of past events have not always been accurate or honest. Considered by many an allegorical exploration of the realities confronting individuals at the approach of the twenty-first century, this work reveals the implications of evil and redemption in both a personal and social context. In Cat's Eye, as in all her works, Atwood forgoes specific political or moral ideologies, concentrating instead on the emotional and psychological complexities that confront individuals in conflict with society.
In The Robber Bride (1993) Atwood transforms the Brothers Grimm's grisly fairy tale "The Robber Bridegroom," about a demonic groom who lures three innocent maidens into his lair and then devours them, into a statement about women's treatment of each other. Three middle-aged friends are relieved to reunite at the funeral of the woman who tormented them in college, stealing from them money, time, and men, and threatening their careers and lives. But the villainous Zenia turns up alive, forcing them to relive painful memories and come to terms with the connection between love and destruction. Alias Grace (1996) represents Atwood's first venture into historical fiction. Based on a true story Atwood had explored previously in a television script titled The Servant Girl, Alias Grace centers on Grace Marks, a servant who was found guilty of murdering her employer and his mistress in northern Canada in 1843. Some people doubt Grace's guilt, however, and she serves out her sentence of life in prison, claiming not to remember the murders. Eventually, reformers begin to agitate for clemency for Grace. In a quest for evidence to support their position, they assign a young doctor, versed in the new science of psychiatry, to evaluate her soundness of mind. Over many meetings, Grace tells the doctor the harrowing story of her life, which has been marked by extreme hardship. Much about Grace, though, remains puzzling; she is haunted by flashbacks of the supposedly forgotten murders and by the presence of a friend who had died from a mishandled abortion. The doctor, Simon Jordan, does not know what to believe in Grace's tales. The Blind Assassin involves multiple story lines. It is the memoir of Iris, a dying woman in her eighties who retraces her past with the wealthy and conniving industrialist Richard Griffen and the deaths of her sister Laura, her husband, and her daughter, and it is also a novel-within-a-novel, as interspersed with Iris's wry narrative threads are sections devoted to Laura's novel, The Blind Assassin, published after her death.
The winner of the 1967 Governor General's Award, Canada's highest literary honor, The Circle Game established the major themes of Atwood's poetry: the inconsistencies of self-perception, the paradoxical nature of language, Canadian identity, and the conflicts between humankind and nature. In addition to her numerous collections of poetry, Atwood earned widespread attention for Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), a seminal critical analysis of Canadian literature that served as a rallying point for the country's cultural nationalists. In Survival Atwood argues that Canadians have always viewed themselves as victims, both of the forces of nature that confronted them as they settled in wilderness territory and of the colonialist powers that dominated their culture and politics. She proposes that Canadian writers should cultivate a more positive self-image by embracing indigenous traditions, including those of Native Americans and French Canadians, rather than identifying with Great Britain or the United States.
Several commentators have noted a wide range of Gothic themes, characters, devices, and stylistic elements in Atwood's works. Her poetry collection, The Animals in That Country, has been assessed as fitting neatly into the Gothic tradition. This volume contains the poem "Speeches for Dr. Frankenstein," in which Atwood explores dualities, dichotomies, tension between opposites, and doubling. Surfacing has been regarded as an example of modern female Gothic for its depiction of an emotionally and socially repressed protagonist who, after learning of her father's disappearance from his cabin, takes a harrowing trip with her lover and another couple to the wilderness. During the journey, she confronts painful memories from her past and, by moving beyond the "surface" of her emotions and allowing herself to truly explore her pain, she is able to free herself from it. Lady Oracle, which Sybil Korff Vincent calls "the most Gothic of Gothic novels, a Gothic novel about Gothic novels," has been widely discussed as Atwood's most overtly Gothic work. Lady Oracle has been compared to Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey for its parodic elements and commentary on the relationship between reality and the representation of it in Gothic literature. Michiko Kakutani (see Further Reading) has asserted that The Blind Assassin "showcases Ms. Atwood's narrative powers and her ardent love of the Gothic." This novel, with its parallel narrative structure, twisted, complex plot, murders, mystery, and underlying sense of defeat, has been characterized as closely resembling classic works of Gothic fiction.
Double Persephone (poetry) 1961
The Circle Game (poetry) 1966
The Animals in That Country (poetry) 1968
The Edible Woman (novel) 1969
The Journals of Susanna Moodie (poetry) 1970
Procedures for Underground (poetry) 1970
Power Politics (poetry) 1971
Surfacing (novel) 1972
Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (criticism) 1972
You Are Happy (poetry) 1974
Lady Oracle (novel) 1976
Selected Poems (poetry) 1976
Dancing Girls, and Other Stories (short stories) 1977
Two-Headed Poems (poetry) 1978
Up in the Tree (juvenilia) 1978
Life before Man (novel) 1979
True Stories (poetry) 1981
Bodily Harm (novel) 1982
Second Words: Selected Critical Prose (criticism) 1982
Bluebeard's Egg (short stories) 1983
Murder in the Dark: Short Fictions and Prose Poems (short stories and poetry) 1983
Interlunar (poetry) 1984
The Handmaid's Tale (novel) 1986
Selected Poems II: Poems Selected and New, 1976–1986 (poetry) 1987
Cat's Eye (novel) 1990
Wilderness Tips (short stories) 1991
Good Bones (short stories) 1992
The Robber Bride (novel) 1993
Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (criticism) 1995
Alias Grace (novel) 1996
The Blind Assassin (novel) 2000
Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (essays) 2002
Oryx and Crake (novel) 2003
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ELI MANDEL (ESSAY DATE 1977)
SOURCE: Mandel, Eli. "Atwood Gothic." The Malahat Review 41 (1977): 165-74.
In the following essay, Mandel studies Atwood's utilization of Gothic themes and devices to express and comment upon complex social, political, and psychological issues in her works.
Margaret Atwood's You Are Happy offers not only her usual poetic transformations, identifica-tions, witch-woman figures, animal-men, and photograph-poems but also an intriguing set of "Tricks with Mirrors." It is the mirror poems that suggest, more pointedly than usual in her work, questions about duplicity and reflexiveness—concerns quite different from apparently clear and accessible social comment. She writes:
Don't assume it is passive
or easy, this clarity
with which I give you yourself,
Consider what restraint it
It is not a trick either,
It is a craft:
mirrors are crafty.
You don't like these metaphors
Perhaps I am not a mirror.
Perhaps I am a pool.
Think about pools.
Quite likely the speaker of the poem is meant to be taken as a lover; certainly she speaks to a Narcissus gazing at her as if she were a mirror; and to hear in the voice the artist's warning about craftiness may seem perverse, though the suggestion of allegory is so tempting in Atwood's works it is difficult to resist. In any event, the mirror voice does present ambiguous possibilities that call to mind apparently contradictory qualities in Atwood's writing: clarity and accessibility, certainly, combined with extraordinary deftness in manipulating contemporary modes of speech and image, and a compelling toughmindedness, a ruthless unsentimentality, which is somehow liberating rather than cynically enclosing. These modes and attitudes point to social concerns, but one senses that these surface qualities may be concealing quite different interests. It is not my intention to deny the obvious, that she does handle with force and insight important contemporary social metaphors: the politics of love and self, the mystification of experience, woman as prisoner of the mind police, social institutions as models of the police state, the schizophrenic journey toward health, and so on. But the oracular qualities of her work, no doubt as attractive as social commentary to her readers, deserve more extended commentary than they have received. I am thinking of the gothic elements of her novels, her consistent and obsessive use of reduplicating images, and her totemic animal imagery.
Margaret Atwood's comment, in a conversation with Graeme Gibson, that Surfacing "is a ghost story" provides the point of departure for more than one commentary on her work. Less often noticed is the special form of ghost story Atwood employs, the story in Journals of Susanna Moodie, for example. Mrs. Moodie appears to Atwood, we are told, in a dream, later manifesting herself to the poet "as a mad-looking and very elderly lady"; the poems take her "through an estranged old age, into death and beyond." (p. 63) That makes her a ghost in the last poem, "A Bus Along St. Clair: December," where she tells us:
I am the old woman
sitting across from you on the bus,
her shoulders drawn up like a shawl;
out of her eyes come secret
the walls, the ceiling.
Her earthly life, portrayed in the earlier poems, involves a pattern not unlike the heroine's journey into the backwoods in Surfacing: a landing on a seashore apparently occupied by dancing sandflies, a pathway into a forest, confrontation with a wolfman and other animals, men in masks, deaths of children, including a drowning, sinister plants. Gothic tale is a better name than ghost story for this form, in which the chief element is the threat to a maiden, a young girl, a woman. In a well-known passage, Leslie Fiedler, (allegorizing like mad, incidentally), comments on the chief features of the form, its motifs:
Chief of the gothic symbols is, of course, the Maiden in flight…. Not the violation or death which sets such a flight in motion, but the flight itself figures forth the essential meaning of the anti-bourgeois gothic, for which the girl on the run and her pursuer become only alternate versions of the same plight. Neither can come to rest before the other—for each is the projection of his opposite … actors in a drama which depends on both for its significance. Reinforcing the meaning … is the haunted countryside, and especially the haunted castle or abbey which rises in its midst, and in whose dark passages and cavernous apartments the chase reaches its climax.1
Substitute forest for haunted castle, and think of the ghosts of Mrs. Radcliffe's The Italian, and the ghost story or gothic form of an Atwood poem or novel begins to take shape. Obviously, it is richly suggestive of a variety of dark threats, either psychological or hidden in the social structure. Atwood's own political and social commentary on Canadian imagination employs, with superb wit and skill, a victor/victim pattern (the haunted victim, the haunted persecutor, perhaps?) to outline not only an endlessly repeated pattern, but a theory of colonialism, that is, victimization. We see the possibilities: if Surfacing presents itself as political and social criticism disguised as ghost story, could it be that Survival takes its unusual power precisely from the fact that it is a ghost story disguised as politics and criticism?
