Atwood, Margaret: General Commentary
MARGARET ATWOOD: GENERAL COMMENTARY
PATRICIA F. GOLDBLATT (ESSAY DATE SPRING 1999)
SOURCE: Goldblatt, Patricia F. "Reconstructing Margaret Atwood's Protagonists." World Literature Today 73, no. 2 (spring 1999): 275-82.
In the following essay, Goldblatt discusses the transformation of Atwood's female protagonists "from ingenues to insightful women."
A weaver employs fragments from life, silk, raw yarns, wool, straw, perhaps even a few twigs, stones, or feathers, and transforms them into a tapestry of color, shape, and form. An author's work is similar, for she selects individuals, locations, images, and ideas, rearranging them to create a believable picture. Each smacks of reality, but is not. This is the artist's art: to reconstruct the familiar into new, fascinating, but often disturbing tableaux from which stories can unfold.
Margaret Atwood weaves stories from her own life in the bush and cities of Canada. Intensely conscious of her political and social context, Atwood dispels the notion that caribou-clad Canadians remain perpetually locked in blizzards while simultaneously seeming to be a polite mass of gray faces, often indistinguishable from their American neighbors. Atwood has continually pondered the lack of an identifiable Canadian culture. For over thirty years her work has aided in fashioning a distinct Canadian literary identity. Her critical catalogue and analysis of Canadian Literature, Survival [Sv ], offered "a political manifesto telling Canadians … [to] value their own" (Sullivan, 265). In an attempt to focus on Canadian experiences, Atwood has populated her stories with Canadian cities, conflicts, and contemporary people, conscious of a landscape whose borders have been permeated by the frost of Nature, her colonizers and her neighbors. Her examination of how an individual interacts, succeeds, or stagnates within her world speaks to an emerging sense of self and often parallels the battles fought to establish self-determination.
In her novels, Margaret Atwood creates situations in which women, burdened by the rules and inequalities of their societies, discover that they must reconstruct braver, self-reliant personae in order to survive. Not too far from the Canadian blueprint of the voyageur faced with an inclement, hostile environment, these women struggle to overcome and to change systems that block and inhibit their security. Atwood's pragmatic women are drawn from women in the 1950s and 1960s: young women blissfully building their trousseaus and imagining a paradise of silver bells and picket fences.
Yet the author herself was neither encumbered nor restricted by the definition of contemporary female in her life as a child. Having grown up in the Canadian North, outside of societal propaganda, she could critically observe the behaviors that were indoctrinated into her urban peers who lacked diverse role models. As Atwood has noted, "Not even the artistic community offered you a viable choice as a woman" (Sullivan, 103). Her stories deal with the transformation of female characters from ingenues to insightful women. By examining her heroes, their predators, and how they cope in society, we will discover where Atwood believes the ability to reconstruct our lives lies.
Who are the victims?
"But pathos as a literary mode simply demands that an innocent victim suffer" (Sv, 75). Unlike Shakespeare's hubris-laden kings or Jane Austen's pert and private aristocratic landowning families, Margaret Atwood relies on a collection of ordinary people to carry her tales: university students, museum workers, market researchers, writers, illustrators, and even housemaids. In her novels, almost all dwell on their childhood years in flashback or in the chronological telling of their stories. Many of her protagonists' early days are situated in a virtual Garden of Eden setting, replete with untamed natural environments. Exploring shorelines, gazing at stars, gathering rocks, and listening to waves, they are solitary souls, but not lonely individuals: innocent, curious, and affable creatures. Elaine Risley in Cat's Eye and an unnamed narrator in Surfacing are two women who recall idyllic days unfolded in a land of lakes, berries, and animals. Offred in The Handmaid's Tale, in her city landscape, also relates a tale of a happy childhood. She is a complacent and assured child, her mother a constant loving companion. In their comfortable milieus, these girls intuit no danger.