A further elaboration is suggested by Ellen Moers' comments in the chapter of Literary Women called "The Female Gothic": Gothic, says Moers, is writing that "has to do with fear," writing in which "fantasy predominates over reality, the strange over the commonplace, and the supernatural over the natural, with one definite auctorial intent: to scare. Not, that is, to reach down into the depths of the soul and purge it with pity and terror (as we say tragedy does), but to get to the body itself, its glands, muscles, epidermis, and circulatory system, quickly arousing and quickly allaying the physiological reactions to fear."2 Moers' emphasis on physiological effect seems appropriate. It points to the kind of imagination found, say, in Michael Ondaatje's work as well as in Atwood's that might appropriately be called a physiological imagination, whose purpose is evident.3
Fear. But fear of what? Some say sexuality, especially taboo aspects of sexuality, incest for example: the gothic threat to a young woman carries implications of sado-masochistic fantasy, the victim/victor pattern of Survival. Ellen Moers suggests that in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the real taboo is birth itself; death and birth are hideously mixed in the creation of a monster out of pieces of the human body. (The image involves, as well, the hideousness of duplication and reduplication.) In Atwood's "Speeches for Dr. Frankenstein," her Dr. Frankenstein addresses his creation in unmistakable language about a botched creation, a birth/death confusion:
I was insane with skill:
I made you perfect.
I should have chosen instead
to curl you small as a seed,
trusted beginnings. Now I wince
before this plateful of results:
core and rind, the flesh between
already turning rotten.
I stand in the presence
of the destroyed god:
A rubble of tendons,
knuckles and raw sinews.
Knowing that the work is mine
How can I love you?
(The Animals in That Country, p. 44)
If, as he says to his monster, Dr. Frankenstein might have trusted in beginnings, in seed, the narrator of Surfacing, it seems, distrusts virtually all births. How much of the haunting proceeds from an abortion? We discern a pattern of mixed birth/ death in the book: the baby not born, the baby aborted, the baby about to be born as a furred monster, the drowned brother who didn't drown, the baby peering out of the mother's stomach, the embryo-like frogs, the frog-like embryo, the man-frog father in the waters, hanging from the camera with which he might have photographed the gods.
Who are the ghosts of Surfacing then? In Survival, which reads like a gloss on Surfacing, Atwood tells us that the ghost or death goddess of The Double Hook represents fear, but not fear of death, fear of life. And babies? Following a rather horrendous list of miscarriages, cancers, tumours, stillbirths and worse, which she finds in Canadian novels, Atwood remarks laconically, "The Great Canadian Baby is sometimes alarmingly close to the Great Canadian Coffin." (p. 208) Who are the ghosts of Surfacing? A mother, a father, a lost child, Indians, the animals: all symbols of vitality, life, our real humanity, that has disappeared and must be brought back. "It does not approve of me or disapprove of me," the narrator says of the creature who is elemental, as she thinks her father has become: "it tells me it has nothing to tell me, only the fact of itself." (p. 187) And she says of her parents after her paroxysm in the woods: "they dwindle, grow, become what they were, human. Something I never gave them credit for." (p. 189) Ghosts: only the human body, repressed, denied; only life denied. All proceeds from the ghosts: a de-realized world: victimization, sexism, deformed sexuality, sado-masochism, tearing away at nature's body, at our own bodies.
But to say this is to accept the allegory of gothic that Atwood allows her narrator to spell out for us (it is worth noting that in the best gothic fashion, the daylight world after the horrors of the long night reveals that the ghosts are mechanical or waxwork figures). To say this is also to explain away not only the ghosts but one of the most disturbing and most characteristic of Atwood's qualities, her sense of doubleness, of reduplication, in word and image. Even the victor/ victim pattern recurs and the tale told once in Surfacing will be told again. At the end, nothing is resolved.
The ghosts are sexual fears, repressed contents of the imagination, social rigidity. They are also literary images, book reflections, patterns from all those readings in gothic romance, perhaps even the unwritten thesis Atwood proposed for her Ph.D., on gothic romance. Reduplication. Margaret Atwood's first book of poetry bears the title Double Persephone. The first poem of The Circle Game is called "This is a photograph of Me," and the speaker tells us that if you look closely at the lake, you will discern her image; in parenthesis we are told:
(The photograph was taken
the day after I drowned.
I am in the lake, in the centre
of the picture, just under the surface.
It is difficult to say where
precisely, or to say
how large or small I am:
the effect of water
on light is a distortion
but if you look long enough,
you will be able to see me.)
End of brackets. A kind of insane phenomenology takes over that precise meticulous speech; we enter a world of reflections within reflections, totemic duplication (consider the possibilities in the simple four-part structure: man masked; man unmasked; animal masked; animal unmasked) and de-realized experience. Mirror, water and reflection, games like cards and chess, maps or models, eyes and cameras make up the major duplications, though there are more subtle ones in births and ghosts, in movies, photographs, drownings, archeology, astral travel, revenants, echoes, icons, comic books and gardens. The list, I think, could be extended—or duplicated—but its obsessive nature should be clear. It should also be clear that the list points up the literary nature of Atwood's concerns, otherwise fairly successfully disguised by her field of reference, popular and contemporary imagery. In You Are Happy, a poem called "Gothic Letter on a Hot Night" gives, in a typically wry and throw-away manner, the reflexive pattern of story within story. Presumably this speaker faces a blank page and longs for stories again, but it is not clear whether that is bad (she ought not to live her life in stories) or good (she cannot write and therefore all the bad things the stories could do will remain undone). Either way, there is a sinister suggestion that the stories (like the poem one writes to drown one's sister, or the things that go on just outside the frame of the picture, the part you cannot see) will in fact, or could in fact, write the lives of the story-teller:
It was the addiction
to stories, every
story about herself or anyone
led to the sabotage of each address
and all those kidnappings
Stories that could be told
on nights like these to account for the losses
litanies of escapes, bad novels, thrillers
deficient in villains;
now there is nothing to write
She would have given almost anything
to have them back,
those destroyed houses, smashed plates, calendars.
An ambiguity, unresolved, is that the poem begins in first person but in the second stanza shifts to third person narrative. The three—the "I" speaking, the "you" addressed, and the "she" who tells stories—remain unidentified. Duplicity, in part, consists in trying to have it both ways. No doubt, Atwood would recoil from my reading backwards to the material from which she begins, and which often seems to form the object of her irony: don't live in stories, you are not literature, if you think you would like it when the gods do reveal themselves try it sometime. So Surfacing moves from the world of ghosts back to the place where the narrator can be seen for what she is, a poor naked shivering wretch, scarcely human. But the ambiguity is in the power of the material. You Are Happy ends with what looks like a dismissal of "the gods and their static demands," but leaves open the question—again—whether you can only do this if you have been there, have known them. Even in parody and irony (let alone social comments on literary forms) the problem, the puzzle about reduplication remains.
A similar question arises with Robertson Davies' World of Wonders; that is, should we read it psychologically, in Jungian terms, as Davies intends, or theatrically, as a series of beautifully structured and terribly inflated poses, or magically, as not only the charlatan's illusions but the magician's powers. This question is somewhere in the background of Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (all the deceit, the obvious lies, as Ondaatje says of another poem) and in Kroetsch's insistent attempt to uninvent the world he wants so desperately to be at home in. Perhaps the disclaimers are essential to the magic of repetition, a kind of Borgesian pretence that the story or poem is really an essay, or that the essay is a story. The problem is, whatever philosophic dilemmas duplication raises about time and cause, psychologically and poetically it seems far more sinister than the writer wishes to admit. Either a fraud or a magician, the crude choice would seem to be. To which we answer (and this involves the reduplication) neither: this is only a story about both.
Psychologically, as Borges points out in Labyrinths, the story of a world created by a written version of another world of endless reduplication, of halls of mirrors, is a horror. "Mirrors have something monstrous about them … because they increase the number of men."4 In folklore, the doppleganger motif, in which one meets oneself coming back as one goes forward, signifies either death or the onset of prophetic power. In Jung's commentary on the I Ching, synchronicity substitutes chance for cause, a randomness that plays havoc with notions of identity and opens the possibility of occult possession. The vegetable version of this pattern, in its benign form, is sacramental, and in its malign or demonic form, cannibalistic. Atwood's ironic awareness of such patterns pervades her humanized gardens and provides a structural principle for her novel, The Edible Woman. But whatever the psychological significance, the literary seems more difficult for her; for in literary terms, as Borges argues, the device of reduplication calls attention to the poem and hence to the fictional nature of the poem's reality. It de-realizes experience:
Why does it disturb us that the map be included in the map and the thousand and one nights in the book of the Thousand and One Nights? Why does it disturb us that Don Quixote be a reader of the Quixote and Hamlet a spectator of Hamlet?… The inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers and spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious. In 1833, Carlyle observed that the history of the universe is an infinite sacred book that all men write and read and try to understand, and in which they are also written.5
Borges remarks that tales of fantasy are not haphazard combinations: "They have a meaning, they make us feel that we are living in a strange world."6 Focussing on the obvious, the map of Canada in a tourist agency, viewed by a window lady who sees her own reflection containing the mapped country, Atwood gives us a country stranger than we knew:
look, here, Saskatchewan
is a flat lake, some convenient rocks
where two children pose with a father
and the mother is cooking something
in immaculate slacks by a smokeless fire,
her teeth white as detergent.
Whose dream is this, I would like to know:
window lady, I ask you:
Do you see nothing
watching from under the water?
Was the sky ever that blue?
Who really lives there?
("At the Tourist Centre in Boston" )
Borges' temptation is solipsism (think of your life as a dream). But Atwood's poem characteristically questions the dream. No matter that this is the American dream of Canada, "A manufactured hallucination"; the Unsuspecting Reflection, water and sky in her own head, doesn't surface, lives with her unanswered questions.
It would be possible, I suppose, to read Atwood's career as a search for techniques to answer those questions honestly, resolve the reflecting/reflector dilemma by demystifying experience. Certainly by the time of Power Politics she attained an impressive command of deflating ironies; a poem like "They Eat Out" sets up opposing stereotypes of magical thinking in an atmosphere of fried rice and pop culture:
I raise the magic fork
over the plate of beef fried rice
and plunge it into your heart.
There is a faint pop, a sizzle
and through your own split head
you rise up glowing;
the ceiling opens
a voice sings Love is a Many
you hang suspended above the city
in blue tights and red cape,
your eyes flashing in unison.
As for me, I continue eating;
I liked you better the way you were
but you were always ambitious.