However, other Atwood protagonists are not as fortunate. Their backgrounds suggest an unhealthy, weedy soil that causes their young plants to twist and permutate. Lady Oracle 's [LO ] Joan is overweight. Her domineering, impatient mother and her weak father propel her to seek emotional satisfaction away from them. Lesje in Life before Man is the offspring of dueling immigrant grandmothers who cannot agree on the child's proper upbringing. Not allowed to frequent the Ukrainian "golden church with its fairytale onion" (LBM, 93) of the one, or the synagogue of the other, Lesje is unable to develop self-confidence and focuses instead on the inanimate, the solid traditions of rocks and dinosaurs as her progenitors. Similarly, the females in The Robber Bride reveal miserable childhoods united by parental abuse, absence, and disregard: Roz must perform as her mother's helper, a landlady cum cleaning woman; her father is absent, involved in shady dealings in "the old country." Charis, a second character in The Robber Bride, abandoned by her mother and deposited with Aunt Vi and Uncle Vern, is sexually violated by those who should have offered love and trust. Toni, the third of the trio, admits to loneliness and alienation in a well-educated, wealthy family. Marked by birth and poverty, Grace Marks, an Irish immigrant in the early 1800s in Alias Grace, loses her mother en route to Canada. Grace is almost drowned by the demands of her drunken father and clinging, needy siblings. These exiled little girls, from weak, absent, or cruel families, made vulnerable by their early situations, cling to the notion that their lives will be improved by the arrival of a kind stranger, most likely a handsome suitor. Rather than becoming recalcitrant and cynical, all sustain the golden illusion of the fairy-tale ending. In short, they hold to the belief, the myth perpetrated by society: marriage.
Atwood's women are cognizant of the nurturing omissions in their environments. They attempt to cultivate and cope. Charis in The Robber Bride decides to reinvent herself. She changes her name and focuses on what she considers her healing powers inherited from her chicken-raising grandmother. She, Roz, and Toni turn their faith to the power of friendship, a solid ring that lessens the painful lack of supportive families. In Alias Grace Grace's burden of an absent family is briefly alleviated by her friendship with another house-maid, Mary Whitney. Mary takes an adoring Grace under her wing and creates for Grace a fleeting vision of sisterly support. Unfortunately for Grace, Mary herself, another trusting young woman, is deceived by her employer's son and dies in a botched abortion, leaving Grace once again abandoned and friendless.
In an attempt to reestablish stable, satisfying homes, these women pursue a path, as have women throughout history, to marriage. They search for a male figure, imagining a refuge. Caught up in the romantic stereotypes that assign and perpetuate gender roles, each girl does not doubt that a man is the solution to her problems.
In The Edible Woman Marian and her coworkers at Seymour Surveys, "the office virgins," certainly do not question that marriage will provide fulfillment. In spite of the fact that Marian is suspended between two unappealing men, she does not deviate from the proper behavior. Marian's suitor, Peter, with his well-chosen clothes and suave friends, his perfectly decorated apartment, and even Marian as the appropriate marriage choice, is rendered as no more than the wedding cake's blankly smiling ornament. If appearance is all, he should suffice. Peter is juxtaposed to the slovenly, self-centered graduate student, Duncan, whose main pleasure is watching his laundry whirl in the washing machine. Marian is merely a blank slate upon which each man can write or erase his concept of female.
FROM THE AUTHOR
ATWOOD ON STEREOTYPICAL MALE CHARACTERS AND SOCIAL ROLES
It's true that the male sexual role model had a lot of drawbacks, even for men—not everybody could be Superman, many were stuck with Clark Kent—but there were certain positive and, at that time, useful features. What have we replaced this package with? We know that women have been in a state of upheaval and ferment for some time now, and movement generates energy; many things can be said by women now that were once not possible, many things can be thought that were once unthinkable. But what are we offering men? Their territory, though still large, is shrinking. The confusion and desperation and anger and conflicts that we find in male characters in novels don't exist only in novels. They're out there in the real world. "Be a person, my son," doesn't yet have the same ring to it as "Be a man," though it is indeed a worthy goal. The novelist qua novelist, as opposed to the utopian romancer, takes what is there as a point of departure. What is there, when we're talking about men, is a state of change, new attitudes overlapping with old ones, no simple rules any more. Some exciting form of life may emerge from all this.
Meanwhile, I think women have to take the concerns of men as seriously as they expect men to take theirs, both as novelists and as inhabitants of this earth. One encounters, too often, the attitude that only the pain felt by persons of the female sex is real pain, that only female fears are real fears. That for me is the equivalent of the notion that only working-class people are real, that middle-class people are not, and so forth. Of course there's a distinction between earned pain and mere childish self-pity, and yes, women's fear of being killed by men is grounded in authenticity, not to mention statistics, to a greater extent than men's fear of being laughed at. Damage to one's self-image is not quite the same as damage to one's neck, though not to be underestimated: men have been known to murder and kill themselves because of it.
Atwood, Margaret. Excerpt from "Writing the Male Character." In Second Words, pp. 427-28. Toronto: Anansi Press, 1982.
The narrator and her friend Anna, in Surfacing, are also plagued by moody men who are not supportive of women's dreams. In one particularly horrifying scene, Anna's husband Dave orders her to strip off her clothes for the movie camera. Anna, humiliated by the request, nevertheless complies. She admits to nightly rapes but rationalizes his behavior: "He likes to make me cry because he can't do it himself" (Sf, 80). Similarly, when Joe, the narrator's boyfriend, proposes, "We should get married … we might as well" (56), he is dumbfounded and furious at her refusal. Men aware of the role they play accept their desirability as "catches." They believe that women desire lives of "babies and sewing" (LO, 159). These thoughts are parroted by Peter in The Edible Woman when he proclaims, "People who aren't married get funny in middle age" (EW, 102). Men uphold the values of the patriarchy and women conform, few trespassing into gardens of their own design.
In Alias Grace Grace's aspirations for a brighter future also dwell on finding the right man: "It was the custom for young girls in this country to hire themselves out, in order to earn the money for their dowries, and then they would marry … and one day … be mistress of a tidy farmhouse" (AG, 157-58). In the employment of Mr. Thomas Kinnear in Richmond Hill, Grace quickly ascertains that the handsome, dark-haired housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, enjoys many privileges as the reward for being her master's mistress. Yet, although men may be the only way to elevate status, Grace learns that they cannot be trusted when their advances are rejected. Grace, on trial for the murders of Kinnear and Montgomery, is incredulous when she hears a former friend, Jamie Welsh, testify against her.
Then I was hoping for some token of sympathy from him; but he gave me a stare filled with such reproach and sorrowful anger. He felt betrayed in love.… I was transformed to a demon and he would do all in his power to destroy me. I had been counting on him to say a good word for me … for I valued his good opinion of me, and it was a grief to lose it.
Women, it seems, must be made malleable to men's desires, accepting their proposals, their advances. They must submit to their socially determined roles or be seen as "demons."
However, it is not only men but also women as agents of society who betray. In The Robber Bride Charis, Roz, and Toni are tricked in their friendship by Zenia, an acquaintance from their university days. Each succumbs to Zenia's web of deceit. Playing the part of a confidante and thoughtful listener, Zenia encourages the three women to divest themselves of their tales of their traumatic childhoods. She learns their tortured secrets and uses their confidences to spirit away the men each woman believes to be the cornerstone in her life.
From little girls to sophisticated women, Atwood's protagonists have not yet discerned that trust can be perverted, that they can be reeled in, taken advantage of, constantly abused, if they are not careful of lurking predators in their landscapes. Joan in Lady Oracle, longing for friendship, endures the inventive torments of her Brownie friends: deadly ploys that tie little girls to trees with skipping ropes, exposing them to strange leering men under cavernous bridges. Her assassins jeer, "How do ya' like the club?" (LO, 59). Elaine Risley in Cat's Eye, like Joan, is a young girl when she discovers the power of betrayal by members of her own sex. For years she passively succumbs to their games. Perhaps, because she has grown up alone in the Canadian North with her parents and brother, Elaine seeks the warming society of girls. Only when Elaine is deserted, left to freeze in a disintegrating creek, does she recognize her peers' malevolence that almost leads to her death. Elaine knows that she is a defeated human, but rather than confronting her tormentors, she increases her own punishment nightly: she peels the skin off her feet and bites her lips.
Unable to turn outward in a society that perpetuates the ideal of a submissive female, these women turn inward to their bodies as shields or ploys. Each has learned that a woman is a commodity, valued only for her appearance. Therefore it comes as no surprise that Atwood's protagonists measure their worth in terms of body. Joan in Lady Oracle sees herself as "a huge shapeless cloud" (LO, 65); she drifts. However, her soft edges do not keep her from the bruising accusations of society. Although she loves to dance, Joan's bulging body is an affront to her mother and ballet teacher's sensibilities, and so at her ballet recital she is forced to perform as a mothball, not as a butterfly in tulle and spangles.