But writing has its own power, its metaphors, like mirrors in the language. No one knows what word the heroine of Surfacing will speak first. It is possible that she will say nothing. Silence can be the strategy of those who have endured. But if there is any sense to my argument that Atwood's obsessive concern with mirror and reflection is an attempt to resolve an impossible dilemma about writing and experience, or about fiction and wisdom; and at the same time, a sort of playing about with the fires of magical possession, then I would guess that tormented girl would turn toward us and say:
You don't like these metaphors
Think about pools.
1. Love and Death in The American Novel, Meridian Books, (New York, 1962), 111-112.
2. Literary Women, Doubleday and Company (New York, 1976), 90.
3. Like Atwood, Ondaatje, especially in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, and Robert Kroetsch in The Studhorse Man and Badlands, tend to bring together images of sexuality, dismemberment, and poetics, poetic and sexual obsessions leading to anatomies.
4. "Tlön Uqbar, Orbïs Tertius," Labyrinths, New Directions (New York, 1962), 3.
5. Partial Magic in the Quixote," Labyrinths, 196.
6. "Tales of the Fantastic" in Prism international, Volume Eight, Number One, (Summer, 1968), p. 15.
CORAL ANN HOWELLS (ESSAY DATE 1996)
SOURCE: Howells, Coral Ann. "Atwoodian Gothic: From Lady Oracle to The Robber Bride." In Margaret At-wood, pp. 62-85. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.
In the following excerpt, Howells examines Atwood's unique manipulation of Gothic themes, imagery, and narrative techniques.
Atwoodian Gothic is both sinister and jokey, rather like the scary game which Atwood describes in Murder in the Dark, a game about murderers, victims and detectives played with the lights off. The only other thing the reader needs to know is that the victim is always silent and that the murderer always lies:
In any case, that's me in the dark. I have designs on you, I'm plotting my sinister crime, my hands are reaching for your neck or perhaps, by mistake, your thigh. You can hear my footsteps approaching, I wear boots and carry a knife, or maybe it's a pearl-handled revolver, in any case I wear boots with very soft soles, you can see the cinematic glow of my cigarette, waxing and waning in the fog of the room, the street, the room, even though I don't smoke. Just remember this, when the scream at last has ended and you've turned on the lights: by the rules of the game, I must always lie.1
This game is emblematic of Atwoodian Gothic; its aim is to scare, yet it is a sort of fabricated fright; there are rules and conventions and we enter into a kind of complicity because we want to be frightened. Atwood suggests, 'You can say: the murderer is the writer' and then either the book or the reader would be the victim, which makes an interesting identification between Gothic storyteller and murderer, trickster, liar. We could take that one stage further with Atwood's female Gothic storytellers, Joan Foster in Lady Oracle, Zenia in The Robber Bride and Atwood herself, identified as sybils, witches, supreme plotters all ('I have designs on you').
So, what is Gothic? At the core of the Gothic sensibility is fear—fear of ghosts, women's fear of men, fear of the dark, fear of what is hidden but might leap out unexpectedly, fear of something floating around loose which lurks behind the everyday. The emblematic fear within Gothic fantasy is that something that seemed to be dead and buried might not be dead at all. Hence the Gothic outbreaks of terror and violence as things cross forbidden barriers between dream and waking, life and death. It is easy to recognise a Gothic novel for it is characterised by a specific collection of motifs and themes, many of which come through folklore, fairytale, myth and nightmare. One of the most succinct accounts of the Gothic as a literary genre is Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's critical study The Coherence of Gothic Conventions, which identifies two key terms to define the Gothic: the Unspeakable and Live Burial.2 Arguably those terms might be seen as different images for the same thing for they both relate to what is hidden, secret, repressed, and which is threatening precisely because it is still alive and blocked off from consciousness though ready to spring out, transformed into some monstrous shape—like Freud's unheimlich, both familiar and alien to us.3 It is this uncanny quality of Gothic which is embodied in its obsession with the transgression of boundaries and with transformations—'change from one state into another, change from one thing into another'.4 On the level of the supernatural, there is the phenomenon of ghosts transgressing boundaries between life and death, while on the psychological level there is the erosion of boundaries between the self and the monstrous Other. (What does a Gothic protagonist see or fear to see when she looks in the mirror?) In the borderline territory between conscious and unconscious, a space is opened up for doubles and split selves, which are not total opposites but dependent on each other and linked by a kind of unacknowledged complicity, like Dr Frankenstein and his monster. To return to that game in Murder in the Dark : Atwood reminds players that they may take turns to be murderer or victim, for one role does not preclude the other. Gothic finds a language for representing areas of the self (like fears, anxieties, forbidden desires) which are unassimilable in terms of social conventions. In relation to fiction, the major point to consider is how these transgressions are expressed through narrative, most obviously in the shifts from realism to fantasy signalled in dreams and hallucinations, when frequently the working out of dreams is crucial to the plot. There is also the difficulty any Gothic story has in getting itself told at all: Gothic plots are characterised by enigmas, multiple stories embedded in the main story, multiple narrators and shifting points of view, and mixed genres, where fairy tale may blur into history or autobiography. At all times the Gothic narrative suggests the co-existence of the everyday alongside a shadowy nightmarish world.5
Not surprisingly, the Gothic romance has traditionally been a favourite genre for women writers, from Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), the Brontës' Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre (1840s), through to Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca (1938), Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), and the contemporary fiction of Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, Beryl Bainbridge, Alice Munro. It is a devious literature through which to express female desires and dreads, and in Atwood it is easy to see the traditional forms surviving, updated but still retaining their original charge of menace and mystery, while balancing women's urge toward self-discovery and self-assertiveness with self-doubts, between celebration of new social freedoms and women's sense of not being free of traditional assumptions and myths about femininity. It is to this territory of Gothic romance that Atwood returns again and again, using its images and motifs and its narratives of transgression. To glance briefly at the pervasiveness of Gothic in Atwood, one would need to start with her early watercolours from the late 1960s where sinister knights in armour with hidden faces peer at damsels dressed in red, or dark male figures hold unconscious purple female bodies in their giant arms.6Surfacing might be construed as a ghost story in the Canadian wilderness, a reading suggested by Atwood in an early interview when she explained that she was writing in the tradition of the psychological ghost story:
You can have the Henry James kind, in which the ghost that one sees is in fact a fragment of one's own self which has split off, and that to me is the most interesting kind and that is obviously the tradition I'm working in.7
The motifs of haunted wilderness and the split self are still there 20 years later in the story 'Death by Landscape' in Wilderness Tips, just as the werewolf image which was there in The Journals of Susanna Moodie recurs in 'Age of Lead' in that same collection. The title story in Bluebeard's Egg (1983) is a modern revision of fairy tale,8 while Bodily Harm (1981) and The Handmaid's Tale (1985) exploit traditional Gothic motifs in their representation of classic female fears of sexual violence or imprisonment. In Cat's Eye (1988) the protagonist is haunted by the past and by her doppelganger Cordelia ('Lie down, you're dead!') who represents the other half of herself, her dark mad twin. There is also a poem 'The Robber Bridegroom' in Interlunar (1984), and it is interesting to note that 'The Robber Bridegroom' was considered by Atwood as a possible title for Bodily Harm. In this recirculation of images and themes, we note very repetitive patterns which are the identifying marks of a literary genre. The same stories are being retold, as the reader is constantly reminded through intertextual allusions to fairy tales and old Gothic romances, so that versions that might look contemporary and new circle around old enigmas. It is from this Gothic continuum that I wish to single out Lady Oracle (1976) and The Robber Bride (1993) in order to examine what transformations of Gothic conventions Atwood has managed in novels that are nearly 20 years apart; to see how her changing use of Gothic conventions reflects her responses to shifts in cultural mythology, especially in her thinking about women. What we find is the reworking of traditional Gothic motifs within the frames of realistic fiction, for unlike her protagonist Joan Foster in Lady Oracle, Atwood does not 'write with her eyes closed'. On the contrary, Atwood is an attentive and often satirical critic of contemporary Canada, exposing popular myths and social ideologies for Atwood has designs on us. But then, of course, so did Joan Foster, and so did Zenia, the Robber Bride.
Atwood described Lady Oracle as 'a realistic comic novel colliding with Gothic conventions—I give you Northanger Abbey', as she explained for a lecture in 1982.9 It is also a fictive autobiography, told by a woman who is a novelist and a poet, suggesting shadowy parallels with Atwood herself in her early days of fame when she was becoming a cultural ikon in Canada. More to the point because this novel is not autobiography but an autobiographical fiction, there are strong parallels with Cat's Eye told by that other successful woman artist, Elaine Risley the painter. In both cases a woman struggles to find her voice, to define her identity through telling her life story in different versions. Lady Oracle and Cat's Eye are curiously similar autobiographical projects because the stories the protagonists tell offer multiple versions of their lives which never quite fit together to form the image of a unified and coherent self. Who is Joan Foster, who writes popular Gothic romances under the pseudonym Louisa K. Delacourt? What is the significance of Lady Oracle, Joan's other pseudonym when she writes poetry? The one thing the reader can be sure about with Joan is that she is a fantasist, and a trickster: 'All my life I'd been hooked on plots'.10
Lady Oracle is a story about storytelling, both the stories themselves and the writing process, for Joan offers us multiple narratives figuring and refiguring herself through different narrative conventions. The novel is structured through a series of interlocking frames. First, there is the story of Joan's real life in the present, set in Italy where she has escaped after her fake suicide in Toronto, Canada. Enclosed within this is her private memory narrative of a traumatic childhood filled with shame, pain and defiance centring on her relationship with her neurotic mother, of an adolescence when she escapes to London and becomes a writer of popular Gothics, her marriage to a Canadian, her celebrity as a poet, to be followed by the threat of blackmail and her second escape from Canada to Italy. Embedded within this narrative are snippets from Joan's Gothic romances ('Bodice Rippers' as she calls them), which provide more glamorous and dangerous plots than everyday life in Toronto, or even in Italy, during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Then there is a fourth narrative thread, the curiously mythic 'Lady Oracle' poems, produced as Joan believes by Automatic Writing when she looks into a dark mirror in her bedroom in Toronto. These shifting frames generate a series of comic collisions, confrontations and escape attempts, but there are no clear boundaries between them as borders blur between present and past, art and life. Joan's fantasies of escape and transformation are always duplicitous and riddled with holes, so that one story infiltrates another and fantasy is under continual barrage from the claims of real life. Joan may adopt multiple disguises in the form of fancy costumes, wigs, different names and different personas, but 'it was no good; I couldn't stop time, I could shut nothing out' (p. 277). Through this shimmer of different figures, the reader wonders if there is any chance of getting beyond the veils to the centre of the plot or to the enigma of Joan Foster herself. Do we ever get beyond the distorting funhouse mirrors? Joan is nothing if not a self-caricaturist as well as a parodist of Gothic romance conventions, as she switches between real life and fantasy roles in a continual process of double coding. All these fantasies are arguably distorted versions of herself, a process described by Paul de Man in his essay, 'Autobiography as Defacement': 'Autobiography deals with the giving and taking away of faces, with face and deface, figure, figurations and disfiguration' in images of the self endlessly displaced and doubled.11
It is arguable that Joan constructs the Gothic plots in her own life. From her point of view even her life story could be seen as a tale told by a ghost, speaking from beyond her watery grave in Lake Ontario: 'I planned my death carefully; unlike my life, which meandered along from one thing to another, despite my feeble attempts to control it' (p. 7). Of course this 'death' is another of her contrived plots for Joan is not dead at all. One of the things that frightens her most in Italy is that people at home in Canada will think that she is really dead, and not even miss her. Having escaped from her husband Arthur in Toronto, Joan realises that the other side of her escape fantasy is isolation:
The Other Side was no paradise, it was only a limbo. Now I knew why the dead came back to watch over the living: the Other Side was boring. There was no one to talk to and nothing to do.