Joan certainly does not fit her mother's definition of femininity. Because her ungainly shape is rejected, Joan decides to hide her form in a mountain of fat, food serving as a constant to her mother's reproaches: "I was eating steadily, doggedly, stubbornly, anything I could get. The war between myself and my mother was on in earnest: the disputed territory was my body" (LO, 67). Interestingly, Joan's loving, supportive, and also fat aunt Louisa bequeaths to Joan an inheritance with the stipulation that she lose one hundred pounds. Atwood herself was fascinated by transformations in fairy stories: a person could not become a swan and depart the dreaded scene that mocked the tender aspirations of an awkward ingenue in real life; she could, however, don a new mask and trick those people who had previously proffered harm.
In The Edible Woman Marian's body is also a battlefield. Unable to cope with her impending marriage to Peter, Marian finds herself unable to ingest any food that was once alive. Repulsed by her society's attitude of consumerism, Marian concludes that her refusal to eat is ethical. However, her mind and body have split away from each other. Her mind's revulsion at a dog-eat-dog world holds her body hostage: captive territory when a woman disagrees with her world. Marian "tri[es] to reason with [her body], accus[ing] it of having frivolous whims." She coaxes and tempts, "but it was adamant" (EW, 177). Marian's mind expresses her disapproval on the only level on which she possesses control: ironically, herself. Her punishment is circular: first, as a victim susceptible because she is a woman subject to her society's values; and second, as a woman only able to command other women, namely herself. Her sphere is so small she becomes both victim and victimizer.
This view of a woman who connects and projects her image of self onto her body also extends to the functions of a female body: the ability to control life by giving birth. Sarah in the story "The Resplendent Quetzal" (1977) is drained of all vitality and desire when her baby dies at birth. Her concept of identity is entangled with her ability to produce a child. When this biological function fails, Sarah's being ebbs. Lesje in Life before Man also observes that, without children, "officially she is nothing" (LBM, 267). Offred's identity and value as a childbearer as well, in The Handmaid's Tale, are proclaimed by her clothes in her totalitarian city of Gilead. She is "two viable ovaries" (HT, 135). She no longer owns a name; she is "Of Fred," the concubine named for the man who will impregnate her. Every step, every mouthful of food, every move is observed, reported, circumvented, or approved for the sake of the child she might carry to term. Her only worth resides in her biological function. Her dreams and desires are unimportant. Her goal is survival.
The women described here do not lash out openly. Each who once trusted in family, marriage, and friendship discovers that treading societal paths does not result in happiness. These disillusioned women, with aborted expectations, turn their misery inward, accepting responsibility that not society and its expectations but they themselves are weak, unworthy, and have therefore failed.
Who has laid prey and why?
"Sometimes fear of these obstacles becomes itself the obstacle" (Sv, 33). Atwood's girls are a vulnerable lot, manipulated, packaged, and devastated by the familiar faces in uncaring, dictatorial circles that reinforce societal imperatives. Those once free to roam and explore as children as well as those repressed from an early age are subject to the civilizing forces that customize young girls to the fate of females. Ironically, this process, for the most part, is performed by mothers.
Mothers, rather than alleviating their girls' distress, increase their children's alienation. When Elaine's mother in Cat's Eye ventures to discuss the cruelty of Elaine's friends, her words do not fortify Elaine; they admonish her: "Don't let them push you around. Don't be spineless. You have to have more backbone" (CE, 156). Fearing her weakness is comparable to the tiny crumbling bones of sardines, Elaine maligns herself: "What is happening is my own fault, for not having more backbone" (156). Joan's mother in Lady Oracle doesn't mince words: "You were stupid to let the other girls fool you like that" (LO, 61). Instead of offering support, the mothers blame their daughters, aligning themselves with the girls' accusers.
Mothers who themselves have not found acceptance, success, or ease in society persist in transmitting the old messages of conformity. Joan's mother in Lady Oracle is dumbfounded that "even though she'd done the right thing,… devoted her life to us,… made her family her career as she had been told to do," she had been burdened with "a sulky fat slob of a daughter and a husband who wouldn't talk to her" (LO, 179). Joan echoes her mother's complaints when she murmurs, "How destructive to me were the attitudes of society" (102).
Even the work women do conspires to maintain the subjection of their own kind. In her job, in The Edible Woman, Marian investigates what soups, laxatives, or drinks will please and be purchased. Sanctioned female activities also reinforce the imposition of correct values. In Surfacing and Cat's Eye little girls are engrossed in cutting up pictures from Eaton's catalogues that offer labor-saving devices along with fashionable clothes: children piece together a utopia of doll-house dreams. So brainwashed are these girls that when asked to indicate a possible job or profession, they answer, "A lady" or "A mother" (CE, 91).