Such reflection is a result of Joan's rueful recognition of the gap between real life and fantasy, for she is haunted by memories of her visit to this same Italian village the previous year with her husband and is now filled with the longing that he will come to rescue her from her own perfect plot which begins to look 'less like a Fellini movie than that Walt Disney film I saw when I was eight, about a whale who wanted to sing at the Metropolitan Opera … but the sailors harpooned him' (p. 9). Critics have been rather fond of saying that Joan's real-life narrative and the Gothic novel she is writing in Italy start off separate and gradually become entwined till at the end of the narrative borders blur and Joan enters the Gothic maze in Stalked by Love.12 That observation is true as far as it goes, but that is not far enough. Borders between realism and fantasy are blurred from the beginning as Joan continually slides from the embarrassments of the present into fantasy scenarios and back again, for she is an escape artist who is beset by one inconvenient insight, 'Why did every one of my fantasies turn into a trap?' (p. 334)...…
The Robber Bride could be classified as a mutant form of female Gothic romance with the return of a 'demonic woman' from the dead in a story about transgressions, magic mirrors, shape changers and dark doubles, betrayals and omens of disaster, until the final defeat of the demon by three women friends when her body is burned up and its ashes scattered over the deepest part of Lake Ontario. There is also a multiple homecoming and the restoration of social and family order at the end. Here we find the key Gothic elements of the unspeakable and the buried life, together with a whole range of traditional motifs like vampires, spells, soul stealing and body snatching. It could also be argued here that the traditional Gothic plot is 'upside-down somehow', for though there are female victims there are no rescuing heroes, just as there are no tombs, mazes or haunted houses; in this story the blood belongs to history and to metaphor. All of which highlights the fact that The Robber Bride is a postmodernist fiction which exploits the shock effects that occur when Gothic fairy tale migrates into totally different genres like the failed family romance, the detective thriller, and documentary history. Tony, the professional historian among the three friends, knows this technique and how it might be used to engage the interest of listeners and readers:
She likes the faint shock on the faces of her listeners. It's the mix of domestic image and mass bloodshed that does it to them.13
The novel is both like a fairy tale as its title indicates and like history, which—as Tony explains—is always 'a construct' (p. 6), being the combination of different kinds of textual evidence: social documentary, private memory narrative and imaginative reconstruction. History is a discontinuous text with crucial gaps, so that different interpretations of the facts are always possible. Tony's words recall those of the American historiographer Hayden White, who suggests that the narratives of history always reconstruct the available facts of the past for readers in the present according to congenial ideological perspectives and identifiable literary patterns like the quest of the hero or fables of decline and fall.14
The Robber Bride is the story of Zenia, another of Atwood's missing persons like Offred in The Handmaid's Tale or Cordelia in Cat's Eye, told through the multiple narratives of her three friends, Antonia Fremont (Tony), Roz Andrews, and Charis. As each of the three tells her own life story, different overlapping frames of reference are set up through which Zenia's character and significance are given meaning, though Zenia never exists independently of the stories of others. It is through her relationships that Zenia's identity is constructed, but it is also transformed as it is refigured through the perspectives of a military historian (Tony), a successful businesswoman (Roz) and a New Age mystic (Charis). These women are all living in Toronto on 23 October 1990, a crucial date for the narrative as on that day they are having lunch together at a fashionable Toronto restaurant called the Toxique and 'Zenia returns from the dead' (p. 4). Through the swirl of contemporary history which Atwood sketches as a globalised scene of disasters the novel focuses on this one particular event, the kind of 'definitive moment' so useful to historians—and to novelists—after which 'things were never the same again. They provide beginnings for us, and endings too' (p. 4). The postmodern self-reflexivity of the narrative is signalled in the first and last sections, entitled 'Onset' and 'Outcome', told by Tony who has a 'historian's belief in the salutary power of explanations' while realising the 'impossibility of accurate reconstruction.' Yet for all its enigmas and secrets and dark doubles—traditional Gothic elements which we are reminded are also the features of historical and psychological narratives—the novel is structured quite schematically, moving out from the crisis of Zenia's Gothic reappearance in the restaurant five years after her memorial service, then scrolling back through the life stories of all three in an attempt to track Zenia down, only to return to the Toxique again about a week later where the final crisis occurs. Though the three friends have met to exchange stories of their confrontation with Zenia, whom they have all tracked down on the same day and to celebrate their resistance and her defeat, they discover something even more startling has happened: Zenia is dead, really dead this time. As Tony's husband West says, 'Again? I'm really sorry' (p. 449), and there is a second memorial service for Zenia a year later which is a replay of the earlier one, when the friends scatter her ashes and return to Charis's house to tell stories about Zenia all over again.
Within that contemporary frame the memory narratives of Tony, Charis and Roz all occur in chronological sequence charting the history of changing cultural fashions in Toronto over the past 30 years. Tony's section ('Black Enamel') recounts her memories of meeting Zenia as a student in the 1960s as it tracks back through Tony's unhappy childhood, and recounts Zenia's many attempts to rob Tony of her money, her professional reputation, and her beloved West. Charis's section ('Weasel Nights') focuses on her memories of Zenia in the 1970s, the era of hippies and draft dodgers, her American lover Billy and their daughter August, with flashbacks to her childhood as a victim of sexual abuse; it ends with Zenia's seduction of Billy and his disappearance. Roz's section ('The Robber Bride') recounts her meetings with Zenia in the 1980s and follows a similar pattern of recall: childhood memories, marriage, motherhood and a successful business career, up to Zenia's seduction of Roz's husband Mitch and his eventual suicide. Only Tony survives with her man, and it is left to her to give a narrative shape to the fragments of Zenia which exist in the multiple anecdotes of these women: 'She will only be history if Tony chooses to shape her into history' (p. 461).
For all three Zenia is the 'Other Woman', and her existence challenges the optimistic assertion of the early 1970s feminists which Roz recalls with some scepticism in 1990:
'The Other Woman will soon be with us', the feminists used to say. But how long will it take, thinks Roz, and why hasn't it happened yet?'
Zenia represents a powerfully transgressive element which continues to threaten feminist attempts to transform gender relations and concepts of sexual power politics. It is the otherness of Zenia which is figured in her three avatars in this novel, identified in the different life stories told by the three friends. One avatar is from fairy tale: The Robber Bridegroom by the Brothers Grimm, which is here feminised by Roz's twin daughters and savagely glossed by her through the parodic mode of double-coding:
The Robber Bride, thinks Roz. Well, why not? Let the grooms take it in the neck for once. The Robber Bride, lurking in her mansion in the dark forest … The Rubber Broad is more like it—her and those pneumatic tits.
A second avatar is from the Bible, the figure of Jezebel in the Old Testament (1 Judges: 21). This is prefigured in Charis's childhood when with her grandmother she used to choose revelatory passages from the Bible at random and once lit on the death of Jezebel; that 'message' is confirmed on the very day of her last confrontation with Zenia by her morning Bible reading:
She realized it as soon as she got up, as soon as she stuck her daily pin into the Bible. It picked out Revelations Seventeen, the chapter about the Great Whore.
There is a third avatar advanced by Tony near the end, that of the medieval French Cathar woman warrior, Dame Giraude, who in the thirteenth century defended her castle against the Catholic forces of Simon de Montfort. She was finally defeated and thrown down a well. This is the most unsettling of Zenia's avatars because it introduces a new perspective on her otherness which extends beyond the demonic. Just as Tony very much admires the reckless courage of Dame Giraude fighting for a lost cause so too she has a sneaking admiration for Zenia as a guerrilla fighter, despite her own humiliations at her hands:
Zenia is dead, and although she was many other things, she was also courageous. What side she was on doesn't matter; not to Tony, not any more. There may not even have been a side. She may have been alone.
This is a recognition of the 'otherness' of Zenia, which cannot be accommodated within the parameters of the friends' stories. Tony has always associated Zenia with war—or 'Raw' in terms of her own subjective life. As a result of having known Zenia, Tony contemplates writing a book about female military commanders: 'Iron Hands, Velvet Gloves, she could call it. But there isn't much material' (p. 464). It is also Tony who wishes to give Zenia's ashes a sort of military burial on Armistice Day: 'An ending, then. November 11, 1991, at eleven o'clock in the morning, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month' (p. 465).