In Cat's Eye Elaine Risley's mother does not fit the stereotype. She wears pants, she ice skates, she "does not give a hoot" (CE, 214) about the rules that women are supposed to obey. Rendered impotent as a role model in her daughter's eyes because she does not abide by the Establishment's code of correct deportment, Elaine's mother is an outsider to a woman's world that captivates Elaine.
Instead of her own nonconforming mother, Elaine is most deeply affected by the indictments from her friend Grace Smeath's mother. Mrs. Smeath, spread out on the sofa and covered with afghans every afternoon to rest her bad heart, damns Elaine for being a heathen: there is something very wrong with Elaine's family, who ignore the protocol of proper women's wear, summer city vacations, and regular church attendance. Worse yet, Mrs. Smeath, aware of the cruel games inflicted on Elaine, does not intervene. Instead she invokes deserved suffering when she decrees, "It's God's punishment for the way the other children treat her [Elaine]. It serves her right" (CE, 180). With God on her side, Mrs. Smeath relies on the Bible as the oldest and surest way of prescribing a female identity—and instilling fear.
In The Handmaid's Tale the Bible is likewise the chief source of female repression. Words are corrupted, perverted, or presented out of context to establish a man's holy vision of women: Sarah's use of her handmaid, Hagar, as a surrogate womb for an heir for Abraham becomes the legalizing basis for fornication with the handmaids. Acts of love are reduced to institutionalized rapes, and random acts of violence, banishment to slag heaps, public hangings, endorsed public killings, bribery, deceit, and pornography all persist under other names in order to maintain a pious hold on women endorsed by the Gilead Fathers.
In spite of the fact that Gilead is praised by its creators as a place where women need not fear, carefully chosen "aunts" persist in treachery that robs women of trust. To perpetuate the status quo, women are kept vulnerable and treated as children: girls must ask permission, dress in silly frocks, are allowed no money, play no part in their own self-determination. Yet Atwood's girls tire of their rigidly enforced placement that would preserve some outdated notion of female acceptability.
"She feels the need for escape" (Sv, 131). After enduring, accepting, regurgitating, denying, and attempting to please and cope, Atwood's protagonists begin to take action and change their lives. Atwood herself, raised on Grimms' Fairy Tales, knew that "by using intelligence, cleverness and perseverance" (Sullivan, 36), magical powers could transform a forest into a garden. However, before realizing their possibilities, many of Atwood's protagonists hit rock bottom, some even contemplating death as an escape. In Surfacing the narrator, fed up with the superficiality of her companions, banishes them and submits to paranoia.
Everything I can't break … I throw on the floor.… I take off my clothes … I dip my head beneath the water … I leave my dung, droppings on the ground … I hollow a lair near the woodpile … I scramble on hands and knees … I could be anything, a tree, a deer skeleton, a rock.
She descends to madness, stripping herself of all the trappings of civilized society.
Although often consumed with thoughts of suicide in Cat's Eye and The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood's heroines never succumb. Instead they consciously assassinate their former identities through ritual deaths by water. Joan in Lady Oracle orchestrates a baptism in Lake Ontario. Pretending to drown, she relinquishes her former life. With sunglasses and scarf, she believes herself reborn, free to begin anew in Italy. Elaine Risley, after her bone-chilling encounter in the icy ravine in Cat's Eye, is finally able to ignore the taunts of her friends. Resurrected after two days in bed, a stronger Elaine affirms that "she is happy as a clam, hard-shelled and firmly closed" (CE, 201) against those who would sabotage her; she announces, "I'm ready" (203). Fortified by a new body image with a tougher veneer and a protective mask, Elaine no longer heeds her former tormentors. She has sealed herself from further outrage and invasion.
Marian's revelation in The Edible Woman is experienced at the precipice of a ravine, where she comments, "In the snow you're as near as possible to nothing" (EW, 263). Perhaps the fear of becoming one with the ubiquitous whiteness of the landscape and forever losing herself motivates a stand. Similarly, Sarah in "The Resplendent Quetzal" forges a more determined persona after her trial by water. Instead of throwing herself into the sacrificial well in Mexico as her husband Edward fears, she hurls a plaster Christ child stolen from a crèche into the water. Believing the tribal folklore that young children take messages to the rain god and live forever in paradise at the bottom of the well, Sarah pins her hopes on a representative facsimile that she hopes will bring her peace for her lost child in the next world as well as rebirth, freeing herself from anxiety and guilt regarding the child's death.