Whichever way we look at it, the most interesting figure in the novel is Zenia, the 'demonic woman'; she is there in the title and it is her story which defines and focuses the narrative. How is it that this traditionally Gothic figure survives as such a powerful force in Atwood's novel about contemporary social reality in 1990s Toronto? I wish to suggest that Atwood herself has done a Dr Frankenstein performance here, reassembling parts of old legends and fairy tales in order to create her female monster who strides through three Canadian women's stories from the 1960s to the 1990s haunting their lives and wreaking havoc. However, Atwood revises the Frankenstein ending for it is the monster who destroys herself and it is the three friends who survive, though their memories of Zenia will live on. This is perhaps putting it rather melodramatically, but what Zenia represents will always exceed the bounds of decorum. Her power is the power of female sexuality, and the figure of Zenia relates directly to contemporary social myths about femininity; it also relates to male (and female) fantasies about the feminine; and in addition it challenges feminist thinking about gender relations. In her reading from The Robber Bride at the National Theatre in London in 1993 Atwood offered an important clue to an interpretation of her new novel when she said, 'It's a book about illusion: now you see it, now you don't.' Through Zenia's story Atwood confronts the ideology of traditional female romance where 'getting the power means getting the man, for the man is the power' (a statement made by Atwood in Wales in 1982). In this novel Atwood is investigating the extent to which that old proposition about power still holds true in the feminist—or post-feminist—1990s. In answer to a question asked at the National Theatre, 'Why should women now mind much about having men taken away from them by other women?', Atwood replied, 'This is not ideology; it's real life.' I would add that The Robber Bride is also fantasy, for this is a fantastic tale which examines once again the fantasies that underpin real life as well as fiction. Female sexuality has always been a problem for real women and real men, just as it is a problem for feminism: 'Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies?' (p. 392). Have women internalised these fantasies to such an extent that as Roz fears, 'You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman'? Atwood answers Roz's rhetorical questions by investigating the effects of fantasies of desirable femininity on women themselves. Zenia inhabits that fantasy territory:
The Zenias of this world … have slipped sideways into dreams; the dreams of women too, because women are fantasies for other women, just as they are for men. But fantasies of a different kind.
Who is Zenia? And what kind of fantasy is she for her three contemporaries? Zenia seems to be real but she has a double existence for she belongs to two different fictional discourses, that of realism and of fantasy. She is a very transgressive figure who exists both as a character in the realistic fiction and also as the projection of three women's imaginations. As the Other Woman, her identity is fabricated through their stories about her, which are all stories of seduction, betrayal and humiliation. She herself is an enigma. Indeed she derives meaning only within the signifying structures of other people's stories and then always retrospectively. Zenia is a liar, a floating signifier, possibly a void and certainly a fraud. There is no indication that she has any independent subjective life, unless it is her 'aura' which is savagely at variance with her glamorous appearance; it is according to Charis, 'a turbulent muddy green … a deadly aureole, a visible infection' (p. 66). At least this is how Zenia appears to one of her victims, always on the loose and ready to rob them of whatever is most precious to them. Zenia is everything they want most and everything they fear, for she represents their unfulfilled desires just as she represents their repressed pain-filled childhood selves. She is the dark double of them all, having multiple identities but no fixed identity. As Tony discovers after systematic research:
Even the name Zenia may not exist … As for the truth about her, it lies out of reach, because—according to the records, at any rate—she was never even born.
Indeed, there are three different versions of Zenia's life story which have been tailored to fit the lives of Tony, Charis, Roz. She is what they most desire and dread to be. They all think occasionally that they would like to be someone other than the persons they are; most of the time they would like to be Zenia. It is no wonder that Tony reaches this conclusion:
As with any magician, you saw what she wanted you to see; or else you saw what you yourself wanted to see. She did it with mirrors. The mirror was whoever was watching, but there was nothing behind the two-dimensional image but a thin layer of mercury.
Why cannot the three women let Zenia go, when they believe she is dead and when they have been to her memorial service five years earlier? Having been tricked and robbed by Zenia of men, money and self confidence, they keep on meeting once a month for lunch because of her. The positive outcome is that they become fast friends, and it is worth noting that this is the first time such a group of loyal female friends has appeared in Atwood's fiction. However, the fact remains that they meet to tell stories about Zenia, and actually it is their collective need of her which brings her back from the dead—or would do so, if she were really dead. When she commits suicide the three friends stand looking at her, still needing to believe that she is looking at them:
Zenia revolves slowly, and looks straight at them with her white mermaid eyes.
She isn't really looking at them though, because she can't. Her eyes are rolled back into her head.
The switch in narrative perspective reminds readers of whose is the active needy gaze and it is not Zenia's. Even when they have scattered her ashes in Lake Ontario at the end, their stories will still be about Zenia. They need her, or their stories about her, in order to define themselves, for the 'good' women are shown to be as dependent on the 'Other Woman' as she is on them. Zenia is inside each one, for she represents their unfulfilled shadow selves: 'Was she in any way like us? thinks Tony. Or, to put it the other way around: Are we in any way like her?' (p. 470). The dark reflection in the magic mirror is still there, in that 'infinitely receding headspace where Zenia continues to exist' (p. 464).
As Alison Light wrote of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, that story of another 'demonic' woman:
It demarcates a feminine subjectivity which is hopelessly split within bourgeois gendered relations … [it] makes visible the tensions within the social construction of femininity whose definitions are never sufficient and are always reminders of what is missing, what could be.16
Light's remark about a woman's novel of the late 1930s needs very little updating in relation to The Robber Bride written nearly 60 years later where the concept of split feminine subjectivity is shared by all three of Atwood's protagonists. Signalled in their doubled or tripled names (Tony/Antonia Fremont/Tnomerf Ynot; Roz Andrews/Rosalind Greenwood/Roz Grunwald; and Charis, formerly known as Karen), it is commented on explicitly in all three. Since childhood Tony has always been able to write and spell backwards: 'It's her seam, it's where she's sewn together; it's where she could split apart' (p. 19). Similar comments are offered about Charis, who was 'split in two' as a sexually abused child (p. 263) and about Roz, whose life was 'cut in two' when her Jewish father returned to Toronto after the Second World War (p. 332). All three have a seam, a split, which is the space of repression occupied by their 'dark twins' and Zenia operates on this edge of desire and lack which is the borderline territory of the marauding Gothic Other.
Zenia is a threat because of her flaunting sexuality, her deceptions and betrayals, her ruthless contempt for others and her random destructiveness. With her siren song she seduces men and pulls them inside out and then abandons them, though as Tony realises there is nothing gender-specific about this with Zenia:
How well she did it, thinks Tony. How completely she took us in. In the war of the sexes, which is nothing like a real war but is instead a kind of confused scrimmage in which people change allegiances at a moment's notice, Zenia was a double agent.
The otherness which Zenia represents has to be construed as deviant, dangerous and threatening, and it has to be annihilated again and again. Her punishment is very like Rebecca's in the earlier novel when Rebecca suffered murder, vilification and cancer of the womb; Zenia commits suicide—or was she murdered?—she is discredited through the revelation that she was a drug dealer and possibly an arms smuggler, and she is reputed to be suffering from ovarian cancer. As Tony repeats, 'Zenia is history', which does not necessarily mean that she is dead and out of the way but that her story will continue to be retold in different versions and endlessly speculated upon. It is symptomatic that even her funeral urn splits in two and her ashes blow about all over her three mourners. In this Gothic fairy tale retold from a feminist perspective, Zenia is a very disruptive figure for she is the spectacle of desirable femininity, a beautiful façade which hides whatever is behind it. (Is it neurotic insecurity? or nothingness? or frigidity? or is it ruthless egoism?) The final image of Zenia is given by Tony in her ambiguous elegy:
She's like an ancient statuette dug up from a Minoan palace: there are the large breasts, the tiny waist, the dark eyes, the snaky hair. Tony picks her up and turns her over, probes and questions, but the woman with her glazed pottery face does nothing but smile.
Always an enigma, Zenia is still present or as present as she ever was within her shifting figurations. During the narrative she has taken on all the pains of the twentieth century as the Jewish victim of Nazi persecution and of European wars, as displaced person, as victim of violence and sexual abuse, as suffering from cancer, AIDS and drug addition—just as she has been the ikon of desirable femininity, Robber Bride, Whore of Babylon, and woman warrior. She remains un-dead, a vampiric figure desiring 'a bowl of blood, a bowl of pain, some death' (p. 13) for she derives her life from the insecurities and desires of the living.
The ending of The Robber Bride is not an ending but merely 'a lie in which we all agree to conspire' (p. 465). We are reminded of Atwood's voice in Murder in the Dark whispering, 'I have designs on you … by the rules of the game, I must always lie.' Atwood takes Gothic conventions and turns them inside out, weaving her illusions 'like any magician making us see what she wants us to see', as she transgresses the boundaries between realism and fantasy, between what is acceptable and what is forbidden. Of course these are fictions; Lady Oracle and The Robber Bride are illusions created by Atwood's narrative art, but they speak to readers in the present as they challenge us to confront our own desires and fears. Atwood, like the old Gothic novelists, like Joan Foster and like Zenia, 'does it with mirrors'.
1. Margaret Atwood, Murder in the Dark (1984) (London: Virago, 1994) pp. 49-50.
2. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, The Coherence of Gothic Conventions (New York and London: Methuen, 1986) pp. 4-5.
3. For a succinct discussion of the uncanny, see Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London: Methuen, 1981) pp. 63-72.
4. Earl Ingersoll (ed.) Margaret Atwood: Conversations (London: Virago, 1992) p. 45.
5. See also C A Howells, Love, Mystery and Misery: Feeling in Goltic Fiction (London: Athlone Press, 1978); William Patrick Day, In the Circles of Fear and Desire: A Study of Gothic Fantasy (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1985) and Michelle A. Massé, In the Name of Love: Women, Masochism and the Gothic (Ithaca, N.Y., and London: Cornell University Press, 1992).
6. Sharon R. Wilson, 'Sexual Politics in Margaret Atwood's Visual Art (With an Eight-Page Color Supplement)', in K. van Spanckeren and J. Garden Castro (eds) Margaret Atwood: Vision and Forms (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988) pp. 215-232.
7. Conversations, p. 18.
8. C. A. Howells, 'A Question of Inheritance: Canadian Women's Short Stories', in J. Birkett and E. Harvey (eds.), Determined Women: Studies in the Construction of the Female Subject, 1900–90 (London: Macmillan, 1991) pp. 108-20.