Rather than resorting to the cool, cleansing agent of water, Grace Marks, the convicted murderess in Alias Grace, reconstructs her life through stories of her own invention. She fashions a creature always beyond the pale of her listeners' complete comprehension. As told to Dr. Simon Jordan, who has come to study Grace as a possible madwoman, her story ensnares him in a piteous romance. Grace appears outwardly as a humble servant girl always at peril from salacious employers; however, when Grace ruminates in her private thoughts, she reveals that she is wordly wise, knowing how to avoid bad impressions and the advances of salesmen. She is knowledgeable, stringing along Dr. Jordan: "I say something just to keep him happy.… I do not give him a straight answer" (AG, 66, 98). After rambling from employ to employ in search of security, Grace constructs a home for herself in her stories. Her words, gossamer thin, have the power to erect a façade, a frame that holds her illusions together.
In an attempt to discover the missing parts and prove the veracity of Grace's story, her supporters encourage her to undergo a seance. Although she recognizes Dr. Jerome Dupont, the man who will orchestrate the event, as a former button peddler, she does not speak out. When a voice emerges from the hypnotized Grace, it proclaims, "I am not Grace" (403). As listeners, we ponder the speaker's authenticity. Just who our narrator might be, madwoman or manipulator, is cast into doubt. We can only be sure that the young innocent who arrived on Canada's shores penniless and motherless has been altered by the necessity to cope with a destructive hierarchical society unsympathetic to an immigrant girl. Rather than persist and be tossed forever at the whim of a wizened world, each saddened young girl moves to reconstruct her tarnished image of her self.
"One way of coming to terms, making sense of one's roots, is to become a creator" (Sv, 181). Atwood's victims who take control of their lives discover the need to displace societal values, and they replace them with their own. In Lady Oracle Joan ponders the film The Red Shoes, in which the moral warns that if a woman chooses both family and career, tragedy ensues. Reflecting on childbirth, the narrator in "Giving Birth" (1977) hopes for some vision: "After all she is risking her life.… As for the vision, there wasn't one" (GB, 252; italics mine). Toni in The Robber Bride and Grace Marks in Alias Grace acknowledge that it is not necessary to procreate. Each is more than her body. A grown-up Elaine Risley in Cat's Eye and the narrator in Surfacing accept motherhood, but not as an outcome of their gender that will foreclose the possibilities of a creative job. In fact, Roz in The Robber Bride is quite able to combine motherhood and a successful career. Dissatisfied with traditional knowledge, Atwood's women again turn inward, now avoiding masochistic traps, fully able to deviate from society's dicta. Freed from constraining fears, they locate talents, wings that free them.
Rather than becoming cynical and devastated by society's visions and its perpetrators, Atwood's women forge on. Roz, Toni, and Charis in The Robber Bride, who have been betrayed by Zenia, put their faith back into friendship, allowing mutual support to sustain them. It is solid; it has been tested. They have turned to one another, cried and laughed, shared painful experiences, knowing that their friendship has endured in a labyrinth of twisted paths.
Offred in The Handmaid's Tale also begins to reshape her world. She envisions a better place in her thoughts, recording her words on tape. She has hope. Consciously, she reconstructs her present reality, knowing she is making an effort to project an optimistic picture. She says, "Here is a different story, a better one.… This is what I'd like to tell" (HT, 234). She relates that her tryst with Nick the chauffeur, arranged by her commander's wife, is caring and loving, enhanced by memories from her earlier life in order to conjure an outcome of happiness. In the short story "Hair Jewellery" (1977) Atwood's narrator is an academic, a writer who warns, "Be careful.… There is a future" (113). With the possibility of a new beginning, there is a chance that life can improve. In Alias Grace Grace's fabrications in her stories provide an escape hatch, a version of reality tailored to fit her needs. For both Offred and Grace, stories are ways of rebelling, of avoiding the tentacles of a society that would demean and remold them. Their stories are outward masks, behind which they frantically repair their damaged spirits. Each alters her world through language. Each woman speaks a reconstructed world into existence, herself the engineering god of her own fate. Offred confides that handmaids live in the spaces and the gaps between their stories, in their private silences: only alone in their imaginations are they free to control their own destinies.