9. Quoted from Atwood's address delivered at a conference 'Imagined Realities in Contemporary Women's Writing', Dyffryn House, Cardiff, October 1982.
10. Margaret Atwood, Lady Oracle (1976) (London: Virago, 1993) p. 310.
11. Paul de Man, 'Autobiography as Defacement', MLN, vol. 94 (1979) pp. 931-55.
12. For a full account of criticism of Lady Oracle, see Margery Fee, The Fat Lady Dances: Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle (Toronto: ECW, 1993).
13. Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride (1993) (London: Virago, 1994) p. 3.
14. Hayden White, 'The Historical Text as Literary Artefact', in Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore, Md, and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978) pp. 81-100.
15. As an interesting historical note which shows how attentive Atwood is to precision of contemporary detail, from 1972–77 there was a Toronto-based feminist collective newspaper called The Other Woman. This information is from M. Fulford (ed.), The Canadian Women's Movement, 1960–1990: A Guide to Archival Resources (Toronto: ECW, 1992) p. 53.
16. Alison Light, 'Returning to Manderley—Romance Fiction, Sexuality and Class', Feminist Review, vol. 16 (1984) pp. 7-25.
SYBIL KORFF VINCENT (ESSAY DATE 1983)
SOURCE: Vincent, Sybil Korff. "The Mirror and the Cameo: Margaret Atwood's Comic/Gothic Novel, Lady Oracle." In The Female Gothic, edited by Julian E. Fleenor, pp. 153-63. Montreal, Quebec, and London: Eden Press, 1983.
In the following essay, Vincent illustrates how, with Lady Oracle, Atwood invents "a new sub-genre—the comic/Gothic," that conforms to the sensibilities of the Female Gothic tradition without the expected elements of terror and resolution, and with an updated representation of the psyche of the contemporary woman.
Atwood has created a new sub-genre—the comic/Gothic—which more accurately depicts the psychological condition of the modern woman than does the traditional Gothic novel. In Lady Oracle, we find the Female Gothic novel explored from virtually every angle. It is not a true Gothic in that it does not, at any time, arouse feelings of terror and it does not leave the reader with any satisfactory sense of relief. Rather, Atwood gives us an anatomy of both the Female Gothic and the Gothic sensibility. She explores a number of possible explanations for the development of such a sensibility and demonstrates that it may find expression in various literary forms. She also shows that the familiar trappings of the Gothic—the pursuits and escapes, the sense of isolation, the cruelty, the ambivalent, persecuting/protecting males, the hostile females, the elaborate details of costume, the hints of supernatural influences—are not sufficient to guarantee a Gothic novel.
What constitutes a Gothic novel is not so much those elements as the attitude—the feeling of fear, the concept of multiple selves or no self, the search not for a "they" but for an "I." With the same elements and the same attitude, but in different proportions, and with a gift for the unexpected simile, Atwood produces a comic novel instead. The reader is too busy laughing at the predicaments and observations of the heroine to feel anything like terror, but she can certainly identify with her feelings and experience a distinct unease.
This new sub-genre, comic/Gothic, has a sound psychological basis. Freud noted long ago that the comic situation reassures us that the victim is stronger than she appears. She will triumph over her adversity, perhaps merely by her resignation and acceptance, or by her absurd defiance. Enjoyment is derived from the saving of psychic energy which would otherwise be expended on pity or fear. When the heroine derides herself and depicts her tribulations as comical she is saving both herself and the audience the energy needed for grief and compassion. She is also forestalling the pain which would ensue if the story were told seriously and the audience were not sympathetic. With each joke she demonstrates to the world and to herself that she has mastered her anxiety over her pain. At the same time she punishes the originator of the pain—parent, lover, the world in general, or part of her own psyche—by degrading the originator.1
Humor releases suppressed emotions and eases frustrations. Humorists "choose grim laughter as a homeopathic protection against total disintegration."2 The function of humor is "the expression and release of the nervous, muscular and, at base, psychic reflexes of aggression."3 The critical detachment of the comic speaker dispels anxiety, while the energy of the unexpressible emotion is released in harmless laughter at something trivial or absurd. In a situation where there is no apparent resolution and hence no restorative catharsis, humor helps to ease the anger and pain of both speaker and reader.
Atwood's humor in Lady Oracle tends to be female humor in that it presupposes a female audience. The heroine, Joan, also uses "courting humor," which is the humor women use towards men, and consists of adopting a childlike, "dumb Dora" posture, or teasing and thus offering a challenge which provokes a libidinous response and a desire to overpower the female. The exercise of wit requires a certain "distancing" of the audience. It is an intellectual exercise and is antithetical to the sensual and emotive relationship which the courting woman hopes will prevail. When she does use wit it is an anti-courting device, signalling that she does not want or expect an emotional relationship and that she is not to be regarded as a female.
FROM THE AUTHOR
AN EXCERPT FROM LADY ORACLE
Arthur never found out that I wrote Costume Gothics….
He wouldn't have understood. He wouldn't have been able to understand in the least the desire, the pure quintessential need of my readers for escape, a thing I myself understood only too well. Life had been hard on them and they had not fought back, they'd collapsed like soufflés in a high wind. Escape wasn't a luxury for them, it was a necessity. They had to get it somehow. And when they were too tired to invent escapes of their own, mine were available for them at the corner drugstore, neatly packaged like the other painkillers. They could be taken in capsule form, quickly and discreetly, during those moments when the hair-dryer was stiffening the curls around their plastic rollers or the bath oil in the bath was turning their skins to pink velvet, leaving a ring in the tub to be removed later with Ajax Cleanser, which would make their hands smell like a hospital and cause their husbands to remark that they were about as sexy as a dishcloth. Then they would mourn their lack of beauty, their departing youth…. I knew all about escape, I was brought up on it.
SOURCE: Atwood, Margaret. "Chapter 4." In Lady Oracle, 1976. Reprint, pp. 31-2. New York: Anchor Books, 1998.
Atwood, through her narrator/heroine, Joan, more often employs female-to-female humor. She exhibits hostility towards men, anger at the female condition, personal anecdotes about the body and its functions, sexual experiences, and, of course, allusions to the Gothic novels which are being satirized. The comic devices most often employed are absurd similes and imagery, ironic understatement, and caricature or exaggeration. Such humor acts as a tension-relieving mechanism, and estab-lishes rapport between author and audience through common interests and problems. As the teller of a humorous tale, Joan gains a sense of power. She deliberately manipulates her audience and experiences a sense of control lacking in her actual life.
Joan's self-deprecating humor also indicates her terrible ambivalence about being female, which is the heart of the traditional Gothic novel. Her body is seen as a traitor leading her into painful situations. By joking about her body she exerts control. The humor which Joan directs towards her mother further underscores the hostility about being female. The usual psychodynamics of comedy are a reversed oedipal situation; a father figure is turned into an impotent clown while the child is free and victorious. Joan's humor debases the all-powerful mother with whom she is competing, hopelessly and fearfully, for the love of the father, and her self-deprecating humor represents a self-imposed punishment for those longings.
Atwood's comic/Gothic novel thus carries out in a somewhat different way the functions of the traditional Gothic. The Gothic novel is a literary representation of our innermost fears. What we fear so much is ourselves. Using Pogo's words to describe the Gothic we see that "we have met the enemy and she is us." Or perhaps more accurately, the Gothic depicts multiple selves engaged in some endless psychic basketball game wherein the team members frequently foul each other in their anxiety to score. Those selves within us which seem to dominate our waking lives are often the victims in our dreams. The pleasure-seeking self, resenting the suppression which the conscious, achieving self has enforced in the waking hours, punishes the self in the dream. The achieving self recognizes that there is that within her that can destroy her, and the person as a whole recognizes that conflicts within are threatening her over-all well being.
The Gothic novel, and the dream of pursuit and escape which it articulates, is an expression of our fears of those enemies within us. We are our own harshest critics and most severe task-masters; we are also our own mermaids who will wreathe our limbs with seaweed and draw us down into the waters of madness.
These conflicts, especially prevalent in societies where considerable emphasis is placed on personal achievement and self-denial, are common to both women and men, and Gothic novels are certainly not the exclusive property of female writers and readers. The Female Gothic, however, is a category within the genre which specifically deals with female anxieties and conflicts from a female perspective. In addition to possessing the general characteristics of pursuit and escape, loneliness, elements of the supernatural, sadism, and a sense of antiquity, it relates particularly to the female condition.
For a woman, achievement has historically and universally depended upon being beautiful, desirable and fertile. Through her sexuality, every girl is taught, she will acquire the male who will protect her, provide for her, and give her an identity. At the same time, her sexuality entails the discomfort and mysterious terror of the menstrual flow, the threat of ravishment or penetration, the discomfort and innate repugnance of bearing within one's own body an alien being, and the pain and danger of childbirth.
So, while the practical daytime girl bends every effort towards enhancing her desirability and securing a mate, the nighttime girls longs to remain child or neuter. In dreams she threatens and punishes the daytime girl. Virtually every Female Gothic portrays the same dream image: the young, lovely girl fleeing through the night, bare branches tearing at her flimsy clothing, a shadowy male figure nearby, and a huge old house looming behind her. The heroine is being pursued and tormented for no very clear reason by no very clear enemy. The author may supply some superficial rationale for the pursuit, but it is apparent that it is her sexual desirability that makes the heroine a victim.
The male is often both persecutor and rescuer, reflecting the ambivalent position which males occupy in relation to females, as well as the woman's mixed emotions toward sexual intercourse. Other females also frequently menace the heroine. They are expressions of her own libidinous longings which will lead her into the perilous entrapments of marriage and childbearing. But they are also expressions of the stern conscience which exacts morality, purity, duty and self-sacrifice. Nature—the branches of the image—conspires to strip the heroine of her protection. The vast structure of knowledge, custom and order (the old house of the image) is no shelter; it is a prison, a madhouse, a charnelhouse, haunted with memories of pain, helplessness and failure. The message is as subtle as a billboard: it is not safe to be a woman.
The Gothic brings the dream to consciousness and resolves its terror. Unlike a nightmare, in the novel the heroine does elude and outwit her pursuers. Eventually, through a happy combination of beauty, brains, and character, she makes the passage into womanhood, is loved and respected, and achieves status and security. The reader is permitted to live out her own terrors and desires vicariously, always secure in the knowledge that the author is in control. The author will wake her from the nightmare in time and make certain that her daytime perception of herself and her place in the world is reaffirmed. The highly formulaic and predictable structure, trite symbolism, and stereotyped characterization of most Gothics assure the reader that it is safe to proceed and enables the reader to relax her ego-protecting barriers so that her thwarted, secret selves may for a time find some conscious expression.
The peculiarly female perspective of the Female Gothic is demonstrated by its setting and attention to detail. The setting is usually indoors, not merely because women generally spend most of their time indoors, but also because most of their perils are internal—within the family, within their bodies, within their souls. Attention to details of costume, furnishings and customs, one of the more delightful esthetic pleasures of the Female Gothic, reflects female perception first of all because within the restricted female milieu such details are more noticeable. Furthermore, female achievement often depends on a mastery of such details. A successful woman is identified by her clothes, furniture, etc. An elaborate delineation of small details gives an illusion of power. As a little girl delights in dressing and undressing her dolls, a woman delights in decorating her home, because here she has dominion. The careful furnishing of the novel, which Atwood so ably satirizes in her novel-within-a-novel, demonstrates mastery of the situation.
As well, an emphasis on concrete objects assures us of reality. Women in particular are often isolated from contact with others and have comparatively few opportunities to assure themselves of their own reality through sports, say, or to gain fame and recognition through achievements. Identity is gained through things: "I am my china, my pictures, my perfume. I know I exist because I cleaned this cup." At times this dependency on things creates an illusion that the things dominate the person. The special horror of things is a common element in Gothic novels. They seem to take on a perverse life of their own, a horror well depicted by the surrealist painters. An image familiar to all movie-goers is the hero, driven to distraction, smashing a mirror. This is an assertion of one's mastery over the world of things, an insistence on an autonomous identity apart from any image. For who among us has not at some time grasped the goblet, felt it cold and hard against our fingers, and felt ourselves somehow weak, soft, fluid—not quite there?
In the Gothic those prosaic things assume an air of menace. Why are the jewels glittering, the candelabra gleaming, the curtains rustling? Are they really there, or do I imagine them? Am I really here or do they imagine me? Through a scrupulous attention to minor details, the author causes the novel to affect the reader on many levels at once, from an ordinary interest in the environment of the fiction providing credibility and verisimilitude, to the striking of sympathetic vibrations of horror within the reader.
The Female Gothic, then, expresses conflicts within the female regarding her own sexuality and identity, and uses a highly stylized form and elaborate detail to effect psychic catharsis. Whereas the psychological novel analyzes the roots of anxiety and its effects realistically and conquers anxiety through reason, the Gothic dramatizes anxiety and through exaggeration—playfulness, even, in the case of Lady Oracle —renders it harmless. It permits us to experiment, to play at terror, to become familiar with it and recognize it as a fact of life. Lady Oracle 's emphasis on playfulness renders it more compatible with the contemporary woman's condition as it dramatizes and externalizes her inner conflicts.
Unlike the traditional Gothic, which has no humor, this novel abounds in ludicrous images and metaphors. For example, "I felt through my brain for whatever scraps of political lore might be lodged there inadvertently, like bits of spinach among my front teeth."4 However, it follows the typical Gothic plot development, leading the reader through the suspense of trying to discover who or what is persecuting the heroine.
Although the novel begins at a chronological point where the heroine has apparently achieved safety from her supposed enemies, she is, in fact, in the most critical danger from her true inner enemies. As she recalls her life, we are introduced to the various possibilities which might account for her terror—her mother, her uncertain sense of identity, the pressures of society, her sexual conflicts, her experiences with men, her fear of death, and her own warring selves.
To make obvious that this is an analysis of the Gothic form, Lady Oracle is a novel-within-a-novel. Joan, the heroine, writes "costume Gothics." We are invited to compare her personal nar-rative with her works in progress, which represent a sub-text to what she tells us about herself. As she works through her own inner mazes, the personal narrative and the work-in-progress begin to merge, and her various selves achieve some sort of synthesis. As readers we are often more caught up in the work-in-progress than the "true" narrative, just as Joan lives more fully in her fantasy life than in her real life.
A comparison of the openings of the true and fictive narratives provides an insight both into Joan's nature and the Gothic sensibility. She begins her confession with "I planned my death carefully." She has lost control of her life and must destroy her former self by making her death an artistic creation, thus gaining control of her life and mastering her fear of death. She is "feeble," her life "flabby" and convoluted, "scrolling and festooning like the frame of a baroque mirror"—an image revealing a surrealistic and dreamlike synaesthesia which perceives a mirror frame as a living vine. Death is definite and hard, depicted through images of a Quaker church and a severe black dress. She longs for order, silence, simplicity, wishing to escape a tawdry, confusing circus world of trumpets, megaphones and spangles. She speaks of a "shadow," of a "corpse"—Gothic symbols representing spiritual threat and material corruption. Believing the shadow will be mistaken for the reality, she will play a hoax on death. She will create her self by herself. But her image of herself as a bungler insures that she will fail, will remain the persecuted heroine of her own romances.
Comparing this to the opening of the work-in-progress, we find the heroine, Charlotte, is also thinking about death—the death of her mother. There is a similar concern with clothing, allusions to neatness and purity through a Quaker reference, a similar palette of black, white and gray, and reference to a frame, symbolizing entrapment. But there is also sunshine and emotion. Key words are tears, sad, darling, heart, and hopeful. The vine-like characteristics of Joan's mirror-frame are actually the "curling tendrils" of Charlotte's mother's hair, like spider webs. The vine-like mirror-frame of Joan's confession is an actual frame on a cameo brooch which is Charlotte's only legacy from her dead mother. Joan's life, which seems to her an empty, shifting, imageless mirror, in her novel is concentrated into the cameo—a precise, perfect, unchanging image derived from the mother, which she can wear as she chooses and hence control. What is more, Charlotte is by trade a jeweler and can refashion the cameo as she likes.
We learn from these two versions of a Female Gothic within a Gothic, contemporary vs. traditional, that the Gothic sensibility both fears and longs for death as an end to fear. It prefers a world of fantasy which it can control. It has an uncertain sense of identity, fears its own wild impulses, and has a concomitant passion for control.
Bearing in mind that storytelling is a means of survival for Joan, if we can trust her confession, her problems originated with her uncertain sense of identity beginning with her own name. She was named "Joan" after Joan Crawford (whose real name was Lucille). She does not feel adequate to the movie-star image and suspects she was really named for the martyred Joan of Arc.
In a seminal episode, chubby little Joan is denied the opportunity to perform as a butterfly in a ballet recital because of her appearance. She is cast as a mothball, comic relief, instead. The mothball is an instrument of death for the butterflies, and for her own fragile ego. Disguised as the mothball, Joan expresses her rage and frustration in a socially approved way, as a comedian. This dramatizes Joan's survival techniques—disguise, comedy, and death. She symbolically destroyes her enemies, including those within her who longed to be butterflies and rebelled at her humiliation. The mothball is also a preservative, and with disguise, comedy and symbolic death, she preserves what is left of her ego.
To defy her mother and the society which pressures her into being beautiful and punishes any deviation, Joan overeats and becomes grossly fat. But, more than from defiance, she "ate from panic. Sometimes I was afraid I wasn't really there, I was an accident…. Did I want to become solid as a stone, so she wouldn't be able to get rid of me…. What had I done?" Her tenuous sense of reality is buttressed by the material—the food she consumes and her own obvious and solid flesh.
Overeating also renders Joan safe from the sexual advances which she fears. "It is not sexually titillating to observe the torture of a fat person," she observes. Ambivalence towards sexuality is demonstrated in another passage wherein she is accosted in the park by a man who first exposes himself and then hands her a bunch of daffodils. Subsequently her female companions from her Brownie troupe blindfold her and leave her tied to a tree. A man whom she suspects is the exhibitionist rescues her. In her dreams the fleetingly glimpsed penis turns into menacing tentacles, and then into glorious flowers. Here is the mingled terror and desirability of the pending sexuality of the prepubescent girl. She longs for the forbidden sexual act which will deliver her from her helpless childhood state, but also feels fear, guilt, shame, and a need for punishment. Desire for sexual maturity is a desire to gain the secret knowledge and power that her mother has, and which the mother both forbids to and demands of her. Through a male she can conquer the internalized mother figure who denies her her true identity.
Ambivalence towards sexuality is emphasized by the contrasts between the erotic passages of Joan's confession and her fiction. In the latter, words such as fiery and wild animal abound: it is serious, dangerous and thrilling. In the former, erotic scenes are ludicrous. A middle-aged lover in striped pajamas seduces Joan, who has a sprained ankle. She surrenders her virginity because she is too embarrassed to admit she didn't know he was making advances. A lover called the Royal Porcupine advances on Joan, growling softly. She protests he hasn't washed his hands. Joan imagines making love with the produce-vendor, "surging together on a wave of plums and tangerines," mingling her romantic nature and her earthy perceptions.
Joan's identity confusion is demonstrated by the two images of her self—a ballerina and a circus fat lady. These meld into a fat lady dressed in a ballerina costume walking a high wire over a crowd. Although Joan longs for achievement and adulation, she fears it and so invents other selves. She becomes thin and beautiful, takes an alias, and flees to England to create her own life. "I'd spent all my life learning to be one person and now I was a different one. I had been an exception, with the limitations that imposed; now I was average and I was far from used to it." She lies about her past and denies her former self. The old photograph of herself on her bureau is identified as a fictitious aunt who "was always trying to tell me how to run my life." But just as within the overweight body of the teenager there was a slender ballerina, so surrounding the beautiful adult woman is the wraith of the circus fat lady she still feels she is.
Joan establishes a truly separate identity as Louisa Delacorte, author of Costume Gothics, successful, independent, self-sufficient—and through her writing can play out all her fantasies. Her "good" heroines can be punished and persecuted, and also achieve success. Her "bad" heroines (who resemble Joan physically) indulge in all sorts of wanton and lascivious behavior, humiliate the "good" heroine, and then are destroyed. Sin, guilt, shame, expiation are all worked out in the fantasy world. "As long as I could spend a certain amount of time each week as Louisa I was all right, I was patient and forbearing, warm, a sympathetic listener. But if I was cut off, if I couldn't work at my current Costume Gothic, I would become mean and irritable, drink too much, and start to cry."