However, Atwood's protagonists inhabit not only their minds in secret, but also their bodies in the outside world. Joan, after her disappearance from Toronto in Lady Oracle, decides that she must return home and support the friends who have aided her disguise. In the past, just as she had wielded her bulk as a weapon, so she has used her writing in order to resolve relationships. She has indulged in Gothic romances, positing scenarios; she has even played out roles with lovers in capes. In the end, she rejects her former craft of subterfuge: "I won't write any more Costume Gothics." Yet we must ponder her choice to "try some science fiction" (LO, 345).
Although it is difficult to extirpate behavior, women trust the methods that have helped them cope in the past in order to alter the future. In The Edible Woman the womanly art of baking provides Marian with a way to free herself: she bakes a cake that resembles herself. Offering a piece to Peter, she is controlling the tasty image of a woman, allowing him and, more importantly, herself to ingest and destroy it. "It gave me a peculiar sense of satisfaction to see him eat," she says, adding, "I smiled comfortably at him" (EW, 281). Her pleasure in their consumption of her former self is symbolic of the death of the old Marian.
One might say that Marian's ingestion of her own image, Joan's adoption of science fiction, and both Offred's and Grace's stories "in the head" do not promise new fulfilling lives, only tactics of escape. However, their personal growth through conscious effort represents a means to wrest control of their lives from society and transform their destinies. These women become manipulators rather than allowing themselves to be manipulated.
In Cat's Eye Elaine Risley deals with the torment of her early life in her art by moving to Vancouver and exerting power in paint over the people who had condemned her. She creates surreal studies of Mrs. Smeath: "I paint Mrs. Smeath … like a dead fish.…One picture of Mrs. Smeath leads to another. She multiplies on the walls like bacteria, standing, sitting, with clothes, without clothes" (CE, 338). Empowered by her success as an artist, Elaine returns to Toronto for a showing of her work, able to resist the pleas of her former tormentor, Cordelia, now a pitiful patient in a psychiatric facility. In a dream, Elaine surpasses her desire for revenge and offers Cordelia Christian charity: "I'm the stronger.… I reach out my arms to her, bend down.… It's all right, I say to her. You can go home" (CE, 419). Elaine is reinforced by the very words spoken to her in the vision that saved her life years before. Her work fosters her liberation. By projecting her rage outside of herself, she confronts her demons and exalts herself as a divine redeemer.
"You don't even have to concentrate on rejecting the role of victim because the role is no longer a temptation for you" (Sv, 39). The creative aspect that fortifies each woman enables her to control her life: it is the triumphant tool that resurrects each one. As artists, writers, friends, each ameliorates her situation and her world, positively metamorphosing reality in the process. In societies tailored to the submission of females, Atwood's protagonists refuse to be pinned down to the measurements of the perfect woman. Instead, they reconstruct their lives, imprinting their own designs in worlds of patterned fabric. Atwood has observed that all writing is political: "The writer simply by examining how the forces of society interact with the individual … seek[s] to change social structure" (Sullivan, 129).
Literature has always been the place where journeys have been sought, battles fought, insights gleaned. And authors have always dallied with the plight of women in society: young or old, body or mind, mother or worker, traveler or settler. The woman has been the divided or fragmented icon who, broken and downcast, has gazed back forlornly at us from the pages of her telling tale. Margaret Atwood has reconstructed this victim, proving to her and to us that we all possess the talent and the strength to revitalize our lives and reject society's well-trodden paths that suppress the human spirit. She has shown us that we can be vicariously empowered by our surrogate, who not only now smiles but winks back at us, daring us to reclaim our own female identities.
Atwood, Margaret. Alias Grace. Toronto. McClelland & Stewart. 1996. (AG)
——. Cat's Eye. Toronto. McClelland & Stewart. 1988. (CE)
——. "Giving Birth." In Dancing Girls. Toronto. McClelland & Stewart. 1977. (GB)
——. "Hair Jewellery." In Dancing Girls. Toronto. McClelland & Stewart. 1977. (HJ)
——. Lady Oracle. Toronto. McClelland & Stewart. 1976. (LO)
——. Life before Man. Toronto. McClelland & Stewart. 1979. (LBM)
——. Surfacing. Toronto. McClelland & Stewart. 1972. (Sf)
——. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Toronto. Anansi. 1972. (Sv)
——. The Edible Woman. Toronto. McClelland & Stewart. 1969. (EW)
——. The Handmaid's Tale. Toronto. McClelland & Stewart. 1985. (HT)
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