Louisa gratified Joan's superego. As a bumbling, absent-minded housewife, Joan gratifies her id. She marries Arthur, a high-minded young man who looks "Byronic" and reminds her of the hero of her current novel. He loves her for her earnest, energetic failures in the kitchen and her obvious female attractions. She is careful to keep hidden both her success as a writer and her past as an overweight Brownie.
Joan experiments with automatic writing, develops her psychic powers, and discovers still more selves. The automatic writings are published as a volume of poetry, called "Lady Oracle." It seems to Joan an "upside-down Gothic" with all the right elements but no true love and happy ending. The poems are filled with images of pain and death, and describe a tri-partite woman—dark, redgold and blank—who must be obeyed. As she stares into her mirror and transcribes, Joan glimpses the ghost of her mother. Her mother had owned a triplicate mirror, and always appeared to the child as having three heads. The adult Joan owns a triplicate mirror, too.
The poems are a huge success and still another self appears—Joan the celebrity. "My dark twin, my funhouse mirror reflection. She was taller than I, more beautiful, more threatening. She wanted to kill me and take my place."
Even for as skillful a dissembler as Joan, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep separate the strands of her real life and keep distinct the realms of fantasy and reality. She takes a lover, the Royal Porcupine, and with him lives out her fantasies. He is the romantic, dangerous hero of her novels, willing to be her playmate, to dress up in absurd costumes, and to waltz through an empty loft clad only in a lace tablecloth. But this purely libidinous life cannot last. He wants to marry her and read the morning paper together, and Joan fears the merging of the real and the phantom. She knows that every woman longs for a dashing hero in a cape who will rescue her from a balcony but she really wants a husband to help her with the dishes. She dare not lose the distinction between the two worlds, for then she will lose control. Her novels enable her to satisfy both needs, for herself as well as for her readers. Joan is always sympathetic to her reader's needs; unlike Austen's Northanger Abbey, a comic novel satirizing the readers of Gothic novels, Atwood's comic novel satirizes the Gothic but understands its function.
Joan's fictions begin to take on some of her real-life traits. Humor seeps in, as for example "Redmond's eye slid like a roving oyster over her blushing countenance." At the same time her life becomes more like one of her fictions. She becomes involved in a terrorist plot, is blackmailed, and receives ominous threats from a neverrevealed enemy. These are the external signs of her inner conflict: "There was always that shadowy twin, thin when I was fat, fat when I was thin, myself in silvery negative…. It was never-never land she wanted, that reckless twin. But not twin even, I was more than double. I was triple, multiple, and now I could see that there was more than one life to come, there were many."
To regain control, Joan fakes her own death. "Maybe I really did want to die, or I wouldn't have pretended to do it. But that was wrong; I pretended to die so I could live, so I could have another life." By killing her old selves, Joan punishes them for the wicked deeds she has enjoyed, and atones. But the past she has tried to bury, the old selves she has tried to destroy, rise up in her imagination as a huge featureless fat lady—"… my ghost, my angel, then she settled and I was absorbed into her. Within my former body I gasped for air."
She protests against the female nature which engulfs her. She knows that she does not want to spend her life in a cage as a "fat whore, a captive Earth Mother." She wants to be female and yet create, control, take responsibility for her own life, dare to want glory for her own achievements—and this is as difficult as a fat lady crossing a high wire. "You could dance, or you could have the love of a good man. But you were afraid to dance, because you had this unnatural fear they'd cut your feet off."
At the extreme of a terror which she ascribes to male domination, Joan attacks the next man she encounters, a harmless reporter. Subsequently she aids his recovery and confesses her true story to him. Presumably the "new Joan" has found her true identity, resolved her internal conflicts, and henceforth will be brave, honest, aggressive and responsible. That she has defended herself, albeit mistakenly—after all, this is a comic novel—presupposes she has found a self worth defending.
By drawing blood from the male, rendering him helpless (she hits him over the head with a bottle) and then reviving him, Joan turns the male into the ravished and rescued, and herself into persecutor and protector. Like her father, who had been both a doctor and an assassin during the war, she can give and take life. She need no longer fear her own femaleness, nor the males who forbid her an identity. Joan decides she will no longer write Gothics; she will write a novel about real people—"less capes and more holes in stockings." The novel thus shows the "characteristic comic movement from a lesser to a greater awareness of worldly reality."5
Atwood's conclusion is too reassuring to be reassuring. We suspect that Joan is once again adopting a disguise to elude the realities of her psychic conflicts—this time the militant female. It may be that the condition of women in the modern world is not so grave anymore, and such "new Joans" can indeed create themselves. In today's more open environment, with more opportunities for personal achievement and independence, and hence less dependence on sexuality for survivial, with more comradeship between the sexes, with medical advancements and better sex education, women need not suffer the terrors and conflicts which the traditional Gothic novel psychologically dramatizes. The choices and possibilities are not so hard and fixed as a cameo; they are fluid, changeable, like the shifting images in a funhouse mirror.
But this multiplicity and uncertainty produces its own psychic state. Instead of terror there is anxiety and confusion. We all know laughter is as much a response to tension as are screaming or crying, but it is a more socially acceptable response. As women move out into the crowded streets of contemporary life, the piercing scream of the terrified Gothic heroine seems to be giving way to the nervous giggle of the uncertain comic/Gothic heroine. Insofar as the ancient fears and restrictions of women persist, the inner conflicts of women persist and the genre remains viable.
1. Martin Grotjahn, M.D., Beyond Laughter: Humor and the Sub-Conscious, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1957), p. 257.
2. Jesse Bier, The Rise and Fall of American Humor (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1968), p. 307.
3. Ibid., p. 456.
4. Margaret Atwood, Lady Oracle (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976).
5. Robert Heilman, The New Ways of the World: Comedy and Society (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1978), p. 182.
Barzilai, Shuli. "'Say That I Had a Lovely Face': The Grimms' 'Rapunzel,' Tennyson's 'Lady of Shalott,' and Atwood's Lady Oracle." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 19, no. 2 (fall 2000): 231-54.
Views Lady Oracle as a künstlerroman, with sources from works by the Brothers Grimm and Tennyson.
Becker, Susanne. "Exceeding Even Gothic Texture: Margaret Atwood and Lady Oracle." In Gothic Forms of Feminine Fictions, pp. 151-98. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1999.
Delineates the various elements of the Gothic tradition within Lady Oracle.
Grace, Sherill. "More than A Very Double Life." In Violent Duality: A Study of Margaret Atwood, edited by Ken Norris, pp. 111-28. Montreal, Quebec: Véhicule Press, 1980.
Asserts that Lady Oracle is "an amusing parody of Gothic romance and realist conventions, a satiric commentary on Atwood's own experiences as a writer and upon aspects of contemporary society, and a portrayal of 'the perils of Gothic thinking.'"
Ingersoll, Earl G. and Philip Howard, editors. Margaret Atwood: Conversations Princeton, N.J.: Ontario Review Press, 1978, 265 p.
Collection of interviews with Atwood from the 1970s.
Kakutani, Michiko. A review of The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood. The New York Times (8 September 2000): 43.
Laudatory assessment of The Blind Assassin.
McCombs, Judith. "'Up in the Air So Blue': Vampire and Victims, Great Mother Myth and Gothic Allegory in Margaret Atwood's First, Unpublished Novel." Centennial Review 33, no. 3 (summer 1989): 251-57.
Examines the gothicism present in Atwood's treatment of motherhood in her first, unpublished novel.
McKinstry, Susan Jaret. "Living Literally by the Pen: The Self-Conceived and Self-Deceiving Heroine-Author in Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle." In Margaret Atwood: Reflection and Reality, edited by Beatrice Mendez-Egle and James M. Haule, pp. 58-70. Edinburgh: Pan American University, 1987.
Assesses Atwood's treatment of Joan Foster as the heroine of Lady Oracle as it compares to the conventional depiction of heroines in classic Gothic fiction.
McMillan, Ann. "The Transforming Eye: Lady Oracle and Gothic Tradition." In Margaret Atwood: Vision and Forms, edited and with an introduction by Kathryn VanSpanckeren, edited by Jan Garden Castro, pp. 48-64. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988.
Compares Atwood's treatment of chastity and the victimization of women to Jane Austen's treatment of the same subjects in Northanger Abbey, and explores the authors' sources in the Gothic tradition.
Northey, Margot. "Sociological Gothic: Wild Geese and Surfacing." In The Haunted Wilderness: The Gothic and Grotesque in Canadian Fiction, pp. 62-9. Toronto, Ontario and Buffalo, N.Y.: University of Toronto Press, 1976.
Asserts that Atwood's novel Surfacing utilizes the Gothic mode to comment on conditions in society, and is an example of what Northey terms "sociological Gothic" literature.
Poznar, Susan. "The Totemic Image and the 'Bodies' of the Gothic in Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye." Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature 47 (1999): 81-107.
Treats Cat's Eye as a künstlerroman and compares it to Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto.
Rosowski, Susan J. "Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle: Social Mythology and the Gothic Novel." Research Studies 49, no. 2 (June 1981): 87-98.
Surveys the Gothic elements in Lady Oracle.
OTHER SOURCES FROM GALE:
Additional coverage of Atwood's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 13; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 12, 47; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 1; Bestsellers, Vol. 89:2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 3, 24, 33, 59, 95, 133; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 3, 4, 8, 13, 15, 25, 44, 84, 135; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Poets, Ed. 7; Contemporary Popular Writers; Contemporary Women Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 53, 251; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors: Modules, Most-studied Authors, Poets, and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Novels; Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion; Feminist Writers; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 5; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Major 21st-Century Writers; Novels for Students, Vols. 1, 14, 18, 20; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 8; Poetry for Students, Vol. 7; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 3, 13; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 2, 46; Something about the Author, Vol. 50; Twayne's Companion to Contemporary Literature in English, Ed. 1; Twayne's World Authors; World Literature Criticism; and World Writers in English, Vol. 1.